BOOK REVIEW: THE HOARDER

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The Hoarder
By Jess Kidd
Out now from Canongate, £14.99 hardcover

Jess Kidd’s debut, Himself (which I reviewed here), was the welcome arrival of a distinctive voice in literary fiction, one lilting with Irish cadences, unafraid to blur the line between reality and the supernatural, shot through with black humour, and blessed with a gift for memorable descriptions.

 The Hoarder shares many themes and elements with Himself, but it’s altogether more antic, as if Kidd decided to cut the brake lines. It is not that the story feels out of her control, and it certainly addresses serious themes, but there’s a giddy, accelerating  playfulness tumbling through this tale. Despite the novel’s clear and present dangers, I regularly laughed out loud. It reminded me of being at the beach, buffeted by a surprisingly strong wave: suddenly you’re flying—whee!—but there’s no telling where your feet will land, or whether it’ll be safe there.

Like Himself, The Hoarder abounds with lavish descriptions of houses and their curiosities; there are family secrets aplenty, and this time, not one but three missing women representing different ages—child, teenager and adult. Kidd plays with the complexities of identity—mistaken, self-invented, and misplaced. She probes the psychology of guilt, worrying the knot where it’s tangled up with grief. She gives us a plentiful number of eccentrics, ghosts, and eccentric ghosts.

This is Maud Drennan’s story, told from her perspective. She’s a self-contained, constrained woman “slaloming towards 40.” She works as a carer through a dodgy London agency that’s  sent her to look after elderly widower Cathal Flood, an artist who is estranged from his only son. He lives in a mansion called Bridlemere, which is filled with mysteries. The most imperative of these is why won’t he throw anything out? The aptly named Flood is the hoarder of the title, barricaded in a cluttered portion of his four-story home, behind a wall of National Geographic magazines that only sometimes part to allow access to the rest of the rooms.

Bridlemere seemed to me to expand and shrink like a living thing. It sits in a garden big enough to contain a disused well, a decaying camper van, and numerous abandoned relics. (While nowhere near as tricksy as the house in Little, Big, the property has an air of M C Escher about it.)

ASIDE: At one point, with regular invitations for her to step outside, the phrase “Come into the garden, Maud” popped into my head. Given Kidd’s dry humour, I’m not sure whether to check in with Tennyson—or Noel Coward.

Maud has a massive job ahead of her, disposing of Flood’s crap: “piles of mildewing curtains, getting caught in cables, hooked on hat stands and assaulted by rutting ironing boards. I flounder over records, books, stained blankets, greasy collections of plastic bags, garden forks, antique mangles . . . . And cats, cats, cats.”

She also has to deflect his crap. He is a cantankerous mix of poetry and profanity, and prone to lashing out physically. Told he attacked his last carer with a hurling stick, Maud remains alert, sizing up anything that might serve as a self-defence weapon, but answering every insult with sardonic humour and immutable calm (at least on the outside). Their battle of nerves is an even match.

Maud digs her way through Flood’s relics like an archaeologist, insofar as the latter are storytellers of history. When mysterious, defaced photographs appear as if by magic, she decides they’re clues to a murder-and-missing-person crime which the dead have recruited her to solve. Certain that volatile Cathal Flood murdered his wife, she sets out to find evidence. She’s sure it’s somehow linked to a girl who was shut up in an institution, and whose disappearance the late Mrs Flood carefully monitored through saved newspaper clippings.

Instead of providing Maude with a steadying, reasonable friend urging caution, Kidd gives her an agoraphobic landlady, Renata—née Lemuel Sewell. She is a treat, but agoraphobics live quiet lives, so she’s right up for this adventure by proxy.

Renata’s not gone the full Anna Madrigal, but lives as a woman, to her conservative sister’s dismay. Nevertheless Lillian turns up twice a week to clean and tut at her sibling. They fight and make up, fight and make up. In this novel all about family dynamics, their antagonistic loyalty makes an interesting contrast with far worse relationships.

Maud spends more time at Renata’s than in her own flat, attended by a host of spectral saints visible to her eyes only. They accompany her everywhere, lolling about on furniture, making faces, re-arranging their draperies, commenting on the action, and suggesting, sometimes helpfully, sometimes not, what Maud should do next. Is she psychic, or are these colourful characters creatures of her imagination? Whatever the answer, and you can draw your own conclusions, they are amusing company.

Despite Kidd’s use of close third person narration, readers quickly realise that Maud’s not the most reliable narrator, hampered by a tendency to get the wrong end of the stick and hang on for dear life. Fixated on Cathal Flood’s perfidy, desperate to implicate him in his wife’s death, and certain that only she can locate the missing girl, Maud fails to spot danger presenting itself elsewhere.

She’s already a carer, why is she so desperate to rescue someone else? The answer’s in her past. Maud had an older sister, Dierdre, who disappeared when she was a teenager and Maud just seven. Her investigation into the death and disappearance of a mother and a child in the present, sends her mind spinning back, dredging up memories—each one subtly altered—of the day of Dierdre’s disappearance, and the ensuing police inquiry.

Maud lost not only her sister that day, but also her mother, who turned against her youngest child. Yet even when her most regular spectral companion, St Dymphna (“family harmony, inadvertent runaways”), offers another, more plausible scenario for what happened, Maud will not—or cannot—abandon her guilt and shame. She knows she made her sister disappear. What a heavy, unnecessary burden for a child to carry, much less carry well into adulthood.

