Joe Cinque’s Consolation

joe_cinques_consolationIn October 1997, a young man named Joe Cinque died of an apparent heroin overdose in his house outside Canberra. His girlfriend, a law student named Anu Singh, was arrested for giving him the heroin, as well as a large dose of Rohypnol, as part of what appeared to be a murder/suicide. Two days later, Anu’s friend Madhavi Rao was also charged with murder for her involvement in the plot.

Helen Garner learned of the case in 1999, after the trial had begun. A friend put her onto it, thinking that she was interested in stories like this, stories of women at “the end of their tether.” At the time, Garner herself was at the end of her tether, having just divorced and lacking a job. So she decided to look into the story:

I understand now that I went to Canberra because the breakup of my marriage had left me humiliated and angry. I wanted to look at women who were accused of murder. I wanted to gaze at them and hear their voices, to see the shape of their bodies and how they moved and gestured, to watch the expressions on their faces. I needed to find out if anything made them different from me: whether I could trust myself to keep the lid on the vengeful, punitive force that was in me, as it is in everyone—the wildness that one keeps in a cage, releasing it only in dreams and fantasy.

The story Garner tells morphs over the course of her telling. She begins with an account of the case as presented in court, where we learn of Joe and Anu and their circle of friends and acquaintances—this circle that stood by and didn’t do anything despite hearing the whispers of Anu’s plans to commit suicide, possibly taking Joe with her. Some even attended a dinner party rumored to be Anu’s farewell, yet they remained silent until after the fact, talking only with one another, if they talked at all.

Anu’s case was built on the notion that she was mentally ill and thus had diminished responsibility for her actions. Her history showed signs of eating disorders, drug abuse, mental instability, and some sort of personality disorder. Her parents, both doctors who had immigrated to Australia from India, had tried to get her some help. But there was no help to be had; in fact, it seemed that most people around Anu just gave her what she wanted, even when it was obviously a bad idea. Her father actually paid a deposit for her to get liposuction, even though she was extremely thin.

Garner’s account of these events is as much an account of her investigation as it is the story of Joe, Anu, and Madhavi. By structuring her book this way, she seems to be trying to follow in the footsteps of Janet Malcolm in The Silent Womanmy hunch about that was pretty much confirmed when she eventually mention Malcolm’s book. Malcolm’s book is brilliant, and I can see why Garner would want to follow her approach, but it doesn’t work so well here. In writing about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Malcolm was taking on a story that had been told and retold to the point that all those tellings were now part of the story. While the Cinque case was well-known in Australia at the time, it hadn’t been talked about for decades, nor did Garner spend much time discussing public opinion. Her descriptions of who she ate lunch with at the trial seem less compelling than Malcolm’s accounts of tea with a known Plath supporter. I appreciated some of Garner’s introspection about the story and the direction it was taking, especially toward the end, but her approach left a lot of holes that I really wanted to see filled.

Garner’s way of crafting her story works best toward the end, when she turns the story toward Joe himself. Whatever Anu’s reasons were for doing what she did, Joe was gone, and friends and family was grieving. And focusing on Anu’s perspective meant Joe was lost yet again. Seeing Garner’s process of making this decision to look into Joe’s life and leave Anu alone was helpful, yet tacking on a couple of chapters at the end seems small, almost like she needed an ending and this was what she was left with.

The thing is, Anu’s case raises some huge questions that Garner barely touches on. Anu’s crime seems largely to stem from her mental illness, the nature of which is never entirely clear. Her sentence is based on the idea that her mental illness gave her diminished responsibility, which makes sense while also seeming dreadfully wrong. There are so many layers to this question, and I really wanted to hear from more experts on mental illness and personality disorders, perhaps even to hear about similar cases and how they panned out. Joe’s parents are horrified at the injustice, and Garner spends a lot of time on their grief. It would have been interesting, though, to have heard from other grieving survivors, perhaps even some who saw the killer of their loved one facing more serious punishment.

Another big question has to do with bystanders and conspirators. Madhavi’s case gets into this question, but not very deeply. I wanted more about the group psychology that would cause people to come to a supposed farewell/suicide party like it was no big deal. At a couple of points, after the long process of killing Joe began, Anu talked to people who told her she needed to call an ambulance and get help. Why did they leave it to Anu? Even if Garner couldn’t get answers for this specific case—and there probably aren’t good answers—it would have been fascinating to put these people’s actions in a larger context of how group dynamics can cause terrible things like this to happen.

