20 books of summer, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Gerbrand Bakker, literary fiction, Netherlands, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Twin’ by Gerbrand Bakker

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 345 pages; 2008. Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer.

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker is a quietly understated novel that brims with a slow-moving rage and a gentle, long-lived grief. It’s a story about loss, resentment and thwarted opportunities and examines what happens to people who — for whatever reason — don’t take things into their own hands, letting circumstances and family obligations dominate their lives.

A farmer’s lot

Told in the first person from the perspective of a 55-year-old farmer, Helmer Van Wonderen, nothing much seems to happen and yet a lifetime of hurt is encapsulated in this coolly observed tale.

It’s set in the Waterlands region of the Netherlands, where Helmer now runs the family farm — 20 sheep and a handful of milking cows — single-handedly. His aged father, with whom he has a difficult relationship, has been installed in a bedroom upstairs, seemingly locked away and treated like an unwelcome lodger.

The tension between father and son is long-running, stemming from the death of Helmer’s twin, Henk, more than 30 years ago. Henk was the favoured son. He was in love with a girl called Riet and was set to inherit the farm. But when he died in a car accident, Helmer had to put his university studies on hold and return home. He has remained there ever since.

I’ve been scared all my life. Scared of silence and darkness. I’ve also had trouble falling asleep all my life. I only need to hear one sound I can’t place and I’m wide awake.

Now, having never married nor had children, Helmer is reassessing his life, wondering how he has so little to show for all the years that have come to pass. He realises he is the last in the line of Van Wonderens and becomes sentimental by this fact.

Without a wife, without kids and with a decrepit father who’s never wasted a word on family in my presence, I never expected myself to get sentimental about my own flesh and blood. Is it the farm? Our farm? A collection of buildings, animals and land I didn’t want anything to do with, an entity that was forced on me, but gradually became part of me?

He’s becoming increasingly agitated with his father, telling his neighbour Ada that his dad is going senile and that’s why she can’t go upstairs to say hello to him. There are other disturbing behaviours that indicate Hemler has a cruel streak.

But he’s also a man who has dreams. When he finds out another neighbour has sold his farm and moved to Denmark, Helmer wonders why he can’t pursue that kind of path, too. He sells three sheep so he can buy a detailed map of Denmark, which he gets framed and hangs on his bedroom wall. Every night, before sleep, he stares at the map and says aloud three or more town names, almost like an affirmation that one day he will get to visit them for real.

His ennui is further shaken by news the local livestock dealer is retiring, quickly followed by the milk tank driver. Is it time for Helmer to do something different too?

A stranger calls

When Riet, newly widowed, gets in touch three decades after Henk’s death, Helmer is presented with an opportunity to have his life shaken up a little. Riet asks him whether her son, who is also named Henk, could come and stay awhile, perhaps working as a farmhand, to which he reluctantly agrees.

And when Henk arrives, a new side of Helmer is revealed, a more caring, fatherly side. But he’s also occasionally provoked into fits of violent anger, for Henk is selfish and lazy, prone to sleeping in, shirking responsibility and speaking his mind.

Henk is actually a kind of nephew, I think when I close the door to the stairs and see him standing there. He is pulling on his overalls, the ones with the crotch that rides up, the sleeves that are too short and the tear in one armpit. A half-nephew, a could-have-been-nephew, a nephew-in-law.

Their relationship, tender and confrontational by turn, shows Helmer he can connect with people if he so wishes. He doesn’t need to remain passive. He can take control of his own life, steer it in the direction he chooses, and that he can move on without his twin, who has cast such a long shadow over his entire adult life.

I’ve been doing things by halves for so long now. For so long I’ve had just half a body. No more shoulder to shoulder, no more chest to chest, no more taking each other’s presence for granted. Soon I’ll go and do the milking. Tomorrow morning I’ll milk again. And the rest of the week, of course, and next week. But it’s no longer enough. I don’t think I can go on hiding behind the cows and letting things happen. Like an idiot.

An unexpected delight

The Twin is an unexpected delight of a book.

Its slow-moving, gentle narrative, written in pared-back prose, combined with its rural setting, is highly reminiscent of the Irish fiction I love so much.

It presents an old-fashioned world dominated by closed-off men, the kind of men that might have a deep love of nature but can’t communicate with people or express emotion beyond pent-up anger. It’s confronting in places, deeply sorrowful in others, but there are also light-hearted scenes and funny moments, and it ends on a satisfying, hopeful note.

