20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, Fiction, Head of Zeus, literary fiction, Publisher, Thomas H. Cook

‘The Crime of Julian Wells’ by Thomas H. Cook

Fiction – paperback; Head of Zeus; 292 pages; 2012.

The Crime of Julian Wells by American writer Thomas H. Cook is an intriguing and unusual detective story, but this is not a crime novel — at least not in the traditional sense.

What’s even more unusual is that the two main characters in the book are dead and the only way we learn anything about them is filtered through the eyes of a kindly narrator, Philip Anders.

Philip is a literary critic, and his best friend, Julian Wells, was a successful non-fiction writer whose books focused on the darkest crimes of the 20th century. But now Julian is dead, his body having been found in a small boat drifting on a lake in New York, and Philip wants answers.

A life in books

To prepare a eulogy, he begins to reread all of Philip’s books, which include stories about massacres, torturers and serial killers, but the more he reads, the more he becomes convinced that maybe Philip has committed a crime, too, and this would partly explain why he’s obsessed with the darker side of life.

And this gets him thinking about a young Argentinian woman the pair met in Buenos Aires when they were young men travelling the world. Her name was Marisol and she worked for the American Consulate as an English-speaking guide. Later, she had been “disappeared” and Julian had developed an unhealthy obsession about finding out what happened to her. Now Philip wonders if his friend might have played a part in her death.

This unease worsens when Philip goes to Paris to sort through Julian’s effects and discovers a series of photographs, mainly of Marisol, that look like they have been taken by surveillance cameras. In a bid to find out more, Philip embarks on an investigative journey that takes in Oradour, London, Budapest, Čachtice, Rostov (in Russia) and, finally, a return to Buenos Aires.

And the more he travels, the more he discovers…

Gothic undertones

There’s a decidedly gothic feel to this story, which plunges the reader into a world of horrific, and often famous, crimes from the past in “exotic” places such as Hungary and Russia and Slovakia and what was once Nazi-occupied France. Its often gruesome accounts of tortures and massacres are counterbalanced with the narrator’s memories of the past, his love for his friend and his own desire to find out the truth.

There are recurring themes, about friendship, deception and betrayal; good and evil;  spies, double agents and surveillance; politics and fighting for causes you believe in; and what it means to “make a difference”.

I loved its dark undertones and philosophical wandering, the way it plays with perceptions and makes you think you have the solution all figured out but then reveals a satisfying ending, the kind that makes you reassess your own assumptions.

This is a clever book, one that defies description — it’s part spy novel, part crime, part road trip, part suspense, perhaps even a touch of Dracula-like horror.  But, above all, as a novel that is essentially about humankind’s ongoing inhumanity to one another, The Crime of Julian Wells is a very humane and compassionate story.

This is my 7h book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I purchased it from a charity book sale last September for $3 knowing absolutely nothing about the book nor the author.

Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Paraic O'Donnell, Publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘The Maker of Swans’ by Paraic O’Donnell

The Maker of Swans by Paraic O'Donnell

Fiction – paperback; W&N; 336 pages; 2016.

The Maker of Swans by Paraic O’Donnell is a strange and wondrous novel that feels a bit like a Gothic fairytale. It is as enigmatic as all of the characters that dance across its pages.

There are four main characters, all of whom are as peculiar and intriguing as each other: the mysterious Mr Crowe, who lives in a grand manor house and belongs to a never-named secret society; his faithful manservant Eustace, who looks far younger than his years; Clara, a young mute girl under Eustace’s care, who communicates through writing and drawing; and the frightening academic Dr Chastern, who heads the secret society and is billed as “more dangerous than anyone else you will ever encounter”.

When the story opens, Eustace is woken in the dead of night by gunshots. Mr Crowe has apparently killed someone in the drive way of his manor house and it is up to Eustace to hide the evidence of the crime — not in order to prevent the police finding out but to hide it from members of the secret society to which Crowe belongs. “I know what this will bring,” warns Eustace. “Even if I do not understand it. They will come to know of it…They will find out, and they will come.”

And come “they” do in the form of Dr Chastern and his assistant Nazaire. It soon becomes clear that Clara is in danger, not least because she has special talents that only she is now beginning to understand herself, and the book morphs into a rather chilling escapade, the details of which I’ll refrain from mentioning for they will only serve to spoil the plot.

Evocative and exquisite prose

The Maker of Swans might sound a bit heavy but let me assure you it’s written in such beautiful, evocative and, indeed, rhapsodical, prose that it makes for an entirely enjoyable reading experience. And for every strange and frightening thing that happens in it, there is an exquisite overlay of clever humour to soften the impact. Take the following as an example.

Eustace hires two local labourers, the brothers Abel and John, to get rid of the car that the murder victim arrived in. He tries to emphasise the seriousness of their job and the importance of doing it correctly:

“In my master’s profession,” Eustace continued, “he has relied on a peculiar gift. There have been others like him, but only a handful remain. I’m not the judge of these things, but I have heard it said that none of the others could ever match him. Be that as it may, in using these gifts of his, Mr Crowe and those like him have been given great licence, but they have not acted entirely without restraint. Certain limits were placed on them by the — what might one call it? — by the order to which they belonged.”
“Order?” Abel said. “What, like monks or something?”
“Like monks?” Eustace considered this. “No, not like monks. I meant only that this order has survived for a long time. How long exactly I do not know. Centuries, at least. And it has grown powerful.”
“Vampires, then?” John said eagerly. “Like that film with what’s-his-name?”
“What?” Eustace looked upward and let out a long sigh. “No, nothing like that […]”

Bold fiction of the finest order

Interestingly, the author does not spell out everything that happens in this book — unusual, I would say, for a debut novelist — and while it’s written in a compelling manner, one that makes you keep turning the pages, not all the answers are revealed. You never find out the true nature of the secret society, for instance, nor Clara’s specific talents, but it’s these grey areas, these information vacuums, that lends the story its enigmatic flavour and allows the reader to come up with their own theories.