I wasn’t at all familiar with this case, and that made the story on its own interesting, but the limited commentary connecting it to other cases or to larger issues made it feel slight, even self-indulgent. It felt like Garner was just writing it as she went along, without taking any steps outside the narrative that presented itself. A missed opportunity for some good, hard-hitting journalism.

Posted in Nonfiction | 6 Comments

Under My Skin

UnderMySkinIt took me a few weeks to get through this book, the first volume of Doris Lessing’s autobiography, published in 1994. This wasn’t because the book is particularly long or difficult, nor is it because I didn’t like reading it. It’s because Lessing’s writing here is the type that I needed to spend time with to appreciate it. I couldn’t read it in a hurry.

Doris Lessing was born in 1919 to a former World War I soldier and the nurse who took care of him during his hospitalization after losing a leg. The couple was living in Persia when Doris was born, but in 1925 they moved to Rhodesia, where Doris lived until 1949, when she moved to London and this autobiography ends.

Early in the book, Lessing acknowledges the difficultly inherent in autobiography:

Telling the truth or not telling it, and how much, is a lesser problem than the one of shifting perspectives, for you see your life differently at different stages, like climbing a mountain while the landscape changes with every turn in the path. Had I written the when I was thirty, it would have been a pretty combative document. In my forties, a wail of despair and guilt: oh my God, how could I have done this or that? Now I look back at that child, that girl, that young woman, with a more and more detached curiosity. Old people may be observed peering into their pasts, Why?—they are asking themselves. How did that happen? I try to see my past selves as someone else might, and then put myself back inside one of them, and am at once submerged in a hot struggle of emotion, justified by thoughts and ideas I now judge wrong.

Besides, the landscape itself is a tricky thing. As you start to write at once the question begins to insist: Why do you remember this and not that? Why do you remember every detail a whole week, month, more, of a long ago year, but then complete dark, a blank? How do you know that what you remember is more important than what you don’t?

Good questions all, though Lessing does not answer them in this book. She just gets on with the work of telling her own story as she remembers it.

Much of the book involves her early hunger to break free from her parents. From an early age, she harbors a lot of anger toward them, especially her mother, although she never quite identifies a clear reason for her anger. Some of it has to do with her mother’s desire to live an upper-class English life in Africa, where such a life is neither feasible nor desirable. There are also her parents’ physical and mental health problems. Not long after the family finished their farmhouse, Doris’s mother took to her bed with what she called a bad heart. Doris was enraged at the time, but looking back, she’s more sympathetic:

Now I understand why she went to bed. In that year she underwent that inner reconstruction which most of us have to do at least once in a life. You relinquish what you had believed you must have to live at all.

Some of Doris’s feelings toward her parents probably arose from fear, from seeing herself in them. Here, she considers her attitude at age 14:

Oh my God, the unforgiving clarity of the adolescent, sharpened by fear that this might be your fate too. “I will not, I will not,” I kept repeating to myself, like a mantra.

Eventually, her desire to be free led her to leave school and live with other families as often as she could, getting work as a nursemaid.

Getting free from her family, however, did not mean getting the freedom she craved. By 1939, she was married. She adored her babies, but she didn’t adore being part of the circle of young mothers. Something else to break free from.

Her next move took her into the world of left-wing politics, where she met Gottfried Lessing. The chapters describing her work with the Communist groups of Rhodesia are among the most interesting in the book, not because of the politics but because of the group dynamics that could apply to almost any group of impassioned people. She writes about the power struggles within the group, the shifting allegiances and priorities, and the tendency to become insular and suspicious of everyone not on the inside.

One particularly insightful section discusses the language she and her cohorts used, phrases like “capitalist hyenas, social democratic treachery, running dogs of Fascism, lackeys of the ruling class, and so on.” When she and her friends were first introduced to this kind of language, they couldn’t take it seriously:

We could not use it without laughing … We put the phrases between inverted commas, or exchanged glances while demurely mouthing them. Dorothy Schwartz was particularly good at this, pronouncing that such and such a public figure was a lickspittle of the ruling class with infantile left-wing disorders, while her eyes rolled gently, and her voice fell like an Anglican bishop’s reaching the peroration of his sermon. Slowly, but within months, the abusive rhetoric was set aside.

