20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Algeria, Author, Book review, Fiction, Flamingo, literary fiction, Morocco, Paul Bowles, Publisher, Setting

‘The Sheltering Sky’ by Paul Bowles

Fiction – paperback; Flamingo Modern Classic; 285 pages; 1993.

First published in 1949, The Sheltering Sky was Paul Bowles‘ (1910-1999) debut novel.

It’s a rather enigmatic tale about a young American couple travelling through French North Africa after the Second World War, but what begins as a typical story (albeit in an atypical setting) of a marriage on the rocks morphs into something else entirely.

Part horror, part suspense (part WTF is going on?), it’s a chilling tale about strangers in a strange land and the unforeseen fates that can await the naive traveller.

On the move

The story goes something like this. Port and Kit Moresby*, a sophisticated American couple from New York, are exploring Morocco and Algeria with their friend Tunner. They don’t have a proper itinerary, they simply move from place to place when they feel like a change of scenery because, as Port puts it, they are not tourists but travellers:

The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveller, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to the other. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home. Before the war, it had been Europe and the Near East, during the war the West Indies and South America. And she had accompanied him without reiterating her complaints too often or too bitterly.

But while the trio take their time moving around the country —  this Google Map I found online helpfully charts their journey — there are tensions at play.

In the opening chapters, for instance, Port spends a night with a local prostitute (a pattern that repeats throughout the novel) and puts himself in danger of being robbed or mugged.

Later, when the trio meet a young Australian traveller, Eric, and his mother, Mrs Lyle, a travel writer (whose vile views on Arabs and Jews make for uncomfortable reading), staying at the same hotel, they are offered a ride to Boucif by car. Port accepts, but Kit and Tunner go by train because there’s not enough room for all of them in the vehicle. It is during this long train journey that Tunner makes a pass at his friend, setting into motion a convoluted love triangle in which Kit constantly plays off her lover with her husband.

Port, who has his suspicions about his wife’s trysts, engineers it so that Eric gives Tunner a lift to the next city on the pretext that Kit and Port will catch him up in a few days. This is where things get tricky. Port’s passport is stolen and it’s dangerous to be a foreigner with no identifying papers. It’s also dangerous to be on the road during an outbreak of meningitis, and when Port falls sick on a long bus journey the sense of danger becomes even more heightened.

Strong sense of place

All the while the Saharan landscape and her ancient cities form an exotic backdrop in which the characters play out their petty dramas which quickly escalate to become life or death situations.

The writing is eloquent, spare and incisive, featuring authentic, animated dialogue and rich, vivid descriptions of place. Here’s how Bowles describes Aïn Krorfa, in Algeria, for instance:

Aïn Krorfa was beginning to waken from its daily sun-drugged stupor. Behind the fort, which stood near the mosque on a high rocky hill that rose in the very middle of the town, the streets became informal, there were vestiges of the original haphazard design of the native quarter. In the stalls, whose angry lamps had already begun to gutter and flare, in the open cafes where the hashish smoke hung in the air, even in the dust of the hidden palm-bordered lanes, men squatted, fanning little fires, bringing their tin vessels of water to boil, making their tea, drinking it.

But despite the wide-open spaces of the desert and the abundance of sunshine and stark light, the mood of the book soon becomes oppressive, heavy, fearful. The characters, especially Kit, behave in unexpected, not always sensible, ways, and it’s difficult to predict what might happen next.

I’ve refrained from going into the plot in too much detail, but it does take a dark turn somewhere around the halfway point when Port develops a terrible fever and the hotel in which they planned to stay refuses to take them in. Kit is suddenly forced to take action, to look after her sick husband and try to find medical help without drawing the ire of the authorities who won’t look favourably on foreigners without ID.

The final part of the story slides into a kind of farce in the sense that I found it a little hard to believe, but on the whole, The Sheltering Sky is a strange yet beguiling read — and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

* Call me childish, but there’s something funny about naming a character Port Moresby when we all know that’s the name of the capital city of Papua New Guinea. LOL.

