Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, W. Somerset Maugham

‘Up at the Villa’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 120 pages;  2004.

First published in 1941, Up at the Villa is a quick-to-read novella by W. Somerset Maugham.

It tells the tale of Mary Panton, a beautiful young Englishwoman, who is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life following the untimely death of her beloved husband, who was a philanderer, gambler and drunkard.

Given the loan of an attractive villa in the hills above Florence, she spends her days sitting on the terrace admiring the view and her evenings in the company of a select group of aristocratic friends, including the wayward rotter and playboy Rowley Flint.

When an old family friend, Sir Edgar Swift, who has been in love with her since she was a girl, asks for her hand in marriage, she requests a few days to think about it. While she knows that she does not love Sir Edgar — he’s 24 years older than her and was a contemporary of her late father’s — she trusts him and believes his new position as the Viceroy of Bengal will elevate her social standing and provide her with a degree of financial security.

But during those three days, Mary makes a fateful decision, seemingly on a whim, that plunges her into enormous danger.

A morality tale 

I’ve read enough Maugham now to realise he’s obsessed with marriages (particularly unhappy ones), adultery, sexual restraint and class. And this book, a thinly disguised morality tale, is no different.

Mary’s kindness, compassion and desire embroils her in a scandal from which there appears to be no escape. The morally dubious way in which she then behaves when things go wrong does not make the reader warm to her.

Similarly, Rowley, who is painted as a bad character right from the start, behaves with great chivalry, but you soon come to realise his honourable actions are compromised by rather dark motivations. It’s hard to know who to cheer on and who to condemn.

In fact Up at the Villa is the sort of book that asks more questions than it answers. Its characters, all deeply flawed but terribly human, are well drawn even if some of their dialogue, especially the romantic bits, are a little unconvincing.

Despite the lightness of touch of Maugham’s sometimes silky prose, this is a story dealing with some very big themes — about beauty, the human heart and how the decisions we make can have lifelong repercussions, for both good and bad. I read it in one sitting and found it a thoroughly engaging, if slight, tale.

I believe the book has been adapted into a film starring Sean Penn and Kristin Scott-Thomas, but having read the synopsis on IMDb lots of liberties appear to have been taken with the characters and the plot. I probably won’t bother hunting it out — unless anyone can convince me otherwise.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Bausch, Setting, Tuskar Rock Press, war

‘Peace’ by Richard Bausch

Peace

Fiction – hardcover; Tuskar Rock; 171 pages; 2009.

There’s a lot to be said for short, succinct books, especially if they deliver punches that feel more powerful — and more targeted — than might be achieved by novels of much longer length. It takes a particular skill to craft stories that have been honed to the bare minimum without losing the essence of what makes them special.

Richard Bausch, an American writer, has that rare talent to convey meaning and emotion in a tightly written narrative in which every word has to justify its existence. No surprise, then, that he’s largely known as a short story writer.

Peace, first published in 2009 — in the then new Atlantic imprint Tuskar Rock started by Colm Toibin — proves that in the right hands a story doesn’t have to be 500 pages long to have an impact. I came away from this one reeling not only with the drama of it, but also the beauty of Bausch’s lyrical, stripped-back prose hugely reminiscent at times of all those Irish writers I’ve come to know and love. On more than one occasion I was reminded of John McGahern — which is high praise indeed.

Dying days of war

The story is set in Italy at the tail end of the Second World War. A group of American soldiers on foot patrol are trying to locate the enemy, which is on the retreat.

The weather is atrocious, the soldiers are exhausted (some are ill with dysentery) and morale is low. When their sergeant commits a war crime — he deliberately shoots an unarmed woman because “she would have shot us all if she could” — those who witness it are too foot-sore and weary to report it. But this one act hangs over all who saw it, haunting their days and their nights.

Three of those witnesses — Marson, Asch and Joyner — are sent on a reconnaissance mission, up a steep mountain with an old Italian man as a guide. What ensues is a difficult journey that is fraught with danger, not only from treacherous terrain and freezing rain and snow, but German snipers hidden in the woods.

