Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Manybooks.net, Publisher, Setting, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Hero’ by W. Somerset Maugham

The-hero

Fiction – Kindle edition; Manybooks.net; 211 pages; 1901.

A couple of years ago I read W. Somerset Maugham’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece Of Human Bondage and loved its mix of grim reality, heartbreak and poignancy. I didn’t review it at the time, but it did make my list of favourite books of 2013, and I made a mental note to explore more of his work.

The Hero is probably one of his lesser-known novels. First published in 1901 — fourteen years before Of Human Bondage — it explores social mores, class and morality in Victorian England. And yet there’s something quite modern about the story, which shows how a man’s outlook on life can be changed by worldly experience, and how inward-looking, parochial and claustrophobic small town life can be.

A war hero’s return

The hero of the title is James Parsons, a soldier awarded the Victoria Cross during the Boer War, who returns to his small village in Kent, England, feeling anything but heroic. Five years earlier, he had gone straight from Sandhurst to India and then on to the Cape. Before moving abroad he was betrothed to Mary, who has patiently waited for his return and become much-loved by her soon-to-be parents-in-law in the process.

But when Jamie comes back to England he realises that he has no feelings for Mary. He knows it is his duty to marry her  “and yet he felt he would rather die”. That’s because he is rather obsessed with a married woman he met in India — the wife of his best friend — and though nothing really happened between them he thinks of her all the time.

He paraded before himself, like a set of unread school-books, all Mary’s excellent qualities. He recalled her simple piety, her good-nature, and kindly heart; she had every attribute that a man could possibly want in his wife. And yet—and yet, when he slept he dreamed he was talking to the other; all day her voice sang in his ears, her gay smile danced before his eyes. He remembered every word she had ever said; he remembered the passionate kisses he had given her. How could he forget that ecstasy? He writhed, trying to expel the importunate image; but nothing served.

When he makes the decision to break off his engagement, Jamie unwittingly offends everyone in the village — including his parents — who had only days earlier given him a hero’s welcome.

They had set him on a pedestal, and then were disconcerted because he towered above their heads, and the halo with which they had surrounded him dazzled their eyes. They had wished to make a lion of James, and his modest resistance wounded their self-esteem; it was a relief to learn that he was not worth making a lion of. Halo and pedestal were quickly demolished, for the golden idol had feet of clay, and his late adorers were ready to reproach him because he had not accepted with proper humility the gifts he did not want. Their little vanities were comforted by the assurance that, far from being a hero, James was, in fact, distinctly inferior to themselves. For there is no superiority like moral superiority. A man who stands akimbo on the top of the Ten Commandments need bow the knee to no earthly potentate.

From there, the story twists and turns — will they get back together again? will Jamie track down the woman he truly loves? — as it winds its way towards an utterly shocking and heartbreaking ending.

Romance, war and morality

At its most basic level The Hero is a simple love story gone wrong, which confronts in no uncertain terms the 19th century idea that marriage was a contract between two people regardless of whether they loved one another or not.

On a deeper level, it explores Victorian morality — sexual restraint and a strict social code of conduct under a rigid class system — and shows how it’s not always clear-cut and leads to unhappy outcomes. Jamie’s stance, of doing the “right” thing for him and Mary, highlights the strength of character required to stand up for one’s own convictions in the face of total opposition.

War — and courage — is a metaphor that runs throughout the narrative. From Jamie’s time on the battlefield, he knows that sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good — he applies those same lessons to his love life, even if that means he is seen as being cold and hard-hearted:

The general in battle now is afraid to strike because men may be killed. Sometimes it is worth while to lose men. When we become soldiers, we know that we cease to be human beings, and are merely the instruments for a certain work; we know that sometimes it may be part of a general’s deliberate plan that we should be killed. I have no confidence in a leader who is tender-hearted.

Overall, I really loved this book. The characters, albeit stereotyped, are just wonderful: so parochial and meddling, but with their hearts ultimately in the right place. And it’s written in such a humane way that even though some of them are dreadful busybodies and  full of their own self-importance, you admire their desire to protect Mary’s reputation — at whatever cost.