There’s a magic at the heart of The Maker of Swans, a kind of ephemeral power to its words. It’s very much a story about creativity and the way in which it can be harnessed and nurtured but it is cloaked in a Gothic-style mystery that makes it a distinctly original work of literature.

I’m looking forward to seeing what O’Donnell produces next — his second novel, The House on Vesper Sands, is due to be published early next year.

Author, Book review, Fiction, horror, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Shirley Jackson, USA

‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson

HauntingofHIllHouse

Paperback – fiction; Penguin Modern Classics; 246 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reviewing two Shirley Jackson novels in the space of a week might border on overkill, but having very much enjoyed We Have Always Lived in the Castle I was anxious to try The Haunting of Hill House, which was originally published in 1959.

First and foremost, unlike We Have Always Lived in the Castle, this is a horror story. Of course, the title itself should give you an inkling of the subject matter, which is essentially a rather creepy tale about a haunted house.

Now this is where I put up my hand and declare that I’m not much into the horror genre. I read so many of these types of books (think Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, James Herbert and Anne Rice) in my teens and early 20s that I eventually became bored with their formulaic style. And since then I can count on one hand the number of horror stories I’ve read (Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

There’s no doubt that The Haunting of Hill House is a creepy, look-under-the-bed-and-check-the-closet type reads. But in Jackson’s capable hands it also has a smattering of humour throughout, so it’s not overly claustrophobic and is far less spine-chilling than, say Stephen King’s The Shining, which this book brought to mind quite a few times. But Jackson ratchets up the suspense by playing with the minds of the characters, so you’re never entirely sure whether the terrifying events she depicts happen physically or psychologically.

The book opens with a rather ominous description of the house.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and some of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Into this secluded mansion come four main characters: Dr John Montague, a doctor of philosophy, who thinks himself something of a “ghost hunter” and has rented the house for three months in order to find scientific evidence of the supernatural; Eleanor Vance, a 32-year-old loner, who has spent the past 12 years looking after her (now dead) invalid mother; Theodora, a Girl Scout type with psychic abilities; and Luke Sanderson, a liar, thief and heir to the house.

The house has two dour-faced caretakers, Mr and Mrs Dudley, who live in the closest town, six miles away.

“I don’t stay after I set out dinner,” Mrs Dudley went on. “Not after it begins to get dark. I leave before dark comes.”
“I know,” Eleanor said.
[…]
“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help.”
“I understand.”
“We couldn’t even hear you, in the night.”
“I don’t suppose–”
“No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.”
“I know,” Eleanor said tiredly.
“In the night,” Mrs Dudley said, and smiled outright. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

It doesn’t take long before creepy things begin to occur inside Hill House, but I’m not going to divulge them here. You’ll just have to read the book yourself. But make sure you do it in daylight. And preferably not while you’re alone.

Author, Book review, Fiction, horror, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Shirley Jackson, USA

‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ by Shirley Jackson

WeHaveAlwaysLived

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 176 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Put the kettle on, grab yourself some snacks and make sure you’ve got no other plans when you curl up to read this book, because We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of those delicious, atmospheric reads from which you will not want to be disturbed.

I was caught in the sway of this mesmirising novel, Shirley Jackson‘s last (it was first published in 1962 and she died in 1965), from its opening lines:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

How could you not be intrigued by that?

Sadly, it’s difficult to properly review this novel without giving away crucial plot spoilers, so I’ll refrain from telling you too much about the story. (A cursory glance at the blurb on this newly published Penguin Modern Classic edition does reveal one of the “secrets” but it doesn’t ruin the suspense.)

Basically, Mary Katherine, also known as Merricat, lives a secluded life with her sister and their bumbling, eccentric Uncle Julian, in Blackwood House, a Gothic-like mansion surrounded by woods on the outskirts of a village. Every Tuesday and Friday Merricat braves the wrath and scorn of the villagers (“The people of the village have always hated us”), who stare and gossip, to buy food and borrow library books. When she enters the grocery store the owner rushes to serve her before anyone else, while other shoppers stop what they’re doing…

holding a can or a half-filled bag of cookies or a head of lettuce, not willing to move until I had gone out the door again…

This sense of creepiness builds further when she has coffee in the local coffee shop, because

If anyone else came in and sat down at the counter I would leave my coffee without seeming hurried, and leave.

It’s almost like whichever way Merricat turns, there’s an insidious, nasty reminder that she, and her family, are not wanted. But what did they do to earn this hate? The answer to this is the nub of the novel, so I’m not going to tell you here.

But essentially, the secretive, hermit-like existence that the Blackwood’s lead is disrupted when Charles, a long-lost cousin, makes an unexpected visit and settles in for the duration. Merricat, a wayward, naive and some might say decidedly kooky teenager, feels so threatened by his presence that she goes out of her way to make him feel particularly unwelcome — with intriguing consequences.

As much as I enjoyed this book and the oppressive, Gothic atmosphere it creates — think The Village of the Damned meets The Wicker Man — I did guess the main revelation before the half-way point. But even so, this is a thrilling read, and I can easily see why Shirley Jackson has never been out of print in her native America.

It’s not a horror story per se, because it won’t have you checking underneath the bed for monsters, but it’s a kind of twisted fairytale with a dash of black comedy and a pinch of mystery. Or, as Joyce Carol Oates claims in the Afterword, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle becomes a New England fairy tale of the more wicked variety, in which a ‘happy ending’ is both ironic and literal, the consequences of unrepentant witchcraft and a terrible sacrifice — of others”.