Lessing remarks that when she wrote The Good Terrorist, which used events from this period, she received many letters from readers who were also part of left-wing groups that did not give up on this rhetoric. In fact, they said, ” ‘The language took them over’ and they became ruthless and efficient killing groups.” Lessing reflects on this with thoughts that seem relevant now:

We should be careful of the company we keep—and the language we use. Regimes, whole countries, have been taken over by language spreading like a virus from minds whose substance is hate and envy. When armies are teaching soldiers to kill, the instructors are careful to put hateful epithets into their mouths: easy to kill a degenerate gook or or black monkey. When torturers teach apprentices their trade, they learn from an ugly lexicon. When revolutionary groups plan coups, their opponents are moral defectives. When they burned witches, it was to the accompaniment of a litany of calumny.

Hateful, dehumanizing language can come from people who are otherwise in the right, and once that kind of language takes over, right becomes wrong. It’s something to be careful of in a time when quippy but mean-spirited terms for people who are different from us can go viral and spread far beyond our immediate circles.

Before reading this, I’d only read Lessing’s final novel, Alfred and Emily, which I didn’t like very much. I did, however, like the writing, and the novel’s use of Lessing’s parents’ histories made me curious about Lessing’s life, which is one reason I decided to read this. I wondered if my lack of familiarity with Lessing’s other work would be a problem, and it wasn’t. When the book ends, she’s still in the process of getting her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, published, so she doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing the writing of a bunch of books I don’t know anything about. She mentions her other books when describing people and places that inspired those books, but she doesn’t let the allusion to those works stand in for a full description of those people and places. For me, this book could stand entirely alone as a well-written book by a woman who lived in interesting times. But after reading this, I am interested in reading more of Lessing’s work. If you’ve read Lessing, what would you recommend?

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 14 Comments

The Guide: A #Diversiverse Review

The GuideJust two days after his release from prison, a man named Raju is sitting cross-legged by an ancient shrine when a man named Velan approaches him seeking advice. His sister is supposed to be married, but she has run away. Raju doesn’t know Velan or his sister, nor does he care much about them, but he’s in the habit of giving advice after years as a tour guide. And he’s used to his advice being appreciated, even when it’s completely off-the-mark. So he gives advice and gains a devotee.

This 1958 novel by R. K. Narayan tells the story of Raju’s various rises to power—and what that power does to him. One storyline, told in the third person, shows Raju, the ex-con, winning disciples almost in spite of himself. This narrative alternates with Raju’s first-person account of his life as a tour guide and the relationship that eventually landed him in prison.

The juxtaposition of the two narratives makes the book difficult to follow at first, but it helps to show just how Raju operates—and he is an operator. He may not look for opportunities to be deceitful, but when opportunities arise, he takes them. He plays the part that people expect of him, passively at first, but once he sees an angle the benefits him, he fully immerses himself in the new persona.

But being a spiritual guide is not the same as being a tour guide, and soon the role is out of his hands, and the people are in charge. It’s at this point that the narrative reverts almost entirely to the first-person flashback, as Raju tries to make a clean breast of it and reveal to his most devoted disciple who he really is.

It’s at this point that we sees Raju’s third guide persona, when he takes on the task of guiding a beautiful dancer named Rosie to her future. The relationship began as one of lust but turned into yet another opportunity to play an angle. Raju uses Rosie’s talent to build his own fame and fortune, but he didn’t know when to stop. And so he lost what he had gained.

Raju presents himself as charming and pleasant and oh, so helpful, but in truth, he’s only out for himself. All his efforts to help others are ways to serve himself. He gives little thought to what people actually want, only how he can make them appreciate his efforts. Sometimes his efforts do some good. He gave many tourists the holiday they wanted, and he gave Rosie massive success although whether Rosie was happy is an open question—and it’s evident that to Raju she’s a possession, not a person. His advice to spiritual seekers isn’t necessarily bad, but that’s mostly because it’s vague enough for people to apply however they see fit.

The book ends with Raju’s final role coming to an end, and readers are left to wonder why he chooses to end his work the way he does (or seems to). Is he repentant and trying to be the guru people want? Is he in despair over the way things turned out? Or is he hoping for greater glory? I can’t quite make up my mind on this point. He seems utterly humbled by the end, but I’m not convinced his final act is one of humility.


DiversiverseI’ve had this book on my shelves for years, but I made a point of reading and reviewing it this week as part of Aarti’s #Diversiverse event. R. K. Narayan is a noted Indian author whose career spanned much of the 20th century. This is the first of his books that I’ve read.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 8 Comments

Meeting Sarah Waters

One of the advantages of living just outside a major city like Washington, DC, is that lots of great authors come through town. If Politics and Prose were around the corner, I’d be there often because they get lots of authors I’m moderately interested in, but driving all across DC requires more than moderate interest. It requires an author to be among my very favorites. It requires an author to be someone like Sarah Waters.