This is my 12th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it on Kindle on 10 March 2013 for £5.22. I actually think it was a book club choice but for whatever reason, I didn’t read the book or attend the discussion. Sometimes it does take me an AGE to read books on my TBR – this one only took 8 years!

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Graham Greene, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘A Gun for Sale’ by Graham Greene

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Classics; 192 pages; 2010.

First published in 1936, A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene is an oppressively dark crime novel about a British assassin who becomes a wanted man in England after he commits his deed on European soil.

In much the same way as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand precipitated the Great War, the murder has been designed to provoke a new world war which will make many men in England rich.

Murderous opening

When A Gun for Sale opens we are thrust right into the action. Raven, the English assassin with the harelip (which marks him as easily identifiable), is in an unnamed European country getting ready to kill the Minister of War. Things don’t go exactly to plan but he manages to escape detection after the murder of the politician and his secretary — though he doesn’t get rid of the weapon as he had been instructed to do so.

When he returns to London, he meets Cholmondeley, a fat man with a penchant for sweets, who double-crosses him by paying his £250 fee in stolen banknotes, which are traceable by authorities.

Raven now has to go on the run in his own country, but not without planning his vengeance on Cholmondeley, whom he follows on the train out of London to (the fictional) Nottwich. (Remember, he has a gun.)

Also on the train is a young woman called Anne, who is heading to Nottwich to begin working as a chorus girl in a pantomime. In a strange twist of fate (or should we say authorly coincidence?), Anne’s fiancé is the police detective in charge of finding Raven, and so all these characters are unwittingly drawn together in a complex plot involving corruption, betrayal, sex and murder.

The claustrophobic manhunt that ensues not only puts Anne’s life in danger, it makes Raven increasingly prone to commit more horrendous acts out of fear and paranoia.

Fast-paced tale

The fast-paced narrative is written from multiple perspectives in Greene’s distinctively clear and clean prose in which not a word is wasted.

The world conveyed here — dark, grim and often immoral — presents women as the mere playthings of men and sees war as a way for corrupt men to make vast amounts of money.

I read A Gun for Sale with a mix of fear and fascination. It’s not dissimilar to Greene’s more famous Brighton Rock, which it predates by a couple of years, in that it charts the disturbing outfall of one man’s violent behaviour on the people and community around him.

I normally love inter-war novels, but this one is pretty bleak and chilling. Perhaps its most interesting achievement (and one that I particularly admired) is the way in which it makes the female protagonist the star of the show and paints such a wonderful portrait of the killer it’s easy for the reader to both loathe and empathise with him…

I read this book for The 1936 Club, hosted by Simon and Karen, which runs between 12-18 April, 2021.

Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Vintage, Yoko Ogawa

‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 274 pages; 2020. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa is a brilliant mix of The Diary of Anne Frank meets George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. There are echoes of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and it also shares similar themes with Richard Flanagan’s latest novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, too.

And yet for all that, this is a wholly original dystopian novel like no other.

As Madeleine Thein writes in her review, published in the Guardian in 2019, it is a “rare work of patient and courageous vision” and one that “can be experienced as fable or allegory, warning and illumination”.

Written in deceptively simple yet hypnotic prose, there’s a dream-like quality to the text, yet the subject matter is quite nightmarish.

Isolated island life

Set on an island in a vaguely familiar dystopian future, residents are collectively forced to forget certain objects, including ribbons, roses, maps and calendars as if they never existed. This forgetting is enforced by a mysterious and draconian force called the Memory Police. Those who disobey, or who are unable to forget, are rounded up and “disappeared”.

The story is narrated by an unnamed writer who is working on a novel about a woman who takes typing lessons in a disused lighthouse. Excerpts of this novel (which are published within the novel) show the power of books and writing to preserve the past unless, of course, they are made to disappear, too.

The book’s editor, the kindly R, is one of those unfortunate people who can’t forget what he is supposed to forget and he’s running the risk of being forcefully made to disappear. The writer makes a bold decision to take him away from his pregnant wife and hide him in her house in a makeshift room hidden under the floorboards. She enlists one of her most trusted friends, an elderly man she’s known since childhood, to help her set up the room so it’s functional and soundproof, and together they smuggle R into hiding.

It’s an astonishing risk to take. For R, living in such cramped conditions, with no access to daylight and separated from his wife and child, there is little to occupy his time — except to edit the book.

It was better for him, too, to have work to do. The healthiest way of living in the secret room was to wake in the morning thinking about the things that had to be done during the day; then, at night before going to bed, to check that everything had been accomplished, whether satisfactorily or not. Moreover, the morning agenda needed to be as concrete as possible, and the tasks ideally involved some sort of reward, no matter how small. Finally, the day’s worked needed to tire him out in both body and spirit.

