BOOK REVIEW: The Fact of a Body

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The Fact of a Body
By Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Out now from Macmillan
£20 hardback; £16.99 eBook

As a story, this is spellbinding. As a feat of engineering, it is a marvel that everyone who writes should study carefully. Comparisons abound. Here are two of mine: The Fact of a Body reminded me of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and Rene Denfeld’s novel The Enchanted. I suspect it has commonalities with James Ellroy’s memoir, My Dark Places, and Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts (neither of which I’ve read; the latter was recommended to me by Denise Mina via Twitter).

The Fact of a Body is a combined memoir / true crime story. What’s astonishing is that the crime in question involved other people in another place, and had nothing to do with Marzano-Lesnevich’s family or friends.

Yet straightaway we learn that the crime has everything to do with the author, who skilfully meshes her stories like halves of a zipper. Once the elements are engaged it’s nearly impossible to imagine them as separate entities. Even so, tease them apart again and each is distinct.

The Fact of a Body is about families and secrets, about sexual predators, about the way patterns repeat over generations. It’s about the myriad circumstances that contribute to one damaged person’s ability to thrive (eventually) versus another’s ultimate disintegration.

On one side of the tape is the murder of six-year-old Jeremy Guillory, and the story of his killer, pedophile Ricky Langley. The other side is a slow unpicking of the author’s family history, containing eerie parallels that explain why this case, in particular, would not let her rest when she was a law student. There’s a good interview in Vogue, explaining a lot of this.

Things Marzano-Lesnevich gets right:

Pacing: the tension is palpable and unrelenting. Every chapter ending will make you go, “Oh my god, what next?” and turn the page until there are no more to turn. (I inhaled this in a day.)

The account of her abuse — and her parents’ decision to sweep it under the carpet — is devastating, but her retelling never feels self-indulgent.

There are dozens of stories within stories, and each is compelling. Her curiosity and research have been comprehensive and thorough, but rather than sinking under the weight of this information, The Fact of a Body is buoyant.

It’s a stark reminder that even now, in the United States, people live in grinding poverty, which forces them to make terrifying compromises and endure the seemingly unimaginable.

Empathy abounds — for victims and criminals, making for a stirring read.

Wait, you’re thinking, she hasn’t described the story or offered a potted precis, as is typical in book reviews. Damn straight. It’s too complicated and sublime. Trust me, when I say rush to the library or your favourite bookstore and get hold of The Fact of a Body. Trust me when I tell you that this is one helluva story, incredibly well told.

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Deep Dish

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(These are not the dishes in question, but these dishes are for sale on my Etsy shop.)

For my fourth and final year of university I moved off campus into a flat. I was sharing with a pal I’d met my Freshman year, called Spaceman. (His ability to sleep through crashing heavy metal music, screaming hissy fits and much more prompted one of the guys in his dorm suite to marvel, “He’s like something from outer space.” Lo, a nickname was born. He claimed to despise it, but was often seen wearing a tee shirt proclaiming: “Space is the Place.”)

Anyway.

This flat was furnished, but I needed dishes, so Mom and I nipped over to the mall. I knew what I didn’t want, mainly nothing resembling any of the dishes we’d had at home, which included a hideous brown on brown drip pattern during the 1960s, or the particularly memorable turquoise and gold melamine horrors that replaced them.

In the shop I narrowed it down to a couple of appealing designs. The top contender had a white ground with a thin navy blue line running round the outside of each plate (inner rim of bowl, outer rim of cups), punctuated in places by a small lozenge of navy blue checks, like the ones on Checker taxis. Clean. Vaguely urban. Crisp.

“Maybe these,” I said.

“What do you mean ‘maybe,’” asked Mom.

“Depends how they feel,” I said.

Mom, who sent us to ordinary state schools, used to joke about Montessori kids and how they had to touch everything. Whenever my brother and I ran around touching things (which was often) she admonished us to stop behaving like Montessori kids. It wasn’t the worst thing she ever called us, but we knew it was pejorative.

As Donald Rumsfeld didn’t quite say, there are the known knowns and then there are things we know beyond a shadow of a doubt, but which we don’t know — and can’t explain — why we know them.

I knew I had to hold those plates; they had to feel right in my hands or I wouldn’t be able to live with them.

I picked up a plate. The underside curved softly and was as delicious to the touch as a peachy set of buttocks. Mmmm, I thought.

“These,” I told Mom. “Definitely these.”

Back home we found Dad sitting at the kitchen table. Goodness knows what he was doing there, he normally hid from us. He asked whether the trip had been successful.

“Want to see them?” I asked, holding up a bowl. He didn’t comment. I’ll never know what prompted me to give him one of the dinner plates. Curiosity, maybe. He held it in both hands for a few moments, without saying anything. Then, slowly, he smiled.

It seemed I was my father’s daughter.

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The Mythology of Loss?

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I’m not a loser. That is, I don’t lose things. Oh sure, I’d be hard pressed to tell you what became of much of my childhood detritus — toys, clothes, the contents of our dressing up box. Let’s blame Mom for some of those disappearances, my own enthusiasm for a mood-lifting purge for the rest.

No, I am not someone who has to replace a lost phone. Ever. Credit and debit cards don’t go missing. I can easily lay my hands on my marriage and divorce papers, on my birth certificate, and my British Citizenship documents. The only time I lost my wallet — 1981 — it was stolen. Loss is so infrequent that I am still pricked by angst recalling a crimson cut-velvet scarf I lost in a Manhattan nightclub, not to mention the circumstances that led me there, and the perhaps bigger loss — at the time —  of my heart to the man I went with to hear that band. (Bigger? Ha. It’s the scarf I miss now and will always mourn. That’s perspective for you.)

