Louise Millar: Accidents Happen (2013)

Accidents Happen

I’m not sure where I’ve first heard of Louise Millar, but the review I read was very positive, so when I saw Accidents Happen at the local book shop, I picked it up.

It’s a book that’s easily spoilt. For once, the blurb doesn’t give away anything. All it says is that Kate had some serious bad luck in her life, which has made her obsessive and paranoid. We learn early that her parents have died tragically and later her husband too. It takes a while until we know how they died, and since I enjoyed discovering it for myself, I’m not going to reveal anything more.

When the book opens, Kate and her young son, Jack, live in Oxford. They have moved from London and live in a shabby neighbourhood, although Kate is very rich. Her parents-in-law aren’t happy about this choice. But they are equally unhappy about Kate’s behaviour which is extreme. She’s obsessed with statistics and hopes that if she controls her son’s and her every move, she’ll be able to avert more bad luck. The relationship with her in-laws and her sister-in-law is more than a little strained. On top of that there were break-ins in the house, Jack pretends he hears noises in the cupboard, and Kate can’t shake off the impression that someone enters while they are out. Unfortunately the in-laws think Kate’s making it all up and that she’s a bad influence on her child. They are planning on taking Jack away and so she’s forced into action. Either she sees a therapist or she changes radically. That’s when she meets visiting Oxford professor Jago, a statistician who proposes a very unorthodox way to cure Kate. I can’t say more.

This is one of those novels that might lose readers halfway in because a lot of what happens during this so-called therapy is more than a little bewildering. I’m not sure why I kept on reading anyway, but I’m glad I did because at the end – everything makes perfect sense. I think I don’t spoil too much when I say it has a major twist but a twist that works because Kate doesn’t know what’s going on either. You have to trust the author in this case, and just wait and see.

Apart from this bewildering element, the book has a lot to offer. I liked that it’s set in Oxford and the way she described the city was really appealing. The topic of statistics and the theme of whether someone is cursed or whether you can prevent accidents, was unusual. The pacing is great. It’s suspenseful but never too fast-paced. Most of the characters are extremely unlikable. Luckily Kate isn’t and we care for her.

I’d love to say more about the transformation she undergoes but – again – it would spoil the book.

While this isn’t one of my all-time favourite crime novels, I liked it a lot. It’s solid and highly entertaining, with some really nasty, even creepy characters. I’ll certainly pick up another of her novels. I was also glad that I couldn’t come up with a comparison. It didn’t feel like I’ve read  a book like this or similar authors before.

Mary Hocking: Letters From Constance (1991)

Letters From Constance

I think it speaks for the quality of a book when you feel like discussing it. Mary Hocking’s Letters From Constance is such a book. There’s so much to discuss. Characters, themes, and even the structure of the book. As the title indicates, Letters From Constance is an epistolary novel. A genre I’m particularly fond of and so it’s not surprising that I liked this novel very much.

Constance and Sheila met when they were only kids, in 1933. They were inseparable during their school years and confident they would stay close in the future. While they stayed close emotionally, they were often separeted. Sometimes for many months, even years. During those times of physical absence, they wrote letters. The novel renders one part of that correspondence that lasted from 1939 to 1984– the letters from Constance to Sheila. Those from Sheila to Constance had to be destroyed. In lesser hands this one-sided correspondence would have felt lacking, but the richness of the letters, the depth of Constance’s analysis and feelings, and her love for her friend, make sure Sheila’s just as present as the writer of the letters.

Constance and Sheila are very different and so are their life choices. While Constance marries an Irishman, Fergus, whom she met while she was posted to Ireland in the WRNS, Sheila marries the musician Miles. Constance has seven children, Sheila has two. Ever since they were teenagers, Sheila wrote poems and Constance was sure she would become a famous poet. It takes decades and a lot of heartache before Sheila finally follows her calling. One could say, she needed a detour to land on her path, while Constance follows her own calling intuitively. There are three things that define Constance – her friendship with Sheila, her children, and her religion.

I was surprised by this book because it’s very different from the first Mary Hocking (The Very Dead of Winter) I read. I must say I loved the first one more – it was richer in atmosphere and descriptions -, but it didn’t make me want to discuss it while this one did. There are so many themes explored it’s hard to name them all. I’ll just pick a few.