Jeopardy comes in many forms over the course of the novel. R’s hiding place is under constant threat of exposure, while a clandestine love affair increases the danger. Rare objects, including a harmonica, are discovered in the writer’s home and while she does not understand their use, it’s clear that just having them in her possession puts her in peril. Meanwhile, more and more objects are consigned to history by the Memory Police, including books and libraries, seemingly at random, creating chaos, confusion and instability.

Echoes of the past

First published in the author’s native Japan in 1994, The Memory Police was translated into English last year and was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize.

It’s a brilliant treatise on totalitarianism, loss and control, about the ways in which humans often obliterate all that is good in the world, and the resilience of ordinary people to survive against the odds. It can also be seen as an allegory on growing old and dying. Indeed, there’s a lot to unpick in this relatively short but powerful novel, which is told with grace and flair.

Reading this book, I couldn’t help but recognise elements of human history we would probably rather forget — the constant hunt for food reminiscent of the North Korean regime; the rounding up of people for being different has echoes of Nazi Germany; the constant rewriting of history is very Orwellian; even R’s new life in hiding could be seen as a bit like living in Covid-19 lockdown — so perhaps the book’s overriding message is the importance to remember bad things in order not to repeat them in the future.

I definitely want to read this one again. Expect to see this on my top 10 at the end of the year. Yes, it really is that good.

This is my 4th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year, and it is my 5th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I also read this as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March 2021, here.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Elizabeth Von Arnim, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Elizabeth and Her German Garden’ by Elizabeth von Arnim

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 132 pages; 2013.

Elizabeth von Arnim, the Australian-born British writer, is probably best known for her delightful novel The Enchanted April, first published in 1922, which is about a disparate group of women who holiday together in an Italian villa. (I have a small review of it here.)

Elizabeth and her German Garden was her debut novel. It was published in 1898 and charts a year in the life of the first person narrator’s plans to create a garden on her husband’s family estate in Pomerania.

The garden is the place I go to for refuge and shelter, not the house. In the house are duties and annoyances, servants to exhort and admonish, furniture, and meals; but out there blessings crowd round me at every step—it is there that I am sorry for the unkindness in me, for those selfish thoughts that are so much worse than they feel; it is there that all my sins and silliness are forgiven, there that I feel protected and at home, and every flower and weed is a friend and every tree a lover.

It is said to be semi-autobiographical, for the author was from the upper classes, having married a Prussian aristocrat, and the story is dotted with references to high society types and the German bourgeois elite.

Written in diary format (although the entries are often months apart), employing a gently mocking tone throughout — her husband, for instance, is only known as “the Man of Wrath” — it is a delightful excursion to another world, where what women could (or could not) do was strictly controlled by societal norms.

Gardening is expensive, I find, when it has to be paid for out of one’s own private pin-money. The Man of Wrath does not in the least want roses, or flowering shrubs, or plantations, or new paths, and therefore, he asks, why should he pay for them? So he does not and I do, and I have to make up for it by not indulging all too riotously in new clothes, which is no doubt very chastening.

A garden of her own

Much of the book describes how Elizabeth defies the conventions of the day. She wants not just a room of her own, but an entire garden — and she wants to create it by herself. Unfortunately, she cannot get her own hands dirty (that would be taking things a little too far) and has to rely on a male gardener to carry out her plans.

The gardeners in her employ, whom she describes in quite a judgemental way, are not without their own character flaws — one walks around with a revolver, for instance, and has to be sent to “an asylum as expeditiously as possible” when he answers her back — and there’s an air of sad resignation in the way she writes about the frustration of not being able to do the work herself.

I wish with all my heart I were a man, for of course the first thing I should do would be to buy a spade and go and garden, and then I should have the delight of doing everything for my flowers with my own hands and need not waste time explaining what I want done to somebody else. It is dull work giving orders and trying to describe the bright visions of one’s brain to a person who has no visions and no brain, and who thinks a yellow bed should be calceolarias edged with blue.

Much of the book has forays into what I would describe as “early feminism”, with Elizabeth bemoaning her inability to be allowed to live her life as she truly desires, free and unencumbered by male constructs. But complaints about her own situation pale by comparison with the servants (or “lower classes”), mainly from Russia, who work on her estate.

Her husband believes the women are kept in line by their brutal husbands — accepting their “beatings with a simplicity worthy of all praise, and far from considering themselves insulted, admire the strength and energy of the man who can administer such eloquent rebukes” — but Elizabeth is less sure.

