Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

Last summer my husband Chris and I ran into someone we hadn’t seen in years, and spent considerable time chatting with her and her husband about books.  A few days later, The Hare with Amber Eyes arrived in our mailbox.  Our friend recommended it especially to Chris because of its connection to Marcel Proust, one of Chris’ favorite authors.   After reading it he suggested I might like it as well.  And then he suggested again.  I read the blurb and was intrigued:

When he inherited a collection of 264 tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings, called netsuke, he wanted to know who had touched and held them, and how the collection had managed to survive.  And so begins this extraordinarily moving memoir and detective story …

Edmund de Waal inherited the netsuke collection from his great-uncle in 1994.  It was originally acquired by a cousin, Charles Ephrussi, more than a century before.  The Ephrussi family left Odessa for Paris and Vienna in the 1850s, and became wealthy financiers.  Very wealthy financiers, with palatial homes and fabulous art collections.  They moved among the rich and famous, and supported the artists of the period (Charles can be seen in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party).  But by the time de Waal was born in the 1960s, the netsukes were all that remained.  This memoir relates the family history, and de Waal’s self-discovery, a by-product of his research.

The netsuke had a unique appeal.  During their long history they were sometimes displayed prominently, and at other times relegated to less-used rooms.  But they were always displayed in a vitrine, for a special reason:

But the vitrine — as opposed to the museum’s case — is for opening.  And that opening glass door and the moment of looking, then choosing, and then reaching in and then picking up is a moment of seduction, an encounter between a hand and an object that is electric. (p. 66)

The Ephrussi family remained strong through the early 1900s, despite the growing antisemitism in both Paris and Vienna.  But Hitler’s arrival in Vienna changed everything.  Homes were searched, possessions seized in the  name of the Reich, and men arrested on trumped-up charges:

This process of stripping away your respectability, taking away your watch-chain, or your shoes or your belt, so that you stumble and hold up your trousers with one hand, is a way of returning everyone to the shtetl, stripping yo back to your essential characters — wandering, unshaven, bowed with your possessions on your back. (p. 251)

Needless to say, the war had a profound impact on the Ephrussi family.  For a while I was caught up in the human story and forgot all about the netsuke. I cried when they emerged from the war intact and de Waal revealed their story.  That’s a rare event for me, and a credit to de Waal’s ability to write a factual, engaging, and yes, “extraordinarily moving” memoir.  His ancestors came alive on the page, and so did de Waal, as he reflected on a project that distracted him from his livelihood for two years:   “I worry that I am becoming a Casaubon, and will spend my life writing lists and notes.” *  (p. 173)  Never fear, Mr. de Waal, it was worth it.

* What’s not to like about a memoir with a Middlemarch reference?

Review: The Vet’s Daughter, by Barbara Comyns

The Vet’s Daughter is Alice Rowland, the 17-year-old daughter of an abusive father and a very unhappy (and abused) mother.  Alice tells her own story in stark and simple prose, such as this scene at her mother’s deathbed:

As I climbed upstairs I could hear the breathing again, now that everything in the house was still. I went to Mother’s room and she was still asleep. Her face was flushed, and her breathing was certainly very loud. Although it seemed cruel, I shook her; but she still stayed asleep and the heavy breathing seemed to come louder. I didn’t know if it was a good thing, this heavy-breathing sleep, or if I should send for a doctor although it was so late at night. I even wished Father would come home and tell me what to do. Eventually I left her well propped up with pillows so that she would not suffocate and went to bed. (p. 36)

After her mother’s death, Alice lived in fear of her father and even suspected him of having done something to hasten her mother’s passing.  Her father quickly took up with another woman and ignored Alice.  Alice knew her life wasn’t “normal” or “happy,” but was powerless to change it.  Her only escape was an apparent supernatural power, the ability to levitate at will.  Was this real, or psychological dissociation?  Comyns lets the reader decide.

Barbara Comyns’ novels are oddly fascinating, and I never know what to make of them.  Her no-frills, unemotional writing style is about as exciting as reading a newspaper, and yet this is still an intense and tragic story.  This is my third Comyns novel, and I’d say they are very much an acquired taste.

