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.

 

Advertisements

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: 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: 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.

Review: The Patrick Melrose Novels, by Edward St Aubyn

The Patrick Melrose Novels is a 680-page omnibus of four works by Edward St. Aubyn, originally published between 1992 and 2005: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk.  A fifth novel, At Last, was published in 2012.  Each book covers a period in Patrick’s life, often only a day or two, spread out over four decades.

In Never Mind, Patrick is five years old and living in France with his British father and American mother.  This tightly written novella tells you all you need to know about David and Eleanor Melrose, and it’s not pretty.  David is an overbearing, sadistic man; Eleanor and Patrick are victims of his cruelty.  Towards the end of the novella, something unthinkable happens, and you know Patrick will be scarred for life.  In the following books you can see Patrick trying, mostly in vain, to move beyond this childhood trauma.  In Bad News, 22-year-old Patrick has taken to drugs and is constantly in search of his next hit.  By age 30, in Some Hope, he has given up drugs (or has he?), and is making an effort to address long-term psychological issues.

Have you seen the amazing “Up” documentary series?  Bear with me, there’s a point to this digression.  In the documentaries, director Michael Apted visits the same group of British-born people every 7 years, beginning at age 7 (the latest installment, 56 Up, was released in 2012 and will soon arrive in US cinemas — see it if you can).  The Patrick Melrose Novels share a similar premise, taken from the Jesuit motto, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”  Like the documentaries, each novel gives us a glimpse into Patrick’s life at a point in time.  We know little about the intervening period.  But the events in Never Mind are like a thread woven through Patrick’s life, influencing everything he says and does, and the man he becomes.

By the time we get to Mother’s Milk, Patrick is 40, married, with children.  He’s a devoted father with stable employment.  You might think he’s living the dream, right?  Well, no.  Patrick’s aging mother has pretty much disinherited him by making increasingly irresponsible decisions about her estate.  Patrick’s well-being teeters on a precipice; not surprisingly, we see some backsliding into destructive behaviors.  The scars from Never Mind have never healed.

When I picked up this book my original intention was to read the first novella and return to the others later.  Instead I found myself drawn into Patrick’s story, despite the fact that nearly every character is unlikable in the extreme.  The writing is harsh and direct; St Aubyn doesn’t sugar coat the situation in any way.  It was all so unpleasant!  And yet something kept me coming back for the next installment, hoping to see Patrick in a better place with each passing decade.  I did have one quibble with the writing, however.  Mother’s Milk is told largely through the thoughts, words and deeds of Patrick’s very young sons.  Their voices didn’t ring true; I’ve never met a preschooler who could think or speak in such a sophisticated way.

Mother’s Milk was nominated for the 2006 Booker Prize, and because of that I nearly made the mistake of reading it as a standalone novel.  I don’t think you can appreciate it unless you’ve read the three previous books.  Perhaps the Booker judges were recognizing a body of work more than an individual novel?

Review: The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

When Yun Ling Teoh retires from her career as an attorney and a judge, she returns to the Malaysian highlands, where she spent the years immediately following World War II.  Recently diagnosed with a degenerative memory disease, she wants to record her life’s memories before they disappear.

Yun Ling was the only survivor of a Japanese camp; her sister died there.  After the war, Yun Ling sought out Aritomo, former gardener to the Japanese emperor, to learn the art of Japanese gardening and create a garden in her sister’s memory.  Yun Ling is filled with anger at the Japanese, and overcome with guilt over her sister’s death. Her time with Aritomo becomes a time of healing and spiritual renewal.

As readers we live in Yun Ling’s mind, moving seamlessly between present and past.  So seamlessly, in fact, that occasionally I had to back up and re-read pages to ground myself in the correct time period.  In the present day, Yun Ling is visited by a man researching Aritomo’s life and work.  This storyline, combined with Yun Ling’s memories of Malaysia during and after the war, convey the brutality of this period in a very powerful and emotional way.  But this is not “just” a wartime story. The Garden of Evening Mists is also about beauty and love, and the ability of both to persist through the most horrific circumstances.

I had looked forward to reading this book after it was nominated for the 2012 Booker Prize, and received several rave reviews on LibraryThing.  I was expecting a 5-star read, which is probably unfair.  The writing was beautiful and poetic, but it wasn’t “unputdownable,” and I always felt at a slight distance from the characters and the plot.  Nevertheless, I recommend this book for those who like quiet, slow-paced, character-driven novels.

Review: The Keepers of Truth, by Michael Collins

Well, that was a waste of perfectly good reading time.  The Keepers of Truth starts out with a mystery:  a man disappears from a small midwestern town, and his ne’er-do-well do son is automatically a suspect.  Bill, a reporter for the local newspaper, is on the beat but for some reason doesn’t want to cover the investigation; instead he wants to write Really Great Prose about the meaning of life and how the crime is somehow representative of the sad decline of small towns and American industry in general.  Bill is a recent college graduate but comes across more like a 40-year-old suffering a mid-life crisis.  The other main characters are all various archetypes of the American white male.  Women are cast in subservient roles, primarily as waitresses or cheerleaders.  Their breasts fall out of their blouses and they reveal their underwear with alarming frequency.  Even the woman TV news reporter is objectified.

As if that weren’t enough, the story darts all over the place.  Bill is on the scene reporting the crime.  Bill pines after his former girlfriend.  Bill spends all night in a diner, several nights in a row (how does he go to work the next day?  Beats me).  Bill decides to prepare for law school again having failed the first time.  Bill pines after his girlfriend again.  Bill joins the police chief in rounding up rowdy high school students cruising the main drag.

All that in just over 80 pages.  By then I’d had enough.  The Keepers of Truth was nominated for the 2000 Booker Prize, competing against a field that included The Blind Assassin (which won), The Deposition of Father McGreevy, English Passengers, The Hiding Place, and When We Were Orphans.  Go read one of those instead.

(DNF)