I have not yet persuaded myself, however, that the women are happy. They have to work as hard as the men and get less for it; they have to produce offspring, quite regardless of times and seasons and the general fitness of things; they have to do this as expeditiously as possible, so that they may not unduly interrupt the work in hand; nobody helps them, notices them, or cares about them, least of all the husband. It is quite a usual thing to see them working in the fields in the morning, and working again in the afternoon, having in the interval produced a baby.

Gorgeous descriptions

But the novel is not all heavy-handed (and anger-inducing) about the inequality between the sexes or the lives of the “lower classes”. Many of Elizabeth’s diary entries are delightful descriptions of her garden and the passing of the seasons.

September 15th.—This is the month of quiet days, crimson creepers, and blackberries; of mellow afternoons in the ripening garden; of tea under the acacias instead of the too shady beeches; of wood-fires in the library in the chilly evenings.

And:

December 22nd.—Up to now we have had a beautiful winter. Clear skies, frost, little wind, and, except for a sharp touch now and then, very few really cold days. My windows are gay with hyacinths and lilies of the valley; and though, as I have said, I don’t admire the smell of hyacinths in the spring when it seems wanting in youth and chastity next to that of other flowers, I am glad enough now to bury my nose in their heavy sweetness.

I love the way she champions rural living at a time when this viewpoint was not popular, and her desire for solitude — to be away from family, friends and acquaintances who sap her energy and leave her no room to be herself — is a constant refrain.

The passion for being for ever with one’s fellows, and the fear of being left for a few hours alone, is to me wholly incomprehensible.

Human relationships

The narrative does lose its way a little when she hosts two visitors for an extended stay, but Elizabeth has just as many insights into human relationships and writes about them with the same eloquence that she does about her garden that it’s not too difficult to forgive her for going off on a tangent. I think I might have even laughed out loud at the following passage:

Oh, my dear, relations are like drugs—useful sometimes, and even pleasant, if taken in small quantities and seldom, but dreadfully pernicious on the whole, and the truly wise avoid them.

This is my 6th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it as a Kindle edition in June 2019, but I have a paperback copy, too, which I have had since circa 2015. On the basis that von Arnim could be claimed as an Australian writer, this is also my 12th book for #AWW2020.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Philip Roth, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, USA, Vintage

‘Nemesis’ by Philip Roth

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 2011; 280 pages.

Reading a novel about a polio epidemic while the world is grappling with the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic might seem like an odd thing to do. Aren’t we all scared enough? But I thought that Philip Roth’s Nemesis might offer some insights into how people behave during health scares and whether there are any lessons to be learned.

Newark polio epidemic

The story is set in Newark, New Jersey during the summer of 1944. It’s a scary time — there’s a war raging in Europe and the Pacific — but closer to home there’s another threat, a contagious disease that largely targets children. It’s called polio and is known as the “summer disease” because it only appears during the warmer months.

It starts with a headache and a fever and then leads to paralysis of body and limbs. In severe cases, patients are put in “iron lungs” — a mechanical respirator which enables a person to breathe on their own — for months at a time. Survivors can end up in wheelchairs or have to wear calipers to support withered limbs. Many die. There is no known cure.

The story is framed around 23-year-old Bucky Cantor whose poor eyesight means he hasn’t been able to enlist in the Army. His thoughts are never far away from the battlefield: two of his best friends signed up and are fighting somewhere in France. Bucky finds a good job as the director of a playground, in a Jewish part of town, where he teaches his young charges physical education and supervises their games.

He is well-liked and popular; never more so than when he stands up to a group of Italian teenagers who arrive in two cars to “spread polio” one sunny afternoon. “We got it and you don’t, so we thought we’d drive up and spread a little around,” says one of the guys, who then proceeds to spit all over the sidewalk.

Several days later two of Bucky’s students come down with polio; both eventually die. There is no proof the Italians spread the disease (after they spat on the sidewalk, Bucky washed it all down) but no one really knows how the contagion is passed on. Is it via human contact? Maybe it’s from food? Or is it the water? Why are some neighbourhoods more badly affected than others? So little is known that rumours and conspiracies abound. People want the playground shut down, the Italian gang to be lynched, the local hotdog vendor to close, entire apartment blocks to be quarantined.

Bewilderment and fear

Bucky begins to feel the weight of people’s grief and fears, their panic and bewilderment, their pain and outrage. People on the street mistake him for a Health Department official and yell their fury at him. He is devoted to the playground, at keeping it open and providing a safe place for boys to play, but he’s fearful of who might fall sick next. He begins to feel guilty that maybe he didn’t do enough to stop two of his charges from dying.