The Hero is an utterly tragic tale, but Maugham never manipulates his reader’s emotions for effect — instead he builds up a picture of Jamie’s moral dilemma, his inner-most turmoil and the courage required to plough his own furrow — and allows you to come to your own conclusions. It’s a style I like… and I’m delighted there’s so many more Maugham books left for me to explore…

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Herman Koch, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’ by Herman Koch

Summer House with Swimming Pool

Fiction – paperback; Atlantic; 411 pages; 2014. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Earlier this year I read Herman Koch’s The Dinner and loved its dark twist on family morals. His latest novel, Summer House with Swimming Pool, is just as dark, if not more so. But where The Dinner is based on a meal from hell, Summer House with Swimming Pool  is based on a holiday from hell: there are family arguments, forbidden love affairs and a few cross words between friends. But there’s also a dark undercurrent of menace and misogyny that has deep repercussions for everyone in this sorry saga.

A dodgy doctor

The story is narrated by Dr Marc Schlosser, a General Practitioner, who has a long list of rich and famous clients. Most of them have come to him because they know he’s a soft touch: he doesn’t mind how much they drink and he’ll hand out painkillers and other medication without batting an eyelid.

One of these clients is a rather famous (and obese) theatre actor called Ralph Meier with whom he develops a friendship. The friendship, however, turns out to be a little one-sided: Marc regards him as a lecherous old man who has an eye on his wife, Caroline:

It took a couple of seconds before I realised Ralph was no longer listening to me. He was no longer even looking at me. And, without following his gaze, I knew immediately what he was looking at.
Now something was happening to the gaze itself. To the eyes. As he examined the back of Caroline’s body from head to foot, a film slid down over his eyes. In nature films, you see that sometimes with birds of prey. A raptor that has located, from somewhere far up, high in the air, or from a tree branch, a mouse of some other tasty morsel. That was how Ralph Meier was regarding my wife’s body: as if it was something edible, something that made his mouth water.

When the book opens we know that Ralph is dead and that Marc has been accused of his murder through negligence. As he prepares to face the Board of Medical Examiners, the story rewinds to explain how events have lead to this dire predicament.

From this we learn that the previous summer Ralph had invited Marc and his family — his “tasty morsel” of a wife and their two daughters, Lisa, 11 and Julia, 13 — to stay with him at his “summer house with swimming pool” (hence the name of the novel). Initially, Marc does everything in his power not to stay at Ralph’s — the family camp nearby instead — but doesn’t want to appear rude by turning him down directly.

Eventually, when they do move in —thanks to Caroline’s insistence — they find themselves sharing the house with a cast of rather abhorrent characters, including an odious Hollywood producer called Stanley and his much younger girlfriend, Emmanuelle. They pass their days in the sun, swimming and drinking or visiting the local coastal resort. It all seems rather carefree, but there’s an undercurrent of sexual tension between all the adult couples — Marc finds himself attracted to Ralph’s wife, Judith, for instance — and there’s even a fledgling romance between Ralph’s son and Marc’s teenage daughter.

Eventually that tension spills over into something dark and dangerous, the outfall of which has long-lasting repercussions.

Moral codes

Fans of The Dinner will probably like this book very much. I’m not convinced it’s as accomplished or as well plotted, but it still features some of Koch’s trademarks: vile characters you can’t help but be intrigued by; a sneering, ethically dubious narrator; lots of unexpected “reveals” or twists as the story unfolds; and an examination of moral codes of conduct from almost every conceivable angle.

The pacing is a bit uneven — it took me a long time to get into and I almost abandoned it at the half way mark, but when it takes off it goes like a rocket. I was left breathless, not only by the lightning quick narrative, but by the turn of events, which are so unbelievably shocking I felt like I’d been run over by a truck.

All of the male characters, including the unethical narrator, are self-centred and loathsome. The women, by contrast, are all quite normal, which I expect is a deliberate ploy by the author, seeing as the book explores in various different ways the ideas of sex, sexual attraction and misogyny. Ralph and Stanley are sexually repellent, yet seem to somehow attract the prettiest of women, for instance, and even Marc, who sees himself as a kind of protector of women (or at least he is very protective of his teenage daughter, Julia), is sexually attracted to a woman who is not his wife.

If nothing else, Summer House with Swimming Pool is a story about society’s double standards when it comes to the way women are regarded. But it’s also a dark analysis of modern morals and the consequences of acting on our most wanton desires. It’s not a light read, but it is a strange and compelling one.

