& Other Stories, Author, Book review, Deborah Levy, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Swimming Home’ by Deborah Levy


Fiction – Kindle edition; And Other Stories; 127 pages; 2012.

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, is the kind of short, sharp novel that may make you think twice about going on holiday with family friends.

A holiday in France

The story takes place across eight days in July 1994. The setting is the Alpes-Maritimes, France, where two English families share a holiday villa.  War correspondent Isabel Jacobs, her husband Joe — a celebrated poet — and their 14-year-old daughter, Nina, are joined by long-time friends, Mitchell and Laura, who run a shop in Euston, London.

When the five arrive at the villa they discover a body floating in the deep end of the swimming pool. They initially mistake it for a bear, but it turns out to be a young woman called Kitty French, who has exceedingly long hair.

Kitty seems to think she has a booking at the villa, too, but there’s been a mix-up with the rental dates. All the local hotels are booked up, so Isabel offers her the spare room. This vague but kind invitation will end up having far-reaching repercussions for everyone.

Deceptive appearances

There are two other characters — Jurgen, the German caretaker, and Madeleine Sheridan, the next-door neighbour — who are both crucial to the plot, because they have had past experiences with Kitty.

Of course Kitty is not all that she seems (indeed, no-one in this novella is what they seem to be when you first meet them). She tells everyone she is a botanist, but she also writes poetry and her arrival at the villa is part of a charade to meet Joe, whom she has long admired.

It is no plot spoiler to reveal that she ends up having sex with him — we find this out on page one as the pair drive through the night, two hours after their consummation in the Hotel Negresco.

A stranger’s arrival

Levy has taken an old formulaic plot — that of the stranger who arrives unannounced to disrupt a group dynamic — but given it an original twist. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Ali Smith’s The Accidental, which does something similar and which was also shortlisted for the Booker — in 2005.)

It’s not an emotional book — although it does have a shock ending — but more an intellectual one, because there’s quite a lot to mull over and think about. (For instance, is Kitty’s poem that she wants Joe to read, really a poem — or a suicide note?)

And while the characters are not particularly fleshed out — indeed Laura seems to disappear not long after she’s been introduced and Mitchell doesn’t fare much better — they are deeply intriguing. All have closely guarded secrets, and part of the joy of reading Swimming Home is discovering these as Levy shifts her perceptive eye from character to character.

A book to read twice?

I rather suspect that this is a book that demands a second reading. Levy’s prose and the book’s structure is so deft and tight, that the narrative zips along at a furious pace. Occasionally, I wondered if I might have missed something and went back and reread pages — just to make sure.

In a way, this is a novel of contradictions: it’s dry and dispassionate throughout, but the ending is very moving and leaves one feeling particularly unnerved; the writing is taut and sparse, but it feels lyrical and Levy can capture a mood or scene in just a few words (“it was snowing seagulls on every rooftop in Nice”); the barely-there plot is rather dull but the story is intriguing and compelling.

While I feel kind of ambivalent about the book — I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either — I rather suspect the Man Booker judges may think differently. The winning novel — and it will probably be this one — is named on October 16.

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

‘Lovesong’ by Alex Miller


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?

Author, Book review, Fiction, France, H. E. Bates, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, war

‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H. E. Bates


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 255 pages; 2005.

H.E. Bates’ 1944 classic Fair Stood the Wind for France is one of the finest and loveliest books I’ve ever read. (The title comes from the first line of Agincourt, a poem by Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton.)

The story begins with John Franklin’s Royal Airforce plane crash-landing in Occupied France at the height of the Second World War. Franklin, who has been “actively operational” for almost a year and isn’t far off notching up his first 300-hours of flying time, is accompanied by a crew of four sergeants.

The five of them survive the plane going down in marshland, but Franklin’s left arm is badly injured. After walking for an entire day, they come to a small farm on the edge of a woods. Here, they are taken in by a mill-owner and his family, who hide them in an upstairs bedroom.

The men plan to escape to Spain, but Franklin’s injury has left him too weak to travel. A clandestine visit to a local doctor is arranged, but the only cure, it seems, is bed rest.

This does not go down well with his crew, who are anxious to head for the border. They are not sure whether to trust the mill owner and his family, and they are frightened to stay on French soil lest they be captured by German forces that patrol the local area.

