Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, France, Patrick Modiano, Publisher, Setting, Yale University Press

‘Sundays in August’ by Patrick Modiano (translated by Damion Searls)

Fiction – paperback; Yale University Press; 168 pages; 2017. Translated from the French by Damion Searls.

Patrick Modiano’s Sundays in August is essentially a jewel heist with a difference.

First published in 1986 under the French title Dimanches d’aout, it was translated into English — by Damion Searls in 2017 — after the author won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014.

Set in Nice, on the French Riviera, it is a perfectly paced and plotted noirish crime novella involving a photographer, his lover, her husband, a mysterious American couple — and a giant diamond known as the “Southern Cross”.

Setting the scene

When the book opens, the unnamed first-person narrator meets an acquaintance, Villecourt, from seven years earlier, a man he has never liked. They go for a drink. Villecourt wants to talk about Sylvia. Our narrator does not. We, the readers, do not know who Sylvia is — and so Modiano starts off as he means to go on, drip-feeding us clues and snippets of information, carefully holding things back and only revealing important facts when he thinks they are relevant.

We find out Sylvia was once married to Villecourt, but she ran away with our narrator and took a hugely valuable diamond with her. The pair hoped to sell it to someone who was rich enough to afford their asking price of more than a million — Francs? American dollars? It’s not specified, but it’s a lot of money.

For days and days, Sylvia and I had been waiting, motionless in places people were moving through: hotel bars and lobbies, café tables along the Promenade des Anglais. It seems to me now that we were weaving a gigantic, invisible spiderweb and waiting for someone to find their way into it.

Stumbling into the “web” comes a rich American, Virgil Neale, and his English wife, Barbara, who befriend the young French couple and court them with dinners out and invites for coffee. Later, comes a generous offer to buy the diamond which Sylvia wears around her neck, too scared to leave it unattended in the shabby pension they are living in.

Neal asked Sylvia, “So, you really want to sell your diamond?”
He leaned over to her and took the stone between his thumb and index finger, to examine it more closely. Then he gently placed it back onto her black sweater. I chalked it up to the offhand way Americans had. Sylvia hadn’t budged an inch; she looked off in another direction as if trying to ignore Neal’s gesture.
“Yes, we do,” I said.

From this one conversation, a series of events unfold in which things do not go according to plan — for either party.

Evocative and atmospheric

Sundays in August is an incredibly atmospheric tale and there’s a feeling of foreboding throughout. Who are the mysterious Neals? Where does Villecourt fit into the picture? And why has our narrator returned to the scene of the crime some seven years later?

The last few chapters deliver most of the answers, but even so, there’s no neat resolution; the reader is left to make up their own mind about what transpired.

What I loved most about Sundays in August is the way the narrative keeps shape-shifting so that the reader is never quite sure who to trust. Is the narrator reliable, for instance? (Plot spoiler: I think he is.)

Through the use of carefully timed flashbacks and foreshadowing, Modiano delivers a superlative story arc that comes completely full circle so that it’s not until the very end that we can see how the events that occurred seven years earlier played out.

I totally loved this book. It does everything I look for in a crime novella. It has great, morally dubious characters, snap-fire dialogue, a slow build-up of suspense, an evocative setting, expert plotting and an unpredictable storyline. Five stars.

Patrick Modiano is fast becoming a favourite author; my other reviews of his work are here.

2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Literary prizes

The 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award shortlist

Farewell Stella Prize reading season, hello Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award reading season!

Yes, no sooner does one literary prize announce its winner than another reveals a shortlist — albeit on opposite sides of the world! My favourite literary prize — the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award, which I’ve been following since 2017 — has unveiled its shortlist^^ of five novels.

This award, which is worth €20,000 to the winner, has previously introduced me to some very fine Irish fiction, including Nuala O’Connor’s Nora, Lisa Harding’s Bright Burning Things, Anakana Schofield’s Bina and Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier. In fact, I don’t think I have ever come across a dud novel shortlisted for this prize.

Last year, Claire Keegan won the award for her novella Small Things Like These.

This year’s judges, Patrick Gale and Manveen Rana, have a lot to live up to! They have selected five novels (from more than 50 submitted), which all look tempting. I’ve previously read one, Trespasses by Louise Kennedy, and I have The Colony and The Amusements on my TBR already, so my usual mission to read everything on the shortlist should be straightforward.

