Friday, 26 April 2019

A toxic relationship

Deep Water In Deep Water Patricia Highsmith has created a truly toxic relationship. Vic Van Allen's courtship of his wife Melinda was "like breaking a wild horse", but after several years of marriage and the birth of a daughter, Trixie, "she was not attractive to him as a woman." The couple live separately in the same house, where Melinda invites her men-friends and gets drunk with them, and where Vic tends his herbs and snails.

On the surface Vic accepts his wife's extra-marital affairs with dispassion, but his actions portray a deeper rage. He is constantly looking to score petty points over Melinda. At friends' parties, he won't dance "simply because his wife liked to dance." At home he stays "up until four or five or even seven in the morning," simply because his wife's male guest "would have preferred him to retire and leave him alone" with her. It is truly a pernicious relationship.

Deep Water traces Vic's gradual breakdown and the explosive release of his bottled-up emotions. It's like watching a car approach a cliff edge, the driver ignoring the warning signs, the outcome inevitable.

Although I enjoyed the book, preferred Highsmith's earlier Strangers on a Train for its suspense. Deep Water's set-up was not entirely credible. Why on earth did Melinda stay with Vic? The most sensible and normal character is the six-year-old Trixie, but one wonders what will become of her with such toxic parents.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

A very satisfying ending

The Devotion of Suspect X By the end of Chapter Two of The Devotion of Suspect X, author Keigo Higashino has put the reader in the shoes of TV's Detective Columbo. It's an inverted detective story: we've seen a murder take place and we know who's committed it. Yasuko has killed her violent ex-husband Togashi. Neighbour Ishigami, a mathematical genius who keeps himself to himself has overheard the crime. He also happens to have a crush on Yasuko and offers to deal with the body and arrange things so that she will never be found guilty.

The remainder of the story follows Detective Kusanagi's investigation and the help he receives from his brilliant physicist friend Yukawa, aka Detective Galileo.

Ishigami's genius is to have created a mystery which appears to have logical answers, but which the detective's instinct tells him are wrong. I too kept thinking, there must be more to the story than meets the eye. Indeed, the clues are there, but they are well hidden and I didn't work it out before the reveal. A very satisfying ending.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

An elegant death

The Sweet Dove Died (Bello) When we first meet Leonora Eyre, she speaks with "mock humility," which tells you, in two words, what a self-centred creature this middle-aged, unmarried woman is. The Sweet Dove Died spans about a year of her life.

After successfully bidding for a Victorian book of flowers, Leonora becomes light-headed and is helped out of the auction room by Humphrey Boyce and his nephew James, antique dealers. The two men become rivals for the affection of Leonora, who clearly prefers James, but the friendship develops only because the young man is willing to play along with the woman's need to be assured of her elegance and dignity.

Everything seems to go well, until Ned, James's manipulative American friend enters their lives. He exposes the characters as they truly are, the "glitter of his personality making Leonora seem no more than an ageing overdressed woman, [-] and James and Humphrey a callow young man with his pompous uncle." They are all dislikable.

The secondary characters garner a lot more sympathy. Meg had her own problematic friendship with a younger, gay man and recognised "the need to accept people as they are and to love them whatever they did." Liz "loved cats more than people," and Phoebe, with her "raw outpouring of feelings" that made James "feel so guilty."

Leonora did not make friends of women. She regarded them as "a foil for herself, particularly if, as usually happened, they were less attractive and elegant than she was." Not a pleasant person.

It's the second of Barbara Pym's books I've read. There's more humour in Excellent Women and the protagonist, 30-year-old spinster Mildred Lathbury, is more likeable. In The Sweet Dove Died, Leonora might be what Mildred would become, an older, menopausal spinster who has spent her days in splendid, narcissistic isolation. Its darkly humourous treatment of aging and death is somewhat comparable to Muriel Spark's Memento Mori. Leonora believed "there was no reason why one's death should not, in its own way, be as elegant as one's life, and one would do everything possible to make it so." It seems rather sad to dismiss other ways of living a full life for such a superficial concept.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Some things you've got to stop thinking about

A Kind of Intimacy Annie Fairhurst wants to start a new life. When A Kind of Intimacy opens, she is dancing naked around the home she is leaving, kicking the sofa she has always hated. You might think her reaction a bit strange, but in the circumstances, understandable. How did she put up with the hated sofa for so long? "What starts off as intolerable, [-] eventually becomes merely irritating and in time, in a matter of months or years, you become immune to it. You've got to, haven't you? Some things you've got to stop thinking about, or you'd never survive." Annie gradually reveals throughout the rest of the book what it is she has to stop thinking about.

Annie's awkward attempts to make friends of her new neighbours are sad and funny. You can see how she might take a dislike to Lucy next door, who makes derogatory comments about Annie's knickers "on the line: like bloody parachutes." With anger management problems and an inability to read friendly signals, Annie see-saws between absolutely terrifying and painfully embarrassing. I often wished I could put my hand over my eyes and read through my fingers.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

The law does not always punish the guilty

Anatomy of a Scandal "The truth is a tricky issue," asserts prosecuting barrister Kate Woodcroft QC, at the beginning of Anatomy of a Scandal. After losing a case, the "forty-two years old; divorced, single, childless" woman is reflecting on the nature of the justice system in the UK, in which "you can win even if the evidence is stacked against you provided that you argue better." At the end of the chapter, Kate is presented with her next case.

