Author, Book review, Brian Moore, Cristina Henríquez, Five fast reviews, Joseph Kanon, Muriel Spark, Tiziano Scarpa

Five Fast Reviews: Cristina Henriquez, Joseph Kanon, Brian Moore, Tiziano Scarpa and Muriel Spark

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‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henriquez

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Contemporaries; 286 pages; 2015.

The-book-of-unknown-americansI read Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans for my book group, but it also fitted in quite nicely with #DiverseDecember. It’s a timely story about immigration — to the USA from Latin America — and the challenges those immigrants face on a daily basis.

Written in a light, almost “frothy” style, the novel follows the fortunes of a wide cast of characters in two families. Each character takes it in turn to tell their version of events, but there are also several chapters written as stand-alone “testimonials” by others that have also immigrated to the US. This structure serves to create a clamour of voices that show the ups and downs of moving to a new country and trying to fit in.

The blurb on the back of my edition claims it’s a love story between two teenagers — the brain-damaged Maribel Rivera, who has immigrated with her family to seek specialist education and treatment for her condition, and her neighbour Mayor Toro — and that’s partly true, but the book is more about showcasing life as an immigrant in the US, where the road isn’t always paved with gold and where racism and victimisation is always on the doorstep.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t particularly enamoured of this novel. I didn’t like the structure and thought the themes were overly simplified. But don’t take my word for it — many in my book group really liked it and it’s been a commercial and critical success in the US, where it was named a New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book, an NPR Great Read, and named one of the best books of the year by Oprah.com, School Library Journal, and BookPage.

‘Alibi’ by Joseph Kanon

Fiction – paperback; Sphere; 416 pages; 2007.

Alibi by Joseph KanonFor those of you who follow me on social media — and Instagram in particular — you will know I spent Christmas in Venice. It was my fourth visit to the watery city, and this time it was very much about the food and the drink, rather than the architecture and the walking (although there was plenty of that too). I packed Joseph Kanon’s Alibi in my suitcase, because I always love to read books set in the places I’m visiting, and this one certainly didn’t disappoint.

It’s largely billed as a murder mystery, but it feels more like literary fiction than anything else. It’s certainly intelligent, and the crime at its heart is almost too complex to follow, but it’s the scene setting — Venice in 1946, when everyone’s trying to deal with the outfall of the war —  which makes it such a great read. The characterisation is spot on too, especially the leads: Adam Miller, a traumatised war crimes investigator who has left the US Army and is now visiting his widowed mother in Venice,  and Claudia, an Italian Jew, who survived the death camps, with whom he falls in love.

The story, which is fast-paced and compelling (I read it in the space of two days, because I just had to know what happens next), is very much about love, forgiveness, war and moral culpability (one of my favourite themes in fiction and non-fiction). It brought to mind Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon, which I read — and loved — years ago. This was my first Joseph Kanon; it won’t be my last.

‘Lies of Silence’ by Brian Moore

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury Classics; 192 pages; 1995.

Lies of Silence by Brian MooreFirst published in 1990, Lies of Silence is one of those novels I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. I’ve had this little Bloomsbury Classic edition in my TBR pile for years, so when I was casting about for something quick and compelling to read it seemed like a good fit: I wasn’t wrong. From the first word, this is the kind of gripping read that makes your pulse race…

Set during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, it thrusts one man into a moral quandary: on the day he plans to tell his wife he’s leaving her for another, much younger, woman, the IRA orders him to park a car in the car park of the Belfast hotel he manages. Without knowing the specifics, he believes the vehicle contains a bomb. But if he refuses to carry out the task, his wife, who has been taken captive, will be murdered; if he does what he’s told hundreds of hotels guests will be killed by the ensuing explosion. Whichever course of action he takes, there will be far-reaching and deadly repercussions…

In this intelligent, well paced novel, we see the themes of sacrifice, love, religion and war play out on a relatively small canvas. It is not your average psychological thriller. Yes, it’s a real page turner, but the prose style, almost old fashioned with an undercurrent of menace to it, lends it a literary feel. I loved it.

‘Venice is a Fish’ by Tiziano Scarpa

Non-fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 137 pages; 2009. Translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside.

Venice is a Fish by Tiziano ScarpaThis is another book that I read while I was in Venice. Written by a native Venetian, it has real Italian flair: the writing is fresh and original, and much of the anecdotes contained within are humorous and (sometimes) surreal. It is strangely bewitching and, hands down, the most innovative book about Venice I’ve ever read.

Scarpa’s main thesis is that Venice is so beautiful — her paintings, her architecture, her canals — that the visitor can be inflicted with a disease known as “aesthetic radioactivity”, an idea that is pushed so much it soon becomes wearing. However, the book is filled with some good factual information of the historical variety — this isn’t a guide book telling you which hotel to stay in or what restaurant to eat at.