Waters was at Politics and Prose to promote her new book, The Paying Guests, which I thought was quite good, although not a favorite. I’ve liked it more and more as I’ve reflected on it, and hearing her discuss it made me even more appreciative of the characters.

Her visit was set up as an interview with Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress. I have mixed feelings about this set-up. I can see its value in that it keeps the author from having to prepare remarks that could seemed canned after a while. But the last author event I went to (Jhumpa Lahiri) involved an interviewer who gave away multiple plot points to an audience of readers who had only bought the book that night. Blake was much more cautious about what she revealed. At one point her question got kind of long as she waxed eloquent about how great Waters’s books are, but for the most part, it was a good conversation, and there was plenty of time for audience questions.

Sarah Waters reads from The Paying Guests

Sarah Waters reads from The Paying Guests

The Paying Guests was apparently a challenge for Waters to write because she knew less about the period than she did for her previous books. Much of the literature of the time focuses on the upper classes, and she decided she wanted to write about ordinary people. A couple of well-known murder trials from the period gave her the idea of what the story could be. But as she worked on the book, she got stymied about what kind of book it was. Her agent thought it seemed like a crime novel complicated by love, and she realized from that comment that what she wanted was a love story complicated by crime. That latter insight helps me wrap my mind around the ending a bit better. I’m much more of a crime novel reader than a love story reader, so I was looking for a crime novel ending.

Perhaps my favorite moment from the talk was when she mentioned that she started with the end in mind when she wrote The Little Stranger. This is perhaps my favorite of her books, mostly because of the ending. That final paragraph is breath-taking. It sends a chill down my spine to even think of it. I had gone back and forth about whether to bring The Little Stranger or Fingersmith to the signing, so that comment made me especially glad I’d decided on The Little Stranger. (Politics and Prose does not require those attending a signing to buy a book, so I usually bring my favorite book by that author and buy something else if I don’t want or already have the book being promoted.)

2014-09-19 21.28.14When I brought my book to the table I told her how I love it, especially the ending. She seemed pleased to hear it and remarked that she’s gotten lots of complaints from readers who are confused about what was going on. When I told her that I’ve suggested people reread the last paragraph, she said that’s basically what she does too. That was a pretty awesome fangirl moment for me! (Really, the last paragraph unlocks the book. It doesn’t settle every question, but it answers the main one.)

The whole event was a delight. I only wish all my favorites could come to DC. Lucky for me, next month brings Marilynne Robinson. And Stephen King. Marlon James and Colm Toibin might be worth the cross-town trip too. And Stephen Pinker could be pretty interesting. Well, there goes my October!

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

we-have-always-lived-in-the-castleHere’s what I knew about this novel by Shirley Jackson before I started reading it. It’s creepy. There’s an old house and some sisters, maybe some ghosts, and lots of secrets. And it’s really very creepy. So not much. I’ve seen it mentioned on a lot of blogs, but either I’ve been forgetting the reviews as soon as I read them or the blog reviews are scant on details. (Given that I mostly remember books by blogging about them, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to learn that the blog reviews I’ve read explained the premise in detail but that I forgot. Maybe I need to start a book blog blog so I can better remember reviews.)

Anyway, my review will not be particularly scant on detail, but I will try to avoid big spoilers. I say try because the nature of these characters’ story is revealed slowly, and some people will consider early reveals to be spoilers. I do not.

So I was right in thinking that this book was about sisters. Two sisters. Merricat Blackwood, our narrator, is the younger sister. She’s the one who runs errands into town so that her older sister, Constance, doesn’t have to. Merricat tell us early on that most of her family is dead. Her wheelchair-bound uncle, Julian, still survives and lives with Merricat and Constance. The townspeople have viewed the family, especially Constance, with suspicion ever since the rest of the Blackwoods were poisoned with arsenic that had been mixed in the sugar bowl.

The deaths are the first of the terrible things to happen to the sisters—the terrible thing that happened in the past. But some other terrible thing is looming. Merricat hints at it when the novel opens:

The last time I glanced at the library books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue, and I wondered whether I would have chosen differently if I had known that these were the last books, the ones which would stand forever on our kitchen shelf. We rarely moved things; the Blackwoods were never much  of a family for restlessness and stirring.

The Blackwoods seem to live by routine. The routine keeps them safe. It enables them to care for each other. Staying at home is one way to preserve the routine and keep out the suspicions and demands of the outside world. Shirley Jackson was herself agoraphobic, and the Blackwoods’ sense of safety in the home feels both absolutely right and horribly wrong. The world is terrifying, especially when the neighbors are cruel and suspicious. But the world will not be easily turned away.