The Hoarder is almost as full of incident as Flood’s home is full of things. It’s a tale told in layers, while the seemingly separate zones off Maud’s life echo one another, as do the past and present. Beautifully written, hilariously funny, this is another winning tale from a talented new voice.

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BOOK REVIEW: OVERLAND

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Overland
By Graham Rawle
Out 22 March from Chatto & Windus
Paperback, £14.99

Rejoice, lovers of all that’s innovative and experimental, for Graham Rawle, whose last novel, The Card, came out in 2012, returns with Overland.

Set in Los Angeles, California, in 1942, it’s a sideways exploration of truth vs illusion, obsession, love, discrimination (specifically, of Japanese Americans post Pearl Harbor), and displacement.

When I say sideways, I mean that literally.

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Graham’s an artist as well as a writer. All of his books experiment with format, making them delightful objects as well as stories. Woman’s World was composed of words and lines cut from vintage women’s magazines, The Card featured a wealth of typographical quirks, and his version of L. Frank Baum‘s The Wizard of Oz is a marvel of ingenuity. He created characters using dolls and stuffed toys, and repurposed household detritus to compose sets—which he photographed, photoshopped, and built up via a complicated series of layers to create striking images. The end result is beautiful and spooky.

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Overland is printed in landscape format, which is just unusual enough to slow you down, encouraging that you savour the see-sawing conversation between two worlds. One is Over, the other is Under. Each is distinguished not only by placement, by by font. Readers toggle between them—though they, themselves, overlap and intersect—following the story through to its surprising conclusion. This back and forth approach reinforces one of life’s essential truths: perspective is everything.

The book is stuffed with allusions to earlier works of art, and this, in particular, functions like a cinematic split-screen effect—apt, given the story’s proximity to Hollywood. Readers become observers, seeing characters converging and diverging, a doubling effect that may cause some to shout, “No, wait, just stay there a few moments longer, someone’s coming.” It’s an effective way of ramping up tension.

The inspiration for Overland comes from the history books. After Pearl Harbor, the US government wanted to protect vulnerable aviation factories along the Pacific Coast. They took special precautions with the vast Lockheed factory in Burbank, blacking out windows and commissioning a camouflage expert to make the complex “disappear.”

Rawle explains: “Using a technique called ‘visual misinformation’ [Colonel John F Ohmer] combined two-dimensionally painted canvas with foreshortened three-dimensional props to disguise the Lockheed plant as part of the California landscape.” Many of those recruited to work on the project honed their craft in Hollywood’s movie studios.

Rawle’s Over is this disguising world, conceived of by Hollywood set-designer George Godfrey, whose attention to detail is so intense that he even has Residents (factory workers spending their breaks in Overland) moving parked cars, and herding artificial sheep from one field to another, lest pilots zipping overhead grow suspicious about a static landscape. Overland benefits from sunshine and clean air. It’s a paradise, meticulously maintained, a playground for Residents offering them respite from the grimy, grubby work of the factory, and the sadness of life during wartime. And it’s rather sweet seeing how seriously these grown ups play.

For Godfrey, his slightly off-kilter creation is realer than reality. He’s so heavily invested in Overland that he lives there—illegally—subsisting on a diet of doughnuts and coffee. He’s on the run from a disappointing marriage. Painful memories of betrayal contrast with his current bliss. He’s traded life with a belittling, adulterous, now ex-wife, for his own private Idaho, where, it has to be said, Godfrey is God. (Knowing Rawle, one suspects that surname’s no accident.)

This idyl is about to be shattered: the military’s evicting him, sending him to Seattle to work the trick again on another munitions plant. But he won’t go quietly.

Under comprises all the rest of the world, including the factory, where workers toil under the dark umbrella of Overland, marvelling at the strange objects occasionally falling from the “sky.” To those unaware of what’s overhead, these out of context arrivals—a fishing hook, fruit— are curious indeed, though no more alarming than everything else going on at the height of the fighting.

Under also encompasses the local neighbourhood, including a rooming house run by Mrs Ishi, who lives there with her talking parrot and stockpiled cans of sardines. One of her long-time lodgers is a young woman called Kay, an orphaned, California-born Japanese American. Despite her birthright of citizenship, Kay can’t find work: her face betrays her ancestry.

Often lonely, Kay finds solace in an old calendar depicting a lakeside cottage nestled in a verdant wood, complete with the blue-grey smoke that promises a cosy fire indoors.

The picturesque scene fuses with her romantic fantasies. She dreams of an artistic man who’s good with his hands, and runs up an inventive list of all the various opportunities that would make him scoop her into his strong, sheltering arms. While there’s an element of comedy in such B-movie swoon fantasies, it’s understandable why someone orphaned in her teens might dream of being alleviated of the drudgery of propelling herself through life, being carried for a while. (Meanwhile Godfrey remembers seeing his wife carried in her lover’s arms. Everything sweet in Rawle’s world also harbours a tang of sourness. Art imitates life.)

When she’s hassled on a bus, Kay meets Queenie, a tough-talking, talent-short wannabe movie star, currently stuck in the role of Lockheed welder. Queenie is accidentally pregnant with an unwanted child, keen to get rid of it. Queenie helps Kay get a factory job (she has to lie and say she’s Chinese), while Kay helps get her in with Mrs Ishi, who never rents to non-Japanese.