It’s divided into short chapters which are themed around the ways in which the visitor experiences the city. For instance, the first chapter entitled “feet” is about experiencing Venice on foot, “ears” explores the city’s noises and “nose” is about smell, and so on. My favourite, and the one that came in most handy for my trip, was “mouth”, which gave me the courage to order authentic Venetian food (rather than typical pasta and pizza) when out dining. Indeed, it’s thanks to Venice is a Fish that I soon developed an addiction to sarde in saór: fried sardines marinated in a sautéed mixture of onions, wine, vinegar, pine nuts and raisins. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it…

(Note, the book could benefit from a Table of Contents and an index, and the last 40 pages fail to be clearly labelled as appendices.)

Territorial Rights’ by Muriel Spark

Fiction – paperback; Virago Modern Classic; 224 pages; 2014.

Territorial Rights by Muriel SparkTerritorial Rights is one of Muriel Spark‘s lesser-known novels — and, as I soon found out, there might be a reason for that. I read it on the basis it was set in Venice, so would be perfect holiday fare. To some extent that’s true: this was a very easy read, one that felt frothy and light and gave me several good belly laughs. But the storyline is absolutely bonkers.

I know that Spark’s plots are always a bit crazy and that her characters are often absurd and strange, but this one was filled with so many oddballs and misfits, all carrying on in weird and often abysmal ways, that I couldn’t keep track of who was doing what and why. And the ending, after all that hilarity, was also a bit of a let down.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book — it’s just that there are better Spark novels to spend your time with. But if you like farces, washed down with a good dose of eccentricity, you’d be hard pressed to find anything as perfect as this.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Muriel Spark, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘The Driver’s Seat’ by Muriel Spark

DriversSeat

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 128 pages; 2006.

Oooh, my goodness, the late Muriel Spark did a fine line in totally batty, off-the-wall characters, didn’t she? In this novella, first published in 1970 (and recently long-listed for the the Lost Man Booker Prize), she introduces us to the 30-something Lise, who escapes her boring office job for a holiday to “the South”. Except this is no ordinary holiday — and Lise is no ordinary office worker.

From the outset she behaves in inexplicable ways. When she throws a complete strop in a clothes shop for what seems like a very odd reason indeed — she didn’t like knowing that the dress she wanted to buy was made from stain-resistant material — the reader immediately wonders whether Lise is highly strung or simply a bit weird. When she returns to the office and begins to laugh hysterically and then starts “crying all in a flood” you think maybe she’s just hormonal.

But later, when she eventually buys the outfit she wants to take away with her, a garishly designed dress comprising “a lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright V’s of orange, mauve and blue” and a clashing summer coat featuring narrow stripes of red and white, with a white collar, you realise she’s just completely barmy. This opinion is cemented when Lise tells the disbelieving sales assistant that:

The colours go together perfectly. People here in the North are ignorant of colours. Conservative; old-fashioned. If only you knew! These colours are a natural blend for me. Absolutely natural.

Oh yes, Lise is a nutter. And you just know her trip to the Continent is going to be filled with one narrow escapade after another.

And this is where I break one of my reviewing rules and reveal a plot spoiler, so if you don’t wish to know what happens next, can I suggest you skip ahead to the very last paragraph.

Just when you are looking forward to finding out how the supposedly well-travelled Lise is going to negotiate a foreign culture wearing such a hideous combination of clothes, Spark introduces a curve-ball. You are only on page 25 and Lise hasn’t even got on the plane, when you find out that she will be murdered:

She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.

Right-o. So, immediately, the tension gets ratcheted up a few notches because you want to know how Lise meets her sorry demise. And so you follow her shenanigans with a weird mix of fear and fascination, because even though she’s a screwball character you don’t want her to die.

And that, I suppose, is the magic of this wonderful book. It’s only 107 pages long and easily read in one sitting, but it is such a masterpiece of plotting and suspense that you wonder how Spark achieved it in so few a words. Everything is pared down to the bare minimum without losing that sense of excitement and sheer horror as Lise bumbles her way through the streets of an unnamed European city.

The Driver’s Seat is terribly dark fodder, but I loved every moment. I don’t think it will win the Lost Booker, if only because it’s so short and is over before you’ve even begun it, but it’s definitely a book that demands a second or third reading to see if you can discover exactly how Lise plotted her journey of self-destruction.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Muriel Spark, Publisher, Setting, Virago

‘A Far Cry From Kensington’ by Muriel Spark

FarCry

Fiction – hardcover; Virago Modern Classics; 208 pages; 2008.

The late Muriel Spark is one of those writers whose back catalogue is so long and eclectic it’s almost impossible to know where to start. I read Aiding and Abetting last year, because I was intrigued by the real life disappearance of Lord Lucan upon which the novel is based. Having seen KevinfromCanada’s glowing review of A Far Cry From Kensington last month I decided this novel, first published in 1988, was the next to try.