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.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting

‘I Can See in the Dark’ by Karin Fossum

I-can-see-in-the-dark

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 250 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norweigan by James Anderson.

Norweigan writer Karin Fossum is best known for her Inspector Sejer series, but I Can See in the Dark, published last year, is a stand-alone novel.

A story about a troubled loner

The story is told entirely through the eyes of 40-something Riktor, who has no family of his own and lives by himself in a small house on the outskirts of town.

He holds down a good job as a nurse in an elderly person’s care home, gets on well with his colleagues and finds ways to fill in his time between shifts. In other words, he leads a rather dull, uneventful, but otherwise productive life.

But all is not as it seems. Riktor is terribly lonely and desperately craves love and attention.

I don’t really understand my own situation, I don’t understand this sense of always being an outsider, of not belonging, of not feeling at home in the day’s routines. Forces I can’t control have torn me away from other people. I like being on my own, but I want a woman. If only I had a woman!

But as his narrative gently unfolds over a succession of short, crisply written chapters, we begin to learn that Riktor is not the quiet, gentle soul one might expect. He’s actually a rather troubled man, who doesn’t know how to properly interact with other people. He also claims he can see in the dark (hence the title):

I can see bushes and trees, buildings, posts and fences, I can see them all vividly glowing and quivering, long after dark. I can see the heat they emit, a sort of orange-coloured energy, as if they’re on fire. I once mentioned this to the school nurse when I was about ten. That I could see in the dark. She simply patted me on the cheek and then smiled sadly, the way you smile at an inquisitive child with a lively imagination. But once bitten twice shy: I never mentioned it again.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of all is the way in which he is deliberately negligent in his job: he fails to give his patients the medicine they have been prescribed and he likes to torture them when he thinks no-one is looking.

Of course things catch up with him, and one day the police accuse him of killing a patient in his care. He is arrested and held on remand for an extended period of time.

But as ever with a Karin Fossum novel, there’s an unusual twist, because Riktor is caught in a dilemma: he definitely has blood on his hands, but the crime he has committed isn’t the one for which he’s been charged.

Inside the head of a disturbed man

The most intriguing aspect of the novel is the way in which Fossum puts you squarely in the head of Riktor, who is clearly simple-minded and a little bit odd. His morals are dubious and he lacks empathy, but he knows how to operate in society without drawing too much attention to himself. He is also clever enough to figure out what people are thinking and has learned how to manipulate them to get what he wants.

But at no point do you want to cheer him on: this is not a Patricia Highsmith character who is so bad he’s good; this is the type of person you know lives and breathes among us. Indeed, he quite often turns up on the news bulletins having murdered a friend or loved one because he didn’t get what he wanted.

I Can See in the Dark is not your average crime thriller. It’s not so much about the what happened, but the why it happened. By digging around in the mind of someone who hasn’t followed the conventions of socially acceptable human behaviour, Fossum tries to show us what makes him tick.

It might not be terribly fast-paced but it’s a low-key novel that shimmers with suspense throughout. It’s a brutally honest account of a man caught up in a world that he doesn’t understand and is a superb portrait of a psychologically damaged killer, one that is unflinching, thought-provoking and deeply unsettling.

Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, literary fiction, Setting, Tuskar Rock Press

‘Barracuda’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Barracuda-UKcover

Fiction – paperback; Tuskar Rock Press; 513 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas hit the big time with his best-selling novel The Slap in 2008. It won the ALS Gold Medal (2008), the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Book (2009) and the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction (2009). It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (2009) and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize (2010). It was also adapted for television as an eight-part series (which, by the way, I highly recommend — by far the best thing on TV in 2011).

But while it won plenty of praise and sold by the truckload, it also attracted much controversy — critics complained about the language (too raw), the sex (too filthy) and the characters (unlikeable). Some — mainly British reviewers — claimed it was misogynistic. Me? I loved it. Which is why I was so looking forward to his new novel, Barracuda, which has just been published in the UK.

I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed. This is another highly readable, totally addictive, octane-fuelled story that addresses big themes — what it is to be good, what it is to be successful, love, redemption and social mobility  — and isn’t afraid to be in your face about it.