We meet our characters around May 4, 1942, six days day before Japanese residents of the city are to be rounded up for evacuation—even those who are American citizens. The future is grim for Kay and Mrs Ishi. It’s grim for Queenie, as she hunts for an abortionist and the money to pay for his services. Godfrey’s got problems of his own, as his obsession with Overland intensifies.

Godfrey’s favourite moments back on the MGM lot were wandering the empty sound stages before shooting, “[when] each set was still a blank canvas onto which any number of stories could be painted.” He had no urge to visit Bali or Manhattan, certain that his imagined version of each was an improved reality.

Somehow Godfrey’s remained innocent, even naive. When someone suggests that Japanese fighter pilots might elect to fly Lockheed P-38s, he rejects the idea because “that’s not fair, is it. . . Pretending to be something you’re not.” The irony escapes him: he utters this standing on a street corner of his contrived city.

For him, and for many of Rawle’s other characters, it’s all about what you want to see. Godfrey recalls a magician at an MGM party who vanished a coin from the palm of Godfrey’s hand. Where did it go, he wonders? The magician says, “It didn’t go anywhere. . . . You’re thinking of it all wrong. I didn’t make the coin disappear. I merely made it so that you can’t see it anymore. It’s still there in your hand.”

Perspective, again—it’s everything.

Who can blame Godfrey for turning his back on such a cruelly disappointing world? Or the Residents, cheerfully spending time revelling in the kind of Andy Hardy ambience that surely conjures up an idealised America worth fighting for? Rawle cleverly celebrates escapism without losing sight of its dangers. He’s crystal clear on what happens if your face doesn’t fit. (Readers cannot fail to notice modern resonances. . . )

The book is crammed with incidents, too many to recount here, and why spoil your fun? Eventually Kay and Godfrey spot one another and are smitten, though prolonged contact is thwarted. Kay is equally enamoured of Overland, which closely resembles her beloved calendar. She sneaks back dressed as Snow White, and falls asleep in Godfrey’s bed. There’s even a wax apple in the fruit bowl. But her lovely dream doesn’t last, and when she returns down Under, things go from bad to worse. The scenes in which the Japanese are rounded up are heartbreaking and shaming.

Eventually Queenie, who’s also made her way between worlds, tells Godfrey, “If you want to meet her you’re gonna have to go down there. . . into the underworld.” Does she mean “you’re going to have to get real?” That would be rich, coming from a woman devoted to her own brand of artifice.

Godfrey does fall to Earth, roaming Under looking for a way back to Paradise, and back to Kay. It’s a delight seeing Rawle revisit and rework some of our most enduring stories—Paradise Lost, Orpheus and Eurydice, fairy tales, even the film mythology that’s as deeply embedded in modern psyches as Homer was in the ancients’.

Rawle’s books are deep pools: though you can cross them at speed, they reward those willing to dive. All his work poses questions about artifice, self-realisation, imagination and story telling—especially the stories forming our personal creation myths. In each of his novels characters wholeheartedly buy in to worlds of their own making. You can’t help wanting to join them.

Rawle asks us to reconsider how we read and absorb information. He asks for a high level of participation from his readers and rewards the studious. Overland is marvellous, and in common with all of Rawle’s work, you may put it down, but it’ll never let you go. The more you recall it, the more you’ll want to go back, asking, “Did that really happen?” and “Did I miss a clue or a joke?”

As I said earlier, Overland is cause for rejoicing.

Highly recommended reading—and re-reading!

 

 

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His Colours, They Were Fine

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Warning—possible triggers re: depression, death by suicide.

Keeping a promise to a friend shouldn’t be hard. Promising to write about an intensely beautiful and moving art exhibition shouldn’t be hard. But lately words don’t seem to belong to me.

On 17th January, accompanied by my friend Jenny, I went to Tate Modern to see the Modigliani exhibition.

Modigliani was a fixture of my childhood, a passion of my mother’s. MoDIGliani, with an unforgiving G, because none of us knew then that the Italian language abhors harsh sounds. I’m not even sure when I grasped that he was Italian, in the way that I didn’t precisely understand Picasso was Spanish. Remember, I grew up in the 1960s, where the establishing query was “What are you?” Answers varied: Italian, Polish, Russian, Korean, Irish—but ultimately, American because that’s where we’d been born and where we lived. As a kid I probably thought these artists were French, because somehow, even then, I knew that art lived in Paris.

I did not like Modigliani. My literal mind couldn’t work its way around his elongated necks and oval faces, the vacant eyes. I frequently confused the whole of his work with one print hanging in our upstairs hallway, Picasso’s Jacqueline with Flowers (1954) which I still find violently ugly and despise. Mostly, though, I did not like him because Gloria adored him.

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The (to me) vile Picasso

Eventually, and without Mom’s input, my antipathy turned to admiration. I became a fan, and did what I inevitably do when my admiration is aroused: I read everything I could about Modigliani. This was pre-internet. My materials amounted to a couple of picture books, one of which was probably a QLP, because I worked for the publisher distributing them in the 1980s.

One day I turned a page and discovered that in January of 1920, Modigliani, a few years shy of  40, died of tuberculosis. My eye travelled down the paragraph and snagged on the coda. Shortly after Modi’s death, Jeanne Hébuterne, his much younger mistress, leapt to her death from the window of her parents’ flat.

She was nine months pregnant.