Review: A Change of Climate, by Hilary Mantel

Ralph and Anna Eldred began their married life as missionaries in 1950s South Africa, and returned to England in the 1970s, where Ralph manages a charitable trust.  In addition to their four children, Ralph & Anna also give shelter for disadvantaged youth who are sent from London to the country for rehabilitation.  The book opens in the 1980s, and moves seamlessly backwards and forwards in time, gradually filling in the details of Ralph and Anna’s life together, and the lives of other significant figures, like their children and Ralph’s unmarried sister Emma.

For the first third of this book, I thought it was a fairly typical story of missionaries, and their adjustment to life “back home.”  But I was wrong — A Change of Climate is a beautiful story of marriage, the lasting impact of tragedy and suffering, and the power of forgiveness and healing.  There were several moments in this book that hit like a ton of bricks:  Emma’s loneliness after her lover’s death, which goes unacknowledged by almost everyone; the reason Ralph chose his profession which, in turn, influenced Emma’s decision to become a doctor; the secret Ralph and Anna harbored for twenty years, and how it influenced absolutely everything they did, every day. There were also a myriad of moral issues, all laid before the reader in a way that allows us to form our own opinions.

While the plot and the moral dilemmas were captivating, I was also impressed with Mantel’s use of characters.  Emma, in particular, stands in the middle of the “action,” usually as a stabilizing force that holds the family together through its darkest moments.  Hilary Mantel has gained recognition in recent years through her historical novels.  This is a much earlier work that embodies a similar quiet style: not a lot of action, and most of it happens in people’s heads.  But it was, for me, a book with even greater emotional impact.

Review: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, by Julia Strachey

I assumed this novella would be “cheerful,” as its title implies, but I was wrong.  It’s actually a rather dark portrayal of Dolly Thatcham’s wedding day.  All of the “action” takes place in the bride’s house, even during the ceremony, because this book is not about the wedding, it’s about reactions to the wedding.  As Dolly gets dressed, and her extended family and friends sit down to a wedding luncheon, it becomes clear that no one is very happy about this wedding, not even the bride.

This state of affairs is revealed slowly, through a quirky cast of characters.  Mrs Thatcham books multiple guests in the same bedroom, confuses the staff with conflicting direction about meal service, and flaps about in a scatterbrained fashion.  Two boys fight over wearing appropriate socks. Dolly steels herself for the afternoon ceremony by slowly draining a bottle of rum.  And Joseph, a former suitor, mopes about downstairs waiting for Dolly to emerge so he can have the last word before she becomes a married woman.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is supposed to be funny, I think.  Yes, there were moments of wit, and characters like Mrs Thatcham who were so over the top that I had to laugh.  But I expected a continuous chuckle, and maybe a laugh-out-loud moment or two, and this was not that sort of book.  The cover blurb compared this book to Cold Comfort Farm, another “hilarious” book that failed to resonate with me.  Perhaps I just can’t appreciate this type of quirky humor.

Review: Carry me Down, by M.J. Hyland

Creating an effective child narrator is a difficult task.  Whatever their age, they need to be credible.  If the child’s speech sounds too old for their age, or they handle situations that are overly complex or physically impossible, that’s not credible.   Carry me Down is narrated by 10-year-old John Egan, and while his speech and inner thoughts sounded about right, his actions didn’t always ring true for me and this significantly affected my impressions of this book.

Early in the novel, John becomes physically ill after catching one of his parents in a lie.  Over time he uncovers more lies, first with similar results but later he is able to detect lies without getting sick.  John becomes convinced he has a special gift for lie detection, and obsesses about getting into the Guinness Book of World Records.  John is a bit of a loner and a social misfit at school, and using his “gift” doesn’t help much.  Meanwhile, there is a lot of dysfunctional behavior between his mother, father, and grandmother.  John’s father is out of work, and they have been forced to live in grandmother’s house.  John’s mother is an emotional train wreck with unpredictable mood swings.  The reader has to interpret events through John’s lens, but he doesn’t understand half of what’s going on.  Some gaps are easier to fill in than others. Eventually John’s lie detection escalates to a level that leads to family crisis.