Motherhood. Maybe this is the main topic and the way it’s treated is arresting because there are so many elements attached to it. We are introduced to a multitude of mothers. First the mothers of the main protagonists, then the two friends, and finally their friends and daughters. Each woman stands for another type of mother/mothering but – and that’s what’s so great – not one of them is one-dimensional or clichéd.

Love for the children. More interesting than different types of motherhood is how Constance describes herself as a mother. She’s not one mother, but seven different mothers, depending on which child she’s talking about. All the parents of more than one child I know pretend they love all of their children the same. It’s something I’ve a hard time believing and sometimes you just have to listen to them and you know it’s not true. I’m sure they try to treat all of their children the same way, love them all, but there will always be one that’s closer to their heart. Funny enough, when you ask people with siblings, they will tell you that they experienced this, that one was the mother’s favourite, while another one was preferred by the father . . . In the novel Constance, openly names a favourite child. She also says which one she thinks is the most intelligent, the best looking . . .  nonetheless she’s just and does love them all. I found that very refreshing, because it’s the way we are. Be it friends, colleagues, siblings, kids, even animals, there’s always one we feel more connected to. I suspect that a lot of heartache comes from our trying to deny this.

The role of women. The novel spans far over half a century and captures the changes in the lives of women, their changing roles, and status. There’s a lot that’s worth discussing here as well.

Religion. While Sheila’s an agnostic, Constance converts to Catholicism. Not because she’s married an Irishman, but because she discovers some writings that help her cope, understand life, and approach it in a more philosophical way. One author who is mentioned is Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751), a French Jesuit priest. I looked him up and what I read sounds very interesting and reminded me a bit of Greek philosopher Epictetus.

The perception of others. For a long time Constance envies Sheila. Her life, her home, her marriage. It sounds freer, more creative. For her, seeing Sheila and her family together, making music, equals a vision of  paradise. Over the years we learn that things were very different. I think Mary Hocking touches upon something that happens very often— we haven an idea of people and, eventually, we don’t even see the real people anymore and, through comparison, we don’t even see ourselves.

Structure. This is another of the things I would have loved to discuss. Why did Mary Hocking choose to include only one part of the correspondence? And why did she choose Constance’s? Maybe it’s unfair, but I often thought that Sheila sounded like the more interesting woman.

As I said, I didn’t love this as much as The Very Dead of Winter, even so it is a wonderfully rich novel. One that would make a particularly great choice for a book group. I’m pretty sure it would lead to fascinating discussions.

Unfortunately I don’t know a lot about Mary Hocking. I wonder whether she was more like Constance or more like Sheila – I guess the latter.

This review is part of Heavenali’s Mary Hocking Week. She read and reviewed Letters From Constance last year. Here’s the review.

Mollie Panter-Downes: One Fine Day (1947)

One Fine Day

Mollie Panter-Downes was a British novelist and columnist. She’s well-known for her novel One Fine Day and her wartime short story collection Good Evening, Mrs. Craven.

One Fine Day is set on a summer’s day in 1946. It follows one day in the lives of Laura and Stephen Marshall and their young daughter, Victoria. During the war, Stephen was away like most men, while Laura and Victoria, together with other women and their children lived at their big house in the village of Wealding. While the Marshalls haven’t lost anyone during the war, they are still reeling. Their marriage suffers from the strain that comes with the changes in their way of life. Belonging to the upper-class, they were used to have servants: cooks, maids, gardeners. During the war, a lot of the servants left, died or moved on and only a very few were willing to return. Taking care of a big house and garden is clearly not what Laura was meant for. She makes a poor job of it and the house and people inhabiting it grow shabbier every day. While Stephen was gone, nobody minded the chaos, but now that he’s back, Laura feels she has to make an effort and mourns her loss of freedom.

Stephen hopes that things might get back to normal soon and before he leaves the house that morning, he begs Laura to go and look for a new gardener.

The book changes the point of view a few times, but mostly we follow Laura’s outer and inner life. She goes to the small village to buy food – no small feat as there’s still rationing and there’s hardly any choice. Then she prepares dinner, which takes her ages. Every household chore takes ages and is never done to satisfaction. The war and the house have taken their toll. She’s constantly tired. She’s thirty-eight but feels and looks much older.