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Jeanne Hébuterne, photographed in her teens

I must have read those lines dozens of times, trying to absorb them. By then I knew I didn’t want children. But even not-a-maternal-bone-in-her-body-me understood in the most visceral way that at nine months your baby’s a wriggling, kicking, reality, an almost out in the world reality. An entity. And I was old enough to have heard people console themselves after a loss with the existence of children or grandchildren, saying, “At least I have a piece of them left.”

I returned to the stark facts, gobsmacked that she hadn’t waited until after the baby’s birth, to end her life. At that point I didn’t know that she and Modigliani left behind a fourteen month daughter, also called Jeanne. I didn’t know that this desperate young woman was barely grown up herself, three months shy of her 22nd birthday, or that she, too, dreamed of becoming an artist. I would accumulate these and other heartbreaking elements of the story over the next few years.

I would learn about misogyny, as well. Several Modigliani biographers (and one rat bastard in particular) take a condescending, harsh line with Jeanne, ignoring her age and inexperience. They depict her as an encumbrance. They blame her for falling pregnant, and blame her for not getting help as Modi lay dying in their unheated garret studio. Well, more about that later, for I have strong opinions about those final days.

They say every novel starts with the question “Why?” For me it was “Why did Jeanne do it?” And also, “Why wasn’t the thought of her unborn child, his child, enough to tether her to life?” That question felt increasingly complicated, the deeper I delved. And delve I did, trying to separate what was true from what might be true, and what certainly did not occur. Even now, I have come across new (to me) information suggesting that some of the drawings I’ve seen ascribed to Jeanne’s hand may be forgeries.

They include these two, offering clear indications that she thought about death, and contemplated ending her life. I’ve spent years believing them to be Jeanne’s, but for now, I suppose the jury’s out.

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Jeanne burrowed under my skin and lives there still. What sends a heavily pregnant young woman out of a fifth floor window? What intensity of hopelessness, what level of grief does that? What abnegation of self? I’ll never condemn her for the abandonment of one child and the death of another. I empathise.

Why? Because I’ve often thought about ending my life. Sometimes, when I am lower than low, planning the details cheers me up. Perverse, yes, but I found the courage to discuss it with a friend who lives with depression, and she understood instantly, so I’m hoping you might, as well. When nothing’s good, when the thought of yet another day to endure presses me into the mattress, ideating about suicide suggests a solution—hope, if you will—and a promise that all the sadness, the bullshit, the weariness can end. It is also (I told you this was perverse), a way of imagining one’s self doing something instead of lying around feeling devastated, drowning in sorrow and self hatred. Obviously, a sliver of light always reaches me. Laughter reaches me. The fear of hurting others has stopped me. The fear of trying and failing, winding up even worse off is another deterrent.

None of these things rescued Jeanne. She leapt. She perished.

In the course of reading everything I could find, I looked at photographs of Modigliani’s paintings hundreds of times and believed I knew them. I certainly knew enough to scoff at Pinterest pinners oohing and ahing over what to me were obvious fakes. (Modigliani’s work is some of the most forged art in the world, and the leading expert, Christian Gregori Parisot, was himself one of the biggest perpetrators of this fraud.)

I’ve been in many galleries with beloved paintings, reproductions of which sit in my books and hang on my walls, including Sargent’s Madame X, an all-time favourite. I am sure I’ve even been in a room with Modiglianis before. But holy shit, fetch me a chair and a vinaigrette of sal volatile! Seeing these paintings, assembled like this, after investing so heavily—emotionally and creatively—in the man who made them and the lives they represent, sent my rods and cones into overdrive. What. A. Revelation!

Until now, Modigliani lodged in my head in shades of umber and orange, lots of brown, and deep reds the colour of blood. He was dark, as was Jeanne, nicknamed Coconut by her friends, for the contrast between her brown hair and milky skin.

How wrong I was! Modigliani’s work is about shape and form, yes. It pays homage to the Italian masters, yes. It reflects the preoccupation with African art that swept through Paris at the start of the 20th century, and echoes the work of Modigliani’s peers, yes. But how had I missed that he was a magnificent colourist? He used blue, green, pink and purple all the time. The mottled backgrounds of some portraits would send Messrs Farrow and Ball into raptures and a frenzy of absurdist name calling. The skin tones on certain nudes contain worlds within them. Even the gorgeous book of the exhibition, a gift from my companion, doesn’t capture the depth and richness of his colours.

They zing and startle the eye.

As for the faces I used to find unrealistic, crude, symbolic rather than representative, the faces that looked cookie-cutter identical to me as a kid? Wrong again. My dears, I’d recognise any of those individuals if they sprang back to life and walked into the room. (Though I admit Modi holds an unrealistic, very boyish fantasy about the buoyancy of breast tissue. In his canvases, never does a heavy breast slide toward the armpit, as gravity insists IRL.)

I felt giddy. I scanned paint strokes and ran my eyes down the edges of canvases, noting every age-darkened nail, thinking, “DNA!” I had daft Jurassic Park ideas about rebuilding Modigliani. I hugged myself, thinking, “They were in the room with these paintings.” This is not my normal reaction. (While it’s true that I think a couple of Lucien Freud’s masterpieces look chewy enough to eat, I don’t kvell that he’s been there, touched that.)

Poor Jenny. We wandered around the exhibition space separately, but occasionally collided, and I’d mutter in her ear. “You see this amazing picture? Cocteau hated it and never took delivery. Asshole.”  “Hmm, Beatrice. She whisked him out of Montparnasse back up to Montmartre in the early part of the War. Remember in my book, how Jeanne’s looking for him? And there’s a rumour he threw her out of a window during one of their legendary fights.”

