1001 books, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harper Perennial, Indochina, literary fiction, Marguerite Duras, Publisher, Setting, Vietnam

‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras


Fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Perennial; 130 pages; 2006. Translated from the French by Barbara Bray.

One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: “I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”

So begins Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, an evocative and sensual novel about a young girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior, which was first published in 1984. I read it back to back with another (supposedly) sensual novel, the (rather horrid) Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, and they couldn’t be further apart — in mood, style or sheer literary power — even though they covered similar (sexual) territory.

The Lover is narrated by Hélène Lagonelle, a French woman looking back on her life in Indochina (now Vietnam) and, in particular, the romance she had with a wealthy Chinese man in 1929 when she was just 15. It’s largely based on the author’s own life — she was born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to French parents who had emigrated there to work in the French colony. But things did not go well: her father quickly returned to France, where he died soon after, and her mother, a school teacher, made a bad property investment in the colony, which  mired them in poverty. Duras also claimed to have been beaten by her mother and her older brother.

In the novel, the narrator, who effortlessly flicks between first and third person, has a strained relationship with her mother, who wants her daughter to do well at school, to get an education and to study mathematics. The daughter does not think she is good at mathematics, but she excels at French and wants to be a writer.

But that’s not the only strain in their relationship. The mother often goes through periods of despair — I suspect an undiagnosed clinical depression — and locks herself away, despondent and unable to properly care for her family. This hardens Hélène, who blames this lack of care for the death of her younger brother, who succumbs to pneumonia, and it also makes her ashamed.

Search for identity

From the outset, it’s clear that Hélène is unsure of her own identity. She often dresses provocatively — a threadbare silk dress that is sleeveless and low-cut, with a leather belt, gold lame high heels and a man’s Fedora hat — because she feels confident in these kinds of clothes. Yet she realises this attire makes the “girl look so strangely, so weirdly dressed” and “might make people laugh”.

But it is exactly this outfit that catches the eye of the Chinese financier, who later becomes her lover. Hélène is returning to boarding school in Saigon from a holiday and is crossing the Mekong Delta by ferry. They talk on the boat and then he gives her a lift in his chauffeured limousine. Later that week he picks her up from school to show her where he lives, and from there a sexual relationship ensues. The rumour mill goes into overdrive:

Fifteen and a half. The news spreads fast in Sadec. The clothes she wears are enough to show. The mother has no idea, and none about how to bring up a daughter. Poor child. Don’t tell me that hat’s innocent, or the lipstick, it all means something, it’s not innocent, it means something, it’s to attract attention, money. The brothers are layabouts. They say it’s a Chinese, the son of the millionaire, the villa in Mekong with the blue tiles. And even he, instead of thinking himself honoured, doesn’t want her for his son. A family of white layabouts.

Surprisingly, the affair does not terribly worry the mother, who sees it as a means to an end: her daughter’s lover is wealthy, so he may be able to help the impoverished family with money. If that is a form of prostitution, she can live with it.

Hélène now becomes aware of her own power. She knows that her mother needs her to help support the family. And she knows that men look at her and desire her.

For the past three years white men, too, have been looking at me in the streets, and my mother’s men friends have been kindly asking me to have tea with them while their wives are out playing tennis at the Sporting Club.

Beautiful melancholia

There are a lot of complicated family dynamics in this novel, but it is the wise and knowing voice of the narrator, the self-confident schoolgirl who wants to forge her own path in life, to take risks and escape parental and societal expectations, that makes it such a powerful read.

The narrative, which often winds back on itself through Duras’s use of flashbacks, is compelling in the way it explores sexual taboos and the tensions between the French colonists and the South Vietnamese, while the writing has a beautiful melancholic tinge and pulsates with an aching loneliness  — “I grew old at eighteen” —  which is hugely reminiscent of Jean Rhys. It’s moody and evocative without being depressing, the kind of book that you can settle down with on a rainy afternoon and be swept away into another time and place.

