Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Karl Geary, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Montpelier Parade’ by Karl Geary

Montpelier Parade

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 240 pages; 2017.

Karl Geary’s Montpelier Parade was longlisted for the 2017 Desmond Elliot Prize, shortlisted for the 2017 Costa First Novel Award and named as one of the Irish Times’ books of the year. It’s an unconventional story about forbidden love set in Dublin.

Working class life

Sonny is a 16-year-old schoolboy from a working class family. He nicks bikes, lacks self-esteem and his only friend is a girl, whom he sometimes dreams about kissing. He has a part-time job at the local butchers, where it’s expected he’ll become an apprentice when he leaves school.

But Sonny dreams of bigger things and wants to escape not only his family — four nameless older brothers, a nagging mother and a bullying father — but perhaps Ireland itself.

His world is opened up when he helps his father build a garden fence for a well-to-do English woman who lives on Montpelier Parade (hence the novel’s title). Her name is Vera. She’s beautiful, sophisticated and loves to read, but she’s also deeply troubled, and it’s only when Sonny rescues her after a failed suicide attempt that an unlikely friendship blossoms between them.

Melancholia and isolation

The deeply melancholic mood and feel of this novel is one that gets under the skin. The time period isn’t specified, but I suspect it’s the 1970s or 80s.

It’s written entirely in the second person, a “trick” that is very difficult to pull off without making the story too distant, but in Geary’s hands it works perfectly by highlighting Sonny’s sense of isolation. He is also excellent at conveying domestic settings and the eyes of a teenage boy being opened up to a new way of embracing the world.

As an example, here’s how he describes Sonny’s discovery of books and reading by borrowing tomes from Vera’s house without her knowledge:

You had never had a book before, and this one was a good one, you were sure of that, with its thumb-worn pages and old amber smell. The writer’s name in bold red print, T. S. Eliot, and the simple word Poems across the top. On the cover, cutting through the word, was a perfect circle, a dark stain.

You saw her then, Vera, at home one night on that blue couch, a blanket over her knees, maybe a fire burning in the grate. She looped a strand of hair behind her ear and reached across and set a half-finished glass of red wine onto the book she had fully emptied. It left a mark.

You sat at the kitchen table and boldly put the book out in front of you. Your mother was making the dinner, the news on the radio. The boys were in the next room, the television too. […]

“What’s that?” she says.

“It’s a book.”

“I can see it’s a book, what book is it?”

“Poems,” you say.

“Poems?” She forced air through her pursed lips, making a kind of pap sound.

Sonny’s new-found romance with literature is mirrored by his fondness for Vera, which develops into a sexual relationship that is both tender and troubling. While Geary refrains from offering any moral judgement, there is forever the hint that Sonny has got out of his depth but lacks the maturity to realise.

When I reached the end of this perfectly paced narrative, which works its gentle, poetic way towards a heart-breaking climax, I felt wrung out and devastated. Montpelier Parade is not only an unforgettable love story, it’s an exquisitely written novel about love, loss, sexual awakening and hope for a brighter future.

5 books, Book lists

5 books about forbidden love

5-books-200pixWith Valentine’s Day just around the corner I thought I’d put together a post about novels focussed on love — but with a twist. 

Instead of sweet, innocent romances, here are five novels that tell stories of forbidden love between people who should probably know better.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — hyperlinks will take you to my full reviews:

Skin lane‘Skin Lane’ by Neil Bartlett (2008)

Set in the London fur trade in 1967, this book is narrated deadpan style by Mr F, a 46-year-old loner, who begins having weird dreams in which a young naked man, his face obscured by his hair, is found hanging upside down in his bathroom. When a new apprentice joins Mr F at work he begins to wonder whether he might, in fact, be the boy of his dreams… This is a dark and creepy tale, one that has parallels to Beauty and the Beast, about an older man falling for a younger colleague that he cannot have. I read it more than four years ago, but the story has stayed with me — it’s one that does, indeed, get under the skin.

the space between us‘The Space Between Us’ by John MacKenna (2009)

It’s a bit difficult to summarise this novel by Irish writer John MacKenna without revealing a crucial plot spoiler, but let’s just say it’s about a widowed man who faces the challenge of raising his young daughter alone in ways that might not immediately spring to mind. Instead of being upset by his wife’s death, he’s relieved, perhaps because a married friend, Kate, has confessed she’s in love with him. This is an intriguing story about love in all its many facets — forbidden, unrequited, sexual and parental — death, grief and the relationships between fathers and daughters.

Lamb‘Lamb’ by Bonnie Nadzam (2011)

After David Lamb’s wife leaves him his life goes into a bit of a tailspin. Then, following his father’s funeral, he makes a spur of the moment decision to kidnap an 11-year-old girl, with whom he develops an unhealthy relationship. The book is not sexually explicit, but it is clear that Lamb is grooming young Tommie for his own perverse interests by building trust and making her feel special at every opportunity. When the two end up in a cabin in the woods you can’t help but fear for Tommie’s safety…

Tampa‘Tampa’ by Alissa Nutting (2013)

Meet Celeste Price, eighth grade English teacher, who has blond hair, a red corvette, an ultra-handsome husband — and an unusual sexual obsession with her 14-year-old male students. A novel about a pedophile might sound a bit repulsive  — it is, especially as the author makes the reader complicit in Celeste’s crimes— but it’s also a  compelling read thanks to the narrator’s engaging, often humorous, voice. But this isn’t just a titillating read: it throws up many questions about sexualisation of children, the lines between pupils and teachers, trust and betrayal.