His girlfriend, a first grade teacher working at a summer camp in the hills, offers him a reprieve. There’s an opening at the camp for a waterfront director and Bucky, an accomplished diver and swimmer, would be ideal for the job. He prevaricates for a week or two — he needs to stay in the city to keep an eye on the grandmother who raised him — but eventually succumbs to the idea of fresh air and a fresh start.

The second half of the book charts Bucky’s time at the India Hill camp and his romance with Marcia. But when a fellow camp instructor falls ill, Bucky can’t help but think he brought the poliovirus with him. How many children has he now put at risk? How many parents will suffer the loss of a loved one?

Surviving a contagion 

Nemesis is a gripping account of an epidemic from another time and place seen through the eyes of one man.

It’s eloquently written in Roth’s typical forthright style and is told in the third-person. But midway through we discover it is being told through the eyes of one of Bucky’s former students looking back on the summer of 1944. The narrator, it turns out, caught polio but survived. It’s an unusual device, and perhaps not entirely necessary, but it does show that the disease was not always a death sentence.

This novel also shows how rumour and fear can spread almost as fast, if not faster, than the contagion itself, and looks at the responsibility that we all hold to behave with the good of others in mind. Washing your hands and the need for quarantine are frequently mentioned. Yes, I think there might be lessons in this book for us all.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers has also reviewed this book, but it first attracted my attention when the late KevinfromCanada reviewed it on his blog back in 2010.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London: This story is set in a children’s convalescent home in Perth, Western Australia during a polio outbreak in 1954.

This is my 9th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. The press release tucked into the cover of this book indicates that it was sent to me unsolicited in October 2011. I was obviously interested in reading it because it survived dozens of book culls over the years and was packed in my suitcase when I moved back to Australia in June last year. It may possibly be the oldest book I own here.

Australia, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Cees Nooteboom, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Lost Paradise’ by Cees Nooteboom

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 151 pages; 2008. Translated from the Dutch by Susan Massotty.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about Cees Nooteboom’s Lost Paradise, which is split into two seemingly unconnected parts that eventually come together in a not particularly convincing way.

Nooteboom is a Dutch writer with a hefty body of work, spanning poetry to travel writing, to his name, as well as a slew of literary awards. Lost Paradise, his 12th novel, was first published in 2004 and translated into English in 2007.

Unusually (for a Dutch writer), the story is largely set in Australia.

A novel in two parts

The first part focuses on two young Brazilian women, (the confusingly named) Alma and Almut, who are obsessed with Aboriginal Australians. They travel to Australia to learn about this ancient culture and to make their dream of visiting the “Aboriginal Sickness Dreaming Place” come true.

Toward the end of their journey, which takes in Adelaide and Alice Springs (among other places), they arrive in Perth, where they take part in an international arts festival event called The Angel Project. (This, apparently, was a real art installation, staged across 13 sites for the Perth International Festival of the Arts in 2000. It has also been held in London and New York.) Here, they are required to dress as angels and remain as still as statues in places dotted around the city.

The second part is about a middle-aged literary critic, Erik Zondag, who travels from Amsterdam to Austria to stay at a remote spa resort on the advice of his girlfriend who wants him to return a changed man. While there he encounters a woman with whom he once spent the night in Perth many years earlier, a woman he still occasionally thinks about, a woman who was, at the time, dressed as an angel.

And hence, you have the unlikely connection between these two seemingly disparate halves of the one book.

An outsider’s view

One element of Lost Paradise that works is the outsider’s view of Australia, the realisation that the outback is inhospitable — and completely alien — if you are unfamiliar with it. Here’s how Alma describes it:

We get out of the vehicle beside a river. The silence is broken by unknown sounds. ‘CROCODILES FREQUENT THIS AREA. KEEP CHILDREN AND DOGS AWAY FROM THE WATER’S EDGE.’ I stare at the gleaming black surface, at the red soil beneath my feet, at the dry eucalyptus leaves, curled into the shapes of letters as if they had been shaken from a tray of type. There is very little traffic on this road, so we are alone in our cloud of dust. The few cars coming towards us can be seen from miles off, like clouds or apparitions.