Stress and fear

Under these stressful and challenging conditions the soldiers’ fears are heightened and yet they cannot forget what they saw the day before, discussing it over and over amongst themselves — was the act justified? should they forget it or report it? are they complicit in the crime? — which only serves to deepen the ructions and tensions between them.

This is a useful device for Bausch to examine each man’s character, to fill in their back stories and to explore their own individual morals and beliefs. What emerges is a carefully drawn portrait of a trio of soldiers, fighting on the same side, but all with different prejudices, opinions, fears and foibles.

“You guys are Christians,” Asch said. “You believe in an angry God who’s interested in payback. Right? ‘Vengeance is mine’ — all that. Well, we’re gonna pay for yesterday. I think we might be paying for it now.”
“You’re so full of shit,” Joyner said. “Let go of it, will you? It’s our religion so we’re the ones who’ll go to hell, not you.”
“I’m not even going to answer that,” Asch said. “Jesus, Joyner. The way your mind works.”
“It’s stupid to argue about it here,” Marson said.

Creeping sense of unease

As the narrative progresses, the reader begins to share the soldiers’ growing sense of unease and paranoia: will they be ambushed by the enemy? Is the Italian man as innocent as he purports to be? Is their mission a complete waste of time?

Peace explores all kinds of issues assorted with war, not least the fine line between courage and fear, and the temptation to behave in ways that would be out of keeping under normal, peace-time circumstances. It highlights the immense task that young, largely immature, men had to endure: Asch and Joyner are barely out of their teens, and Marson, who is their corporal, is only in his mid-20s and yet here they are confronting death — the likelihood of theirs, the prospect of killing others — on a daily basis. Bausch never makes them heroic, but instead shows their innermost struggles to make sense of a world gone mad. There is fear, foreboding and anger on almost every page, but there is also tenderness and heartbreak as each man determines what it is to be good in the face of so much horror.

Despite being less than 180 pages, this is an emotionally intelligent book dealing with weighty themes. It brims with tension and moral complexity but is dotted with lovely moments of quiet reflection that make it an astonishing, curiously gripping and heartfelt read.

1001 books, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Italy, New York, Patricia Highsmith, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith

Talented-Mr-Ripley

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 256 pages; 2009.

I seem to be going through a minor, and completely unplanned, phase of reading suspense novels right now, so what better book to continue the theme than Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, a classic of the genre? This is where I also stick up my hand and confess that I’ve never seen the film, so I came to the book with no preconceptions whatsoever. I had no idea of the plot, nor the wickedness of the central character Mr Ripley either.

A suspense novel of the finest order

First published in 1955, the book is a suspense novel of the finest order — precisely plotted, written in concise but stylish prose, and filled with brilliant characters.

But unlike many suspense novels, where you fear for the good guys that have found themselves in a difficult situation, in this fast-paced story you actually cheer on the perpetrator. In this case it is Mr Ripley, a 23-year-old loner, who commits two atrocious murders.

From the outset, we learn that Tom, who lives in New York, isn’t the most honest of characters. He hates his circle of friends, lies about his job and commits tax fraud under a false name. Raised by an aunt, whom he detests, he continues to accept the cheques she sends him, because he’s desperate for the money.

But when he is offered the chance to go to Europe on an all expenses paid trip, Tom sees it as an opportunity to start his life afresh.

A trip to Italy

The trip, however, is not without its strings, for Tom has been “hired” by a wealthy industrialist, Herbert Greenleaf, to go to Italy in order to convince his wayward son, Dickie, to return home. It seems that Tom once met Dickie at a party, but for some reason Mr Greenleaf thinks they are close friends — Tom, knowing a good deal when he sees one, does nothing to disabuse him of the idea.