A ship made of paper‘A Ship Made of Paper’ by Scott Spencer (2004)

This novel is very much in the vein of Anne Tyler in that it’s about ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary situations. It’s about a lawyer, Daniel Emerson, who flees New York after a messy trial has ruined his outlook on life. He takes his long-term girlfriend Kate and Kate’s four-year-old daughter, Ruby, back to his home town to start afresh. In the safety of the rural town, he settles into a comfortable, if somewhat easy, existence. But then life gets slightly more complicated when he notices that he is falling in love with Iris, the mother of Ruby’s best friend. This isn’t just a story about two people having an affair, risking everything in the process, but because Iris is black and Daniel is white it’s a fascinating exploration of race relations (without ever resorting to stereotypes or caricature) and societal expectations. It’s a truly compelling and utterly believable read.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend another novel about forbidden love?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, William Trevor

‘Love and Summer’ by William Trevor

Love and Summer by William Trevor
Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 221 pages; 2009.

The oppressive nature of village life — in which privacy is virtually non-existent —  comes to the fore in William Trevor’s 2009 novel, Love and Summer, which also explores guilt, forbidden love and the strength we all require to rise above our circumstances.

Set in Rathmoye, a small Irish town “some years after the middle of the last century”, it follows a handful of residents over the course of one fine summer.

Trevor takes his time to introduce them all, chapter by chapter, including: the former librarian Orpen Wren, who seems to have lost his marbles and only talks about people and events from the past as if he is stuck in a time warp; the troubled Miss Connulty, who has taken over running the town’s B&B with her “weasel faced” twin brother, Joseph, upon the death of their community-minded mother; and the hardworking widowed farmer Dillahan and his second wife, Ellie, a foundling who first moved to the farm as a housekeeper, an arrangement organised by the nuns who raised her.

But the equilibrium of Rathmoye — where “nothing happened, its people said” — is disturbed by the arrival of a tweed-clad stranger on a bicycle. He causes a bit of a stir when he turns up on the morning of Mrs Connulty’s funeral asking for directions to the ruins of the local cinema, which he wants to photograph.

His name is Florian Kilderry, “the sole relic of an Italian mother and an Anglo-Irish father”, who has inherited Shelhanagh, a large crumbling house, with its own lake, seven-and-a-half miles from Rathmoye. He cannot afford its upkeep, so his only option is to sell it:

“She’ll fetch a bit, I’d reckon,” the man from the estate agents’ office had said when he’d finished with his tape measure; and the Bank of Ireland thought so too. With the debts paid, there would be enough to live on, if not in splendour at least in comfort for a while. Enough to be a stranger somewhere else, although Florian didn’t yet know where. He had never been outside Ireland.

As Florian goes about getting the house ready for sale — disposing of its contents, including a car — he often travels into the village on photographic excursions (he’s dabbling with it as a potential occupation), and it is here that he strikes up a friendship with Ellie when she’s out and about on her errands. This friendship blossoms into something much deeper and it is this forbidden love affair which forms the heart of this rather genteel novel.

But to dismiss this book as merely a romance would be to do it a disservice.

Trevor is an economical writer, keeping both his prose and his narrative pared back to basics, but his characterisation is superb and the ways in which he draws such a diverse cast together is nothing short of genius. Every character has a back story — Dillahan’s first wife and young child died in a tragic farming accident for which he blames himself, Miss Connulty was “disowned” by her mother following an abortion 20 years earlier, Ellie was raised by nuns who taught her to be chaste and pure, Florian holds a torch for the Italian cousin he no longer keeps in touch with   — and it is these heartaches and desires which play a key role in giving Love and Summer such unexpected strength and power.

Trevor is also superb at capturing the tenets of rural life — the changing seasons, the day-to-day tasks that a farmer must carry out, the routine of keeping a house, the reliance on neighbours and community for help, amongst others — often bringing to mind some of my favourite rural Irish novels, such as John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun and Patrick Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn.

There’s no doubt that Love and Summer is a deftly written novel, one that unfolds gently to reveal what it is to be confronted with difficult, heart-rending choices. I loved its quiet beauty and its truthful depiction of rural life and romantic love.

For other takes on this novel, please see KevinfromCanada’s review and Lisa from ANZLitLovers review.

To see reviews of other William Trevor novels on Reading Matters, please visit my William Trevor page.

Atlantic Books, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Joan London, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Good Parents’ by Joan London

GoodParents

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 369 pages; 2009.

Australian author Joan London is probably best known for her novel Gilgamesh, which was published in 2001 and garnered critical acclaim in Australia, the UK and USA. The Good Parents, published seven years later, is her second novel.