Similarly, Erik’s sudden awareness of the sheer size of the country is brought vividly to life in this passage:

It had been summer when he arrived in Perth. He had never been cooped up in a plane fror so long. The 18 hours to Sydney had been followed by a flight across a Continent with a population only slightly larger than that of the Netherlands, though it was nearly as big as the United States. Much of the land was empty: a rocky, sunburnt, sand-coloured desert, where the Aborigines had led their unwatched, automomous lives for thousands of years. The others — the sheep ranchers and the wine growers — lived on the periphery.

But this slim volume also explores bigger — and more complex — themes related to why we travel, what we hope to escape from and what we wish to find. There’s an emphasis on literature and art. Angels are a recurring theme — “Angels do not exist and yet they are divided into orders much like the hierarchy in an army” — and there are many nods to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The prose style is sparse and elegant, beautifully translated by Susan Massotty, and reading it feels very much as if you are caught up in a dream. It’s sad and lonely and haunting.

But for all that, there’s no doubting this is an odd book. I came away from it unable to decide whether it might be just an old white man’s self-indulgent fantasy or a slice of understated genius. And weeks after having finished it, I still don’t know…

1001 books, 20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ford Madox Ford, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage

‘The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 256 pages; 1983.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

So begins Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier, which was first published in 1915 and has remained in print ever since. It is said to be based on Ford’s own messy personal life.

Set in the Edwardian era and spanning nine years (1902 to 1914), it explores the complex and intertwined relationships between two wealthy and seemingly perfect couples —  John and Florence Dowell, from the USA, and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, from England — who meet every year at a German spa resort.

The good soldier of the title is Edward Ashburnham, a refined English gentleman, who has a strong public record — “for his good soldiering, for his saving lives at sea, for the excellent landlord he was and the good sportsman” — but, as we come to discover, he isn’t exactly a good husband. He has what we would call a “roving eye”, particularly for much younger women, and over the course of the novel takes several mistresses. He is also involved in various sexual harassment incidents, which are made to go away via blackmail and bribe — such payments threaten Ashburnham’s already dwindling finances.

His wife, well aware of her husband’s shenanigans, turns a blind eye. She’s Catholic, so divorce is impossible, and she loves Edward’s reputation as a fine, upstanding citizen. She takes the best option open to her: she looks after her husband’s welfare and his finances and manages his country home for him so that they can at least keep up appearances without falling into disrepute or impoverishment.

But it’s a thin facade and it soon begins to crack.

An unreliable narrator

The tale is narrated by John Dowell in a kindly, occasionally puzzled, voice, almost as if he can’t believe what has happened to his English friend Ashburnham: he thought he was an upright citizen but now realises he was “morally soft”.

His narrative jumps backward and forwards in time via flashbacks, and as his story unfolds the reader begins to question Dowell’s version of events. He’s an unreliable narrator in the sense that he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue himself and by the end, I wasn’t sure if he had been played by others or done the playing himself.

Initially, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. His young wife Florence has “heart trouble” so he needs to ensure she’s always calm, never panicked, that she has lots of personal space and time to herself. He seems to be consumed with worry about her.  The slightest rise in her heart rate might end in death.

But as his tale proceeds, you realise that the only “heart trouble” Florence has is psychological: she’s having an affair and using her quiet time, in which her bedroom door is always locked, not to quell the beating of her dodgy heart but to have her adulterous way with a married man.

Dowell, who describes himself as a “trained poodle”, is shocked when the affair comes to light, but by then it’s too late to do anything about it: Florence is dead.

A tale of adultery 

As a tale of adulterous love and an exposé on the duplicity of those whose public lives do not match their private personas, The Good Soldier is extraordinarily good.

For a story that is very much about sexual morals, there is little to no sex in it. There’s quite a bit of religion in it, though. There’s a lot about the cultural differences between Americans and Brits (which I enjoyed), and a good smattering of tragedy, including illness, suicide and madness. But it never feels over the top. Madox Ford keeps a tight rein on events and emotions; everything is carefully restrained, so much so I sometimes had to reread passages to ensure I hadn’t missed anything.

It occasionally feels a bit woolly and repetitive, and I found it difficult to truly engage with any of the characters. As much as I liked Dowell’s voice, the rhythm of the sentences and the cool detached nature of the prose, I struggled to like The Good Soldier as a whole. But there’s a lot in this book to discuss — about gender and marriage and love and lust and which characters are true to themselves and which aren’t. It would make a terrific book club read for that reason.

The Good Soldier is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and was adapted for television in 1981.

This is my 11th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 30th for #TBR40. It has been sitting in my TBR for more than a decade, having acquired it via BookMooch when I was an active member in 2005/06.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage, William Maxwell

‘The Château’ by William Maxwell

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 416 pages; 2012.

