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.

 

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: The Big Rock Candy Mountain, by Wallace Stegner

Long afterward, Bruce looked back on the life of his family with half-amused wonder at its rootlessness. The people who lived a lifetime in one place, cutting down the overgrown lilac hedge and substituting barberry, changing the shape of the lily pool from square to round, digging out old bulbs and putting in new, watching their trees grow from saplings to giants that shaded the house, by contrast seemed to walk a dubious line between contentment and boredom. What they had must be comfortable, pleasant, worn smooth by long use; they did not feel the edge of change. (p. 374)

The Big Rock Candy Mountain tells the story of the Mason family, who lived in the western United States in the first half of the 20th century.  It opens with Elsa leaving her home in Minnesota after her widowed father marries her best friend.  Elsa meets and marries Harry “Bo” Mason, a restless idealist with a continuous stream of ideas for making big money.  Whenever Bo lost interest in his current business venture, they pulled up stakes and moved on to the next opportunity, the “Big Rock Candy Mountain where life was effortless and rich and unrestricted and full of adventure and action, where something could be had for nothing.”  As you might imagine, things never panned out as expected, and their life was a hard one filled with dashed hopes and unrealized expectations.  Bo and Elsa had two sons, Chet and Bruce, who experienced not only Bo’s whims, but also his strict parenting style and volatile temper.  By the end of the story, the boys have grown up and the family is deeply scarred.

It sounds like a real downer, doesn’t it?  Well, yes, it is.  For several days nagging, low-grade feelings of anger and sadness infiltrated my heart and mind.  I was angry at the way Bo jerked them around, and the ways he emotionally manipulated his wife and children. But Stegner was a very skilful storyteller.  Each time Bo lit on a new scheme, I hoped it would work out for them.  I celebrated small victories, and mourned losses.  When the influenza epidemic hit their rural town, I felt both desperation and hope.  As Bruce comes of age he plays a larger part in the story, and I was right there with him as he tried to make sense of the man he has become:

“I suppose,” he wrote, “that the understanding of any person is an exercise in genealogy. A man is not a static organism to be taken apart and analyzed and classified. A man is movement, motion, a continuum. There is no beginning to him. he runs through his ancestors, and the only beginning is the primal beginning of the single cell in the slime. The proper study of mankind is man, but man is an endless curve on the eternal graph paper, and who can see the whole curve?”  (p. 436)

In the novel’s last pages, the adult Bruce reflects on life with his father, how the experience shaped him and what it means for his future.  It was a very moving scene that I won’t soon forget.

Readers should be ready to feel uncomfortable, sad, and angry.  But it’s worth it for the reading experience.

Review: The Misses Mallett, by E.H. Young

‘The Malletts don’t marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble.  We’ve been terrible flirts, Sophia and I.  Rose is different, but at least she hasn’t married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation.’ (p. 79)

And that’s the book, in a nutshell.  Caroline, Sophia, and their stepsister Rose are all unmarried women of a certain age, although Rose is several years younger and still considered attractive.  When their niece Henrietta comes to live with them, she upsets the gentle rhythm of spinsterhood.  These women have become very, very comfortable just being themselves:

Sitting up in bed looking grotesquely terrible, they discussed the event. Caroline, like Medusa, but with  hair curlers instead of snakes sprouting from her head, and Sophia with her heavy plait hanging over her shoulder and defying with its luxuriance the yellowness of her skin, they sat side by side, propped up with pillows, inured to the sight of each other in undress. (p. 32)

Hmm … perhaps they’re a little too comfortable!

Henrietta is young and has a mind of her own.  While she loves and admires her aunts, she has no intention of following in their footsteps.  And so she sets her sights on local heart-throb Francis Sales who, incidentally, has had a secret “thing” with Rose for some time.  And who, incidentally, is also married to an invalid confined to her bed.  Meanwhile Henrietta is being pursued by the dull but caring Charles Batty, a man who loves music, but can’t stand to attend concerts because other patrons whisper and crinkle their programs.  Rose attempts to resolve the conflict with Henrietta in many ways, all indirect because heaven forbid the situation be brought out into the open.  I found this infuriating, and lost patience with them more than once.

While Young’s social satire is amusing, autobiographical details add much interest to this story.  E. H. Young’s husband died at Ypres, and later she went to live with Ralph Henderson, a school headmaster, and his wife, who was a wife in name only.  They were inseparable, and while those in their social circle understood the situation, their relationship was not publicly acknowledged.  Young wrote The Misses Mallett when her living arrangement was still fairly new, and I can see how she used the experience to work through issues she must have wrestled with at the time.  Oh, how I wish she could have written more openly about that situation!

Review: The Dinner, by Herman Koch

Two Dutch couples meet for dinner in an expensive restaurant:  Paul and Claire, Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette.  Their meeting at first seems purely social, and something they do together from time to time.  But from minute details strategically placed in the narrative, the reader begins developing a different picture.  Just before leaving the house, Paul discovers disturbing content on his son Michel’s phone, but chooses not to mention it to Claire.  Paul detects signs of distress when Serge and Babette arrive at the restaurant.  We learn their son Rick was involved in a crime, as was Michel.  But what do the parents actually know?  What will they do about it?  And how did two boys from “good families” get into this situation?