Swimming talent

The story follows Danny Kelly, who acquires the nickname “Barracuda” because of his extraordinary talent in the swimming pool. This talent offers Danny the chance to escape his working class roots. Not only does it earn him a scholarship to a prestigious private school in Melbourne, if he works hard and dedicates himself to the sport, he could end up on the Australian swimming team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

But at his first big championship swim meet he blows it — and comes fifth. Where others might have learnt a valuable lesson and become even more determined to achieve their Olympic dream, Danny never quite recovers from the shock of losing. Even though he has the physical ability to be an elite swimmer, he lacks the emotional and psychological maturity to deal with this setback. And sadly, this sets in motion a whole chain of events which will haunt Danny for the rest of his life.

And I understand, I know, it is failure that is evil.
So I run, my strides enormous, not caring who I crash into, who I hurt. I run so fast that I am hurting the ground as I pound it. I run so fast that I am fire. But no matter how fast I run, the Devil is there beside me. The Devil is in me. I am a larva and that which is emerging is something vile, something uglier that what existed before.

Two narrative threads

When the story opens we meet Danny long after that swimming “failure”. In fact, he’s so loathe to remember his swimming past that he refuses to go near water. He’s reinvented himself as a carer helping injured people during their rehabilitiation, and he’s living on the other side of the world, in Glasgow, Scotland, with his male lover, Clyde. But Danny has a secret — and he knows that at some point he’s going to have to come clean and tell his boyfriend because it could scupper his plan to stay in the UK permanently.

From there the book splits into two distinct narratives: one that moves backwards in time, tracing Danny’s new life in Scotland to his time as a teenage swim sensation; and the other that moves forwards in time, following his story from teenage swim sensation to potential Scottish immigrant. It’s a device that works well, because it provides light and shade to Danny’s story — his successes and failures, his struggle to be good against his “natural” inclination to be bad — and lets you see what impact certain events have on his later life. And it also provides just the right amount of narrative tension to keep you moving the pages — what, for instance, is that secret he’s so carefully guarding in Scotland? The shock of it, I must say, left me slightly stunned.

Indeed, there’s many revelations in this book that left me stunned. It’s a thought-provoking read — as ever, the language is raw and often crude (the nickname that Danny gives his college is but one example) and the sex is filthy (you have been warned) — but it explores so many interesting themes and issues that it’s impossible not to like. It feels utterly contemporary, but by the same token, the story, of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks trying to cross over into a more affluent social class, could have been lifted from a 19th century novel.

Life in Australia

As an expat-Australian reading this book, I identified with so much of the social commentary, especially the no-holds barred criticisms of Australia, that I had to stop myself from underlining whole pages for fear I’d end up scribbling over the entire book. I particularly loved this passage, which comes out of the mouth of Clyde, a Scotsman who sums up life in Australia perfectly (forgive the cursive language, which is Tsiolkas’ not mine):

“You all think you are so egalitarian, but you’re the most status-seeking people I’ve met. You call yourselves laid back but you’re angry and resentful all the time. You say there is no class system here, but you’re terrified of the poor, and you say you’re anti-authoritarian but all there is here is rules, from the moment I fucken landed here, rules about doing this and not doing that, don’t climb there, don’t go here, don’t smoke and don’t drink here and don’t play there and don’t drink and drive and don’t go over the speed limit and don’t do anything fucken human. You’re all so scared of dying you can’t let yourselves live — fuck that: we’re human, we die, that’s part of life. That’s just life.”

I could go on, but I won’t, because I’m not sure everyone would agree with me, but sometimes you have to leave your country to understand it, and reading Barracuda made me feel so much better about many of the things that have bugged me for a decade or more.

All in all, this is a hugely powerful read, not just about sporting achievement and striving to be the best at what you choose to do, but of coming to terms with your own frailties and flaws, of learning to appreciate your family, friends and loved ones, and being prepared to let go of the past in order to move into the future. There’s a lot of love, forgiveness, redemption and atonement in this novel. It’s ambitious — in structure and in subject — but it succeeds, because Tsiolkas forgoes the literary flourishes and makes it a truly entertaining and accessible read — and that, to me, is what the very best fiction should be all about.