Do you ever finish reading a book and then feel totally ambivalent about it? When I came to the end of The Château, by William Maxwell, I really didn’t know what to make of it. Did I love it, or did I loathe it? A couple of weeks later and I still don’t quite know how I feel about it.

First published in 1961, The Château was Maxwell’s penultimate novel (he has six to his name, plus a handful of short story collections and books for children).

It’s about a young American couple, Barbara and Harold Rhodes, who go to France on holiday in 1948 as the country is still finding its feet after the Second World War. On the recommendation of a friend, they plan to stay at Château Beaumesnil in Touraine, where they will base themselves for the summer, exploring the local area, heading to Paris and other European cities (Venice, for instance), while bettering their use of the French language.

But after a long, complicated journey to get there, they don’t receive the warm welcome they had expected from the château’s owner, Mme Vienot, who seems a little “off” and neglectful of her hostessing duties towards them. They soon figure out she’s a social climber and a snob. And the other guests staying there are similarly distant and aloof.

Over time, as they settle in and come to terms with French culture, they realise they may have formed the wrong impression about Mme Vienot and her guests. They form friendships and alliances, get invited to parties and people’s homes and catch up with acquaintances in Paris, but the sense of being Other, of always being seen as privileged Americans never quite leaves them.

Not much happens in the novel; it’s not plot-driven but character-driven. It feels a little like a travelogue because it follows the ups and downs of Barbara and Harold’s travels, including their day-to-day encounters with new people, the little cafes and restaurants they visit, the tourist sites they pay homage to, the art and souvenirs they buy and the domestic dramas that ensue, usually involving Mme Vienot or misunderstandings with taxi drivers or officials.

All the while you are privy to their most intimate conversations, their indecisions about whether to stay or go, their confusion over how much to tip people, their inability to complain about service, their puzzlement as to why people they meet along the way do or say the things they do. Anyone who’s ever gone on holiday with a loved one to a foreign country will recognise a lot of those same conversations and experiences.

It’s all beautifully rendered and written in a very subtle, observant way using elegant prose, reminiscent of Richard Yates’ understated style.

But there’s a weird twist at the end. Just when you think the story has finished, Maxwell introduces Part II — entitled Some Explanations — that spans around 50 pages of meta-fiction. In it, he explains some of the unanswered questions that haunt Barbara and Harold’s trip. Why, for instance, did their friend Eugène act so horribly towards them on the train, and why did his wife Alix not say goodbye?

It makes for an interesting change in perspective and serves to highlight that the American couple’s lack of worldly experience and their linguistic and social difficulties meant they often misunderstood what was happening around them. This meant they sometimes jumped to (unfair) conclusions. It’s an interesting exercise in showing how travel can broaden the mindset, but I admit it felt quite odd coming at the end of a rather long novel about characters that — if I’m honest — weren’t especially interesting.

This is my 10th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 29th for #TBR40. I purchased it in the early 2000s in paperback form and, forgetting that I owned a copy, I also bought it on Kindle last year. (Does this happen to anyone else? I seem to buy multiple copies of books because I forget I already own it.)

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Charlotte Grimshaw, Fiction, literary fiction, New Zealand, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage

‘The Night Book’ by Charlotte Grimshaw

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 320 pages; 2010.

Before I left London to move to Western Australia last month, I watched a New Zealand crime series called Bad Seed on TV.

The storyline in this five-part series felt vaguely familiar to me and later on I realised it was a weird amalgamation of two books by Charlotte Grimshaw: her 2013 novel Soon, which I had read and loved (it made my top 10 the following year); and her 2010 novel, The Night Book, which had been lurking in my TBR for about five years.

I promptly packed The Night Book in my suitcase and read it a couple of weeks ago as part of the #20BooksOfSummer challenge.

New Zealand literary fiction

Unlike the TV series, this isn’t a crime novel. It’s literary fiction focused on New Zealand’s “elites”, showing how all their money and power and career success doesn’t stop them from messing up their personal lives.

Set in Auckland, it is framed around two families whose paths cross in an unexpected way.

First there is the Hallwright family. David Hallwright, a right wing politician, is on track to become the next Prime Minister of New Zealand. He has two children by his late wife and has remarried a young woman, Roza, who is struggling with the idea of being a famous man’s wife. She’s trying to stay out of the limelight by working a regular job in publishing, all the while trying to keep her demons at bay — she is a recovering alcoholic, once had a cocaine problem and, unbeknownst to David, gave up her first child for adoption.