Eventually, the crew are provided with fake travel papers, arranged by the mill owner, but Franklin decides to stay behind until his arm heals. During this time he is nursed by the mill-owner’s daughter, Françoise, a strangely quiet but observant and cool-headed customer, with whom he falls in love.

Fair Stood the Wind for France is not your average sappy romance, however. Set against the horrors of war, it takes on a life-affirming force, and Bates’ prose is so elegant and pitch-perfect he somehow gets to the heart of human emotions without actually spelling anything out. In fact Bates’ writing is so stripped back — not one word is wasted — that it seems a feat of exceptional genius to wring so much emotion, drama and truth out of almost every sentence, every page.

Bates is also very good at evoking time and place. Because much of the story occurs over the course of a hot summer, there are beautiful descriptions of the French countryside baking in the heat, which, in turn, makes Franklin homesick.

Of England, his other thoughts were simple. He wanted a cup of tea. Since it must be mid-afternoon he found himself alone in the room, listening for the encouraging, clean, beautiful sound of rattled tea-cups. But as he lay there he could hear nothing but the deep and audible silence of the full summer day, so strong and drowsy that it seemed to press both his mind and body deeply back into the bed. Diana [his “best girl”] and tea and England: all of them like small and faintly unreal clouds, far distant and at the point of evaporation, on the horizon of the present world. A long time before they come any nearer, he thought. Ah well!

There is much tenderness and quiet beauty in this story, but there is heart-ache, pain and death, too. As Franklin grapples with his predicament — should he stay, or should he go — the reader begins to fear for the pilot’s survival: no matter which he chooses, surely his life is in danger?

This a book about trust and intimacy, not only between two people, but between allies in war. It is gut-wrenchingly sad in places, but brims with optimism. And when I discovered, towards the end of the novel, that Franklin was just 22, I found myself reeling from the knowledge. His maturity, his insight, his care for others — not just Françoise, but his crewmen, who must have been younger still — made my heart lurch. I defy anyone to read this book and not get completely wrapped up in this lovely, occasionally daring, story.

Fair Stood the Wind for France is not only destined to be on my list of favourite reads of 2011 at year’s end, but one of my favourite books of all time. Do beg, borrow or buy a copy if you can.

Allen & Unwin, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, Marion Halligan, Publisher, Setting, short stories

‘Valley of Grace’ by Marion Halligan


Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 248 pages; 2009.

Valley of Grace, the latest novel by Australian author Marion Halligan,  is one of the most exquisitely designed  books I’ve had the pleasure of reading — and holding — in a long, long time. It’s slightly wider than your normal literary novel (15.2cm, as opposed to the more regular 12.8cm), has fold-in covers and is typeset in a beautiful font, PastonchiMT.

The cover image of a Parisian streetscape, complemented by a gold border, is from Getty Images and the cover design is by Sandy Cull. It recently won the Best Designed Literary Fiction Book at the 58th Annual Book Design Awards announced in Sydney. A well deserved award, in my humble opinion, because for me, the look and feel of this book only enhanced my reading experience of it. I can’t help but think that with the advance of digital books, this kind of experience — taking joy in the beauty of an object — will be lost forever.

But does that all matter, when it’s the content upon which we should judge a book? Fortunately, Valley of Grace delivers on the inside as much as it delivers on the outside. Indeed, it’s a gorgeous story, written in the most exquisite (am I using that word too much?) prose that makes for an entirely effortless read.

The book is marketed as a novel, but like many books I’ve been reading lately, it’s actually a series of interwoven short stories featuring characters that knock and rub against one another throughout the narrative. The framework which ties them all together is modern day Paris, which comes alive in Halligan’s pitch-perfect descriptions of buildings and streetscapes, little cafes and chocolate shops. (She also takes pains to describe food in such a way that if you’re not hungry when reading, you’ll be ravenous afterwards.)

But the real “theme” of this novel, if that is the right word to use, is babies: Halligan’s small cast of characters — all well-to-do, well-heeled Parisians — either hankers after them, cannot have them or does not know what to do with them. There is Fanny Picart, who works in an Antiquarian bookshop (the descriptions of the shop and the books are gorgeous), who marries the man of her dreams but fails to fall pregnant; there is Sabine, who turns a blind eye to her academic husband’s affairs, but is then expected to arrange the termination of any resulting unwanted pregnancies; and there is Luc, the owner of the bookshop, who is in a committed gay relationship but is asked to father a child for a pair of lesbian friends.