And finally…

As an aside, I do recommend that you listen to this You Wrote the Book podcast — a 31-minute interview with Christos Tsiolkas — by my mate, Simon Savidge, which covers Barracuda indepth.

And in the interests of transparency, I should point out I met the author on Monday night at his UK book launch — a kinder, more lovelier person you could not meet. I had a wonderful chat to him (about Australian society — what else?) on the walk to a Bloomsbury restaurant, where a celebratory dinner was held with his publishing posse and a whole bunch of people from the upcoming Australian and New Zealand Festival of the Arts to which I’d kindly been invited. That meeting and meal has not influenced this review; I loved the book even before I had the good fortune to meet the man who penned it.

5 books, Book lists

5 books starring amoral protagonists

5-books-200pixContemporary fiction is filled with bad guys, but how many stories put you firmly in the head of the nasty perpetrator and present their side of the story as a fait accompli?

Here are five novels that come to mind, all of which feature characters with skewed moral compasses.

They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname (hyperlinks take you to my reviews):

 

BookofEvidence

‘The Book of Evidence’ by John Banville (1989)

The wicked protagonist in this 1989 Booker shortlisted novel is Freddie Montgomery, a scientist, who steals a painting from a neighbour and accidentally kills a servant girl in the process. He then goes on the run to avoid detection. This dark and disturbing tale, which is told from Freddie’s point of view, recounts events leading up to his arrest — and it soon becomes clear he does not believe he has done anything wrong. The story is all the more disturbing given it is based on a real-life case, about a nurse murdered in Dublin, from 1982. (Note I read this before I began blogging, so I can’t link to a review.)

The-ginger-man‘The Ginger Man’ by J.P. Donleavy (1955)

The Ginger Man recounts the adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, an American Protestant of Irish descent, who does everything a married man should not do: he spends the couple’s rent money on alcohol; staggers home drunk and acts violently towards his wife; and conducts numerous adulterous affairs. He’s thoroughly unlikable and completely selfish, and everything he does is outrageous. The book treads a whisper-thin line between comedy and tragedy, and while you don’t exactly cheer on Dangerfield’s exploits, you do keep reading in order to see what amoral thing he will do next!

Talented-Mr-Ripley

‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

Tom Ripley, the talented one of the title, is a truly wonderful creation. A 23-year-old loner, he wants the finest things in life but cannot afford them — well, not until he bumps off a rich friend and acquires access to his monthly trust fund cheque first. While Tom’s actions are far from moral, or legal, you can’t help but cheer him on, as he moves from one Italian city to another in order to avoid the law which is breathing down his neck. The fast-paced narrative means you keep turning the pages to see whether our anti-hero gets away with his dastardly crimes! The ending may just surprise you.

The-butcher-boy‘The Butcher Boy’ by Patrick McCabe (1992)

Francis ‘Francie’ Brady is the meanest and most deranged schoolboy you’re ever likely to meet in modern fiction. He comes from a dysfunctional family — his mother is beaten up by her husband, his father is an alcoholic — and when a neighbour calls his family “pigs” he takes it to heart and wages a campaign of abuse and retaliation that does not end well. The story, which is told stream of consciousness style with no punctuation, follows Francie’s exploits, which include running away from home, going to a special school for boys where he is sexually abused and later committing a quite atrocious murder of his own. This incredibly dark and hard-hitting novel earned McCabe a place on the Booker shortlist in 1992 and still remains one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. (Again, I read this before I began blogging, so I can’t link to a review.)

Get-me-out-of-here

‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton (2010)

Matt, the 30-something narrator of this novel, seems harmless enough to begin with. He’s a brand-obsessed businessman with a penchant for shopping, and while it’s clear that he’s obnoxious and self-centred, the further you get into the story the more you realise he is losing his grip on reality and is quite a dangerous and manipulative character. As he becomes more and more troubled, he begins committing more and more offences which will land him in serious trouble should he ever get caught. But because he is delusional, Matt cannot see that he is doing anything wrong, which makes for some incredibly funny set pieces. While I can’t say I cheered Matt on while I read this book — I felt far too worried for his sanity — I did get some good laughs out of his exploits and just hoped he’d get the medical help he so clearly needed!

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend some other reads that place the bad guy (or girl) at the heart of the story?

