Fiction – paperback; Alcemi; 192 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the author.
Architecture is one of my pet subjects, but it’s not very often I come to read fictional accounts of the profession. So when the author Jayne Joso emailed me back in January to see if I would like a review copy I said yes.
The central character of this book is off the page, by which I mean, he’s already dead when the story opens. His name is Charles Ore and he is a star architect, one of the big hitters on the world stage, who is “half Norwegian, half English; and at the time of his death, forty-three, seven months, eleven days, four hours, and twelve seconds precisely”. Despite the bizarre, and very humorous, nature of his death (he choked on a piece of eel), he haunts the pages of this tautly written novel and has an almost stronger grip on his wife Gaia — “Swedish born, adopted by English parents; aged thirty-two, and alive” — in death than he ever had when he was living and breathing.
It’s only when Gaia discovers a bundle of letters — 15 in total — after Charles’ death that she realises the man that she loved may not have been the man she knew at all.
The letters were in the same hand, from the same woman, all drenched in love and favour, and yes, intimacy. And what level of intimacy! To discover that this correspondence revealed that Charles, Charles had been given a pet name. Arles! A special, secret name, known to his secret correspondent, indeed perhaps to his co-respondent, and no doubt designed by the same. Charles, Arles! Gaia mocked. How trite, and unimaginative, simply cutting the first two letters. But how dare this… this Selené… have her own name for him? And who, pray… is… Selené? Oh yes, she is, Charles’ confidante, but what else? What else?
In her quest to find the answers behind this clandestine relationship, Gaia writes to Selené and a correspondence ensues. From this, Gaia begins to realise that she needs to stand on her own two feet and live a little. In short, she needs to find a new passion.
Archicture is what she knows and loves, albeit indirectly through her late husband, so she devises an international architecture competition in which the entrants must build her the “perfect home”. Four of Charles’ professional adversaries take part: one each from Spain, Italy, USA and the UK.
The book is largely structured around the correspondence between Selené and Gaia — which is lovely and highly readable and a moving treatise on bereavement, love and artistic obsession — and this is undercut with snapshot portraits of each of the four architects taking part in the competition, each of whom has a different philosophical approach to the design process but “with an equal measure of architectural passion and creative verve”.
There’s a lightness of touch to Joso’s writing, and much humour. But there’s an intelligence at work too, as she fleshes out each of the four architects and gives them egos to match the brash, bold buildings they design for a living. And Gaia is sympathetically drawn, moving from a grief-stricken but naive young wife, to a woman who has come to terms with the past and is prepared to move into the future with hope and courage.
And while I very much enjoyed reading the letters between Selené and Gaia — definitely the high point of the book, probably because the correspondence appears so natural and real — the novel feels slightly disjointed. You just get a handle on one character and then the focus shifts to a handful of letters, before jumping ahead to a different character. And then, before you know it, you’ve reached the end of the book.
I must also point out that the ending felt a bit forced and a let down, but I did like the closing pages in which Gaia comes to realise that “home” is not something physical and concrete but is simply the people with whom we live and love.
The book also includes a lovely gallery of black and white sketches, drawn by Japanese artist Hiroki Godengi, of the houses featured in the novel. A nice touch.