I really loved and admired this short novel, but don’t take my word for it: The Lover was awarded the French Goncourt Prize in 1984 and it features in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It was also adapted for film in 1992.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Perennial, Hilary Mantel, literary fiction, Publisher, Saudi Arabia, Setting

‘Eight Months on Ghazzah Street’ by Hilary Mantel


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 298 pages; 2004.

Take a look at Hilary Mantel’s back catalogue and I defy you to name another living British author with such a diverse range of subjects and genres under his or her belt. I’ve only read two of Mantel’s books — the delicious black comedy Beyond Black and her critically acclaimed memoir Giving up the Ghost — but have been keen to explore more of her work.

Eight Months in Ghazzah Street, originally published in 1988, came much recommended by visitors to this blog. It turned out to be a superb, insidiously creepy read, the kind of story that gets under the skin and has you throwing glances over your shoulder to make sure no one’s watching you.

Repression and secrecy

It’s set in Saudi Arabia, a highly secretive and repressive society, where the religious police keep a close watch on everything, there are strict laws about what you can wear in public and women are not allowed to drive.

Into this restrictive and claustrophobic world come British expats Frances and Andrew Shore. Andrew, an engineer, has a job working for a private construction company in Jeddah. Frances, a cartographer, is forbidden from working, because of her gender, so she must spend her days “keeping house”.

Despite the fact that both are used to strange cultures — they lived in Zambia, where poverty, violence and corruption went hand in hand, for many years — Frances is immediately uncomfortable in her new surroundings. Instead of living in an expat compound, they’ve chosen to live among the natives, in an apartment block in a quiet neighbourhood. But everything is walled in and even one of the doorways has been bricked up, creating a cavern-like abode rarely penetrated by daylight.

Not long into their stay Andrew tells her about a psychiatrist’s study on the stress on immigrant workers, and you know his words are going to be prophetic:

‘When you get here and everything’s so strange, you feel isolated and got at – that’s Phase One. But then you learn how to manage daily life, and for a while the place begins to seem normal, and you’ll even defend the way things are done here, you’ll start explaining to newcomers that it’s all right really – that’s Phase Two. You coast along, and then
comes Phase Three, the second wave of paranoia. And this time around it never goes.’

Leaving the house becomes almost impossible. Even a stroll down the street, wearing her “baggiest smock and sandals”, is beset with unwanted attention from leering men:

A man in a Mercedes truck slowed to a crawl beside her. ‘I give you a lift, madam?’ She ignored him. Quickened her step. ‘Tell me where you want to go, madam. Just jump right in.’ He leaned across, as if to open the near door. Frances turned and stared into his face; her own face bony, white, suffused with a narrow European rage. The man laughed. He waved a hand, dismissively, as if he were knocking off a fly, and drove away.

With not much else to do, Frances befriends the Muslim women living in the building and finds herself unable to come to terms with the religious and cultural differences between them. She finds a similar discord with the expatriate community in which she is expected to socialise.

Before long paranoia takes ahold. Knowing that the apartment above her is empty, Frances begins to hear unexplained noises — a woman sobbing, footsteps and furniture moving around. When she sees a strange presence in the apartment block’s stairwell, she’s convinced that something illegal is going on, but no one, including her husband, believes her when she voices her concerns. Perhaps she’s going stir-crazy after all?

On the verge of a nervous breakdown 

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is a psychological thriller of the finest order. It reads like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but because Frances is an intelligent worldly-wise woman, you know that her fears aren’t fickle.

Mantel builds up the tension slowly but surely, revealing Frances’ increasing sense of foreboding through diary entries that are interspersed throughout the third-person narrative. It’s a highly effective device.

Interestingly, the story does not paint a very flattering portrait of Saudi Arabia, but Mantel, who lived in Jeddah with her husband, a geologist, for four years in the 1980s, makes no bones about this. In the reader’s guide that comes with this edition, she writes: “When you come across an alien culture you must not automatically respect it. You must sometimes  pay it the compliment of hating it.”