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, Fiction, Ireland, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, William King

‘Leaving Ardglass’ by William King

Leaving-Ardglass

Fiction – paperback; Lilliput Press; 272 pages; 2008.

Sometimes you pick up a book and before you’ve even finished the first page you immediately know there’s something very special about it. That’s exactly how I felt when I began reading William King‘s Leaving Ardglass, a saga that spans 40 years and follows the lives of two Irish brothers.

What I didn’t know when I began reading the book was the way in which the fates of both MJ Galvin, a building constructor turned property magnate, and his younger sibling, Tom, would mirror the fate of Ireland itself.

Consumerism and the Celtic Tiger

Just as Ireland broke free of its Catholic stronghold, adopted consumerism and enjoyed the booming Celtic tiger years before cracks began appearing in the facade, the two Galvin brothers follow a similar trajectory. Although they come from opposite ends of the moral compass, as it were, both become successful in their chosen fields — construction and property development for MJ, the priesthood for Tom — and yet they also succumb to temptations in one form or another, leaving them bitter and downtrodden older men.

The story is narrated by Tom, a parish priest, looking back on his life. Much of the initial focus is on a “summer in London which had changed me”. He was one of thousands of Irish who went to “John Bull” (England) in search of a job at a time when there was little work at home. It’s 1961 and his older brother MJ is already running a successful construction business in north London, where he employs dozens of down-at-heel Irish workers.

It’s a tough, knockabout life. Workers are taken advantage of, subject to brutality, paid a pittance and put in dangerous life-or-death situations. What Tom witnesses that first summer challenges his value system and the ways in which he views his brother. But it also opens his eyes to the ways of the world — the joy of Saturday night dances in the Galtymore, the camaraderie of men in the pub (before the alcohol-fuelled brawls), gambling and women.

But most of all it adds to his sense of dislocation, as his sacristan sums up perfectly 40 years down the line:

‘We were neither fish nor flesh. Branded as letting down this ould country by going across to John Bull. Sure we’d have starved to death if we’d stayed.’ He flings another log on the pile. ‘And not wanted there because we were the drunken Irish.’

It is this dislocation, this feeling of never belonging and of realising that MJ’s behaviour, professionally and personally, is morally bankrupt that makes Tom reconsider his future. Instead of joining MJ’s firm, where he would effectively become second-in-charge and be set for life, he decides to enter the priesthood.

The Catholic Church

There are religious elements to the book — it may be useful to know that the author himself is a practising priest in Drumcondra, Ireland — but it does not shy away from the issues that have damaged the Church in recent times. Indeed, it raises many talking points — about celibacy, about the ways in which suspected pedophiles within the priesthood should be dealt with and about the role of the Church in the 21st century.

It’s also a fascinating account of life lived within the Church, of what one must do — and give up — to become a priest and how, even among those pious men, lives can be scarred by thwarted ambition, political rivalries and bitter in-fighting.

But what I particularly enjoyed was the portrait of north London — Cricklewood, Camden Town, Kilburn, the Holloway Road — during the 1960s that King paints. He has a special talent for bringing the building sites to life, of describing the back-breaking toil thousands of Irish emigrants undertook through necessity, not choice.

And the way in which he writes about the workers, queuing up each morning on Mornington Crescent, waiting to be selected as part of the construction crews to be trucked to individual sites, is especially vivid. You can practically smell the sense of desperation from the labourers and the little Hitler mentality of the bosses.

One or two, wearing creased shirts and loose ties, shout to get into the fucken trucks, that they have to go out to Leighton Buzzard. The men have a ruffled look: dried clay on their turned-down wellingtons or hobnailed boots. A thickset man is walking up and down inspecting a queue of men; he looks mostly at their shoes; every now and then, he lifts his cap and wipes his bald crown with a piece of navy cloth. […] Down the road, boys are jumping in the air and kicking around a paper football, jostling each other for possession.
‘Come on here,’ MJ shouts, ‘I’ll give you plenty to tire you out behind the mixer.’
They desert the ball like schoolboys and climb into one of the trucks. Above the thud of their boots, a big red-faced man with a head of black hair shouts abuse at them. Did they think they had all the fucken day? Such a crowd of lazy fuckers he’d never met in all his life.