I interact with my belongings regularly. I have an above average visual memory. I boast of these traits to explain why I’m distraught that I cannot find one of my books.

It is not just any book. It is a book I’ve cherished since childhood, reading and rereading it so often that it’s a wonder it’s survived. It has survived, and I would not have jettisoned it, even if it was in shreds. It’s one of the books I shipped from the USA when I emigrated. And it’s the object that, when I vowed to return to the original premise of this blog — blithering about myself by examining what I own — seemed an ideal place to start.

Classical Myths That Live Today must have come into the house with my father, a professor of education. I know that because it’s not a book for readers, it’s a book for teachers. Here’s the abstract from an online library: “A textbook or reference work that includes illustrative selections from English poetry, review questions, projects, and suggestions for additional reading.”

This is what my edition looks like — small, orange, austere.

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The pages are slick, coated, like an art book. The authors are Frances Ellis Sabin and Ralph Van Deman Magoffin. The earliest edition was published in 1940 but mine must have been the 1958 edition, making it one year older than I am. I began reading this in the 1960s, as a girl, and never stopped, even though I’d memorised the stories of the Mount Olympus gods and goddesses.

There is a chapter for each of them, from Apollo to Vulcan. Next up, heroes, Bellerophon through Theseus. There are chapters about the Trojan War, The Adventures of Ulysses and the Wanderings of Aeneas. Useful appendices offer a who’s who, a summary of expressions, suggestions for ways to present the material that will have relevance to students’ everyday lives, picture credits, and a section of page references to other textbooks for additional reading.

Poetry and literature are quoted to illustrate not only the behaviour of these immortals, but to demonstrate the electrical current these legends shot through the creative juices of the world’s great writers. And not only writers. Though words are my livelihood and vitally important, what grabbed me as a child weren’t the verses, but the pictures. Throughout are engravings and photographs of classical works of art — Greek urns, temple friezes, statues, paintings. As happened with Madame X, via this book I made best friends with two of Bernini’s sculptures — The Rape of Proserpina and Apollo and Daphne. More than a dozen years later, as a university student, I managed to visit them in Rome’s Galleria Borghese. Eyes glistening with tears, mouth catching flies, I felt my heart open wide, felt it soar, deeply touched by this reunion. It was a homecoming, this communion with the companions of my childhood. I gasped at how Bernini rendered Pluto’s fingers digging into Proserpina’s thigh — it’s marble, why does it squish? — and at her splayed toes. They, more than anything, more than the horror in her face, convey the shocking speed of her abduction and her abject fear. (Bernini worked on it between 1621 and 1622 and was 23 when it was finished. Christ on a bike, that’s precocious! From there he went right to work, possibly with help, on Apollo and Daphne.)

Here (and throughout this post) are some images I looked at almost every day as a kid.

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I  can’t sit still and keep leaping up to re-check my shelves, my eye continually snagging on The Heart Has its Reasons, by the Duchess of Windsor, because it’s old, and it’s orange. This is desperation talking. I’ve run my hand behind books, checking for slippagae. I’ve been up on a ladder checking the high shelves where I know it would never be (I keep it accessible). I’ve been on hands and knees looking under furniture. I’ve snuck up on my shelves, exclaimed, “Ah ha!” — to no avail. I’ve asked myself, “Who’s been in this flat and out of the many hundreds to choose from, why would they ‘borrow’ that?” I know just where it should be but not where it is. I’m dying to suddenly see it after looking right at it for two days, dying to call myself names, say, “For fuck’s sake, you asshole, it was there all along.” I mean, how could it have vanished?

As much as it entertained me, Classical Myths that Live Today also informed me. Whenever I joke about my annoying inability to settle into childhood and my stupid rush to grow up, I say it’s because I sprang fully grown from my father’s forehead. (Note to self: Honey, it was a headache.)

I always remember — thank you Eos — that wishes must be worded to account for contingencies: when asking for the gift of eternal life, bolt on eternal youth because otherwise you’ll end up a desiccated cricket, like poor Tithonus. The story of Niobe warned of the dangers of bragging — anger the gods and they’ll kill what you love. In her case, eleven of her twelve children.

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I learned to carry a mirror (or other reflective surface) when out on a mission, because you never know when you’ll encounter a Medusa.

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And I always move my hands around when I’m washing something so I don’t miss a bit, as Thetis did.

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I google my book, find the cost of replacing my precise edition prohibitive given my current straits. Wonder how long I’ll resist adding it to my credit card debt anyway. I’m jonesing for my security blanket.

Though I understood this was a nonfiction book about fictions, that its stories weren’t reportage, I can’t shake the feeling, even now, that the Olympians were real. Well, real to me, and to generations of Greeks and Romans. If anyone wants a list of the books that made me, Classical Myths That Live Today is up near the top. It filled me with stories and infused me with an affinity for art. The potency of these stories and the way they continue living inside me — I’ve just realised how perfect the title is — makes it easier to understand those who believe in the Bible and the reality of those lives and that God. Would I believe if I’d found a bible on my parents’ shelves, instead of Sabin’s book? I doubt it. Certainly they’d have discouraged me. Anyway, back then, bibles didn’t come with lavish illustrations of the art and architecture that myth system engendered. For me that would all come later. Did I ever tell you I “collect” annunciations? Some other time, perhaps.

Damn. I came to capture a memory, not write a eulogy. I’ll continue tearing the flat apart. In the meantime, I might erect a shrine to Hermes. Unless he’s the one who stole it.