Missing teenager

When the story begins we see events unfold through the eyes of 18-year-old Maya, a naive country girl from Western Australia (WA), who is working as a personal assistant in Melbourne. She’s having an affair with her much older boss, Maynard,whose wife has cancer. When Maynard’s wife dies, he decides to shut up shop and head elsewhere, possibly to Asia, taking Maya with him.

But instead of following Maya’s storyline, the book dramatically switches to that of her parents, the beautiful Toni and the dreamy artistic Jacob, who arrive in Melbourne expecting to spend a couple of weeks with their teenage daughter. But she has gone and not even her flatmate seems to know where she might be.

Under the guise of searching for her, Toni and Jacob go sightseeing instead. But when Jacob injures his foot, he is confined indoors, and for some inexplicable reason Toni heads to a Buddhist retreat. This allows both to reflect on their lives, including their childhoods in WA and their subsequent meeting and fleeing city life together in the 1960s.

Their individual stories, which gently unfold in alternate chapters, reveal how both have never had the chance to live up to their full potential, except maybe as parents (hence the title).

Richly layered novel

This is a richly layered story of two people caught up in generational change, whomade poor decisions (either  by choice or circumstance) — Toni married the shady Cy Fisher, while Jacob never followed his dream to be a writer and distracted himself with unimportant work whenever crucial events occurred in his life in order not to think about them. Their own children seem just as perplexed about the real world.

** SPOILER ALERT **

Eventually, the novel returns to Maya, who is living in Brisbane with an increasingly distant and violent Maynard. The book’s resolution, in which Maya is rescued by Cy Fisher, does rely on a somewhat preposterous and unlikely series of coincidences.

** END OF SPOILER ALERT **

And if it wasn’t for this poor ending, I would have heartily recommended this book to all and sundry. But note, this is the only weak point in this rather beaut novel.

For another, much more intellectual, take on this novel, please see Lisa of ANZLitLover’s review.

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Lovesong’ by Alex Miller

Lovesong

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 354 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Alex Miller is a London-born Australian writer with nine novels to his name. Two of these — The Ancestor Game (1993) and Journey to the Stone Country (2003) — have earned him the Miles Franklin Literary Award. His most recent novel, Lovesong, was released in Australia in 2009 but has just been published in the UK for the first time.

Having never read any of Miller’s work before — I’ve got three of his novels in my always-growing To Be Read pile — I was anxious to see if this one would live up to the high praise I had heard about. The short answer is this: it did. The long answer is the review which follows.

Lovesong is a story within a story. It’s not exactly metafiction, but it comes close. An elderly novelist searching for a subject to write about meets a middle-aged man with a story to tell.

Ken is on the verge of retirement (“My last novel was always going to be my last novel”), who lives with his 38-year-old daughter, Clare. Their relationship isn’t exactly fraught, but there are clearly tensions between them. And it doesn’t help that Clare only moved in for a few weeks when she was newly separated from her husband — and that was five years ago!

One day Ken notices a new pastry shop in his local neighbourhood, run by an intriguing couple: a North African woman in her early 40s — beautiful and self-possessed, but with a deep sadness in her eyes — and her Australian school teacher husband. They have a pretty six-year-old daughter.

Ken becomes slightly obsessed with them and wants to find out how they met, “this Aussie bloke and his exotic bride”, and engineers a meeting with the husband, John Patterner. Over the course of many afternoons, lingering over coffee in a local cafe, John tells Ken his story.

The story of himself and his wife, Sabiha, the beautiful woman from Tunisia whom he had married in Paris when he was a young man and she was little more than a girl. And the beautiful and terrible story of their little daughter Houria.

Ken then spends his evenings secretly typing up what he has been told. He can’t help himself: he needs to write — “During my life I had acquired no skills for not working and I soon found that not writing a book was harder than writing one was” — and these form the bulk of the novel Lovesong. What he had initially predicted as a “simple love story” is far more complicated, and tragic, than he ever could imagine.

John and Sabiha’s tale begins beautifully — and romantically — and brims with optimism for the future. But the couple work so hard running a busy and successful cafe in a seedy suburb of Paris that there is little time for anything else in their lives. By the time they realise they want different things — for Sabiha, a much longed for child, and for John, a permanent return to Australia — years have passed and it might be too late.

Lovesong is, indeed, just that: a love song. But it’s also a story about regret, about thwarted dreams, about the ways in which love between two people can change over time. It is incredibly romantic, but authentic — Miller really gets inside the heads of his characters, both male and female, and presents either side of the gender divide with aplomb.

There’s something about the cool, limpid prose that keeps sentimentality at bay. But despite its emotional detachment, this is one of the most affecting love stories I’ve ever read.

It’s also one of the most thought-provoking. That’s largely due to the device of Ken — whose intelligent, writerly voice, only interrupts the main narrative on an occasional basis. But his presence begs the question: is he authorised to tell this tale? Or does John and Sabiha’s love story remain their’s alone to keep?