For the Blackwoods, the world comes to the door in the person of a cousin, Charles. His arrival brings to the surface Constance’s feeling that their current isolation cannot, perhaps should not, last forever. Isolation may be safe, but what would it cost to preserve it?

Of course, a great cataclysm eventually occurs, but I think the bigger cataclysm is internal. Actually, it may be the lack of cataclysm that’s the biggest thing. However you might look at it, the drama of this book is internal. Death and destruction pale in comparison to the breaking of a mind. It’s not houses or neighbors or routines that imprison, it’s minds. It’s minds that are creepy. It’s minds that contain ghosts. The terror of this book is all in the mind.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 22 Comments

A Kid for Two Farthings

Kid for Two FarthingsThis 1953 novel by Wolf Mankowitz is set in a Jewish neighborhood London’s East End, where a little boy named Joe lives with his mother, His father has gone to Africa for reasons that aren’t fully explained (to work in the mines, I assumed), and so Joe’s mother supports them by working in a milliner’s shop. Their downstairs neighbor, a tailor named Mr. Kandinsky, is a central figure in Joe’s life, eating meals with Joe and his mother and keeping a friendly eye on Joe when his mother is away at work and Joe is left free to wander the neighborhood.

It’s Mr. Kandinsky who tells Joe about the power of unicorns to grant wishes, and Joe, who wants to see him and his neighbors all get the things the want, decides that a unicorn would be a much better pet than the day-old chicks he regularly buys at the market only to have them die soon after. So Joe heads to the market in search of a unicorn, and at the end of the market, he finds one. Its horn hasn’t grown in, and its legs are twisted, but Joe must have it. The little goat unicorn, soon named Africana, becomes Joe’s constant companion, as Joe imagines them going to Africa together, finding their parents, and having great adventures.

This is a light little book, meant, I think, to be charming and sweet while also revealing some of the difficulties of working-class life—a celebration of the imagination and innocence of children and the power of hope even in hard times. I, however, couldn’t quite connect with it. Some scenes were amusing. Joe’s imaginings about his African adventures were fun. And the ending, involving a marriage proposal and a bittersweet farewell. And I appreciated the way the adults generally handled Joe’s fantasies with kindness. Yet…

I think part of what was going on for me is that I needed more context. The Bloomsbury edition offers no introduction or background information. Joe’s father’s journey to Africa may have been a common sort of thing at the time of the story, but given the adults’ tendency to feed Joe fantasy, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Africa story was a euphemism for some other abandonment.

I also couldn’t stop fretting about Africana. He’s a sickly baby goat living under a table in a tailor’s shop! Several characters do express concern about his health, observing that a “unicorn” like him should be lively and “full of beans,” but it takes them much too long to do anything about it. I know that standards around animal treatment vary across times and places, and there’s no actual cruelty here. Still, Africana was suffering, and I wanted someone to help, and my worry about him kept me from sinking in to the rest of the story. (Things turn out well on that score—or as well as can be expected.)

Have you ever had niggling worries like this that take you out of a story?

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 8 Comments

Tell It to a Stranger

Tell It To a StrangerThe short stories by ElizabethBerridge explore the many facets of suffering that come from years of war. Families are fractured, not just through death but through difference of opinion and attitude. And homes are destroyed by bombs while time and deprivation cause others to fall slowly into ruin. There are few opportunities for unadulterated pleasures, and those that come often bring a price. These are hard stories because they depict hard times. But they don’t just catalog the usual pains and privations.Berridge puts spins on her characters’ pain that show how suffering isn’t the same for everyone.

Much of the conflict involves differences within family. The family in “The Bare Tree,” for example, are divided because the son wishes to go off to war while his pacifist parents consider such an action disgraceful. The grandmother, for her part, quietly revels in the conflict, remembering the conflict a generation ago when she pushed her idealistic daughter down a more practical path:

The old lady shook her head. That’s the way it goes, from generation to generation, she was thinking. The young setting up new values which are old as the sun, kicking away from the parents as a child kicks from the womb. She listened to the angry, disjointed talk and remembered Pauline at eighteen. Yes, she had forced her into a bank. She had only wanted security for her. Only that. Old letters, interviews, strings being pulled; these things danced through her mind, doors kept shut when life was joyous and the eyes far-seeing. Now wit their dimming came the treacherous beckoning of memory. I was right then, she thought, but now I know that the young must find their own way.