This is my 2nd book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it secondhand for $11.50 from Elizabeth’s Bookshop here in Fremantle in August 2020. I had previously read his 1966 novel Up Above the World which I had described as a “masterpiece of suspense writing”.

Author, Book review, Dermot Bolger, Fiction, Flamingo, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Journey Home’ by Dermot Bolger

Journey-home

Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 391 pages; 2003.

When I recently asked Irish writer Joseph O’Connor to take part in my Triple Choice Tuesday series, I was delighted when he named Dermot Bolger’s The Journey Home as a book deserving of a wider audience.

I had only just finished reading the book myself and was still letting it “settle”. I couldn’t quite work out if I loved or loathed it. There was something about it that had disturbed me and it was only when Joseph said it had “blown the doors off” typical Irish literature that the penny dropped. The Journey Home not only captures the unofficial goings on in Irish society, it is also set in unfamiliar territory — the suburbs rather than the city or the countryside — and this is what had felt strange to me.

Having thought about it a lot since, I’ve decided that The Journey Home, which was first published in 1990, is a brave and beautiful book. It’s also a challenging read, because not only is the subject matter confronting, the structure of the novel doesn’t follow a traditional format.

There are three narrative threads, which are interleaved throughout the course of some 390 pages, and these jump backwards and forwards in time.

The first thread is told in the first person by Francis Hanrahan (known as “Hano”), a shy teenager who hasn’t quite figured out his place in life. Life in the Dublin suburbs is harsh. There are few jobs. And those that do have them, including Hano’s dad, are downtrodden and miserable, mainly because they’re working for the ruthless and corrupt Pascal Plunkett.

Hano’s spirits are lifted when he gets a menial office job and befriends Shay, who at 21 seems like a man of the world to Hano. He is experienced and fun but slightly dangerous too. Their friendship is the core of the novel. It is touching at times and alarming at others. And its strength is tested in all kinds of ways.

The second thread is told in the third person and recounts Hano’s life on the run following an unspecified, but obviously serious, event. He is accompanied by Katie, a 16-year-old drug addict, and together the pair of them criss-cross the country over the course of four days and nights, hiding from the police who are close on their tail. We are given few clues as to what made Hano and Katie into fugitives, but we do know that Katie loved Shay and that Shay is now dead.

The third and final thread is much briefer and often told in snippets and occasionally in verse (it may be helpful to know that Bolger is also a respected poet). These are told from Shay’s perspective after his death and are addressed to Katie.

I will admit that I initially struggled with the novel, because the three narrative threads are a bit confusing. But once I got a handle on them the story flowed easily, although, as ever, when presented with different narrators and storylines, it means you might favour one over the other. And for me, it was Hano’s engaging tale, told in the first person, that I preferred. I was less sure about the narrative of Shay’s ghost because I found it often got in the way of the rest of the story.

But I liked the contrast between the different storylines and the way in which they built up to a magnificent crescendo as they collided, in an unpredictable fashion, right near the end of the book.

I also liked the recurring notion of home, which runs like a river throughout this novel. Bolger’s characters are constantly in search of it, or running towards it, or fleeing it. Indeed, much of the story is about Hano coming to terms with leaving his parents and setting out on his own.

Home, like an old ocean liner, broke loose from its moorings and sailed in my mind across the hacked-down garden, further and further through the streets with my parents revolving in their armchairs. I could see it in my mind retreating into the distance and I stood to wave unsteadily after it, grinning as I took each euphoric step down after Shay towards the takeaway drink hustled in the bar below and the adventures of crossing the city through the reeling night-time streets.

And while the overall story is dark and incredibly shocking in places (there’s a rape scene, for instance, which caught me completely off guard), the characterisation is terrific: happy-go-lucky Shay, who sells his soul; self-conscious Hano, who is forced to grow up quickly; mysterious Katie, who is far too young to be out and about on her own; and the two Plunkett brothers, the seedy property developer Pascal and the corrupt politician Patrick, who have an entire town under their collective, immoral and cruel thumb.