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Perennial, Holland/Netherlands, Joseph O'Neill, literary fiction, London, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Netherland’ by Joseph O’Neill


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 248 pages; 2009.

Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland was famously long-listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize, attracting a flurry of support from mainly North American critics who loved the cricket element of the book. (The Vulture section of the New York Times has quite a good summary of the acclaim it garnered upon release. And President Obama also turned out to be a fan. )

But on the other side of the pond the response was more mixed. And if you dare check the Amazon.co.uk reviews you’ll see the broad spectrum of views it’s attracted which range from glowing five-star accounts to less-than-complimentary one-star assessments.

Thinking that the novel was about cricket, I picked it up at the start of the Ashes series last month hoping to get myself in the mood for a summer of competitive sport between two old rivals, Australia (my homeland) and England (where I now reside). Six weeks on, the five-match series is now at level pegging and the deciding final match will be played this coming Thursday, so what better time to review the book?

Living in the netherland

While Netherland could be regarded as a paean to cricket, this is not a novel about cricket. This is a novel about what it is like to be an outsider and living in the fringes, or as O’Neill’s apt title suggests, in a state of being neither here nor there — the netherland.

For while the protagonist, Hans van den Broek, chooses cricket as his refuge, there’s a lot more going on here than the “gentleman of sport”. Hans is an immigrant — Dutch-born but educated in Britain and now residing in Manhattan, with his wife and young son. He’s desperate to fit in and goes through the whole rigmarole of gaining his US drivers license, if only to become that little bit more embedded in the culture.

Connecting with people who play cricket in New York is yet another way he can “connect”, albeit with an immigrant underclass. And, tellingly, the one man with whom he forges a tentative friendship, Chuck Ramkissoon, winds up being pulled out of a New York canal with his hands tied behind his back. (Note, this isn’t a plot spoiler: O’Neill reveals this fact up front and much of the novel is about Hans recalling his relationship with Chuck, trying to pinpoint what it is about that man that could have resulted in someone wanting to murder him.)

Disintegration of a marriage

Netherland has also been described as a post-9/11 novel, but again, this label has been slightly misconstrued. While the book reflects the kind of “netherland” residents in Manhattan might have felt in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Centre, a kind of eerie state of no longer feeling comfortable in their homes, this isn’t the sole premise of the book.

O’Neill uses it as a vehicle to explain the disintegration of Hans’ marriage, for while Hans is content to be “carried along by the dark flow of those times” his wife is not. She no longer feels safe in the city and decides to return to her native England, taking their infant son with her. Hans, unable to commit to such a move, finds himself living a kind of transatlantic lifestyle, dividing his time between New York and London. Again, it’s a netherland existence, neither a New Yorker, nor a Londoner; neither a married man, nor a bachelor.

Ironically, having read this book, I, too, felt kind of ambivalent about it, not quite sure if I loved or loathed it. I finished it maybe a month ago but simply haven’t had the time to review it, but strangely, with the passing of time, the story has coalesced in my brain and I’ve found myself thinking about certain elements.

I wonder now what was holding Hans back, why he was passive on so many different fronts — his friendship with Chuck, who clearly had a lot of dodgy things happening in his life; and his foundering marriage — and let events wash over him without really taking any action himself. Was it a psychological netherland that constrained him, or would that be taking the netherland theme a step too far?

The healing power of cricket

One of things that has stuck in my head is the sense of belonging Hans achieved by playing cricket in New York, even though some of his fellow sportsmen could not speak English and he refused to adapt his batting style to the “American way” which meant “the baseball-like business of slugging and hoisting”. I loved that each weekend was spent in a van, travelling around the five boroughs, to play a “friendly”.

We sat mostly silent in the van, absorbed into the moodiness that afflicts competitors as they contemplate, or try to put out of their minds, the drama that awaits. What we talked about, when we did talk, was cricket. There was nothing else to discuss. The rest of our lives — jobs, children, wives, worries — peeled away, leaving only this fateful sporting fruit.