Here’s the shortlist, arranged in alphabetical order by author surname, with the publisher’s synopsis underneath:

‘The Witches of Vardø’ by Anya Bergman

Norway, 1662. A dangerous time to be a woman, when even dancing can lead to accusations of witchcraft. After recently widowed Zigri’s affair with the local merchant is discovered, she is sent to the fortress at Vardø to be tried as a witch. Zigri’s daughter Ingeborg sets off into the wilderness to try to bring her mother back home. Accompanying her on this quest is Maren – herself the daughter of a witch – whose wild nature and unconquerable spirit gives Ingeborg the courage to venture into the unknown, and to risk all she has to save her family. Also captive in the fortress is Anna Rhodius, once the King of Denmark’s mistress, who has been sent in disgrace to the island of Vardø. What will she do – and who will she betray – to return to her privileged life at court? These Witches of Vardø are stronger than even the King. In an age weighted against them, they refuse to be victims. They will have their justice. All they need do is show their power.

‘The Geometer Lobachevsky’ by Adrian Duncan

It is 1950 and Nikolai Lobachevsky, great-grandson of his illustrious namesake, is surveying a bog in the Irish Midlands, where he studies the locals, the land and their ways. One afternoon, soon after he arrives, he receives a telegram calling him back to Leningrad for a ‘special appointment’. Lobachevsky may not be a great genius but he is not foolish: he recognises a death sentence when he sees one and leaves to go into hiding on a small island in the Shannon estuary, where the island families harvest seaweed and struggle to split rocks. Here Lobachevsky must think about death, how to avoid it and whether he will ever see his home again.

‘The Amusements’ by Aingeala Flannery

In the seaside town of Tramore, County Waterford, visitors arrive in waves with the tourist season, reliving the best days of their childhoods in its caravan parks, chippers and amusement arcades. Local teenager Helen Grant is indifferent to the charm of her surroundings; she dreams of escaping to art college with her glamorous classmate Stella Swaine and, from there, taking on the world. But leaving Tramore is easier said than done. Though they don’t yet know it, Helen and Stella’s lives are pulled by tides beyond their control. Following the Grant and Swaine families and their neighbours over three decades, The Amusements is a luminous and unforgettable story about roads taken and not taken – and a brilliantly observed portrait of a small-town community.

‘Trespasses’ by Louise Kennedy

There is nothing special about the day Cushla meets Michael, a married man from Belfast, in the pub owned by her family. But here, love is never far from violence, and this encounter will change both of their lives forever. As people get up each morning and go to work, school, church or the pub, the daily news rolls in of another car bomb exploded, another man beaten, killed or left for dead. In the class Cushla teaches, the vocabulary of seven-year-old children now includes phrases like ‘petrol bomb’ and ‘rubber bullets’. And as she is forced to tread lines she never thought she would cross, tensions in the town are escalating, threatening to destroy all she is working to hold together. Tender and shocking, Trespasses is an unforgettable debut of people trying to live ordinary lives in extraordinary times.

‘The Colony’ by Audrey Magee

He handed the easel to the boatman, reaching down the pier wall towards the sea. Mr Lloyd has decided to travel to the island by boat without an engine – the authentic experience. Unbeknownst to him, Mr Masson will also soon be arriving for the summer. Both will strive to encapsulate the truth of this place – one in his paintings, the other by capturing its speech, the language he hopes to preserve. But the people who live on this rock – three miles long and half a mile wide – have their own views on what is being recorded, what is being taken and what is given in return. Soft summer days pass, and the islanders are forced to question what they value and what they desire. As the autumn beckons, and the visitors head home, there will be a reckoning.

Do keep coming back to this post as I will update the hyperlinks as and when I review each title.

You can read more about the prize via the official announcement.

Have you read any of these novels? Or is there anything on the list that particularly intrigues you?

^^ No longlist is announced for this annual prize. Instead, a shortlist is revealed about a month before Listowel Writers’ Week — Ireland’s oldest literary festival — and the winner is named on the opening night of the festival. This year the festival runs from 31st May to 4th June.

2023 Stella Prize, Literary prizes, News

2023 Stella Prize winner announced

Congratulations to Sarah Holland-Batt on winning this year’s Stella Prize for her poetry collection The Jaguar, which I reviewed favourably here 

She takes home $60,000 thanks to the generous support of the Wilson Foundation.