The Journey Home is a novel that rings with truth. It’s a bleak look at suburban life at a particular point in time, but it’s also filled with corruption, desire, rage — and a tiny bit of hope.

Author, Book review, Doris Lessing, Fiction, Flamingo, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘The Summer Before the Dark’ by Doris Lessing

SummerBeforeDark

Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 236 pages; 2002. 

Having recently got over my fear of reading Doris Lessing, I decided to try another book by this Nobel Prize-winning author.

The Summer Before the Dark was first published in 1970. At the time it must have been a very contemporary novel, and perhaps a little controversial, because its central theme is the role of women in society. The main character, Kate Brown, is a domestic goddess who spends one summer rediscovering herself and her place in the world after some 20 years of marriage and motherhood.

It might sound like a relatively dull premise for a novel, but in Lessing’s hands the book sings with great storytelling, intellectual insight and drama. Kate Brown is no dull housewife: she’s a complex woman suffering what can be best described as empty-nest syndrome. Her grown up children are getting on with their lives and her husband is working in America for an extended period, leaving her to her own devices for a summer.

Good at languages — Italian, French and Portuguese — she accepts a temporary translator job at a conference in London for an organisation called Global Food. She does so well and enjoys the work so much, her stint is extended and she is promoted. Before she knows it she is one of the main organisers of another conference, this time in Istanbul, and it is here that she embarks on an illicit affair with a younger man and goes on a European road trip with him.

The affair, however, is disappointing, and stuck in rural Spain with a lover who has fallen ill, she returns to London alone. Here she holes up in a hotel — the family home has been rented out for the summer — only to become drastically ill herself. Lonely and depressed, Kate’s sanity begins to crumble and there are a few wobbly moments when she tries to make sense of who she is and why her life no longer holds a meaningful purpose.

It’s not until she takes a room in a house occupied by a much younger woman that Kate is able to confront her demons and find the courage to forge on with a new life in which her husband and children are no longer her sole focus.

The book is incredibly moving in places — you really get to feel Kate’s pain and anguish as she comes to terms with growing older. But it’s Lessing’s wry and insightful observations of a woman’s sexuality — and of its often unspoken importance to a woman’s sense of self — that this book comes into its own.  There’s a very telling scene in which Kate goes to a restaurant, just prior to the lunch time rush, and finds that her age and her sex have rendered her invisible.

She sat by herself and waited for service. In front of her stood the unvarying British menu. At the other end of the room, a waitress was talking to a customer, an elderly man. She was in no hurry to come over. When she did come she did not look at Kate, but scribbled the order down hastily on a small pad, and went back to talk to the customer, before shouting the order through a hatch into the kitchen. It seemed a long time before the food came. Kate sat on, invisible, apparently, to the waitress and to the other customers: the place was filling now. She was shaking with impatient hunger, the need to cry. The feeling that no one could see her made her want to shout: ‘Look, I’m here, can’t you see me?’ She was not far off that state which in a small child is called a tantrum.

Later she realises that to receive attention, from both men and women alike, she must dress and groom herself appropriately, to put on her ‘Mrs Brown’ face. Other revelations quickly follow.

The Summer Before the Dark, had you not already guessed, isn’t exactly a cheery or pleasurable read, but it’s an enlightening one. As a reader not far off Mrs Brown’s age (she’s in her early 40s) but the product of a different time (I chose a career over children), the book presented me with many issues to cogitate on. I suspect it would make a rather good book group read, because it throws up so many topics for discussion, many of which are still relevant almost 40 years after it was written.

Author, Book review, Doris Lessing, England, Fiction, Flamingo, horror, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Fifth Child’ by Doris Lessing

FifthChild

Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 160 pages; 2001.