M. J. Hyland describes John as very tall for his age, and implies his physical maturation is taking place earlier than normal.  But how “abnormal” is he?  Some characters were put off by his size; others dismissed it as a minor detail.  I also found it difficult to decide whether John was a misfit because he had superior intelligence, or because he was emotionally disturbed.  John seems to ignore his height, which would be unusual for a child wanting to fit in at school.  And yet late in the novel, he uses his size to gain an advantage in a frightening way.  This was the most significant credibility gap in his character, but there were many other minor situations that didn’t seem like the behavior of a 10-year-old.

The story of John’s unraveling family held my interest, especially because so much was left to conjecture.  But I’ve read a lot of “dysfunctional family novels,” and they need to bring something new and fresh for me to really enjoy them.  In this case, too much revolved around John’s character, and once he had lost credibility my enthusiasm for this novel waned.

Review: So Long, see you Tomorrow, by William Maxwell

Take away the pitcher and the bowl, both of them dry and dusty. Take away the cow barn where the cats, sitting all in a row, wait with their mouths wide open for somebody to squirt milk down their throats.  Take away the horse barn too — the smell of hay and dust and horse piss and old sweat-stained leather, and the rain beating down on the plowed field beyond the open door. Take all this away and what have you done to him? In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead. (p. 113)

Life can change dramatically and irrevocably in a split second.  This happened to Cletus Smith when his father, Clarence, a tenant farmer, shot and killed his friend and neighboring farmer, Lloyd Wilson.  In imagining the impact of this event, William Maxwell goes well beyond the obvious (a man dead, a family in mourning), to understand how the murder came to happen in the first place, and how these factors would have affected Cletus.

The narrator of this story was Cletus’ childhood friend only briefly, just before the murder.  And children, as we know, are highly unreliable narrators.  Many years later he gained access to newspaper accounts, and developed a more complete picture.  And yet, he understands even this view is unreliable:

What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory — meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion — is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw. (p. 27)

Despite this acknowledged flaw, our narrator reconstructs the events that led to Lloyd Wilson’s murder, and tells an emotional story of two families, a friendship, and marriages gone sour.  Our narrator is also not immune to tragedy and its aftermath: he lost his mother at a young age, and saw the devastating impact on his father.  Children are but observers of this drama, and are powerless to influence it.

Maxwell writes with such economy, packing surprising emotional depth into just a few sentences.  Take, for example, the quote that opens this review: can’t you just feel Cletus’ entire world crumbling around him?  A few pages later Maxwell describes the family dog’s response as her world also changes forever, and instead of appearing silly or superfluous, it reinforced the weight of the tragedy that befell this family.  And always, running through the story like a current, is the narrator’s guilt over how he treated Cletus later on.  He keeps trying to “rearrange things to conform to this end,” and simply cannot.  This is a powerful story; highly recommended.

A special thank-you to Rachel @ Booksnob for recommending this book.  In her review she wrote, “the sparse words slowly wind their way around your heart, squeezing it until you are overcome with emotion for the men in this novel, whose lives gave them so little, and for whom happiness was never quite achieved.”  That’s so true, and I’m only sorry it took me over a year to get around to reading this gem.

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: Good Behaviour, by Molly Keane

For certain families, keeping up appearances in public is of prime importance.  The St Charles family is one of these.  Daughter Aroon, now the ungainly, unmarried daughter, looks back on her childhood at Temple Alice and how expectations of “good behaviour” ultimately brought unhappiness and even tragedy.  Aroon and her brother Hubert grew up in the care of a cool and distant mother and a philandering father.  Mummie preferred to look the other way, rather than confront Papa’s infidelity.  Papa loved his children on one level, but preferred riding, fox-hunting, and women to life at home.  When Papa is wounded in the war, his convalescence provides Aroon and Hurbert an unexpected opportunity to enjoy a new level intimacy with their father.  Mummie remains aloof, and can’t hold back a sadistic glow when she realizes her husband is unable to ride.

As Aroon grows into a young woman, she sets her sights on Hubert’s best friend Richard.  She wildly misinterprets his behavior towards her, and convinces herself they are lovers. She fails to see what’s obvious to the reader: Richard and Hubert are much more than friends.  When Richard suddenly goes off to Africa, Aroon continues her delusion, sure he will return for her one day.  When a letter finally arrives, she is at first disappointed — until she finds a way to infuse each paragraph with hidden meaning.