According to the chair of the judging panel, Alice Pung, the author “writes about death as tenderly as we’ve ever read about birth”,  adding:

She focuses on the pedestrian details of hospitals and aged care facilities, enabling us to see these institutions as distinct universes teeming with life and love. Her imagery is unexpected and unforgettable, and often blended with humour. This is a book that cuts through to the core of what it means to descend into frailty, old age, and death. It unflinchingly observes the complex emotions of caring for loved ones, contending with our own mortality and above all – continuing to live.

You can read the full announcement, made tonight, on the Stella Prize website.

This is the second year in a row that a poetry collection has won. Last year that honour went to Evelyn Araluen’s debut collection of prose and poetry, Dropbear.

2023 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, Book review, Debra Dank, Echo, Literary prizes, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting

‘We Come with This Place’ by Debra Dank

Non-fiction – paperback; Echo Publishing; 252 pages; 2022.

Debra Dank’s We Come with This Place is a love letter to Country and family.

A brilliantly evocative memoir about place and culture, it explores Australia’s dark history and the special connection First Nations people have with Country — that is, the lands, waterways and seas to which they are connected.

It takes us on a wondrous adventure out bush, but it also shows us the terrible injustices inflicted on First Nations people and the violence that underpins Australian history. And yet, this is not a misery memoir. It’s hopeful, even joyous in places, and it brims with an intense love for Aboriginal culture and traditions.

Our story is etched into the rocks and it whispers through the trees and with our kin who are more than human. The wind tells it, sometimes strolling gently, sometimes bellowing from cavernous, dark, felt places, where eyes do not see, and only our goodalu can feel.

Warm and generous

Based on Dank’s PhD in Narrative Theory and Semiotics, We Come with This Place is written in a spirit of generosity and is warm-hearted, tender and humorous.

It mixes autobiography with intergenerational family history and First Nations storytelling. (The dreaming tale of three water-women “who came out of the salt water to the north-east of Gudanji Country” is a recurring refrain.)

It gives us a glimpse of another way of life, one in which relationships — with plants, animals, landscapes and ancestors — are crucial and grounded in reciprocity. And where family ties and kinship are key.

As a child I sat with my two sisters and our mum and dad at the fire, watching the gidgea logs burn to coals that could cook a nice, charred edge on a goanna. This night, though, it would be chunks of the recently killed bullock charring on gidgea. The gidgea burned and its dry heat worked its way under our skin and smoothed the dryness already there from the sun, becoming an extra layer of warmth. There was often a chill in the air at night in this place. We sat in company with our old stories, living our new stories and speaking our place into them where they came together. Our dad didn’t often waste air with words, he practised a silence that let other stories be told, so as we sat with the gidgea, we learned to hear and feel those stories waiting in the gaps between the noise.

The narrative is not told in chronological order; instead, it comprises a mix of vignettes, stories and anecdotes which move back and forth in time and cover Dank’s upbringing on remote Queensland cattle stations, her parent’s troubled but loving marriage, her own marriage (to a white man) and the ways in which her grandparents guided her and passed on traditional knowledge and how she, herself, is doing the same with her own grandchildren.

Her father’s story

Much of the memoir focuses on her father, Soda, with whom she has a close but complex relationship. She details his brilliant skills as a horseman and station hand (he could fix anything despite never being trained) and his deep knowledge of Country.

But she also reveals how the trauma of racist violence runs deep. The hardships and horrendous experiences he endured throughout his life (he witnessed, for instance, the brutal rape of his mother by station men when she stood up for herself and refused to return to her place of work), using this as a prism through which to view so many injustices experienced by First Nations people.

As a memoir about resilience, identity and family, We Come with This Place — which has been shortlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize is heartfelt and honest. It should be required reading for all Australians. I adored it.

Debra Dank is a Gudanji/Wakaja woman who has almost 40 years of experience as an educator. She has worked in schools and universities across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the Northern Territory.

This is my third book for the 2023 Stella Prize. I am trying to read as many as I can from the shortlist before the winner is named on 27 April 2023. I also read this book for my #ReadingFirstNationsWriters project, which you can read more about here. All the books reviewed for this project are on my dedicated First Nations Writers page

2023 Stella Prize, Adriane Howell, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘Hydra’ by Adriane Howell

Fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 256 pages; 2022.

Adriane Howell’s novel Hydra is all kinds of strange and wonderful, an artful blend of Australian Gothic and black comedy, with a dash of sad girl tale and folklore thrown in for good measure.