Did I mention that Jenny read my manuscript and made patient, wise editorial suggestions, for which I am indebted to her? The things she’s endured because of my obsession! I half suspect she chummed me in case I dropped to the floor into a whimpering heap, overcome by mixed emotions, causing a very un-British scene.

The closest I came to collapse was in the virtual reality zone they’d set up. It put us inside Modigliani’s studio, the one that did for him. This is a photo of it (not sure when it was taken) that appeared in Life magazine:

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and this is a more recent photo taken from outside:

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The building, and the studio, still exist though it’s been much renovated. In Jeanne and Modi’s time it consisted of two rooms—long and narrow—at the top of many steep flights of stairs. There was no plumbing, and no heat. They installed a coal burning stove, but you had to be able to afford coal—they were regularly skint—and then had to haul it up all those steps. At the end, Modigliani was too weak, and Jeanne, a small woman, too heavily pregnant to navigate it. Water for cooking, bathing and painting also had to be hauled up from an outdoor pump in the building’s courtyard. Their rooms must have been boiling hot in summertime and freezing in winter.

I strapped in. Goggles on, eyeballs adjusting, the first thing I noticed was that they’d left the window open, and it was raining outside. Nice touch. The tour took me around the claustrophobic space, where a cigarette burned so convincingly that I reached out to push the smoke away.

I nearly crawled out of my skin. Though the museum’s room didn’t look precisely like my version of it, all the same, I’d lived in this space, inhabited it alongside my versions of Jeanne and Modigliani. Together we’d pulled chairs up to the huge windows to watch German aircraft swoop through the skies on their bombing raids. We’d made love. We’d eaten, argued, painted and modelled. We’d entertained Modi’s close friend Chaim Soutine (alas, that scene was eventually cut). In the room next door, my Jeanne painted, sketched, or played her violin while Modigliani worked, half-listening through the walls to the murmur of his voice talking to his model of the day. He spoke perfect French. His mother was French, and he’d been well educated.

And in that other room, where so much of daily life occurred, they endured their final hellish week together. I took time describing it. For me it’s a key moment in their story, and I wanted to contextualise Jeanne’s behaviour. I stayed with them, my heart snagging on every ragged breath as Modi wrestled with death. It reached the point, during my revisions, where I’d fumble for the keyboard blindly (luckily I touch type), shuddering and crying, “Why do I have to kill them again? Why can’t I write them a happy ending?”

I was pretty shook coming out of that VR experience, and still hadn’t seen the room where Modigliani’s portraits of his inner circle were exhibited—a circle that included Jeanne, the girl I couldn’t save. But as keeps happening with Jeanne, she was there but not there. He painted her often enough to fill a room with images, but fewer than ten of those canvases were at Tate Modern. Unlike his other friends, male and female, whose quotes about Modigliani helped make up the signage and the VR experience, Jeanne was silent, her thoughts unrepresented. In some of his biographies their friends claim they never once heard her speak. In other versions of the story, and in mine, she has plenty to say for herself—but also understands stillness and its uses.

Once again Jeanne was an absence, though present. That’s precisely why I have been haunted by her story for twenty or so years, and why I felt compelled to write about her. I am certain she mattered, certain she was important. In a strange, selfish way, I wanted the exhibition to make more of her. I don’t want to be the only one who cares about her and mourns her loss.

But an experiment isn’t a failure if you don’t get the result you’d hoped for. It’s still valid science, worth pursuing. The exhibition is mind blowing, even if you think you know this art. It reminded me of what Dr Paul Alexandre, an early patron, said of Modigliani: “Anyone who knows how to look at his portraits of women, of young men, of friends, and all the others, will discover a man of exquisite sensibility, tenderness, pride, passion for truth, purity.”

Being at the Tate reminded me of why Jeanne (and the world) fell in love with him. That obsessive love, and what it did to her, is what brought Jeanne to the window on a cold 3 am in January. It’s what drew her out into the darkness and oblivion.

Modigliani is on at Tate Modern until 2 April.

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
By Imogen Hermes Gowar
Out 25 January from Harvill Secker
Hardback, £12.99

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar, is Vintage’s lead debut novel for 2018. It’s received a lot of hype and features on nearly every Hotly Anticipated Books of 2018 list. For once, believe the hype. This is smart, absorbing, and suffused with so much everyday (ie: relatable) peril that you’ll race through at a breathless pace. It feels historically sound, its wealth of details as seamlessly integrated as a dovetail joint, and just as hard-working. Best of all, it contains strong feminist and political messages, making mincemeat of hackneyed assumptions about how men and women are “supposed” to behave. (Not for nothing am I calling this 2018’s Essex Serpent.)

It’s 1785. Merchant Jonah Hancock sits in a Deptford counting house awaiting news of his ship and its cargo. He is 45, a careworn widower, whose “great belly and skinny legs [give] him the look of a rat up a post.” The companion of his imagination is Henry, the son lost at birth 15 years earlier, passing “so swiftly from birth to death, exchanging one oblivion for another like a sleeper rolling over.” Throughout the tale Henry’s spectre visits Jonah’s imagination at a range of ages, projecting a lifetime of lost possibilities. Hancock is a family man deprived of the children — and domesticity — he’d anticipated and craved. His yearning is one of the most poignant aspects of the novel, and his grief often painful to witness. Recalling holding his dead newborn in his arms, and how he’ll never know what colour his eyes were, Jonah realises, “It will be the last thing I feel before I die.”