Doris Lessing is one of those authors you know you ought to read but never do. A case in point: I’ve had both The Golden Notebook and The Good Terrorist in my possession for more than three years and never once cracked them open. The sheer size of the books and the weight of the subjects contained within, combined with Lessing’s awesome literary reputation, have made me doubt my ability to understand and enjoy her work. Easier, then, to leave well alone.

That was until I read John Self’s review of The Fifth Child followed in due course by another review of the same book by Isabel from Books and Other Stuff. Maybe it was time to take the plunge? A slim book — just 160 pages — seemed the perfect introduction to her work.

And so this is how I came to read my first Doris Lessing last week.

The Fifth Child is billed as a horror story but it’s not from the Stephen King school of horror — it’s slightly more subtle but oodles more menacing because of it.

It’s about two people — David and Harriet — who meet at an office party in the 1960s and get married shortly after. Lessing describes them as “freaks and oddballs”, not least because they have old-fashioned views about sex at a time when the sexual revolution was in full swing. But also because in each other they saw what they were looking for:

Someone conservative, old-fashioned, not to say obsolescent; timid, hard to please: this is what other people called them, but there was no end to the unaffectionate adjectives they earned. They defended a stubbornly held view of themselves, which was that they were ordinary and in the right of it, should not be criticised for emotional fastidiousness, abstemiousness, just because these were unfashionable qualities.

With their minds set on living in a big house within commuting distance of London, they purchase a “three-storeyed house, with an attic, full of rooms, corridors, landings… Full of space for children in fact”. And then waste no time filling it with offspring — four children in ready succession — even though they can barely pay the mortgage.

Fortunately, David has a rich father who helps with the bills, while Harriet’s mother, Dorothy, is able to move in on a semi-permanent basis to help with the childcare. This enables the pair to create a welcoming, cosy home visited by a steady stream of relatives. Christmas and Easter become big family events that stretch into week-long parties. It seems an idyllic kind of life on the surface, but underneath there are sores that are beginning to fester: David has to work longer and longer hours in the city to pay for his children’s upkeep; Dorothy finds herself being taken for granted and brands the pair “selfish and irresponsible”; and Harriet becomes more and more exhausted with each pregnancy.

It is only when Harriet falls pregnant for the fifth time that things take a turn for the worse. The unborn baby is a “wrestler”, causing Harriet so much pain and discomfort she starts taking sedatives on the sly.

The drugs did not seem to be affecting her much: she was willing them to leave her alone and to reach the foetus — this creature with whom she was locked in a struggle to survive. And for those hours it was quiet, or if it showed signs of coming awake, and fighting her, she took another dose.

When she eventually gives birth to 11-pound baby Ben she notices that he doesn’t look quite right. He had a “heavy-shouldered hunched look” and a strange hairline. “He’s like a troll, or a goblin or something,” she tells David.

This feeling of having produced a non-human baby continues when Ben continually tears at Harriet’s breast, roars and bellows to the point of turning white with rage, and stares at her with cold malevolent eyes.

To say anything more would ruin the plot of the book, but essentially Ben’s mental development stalls, which has consequences for the entire family. Much of the story hinges on Harriet’s relationship to her child and raises that age-old dilemma of whether it is nature or nurture that shapes who we become.

If you are thinking that The Fifth Child sounds like a disturbing read, you’d be right. But it is also a memorable, thought-provoking one. The brevity of this book does not make it less interesting or less controversial than a more page-heavy novel, because within this slim volume there are so many issues worth debating: does class structure affect our family lives? To what extent should a mother take responsiblity for her child’s misbehaviour? Is it responsible to have so many children when you must rely on help to raise them?

Personally, I found the narrative immediately gripping, although the fast pace left me breathless at times. Everything seems to move so quickly, and Lessing is brilliant at hurrying things along with a minimal of detail or explanation — which is a necessity if you are to cover one couple’s life from courtship to raising teenage children in the space of 160 pages. I thought it was a rather effortless read and it has now given me enough courage to delve into Lessing’s rather extensive back catalogue, the first of which is likely to be the sequel to this book, Ben in the World, which looks at how Ben copes with life as a strange, inhuman adult. Fascinating.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Flamingo, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Old Jest’ by Jennifer Johnston

TheOldJest

Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 158 pages; 1984.