It is the least predictable thing I have read in a long time and it wrong-footed me at almost every turn. This is a good thing because I love it when a story takes me in an unfamiliar direction and throws up surprises in unexpected places.

The quirky story is narrated by Anja, a young Melbourne-based antiquarian specialising in mid-century furniture. She works in an auction house that runs estate auctions, “ransacking dead people’s houses” to profiteer from their good furniture and valuable belongings.

When we first meet her we learn she is grieving the death of her mother. Her short-lived marriage has also broken down following a holiday to the Greek island of Hydra. And she’s constantly bickering with her rival at work, Fran, who provokes her by sitting in her seat and making snide comments about her attire.

Anja, it seems, holds grudges, is cynical and bad-tempered. But she does dream big and wants to advance her career by introducing a new taxonomic system for buyers and sellers in which furniture is classified on the emotional response it evokes — suggesting Anja is either naive or narcissistic.

Then, when she behaves badly at work, tussling with a client over a rare (and supposedly famous) chair that she refuses to sell, she loses her job.

Taking the small inheritance she has from her mother, she flees the city and moves into a secluded cottage on the fringes of a naval base. She dreams of growing her own vegetables and living a quiet life, but the lack of internet access and the sudden appearance of strange “gifts” — foul-smelling human excrement, a mangled rabbit with its guts spilling out — on her doorstep puts paid to that idea.

Her isolation now begins to feel claustrophobic and her behaviour becomes increasingly unpredictable and unhinged. The demons within and the demons outwith seem to be conspiring against her.

Anja’s narrative, which features elements of backstory, including her ill-fated trip to Greece, is interspersed with classified naval documents, hinting at a mysterious investigation dating back to 1986. When the two narrative threads come together, the “a-ha!” moment it delivers is a delicious revelation.

Hydra is a truly original and entertaining read. In its depiction of a woman losing her grip on reality, it reminded me a little of Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss and Ella Baxter’s New Animal. But it’s a refreshing take on an urban myth and deserves wide plaudits — and maybe, just maybe, Australia’s top literary prize for women writers.

For other takes on this novel, please see Kate’s review and Lisa’s review.

This is my second book for the 2023 Stella Prize. I am trying to read as many as I can from the shortlist before the winner is named on 27 April 2023. 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Elena Ferrante, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Troubling Love’ by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 139 pages; 2006. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Reading Elena Ferrante’s debut novel Troubling Love is like stumbling into a dark, oppressive world of mother-daughter relationships, misogyny, domestic violence and grief.

Sometimes it’s hard to know which way is up because the story melds past and present so effectively. And the daughter — 45-year-old Delia — who narrates the tale looks so much like her mother that she often imagines they are one and the same person.

The book, which was first published in 1999, opens in dramatic style:

My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno. […] My mother had taken the train for Rome two days earlier, on May 21st, and never arrived.

This gritty, detective-like tale is told from Delia’s perspective. She’s an independent woman who lives in Naples and makes her living as a comic strip artist. The eldest of three daughters, she has little to do with her younger sisters, who are married and busy with their own lives in different cities, and is estranged from her father who had been separated from her mother for more than 20 years.

The Europa edition, published in 2022

When she gets news of her mother’s death, she begins a quest to discover what happened. She wonders whether she had succumbed to foul play or died accidentally or by her own hand. The first clue is a bewildering phone call that her mother made on the night she was supposed to be in Rome:

My mother [Amalia] said in a calm voice that she couldn’t tell me anything: there was a man with her who was preventing her. Then she started laughing and hung up.

As Delia traces her mother’s last known movements, she’s drawn into the most intimate aspects of Amalia’s life. Why was she wearing an elegant new bra (and nothing else) when her body was found? Why is all her old tattered and mended underwear in a half-full garbage bag in her bathroom? Why is there a man’s smart blue dress shirt in her bedroom? And who was the man she was referring to when she made that call?

To determine the answers to these questions Delia embarks on a journey through the claustrophobic streets of Naples and into her mother’s unhappy past. Along the way, she’s forced to confront her own painful childhood in which she regularly saw her father beat up her mother, where his need for coercive control made her dress shabbily “to placate the jealousy of my father” and where he often accused her of dalliances that never occurred.

A bleak world

The book treads some dark territory, highlighting how women cannot be their authentic selves when living in a violent, patriarchal society, and most of the male characters are ugly, menacing and deeply misogynistic. Sometimes it feels heavy-handed, almost as if everyone in the story is a caricature — even Delia seems unknowable.