As an aside, I was watching BBC Newsnight a week or two back which featured a story about the NYPD running a cricket competition to help improve relations with the city’s ethnic minorities.  “That sounds just like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland,” I told my Other Half, who was watching it with me. Then, lo and behold, the presenter Gavin Esler interviewed, via satellite, O’Neill, who came across as one of the most articulate, gentlemanly and genuine author interviews I’ve ever seen. You can watch it here. It was enough to make me want to read more of his work, so if you’ve read any of this other titles, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Andrew Gross, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harper Perennial, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘The Blue Zone’ by Andrew Gross


Fiction – eBook; Harper; 317 pages; 2008.

I never planned on reading Andrew Gross’s The Blue Zone but when I found myself stuck on a plane for eight hours I was desperate for some light relief. I flicked through my Sony Reader and came across The Blue Zone, which had been preloaded when I received it, so thought I’d give it a try.

Under normal circumstances I normally avoid these kinds of plot-driven books with thinly drawn characters and cringe-inducing dialogue because I find them a complete waste of time. But it wasn’t always this way: I read plenty of best-selling crime thrillers of this ilk in my early 20s before I got bored with their lack of “substance” and moved onto more challenging literature.

Reading The Blue Zone was a not so subtle reminder that my tastes have changed enormously over the past 15 or so years. I hesitate to describe the book as dreadful, because it does have quite an entertaining if totally preposterous plot, but it does come pretty damn close to being one of the worst books I have read this year. I can’t say I am surprised. Andrew Gross is the co-author of many of James Patterson’s best-selling thrillers, and the one and only time I read any of Patterson’s work — a free chapter taster that came with a daily newspaper a few years ago — I hated it, so much so I vowed never to read anything by him because I didn’t want to waste my time when there were so many other better written novels vying for my attention.

I should have made that same vow for Gross.

But let me tell you a bit about the (overly dramatic and entirely implausible) storyline. The book revolves around a young woman, Kate Raab, whose father, a wealthy Manhattan gold trader, is arrested by the FBI for money laundering. When he agrees to turn witness for the prosecution it means that some nasty Columbian mobsters could put the lives of the picture-perfect Raab family in danger. As a result the family enters the witness protection program and are given new lives and new identities in a new undisclosed location. But Kate, a cancer researcher too caught up in her fledgling career, refuses to co-operate and remains living in New York with her husband. It is only when her best friend and colleague is shot — a suspected case of mistaken identity — that Kate begins to understand that she may have made the wrong decision…

Through a series of twists and turns and completely unexpected changes in plot direction, the narrative moves along at an exhaustive pace, and the ending, when it comes, is almost laugh-out-loud funny because it’s far from credible.

I’m sure The Blue Zone — the title refers to the FBI’s code for a blown cover — would make a superb blockbuster movie. Indeed, much of it does read like a screenplay. But as a book it feels too sensational with its overly engineered plot and shallow characters, and for that reason I can’t give it more than two stars. This is one for die-hard fans of this genre only — and even then the most skeptical of you will probably struggle to enjoy it on the basis the story is so farfetched. Mental note: this will be the first — and last — Andrew Gross novel I will ever read.

Author, Book review, England, Harper Perennial, Hilary Mantel, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘Giving up the Ghost’ by Hilary Mantel


Nonfiction – paperback; HarperPerennial; 252 pages; 2004.

Hilary Mantel is an award-winning British author with whom I only have a passing acquaintance. I read her last novel, Beyond Black, in early 2006 and very much enjoyed its dark inventiveness, especially her quirky characters and the descriptions of a rather dull and dreary suburban England populated by ghosts.

Giving up the Ghost is her much-lauded memoir, released in 2004 to critical acclaim, and how, having read it, I can see many aspects of her character in Beyond Black‘s narrator, Alison Hart, an overweight psychic. Mantel never goes into specifics, but it’s clear that she has some psychic tendencies, too. On the first page of her memoir, she claims to have seen her stepfather’s ghost. “I am not perturbed,” she writes. “I am used to ‘seeing’ things that aren’t there.”