A large part of the day is dedicated to hunting Stuffy, the Marshalls’ small dog, who has run away. When she goes to find her, she takes this opportunity and makes an excursion up a hill from which she can see the beautiful English landscape and savour an intense moment of solitude.

One Fine Day reminded me a lot of Carr’s A Month in the Country, only the time is even more condensed. The richness doesn’t lie in the plot but in the inner lives of the people and the lyrical descriptions of a beautiful, hot English summer day.

What a morning! Later it would be very hot, but now the dew frosted the grey spikes of the pinks, the double syringa hung like a delicious white cloud in the pure air. The cat sat with her feet close together on the unmown grass, and suddenly, sticking out a stiff back leg, ran her mouth up and down as though playing a passage on the flute. Summer at last, thought Stephen, and about time too. London wold be an oven.

The beauty and warmth of the day affect all the characters. It makes them live intensely and hold still for a few moments. There’s a lot wrong with the life they are living. They are not equipped for it and the spouses have grown apart. But this beautiful day revives them, makes them appreciate what they have, makes them wish to get closer again. The end is uncertain, because in uncertain times, hopes and wishes are easily squashed. While we are not sure they will be able to make it – as people, as a couple – there’s hope.

The novel is gentle but outspoken. The characters hope and dream but they are realistic. They see things the way they are, notice the marks the war has left. Laura who knows she’s lost her looks, tries to strive for charm instead. Or here – an early description of Wealding that used to be

 ( . . . ) the perfect village in aspic, at the sight of which motorists applied their brakes, artists happily set up easels ( . . . )

Those days are gone and now Wealding is

It’s perfect peace was, after all, a sham. Coils of barbed wire still rusting among the sorrel were a reminder. Sandbags pouring out sodden guts from the old strong-point of the bracken, the frizzy lily spikes pushing up in the deserted garden of the bombed cottage, ( . . .)

One Fine Day is intense and lyrical, a novel for those who like introspective books and don’t need a lot of action. But it’s also masterful because of the delicate way Mollie Panter-Downes uses motifs and other recurring elements that reinforce the themes of loss, change and – more positively – transformation. And how she juxtaposes the lives of her two main characters, who undergo, in one single day, a whole transformation, believing at first that they each want what the other has – an independent life, leisure to savour what a day brings -and then discover – it’s already there – they just have to grab it.

I first came across this novel on Danielle’s blog here.

Just an aside – I’m not sure why it says Molly on this book cover, as she’s clearly called Mollie and my edition – same picture – says Mollie.

Duong Thu Huong: Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê (1995) Literature and War Readalong May 2015

Novel Without A Name

Duong Thu Huong is one of Vietnam’s most important writers. Since I haven’t read a lot of Vietnamese novels I was looking forward to reading her most famous book Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s beautiful and harrowing.

At the beginning, Quan, the narrator, is sent on a mission to find his friend Bien. Quan, his commanding officer, Luong, and Bien have grown up together. When Luong hears that Bien has gone mad, he sends Quan to go and find out if it’s true.

What follows is the account of a dangerous mission on which Quan meets many people, dead and alive, sees atrocities, remembers his childhood, falls dangerously ill, dreams about his love, and finally finds his old friend.

Bien stands for many other “crazy” men we meet in this novel. Some really go mad because of the horrors they have experienced, others just withdraw into themselves, trying to escape the war.

Quan and his younger brother, who has been killed, have signed up right at the beginning of the war, ten years ago. Their father was one of those who supported a 100% mobilization, accepting that he might lose both of his sons. Almost all of Quan’s comrades are dead. The main story follows Quan on his mission, but overall the book is more like a series of vignettes. In parts it reminded me of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Without the metafictional elements. Duong Thu Huong uses a mix of very short and long chapters. Some are dedicated to what’s happening to Quan on his trip, some are childhood memories or stories from the war, otheres are just short, intense snapshots.

What I liked best is how descriptive this book is. It speaks to the senses like not many others. It felt at times like watching a documentary on Vietnam. We read about the food, the flora, the fauna, the beliefs, the scents, the way people love, sleep, cook. Several chapters describe the landscape and make you want to visit this country that has sun sets the color of chrysanthemum flowers.