Of course, it’s easy for the grandmother to support the young in going their own way when she loathes her daughter and appreciates her grandson’s conventionality: “An old woman at the end of her life, seeing all things, at last the pattern fitted. … We, the people, endure, she thought.”

These are not stories of people heroically making a stand against fascism, keeping a stiff upper lip and accepting what comes. Berridge exposes the pain in people’s hearts as they rail inwardly—and thus silently—against what they’re facing. She digs underneath the facade her characters put on, revealing thoughts and feelings that seem petty in such times but are all too human. The main character of the title story is oddly happy when her London home is ransacked because it will give her something to tell the other boarders at her temporary country lodging. Miss Morton, the main character in “To Tea with the Colonel,” longs to talk with someone about her own experience getting bombed, but it makes people uncomfortable.

Miss Morton is one of several characters in these stories who moved to the country during the war. In the country, the war seems distant and the massive country homes excessive, especially when they house only a remnant of the great families who built them. Berridge notes that problem while also showing that the people in those homes are not necessarily mere greedy exploiters of land and people.

One of the strengths of these stories is that, especially when combined, they show multiple perspectives on the issues of their day without coming down strongly on one side or the other. Berridge’s stories aren’t always flattering to her characters, even people who seem like obvious heroes of the day. A mother who throws herself into war work is too self-congratulatory, pointing out to her soldier son that he gets to go on leave, but those on the home front don’t get a break. When her son, disgusted, leaves for London early, missing out on the day she’d set aside to spend with him, she doesn’t seem all that disappointed to get back to her war work and the pats on the back she’ll receive for it. Yet, despite her arrogance, there’s something real and significant to her pain.

Sometimes, though, this lack of position makes the stories hard to grab onto. The opening story, “Snowstorm,” shows a female obstetrician at work in a temporary hospital where pregnant women delivered their babies away from the London bombs. One young mother seems unconcerned about the coming birth, and her attitude troubles the doctor. I couldn’t work out who, if anyone, we were to sympathize with here. After reading all the stories, though, I wonder if the answer is both … if it’s everyone. Because no matter the reason for the characters’ pain, it’s real and worthy of compassion, even when it brings with it an ugly side. In Berridge’s stories, people are a mix of good and bad. Sometimes the bad drowns out the good, sometimes a differing perspective hides it, but both sides are there, and people shouldn’t be discounted just because they’re flawed.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 4 Comments

The Paying Guests

Paying GuestsSarah Waters is one of a handful of authors whose books I will always read, and she’s not so prolific that it’s impossible to keep up. I’ve been looking forward to her new book, The Paying Guests, since its publication was announced. It didn’t even matter what it was about. I’m always excited about a Sarah Waters novel. The book was published last week in the U.K., but we’ve got a couple more weeks to wait in the U.S., where it’s being published September 16. I was lucky enough to get a copy from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, and my birthday present to myself this past weekend was to spend a day reading it.

Set in 1922, this novel is the story of Frances Wray, a spinster who lives with her mother trying to keep up their large London home now that the men in their previously well-to-do family have all died. To earn some extra money, they decide to rent out some of their rooms to a young couple of the clerk class, Leonard and Lilian Barber. Almost as soon as the new tenants arise, tension begins to build. At first, the two families must struggle to figure out how to share space. When should they engage in small talk, and when should they ignore one another? How close are they supposed to be? The class differences add to the complications, as old-fashioned Mrs. Wray doesn’t entirely approve of the Barbers, especially Lillian, whose decorations are altogether too fanciful and housekeeping habits too slovenly. Frances, who has few friends aside from her former lover, Christina, is drawn to Lilian.

Waters excels at tension, and the story spins out slowly, with the first half of the novel depicting a building romance as Frances and Lilian get to know each other. There are misunderstandings and fears, but the two women cannot deny their growing passion. Frances finds herself hoping that she can find a way to build the life with Lilian that she gave up with Christina when her family found out about their relationship. Lilian’s marriage is an obstacle, and so is Frances’s mother, but they begin making plans and looking for a way through to happiness.

Around the mid-point of the novel, the story changes direction, turning into a crime and courtroom drama. An unplanned confrontation leads to a violent tragedy, and the two women must adjust their plans to protect themselves, always hoping that they will find a way through to the other side. Yet the path to their future seems to require that someone else be sacrificed, and neither women says she wants that.