And Tom, despite his flaws and his occasional lack of backbone (he never stands up to his elder brother, despite seeing some horrendous things), is hugely likable. I love that he spends his first few days in London trawling the bookshops on Charing Cross Road looking for “books that are banned at home: Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Catcher in the Rye“.

Shocking expose of Irish life in London

The story is shocking in places — there’s at least one death on a building site that hammers home the point that life was cheap — and there are endless examples of racism against the Irish (“Another Paddy. Filthy lot. I should never ‘ave taken them in,” Tom overhears a landlady say at one point). Mostly, there’s an all-pervasive sense of wasted lives, that these men will spend their lives “digging and drinking, and finish up at the doss-house”.

But the book does not make excuses for behaviours or decisions or the moral cowardice that lies at its heart. What it does, through evocative detail, a cleverly paced narrative and a lightness of touch, is showcase the human condition, with all its tensions and foibles and flaws. If anything Leaving Ardglass is about human greed — and how we can all be corrupted by it if we are not careful.

I loved this book so much it’s a genuine contender for my number one book of the year. And it’s encouraged me to source King’s previous novels — The Strangled Impulse (1997) and Swansong (2001) — both of which are out of print. Watch this space.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Henry Sutton, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton

Get-me-out-of-here

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 272 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here languished in my reading queue for more than a year. Billed as a “credit crunch” novel, it wasn’t something that immediately piqued my interest. Then I saw Guy Savage’s perceptive review and knew I had to dig it out for a read.

The novel — Sutton’s sixth — doesn’t really have anything to with the global economy sliding into free-fall. Instead, it’s about a 30-something brand-obsessed businessman losing his grip on reality.

Aside from my introduction to Ross O’Carroll-Kelly earlier in the year, our narrator, Matt, is the funniest — and sickest — character I’ve come across in modern fiction for a long time. But where Ross is pretty much harmless, Matt isn’t quite as innocent.

Matt is, quite frankly, absolutely delusional and filled with an over-inflated sense of self-importance. He’s the type of person who thinks the world revolves around him, and he has no sense of shame whatsoever.

When the book opens he’s busy trying to get a refund on a pair of sunglasses he no longer wants. That’s because he’s seen another, more expensive, pair in another shop that he prefers. What he doesn’t tell the sales assistant — although surely she suspects — is that he deliberately broke a lens and “possibly bent an arm back with more force thant was strictly necessary”.

This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout the book: Matt buys highly desirable products at great expense, then rashly changes his mind and returns his purchases, usually damaged, and demands a refund. He is a shop manager’s worst nightmare.

But these scenes, particularly when he’s arguing his case and lying through his teeth, are explosively funny. Take, for instance, his purchase of some Japanese-made luggage for an impending business trip. He takes home his new grey “indestructible” ballistic nylon suitcase and…

I thought I’d put the bag through its paces and test the strength of the handle and the play on the wheels and what would happen to the grey it if were subjected to a bit of tossing around in the yard. After all, this was probably mild compared to what the baggage handlers at Heathrow, or Pyongyang International for that matter, would subject the thing to — except they wouldn’t, of course, be getting their hands on it, as it was only ever meant to be hand luggage. However, the hopelessly young sales assistant in Selfridges’ luggage department — what was his ambition in life? To front a boy band? — didn’t necessarily know that. If I’d had a gun I’d have shot the damn thing to see what it was really made of.

While the handles and wheels “held firm”, the nylon “marked atrociously”, so he returns it within a matter of hours, only to be greeted with a shocked: “Why does this one look so used?”

I said, “You told me they were indestructible. Bulletproof, is what you said. How, if that’s the case, is it possible that in a matter of only an hour or two they look like this, if they are really as tough and practical as you made out? What’s the point in having such smart and expensive luggage if it looks like this after its first outing? What would it look like if I took it on a trip to Iraq, or Afghanistan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo? And that’s beside the fact that my fiancée hates the colour. She’s right. For once. What a ridiculous fucking colour for a bag. It’s only ever going to show up dirt, like shit on a toilet bowl.”