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Binge Reading: Leonora Carrington

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The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington
By Joanna Moorhead
Out now from Virago Press, £20 hardcover

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Down Below 
By Leonora Carrington
Out 18 May from New York Review Books Classics
£8.99 paperback

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The Hearing Trumpet
By Leonora Carrington
Exact Change Books
$15.95 paperback
(my edition is American, obviously you can source other options in the UK)

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The Milk of Dreams
By Leonora Carrington
Out 15th June from New York Review Children’s Collection
£11.99 hardcover

I play a game, sometimes, where I let the book I’m currently reading select the book I’ll read next. I’m also a completist and an obsessive. For example, if I love an actor (writer, musician), I’ll not only try to see all of their films (etc), but will also read as many biographies or tangential reference works, in order to know even more about them. This explains the “New Yorker Ghetto” of my bookshelves (devoted to works about the magazine and the writers who worked there), my collection of biographies, and the time I simultaneously read two Angie Bowie memoirs published twelve years apart, vetting her versions of identical events against one another.

The past week or so of my reading life has been devoted to Leonora Carrington, which is only fitting, since this is her centenary. She was born 6 April 1917. She was an artist, an author, a rebel, and altogether amazing. As this is not a book review post, I’ll not rehash chapter and verse of her life — you can find that in proper reviews elsewhere online. I do urge you not to stop there, but to go on and read The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington, and then, of course, to read Carrington herself. All the books pictured above are terrific and worthy of your time.

Moorhead’s father was Leonora’s cousin. She’d run away from the family in 1937, aged  twenty, and for all intents and purposes never returned. To most of the family she was a write off and an enigma. So in 2006, when a stranger told Moorhead that her distant relation was “probably the most famous artist alive in Mexico today”, her curiosity was piqued. She dug deeper. Her father told her Leonora — Prim, as she was known then — “disappeared off to Europe, got into all sorts of trouble there, and was a huge worry to everyone.” Soon Moorhead was on a plane to Mexico, notebook in hand. Her friendship with Leonora lasted until the artist’s death in 2011.

While not a hagiography, this is a loving biography, mainly focussed the first part of Carrington’s life. It chronicles her love affair with Max Ernst (much older and already a star of the Surrealist movement), their one idyllic summer in the south of France where they played host to a Who’s Who of art world celebrities, and their separation at the start of World War II, when Ernst was interred and Carrington forced to flee.

The most difficult section of the book describes Carrington’s own internment, in a sanitarium for the insane, during a prolonged psychotic episode. Carrington told the story herself in Down Below, and while the two accounts cover the same ground with a lot of overlap, they are not identical. If anything, Moorhead’s version is more emotional and shocking (but that might be because I read it first). Carrington’s version has a sense of remove about it, perhaps the only way she could commit such painful memories to the historical record. For she was brutalised at the clinic, left naked, strapped to her bed, covered in her own excrement. Her treatment included injections of a drug called Cardiazol, a precursor to electroconvulsive therapy, which induced an epileptic fit thought to “reset” the brain.

Leonora regained her sanity and made another escape, to Madrid this time, where she reconnected with a Mexican diplomat she’d met in France. They married so that she could escape Spain, and she followed him first to New York and then to Mexico. After a few years there they divorced, and she went onto marry Imre Emerico Weisz Schwartz — Chiki. He was a Hungarian who’d endured a hard childhood but in his teens, forged a close friendship with a boy who went on to become the renowned photographer Robert Capa. While Capa photographed the Civil War in Spain, Chiki remained in Paris, selling the images to magazines.

In 1969, during a period of political unrest marked by student riots, Leonora heard that she had been denounced to the authorities, and she fled alone to the USA. She spent the next 25 years there, returning to Mexico when Chiki’s health began to fail him in old age. There she remained, dying in 2011.

Moorhead’s well-written account is absorbing and I applaud her for telling this story. If I have a complaint, it’s that it tails off dramatically after Leonora is settled in Mexico with Chiki and their sons. To be sure, her entanglement with the Surrealists, her mental illness, and her flight from a Europe engulfed by war is an incredible tale, but Leonora remained vibrant and fascinating right to the end — and kept working, as well. We’re told she had affairs, but none of their details, that she visited a Buddhist retreat in Scotland several times, and her British relations rarely and unhappily, though she remained on good terms with her mother throughout. Whereas before, Moorhead offers many perspicacious insights about Leonora’s art, once she pitches up in the US it’s mentioned less and less. A quick internet search reveals that she created sculptures as well as paintings, but they’re barely mentioned and remain unexplored. I’d love it if Moorhead produced a second volume, amplifying details about the latter half of Leonora’s life.

The Milk of Dreams, out in June, consists of sketches and snippets of stories and poems Leonora told her sons. It’s a pretty little thing, but it won’t be to everyone’s taste. According to the publishers it’s recommended “for the child age 5-9 with an odd sense of humour who finds Dick and Jane passé.”

Finally (though actually first in my reading queue), there is Leonora’s novel The Hearing Trumpet, the story of deaf as a post 92-year-old Marian Leatherby who is shipped off to an old folks’ home by her ungrateful son and his wife. Marian is a marvellous creature — stooped and ugly and heroic. Her irrepressible friend, Carmella Velasquez, who gives her the titular hearing trumpet, is based on Carrington’s real life friend Remedios Varos, a painter whose work I stumbled upon in a Mexico City museum and loved immediately. Together with Kati Horna, writes Moorhead, they “took Surrealism to a new place, a place where it was women-centred and instinctive.” The friendship with Varos was “one of the most precious of her life”. They pushed one another artistically, threw surreal dinner parties, and pulled pranks. Leonora was blindsided when Varos died unexpectedly, aged 55, in 1963.

