Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Ever feel like murdering somebody?

Strangers on a Train 'Ever feel like murdering somebody?' I'm sure I've felt like it, but only in the heat of the moment, never in reality, like most people. But Charles Bruno in Patricia Highsmith's first novel, Strangers on a Train, isn't like most people. He's an alcoholic, desperately bored, rich man whose father keeps him short of money.

Whilst traveling by train to Santa Fe to spend time with his mother, Bruno meets Guy, an ambitious architect held back by his wife Miriam who refuses him a divorce. The two men get drunk and talk about their troubles, and Bruno comes up with a plan to murder Miriam in return for Guy murdering his father. In spite of his inebriation, Guy firmly rejects the idea.

It was the train setting that attracted me to the book, although after the first couple of chapters, the action shifts to various locations in the USA, places where the characters live or visit for holidays. The plot is not fast paced, rather the narrative takes time to examine what makes Bruno and Guy tick, their feelings and how they relate to each other. It's a complicated relationship. Bruno 'did not know how to love, and that was all he needed', he loves Guy and wants to be loved back. Guy is ambitious and desires fame. He feels 'hatred and disgust' for Bruno, yet admits that 'each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved'.

Of the secondary characters, I enjoyed Bruno's mother, a rich wife who takes no trouble to try to solve her own, let alone her son's problems. Bruno 'had always been given everything', and she could not understand why he had become an alcoholic, how it had begun. Thinking about it, 'she got up, needing a drink herself'.

There were a couple of things that niggled me, but I can't say what without giving away spoilers. But overall, I really enjoyed the book. Bruno was a genuinely creepy character and I sympathised with Guy's wish to break all contact with him. He learned the hard way to 'beware the desperate boredom of the wealthy'.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Have you a stout heart?

Northanger Abbey "Have you a stout heart? Nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?" If so, then you'll enjoy Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen's gothic parody.

The story is about Catherine Morland, a naive, seventeen-year-old girl who longs to be the sort of heroine she has read about in the 1794 gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Catherine joins family friends Mr and Mrs Allen when they spend a few weeks in Bath, where she meets Isabella and John Thorpe, and the mysterious Henry Tilney, with whom she falls head-over-heels in love. After being introduced to Henry's father and sister, Catherine is invited to spend some time at their home, Northanger Abbey. It is here that Catherine's overactive imagination leads her to invent farfetched mysteries and villainous situations.

It took a couple of chapters to really enter into the spirit of the book, which is written with a great deal of irony and humour. The style seemed more exaggerated and the people more caricatured than in other Jane Austen books. It was one of her earliest pieces of writing, having been finished in 1803 but only published after her death.

I think Jane Austen crafted a very accurate teenage dreamer, desperate for adventure. One of the funniest scenes was when a trembling Catherine searches for secret notes in the chest and cabinet of her room at Northanger. But what was particularly pleasing was the revelation that social interaction has changed very little in over two decades, especially where one-upmanship and teenage crushes are concerned.