The book is peppered with other unusual claims, including her sighting of an undefined “creature” in the back garden when she was seven that “has wrapped a strangling hand around my life, and I don’t know how, or what it was”.

There are large gaps in her life’s account, and the narrative, while largely chronological, does jump around a bit. “But in this book I didn’t aim to tell the story of my life,” she writes in the afterword, “just the story of two aspects of it, my childhood and my own childlessness. It was never meant to be the whole story. Stories are never whole.”

A tale of two halves

This is a good summation of Giving up the Ghost, which can, effectively, be broken into two halves: the first tells of her childhood growing up in a working-class Catholic family in the grim suburb of Hadfield in Manchester in the 1950s; the second of her rather traumatic adulthood filled with a string of misdiagnosed illnesses which render her unable to have children.

By turns the book is funny and sad; it’s often witty but never mawkish, and I came away from it feeling that Mantel had led a very tough but somehow inspirational life.

From the outset Mantel’s childhood was riddled with family secrets — her father disappeared; her mother moved her lover into the house and then moved suburbs to avoid a community scandal — that caused her to live in an “emotional labyrinth”. Even when she escaped the family home and moved to London to begin her university law course, the dark ghosts of the past would not let her go…

By the time I was twenty I was living in a slum house in Sheffield. I had a husband and no money; those things I could explain. I had a pain which I could not explain; it seemed to wander around my body, nibbling here, stabbing there, flitting every time I tried to put my finger on it.

Candid writing

Written in a clear-eyed prose style, it is, at times, so honest as to be painful. Mantel admits that she struggles to write much of it. “Once you have learned the habits of secrecy, they aren’t so easy to give up,” she confesses mid-way through the book.

She is particularly frank about her various illnesses, which lead to her stacking on weight and “accumulating an anger that would rip a roof off”. And the ways in which she comes to terms with her infertility are also painfully candid, the hurt seemingly oozing off the page.

This is not a particularly cheerful read, but it is an inspirational one about chasing dreams, seeking answers and forging your own path in life. I loved it and now that I know more about Hilary Mantel’s life I hope to read more of her fiction very soon.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Perennial, literary fiction, Publisher, Ron Hansen, Setting, USA

‘Isn’t It Romantic? An Entertainment’ by Ron Hansen


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 208 pages; 2004.

Isn’t It Romantic? An Entertainment is the literary equivalent of a light romantic comedy, probably with Jennifer Anniston and Ben Affleck in the lead roles.

I read it on the strength of Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, which I devoured — and loved — last month, but this book could not be more different in temperament, tone and subject matter.

It’s a delightfully quick, frothy read. The Chicago Tribune describes it as “A literary bonbon as sweet and light as meringue” which is pretty much a pitch-perfect summary. Although Isn’t It Romantic? An Entertainment feels contrived in places — with a light dusting of barely-there schmaltz — it’s a fun romp, and I raced through it in just four 20-minute tube journeys.

It opens with French tourist Natalie Clairvaux taking a solo bus trip across America. When her playboy fiancé, Pierre Smith, tracks her down the pair inadvertently become stranded in small town Nebraska. Here, the locals invite them to be king and queen of an annual three-day festival in which the town’s founder, a 19th-century trapper from Bordeaux, is honoured.

What ensues is a bit of a French farce in which Natalie is wooed by a 50-something rancher and Pierre is pursued by the attractive young waitress from the local diner. And when the town conspires to hold a wedding for the couple, no one is quite sure exactly which couple will walk down the aisle.

As silly as the plot sounds, there are quite a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in this book. And Hansen writes with such a deft hand, you can picture the scenes unravelling right before your very eyes. Indeed, the book would make a terrific film because it could so very easily be adapted into a screenplay. In fact, I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t optioned it already — or maybe someone’s just waiting for Jennifer Anniston and Ben Affleck to become available, in which case I’d suggest you just hang out for the DVD…

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Perennial, literary fiction, Publisher, Ron Hansen, Setting, USA

‘Mariette in Ecstasy’ by Ron Hansen


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 192 pages; 1992.