So, as you can see, Matt is alarmingly shallow and manipulative. But what becomes increasingly clear as you get further and further into the story is that Matt treats his girlfriends — and there are a string of them — in exactly the same way, exchanging one for another as soon as he has become tired of them. But because he is narrating the story — in a wholly unreliable manner — the reader has to fill in the gaps. Why is he cleaning stains off the wall? And why is he dumping Bobbie’s secret shoebox in a skip in a laneway?

What makes Matt such a fascinating character is the gap between his reality and the real world. He is constantly making plans to leave London and set up some exotic business in far-flung locales, but never gets beyond filching expensive meals off his friends or shoplifting wine from the corner store.

All the while he moans about the state of the world, the state of the economy, the immorality of the times and his pet hate — fat people. Obnoxious, self-centred and absurdly funny, Matt is not what he seems. Sutton scatters little clues here and there which allow you to build up a picture of the real Matt — and it isn’t exactly pretty.

Get Me Out of Here is a truly memorable read, one that could best be described as a wicked satire about murder, madness and the never-ending quest to keep on shopping! It’s enormous fun and yet it’s probably the most disturbing novel I’ve read all year. Do try it if you are looking for something different.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Simon Lelic

‘Rupture’ by Simon Lelic

Rupture

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 256 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

What drives a person to murder? That’s the central question underpinning Simon Lelic’s debut novel, Rupture, which looks at the aftermath of a horrendous crime in which a teacher shoots three students and a colleague at a north London school before turning the gun on himself.

Was mild-mannered Samuel Szajkowski (pronounced shy-kov-skee) a psychopath hellbent on killing the teenagers in his charge? Or did something “snap” and his temper get the better of him? Could his deadly actions have been prevented?

It’s down to Detective Inspector Lucia May to find out, although the school headmaster would very much like the case to be wrapped up quickly. Even Lucia’s bosses think it would just be easier to label Szajkowski a “monster” and be done with it:

‘Five people died. All right then. Where did they die?’ He [the chief inspector] looked at Lucia but did not wait for her to answer. ‘In the same room. And how? By the same gun, at the hands of the same gunman. You have a murder weapon, a motive, a room full of witnesses.’ DCI Cole looked at his watch. ‘I’ve got an hour before I’m due to go home. I could write your report and still knock off twenty minutes early.’

But Lucia doesn’t see it like that, particularly as her investigation begins to find evidence of systematic bullying in the school. The question is this: was Szajkowski bullied and if so, by whom? And if the headmaster knew this was going on, why didn’t he do something about it? Doesn’t that make him negligent in his duties?

This line of enquiry has an eerie resonance for Lucia herself, as it becomes apparent that she, too, is being bullied by her male colleagues.

Strikingly original fiction

Rupture is strikingly original fiction, and to pigeon-hole it as a crime novel would not be fair (although I suspect many will give it that label). At times it reminded me very much of Anita Shreve’s Testimony, which charts similar ground, albeit a sex scandal at a private school, in a similar way.

It’s also tempting to compare Rupture with other novels centred on “school shootings” but I think that does Lelic a disservice. That’s because this book tackles the subject from a fresh, new angle. For a start, it’s British (as opposed to American) and the perpetrator is not a student but a “misunderstood” teacher.

The structure, too, is unusual because Lucia’s criminal investigation is interleaved with the varied testimonies of those she interviews. Each of these testimonies is told in distinctive first person narratives, ranging from angry parents, obnoxious teachers and arrogant students. While this is a rather clever device allowing the reader to piece together what happened based on the information as it is revealed, some may find this structure too difficult to follow. I have to say I very much enjoyed it, because it places you directly in Lucia’s shoes and adds to the adrenalin rush as you get closer to finding out what really happened.

Despite the many and varied voices in this book, the characterisation is very strong, particularly Lucia, who is a likable, eager and tenacious investigator, dealing with a host of problems, both in and out of the office, but is slightly out of her depth. You really feel for her situation.

And some of Szajkowski’s colleagues, particularly the arrogant and super-confident physical education teacher, TJ, are wonderfully drawn. It’s only Szajkowski, dead and unable to speak for himself, who feels appropriately aloof and unknowable…

If you’re looking for a thrilling, provocative read, one that will linger in the mind and slightly alter your perspective on the world, then I can recommend Rupture. It’s an impressive debut, and one that marks Lelic as a new British author worth watching.