Inevitably, the family’s fortunes change.  They have lived way beyond their means, with a bad habit of stuffing every bill into a drawer.  Their solicitor knows the score and tries to help, but Mummie and Papa are compelled to maintain the illusion of wealth and society, so their irresponsible spending continues unchecked.  Even in the most intense and private situations, good behaviour rules:

When the last speechless hand-grip was completed, Papa, Mummie, and I were left in the hall, with empty glasses and the empty plates; funerals are hungry work. We exchanged cool, warning looks — which of us could behave best: which of us could be least embarrassing to the others, the most ordinary in a choice of occupation?  (p. 113)

Good Behaviour landed Molly Keane firmly on my favorite authors list.  Her characterizations are classic examples of an author showing, not telling. At an early age Richard is “caught” reading poetry in a treehouse.  Richard and Hubert go to great lengths to be together alone.  Slowly, the reader comes to realize they are gay.  It’s brilliantly done.  She conveys emotion with similar skill.  When Aroon goes to a party alone and finds she’s been paired with an older, misfit of a man, her pain is palpable.  And yet there are also moments of delightful wit, such as Mummie’s visit with neighbors, when she finds the primary bathroom already in use.  Her host directs her:

‘You’ll have to try the downstairs. I’ll just turn out the cats. They love it on a wet day.’ I could imagine them there, crouched between the loo and the croquet mallets and the Wellington boots and the weed killer.  (p. 157)

My Virago Modern Classics collection includes several more books by Molly Keane (who also wrote under the pseudonym M.J. Farrell).  I can’t wait to discover more of her talent.

Review: In the Country of Men, by Hisham Matar

That visit has remained with me ever since. Whenever I am faced with someone who holds the strings of my fate – an immigration officer, a professor – I can feel the distant reverberations from that day, my inauguration into the dark art of submission. Perhaps this is why I often find a shameful pleasure in submitting to authority. … And this is also why, when I finally think I have gained the pleasure of authority, a sense of self-loathing rises to clasp me by the throat. I have always been able to imagine being unjustifiably hated.  (p. 159)

When his father disappears one day in 1979, nine-year-old Suleiman’s life is forever changed.  Just a short time before, the same thing happened to his best friend Kareem’s father. Instead of spending long happy summer days playing with neighborhood boys, Suleiman tries to make sense of his world.  He acts out his emotions and uncertainty, turning on Kareem instead of offering support.

Under the Qaddafi regime, Libya had become a place where dissent was dangerous.  Counter-revolutionaries were rounded up for interrogation; some never returned. Suleiman’s mother Najwa tells him Baba is on a business trip, and consoles herself with “medicine” (alcohol, obtained illegally).  She has her own demons, having been forced by her family to marry when she was just 14. To protect Baba from investigators, Najwa and a family friend Moosa burn his books and papers. But Suleiman nearly gets caught in the web when a strange man begins asking him questions about Baba and his associates.  In one of the more horrifying scenes Suleiman, Najwa, and Moosa watch a public execution on television.  At the end, the TV broadcast returned to images of flowers and nationalistic music.  And life went on.

Suleiman grew into a man, but one with emotional scars that would never heal.  Hisham Matar writes convincingly, and from direct experience: his own father disappeared many years ago, and to this day Matar doesn’t know what happened to him.  When he describes the televised execution’s impact on Suleiman, you know he’s also talking about himself:

Something was absent in the stadium, something that could no longer be relied on. Apart from making me lose trust in the assumption that “good things happen to good people,” the televised execution … would leave another, more lasting impression on me, one that has survived well into my manhood, a kind of quiet panic, as if at any moment the rug could be pulled from beneath my feet. … I had no illusions that I or Baba or Mama were immune from being burned by the madness that overtook the National Basketball Stadium. (p. 198)

This book started slowly and quietly, but the tension steadily grew.  I was drawn into the family’s story, and felt quite emotional reading about how the events of 1979 affected Suleiman for the rest of his life.  This is a very powerful book deserving of its 2006 Booker Prize nomination.