Paul narrates the events of that evening, filling in family history along the way.  The result is a kind of cross between We Need to Talk About Kevin (troubled teens committing horrific acts) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (disturbing scenes unfolding over a meal).  Neither family is what they seem at the outset.  Paul is an unreliable narrator, failing to see the damage resulting from his behavior over the years.

None of the characters are likeable; in fact, they are all pretty horrible.  And the story is unpleasant, too.  Normally that would be enough to make me hate a book.  Why didn’t that happen this time?  Because I was really intrigued by Koch’s writing.  I liked the way he meted out relevant details, first in tiny fragments and then in increasingly obvious chunks.  He deftly showed us not only the nature of the boys’ crime, but events that directly and indirectly made it possible, and made me question who really was the guilty party in this case.  The book was hard to put down and I finished it in just a couple of days; however, its dark, disturbing nature means it’s one I cannot recommend unequivocally.

Review: Doctor Thorne, by Anthony Trollope

In this third volume of the Chronicles of Barsetshire, Anthony Trollope leaves behind familiar characters from the first two novels, and introduces his readers to an entirely new cast.  The eponymous Doctor Thorne serves an area of Barsetshire that includes Greshamsbury and the Gresham family, which includes Frank, who has recently come of age.  Thorne lives with his niece Mary, who is about Frank’s age.  Can you see where this is going?  Of course, but that’s not the point.  It’s the journey to the inevitable ending that makes reading Trollope so much fun.

In Doctor Thorne, Frank’s father has fallen into debt, and the family’s only hope is for Frank to marry money.  Mary is of humble birth, or so everyone believes.  But Doctor Thorne has a long-held a secret about her origins, and he is far too ethical to spill the beans.  Besides, if he did there would be no novel!  Frank loves Mary and cares nothing about her class, but Frank’s mother, the haughty Lady Arabella, is constantly scheming to keep Frank and Mary apart and introduce Frank to wealthy women.  Doctor Thorne stays out of it, trusting everyone to do the right thing but defending Mary when her honor is challenged:

“Why should I object? It is for you, Lady Arabella, to look after your lambs; for me to see that, if possible, no harm shall come to mine. If you think that Mary is an improper acquaintance for your children, it is for you to guide them; for you and their father. Say what you think fit to your own daughter; but pray understand, once for all, that I will allow no one to interfere with my niece.”

Trollope infuses this novel with his trademark wit.  For example, he lets us know early on just what sort of woman is Lady Arabella:

Of course Lady Arabella could not suckle the young heir herself. Ladies Arabella never can. They are gifted with the powers of being mothers, but not nursing-mothers. Nature gives them bosoms for show, but not for use. So Lady Arabella had a wet-nurse.

Trollope guides us through several twists and turns, over more than 500 pages sprinkled with quips like this, before Frank and Mary are finally united. It’s all good fun making for a very pleasurable, satisfying read.

Review: Family Matters, by Rohinton Mistry

They continued to cope, poorly, with the excretions and secretions of their stepfather’s body, moving from revulsion to pity to anger, and back to revulsion. They were bewildered, and indignant, that a human creature of blood and bone, so efficient in good health, could suddenly become so messy.  Neither Nariman’s age nor his previous illnesses had served to warn them. Sometimes they took it personally, as though their stepfather had reduced himself to this state to harass them. And by nightfall, the air was again fraught with tension, thick with reproaches spoken and silent. (p 68)

Nariman Vakeel is an elderly, retired English professor suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.  He lives in the family home — ironically named Chateau Felicity — with his middle-aged step-children, Jal and Coomy.  Nariman married their mother Yasmin when Jal and Coomy were children, after his family forbid him to marry his true love, Lucy.  He raised them along with a younger half-sister, Roxana.  Coomy is filled with resentment; everyone else walks on eggshells to avoid her bitterness.  Jal feigns obliviousness, tinkering with his hearing aid when tempers flare.

When Nariman falls while out on a walk, Jal and Coomy are quickly overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for him.  Coomy wastes no time tricking Roxana into taking him in.  Roxana and her family live in a smaller flat and struggle to make ends meet, but they are blessed with a more positive outlook on life. Even Roxana’s young sons take things in stride:

The balcony door framed the scene: nine-year-old happily feeding seventy-nine.

And then it struck her like a revelation — of what, she could not say.  Hidden by the screen of damp clothes, she watched, clutching Yezad’s shirt in her hands. She felt she was witnessing something almost sacred, and her eyes refused to relinquish the previous moment, for she knew instinctively that it would become a memory to cherish, to recall in difficult times when she needed strength. (p. 98)

But as weeks pass, the strain takes its toll on everyone.  Coomy takes dramatic steps to keep up the illusion she is unable to care for Nariman.  Jal is silently complicit.  Roxana tries, in vain, to stretch Yezad’s salary to cover the cost of Nariman’s medication.  And Yezad responds to the financial strain through a series of progressively destructive acts aimed at improving their financial situation.  Eventually they hit rock bottom in ways both inevitable and shocking, and are then faced with the challenge of rebuilding what they hold most dear.

I put off reading this book for some time, thinking it might strike too close to home.  My father has Parkinson’s, and last year a medical incident set in motion a series of events culminating in my parents’ long-overdue move to a continuous care retirement community.  Family Matters was indeed painful to read, although I could distance myself from it because the Vakeel family’s situation was very different from mine.  And yet there are valuable messages in this book about the importance of family, and living for today, that are still with me days after finishing the book.