Each of these characters has battles of conscience to overcome, as they reconcile their reality with their dreams. For instance, when Fanny, who is so desperate to become a mother, finally realises her ambition (and not in the way she quite planned), she has to come to terms with the fact that having a child does not necessarily result in happiness. And even Sabine, who initially comes across as slightly cold, aloof and foolish (why on earth is she assisting her husband’s libertarian lifestyle when it so clearly makes her unhappy?) has her views turned upside down, when she becomes a kind of secret, substitute mother for one of his “bastard” children.

On the surface, much of this book reads like a beautiful, modern-day fairy tale, but just like the best of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales there are hidden meanings and moral messages if you dig a little deeper. This is a lovely, gentle, easy-to-read book, rich with symbolism, and I thank Sue from Whispering Gums for bringing it to my attention. I urge you to read Sue’s review for another take on the same book.

Author, Book review, Christophe Dufosse, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘School’s Out’ by Christophe Dufosse


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 400 pages; 2007. Translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside.

I’m not sure what it is with modern French novels, because I never really seem to enjoy them despite the fact that the blurb makes them sound fantastic. The cover of Christophe Dufosse’s School’s Out boasted all kinds of glowing reviews from “cool, sexy and sinister” to “forcibly reminds one of Donna Tart’s A Secret History“. And the note about the author on the first page said it had been translated into 10 languages and was the winner of the Prix Premier Roman, which is a French prize for first novels (I think?), so how could I go wrong?

The story opens with the death of a young teacher at a secondary school. He has killed himself by leaping out of a classroom window and it is largely thought that his class of unruly 13-year-old students are to blame. But when Pierre Hoffman takes over the class for the rest of the school year he finds the students incredibly well-behaved, quiet and submissive. But he soon learns that there is something slightly abnormal about them, as if they are “existing only as a whole, in a group”. Cue spooky music here…

Despite this promising start, the story, in my opinion, runs out of steam.

It didn’t help that I found the narrator to be incredibly detached and annoyingly philosophical. The prose style reminded me of Michel Hoeullebecq, but without the sense of humour. Perhaps it lost something in translation? Not that it read oddly, indeed some of the descriptions are pitch-perfect, such as this one:

The light outside was starting to fade. It was a few minutes past noon, and the grey sky of Normandy was already turning a shimmering black. The wind couldn’t blow away the rain, a fine, solid rain that hurtled down in sudden pockets like the impetuous whirl of a flock of sparrows. It flew at the service station windows and climbed horizontally up the car park, sweeping the asphalt at an oblique angle. From where we were standing, we could hear a faint whistle from the trees and bushes. Time stopped abruptly as though there had been some sort of breakdown in our continuity.

But it went off on so many tangents that the crux of the story — a class of teenagers that have sinister intentions — got lost in the mix. Not once did I want to furiously turn the page to find out what happened next. Not once did I feel the slow-burn of menace that I had expected to resonate off the page. The entire narrative lacked oomph or any sense of urgency.

The exciting stuff comes right at the very end — yes, somewhere about page 312 of a 316-page book — and even then it’s not all that exciting. In fact, it seems somehow unreal and a little bit ludicrous. And I won’t even mention the epilogue!

Frankly, a disappointing book and one I wished I’d never bothered reading.

Author, Black Swan, Book review, Fiction, France, general, Joanne Harris, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Five Quarters of the Orange’ by Joanne Harris


Fiction – paperback; Black Swan; 363 pages; 2002. 

Reading a Joanne Harris book is like catching up with an old friend — enjoyable and comfortable. Five Quarters of the Orange is no exception.

Building on from her thematic explorations of the world of chocolate in Chocolat and wine-making in Blackberry Wine, this novel serves up more delicious and mouth-watering descriptions of food and baking set in a French creperie by the River Loire.

The narrator, an elderly French woman called Framboise, recalls her childhood growing up under the shadow of Nazi occupation. The experience in which her mother, an ill-tempered woman prone to migraines, is singled out as a collaborator, has forced Framboise to reinvent her past. But now this dark history, so carefully hidden, could be exposed by her nephew and his profiteering journalist wife who have their eye on their grandmother’s recipe book, now in Framboise’s possession.

Wonderfully written, seamlessly weaving the past with the present, and capturing so vividly wartime life and childhood adventure, this is a highly recommended read.