“One of the most acclaimed novels of 1991” screams the blurb of this book by acclaimed American writer Ron Hansen.

This doesn’t seem much of a recommendation to me, but how else would you market a book about a bunch of nuns living in a convent in upstate New York in 1906? Doesn’t sound like a particularly inspiring sort of story, does it? And yet this sparse, beautifully written novel, is an exquisite, mesmerising read. Open any page and the words are impeccably arranged to read like poetry.

Wide milk cows are tearing up green shocks of grass in the pasture. Each chews earnestly, like a slow machine, until the roots disappear in her mouth and she goes back to the grass again.

Mariette in Ecstasy is about a 17-year-old girl who joins the Sisters of the Crucifixion, where her much older blood sister is the Reverend Mother. Into this world of extreme religious devotion, Mariette offers a breath of much-needed fresh air. She is young, pretty and full of life. But she is also incredibly devout and believes that she can commune with Jesus to a much higher degree than the other nuns.

When Mariette begins to show signs of divine possession and begins bleeding from wounds in her hands, feet and side that resemble the crucifixion wounds of Jesus, the nuns close ranks. Is it a hoax or a miracle? Is Mariette duping them, or is she a saint?

I don’t think it’s spoiling the plot to point out that the book poses no answers. Hansen leaves it to the reader to make up their own mind, but this is not to say that the conclusion is unsatisfactory. Indeed, I found it to be incredibly clever — and wise.

But the real wisdom (and beauty) of this book is the way that Hansen arranges the story around the religious calendar and the changing seasons. In conveying the minutiae of daily life in a convent, the reader gets a real feel for the tedium and gentle rhythm of the nuns’ existence.

Mariette kneels on ginger-brown earth as she plants winter seeds in a hot-weather garden that Sister Saint-Luc has harrowed and Sister Saint-Pierre has grooved with a stick. Brussels sprouts, kale and savory cabbage. Sister Hermance is just behind her with a tin watering can. Sister Saint-Luc sings the hymn ‘Immaculate Mary’ and the sisters join her.
Hot breezes slide through the bluejoint grass. Sister Sabine is walking behind a horse-pulled thresher in the barley field. When Sister Hermance pours, she sees the water puddle like hot cocoa, but soon it is just a faint stain in the earth. Killdeer kite down and dally above Mariette, as if suddenly interested. Turtledoves watch from the telephone wire. And Sister Hermance thinks, We will have a bounty. Everything she touches will grow. Dirt puts itself in her hands.

But just as you get lulled into the gentle narrative style, a carefully placed paragraph jolts you awake. These startling paragraphs which all take the same form — dialogue between a priest and a succession of various nuns — are never explained. It is only as you get deeper into the novel that you realise they are from an inhouse investigation into Mariette’s stigmata.

By juxtaposing these testimonies with the seemingly dull but very strictly ordered day-to-day existence of the sisters, Hansen is able to ratchet up the suspense and create a sense of mystery and intrigue where none would otherwise lay. This “device”, if you could call it such, kept me spellbound, and I raced through this novel in the space of a morning.

The blurb might describe Mariette in Ecstasy as one of the best novels to come out of 1991, but I’d argue that it’s one of the best books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading — and certainly the best one about nuns!

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Perennial, literary fiction, Publisher, Salley Vickers, Setting

‘The Other Side of You’ by Salley Vickers


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 271 pages; 2007.

Salley Vickers’ Miss Garnet’s Angel was my favourite book of 2006 and so it was with some trepidation that I picked up The Other Side of You on a trip to Italy for some much-needed poolside reading: would it live up to expectations?

As you will see from the five-stars above, the answer was a resounding yes.