This classic text by Irish writer Jennifer Johnston won the Whitbread Award for the best novel of 1979, the year in which it was first published.

It’s set immediately after the Great War in an unspecified village by the sea, a short train journey from Dublin. Here 18-year-old Nancy, an orphan, lives with her Aunt Mary and her invalid grandfather, a veteran of the Boer War. It’s summer and Nancy is on the brink of adulthood, excited about starting her new life, but reluctant to bade goodbye to childhood.

Secretly in love with her neighbour, Harry, a city worker who treats her like a younger sister, she knows deep down inside that he will never reciprocate her feelings: he’s too busy wooing another villager, the haughty Maeve Casey.

Nancy, naive but headstrong, spends much of her time alone at the beach, where she discovers a secluded hut — “built by some railway workers many years before, cleverly hidden in among the granite blocks, which protected it from the sea wind” — that she makes her own.

During one visit she discovers, much to her annoyance, that someone else has been using the hut, and before long she meets the intruder, an older man, in hiding, whom she befriends. And then, one day, he shows her his gun…

This is a typical Jennifer Johnston book, told in sparse but highly evocative prose. Her protagonist Nancy is acutely believable — although she appears strangely unworldly compared to today’s teenagers, a product, perhaps, of the time in which the book is set.

What I liked most was the author’s reluctance to spell everything out, forcing the reader to join the dots and interpret all the very many things left unsaid or unexplained. But that is very much a Johnston trademark and one that works to particular advantage here, least of all because the story has a very dark heart — should you fight for your family or your country? — that would lose its impact should it be spelt out in black and white. In fact, it’s the shades of grey that Johnston specialises in that makes many of her books, not just The Old Jest, so beautiful and perfectly self-contained.

And the ending — a powerful wallop that ties everything up in a neat package — makes it all the more satisfying to read.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Flamingo, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher

‘The Scheme for Full Employment’ by Magnus Mills

Scheme

Fiction – hardcover; Flamingo; 255 pages; 2003.

Reading a book by Magnus Mills is a bit like stepping into a parallel universe: everything looks and feels the same but there’s something a little off key that you can’t quite put your finger on. The Scheme for Full Employment, Mills’ fourth novel, is no exception.

The Scheme is essentially a distribution business in which goods are transported from depot to depot in a vehicle called a UniVan.

The UniVan was a glorious creation! With its distinctive gunmetal paintwork and silvery livery, its bull-nosed profile, running boards and chrome front grill, it had become a celebrated national icon, recognised and loved by all! Moreover, it represented a great idea that not only worked, but was seen to work!

Becoming an employee on The Scheme, which runs like clockwork and offers eight hours’ pay for eight hours’ work, is held up as a pinnacle of achievement. What better way can one earn a living than driving a van in a courteous, efficient and timely manner from depot to depot delivering unspecified goods to a rigorous and ordered schedule?

But the rigour and order with which The Scheme is renowned comes under threat by revelations that some workers aren’t doing their full eight hour days — some are being signed off for an “early swerve” on a semi-regular basis, so instead of finishing bang on 4.30pm some are going home a half-hour earlier! This authorised skiving is not approved by those employees who believe that such actions will destroy The Scheme’s regimented order they love so much, and a strike — the first in The Scheme’s history — ensues.

It’s not hard to see that The Scheme for Full Employment is actually a parody of the capitalist system, poking fun, as it does, at everything from unionised labour to the sheer monotony of many people’s working lives. It’s peopled by characters that derive meaning and purpose to their existence by the dullest of jobs and responsibilities. And it calls into question the hollow nature of businesses, which are set up purely to keep someone in employment.