We're then introduced to Sophie Whitehouse, "the most calm and controlled of individuals, who was brought up to temper any unpleasant feelings with dry humour or to keep them firmly suppressed." Her husband James is an up-and-coming junior minister and close friend of the Prime Minister. In the morning Sophie is a happy mother and wife, but by the evening her world is thrown into disarray by the discovery of her husband's five-month affair with his parliamentary researcher, Olivia Lytton. Handsome and charming, "someone who exercises strong self-control and is capable of great discipline," James confesses to the affair, but worse is soon to come, when Olivia accuses him of rape. This is the case that Kate must prosecute.

Sarah Vaughan see-saws the narrative of the story between the present day court case in London, and twenty-three years earlier at Oxford University, where James and Sophie met. We discover that something significant happened during their student days, and for the canny reader, the text carries plenty of clues.

It's a fast-moving story and covers several themes, including privilege, 'relationship' rape, and especially justice, or rather injustice, since "the law does not always punish the guilty."

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

A pair of star-crossed lovers

Brighton Rock A stick of Brighton rock is sickly sweet, often pink, and so hard it can break your teeth. It's a perfect metaphor for Pinkie Brown, the nasty protagonist of Graham Greene's book.

The story opens with Hale the journalist who's visiting the English seaside town of Brighton on a bank holiday weekend. In the guise of Kolley Kibber he surreptitiously places cards in public places, which entitle the finder to ten shillings (about 25 GBP today). His mind is not on his job 'tho, because he knows the local mob will murder him before the day is out.

Graham Greene admitted in an introduction to the 1970 edition of the book that he had intended to write "a simple detective story", but ended up with a book that discusses "the distinction between good-and-evil and right-and-wrong and the mystery of the 'appalling strangeness of the mercy of God'."

Pinkie and his girlfriend Rose have both been raised as "Romans," understanding the consequences of mortal sin, the concepts of Heaven and Hell. Together, the characters serve to highlight what is evil and what is good. "What was most evil in him needed her: it couldn't get along without goodness." Their beliefs are different to those of Ida Arnold, amateur detective and nemesis of Pinkie. She is "a bit sly, a bit earthy, having a good time." Her morality doesn't depend on what happens after death, it comes from a living sense of what's right and what's wrong: "Vengeance was Ida's, just as much as reward was Ida's, the soft gluey mouth affixed in taxis, the warm handclasp in cinemas, the only reward there was. And vengeance and reward, they both were fun."

Apart from Ida's optimism and joie-de-vivre, Brighton Rock is a bleak read. There can be no salvation for Pinkie, and under his influence, Rose's desire for martyrdom is particularly grim. The poverty caused by the 1930s Great Depression in the UK infuses the novel too, when a "twopenny ice from an Everest tricycle" was the only luxury. Thankfully, the enjoyment of excellent literature does not depend on it being light and happy. Pinkie and Rose are just as captivating as that other pair of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet.

Other stuff

Check out the excellent Brighton Rock (1948) movie with a screenplay written by Greene and Terence Rattigan. It stars Richard Attenborough as Pinkie and the original Doctor Who, William Hartnell as Dallow.

The book has also been adapted for stage twice (1943 by Frank Harvey and 2018 by Bryony Lavery), for radio in 1997, turned into a musical in 2004, and a second film in 2010.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Power and powerlessness

The God of Small Things The God of Small Things opens with the return of Rahel to her childhood home in Ayemenem, in the south-west of India and to her twin brother Estha. Why did she leave? "It all began when Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem."

Arundhati Roy has said that the theme of much of what she writes is "the relationship between power and powerlessness and the endless, circular conflict they're engaged in." In The God of Small Things, there are characters who attempt to escape their 'powerlessness', and those who scheme to maintain, at all costs, their superior position. Within the family, divorced Ammu and her twins must be informed "of their place in the scheme of things." Baby Kochamma resented her niece Amma, "because she saw her quarrelling with a fate that she, Baby Kochamma herself, felt she had graciously accepted."

The incessant pettiness and bitterness throughout the tale makes for quite a depressing read, and that's before considering the 'laws' of interraction that must be upheld not only when dealing with different classes, religions, ideologies, gender or nationalities, but also between members within these societal constructs. In the book, prejudice and contempt are manifestations of "unacknowledged fear - civilization's fear of nature, men's fear of women, power's fear of powerlessness," and eventually, in one of the most shocking scenes, "man's subliminal urge to destroy what he could neither subdue nor deify."

The narrative jumps between the present and the past and occasionally the writing style is exhausting and creates a barrier to moving the story forwards. However, there are vivid images that jump from the text, for instance the "dissolute bluebottles" that "hum vacuously" in the hot May weather, and Baby Kochamma's feet that are "puffy with oedema, like little foot-shaped air cushions."

By the end of the book we realise that, "to say that it all began when Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem is only one way of looking at it. [-] it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.

Other stuff

John Crace digested classic in The Guardian