In this novel, the inmates take over the asylum, wrestling control away from Dr Gambit, himself a parody version of the spiritualist Gurdjieff. I can’t begin to precis the story, which is hilarious and bonkers and wide-ranging, encompassing mythology and religion and murder. It celebrates old age with exuberance and without apologies. Though the oldies get up to all sorts, there’s nothing here of the modern tendency to portray them as cutesy or particularly heroic. Carrington’s old women are unrepentant, lively crones who have few regrets.

They are excellent role models. As was Carrington, who always, always maintained her autonomy and independence of spirit.

Get tucked in!

 

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BOOK REVIEW: Sarah Schmidt

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See What I Have Done
By Sarah Schmidt
Out 4 May from Tinder Press, £12.99 hardback

Unsolved mysteries stick in our collective memory like burrs, a constant irritant to our curiosity. Every so often someone comes along with a solution — often disproved, or at least hotly argued — a film, or a reimagining. The newest of these is Sarah Schmidt’s haunting debut novel, See What I Have Done, revisiting the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, long presumed to have been whacked to death with a hatchet by his daughter and her stepdaughter, Lizzie. She was arrested, tried, and in June of 1893, acquitted, living on until her 66th year, dying in 1927, of pneumonia.

That’s a jarring fact — that Lizzie Borden, who feels so Victorian in every depiction, persisted into the Twentieth century, through the first World War and nearly to the Depression.

It comes as an aftershock, though, for every page of See What I Have Done reeks with visceral disturbance. It is not a delicate novel for delicate constitutions, but a story of fevers and hot skin, oppressive miasmas and rancid food. People sweat and bleed and slurp and vomit; the murder at the story’s climax is gruesome, all splitting skulls, twitching corpses, and eyes loosed from their moorings.

The Borden family is no less corrupted, as rotten as the days-old mutton stew they eat to such ill effect. They seethe with fury and their inability to express themselves erupts into frequent violence. Mr Borden strikes Lizzie when she stands up to him, then murders her pigeons, one by one, with an axe. Emma strikes Lizzie when the younger girl accuses her of sinning. Mrs Borden strikes Lizzie, telling her she’s a disappointment to her father. And Mrs Borden strikes herself, repeatedly, as punishment for imagined inadequacies as a wife and woman.

Bridget, their servant, tries repeatedly to leave, and is thwarted each time. Mrs Borden manipulates her via emotional blackmail and then by confiscating her savings, trapping her in the household.

Though there is a guest room, the girls sleep in adjoining rooms — one is really supposed to be a closet — and it’s as claustrophobic as you’d imagine. There’s no getting away from each other, and that’s very much how Lizzie wants it. More than one family member fantasises about crawling inside a mother, sister, father, the better to understand them, and seek sanctuary there. Emma, who like Bridget, dreams of leaving this toxic home, is denied the escape of marriage. She understands that her father wants her near, to keep Lizzie in line.

There are hints of another, older family murder, of two babies. There’s a mysterious uncle, and a stranger who may be a hired killer.

Again and again we return to Lizzie, with justifiably morbid fascination. She presents as seriously unhinged, but also as a sad case of arrested development, a little girl who wanted to love and be loved by everyone, who grew into a woman consumed by hatred for those who denied her this emotional due.

Schmidt has an opinion about the murders, and gives us a perpetrator, making for a satisfying and unsettling ending. She is a bold writer, unafraid to depict this gruesome family in hellish detail. (The gritty, grubbiness of everyday biology, so graphically described, calls to mind the work of Ottessa Moshfegh.) Schmidt’s handling of different perspectives is assured, and she moves her story backwards and forwards in time with equal facility.

Based on this debut, it’s clear that Schmidt is one to watch. See What I Have Done is not an easy read, but it’s a memorable one — for all the right reasons.

 

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Apologetic Mode

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I know, I know, where have I been? Off trying to earn money, trying to unscramble my head, and reading a lot of books that I’m either reviewing for an unnameable client (and most of which are horrific) or stuff that I can’t review for a lot of other reasons. And I owe you more hilarious anecdotes at my parents’ expense.

To hold their place, here is a wee essay about John Crowley’s Little, Big, a love letter, in fact, to a book I have long adored. If you’re a book lover, do take note of Helen’s project, celebrating lesser known living authors. And be aware that she has a novel out now, too (which I have yet to read):

 

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And finally, if you’re a fan of  vintage, I’ve opened an Etsy shop called PluckyCrocus.

Be back soon!

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Hasty Book Reviews

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Life, eh? Got a little busy here, so I’m going to keep this short and bookish, until I corral all my more personal thoughts into coherent little essays.

Does your heart soar when you hear there’s a new Agatha Christie adaptation coming to television? Do you lose hours on ITV 3, watching old reruns of all three telly Marples? Do you snuffle round the lesser channels like a truffle hound, seeking out Inspector Alleyn, Lord Peter Wimsey, et al?

More to the point, do you love reading the books that inspired the telly?

If so, then you will tumble headfirst for two novels I recently read. Both are variations on the locked room theme, placing a varied cast of characters in a confined environment. The first, A Dangerous Crossing, is by Tammy Cohen writing as Rachel Rhys. On a slow boat to Australia the rich, the infamous, the dastardly and the angelic drink cocktails, grate on each others’ nerves, sightsee, and flirt. Through the reactions of the English passengers to the presence of Jews and Italians, viewed with suspicion and worse by many among the English, we’re reminded that it’s 1939, and that everything’s about to change.