It’s clear why he’d wish for an anchor — his life is full of uncertainties: when you send a ship to sea, there’s no guarantee it’ll return at all, much less with the promised cargo. Fortunes and lives are never secure.

Over the river, in Soho’s Dean Street, courtesan Angelica Neal prepares to re-enter the world after years of countryside seclusion as the mistress of a peer. Alas, the nobleman died before settling a sum on her. With the help of her maid/companion Eliza Frost, she’s determined to keep up appearances and attract a new protector before she’s too old to trade on her looks. She’s 27. There’s no time to lose.

Angelica and Eliza’s is a fractious, intense bond, and Miss Frost lives up to her surname. She importunes Angelica to return to Mrs Chappell’s brothel where the curvaceous blonde launched her career back in her teens. Angelica refuses, but Chappell — enormous, wheezing: picture Miriam Margolyes’s Mrs Mingott in The Age of Innocence —pursues her, reminding Angelica of outstanding obligations she must fulfil as payback. Fortunes and lives are never secure.

When we meet Angelica she’s frothing up her hair, wrapping each tendril in paper made from triangles of the Wesleyan tracts “passed out daily to the whores of Dean Street.” This hints at the novel’s politics, and its wit, the latter of which mainly resides in its salty, glorious women.

Two other vivid, vitally important characters are Hancock’s 14-year-old niece, Sukie, who runs his household, and her annoying mother, Hester Lippard, Hancock’s sister. Hester’s entirely occupied with appearances, status, and the economic futures of her numerous offspring — which she insist her brother, having no children of his own, is duty-bound to secure. Sukie will win your heart. Treated as a daughter by Jonah, she’s mostly allowed to speak up, and is listened to. Her resolve is stronger than his, and she displays tremendous practicality and entrepreneurial flair. Gowar repeatedly demonstrates that Georgian household management was a job as complicated and crucial as anything conducted in the counting houses and market places. It’s not hard to imagine how far a Sukie could go in our century.

And there’s the mermaid. Or should I say mermaids? The first is delivered by Hancock’s captain, who sold the boss’s ship to pay for it. So far, so Jack-in-the-Beanstalk. The captain reckons you can build new ships, but mermaids are rare. Exhibit it, he says, and bank a fortune. Hancock is less convinced, but with Sukie’s encouragement and assistance, sets up viewings in a local pub. The money rolls in.

An unexpectedly tempting offer from Mrs Chappell sends Hancock’s world askew, and introduces him to Angelica. Amid scenes of debauchery in the brothel, Hancock’s revealed as an innocent and a prude. It’s another nice spin, seeing the male of the species embodying qualities more regularly attributed to women. On that same note, some of the most instructive sections describe Angelica’s contraception methods. She has no time for pregnancy, denouncing marriage as no better than servitude and identity theft.

The second, more complicated mermaid washes in on a wave of magic and mythology, foreshadowed early in the story. I predict some will object to the tonal shift in the book’s latter chapters, when the elusive, quicksilver mermaid throws everyone into a depressed, despairing state of mind. But it’s thematically sound, for Gowar consistently explores the idea that some things — and all people — should not be captured and contained. (Here she evokes Scottish folklore about selkie brides, seemingly domesticated, but always eyeing the whereabouts of their pelts — and the exit.)

Her theme continues when she addresses race, via two characters. One is taciturn, noble Simeon, Mrs Chappell’s footman. In his sky blue livery, “half a head taller than most men,” he carries himself as an important man, from an important house, his demeanour “cool as a china dog”.

The other is Polly, one of Chappell’s bawds, a mulatto who flares angrily when anyone tries discussing “the African problem” with her. She says, “‘My father was a Scotsman, and yet nobody once prevailed upon me to dance a reel. But you would have me play a houri one night and a hottentot the next.’” She refuses Simeon’s cautious overtures and offers to connect her with free blacks who could help her escape. She explodes. How dare he think they were anything alike! She is forthright with a customer stupid enough to tell her he’s excited to try it with a black girl, vehemently proclaiming her worth as an individual and the value she’s assigned to her selfhood. She is no sideshow attraction.

Polly’s anger and hauteur make her behave rashly, and the one argument I have with this novel is that her story ends abruptly. We glimpse her briefly later, but there’s no satisfactory resolution for those hungry for information.

As for the upper class caucasians depicted here, they feel England contains too many blacks, who will not — or cannot — work. Angelica’s lover, Rockingham, dismisses the majority as runaway slaves short on loyalty to their masters. One can’t help but compare these ideas with those surrounding Brexit’s immigration and race rows. It’s a sad reminder that attitudes haven’t moved on nearly as much as they should have.

The book’s second Mermaid, as well as linking us with folklore and mythology, also functions as a critique of avaricious desires, and the urge to exert control over people, places, and objects — and the habit of regarding animate beings as objects. Hancock insists, “I am a rich man. I have a right to rare things.” Perhaps he does, but some come at too high a cost. This mermaid is not without environmental overtones, then.