Duong Thu Huong served in the North Vietnamese army and so it’s not surprising the descriptions of combat, dead soldiers, the horror of war are drawn in a shockingly realistic way. She also manages to capture how tired and disillusioned most soldiers have become. The political slogans that fired them up and made them sign up have become mere empty words. Bodies pile up, their country is destroyed – for what? An ideal that isn’t even humane?

On his quest, Quan meets many people. Simple farmers, single mothers, small girls, old men. They are drawn with a lot of detail and warmth. We suffer for these kind, gentle people who had to endure the worst for such a long time.

It’s admirable that the author doesn’t blame the US. She finds a lot of fault with party politics and the false promises of the government. There is no evil enemy. Nor is there an army of faceless Vietnamese soldiers. Every soldier she describes becomes a human being with a history, feelings, wishes and hopes.

Novel Without a Name is a visceral account that doesn’t leave out any aspect of this war. It’s an insider’s perspective, a soldier’s account. The novel unrolls like a huge canvas, a painting of an abundant jungle, where humans butcher each other amidst the most beautiful scenery.

I read the German translation of this novel that’s why I can’t share any quotes. It’s too bad because many of the descriptions are so amazing that I read them more than once.

Other reviews

 TJ (My Book Strings)

Bonespark 

 

 

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Novel Without a Name is the second book in the Literature and War Readalong 2015. The next book is the Hungarian Holocaust novel Fateless – Sorstalanság by Imre Kertész. Discussion starts on Wednesday 30 September, 2015. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Are You Ready for Mary Hocking Week?

#Remember Mary Hocking

I discovered Mary Hocking last year, thanks to Heavenali‘s Mary Hocking Week. So, of course, I was keen on joining when I saw she was going to do another week this year.

Last year I read the wonderful The Very Dead of Winter. This year I will read Letters From Constance, which I first discovered a while back on Danielle’s blog here.

Letters From Constance

Here’s the synopsis should anyone be interested in reading along:

In 1939, as they leave school, Constance and Sheila vow to keep in touch. Posted to Ireland in the WRNS, Constance marries Fergus, a gregarious Irishman. Before long, stifled by domesticity and motherhood, she envies Sheila, writing poetry and married to the fiercely creative Miles. Gradually, however, a different reality emerges, for Constance has unacknowledged talents of her own, while Sheila’s public success is bought at great personal cost. From the war to the 1980s, Constance writes to Sheila of her everyday hopes and sorrows, and through her we learn much of Sheila’s gallantry and courage. We learn, too, of the social and political developments that challenge and shape her values, until finally outside events come too close and the fragile balance of Constance’s own world is threatened.

There are many Mary Hocking novels that sound amazing but they are not easy to get. Many are out of print. I managed to get a used copy of Letters From Constance.

Mary Hocking Week starts next Monday, so if you want to join, you have to hurry up a bit. Here are the details.

Will you join as well? What are you going to read?

Christine Dwyer Hickey: The Lives of Women (2015)

The Lives of Women

Christine Dwyer Hickey is an Irish novelist and short story writer, who has been awarded many prizes for her work. Her bestselling novel Tatty was chosen as one of the 50 Irish Books of the Decade, long listed for the Orange Prize and shortlisted for the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Award. Last Train from Liguria, was nominated for the Prix L’Européen de Littérature. Her novel The Cold Eye of Heaven won Irish Novel of the Year 2012 and was nominated for the IMPAC 2013 award.

The Lives of Women, her latest novel, is set in an Irish suburb. There are two timelines, one set in the 70s, the other thirty years later, in contemporary Ireland. The chapters set in the present are written in first person. The chapters set in the 70s, in the third. Since both strands are told by Elaine, it felt a bit weird at first, but after a few chapters it made perfect sense. It’s like the person she was in the past was someone else entirely.

I found it interesting that from the first pages on, I felt that Christine Dwyer Hickey was also a short story writer. The prose is so lean, every bit of fluff has been cut. Almost minimalist. I liked that very much and feel like picking up another of her novels. Unfortunately though, this book didn’t quite work for me because she uses a device we know from genre novels – withholding information – and in this case it felt gimmicky.