We see life on board through Lily’s eyes. She’s a former lady’s maid and waitress, haunted by memories of a friend’s death, and feelings of guilt about how and why the girl died. Taking advantage of a scheme offering travel in return for two years’ domestic service, she’s wide-eyed and naive, ripe for romance and none too swift when it comes to sizing people up. She’s quickly dazzled by a rich, glamorous couple so miserable in each other’s company that they cannot bear being alone together, but mysteriously unable to find playmates in their own first class lounge. On her lower deck, Lily befriends a sister and brother, and they, too, are swept up by the unhappy wealthy couple — with dramatic results.

A Dangerous Crossing is not 100% murder mystery, though there is a murder. It’s not 100% romance, though goodness knows Lily tries. But it conveys the same heady sensations as a period-set mystery drama (complete with fabulous frocks), for everyone on board is hiding a ghastly secret or twelve. The fun is in figuring out what they are, and therefore why people behave as they do. Just when you think you’ve got every bit of the puzzle in place, there’s a snappy little turn-up-for-the books that should take you by surprise.

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Out now from Doubleday
368 Pages, £12.99, hardcover

The other novel is a reprint of The Crime at Noah’s Ark, by Molly Thynne, which originally came out in 1931. It’s set over the Christmas holidays, when a diverse group of travellers become trapped at a remote inn by severe snowstorms. Among those assembled are a newly successful novelist, Angus Stuart, a renowned chess master, Dr Constantine, an aristocratic family, a vile major, two old dears, and any number of maids, chauffeurs, and other retainers. In the course of the novel some extremely valuable emeralds are stolen and the vile major gets his head bashed in. People come and go with alacrity up seemingly endless flights of stairs, through windows, and in and out of adjoining doors. It’s busier than a Joe Orton farce. There are roaring fires, pots of strong coffee, tense night vigils, and McGuffins galore. Most of all, it’s good fun. (Though Dean Street Press needs some good copyeditors, for the text is littered with mistakes that ought to be rectified before the books are printed.)

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Out now; £9.99 paperback Dean Street Press

Also recommended:

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Birdcage Walk, by Helen Dunmore
Out now from Hutchinson
416 Pages, £18.99 hardcover

Birdcage Walk is an historical novel set in Bristol in 1792. Lizzie Fawkes is the child of radical thinkers, but has married a stern, dangerous man who wants to control every aspect of her life. John Diner Tredevant is a property developer whose current project — a row of townhouses overlooking the Avon Gorge — is going bankrupt. The worse his financial outlook becomes, the more he takes it out on Lizzie. For her part, she’s torn between her family and her husband, her longing for independence and the powerful sexual attraction that keeps her by Diner’s side. There is a lot happening here. Dunmore plays with ideologies, evokes Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and hints at Mary Wollstonecraft, too.

As I mentioned on Twitter, I think this will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Essex Serpent and The House of Birds.

Finally, on a non-bookish note: if you’re a fan of vintage clothes, jewellery and housewares, please pay my new Etsy shop a visit. It’s called PluckyCrocus and can be found here: https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/PluckyCrocus?ref=hdr_shop_menu.

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BOOK REVIEW: Rachel Ferguson

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A Footman for the Peacock
By Rachel Ferguson
Out now. A Furrowed Middlebrow book (an imprint of Dean Street Press). £9.99 paperback, also available as an ebook.

For more about this independent publisher and the imprint, visit: http://www.deanstreetpress.co.uk/main/middlebrow

Rachel Ferguson will be familiar to fans of Persephone and Virago books. The former published her novel Alas, Poor Lady (1937), the latter, her best known work, The Brontes Went to Woolworths (1931). A Londoner most closely associated with Kensington, where she spent the bulk of her life, Ferguson had a busy life. She was a suffragette and then attended drama school. For a little while she acted and taught dancing. During World War I she served in the Women’s Volunteer Reserve, before becoming a drama critic. For years she was the columnist “Rachel” in Punch magazine. She  wrote novels (precisely how many remains the subject of debate, but at least nine) and nonfiction, including a posthumously published memoir. During the last part of her life she devoted herself to two causes: decayed gentlewomen and performing animals, doing time as president of the Kensington Kitten and Neuter Cat Club. She died in 1957. (This biographical info comes from the Virago edition of Brontes.)

Ferguson sounds like a marvellous eccentric, though as I’ve noted elsewhere (https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/01/28/shopping-list/), some of her political and social views are tough to swallow. Nevertheless, she was an insightful observer of human foibles, which she skewers magnificently and hilariously in all of her work. She understood interior life and the importance of fantasy to our emotional well-being, excelling at incorporating it into her work. A.S. Byatt, in her introduction to Brontes, noted “the delicacy and variety of Rachel Ferguson’s exploration of the edges of the real and the dreamed of, or the made up, or the desired.

A Footman for the Peacock came out in 1940. It’s set in the early days of the brand new world war, though it contains numerous flashbacks to less fraught times. This edition contains an introduction by Elizabeth Crawford (which reads as if it may be a group intro to all three Ferguson reissues). She identifies, “A Family — a House — and Time” as key ingredients in Footman. The house is Delaye, occupied by assorted members of the aristo Roundelay family. Without money or transport, they’re frequently trapped in the house — without adequate supplies — living at the mercy of kindly neighbours and infrequent bus service to the nearest village. They come together ritualistically at prescribed intervals, and yet they contrive not to be bored.