The tale is told from two perspectives: Dr David McBride, a psychiatrist, and his patient, Elizabeth Cruikshank, a failed suicide. Essentially it is a story about their relationship and how, over time, trust grows between them. But The Other Side of You also tackles some bigger, yet more subtle, themes, including how the decisions we make impact on the rest of our lives and how we never really know the people we are closest to.

During one of his sessions with the normally reticent Elizabeth, David confesses that “there’s no cure for being alive” and that the only thing to do is to “find a way to live”. Having lost a sibling as a child, this is exactly how David has lived his life, keeping the pain buried deep within but sometimes imagining he could “bring him back by willing it”.

But it is only when the pair begin to discuss a painting by Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus — which depicts the moment when the resurrected Jesus reveals himself to two unsuspecting disciples — that Elizabeth begins to open up and reveal the hidden pain that caused her to attempt to take her own life.

Age and disease and death may destroy our physical being but it is other people who get inside us and damage our hearts and minds. My work has occasioned ample examples of this but it was Elizabeth Cruikshank who really made me understand it. […] That long winter afternoon, which grew into evening, while I sat with Elizabeth Cruikshank and she told me her story, I abandoned all the accepted methods of working.

What follows is a riveting tale about a tragic love affair, which swings between London and Rome, so beautifully and exquisitely told (by Vickers) that the reader must give up all hope of putting the book down. In fact, I read it in one sitting and by the end of the marathon reading session — some 270 odd pages — I felt utterly devastated. The story lingered in my mind for days and weeks afterwards, but its aftermath felt so “raw” I could not bear to review the book, knowing I could never do it justice. Even now, I realise how meaningless this review sounds compared to the beauty, wisdom and intelligence of Vickers’ prose, where every page has at least one sentence — or paragraph — that truly resonates.

The Observer described The Other Side of You as “a compelling mediation on love” but I think the Independent summed it up best: “There is something rare and special about Vickers as a novelist. She manages to touch something buried deep in all of us.”

In my humble opinion, I think this is a remarkable, utterly engrossing book that cannot fail to move any reader, no matter how hardened they might be to the myriad emotions associated with art, death, life, love and loss. I cried buckets when I got to the end, and I rather suspect you might too.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harper Perennial, Karen Shepard, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Don’t I Know You?’ by Karen Shepard


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 230 pages; 2006.

This fascinating murder mystery, which is set in New York in the 1970s, opens with a 12-year-old boy, Stephen, coming home to his Upper Westside apartment to find his mother dead on the floor. Gina has been raped and stabbed multiple times. The TV is still on and all the windows are open.

Outside, it was getting darker. Inside too. He was crying.
Her black hair was still in its ponytail. It was spread out like she was jumping. She was making a face that he didn’t like to look at. He thought about touching her, but didn’t.
Down the hall, a quiet thud and two creaks.
His feet and hands tingled. Get out, he thought. He stood; his knees cracked, and he headed toward the front door. The sound of something heavy being lifted and put down again. He was still crying. He started down the hall. He couldn’t believe he was doing it.
There was blood. Streaky patches of it. And then it stopped. His foot hit something that rolled. Glass beads. He recognised them from the necklace she liked to wear.
Her bedroom door was open a little. Shadows moved behind it.
He ran the last few feet. His head felt like he’d been holding his breath too long. ‘Hey,’ he called. ‘Hey’.
One leg was disappearing out the window onto the fire escape. Jeans. A white sock. Adidas sneaker. White with green stripes.

From this frightening opening, the reader is taken on a rollercoaster ride through Stephen’s new life without his mother. Until his estranged father flies in from California, he is taken into the care of his mother’s boyfriend, who later becomes a suspect in the case. But Stephen think he is too nice to have carried out the crime.

Eventually, the police investigation stalls, perhaps because Gina’s past has been littered with too many boyfriends (she keeps a rogue’s gallery on her wall) for the police to track down and interview. Her diary has also gone missing, and so any secrets she may have kept have gone to the grave with her.