Elaine returns to Ireland from New York after a thirty year absence. Her mother has died and her father’s caretaker is absent, so she feels, she should come and help him. Early in the novel we’re told that she left Ireland at the age of 16 because of some traumatic event. We’re not told what it was until the final pages. While this technique made the novel suspenseful, I thought it diminished its power.

Apart from this clumsy structure the book has many strengths. Dwyer Hickey captures the claustrophobic feeling of an Irish suburb in the 70s. The women are at home, bored to death, the men just distant shadows. many of the women drink or pop pills. Elaine’s relationship with her mother is very unhealthy. They sleep in the same bed until Elaine is nine and only because a school friend tells other kids about it, does that change. Later, Elaine contracts a near fatal illness, which gives her mother the excuse to smother her. She may not be as extreme but she reminded me quite often of Jeanette Winterson’s mother.

When an American divorcee, Serena, and her daughter, Patty, move into the neighbourhood, tensions rise. We know from the beginning that this divorcee takes Elaine with her when she returns to New York after the tragedy has happened. The way Dwyer Hickey describes the culture clash is so well done. And when reading it and comparing the kind, free-spirited Serena with the frustrated, crazy housewives around her, we start to understand that Elaine might not only be traumatized by what happened but by her upbringing, the stifling atmosphere, the double standards and highly dysfunctional relationships, in which sex is everywhere but too tabu to be spoken about.

Unfortunately this withholding of information, the slow build-up to the final incident, made that incident much less tragic than it really was. And it also overshadowed one of the underlying themes, which I found extremely interesting and well-done. Elaine reinvents herself more than once in this book. She sheds identities like clothes. I liked the idea of a person being able to become someone else, to draw on hidden selves and bring them to light.

This isn’t the glowing review I would have liked to write, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t glad I read it. If only because it introduced me to an author whose style really appealed to me.

Here’s a small sample of her writing, from the beginning of the novel:

I come down here to try to cure or maybe kill something, in a hair of the dog sort of way, but all I ever do is remember. Days of brooding then follow. Brooding on the past, on the horror of being young: on all the stupidity and ignorance and misplaced loyalty that goes with the territory. Then I start with the thinking. I think about what it was like to be living here at the time. I think about Karl and Paul, about Patty and Serena. About Jonathan. I think about all the others. About my mother and the other mothers. About my father and the other fathers and non-fathers alike. About the unimportance of children and the importance of men. I think about the lives of women.

I want to pick up Tatty next. Has anyone read Christine Dwyer Hickey’s books?

 

Susannah Clapp: A Card From Angela Carter (2012)

A Card From Angela Carter

I wanted to read Susannah Clapp’s book A Card from Angela Carter since reading TJ’s review on her blog My Book Strings during Angela Carter Week last year. I’m glad I finally got a chance to do so. It’s a small but exuberant little book. Very much in the spirit of Angela Carter herself. Susannah Clapp is Angela Carter’s literary executor. She was one of the co-founders of the London Review of Books. She writes theater critics for different newspapers.

A Card From Angela Carter is biographical but it’s not a biography as such. It’s an homage and much more like a patchwork, loosely inspired by a collection of postcards Angela Carter sent Susannah Clapp over the years of their friendship. Reading these vignette-like biographical snippets is like watching a photo develop in a darkroom. With every card, with every story of Angela Carter’s life, the writer emerges more and more distinctly.

Clapp touches on subjects as wide as Angela Carter’s taste, her books, her love of kitsch, her exuberant nature, her use of swear words, her politics, her feminism, the fact that she was never nominated for the Booker, her choice to go grey, her teenage anorexia, her travels, her stay in Japan and the US, her thoughts on housework and sex.

You learn a lot about Angela Carter when reading this. About her marriage, divorce, second marriage and late motherhood. About her relationship with her parents. Her studies, her interests. I wasn’t aware that the Orange Prize was founded because Angela Carter’s work was never on the Booker shortlist. Clapp’s book is fascinating, because Angela Carter was such a fascinating author but what I liked best is that the book puts you in the mood to go and pick up Angela Carter’s work. And it certainly makes you wish you’d known her.

A Card From Angela Carter is inspiring in many ways. It works as an homage and a teaser that tempts you to go deeper and to (re-) read her work and the books about her.