Then there is the wealthy, middle class Lampton family. Simon is an obstetrician and Karen is a housewife. They have three children, one of whom they fostered then adopted. Her name is Elke; she’s beautiful and intriguing and very close to Simon, who treats her more favourably than he does his natural daughter Claire.

These two families are brought together through Karen Lampton’s fundraising activities. She’s heavily involved in the (unnamed) political party that David Hallwright heads up and, together with (a reluctant) Simon, often attends political dinners and fundraising occasions. It is at these events that Simon meets Roza and the pair develop a mutual attraction — but for wildly different reasons.

Deeply flawed characters

As the novel’s richly layered narrative unfolds, we come to understand the personal struggles of all the characters but, in particular, those of Roza and Simon, who are both deeply flawed and nursing past hurts. Their strange and twisted relationship potentially threatens to not only ruin David Hallwright’s shot at being PM but could also tear apart the Lampton’s already rocky marriage.

Despite the fact most of the characters in this book are not especially likeable, it’s a compelling read, perhaps because Grimshaw treats everyone with great empathy — these are people that feel flesh and blood real. All their mistakes are entirely human.

The author is also very good at skewering contemporary life, of all the nonsense around social climbing and consumerism and conservatism, and she’s brilliant at showing how personal lives are often at odds with public personas.

The Night Book is an eye-opening insight into power and politics and how the choices people make can have long-lasting repercussions. I ate this one up in a matter of days; it’s definitely worth a read if you can track down a copy.

This is my 4th book for #20BooksOfSummer and my 23rd book for #TBR40. I bought this copy at the (now defunct) Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts, held in London in 2014, after I saw the author at one of the sessions. 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, Kent Haruf, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, USA, Vintage

‘Where You Once Belonged’ by Kent Haruf

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 176pages; 1990.

Regular readers of this blog will know that Kent Haruf is one of my favourite authors. He only has a handful of novels to his name and I have read — and loved — them all. I had been saving this one up, knowing that once I had read it there would be no more Haruf novels to read, because he sadly died in 2014, just a couple of years after I discovered him.

Where You Once Belonged is his second novel. According to the copyright page in this edition, part of the book had previously been published in different form in Grand Street and Best American Stories 1987.

Like all the other books in Haruf’s backlist, this one is set in the fictional Colorado town of Holt. It has other trademarks I’ve come to associate with his work, too: well-rounded characters, an evocative prairie town setting, lean and elegant prose, whipsmart dialogue and an uncanny ability to tap into the inner workings of the human psyche.

But this tale doesn’t feel quite as polished as other novels he has written. The prose is characteristically taut, but the narrative feels pushed to its limits. It wanders a bit and lacks self-assuredness for it’s hard to tell if the story is about the narrator or the character he’s telling us about. Let me explain.

The story is narrated by Pat Arbuckle, the editor of the local newspaper, who went to school with a boy called Jack Burdette. Jack was the kind of kid who played pranks, got into trouble at school and was a bit of a handful, but he excelled at sport — he was taller and broader than his fellow students and looked like a man long before they did — which meant he was respected and popular, both on and off the pitch.

But as an adult, Jack takes advantage of people, including the people he’s closest to, and by the time anyone cottons on to his crimes, it’s too late: Jack’s upped sticks and is never seen again.

Eight years pass and then an older, fatter Jack is spotted in town. He’s sitting in a red Cadillac, which he’s parked outside the local tavern. The first local who notices him bolts to the sheriff’s office to report him — and then events play out in ways no one could possibly foresee…

It’s an interesting storyline and because Jack’s crimes are not revealed until about two-thirds of the way through the book, there’s enough intrigue to make the reader keep turning the pages. But the tale is told first-person style from Pat’s perspective, which means the focus swings between his own story — a humdrum working life and an unhappy marriage — and Jack’s story, and Haruf can’t quite seem to make up his mind which one should take precedent.

Of course that doesn’t make this a bad book — it’s just a little uneven and the storyline feels a bit thin. I suspect it would have been much stronger as a short story.

Where You Once Belonged is still a riveting read and it packs a real emotional punch. Its depiction of courtship and marriage, coupled with the 1960s setting and the brooding, melancholic nature of the story, reminded me very much of Richard Yates, another fine American writer.

If you haven’t read Haruf before, this probably isn’t the place to start; I’d argue this one is for the fans and “completists” only.

This is my 3rd book for #20BooksofSummer and my 22nd for #TBR40. According to the receipt I found buried in the back of this book, I purchased it from the Book Depository on 21 February 2013, so it has been in my TBR for more than six years!