The monotonous routine of The Scheme is echoed by Mills’ own dead-pan humour, his repetitive writing style and his often dull descriptions of people and places.

Just as his earlier novels — The Restraint of Beasts, All Quiet on the Orient Express and Three to See the King — featured a working-class narrator as the unwitting hero of the piece, The Scheme for Full Employment offers up a similarly lovable if naive (unnamed) person trying to make sense of a strange and alienating world.

While not as humorous and a tad more symbolic than previous efforts, this is still a recommended read for those who want to try something deliciously — and strangely — different.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Flamingo, literary fiction, New York, Paula Fox, Publisher, Setting

‘The Widow’s Children’ by Paula Fox

The_Widow's_Children
 Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 240 pages; 2003.

This is one of those rare books that is almost impossible to review without quoting the whole novel from cover to cover. Pretty much every clipped and stripped back sentence in Paula Fox‘s The Widow’s Children resonates with meaning and provides startling insights into the ways in which family members interact and play games with one another.

Originally published in 1976 and only recently back in print via Flamingo, The Widow’s Children is peppered with eccentric characters, many of them wholly detestable, seething with anger and unspoken hostility.

The lead character, the fierce and somewhat bitchy Laura Maldonada Clapper, is about to embark on an African vacation with her slightly browbeaten husband Desmond. On the eve of their departure they throw a small party in their New York hotel room for a select group of people: Laura’s unspecified male friend Peter, her gay brother Carlos and her daughter from a previous marriage, Clara. The party eventually moves onto a restaurant in Manhattan in which family members struggle to control their rage about things said or not said in the past.

The lynch-pin of the novel is the fact that Laura, one of those hard-nosed women of whom it is impossible to say no, is withholding information: earlier that day she was told that her mother, the matriarch of the family, had died. It is only when this information leaks out that the real family fireworks begin.

The Widow’s Children is a short, easy-to-read novel (I devoured it in one sitting) but its brevity should not be mistaken for lack of depth. This is a fiercely intelligent read featuring brilliantly realistic characters. The dialogue is sharp, snappy and often witty, and despite the sometimes sombre subject matter the pathos is tempered by glimmers of unexpected humour. This is definitely a worthy follow-up to her much acclaimed Desperate Characters.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Flamingo, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, Setting

‘The Restraint of Beasts’ by Magnus Mills

Restraint of beasts

Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 215 pages; 1999.

This is the type of book that will make you look at high tensile agricultural fencing in an entirely new way. I’m not joking. And it might make you think twice about refusing a third helping of sausages at breakfast, too.

A highly unusual tale written in a highly unusual style, The Restraint of Beasts (the title refers to what a fence does) is a black comedy like no other.

It tells the story of two itinerant Scots fencers, the pub-obsessed, cash-strapped Tam and Richie, who are dispatched to England to build a fence. With them goes the narrator, their foreman, who dreads spending the next six weeks or so living on a farm in a squalid caravan with his often silent and moody charges.

Here the trio spend their days bashing in fence posts and threading high-tensile wire between them, usually in dismal weather conditions. Their evenings are spent wolfing down cold baked beans straight from the can and then spending what little money they have in the nearest pub. It’s all very dull, mediocre and treadmill like.

This is echoed in Magnus Mills deliciously anorexic prose that borders on being completely turgid. There are pages and pages where nothing very much seems to happen. And then — POW! — something incredibly hilarious occurs that makes all the boredom preceding it worthwhile.

Mills, who famously got a huge advance to write this book, knows how to deliver a good punch line — all the while keeping a straight face. He is a master at conveying moods and atmospheres in just a few words. His dialogue is particularly good, allowing his characters to move the story along through speech, more than action.

He is able to turn the ordinary into something sinister in a way that defies description, so that you’re never quite sure whether a terrible event is going to happen or whether the author is just playing with your sense of the dramatic.