This last half of the book felt at times like a Barbara Vine novel, which is a tremendous compliment coming from me. The tension here is plot-related: What will happen? Will their secret be discovered? Will the guilty pay? But it’s also character-related: Can Frances really trust Lilian? Can Frances even trust herself? The courtroom scenes in particular are loaded with consequence as Frances watches the police build the case they want to build. Certain people are obviously guilty; there’s no need to look further. The press is more interested in a story of sex and scandal, yet they’re blind to the story that’s right there in front of them.

Many of Waters’ books involve some sort of revelation or ambiguous elements. You don’t always know what’s happening when reading Sarah Waters. The Paying Guests is more straightforward than that. There are times when I wasn’t sure what a character was going to do and what certain characters thought, and there were some secrets revealed as the book went on, but there’s no big twist or huge unanswered question. The mysteries and tensions that drive the book are those of the human heart. What does love look like? How can we do right in a world that’s against us? What will we do to be happy? Lots of fiction explores these kinds of stories, and Waters does it well here. But readers who are looking for her trademark twisty plots might come away disappointed.

I’m not sure myself how I feel about the end. It’s not the ending I expected, but if I were reading another writer, I might have loved it immediately. In fact, it might be the very best ending for this book. This might be a case where the least risky ending is the riskiest one of all.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 13 Comments

The Scorpio Races

What it’s like is a battle. A mess of horses and men and blood. The fastest and strongest of what is left from two weeks of preparation on the sand. It’s the surf in your face, the deadly magic of November on your skin, the Scorpio drums in the place of your heartbeat. It’s speed, if you’re lucky. It’s life and it’s death or it’s both and there’s nothing like it. Once upon a time, this moment—this last light of evening the day before the race—was the best moment of the year for me. The anticipation of the game to come. But that was when all I had to lose was my life.

Scorpio RacesFor four of the last six years, 19-year-old Sean Kendrick has won the annual Scorpio Races in the island town of Thisby. His special connection with his horse, Corr, makes them fast and focused, even when surrounded by the predatory capaill uisce, the predatory water horses whose fierce hunger makes them monsters, as well as the best mounts a racer can imagine. Sean loves the capaill uisce, especially Corr, but he knows better than to trust them. It was nine years ago when he saw his own father die in the Scorpio Races, torn from Corr’s back by a grey stallion mid-race.

Puck Connelly lost her parents to the capaill uisce, but they weren’t racers. When the water horses are on the move, no one is safe on the water, and Puck’s parents were attacked by wild capaill uisce when they were out on their boat. Now, she and her two brothers are eking out a living, avoiding the races entirely. Until Puck gets the idea that running the race could keep her family together just a little longer.

My sister Kelly, who knows Maggie Stiefvater, introduced me to her books last year, urging me to try The Raven Boys, which I enjoyed but not nearly as much as I did The Dream Thieves. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should perhaps also mention that Kelly put me in touch with Stiefvater for a work project  after I’d read the books, so we’ve exchanged a few e-mails about her writing career.) The Scorpio Races is actually Kelly’s favorite of her books, but she thought I’d like The Raven Cycle books more. But as I eagerly await the publication of Blue Lily, Lily Blue, Kelly’s love of this book, along with Ana and Jeanne‘s reviews, got me to give me a try.

Jeanne notes in her review that if you’ve read any horse books, you probably won’t have a lot of trouble figuring out how this story is going to go. And that is true. The set-up gives us a weary champion in Sean and a plucky upstart in Puck, the first woman to run the race. The champion draws resentment for being great, especially when his greatness eclipses that of his employer’s son. The upstart draws resentment for bringing change, not just in  herself but in her choice of horse. The stakes are high for them both. Sean is running for Corr. Puck is running for her home. Some elements of the set-up are implausible. Puck’s initial reason for joining the race makes little sense, although a later development makes her situation more desperate and the race more important and likely. Her brother Gabe’s plans make sense, but his silence surrounding them makes him into a jerk—and a jerk I couldn’t believe in, when telling his family would be not just a courtesy but a practical necessity. So I had to get past some stuff. And I could.

The thing is, even within the not entirely unpredictable outline of the horse book with a dash of romance, there are a lot of things that could happen. The question of which of those things will happen is where much of the book’s magic lies. The race-day sequence is almost unbearable because no outcome could be wholly happy. The first-person narration throughout alternates between Puck and Sean, and during the race, the shift point of view keeps readers just enough in the dark about each of them when, in the chaos and blood, they lose sight of each other.

