Review: One by One in the Darkness, by Deidre Madden

I am so grateful for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), for introducing me to Deirdre Madden.  I read her 2009 shortlisted novel, Molly Fox’s Birthday, two years ago (read my review),  and then discovered she’d been nominated once before, in 1997, for One by One in the Darkness.  It took ages for me to find this book — my library didn’t have it, and it was outrageously expensive through online retailers.  Finally, Paperbackswap granted my wish.  And I couldn’t be happier; this quiet, unassuming novel is a gem.

The story is set in 1994, just before the IRA ceasefire.  Three sisters converge on their family home for a week.  Middle sister Cate arrives on her annual visit, weeks earlier than usual, citing work as an excuse. Oldest sister Helen visits almost every weekend, and immediately spots inconsistencies in Cate’s story.  Sally, the youngest, is a teacher in the village and lives at home with her mother.  Not surprisingly, it turns out Cate has reasons for visiting early which create some conflict in the family.

The relationships between the sisters and their mother are fleshed out through flashbacks to their childhood:

For the pattern of their lives was as predictable as the seasons.  The regular round of necessity was broken by celebrations and feasts: Christmas, Easter, family birthdays. The scope of their lives was tiny but it was profound, and to them, it was immense. The physical bounds of their world were confined to little more than a few fields and houses, but they knew these places with the deep, unconscious knowledge that a bird or a fox might have for its habitat. The idea of home was something they lived so completely that they would be been at a loss to define it. But they would have  known to be inadequate such phrases as ‘It’s where you’re from,’ ‘It’s the place you live,’ ‘It’s where your family are.’

Sadly, this predictable, peaceful pattern was shattered in 1968-69 as civil rights protests became increasingly violent.  Living in a rural village, events seemed remote for a while.  But eventually they, too, were affected by senseless, tragic acts.

I loved the juxtaposition of past and present, which delivered a richly detailed story in just 180 pages.  This was the first time I had read such a personal account of this period in Irish history.   I felt like I knew these people.  Their history was new to me, but their contemporary struggles were not.  And the ending took my breath away, revealing details only alluded to before, while leaving so much open to interpretation.

 

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Recent Reads: Barbara Pym’s “Sweet Dove,” and Maria Semple’s “Bernadette”

My summer reading continues apace, as I work through my July book stack.  I finished two books in the past week, which is unusual for me. But one was really short and the other made for quick reading.  Here’s a run-down…

The Sweet Dove Died, by Barbara Pym
This novel centers on three friends: Humphrey, James, and Leonora. James is Humphrey’s nephew, and an assistant in his antique shop. Leonora is a middle-aged woman — younger than Humphrey and older than James — and enjoys flirtatious relationships with both men. She expects their attention, and enjoys receiving little gifts, without having to give much in return. She arranges for James to rent a flat in her house, and enjoys their “platonic living together” arrangement. But when James’ attentions stray to younger and possibly more compatible partners, she becomes jealous and tries to manipulate events in her favor. All the while poor Humphrey sits on the sidelines, a steady reliable friend with desires to take the relationship further, but Leonora is oblivious to this opportunity.

As you might expect, the story is bittersweet. Pym lightens the mood with supporting characters like Leonora’s “crazy cat lady” friend Liz, and Ned, a young American with designs on James.  Although the novel was published in 1978, the characters and story seemed more “vintage 1950s” with the odd references to sex and cannabis thrown in to modernize. Still, I always enjoy Pym’s work and found this a pleasurable comfort read.

The title comes from a poem by John Keats:

I HAD a dove and the sweet dove died;
And I have thought it died of grieving:
O, what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied,
With a silken thread of my own hand’s weaving;
Sweet little red feet! why should you die –
Why should you leave me, sweet bird! why?
You liv’d alone in the forest-tree,
Why, pretty thing! would you not live with me?
I kiss’d you oft and gave you white peas;
Why not live sweetly, as in the green trees?

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple

Bernadette Fox was once an award-winning architect, and now lives in Seattle with her husband Elgin Branch and their daughter, Bee. Bernadette gave up her work when Elgin took a position with Microsoft; he is widely recognized as a genius. Bernadette has become a recluse, leaving her house only when absolutely necessary and relying on an India-based “personal assistant” to handle most of her administrative responsibilities. She has an antagonistic relationship with other school parents, who she refers to as “gnats.” Bee started life with a serious heart condition and is now a precocious eight-grader at a second-tier private school. To celebrate Bee’s upcoming graduation, the family plans a trip to Antarctica over the Christmas holiday. But as the date approaches, Bernadette disappears, and a more complex story emerges.