I treated myself to a lovely Virago Modern Classics edition, featuring an introduction by Ali Smith, and found myself reading the entire book in just two longish sittings. To say I was utterly charmed by it would probably be an understatement. This is a deliciously enjoyable story that is so perfectly constructed it’s almost impossible to find fault with it — on any level. The prose is simple, the characters believable and the plot expertly drawn, so that you’re never quite sure where it’s going to take you and then feel overwhelmingly satisfied when you arrive at its destination.

The story is narrated by Mrs Hawkins, a war widow, looking back on her life in London some 30 years earlier when, in 1954, she lived in a South Kensington rooming house and worked in publishing. She was only 28 at the time but had a matronly air about her.

There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in me. I looked comfortable.

Even her boss, Martin York, of the struggling publishing firm Ullswater Press, confides in her, inviting her to his office for a minute (“A minute meant an hour, sometimes more”), where he would stand at his window, or sit in his leather armchair, and regale her with his thoughts. (Despite his confiding tone, he never reveals that he’s carrying out fraudulent activities for which he’s later arrested and imprisoned for seven years.)

But her forthright manner and her maxim that “no life can be carried on satisfactorily unless people are honest” lands her in hot water. When a purple-prosed would-be writer, Hector Bartlett, starts stalking her in order to get his work published by Ullswater Press, she tells him in no uncertain terms that he is a pisseur de copie, a French phrase for a hack writer who urinates copy. Unfortunately, for Mrs Hawkins, Mr Bartlett is having an affair with a well regarded author, Emma Loy, who has a lot of powerful sway in the book industry. You can guess what happens. Mrs Hawkins not only loses her job, her candid admission (and Mr Bartlett) follows her wherever she goes, and comes back to haunt her in more ways than one…

Meanwhile, back at the rooming house, one of the tenants, Wanda, an immigrant Polish dressmaker, receives a poison pen letter accusing her of “not declaring your income to the Authorities”. Wanda almost has a nervous breakdown over this, because she’s petrified of being deported back to her homeland. This is where the ever-dependable Mrs Hawkins steps in to do a bit of detective sleuthing to see who might write such a nasty letter. Her efforts come to nothing. It’s only when the letter writer phones Wanda to warn her off, that things take a sinister turn for the worse and Mrs Hawkins finds herself being accused of the very crime she’s trying to investigate.

So what A Far Cry From Kensington delivers is a two-pronged narrative, one that focuses on the book publishing industry in 1954 and Mrs Hawkins’ career as an editor (this makes fascinating reading in itself), and another that focuses on a sinister campaign to frighten a lodger out of her wits, but to what end?

What makes this novel work so wonderfully is, of course, the detail that brings the book trade and post-war London to life. But it’s also the sparkling wit (I laughed out loud several times), the delicious characters (Hector Bartlett, for instance, seems as frightful as his prose) and the seamless weaving of two different narratives that are expertly drawn together right at the very end to deliver a really satisfying conclusion.

Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, London, Muriel Spark, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Aiding and Abetting’ by Muriel Spark

Aiding&Abetting

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 212 pages; 2000. 

Truth is often stranger than fiction, and no more so than in the case of Lord Lucan, an English aristocrat, who has been missing since the night of November 7, 1974. On this night the nanny looking after Lucan’s three children was brutally murdered and his wife suffered severe head wounds in the attack. Lucan, who had a gambling problem and had racked up considerable debts, was suspected of the crime. Wanted on charges of murder and attempted murder, he was never brought to court, and despite being declared officially dead in 1999, numerous “sightings” of him still occur around the world.

The late Muriel Spark, one of Britain’s most acclaimed and prolific writers, takes this real life story, one that has fascinated generations of Brits, and turns it on its head. She has Lucan still alive, on the run from the law but supported by a closeted network of aristocratic friends. When he presents himself for treatment at the consulting rooms of a Paris-based psychiatrist, Dr Hildegard Wolf is immediately intrigued — and not just because of Lucan’s mysterious past. It turns out she is already treating another man, who also claims to be Lord Lucan. And so she must try to unravel which Lucan — if any — is the real seventh Earl, and then she must determine what threat each poses to her new life, far from the one in which she was a fake stigmatic defrauding people of money for her own gain.

What follows is a fun, high-tension, hilarious romp that spans Paris, London and the Highlands of Scotland as Lucan and Dr Wolf both go on the run. Without wishing to give too much of the remaining plot away, I can safely say the ending is a satisfyingly wicked one.

Aiding and Abetting is, quite simply, a delight from start to finish. Its pared down, elegant prose and fast-moving storyline makes it a deliciously quick read. But because it strays into areas of morality and crime there’s enough substance to give real food for thought. It might appear to be a rather simple novel but don’t let that trick you into thinking it doesn’t deal with rather complex issues…

If you like this book, you might also like The Butterfly Man by Heather Rose, which has Lord Lucan reinvent himself as a Scottish expat living in Tasmania.

You can find out more about the real life Lord Lucan story on the Channel 4 website.