Thisby is a small community, losing people every year to the mainland, where there is more money and no monstrous horses. But home is not always safe, and neither is love. And what’s safe for one person is deadly peril for another. Each person has to know him- or herself and work out how to bring desire and need and talent together to create the best possible life. Both Puck and Sean are racing toward their futures, the sand flying under their horses’ hooves. They push their horses forward at a breakneck speed, yet they’re still figuring out what they want their destination to be. Much of this book concerns itself not just with winning a race but with knowing what the race’s goal is, knowing what you want and weaving your own desires with those of others. A complete win for everyone may not be possible, but the possibility is there, and so there’s a reason to race.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 11 Comments

Life at Grasmere and Reading Other People’s Diaries

LifeatGrasmereSeveral years ago, I subscribed to RSS feeds for the diaries of Samuel Pepys and George Orwell. At the time, it seemed like a brilliant idea. The feeds updated on dates recorded in their diaries with the entry for that day, so readers could experience the years along with them. It would be like reading their diaries in real time.

I subscribed to those feeds for months, and in all those months, nothing of interest happened. Pepys went to meetings and dinners with people I knew nothing about and then came home and went to bed. Orwell gathered eggs, keeping a count of how many he gathered each day. I’m sure something of interest happened eventually because both of these men led interesting lives and are good writers. In fact, I’ve read Pepys riveting diary entries about the great fire of London in 1666. But weeks of boredom meant I often marked the diaries as read in my feed reader without even looking at them. If something interesting happened—and I know it did—I missed out. It turns out that random diary entries aren’t necessarily interesting, even when the diarist’s writing is generally worthwhile.

I remembered those diaries when reading this little book from Penguin’s English Journeys collection. The book is mostly made up of diary entries by Dorothy Wordsworth from May to November 1800, when she and her brother William lived in Dove Cottage at Grasmere. I picked up the book on my last trip to London (four years ago!), during which I actually visited Grasmere. It seemed like a nice keepsake to have.

Dorothy’s diary—at least in the entries preserved here—chronicles daily life at Grasmere, mostly focusing on walks she took alone and with her brothers or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a frequent visitor. She mentions visits they make and visitors they receive and some of the poems they read and write. And she notes some of the cooking that she does. It’s a simple account of ordinary life, with little additional introspection. It’s the kind of thing that might interest a Wordsworth biographer or someone studying daily life in the 1800s. But as a general reader, with limited interest in Wordsworth, I didn’t find much here, especially given that the small volume contains hardly no notes or explanatory text putting these months in the context of the Wordsworths’ life. In fact, I didn’t realize until well into the book that the John she mentions so frequently is another brother.

The poems scattered through the book are perfectly fine poems, if you’re a lover of Wordsworth, which I’m not. I don’t dislike his poetry—I just find it rather dull. The poems appear when they are mentioned in the diary, usually because Dorothy copied the poem out or because William read the poem to her. Only in a couple of cases do we learn more about the writing of the poem.

I don’t think this book is meant to be in-depth in any way—it’s a small, keepsake-type book. But it raises a question in my mind about what I’m looking for when reading a diary. The form appeals to me very much, but I can think of hardly any diaries that I’ve read and loved. In truth, I think I like fictional diaries like that of Bridget Jones.

The trouble, I think, with actual diaries, is that daily life is not inherently interesting—it’s the telling that makes it so. A record of daily activities is valuable to an anthropologist, but becomes little more that a repetitive list of activities to those without a special interest in the topic. A more introspective diary could provide some insights into a person’s mind, but when I consider the own unpolished and introspective journals that I used to keep, I can see how that sort of thing can become just as repetitive. (I used to pick away at the same dilemmas and worries for weeks and months on end—I gave up journaling because the thought patterns bored me!

It occurs to me that diarists are not necessarily writing for an audience, and so they aren’t trying to be interesting or avoid going over the same things again and again. Diarists write for their own purposes—to get their thoughts out or maintain a record. Writing for an audience changes the writing. Anne Frank revised her diary over the years with a future audience in mind. And even when a diarist isn’t considering, editors may prune out the extraneous material or offer some explanatory notes to enrich the dull bits.

So what do I want when I read a diary? I want a vivid and compelling voice, first and foremost. I love learning about times and places that I couldn’t otherwise experience, but that may require a diarist (or later editor) to fill in gaps that wouldn’t be filled in a personal, private diary. Rougher writing, with less context might be acceptable in the work of a someone whose thinking I’m highly interested in. But that could be a stretch. I read unpolished writing on blogs regularly (and I write it myself!), but blogs are written for an audience. Someone has to consider the audience.

What do you think? Are there diaries you find particularly wonderful? What makes them so great?

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry | 27 Comments