To be sure, this is a slow read. Like Henry James, Ferguson became more baroque as her career progressed, and some sentences pile clause upon clause, requiring a second go to capture the sense of them. Plot-wise, no one will mistake this for a thriller, even though there’s a Nazi-signalling peacock, a centuries old mysterious death, and the looming threat of annihilation at the hands of Britain’s enemies. Really, it’s a story about people who resist change, and why. It’s a reminder of how the past haunts the present, and the benefits of making amends. It’s about how families get trapped in patterns of behaviour, by the strictures of social class, and by economic difficulties.

Do make time for the novel. It is studded with delightful stories, funny set pieces, and sharp social criticism. Some reviewers have described the Roundelay family as loathsome. I found them sympathetic, even though they’re comically self-absorbed. After all, the married couple at the heart of the novel love one another and their children. Servants, while unquestioningly trapped below stairs in the hierarchy of Delaye, are largely treated with respect. Ancient, penniless relations and retainers are sheltered — though the same cannot be said for evacuees. The scene where the Roundelays, ambushed by a government official, repel mothers and babies, orphans, and other needy cases, is one of the funniest in the novel, and it’s perversely hard not to root for them.

Elsewhere, Ferguson provides colourful, insular locals who speak a strange patois that’s part French, part god knows what and who, like all such rustics in novels of this ilk, provide a taproot to the region’s past.

Finally, there is an amusing, open-minded vicar. He befriends the youngest Roundelay daughter, Angela, the girl most troubled by deep feelings and a strange affinity for the peacock. She suspects it might be a reincarnation of the house’s former running footmen, and that it’s having a relationship of sorts with the housemaid, herself descended from a line of women who have always served the family. She’s not wrong.

Along the way Ferguson finds time to mock the press and other institutions, and takes bullseye potshots at England’s wartime spirit. Evelyn Roundelay receives a letter from her sister, in London, saying, “We had an air raid warning in church yesterday just after the P.M.’s speech, but nobody turned a hair; they thought it was something gone wrong with the organ, and in short, we played the ukulele till the ship went down.

“If you’re short of torches, I’m told in some of the shops that they’re expecting a consignment of American batteries. They’ll cost 11d., I hear — about three-quarters more than the proper price, so America wins the war once again, at the beginning of it, this time, instead of the end. Meanwhile, I guess and surmise and ‘low our cue is to be terribly polite about the U.S.A. for some months yet, with plenteous reference to The Mayflower, our roots in common soil and great traditions of liberty, so wise up your cheer-squads to whoop it up for Gopher Prairie, fair city of hundred per-cent two-fisted, red-blooded, up-and-coming reg-lar fellows.”

I’ll stop laughing long enough to say that if you’re new to Ferguson, and, say, a fan of novels such as Cold Comfort Farm, that I predict you’ll enjoy this hilarious novel in which nothing — and everything — happens.

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THREE BOOK REVIEWS

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Bad Dreams
By Tessa Hadley
Out now from Jonathan Cape
£14.99 hardback; Ebook available

Rejoice! There’s a new collection of Tessa Hadley’s short stories. Many will be familiar to regular readers of The New Yorker, but isn’t it wonderful having them gathered and bound between hard covers for easy reference? Makes it so much easier to reread them — which you’ll want to do.

Hadley’s writing appears seamless, simple and achievable. It’s not; she’s exceptional, plunging us into characters’ lives like a baptism, engulfing us in their perspectives and feelings, only to discover that the reflection on this deep water is our own.

The opening story, An Abduction, was inspired by a documentary about kidnapped heiress Patti Hearst. Hadley has said: “After they recovered her, she married and lived the life of a very rich American woman, I presume. And I thought, where do you put what happened to you in that time? Where do you put it in your mind? Then I pictured my slightly dull, well brought-up Surrey schoolgirl, who has this day and a night of extraordinary vivid intensity, before she’s dropped off in her old life. Nobody ever knows what happens to her, except her.”

This anomalous incident in an otherwise drearily constrained life spotlights an oft-missed moment in every  life — the quick slip from childhood onto the verges of  adulthood. Hadley doesn’t stop there: she fatally skewers the pretentious youths Jane encounters, with their views on art, their casual drug use, and even more casual disregard for people’s feelings. She shows how the boys, and Jane’s own family, are insulated by their economic freedom, and blinded by it, too.  Like all of Hadley’s best work, this multi-faceted gem of a tale disperses a spectrum of light through your brain. In that light nothing small is overlooked, and every small thing shimmers with truth.

A pivotal incident features again in Experience, when a down on her luck woman takes shelter in a friend’s home and tries, unsuccessfully, to take on her friend’s lover, as well. This humiliating encounter pushes her to grow up and get a grip. More chilling still is the title story, Bad Dreams, in which a child’s nocturnal peregrinations and a seemingly harmless prank have a cataclysmic effect on her parents’ marriage. We’re borne along on the girl’s perspective — her curiosity about the world, the way darkness transforms the familiar, and the unknowableness of her parents — then brought up sharply by a shift to her mother’s perspective: “When she glanced into the lounge, her shock at the sight of the chairs thrown about was as extreme as a hand clapped over her mouth from behind.”

Her Share of Sorrow also centres on a young girl, Ruby, a dull, uninteresting lump of a child, according to her sophisticated mother. During a summer holiday, the ten-year-old discovers grown-up novels, and resolves to write one. But when she shares her lurid, naive potboiler with her family the truth comes out: “Ruby knew this was all a disaster and yet succumbing to a writer’s vanity, she couldn’t help half wanting to hear her words take on their own life in the world. Her eyes were fixed on Nico, pleading but also with a greedy curiosity. What did she sound like, really? Wouldn’t they be amazed? Wouldn’t the words forged in such passion stupefy her audience, making them at last see what she saw?”