The story is told through a series of emails, letters, and other documents. Bernadette initially comes across as just quirky, but deeper issues are soon revealed that challenge the family’s overall stability. The “gnats” also prove to be more complex characters than they seem, showing there is always more than one side to any story. The central conflict and its resolution bordered on the preposterous at times, but the light writing style was misleading. Beneath the surface is a novel with surprising emotional impact.

 

Review: May we be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes

In the first 15 pages of May we be Forgiven, the Silver family falls completely apart.  George Silver, a television executive, is involved in a car accident with fatalities, which he may have caused.  His older brother Harold, a professor, sleeps with George’s wife and then witnesses a horrific act of violence.  Harry is a mess, and yet is the only one who can pick up the pieces in the wake of such trauma.  He is appointed guardian for George’s children, Nate and Ashley, but it’s a good thing they are at boarding school because Harry has some pretty serious issues to work through.  He engages in a variety of self-destructive behaviors, while trying to keep up appearances as a successful academic.  But as his personal life unravels, the children’s needs take on greater importance, and together the family begins their long healing process.

This book drew me in at the start with its high-action opening, and immediate sympathy for a family struck by tragedy.  And for a while, it was hard to put down.  But about halfway through, the family’s path to recovery became less believable.  Harry became involved with two different women, both under circumstances that would not normally result in healthy relationships.  The children sometimes behaved in ways that seemed more advanced than a typical 11- or 12-year-old.  And then Harry staged an elaborate trip for Nate’s Bar Mitzvah, which was crucial to their healing process, but really over the top. At this point my attention began to wane — I generally prefer more realistic plots.  But on the other hand, I think much of this story is metaphorical, and the fantastic situations are carefully crafted to illustrate a point.

A few days after finishing this book, I’m still thinking about the Silver family and the way Homes told this story.  And I guess that says something.

Review: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson


When I was in my teens, summer nights were often spent in the company of three or four neighbor kids, all the same age.  I remember sitting under the stars, eating pizza, playing cards, and sharing our hopes and dreams.  One summer, we became a little obsessed with the ways small events could completely change our lives.  It probably started with something serious, but eventually we came to see even the tiniest detail as potentially significant:  “If I hadn’t eaten this pizza, our whole lives would be different.”  It was a bit of silliness, really, but reading Life After Life sent me down memory lane, wondering which seemingly inconsequential events and decisions actually had far-reaching consequences.

In Life After Life, Ursula Todd is born again and again, and each time her life takes a different course.  She dies repeatedly, in many ways and at different times.  In the first few pages, Ursula dies immediately after birth.  Later, an adult Ursula dies in one of several bomb blasts in London during World War II.  Each of her lives plays out differently, and often has an effect on the lives of family members and friends.  Sometimes Ursula’s life feels vaguely familiar to her:

And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur—if a dish was about to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.

And at other times, she acts impulsively to change the course of events:

Ursula had done a wicked thing, she had pushed Bridget down the stairs. Bridget might have died and she would have been a murderer now. All she knew was that she had to do it. The great sense of dread had come over her and she had to do it.

I absolutely loved this book.  Kate Atkinson brilliantly constructed a series of intricate life stories, repeatedly taking the reader back to specific points in time: Ursula’s birth, the 1918 Armistice, the London Blitz.  It was fascinating to see lives take so many paths, and how often this was due more to small everyday events than to life’s “big decisions.” I enjoyed the way Ursula would sometimes act to change the future based on knowledge from an earlier life.  Atkinson also kept me guessing about other characters in the story.  In one life, something bad would happen to them.  Would it happen again in Ursula’s next life?  Or would their fate take a slightly different turn?

Life After Life was a bit like working a challenging puzzle.  This book begs to be re-read as I’m sure there are details I missed.  And I know I’d enjoy it just as much the next time, and the next …

Review: Homestead, by Rosina Lippi

There’s a surprising amount of depth and meaning in this slim novel, that builds slowly and quietly through each of its 12 chapters.  The story is set in a remote region of the Austrian alps, and told in the voices of women from 1909 to 1977, who managed life, love, and family on their rural homestead.