But the cinematic force of the prose pulls the reader along into a bleak world where separating facts from lies becomes increasingly more difficult. Are Delia’s recollections of the past reliable, for instance, and how can a child possibly know every aspect of a parent’s adult life?

There’s a dark secret at the heart of Troubling Love that comes like a sucker punch to the stomach, making this a truly memorable and astonishingly powerful first novel.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Patrick Modiano, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘Missing Person’ by Patrick Modiano (translated by Daniel Weissbort)

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 176 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Daniel Weissbort.

Are we the product of our past? Or is it how we lead our lives now that forms our identity?

These are the questions at the heart of Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person, originally published in French as Rue des Boutiques Obscures (which means “The Street of Dark Shops”) in 1978 and translated into English by Daniel Weissbort in 1980. Modiano, of course, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014; this novel earned him the Prix Goncourt literary prize in the year of publication.

In this languid, dreamlike tale (easily read in one or two sittings), a detective, plagued by amnesia for almost 20 years, tries to establish his own identity when the agency he works for shuts down. Now, with time on his hands, Guy Roland can investigate his past, to work out who he was before he lost his memory.

With just an old photograph to guide him on his way, Guy’s inquiries lead him on a long, winding trail of clues right back to the Second World War. (The book is set in 1965.) Throughout, it’s never clear if his research is reliable or not. He begins to imagine that every new name he unearths in documents or via hearsay or through conversations with “witnesses” may, in fact, be him.

Is it really my life I’m tracking down? Or someone else’s into which I have somehow infiltrated myself?

His quest takes him from Paris to Rome and later ends on the South Pacific Island of Bora Bora. Along the way, he begins to establish a vast array of key figures from his past life, including Russian immigrants, bartenders, a pianist, a jockey, a Hollywood actor and a French model likely to have been his girlfriend.

Clues suggest he may have been a diplomatic minister for the Dominican Republic and that he used this identity to escape the German Occupation of Paris during the war. But maybe he is just imagining it. The lines between what is real and what is not constantly shift and change and blur to the point of being indistinguishable.

The book’s economical prose style and the careful moving forward of the plot largely through dialogue makes this a fast-paced read, part detective thriller, part literary mystery.

The recurring motifs — a billiard table, a black-and-white photograph, a taxi and snatches of tunes – lend the narrative a gentle, hypnotic quality as Guy’s quest inches ever closer to the truth.

Missing Person is an excellent, thought-provoking look at memory, human connections, experience and our search for meaning. It doesn’t provide easy answers — plot spoiler: nothing is neatly tied up at the end — and so it’s up to the reader to figure out what happened and whether the past, lost in a “black hole”, is as important as Guy believes it to be.

memoir, Non-fiction, Allen & Unwin, Greece, Susan Johnson, Author, Setting, Publisher, Book review

‘Aphrodite’s Breath’ by Susan Johnson

Non-fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 368 pages; 2023. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

There’s a long tradition of people heading abroad to try living in a different country and then writing about it. But I’d wager few have embarked on such an adventure with their 85-year-old widowed mother in tow.

This is what the Australian writer Susan Johnson did when she decided to move from Brisbane, Australia, to the Greek island of Kythera — the birthplace of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty.

Aphrodite’s Breath, subtitled “A mother and daughter’s Greek island adventure”, is a frank and funny memoir. It’s as much about the island’s culture, landscape, history and people as it is about the mother-daughter relationship and the tensions that threaten to unravel it.

The narrative, which spans a couple of years, moves from Brisbane to Greece and back again, via side trips to Paris and London, with the threat of the pandemic somewhere in the middle.

But it’s the first few months of the adventure that pose the greatest challenges. The pre-arranged car doesn’t eventuate, the rented house lacks modern amenities and the winter weather is perishingly cold and unforgivably windy. Then there’s the whole language barrier.

And mother and daughter don’t always see eye to eye about everything.

Mother-daughter tensions

Much of the book deals with the inherent and unspoken tensions within the relationship: Susan is a dutiful daughter who always thinks of her mother’s comfort; Barbara, who is used to the finer things in life, is flinty, headstrong and opinionated.

The more time they spend in each other’s company, the more Susan realises their differences. It comes to a head with a fiery argument only two months into their stay: Barbara wants to go home.