In the seaside Italian village of Mongibello, Tom befriends Dickie, an artist, and his American girlfriend, Marge, a writer. He is greeted with contempt at first, but soon worms his way into Dickie’s affections and the pair become inseparable. (There are hints of unrequited homosexual love, on Tom’s part, but they remain just that: hints.)

Of course, it’s difficult to say much more without ruining the plot, but let’s just say that Tom’s hunger for money gets the better of him and he decides to bump off Dickie. Later, when one of Dickie’s friends suspects that Tom is hiding something, he, too, is done away with.

Two murders down and with the police on his trail, the book’s suspense element goes into overdrive as Tom tries to keep two steps ahead in order not to be caught. The story moves from Mongibello to Rome, Sicily to Venice, and all the while he covers his tracks so superbly you begin to wonder if he will ever make a false move. Surely Marge can see through his lies? Doesn’t Mr Greenleaf suspect him of evil doing? Can’t the police tell he is making things up? And won’t the private investigator, brought in at the last minute, find him out?

Cheering on a killer

Funnily enough, even though Tom is a killer and a wicked, manipulative little man, you can’t help but cheer him on. Yes, he’s probably a psychopath — he certainly doesn’t show empathy for any of his so-called friends or victims — but it’s hard to dismiss him as evil. He is so lacking in self-confidence and self-esteem, and so desperate to be liked and accepted by his peers, that you end up empathising with his conniving ways and become enamoured of his quick wit and ability to think on his feet. Essentially, you appreciate his talent as a conman and killer.

And that, I think, is the real success of this novel, because Highsmith really gets inside the heads of her characters and so expertly depicts the complicated tangle of human relationships — people’s loyalties, their weaknesses, the things that make them tick — that the characters and their predicaments seem entirely plausible. You can appreciate why Tom is jealous of Marge, can see that Marge is foolish to pin all her hopes on a man who doesn’t truly love her, and that Dickie is self-centred and spoilt. And you understand completely their motivations, which probably explains why you can never truly condemn Tom for his actions. He wants money, freedom and success — don’t we all? — he’s just gone about achieving it the wrong way.

I read The Talented Mr Ripley in two longish sittings, because I just had to know whether Tom would get away with his crimes. If you want to know if he gets his just desserts, beg, borrow or buy a copy…

Author, Book review, Douglas Preston, Italy, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime, Virgin Books

‘The Monster of Florence’ by Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi

MonsterofFlorence

Non-fiction – hardcover; Virgin Books; 336 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Last year I read an amazing true-crime book called The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life by John Leake about a journalist who reported on the brutal murders he himself had committed. It was one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” books — and I loved it.

The Monster of Florence is another true-crime book hugely reminiscent of The Vienna Woods Killer. A collaboration between an American crime thriller writer and an Italian investigative journalist, the book traces a series of brutal double-murders in and around the hills of Florence between 1968 and 1985 and then, in a bizarre twist of fate, reveals how the authors themselves became suspects. The fiction writer, Douglas Preston, is interrogated, accused of being an accessory to murder and of planting false evidence, and told to leave the country; the journalist, Mario Spezi, is thrown into jail and accused of being the Monster of Florence himself.

The book opens with Preston explaining how he moved to a stone farmhouse in Florence with his wife and two children in August 2000. He planned to write a murder mystery set in Italy, but when he met Mario Spezi, a local crime reporter (in order to learn more about Italian police procedures) he discovered something that made him change his mind. Apparently a serial killer, dubbed the Monster of Florence, had murdered two young lovers in the olive grove outside Preston’s front door. His interest was piqued: perhaps it might be more interesting to write a true-crime book.

The first half of The Monster of Florence tells the story of the seven couples — 14 people in total — murdered while making love in the hills surrounding Florence by a serial killer who has never been found. As a crime reporter, Spezi made a career out of investigating the murders and their subsequent police investigations, and had garnered unparalleled knowledge and expertise on the crimes. But he also became a thorn in the side of the police, often showing up weaknesses in their investigative procedures and calling their credibility into question.