Life was hard: subsistence farming, few “modern conveniences,” limited educational opportunities, and a clear but restrictive definition of a woman’s role.  Most women made do and were happy; some worked hard to escape.  In the opening chapter, Anna, a young mother, receives a mysterious postcard which appears to be from a long lost lover.  The post-mistress makes sure everyone knows about it, causing much gossip.  Anna imagines the writer and his lifestyle and composes an elaborate reply, which she later abbreviated to a simple acknowledgement and apology, because his card has been misdirected.  As this unfolds, the reader is also introduced to Anna’s husband and children, characters who will figure prominently in later chapters.

In a rural area such as this, everyone seems to be related to everyone else.  Thankfully Rosina Lippi included clan charts showing the genealogy of each homestead.  While careful study of these while reading reveals small spoilers, I found them invaluable to keep track of generations and relationships.

Every one of these women was amazing, in their capacity for physical labor, and their commitment to families and to one another.  Each chapter reveals details about those who came before, some of which were closely guarded family secrets.  This provided the depth I mentioned before, and usually sent me off to re-read earlier chapters, taking new facts into account.  When I reached the end, I felt like I had an incredibly rich tapestry in my hands, and I stood back to admire Lippi’s achievement.

Review: The Accidental, by Ali Smith

Eve and Michael Smart, and their children Magnus and Astrid, rent a house in Norfolk for the summer, hoping to escape the stress of everyday London life.  One day a young woman named Amber appears on their doorstep, and everyone is so caught up in their own cares, each assumes she is known to one of the others.  Astrid thinks she’s a friend of Eve’s; Eve thinks she’s one of Michael’s university students, etc.  Amber stays for dinner, and spends the night, albeit in her car.  Time passes and before you know it, Amber is firmly entrenched in their lives.  She’s a dubious role model and mentor to 12-year-old Amber, the object of 17-year-old Magnus’ passion, and the one woman Michael wants but can’t manage to seduce.  Amber also becomes privy to several deep family secrets, some shared with her directly and others obtained through her powers of reason.

It’s all very strange, because she’s not particularly likeable.  You’d think one of the parents would kick her out, but every member of the family is so locked inside their own head that no one understands the effect she’s having on them collectively.  As Amber inserts herself into the family, she shares remarkably little about herself, and yet manages to get everyone else to let their guard down.  Each family member has the chance to tell their version of the story, taking turns as narrator, which enables the reader to get just as deep into each person’s psyche as Amber does.  Ali Smith used very different writing styles and techniques for each character, underscoring the differences between family members.  On the other hand, Amber’s chapters are decidedly sparse, so as readers our understanding of her is just as limited as the family’s.

I was initially intrigued by Smith’s quirky writing, but eventually tired of it.  The story seemed about equal parts positive and creepy.  Only when the family returns to London does the full impact of Amber’s visit become clear, and the whole thing struck me as quite creepy indeed.  And while this book gave me some interesting thoughts to ponder, I was left wishing some of the family relationships and related themes were further developed.

Review: Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

I knew this book would become one of my favorites almost immediately.  In just a few pages, I was completely immersed in the story, and found myself picking up the book anytime I had a minute to spare.  And it’s unusual for a book to bring real, honest-to-goodness tears to my eyes, but this one most certainly did.

The Song of Achilles provides back story to one aspect of the Trojan War: the relationship between Achilles and his close friend, Patroclus.  As author Madeline Miller wrote in her Reader’s Guide,

I found myself particularly moved by his [Achilles’] desperate grief over the loss of his companion Patroclus. Patroclus is no more than a minor character in the Iliad, yet Achilles mourns him with a shocking intensity, unlike anything else in the entire work.  Why?  Who is this man whose death could undo the mighty Achilles?

Achilles is a mythological figure, son of the goddess Thetis, a sea-nymph, and the mortal Peleus.  At the age of 9, he hand-picks the exiled prince Patroclus as his constant companion.  Patroclus gains status and privilege, and as the boys grow their relationship strengthens into  love.  Thetis is displeased and tries to separate them, but their love is too powerful.  When armies are assembled to do battle with Troy, Patroclus is there at Achilles’ side.  Achilles has known for years that he will become the Greeks’ greatest warrior; the siege of Troy is his chance to shine.  But there are other prophecies that weigh heavily on Achilles and Patroclus, not to mention the reader.

Madeline Miller breathes such life and emotion into her characters.  Thetis is frightening; King Agamemnon is arrogant and cold-hearted; Odysseus is crafty.  Achilles is beautiful, and the love between him and Patroclus is simultaneously intense and sweet. It’s heartbreaking to watch the prophecies be fulfilled, and yet Miller offers an ingenious denouement that is wholly satisfying.

This 2012 Orange Prize winner is my best book of the year so far.