Fast-forward 18 months and we are introduced to Lily Chin, a teacher, who is engaged to be married. But Nikolai, her wealthy Russian fiance, is not all that he seems. Lily discovers his darker side thanks to a woman called Tina, who claims to have been a previous girlfriend. Tina reveals the location of an apartment that Nikolai keeps for his secret liaisons, and it is here, in this apartment, that Lily finds Gina’s diary. Did Nikolai murder her?

The story then jumps forward once again, this time by a decade. Here the narrative is taken up by an elderly woman who is dying of cancer. Louise Carpanetti lived with her ‘slow’ son, Mark, above Gina’s apartment when she was murdered. In fact, Louise took a phone call from Gina on that fateful day but for some unfathomable reason hung up on her. Now she is plagued by fears that it was Mark who killed her. How should she handle this, given that someone else has already been arrested for the crime? Should she confront her emotionally dependent son, who, at the age of 55, still lives at home with her, or leave things be?

This is one of those subtle but disturbing books that contains stories within stories, each of them interlinked in ways that are not immediately obvious. Indeed, I had to read the book twice to fully comprehend them, and even then I still have not worked out who the murderer is — although I have my suspicions.

Shephard writes the story from various perspectives, each of which is written in a distinctive, original voice, so that the reader has to do some mental gymnastics to sort it all out into some form of cohesive order. But I liked being able to build up a slow mental picture of the victim instead of being force-fed it had the author employed a more straightforward narrative style.

My only quibble is that Don’t I Know You? has too many questions and not enough answers, causing me to reach the end feeling frustrated rather than satisfied. For that reason I think it would make an excellent reading group book, if only because it’s likely to divide opinion and there’s plenty of issues to discuss, particularly on the theme do we ever really know the people closest to us?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Perennial, literary fiction, New York, Nicholas Rinaldi, Publisher, Setting

‘Between Two Rivers’ by Nicholas Rinaldi


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 464 pages; 2005.

Between Two Rivers is one of those rare novels that takes a simple premise — the lives of the residents in a tower block in downtown Manhattan — and turns it into something truly special, in prose that is, by turn, elegant and shocking, eerie and mesmerising.

We meet a cast of eccentric characters — cancer-ridden industrialist Harry Falcon, retired Luftwaffe pilot Karl Vogel, housemaid Yesenia, Iraqi spice merchant Muhta Saad and his son Abdul (who is studying to become a mortician), actress Angela Crespi, eccentric animal-lover and widower Nora Abernooth and plastic surgeon Theo Tattafruge — and intertwines their stories in a series of beautifully written vignettes. These are linked via alternate chapters told from the point of view of the building’s Romanian concierge, the ever watchful Farro Fescu.

Using this clever plot device, Rinaldi demonstrates the interconnectedness of peoples’ lives and loves. He reveals each character’s personal history, their secrets, their hopes and dreams. Much of this occurs against a backdrop of major events from the Twentieth Century, especially World War II, Vietnam and other wars.

The city of New York also plays a central role. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that Between Two Rivers is a love letter to New York City: its streets, buildings and citizens come alive within its pages so that you can smell the garbage-strewn alleyways, hear the blaring of taxi horns, see the towering skyscrapers touching the sky every time you emerge yourself in the story.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that the terrorist attacks of September 11 play a key role in the book. That said I must say that the final chapters, which are set in the World Trade Centre, caught me completely off guard because the first 377 pages focused on the early 1990s. Rinaldi says he had pretty much finished the story when 9/11 happened but felt that incorporating the event would “bring my characters, through the pressures of that crisis, to new levels of purpose and understanding”. He achieves this with grace and aplomb; the restrained unsentimental prose is incredibly moving and conveys so much of the shock and horror of that terrible day that it may, in fact, be too painful for many to read. It certainly made this hardened reader have a little sob!

All in all, Between Two Rivers is a compelling portrait of a city and its disparate residents. I don’t often use the word masterpiece, but this multi-layered book — part short-story collection, part novel — comes pretty damn close to perfection. I loved every word.