I know I had benefited from many advantages that Mum never had, most notably a university education, and I was forced to examine whether I was guilty of implying my tastes and opinions were superior to hers. As far as I could tell, apart from being a smartypants and falling into womansplaining, I hadn’t paraded any supposed supremacy over her but had done my best to secure her ease and comfort.

Barbara does get her own way in the end, returning home to Australia, but Susan remains in Greece, working on the edits of her previous book (From Where I Fell, reviewed here), writing this one, befriending the locals — a wonderfully varied cast of characters — and embarking on a short-lived romance.

Her reflections on this new life are forthright, unflinchingly honest and often self-deprecating.

Equally, her analysis of what makes a writer and how the art of writing can lay bare the truth at the expense of friends and loved ones is open and candid. Here’s how she puts it in the prologue:

If to photograph people is to violate them, as Susan Sontag suggests, turning them into objects hat can be symbolically possessed, what does writing them do? Perhaps even before we left home, I was the violator, my mother the violated.

Island life

But it’s Susan’s deeply felt personal connection to Kythera, a place she first visited in her youth, that really transforms this memoir into something that feels meaningful and passionate.

That first dawn, the sun lying pale in the sky as if dipped in water, as if it was not lying in the sky at all but in the sea. The village outlined, on the opposite hill, against the dawn sky, the singular cut of trees, buildings, stones; timeless, ancient. In the watery morning sun I wandered down the stony road, emerging into the rustle of pine trees, the wind rising, the sound like the breaking of waves upon an unseen ocean. The fizzing of electricity in the powerlines. The fizzing of my blood.

Her descriptions of the island, its culture and its people are vivid and lyrical (as the above quote attests).

Her interest in history, sense of curiosity and journalistic eye for a story have her tracing the tragic life of Rosina Kasmati, the daughter of one of Kythera’s wealthiest families, who was committed to a psychiatric institution in the mid-19th century after her marriage to an upper-class Irishman fell apart. The couple’s second son, Lafcardio Hearn, became a famous writer (Wikipedia entry here).

Susan’s own personal tragedies mark the end of Aphrodite’s Breath  (tissues are required), but this is a luminous, life-affirming memoir with all the qualities of a finely crafted novel.

Finally, in the spirit of transparency, I know the author personally, but this has not influenced my review. I was surprised to see my name (alongside dozens of others) mentioned in the Acknowledgements!

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, general, Laurie Petrou, Publisher, Setting, Verve Books

‘Stargazer’ by Laurie Petrou

Fiction – paperback; Verve Books; 275 pages; 2022.

Question: What is the best way to describe Canadian writer Laurie Petrou’s latest novel Stargazer?

Answer: Rich, white girls behaving badly.

It’s a relatively trashy read, but it’s compelling in the same way “rubber-neckers” find a car crash by the side of the road compelling. I ate it up in two afternoons over Easter.

Set in the 1990s, the story is about a super-close female friendship between two teenagers that morphs into something a bit more dangerous and obsessive. Think Single White Female meets Heavenly Creatures and you’ll be in the right ballpark.

Twisted sisters

Diana Martin and Aurelle Taylor live next door to each other in Toronto and go to the same school, but they are not friends.

Aurelle’s mother, Marianne, is a fashion designer whose brand MT (aka “empty”) is beloved by young people across the world. She’s regularly featured on TV and in celebrity news outlets, and she uses Aurelle, who is petite and pretty and blonde, to market her products even though Aurelle would much rather hide under a rock: she hates having a famous mother.

Meanwhile, Diana, who is starved of love and attention from her own parents and badly bullied by her older brother, spies on her neighbours from her bedroom window and desperately wishes she could join the Taylor family. Fate eventually steps in (via two personal tragedies) and the two become friends. Diana spends so much time at the Taylor house, she’s regarded as a second daughter.

Later, both attend the picturesque Rocky Barrens University, in the forests of Northern Ontario: Aurelle, to study literature; Diana, to study art. Unlike most of their fellow students who live on campus, the pair move into a share house (which belongs to Diana’s parents) on the other side of a lake, which affords them the privacy to carry out their co-dependent friendship. There are lots of parties, drugs, raves — and sporting endeavours. Diana loves to row and swim and run; Aurelle less so.

Cracks appear

But their intertwined lives begin to slowly unravel when Diana gets noticed for her artistic potential: the portraits she has painted of Aurelle could be her ticket to stardom, and Toronto gallery owners and art dealers are lining up to court her. Even Marianne is sitting up and paying attention: could Diana achieve the same level of celebrity success she herself has attained?