Hadley may give these feelings to a child, but they resonate at any age.

 

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Difficult Women
By Roxane Gay
Out now from Corsair
£13.99 paperback

Difficult Women is a mixed bag, containing harrowing and unforgettable stories, and others that cover identical ground but fail to achieve the same intensity. It’s full of sex. Sex as redemption, sex as violence, sex as currency, sex as recreation. While she depicts a good deal else, Roxane Gay places sex at the centre of each character’s existence.

She’s never lurid, but nor is she shy about brutality, consensual or otherwise. If her women are “difficult”, it’s because they are damaged, largely by the actions of men, but it’s disturbing to read stories in which women ask to be pummelled, as if that will drive the “badness” out of them. Disturbing not only for the violence, but because they are not bad, rather, they’ve been broken by circumstance and tragedy.

Gay hits hard in the opening story, I Will Follow You, about inseparable sisters who take a road trip to visit the elder’s estranged husband. We spend a long time uncertainly getting to grips with the dynamic between them, never sure what makes the sisters seem almost unnaturally close. Then Gay tells us: as children, the younger girl was abducted, and her big sister sacrificed herself, refusing to leave her sibling’s side. She was taken too. The story of their six week ordeal is teased out, interspersed with flashes from the present day. Its lasting impact is clear: “We were young once and then we weren’t.”

The girls are pragmatic, insisting on watching the tapes their abductor made, then equally insistent that their parents must never see them. They support each other unflinchingly throughout the trial, as they did during their time in captivity. When we discover why they’ve really fled their hometown, we understand the lengths required for self-preservation. Gay’s voice is authentic. They are always believable.

There’s a magical quality to some tales. The Mark of Cain is an oddly unsettling story about twin brothers who regularly trade places — and partners. The narrator, married to Caleb, is complicit in the swaps, even preferring brother Jacob, who is kinder. The story echoes those fairy tales where people wander at night, dancing or working, returning — a bit exhausted, a bit wiser — to “real life” with the dawn. And it is another story to prompt fantasies of rescue in readers’ hearts: if only we could reach in and pluck that woman to safety. But in Gay’s world, that’s rarely the outcome.

Only North Country, about a structural engineer who’s exiled herself in a remote Michigan university, fleeing her unhappy past. She meets an enigmatic, quiet man with deep reserves of kindness and thaws out under the glow of his acceptance and affection. Their slow blooming, gentle love is a pleasure to witness. It’s one of the most hopeful stories in this collection.

When Gay heads into fantasy she loses this reader. Water and Its Weight is about a woman pursued by “water and its damages”. It sags under its own symbolism, soggy and less successful than what came before. Requiem for a Glass Heart is the story of a flesh-and-blood stone thrower who lives in a glass house with his glass family. The conceit doesn’t hold. We’re told that the glass woman can strip off and run through the streets invisibly, but also that the stone thrower can watch the food she eats travel through her body.

Difficult Women is very moreish; there’s a temptation to race through it. My recommendation is to take it piecemeal, with rests between tales, for there’s a sameness to these stories, leading to an unhappy sense of deja-vu if you inhale them all at once. There are lots of doubles — twins or siblings close enough to seem that way — lots of descriptions of hunting and venison eating, lots of punches thrown and bodies invaded, lots of lost children.

Overall, however, there’s much to commend and these difficult women are not soon forgotten. You’ll find yourself rooting for them.

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The Easy Way Out
By Steven Amsterdam
Out now from Riverrun (Quercus Books)
£12.99 hardback

A comic novel about assisted suicide? Yes, and an enjoyable one at that. American Steven Amsterdam, who’s based in Melbourne, is the author of Things We Didn’t See Coming and What the Family Needed, both of which were long listed for prestigious book awards. He is also a palliative care nurse.

The Easy Way Out is about Evan, who, thanks to the enactment of Measure 961, is one of a small group of nurses who legally assist the terminally ill to end their lives with a fatal dose of Nembutal. There is a lot of protocol and procedure, and a good deal of ostracism from medical staff on the other wards, who see their job as preserving life. Off duty, Evan mainly stays with his elderly Mum, having moved back to his hometown to supervise her relocation to a care facility.

Viv has Parkinson’s, but a new implant seems to be working wonders, and she’s having a rethink of her decision to abandon her flat. They are the smallest of families — he’s an only child and his father drove off the road when he was six. As he learns more about his father’s thwarted ambitions, it’s clear that this was a suicide.

[Aside: While reading this I was reminded of my conversation with author David Vann, who said that once one person in the family commits suicide, it becomes a possibility for all members of that family.]

When Evan’s not at Viv’s, he comprises part of a sexy menage a trois with Lon, a nurse at Viv’s care home, and his husband Simon. It’s a cosy domestic set up that the couple wouldn’t mind making permanent — except Evan’s got commitment issues. For one thing, he still hasn’t told them what, exactly, he does for a living.

It’s obvious that Evan’s work and private lives are going to collide by the novel’s end, but before that happens, there’s a complication in the hospital which forces his resignation. He takes up with a rogue outfit carrying out unsanctioned assists and discovers he enjoys the work. This worries him. Is he an angel of mercy or a stone cold killer?