Before we get to Volume III, which finds Angelica and Hancock married (that’s not a spoiler, the title gives it away), Angelica takes a young, virile soldier for a lover, the Rockingham mentioned earlier. That he’ll turn out a bad-un, and a faithless hypocrite, will surprise no one, except poor Angelica. He spurns her for being a working girl, more appalled by the fact that she must support herself than the means by which she does so. (Something tells me Gower is not a Tory.)

Class issues prove problematic for Jonah Hancock, as well. Having attained wealth, and though he already owns properties locally, he’s keen to purchase tracts of land in Marylebone, thinking to build a row of houses as a monument to his prestige. Outraged neighbours argue that he should spend his money in Deptford. “If each man born here were to do as you are doing, there would be no town left at all. Make your fortune in London, sir, nobody grudges you that, but do not spend it there too!”

In the end, Hancock does leave Deptford for a massive house in Greenwich bought as a tribute to his new bride. There, in an underground grotto, he installs Mermaid Two, but her unhappiness casts a pall over what should be a joyous household. Once again, it takes a woman’s resourcefulness to resolve things.

This is the sketchiest of outlines of a novel densely packed with incident, romance, and historical tidbits, conveyed in language worth savouring. (Ex: “Mrs Chappell labours towards a tiny japanned chair, with Angelica and Miss Bewlay clutching at her arms like girls struggling with a marquee in a high wind.”   “. . . her nipples tighten as if a stitch had been tugged in them.”)

If you loved The Essex Serpent or Golden Hill, if you value intelligence, wit, novels filled with characters to love, and with ideas, if you’re a fan of good stories, well told, I predict you’ll admire The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. It’s already one of my books of the year.

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REVIEW catch up, Part II

As promised, or threatened, here are a couple more rapid (ish) reviews. I’m nearly caught up — for now.

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Sargent’s Women, Four Lives Behind the Canvas
 By Donna M Lucey
Out now from  WW Norton & Company, £24 hardcover

John Singer Sargent was a breathtakingly accomplished painter, and though he came to hate the work, it’s portraits for which he’s primarily remembered. Donna Lucey ushers four of his sitters off their canvases, recounting the lives of Elsie Palmer, Sally Fairchild, Elizabeth Chanler and Isabella Stewart Gardner. In truth, however, it’s not always the sitter but her family that holds the author’s interest, notably in the case of Sally Fairchild.

If you’ve ever looked at a painting and thought, “I wonder what they were like in real life?”, this is for you. The writing can be aggravatingly repetitive, but push past that, for the gossip’s good, the stories absorbing, and events often astonishing. All these women were enmeshed in high society at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, an era Mark Twain dubbed The Gilded Age. Nevertheless, says Lucey, those years were “floating on a financial boom, revelling in unprecedented excess, heading for panic.”

The book’s organised by age, from teenaged Elsie to middle aged Isabella. Elsie Palmer’s 6’ tall portrait (below), depicting a still and severe-looking teenager, was first displayed in 1891. It was painted in England, where she lived with her mother — known as Queen — and siblings. Queen had a severe heart condition, and doctors told her the air in Colorado, where husband General William Palmer, a railroad baron, had established a base, was too thin to sustain her health. Leaving him behind, she fled to England.

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Queen ran her vast home on a lavish budget, keeping an open house for those affiliated with the arts. She was extremely close to her eldest, Elsie, often telling her “if anything happens, you’re in charge.” The relationship was clouded by doom.

Perhaps because of this closeness, and the sense that she was her mother’s keeper, Elsie spent most of her time with people much older than herself. She became friends with George Meredith, went to concerts with Sargent, and hung out with Ellen Terry.

By 1894 Elsie was embroiled in a “questionable” epistolary relationship with the husband of her mother’s best friend. Peter Harrison was an artist and considered a dilettante, and, writes Lucey, “primarily known today as the subject of a series of informal paintings by Sargent, some of them ‘hopelessly clever.’”

At the end of that year Queen died, and Elsie drew closer to Peter, though she returned with her father to Colorado to play hostess at his estate. They were visited by the eccentric mother and son pair Evelyn Tennant and Leo Myers. Leo, nine years younger than then-29-year-old Elsie, proposed, but she refused him.

By 1902 Peter and Elsie were reunited. They didn’t know that her younger sister, Marjory, instructed by another sister, known as Dos, was spying on them. Now things get complicated — suffice to say Peter was a nogoodnick. He took up with Dos, running both sisters on parallel tracks for a while. In the end, he plumped for Dos, leaving Elsie, now in her thirties high and dry.

She returned to Colorado. Her father was paralysed in a riding accident, and it seemed that once again Elsie’s life would be consumed by caring for an ailing parent. But she surprised everyone by running off with Leo. In January 1908 the couple wed — Elsie wearing “a long, brown wrap covered with huge metal buckles. Cords holding tiny bronze figures of animals of all kinds crisscrossed her outfit.” [Aside: I don’t know about you but this I want to see. Google’s not helpful. If anyone finds it, please tweet it to @randallwrites.]

The couple had children but the marriage was turbulent and they were often apart. Leo would write The Root and the Flower trilogy, and became a literary star. Sadly his mental health issues were pronounced, and in 1944 he ended his life. Elsie survived another ten years, dying in 1955, aged 82.

That’s an example of the kinds of stories you’ll find in Sargent’s Women. I  urge you to seek it out. Of the four chapters, the one devoted to Sally Fairchild (portrait below — my least favourite of the images but one of JSS’s personal favourites) is mostly to be about her sister, Lucia, an art student who followed Sargent around, taking notes on all he said about art and painting techniques.