The second half takes on a new twist, explaining how the authors, working in tandem, had discovered new evidence which they believed pinpointed the killer.  The police, already annoyed that Spezi was continually stealing their thunder, turned the investigation onto their detractors, with devastating consequences.

This is a rip-roaring read, more exciting than any crime thriller Preston could make up himself, and it barrels along at lightning quick pace. I overshot two lunch hours because I was so caught up in this too-weird-to-be-true story.

But, more importantly, this is a book that highlights the dark underbelly of Italian society and the shadowy, often corrupt world of the Carabinieri, which polices both the military and civilian populations, the Italian police and the judiciary. It’s also an important book about freedom of speech and how one journalist put his life on the line because he believed so strongly that the truth must come out.

The Monster of Florence, which hit the New York bestseller list upon publication in the USA earlier this year, will be published in the UK on January 29, 2009.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Robert Dessaix, Setting, Venice

‘Night Letters’ by Robert Dessaix

Nightletters

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 276 pages; 1999.

Night Letters was published in Australia to critical acclaim in 1996.

Picking it up, it’s hard to work out if it is a fictional story or a real-life travel memoir. This confusion is aided by its subtitle — A Journey Through Switzerland and Italy — and the note which claims it is “edited and annotated by Igor Miazmov”. But for those who aren’t quite sure, this is a novel and Miazmov is none other than Dessaix under another name. (Quite hilarious, then, to see that Amazon.co.uk lists Miazmov as if he is a real editor.)

The book comprises a series of 20 letters written on consecutive nights by an Australian man staying in a Venice hotel. The man, who is named Robert, has been diagnosed with an incurable illness and while the disease is never named one gets the impression that it is HIV.

These letters, which are not addressed to anyone in particular (but are effectively you, the reader), are filled with Robert’s wide-ranging thoughts on travel, love, religion and mortality. But the common theme, which threads in and out of the often meandering narrative, is man’s search for paradise and whether, in fact, it exists. This is underpinned by references to Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which Robert is reading out of sequence, so that when he finishes Paradise he feels “oddly becalmed […] if that didn’t bring you to a point of absolute stillness, nothing would”.

As Robert narrates his often mundane, sometimes frustrating and occasionally menacing travels through Locarno, Vicenza and Padua, he offers fascinating glimpses of the people and places he encounters along the way.

In Locarno he befriends an English woman wearing a mysterious amulet — “a hugely endowed male copulating with a large-limbed female, all in exquisitely fine detail, every bead in the bracelets, every toe picked out” — who spends days telling him about the history of the tiny gold brooch she wears. And in Venice he meets another hotel resident, a German professor, with whom he shares many discourses on history and philosophy, mainly on how the famous Venetian residents Cassanova and Marco Polo represented “completely different ways of travelling — and therefore of living out your life”.

I have to admit that Night Letters initially failed to win me over. I actually considered abandoning it. But I’m glad I persevered, because once I understood this was a novel about storytelling — there are references to famous novelists throughout, including Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell and Salman Rushdie — I truly enjoyed it. There are stories within stories, and once you realise that these all combine weight to Robert’s search for meaning, you wonder why you didn’t “get” this much earlier.

What I loved most about this book — aside from the gorgeously authentic descriptions of modern Venice and the very funny footnotes by “Igor Miazmov” — are the insights into human nature and what it is to truly live. There are little gems dotted on every page — for example, Robert realises that the journey of life is not about getting to the destination, which is effectively death, but in experiencing each moment as fully as one can, and I love this passage, which seems so eloquent and true to me:

Journeying is, after all, so fundamental to the way we humans think of ourselves and assign our lives a meaning. Every second book you read is about some kind of journey, really, isn’t it? And we constantly talk about paths in life — ways, roads, progress, stages and so on — all travel metaphors, when you think about it.

In fact, I had to do everything within my power not to underline about 90 per cent of the sentences in this book, because so many of them resonated with me.