Meanwhile, Aurelle is increasingly unhappy about being Diana’s muse and becoming wearisome of the closeness Diana is developing with her mother. She escapes into drugs and alcohol, but everyone seems oblivious to the red flags she is flying.

Of course, it all comes to a dramatic, over-the-top, not very realistic head, but it’s a fun ride to get there.

High-brow literature? No. An entertaining read? Yes. Would I read more by this author? Probably, if the mood was right and I was looking for something fast-paced, well plotted and full of entitled characters.

I’m chalking up Stargazer as a perfect beach or holiday read.

2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Bloomsbury Circus, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Louise Kennedy, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting

‘Trespasses’ by Louise Kennedy

Fiction – Kindle edition; Bloomsbury Circus; 320 pages; 2022.

Winner of the An Post Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year 2022 and shortlisted for a slew of other awards, Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses is the tale of a doomed love affair set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles.

Every second person in the world seems to have read it — and loved it. But as much as I enjoyed it on a superficial level, I found the storyline predictable and cliched.

At one point, Cushla Lavery, the main character, tells her lover: “This is going to end badly, isn’t it?” And I wondered why it had taken her so long to figure it out because when a young woman falls for an older married man it never really ends well.

Throw in the complexities of their religious divide — she’s Catholic, he’s Protestant — class differences and a bloody and violent sectarian war playing out around them, then the chance of a happy-ever-after seems particularly far-fetched. But maybe I’m being harsh — or too cynical.

A secret affair

The main story is about Cushla’s clandestine relationship with Michael Agnew, an older married man she meets in the “garrison town” pub owned by her family. She’s from working-class Catholic stock and teaches at the local primary school. He’s an Ulster protestant and works as a criminal barrister in Belfast.

But there are subsidiary storylines that showcase other aspects of Cushla’s life and go some way to explain why she’s embarked on a forbidden relationship.

These include looking after her widowed mother, Gina, who is an alcoholic and sometimes can’t even get out of bed she’s so drunk or hungover; working evenings in the pub run by her brother Eamonn and having to serve the clientele, some of which are British soldiers; and taking an outside interest in the care of one of her young students, seven-year-old Davy McGeown, whose father is the victim of a particularly vicious attack by paramilitaries. This all place demands on her time and her inner resources, so that there is little left for her; she’s too busy mothering everyone else.

Did Cushla fancy Michael because he was the only man she knew who didn’t talk incessantly about his mummy?

A friendship with a male teacher, Gerry Devlin, who many think is her boyfriend, acts as a convenient cover. But many of her rendezvous with Michael happen out in the open when he draws her into his sophisticated circle of friends by inviting her along to teach them the Irish language.

One-sided relationship

But right from the start the relationship is one-sided and we know next to nothing about Michael, except that he has had many affairs and he’s the one that calls the shots:

He would never give her more than this. For her there would just be liaisons arranged an hour or two in advance, couplings in lay-bys, evenings at his friends’ house under unconvincing pretexts. When her thoughts flitted – briefly – to his wife, the guilt at what she was doing to her did not take.

What makes their relationship seem even more reckless is the frisson of danger that infects the whole city in an “unspeakable war”. The threat of death, from bombs and guns, is on every page. Some chapters open with a series of news headlines — about deadly explosions and arrests and caches of weapons being found — to hammer home the point that this affair is happening in a war zone.

This death and violence are so normalised that the pair never discuss how Michael’s job paints him as a terrorist target…

As a story of a woman navigating multiple battlefields, Trespasses is an entertaining read.

It’s largely told as a series of vignettes, with the affair underpinning the narrative. But because I knew exactly where that narrative was headed, some of the vignettes felt like filler. That said, the denouement is suitably powerful and shocking and leaves a lasting impression.

I liked the book, I just didn’t love it.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Shadows on Our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston: through the eyes of a young Derry schoolboy, this gently nuanced novel shows what it is like to grow up while The Troubles rage around you.

‘Lies of Silence’ by Brian Moore: A heart-hammering tale set during The Troubles in which the IRA orders a hotel manager to park a car in the hotel’s car park. If he refuses, his wife, who has been taken captive, will be murdered.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth23, which runs throughout March. I’m a little behind so that’s why this review is more than a week late. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Update 1 May 2023: This book has been shortlisted for the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year. I am attempting to read all the books on the shortlist before the winner is announced at the end of May. This qualifies as the first book read (out of a total of five).