I loved this book, but I have to say I much preferred Mills’ later efforts — Three to See the King and All Quiet on the Orient Express. Still, The Restraint of Beasts impressed the critics upon publication — it was shortlisted for the 1998 Booker Prize and the 1998 Whitbread Award.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Fiction, Flamingo, Ireland, James Joyce, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ by James Joyce

PortraitofArtist


Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 272 pages; 1994.

First published in 1916, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a semi-autobiographical first novel that has been much lauded for its inventive use of language and its expose on the claustrophobia of growing up in holy Catholic Ireland.

Stephen Dedalus, the narrator of the novel, tells his story stream-of-consciousness-style from early childhood, where he boards at a strict Jesuit school, to early adulthood, when he has a crisis of faith, abandons his religion and flees his country.

The first part of his novel is enormously entertaining and deeply moving. Joyce captures the voice of the child protagonist so well, you want to wrap the young Stephen Dedalus up in your arms to protect him from the school bullies and the violent priests. When he makes a decision to stand up for himself, albeit under some duress from his school chums, you feel his fear, but then you also share his elation when he confronts that fear and survives.

Unfortunately, for me, the charm and beauty of the book’s opening chapters is not sustained. As the story progresses and Stephen grows older, the narrative becomes more complicated, with intricate, sometimes overly wordy passages that are difficult to follow. By the time Stephen is at university, the intellectualising of this thoughts are almost unfathomable! More than once I had to backtrack and re-read entire pages to try to make sense of them.

I suspect this change in narrative style is supposed to mirror the changes in Stephen’s maturity. We see him lose his childhood innocence, undergo a sexual awakening (in which he sleeps with a string of prostitutes) and then feel the full weight of Catholic guilt on his shoulders. Later, when he goes to university, we experience his intellectual development and his gradual revolt against his religion, much to the chagrin of his close friends who fail to understand how he can no longer believe in God.

I have to confess that I absolutely loved and adored the first 100 or so pages of this book, which were  mainly narrated in a direct style and provided some of the best descriptions of what it is to be a child that I have ever read. It was when the narrative got more complicated, more experimental, that it failed to hook me as a reader. But on the whole having largely enjoyed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I’m pleased to say I have overcome my fear of Joyce… and I now have Dubliners in my sights!

Author, Book review, Fiction, Flamingo, literary fiction, Paula Fox, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Desperate Characters’ by Paula Fox

DesperateCharacters

Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 176  pages; 2003.

First published in 1970, Paula Fox‘s Desperate Characters has recently been “rediscovered” and much acclaimed by the literary elite (in the introduction to this edition, Jonathan Franzen says that when he first read the book in 1991 he “fell in love with it. It seemed to me obviously superior to any novel by Fox’s contemporaries John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow”).

A relatively short and easy-to-read novel, it is overwhelmingly articulate – on so many levels: in its succinct, snappy dialogue; in its dissection of a marriage under strain between a comfortably middle-aged middle-class childless couple; in its analysis of friendships, also under strain, by social mores and expectations; in its exploration of a woman’s role in society (should she work? should she have children?); and in its descriptions of the seedy underbelly of 1960s New York life, where drunks roam the Brooklyn streets and faceless people vandalise property.

On the face of it not much seems to happen in Desperate Characters. The main character, Sophie Bentwood, gets bitten by a cat, but from that one, small, unexpected act so much fear and loathing rises to the surface. Not wanting to cause a fuss, Sophie tries to hide the bite from her uptight husband, Otto, but then spends the rest of the book stressing that she may have caught rabies.

It is Sophie’s constant worrying, not just about the cat bite but the state of her husband’s rocky partnership with a fellow lawyer and the resulting social fall-out, that provides the novel’s momentum. Coupled with the fact that Sophie is plagued by memories of a past love affair with one of Otto’s clients, the reader can’t help but think that the Bentwoods are doomed, whichever way you look at it.

Despite the underlying tone of menace, this is a wonderfully realised examination of the human condition that does not resort to melodrama or cliche. A fine gem of a book – and well worth a second read.