Night Letters is an incredibly subtle novel, but it’s a wise one too. It won’t appeal to everyone, but I loved its intelligence, its humanity and its big-picture look at life, so much so that when I got to the last page I immediately wanted to turn to the front to read it all over again — and that doesn’t happen very often. And do read it if, like me, you have a penchant for anything set in Venice — Dessaix captures the city so perfectly you’ll be rushing to book your air flights!

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

‘The Other Side of You’ by Salley Vickers

OtherSide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Italy, Massimo Carlotto, Orion, Publisher, Setting

‘The Colombian Mule’ by Massimo Carlotto

ColombianMule  

Fiction – paperback; Orion, New Ed edition; 184 pages; 2004. Translated from the Italian by Christopher Woodall.

Somehow the Colombian knew he was fucked the moment he met the cop’s gaze.

So begins Massimo Carlotto’s hardboiled Italian noir novel The Colombian Mule, which opens with Arias Cuevas being detained at Venice airport with a belly full of cocaine. When Cuevas describes his drug-smuggling contact — “about fifty, medium-height, a bit fat, with light brown hair” — the Italian police arrest the wrong man. Is it a case of mistaken identity, or are the police bending the law for their own means?

Enter Alligator, an unlicensed private investigator, and his band of borderline-corrupt cohorts, who wants to discover the truth behind the arrest and bust the drug smuggling ring in the process. But in this seedy underworld peppered with shady characters — greedy, violent and immoral — the normal rules of engagement do not apply.

Set in Venice and the grimy industrial surrounds of Mestre, this short but action-packed novel delivers a deftly woven storyline that blurs the line between those who break the law and those who enforce it. It is a dark, violent but ultimately compelling novel  told in a clear, succinct style that grips from the first carefully measured word.

Think The Sopranos meets Goodfellas — without the Americanised gloss — and you might get some idea of the beauty and brutality contained within the pages of this not-for-the-faint-hearted novel by an Italian master. Just don’t expect to view (romantic) Venice in the same way again…

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Europa Editions, Fiction, Italy, Massimo Carlotto, Publisher, Setting

‘Death’s Dark Abyss’ by Massimo Carlotto

DeathsDarkAbyss

Fiction – paperback; Europa Editions; 152 pages; 2007. Translated from the Italian by Lawrence Venuti. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If you were the victim of a horrendous crime in which your spouse and child were murdered and you were later given the opportunity to dole out your own form of justice, would you do it? This is the premise behind Massimo Carlotto’s dark and disturbing Death’s Dark Abyss.

In this short but captivating novel, we meet two men — Raffaello Breggiato and Silvano Contin — bound together by a savage crime that took place 15 years earlier in which Breggiato murders Contin’s wife and child as part of a bungled jewellery robbery.

A decade-and-a-half into his life sentence, Breggiato is diagnosed with cancer. He writes to Contin from his prison cell, seeking a pardon so that he can live his last days as a free man.

But what ensues is a tale of twisted morality in which the victim, sick of turning the other cheek, seeks his own form of justice and retribution — with unexpected results.

Carlotto, who is billed as a “major exponent of the Mediterranean Noir novel”, is himself a former convict, having spent eight years in prison for a crime he did not commit. No wonder then that this book, his ninth, holds no punches when it comes to indicting a legal system in which victims are betrayed and criminals left to flounder without hope of rehabilitation.

I found Death’s Dark Abyss to be deeply disturbing if only because it portray a brutal, violent world in which it’s difficult to determine the difference between the good guys and the bad. But the prose — short, sharp, swift and stylish — and the plot — full of twists and turns — is so gripping I churned through the pages at such a furious pace it’s a wonder they did not burst into flames from the friction.

Crime aficionados, especially fans of American hardboiled noir, will find much to admire in this ruthless novel. But others who like their literature to be thought-provoking will find Death’s Dark Abyss, which raises more questions than answers about why ordinary people do extraordinary things, hard to resist.