Amsterdam writes in the first person and Evan is a good vehicle for exploring this philosophically danger-strewn terrain. He’s straightforward in thought and expression, funny, and good company. After helping a man die in the presence of his wife and children, Evan thinks, “[I am] wondering what soon-to-be-five-year-old Hannah’s formulation of this afternoon will be. Death is something that happens when a stranger makes you drink from a plastic cup. How will she cope the first time a dental assistant offers her mouthwash and tells her to rinse?”

His mum Viv occasionally strays into straight-out-of-central-casting zany old lady territory, but Amsterdam usually reins it back before it’s cloying, and her ever diminishing capacities are poignantly rendered. All she wants is a return to independence and some of her old, active life back. For a tantalising few months, this feels within her grasp.

While The Easy Way Out raises key end of life issues and examines the importance of privacy in relation to elderly care, Amsterdam never forgets that he’s telling a story. His characters and their predicaments are three-dimensional and believable. And the ending might surprise you.

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Two from Canongate

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Himself
By Jess Kidd
Out now from Canongate,
£12.99 hardback, ebook, £10.99

Himself is a lively amalgamation of literary styles — crime thriller, magical realism, Irish trickster, Gothic — and an absorbing, audacious debut. It opens with a woman’s brutal murder described in phrases that are simultaneously horrific and sanctified. Then we’re plunged into the vocabulary of fairy tales as the victim’s infant is absorbed — and protected — by the forest’s flora and fauna.

That child grows up to be a gorgeous, disruptive young man called Mahoney, with “eyes like black sloe berries and eyelashes like a girl.” A disturbing influence among the nuns raising him in a Dublin orphanage, now wanted by the law, he returns to his birthplace, Mulderrig, on Ireland’s west coast, in 1976. He is determined to unmask his mother’s killer and learn the identity of his father.

Mulderrig runs to eccentrics. There’s an elderly actress who’s as sparky and sassy as Angela Carter’s Chance sisters, from Wise Children. There’s a distraught mother mourning the death of her child nearly a decade earlier. There’s a pragmatic young landlady whose strengths unfold with the steadiness of a flower coming into bloom. There is a villainous vicar, and, of course, there is a killer — roused to fresh savagery by Mahoney’s arrival.

But the living aren’t all that Mahoney encounters. He has the gift of second sight. Ghosts abound in Himself, their stories interwoven and integral to the fates of the living. Yet Mahoney’s tragedy is that the one ghost he wants to speak to — his mother’s — refuses to appear. And no one in the village wants her memory awakened: she was their wild child, a teenaged tearaway who refused to hide her illegitimate child, or her own wild self. Her shame (as they perceive it) reflected badly on everyone.

Kidd writes beautifully, moving adroitly through time, as far back as 1944, and concluding in 1977. Soaring passages swooping over Mulderrig as it sleeps evoke Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, which feels like a strong — and happily so — influence.

For example, here is Kidd describing an old, once glorious house: “The woodworms sing in the skirting boards and the moths hang out of the curtains. The mice have the run of the guest rooms, shredding blankets, skating in the basins and nibbling the soaps.”

Some reviewers have said that Himself suffers for not settling on one genre. Looked at another way, what a pleasure it is seeing a new voice trying out all its octaves, singing a range of tunes with exuberance and skill. Despite its darkness, Himself is delightful, and reaches a satisfactory conclusion — no small feat, given the number of novels out there that fail to stick their endings. Recommended.

****

Himself, with its ghosts and questing hero, is haunted by loss in the aftermath of death, exploring what happens when the chasm created by absence threatens to swallow the survivors. Here is a memoir viewing loss from the other side, the chronicle of a death foretold, the story of a terminal diagnosis, and a winding down.

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Dying: A Memoir
By Cory Taylor
Out now from Canongate; £12.99 hardcover
also available as an ebook

Cory Taylor, who died in July 2016, was a celebrated Australian novelist. Her novel Me and Mr Booker was a regional winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and My Beautiful Enemy was shortlisted for Australia’s top prize, The Miles Franklin Award, in 2014.

Dying opens with a forthright discussion of euthanasia. Wishing to be prepared and proactive, Taylor purchased drugs online and wrote a goodbye letter expressing abounding love to leave her family.

She’d developed melanoma in the part of her brain controlling movement on her right side. They spread to lungs, skin, liver and urethra. Her initial diagnosis had come a decade earlier, and the progress of her cancer was slow. She kept the extent of her illness a secret from everyone but her husband, trying to protect her then teenaged sons. Eventually her condition deteriorated too much for artifice.

She wrote this book because: “Things are not as they should be. For so many of us, death has become the unmentionable thing, a monstrous silence. But this is no help to the dying, who are probably lonelier now than they have ever been. At least that is how it feels to me.”

Taylor’s prose is straightforward, her pragmatism admirable. She is also funny, and emotive without being manipulative. She describes the natural impulse to reflect on your past when you’re dying, to write your own version of things to set the record straight — or straight as you see it. The second of the book’s three sections functions as a potted autobiography, though personal stories are woven throughout.

These tales include adventures embraced and skipped, roads travelled or forsaken. A life, in other words, like every other. She takes stock not only of her progress, but of her parents’ fractured marriage, and even her medical history. What if she’d surrendered her leg when the first melanoma appeared — might she have outwitted death a while longer?

There’s not a scrap of sentimentality in Dying. There is, as Margaret Drabble points out in her endorsement, “an eloquent plea for autonomy in death.” Taylor closes by imagining her end as the final scene of a film. In common with everything she’s written to that point, it is dignified, beautiful, and unforgettable.

From our birth, we’re dying — making this short, potent memoir a must-read.

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