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She achieved renown in the US, one of six female artists commissioned to paint murals for the Women’s building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She was 20. Another artist chosen was Mary Cassatt. Lucia changed tack, inspired by the need for income, as she had a waster husband and children to support, and became an expert miniaturist with a glittering client list.

Her story is shot through with sadness, from economic distress and a bad marriage, to multiple suicides (her brothers), family scandals, and debilitating bad health (what we now know was multiple sclerosis).

Elizabeth Chanler was 27 when Sargent painted her, and the portrait (below and used on the book jacket) was so cherished by sister Margaret that it became family ritual to move it twice yearly, in order that sister and portrait might always be together.

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Elizabeth’s life was also dogged by ill health. She was part of the Astor family, but lost a baby sister, her great-grandfather and her mother one after another, and by nine years of age, was the eldest daughter of ten surviving children, and the de facto woman of the house. The brood was deposited at the family estate in New York, surrounded by servants but not their father, who remained in Manhattan. “Elizabeth, a mere child, provided the emotional ballast.”

At eleven — having been shipped off to a British boarding school on the Isle of Wight, run by author and educator Elizabeth Sewell — her father died suddenly. She wasn’t permitted to go home or see her siblings. The Sewells looked after her kindly, but theirs were strict, moralistic ways, and the school “ a bastion of Victorian rectitude.”

To “cure” the illness that made it difficult for her to walk, a fleet of doctors decided Elizabeth should be strapped to a board for two years, completely immobilised. She was 14, alone, lonely, and for a while, denied even the chance to write letters. In 1882 and 3 she lost two of her younger brothers. In 1887 she came of age and into considerable wealth. A cousin, Daisy Rutherford (who’d helped launch Sargent in London), took her in hand. Sargent painter her in 1893, when she was 27, unmarried, and “dangerously close to being considered over the hill.”

Elizabeth also fell in love with a married man — her best friend’s husband, John Jay “Jack” Chapman. Never less than dramatic, as a university student, on discovering that a man he’d assaulted thinking that he’d flirted with Minna, his financé, Chapman thrust his hand into a roaring fire. It had to be amputated.

The affair discovered, Elizabeth was shipped off for exotic climes by her sister, but while they were in Calcutta they received a telegram that Minna Chapman had died. Jack had to remain in mourning for two years, but the clandestine couple burned up the postal service with their passionate letters. Eventually they married in 1889. Weeks before she was to give birth to their first child Jack — considered one of America’s “great intellects, a prolific literary critic, and a political gadfly” — had a mental and physical collapse. It was years before he recovered, but Elizabeth, no stranger to illness, called on her deep reserves of patience and stuck by him. He recovered eventually, but from here on in, though they remained a devoted couple, their lives were dogged by tragedy.

The final portrait in the book belongs to Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose life, Lucey writes, “seems to have the neat structure of a three-act play.” Raised to be a demure society wife, Isabella married a wealthy man, then proceeded to run wild, often scandalising society, though nothing she did seems odd by today’s standards.

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All must be forgiven, at any rate, for Gardner’s lasting legacy is one of the most marvellous museums.  Three floors of art, “and the placement of every single piece is fixed forever. . . If the curators move a piece of furniture or a canvas even a foot from its preordained spot, the entire collection will be put up to auction in Paris with the proceeds going to Harvard.”

Married by twenty to John Lowell Gardner Jr — from one of Boston’s wealthiest, most prominent families — Isabella, with her New York manners, was not embraced by  Boston society who considered her too flashy, a show off, and altogether rum.

Following the Civil War and the birth of a son, dogged by postnatal depression, Isabella packed her trunks and together with her quieter, duller husband, set off to see the world. They went everywhere, and “Bell sought out the most unusual experiences during their travels.” She watched sumo wrestling, ate boiled sea slugs in China, traversed the jungle (partly by elephant) to see Angkor Wat, and attended the installation of the nizam of Hyderabad. Along the way, especially in later years, she bought art.

Sargent’s 1888 portrait of Isabella was to prove as scandalous as its subject — from the pose to the arrangement of her jewels, and the depth (again, modest by today’s standards) of her décolletage. “Belle. . . wanted to expose herself and believed Sargent was the artist who could do it. She was married and she was not young, but the portrait celebrates her sexuality, her joy in her body. . . it was certainly a provocation.”

Her husband paid $3,000 for it, saying, “It looks like hell but it looks just like you.”

Isabella scooped up everything from paintings and antiquities to manuscripts, ceramics and glassware. She funded most of this with a massive $1.6 million inheritance from her father (in 1891 money!), which her husband agreed she could ring fence for this purpose. To further her ambitions she paired up with her old friend Bernard Berenson (misidentified as Bernhard in the book), whom she’d known since he was at university.

Jack Gardner’s death, in 1898, deposited another $2million into Isabella’s coffers, and she managed her fortune well, using it to build her museum and set it up precisely as she wished. In February of 1903 it opened to the general public  to immediate, rapturous reviews.

Setting out to view four lives, Donna Lucey winds up illuminating countless more. The result is a lively work rich in fascinating anecdotes that will please fans of biographies and anyone interested in the lives of little-known women.

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Ancestors in the Attic: My Great-Grandmother’s Book of Ferns / My Aunt’s Book of Silent Actors
By Michael Holroyd
Out now from Pimpernel Press Ltd. Two volumes, slipcased, £35 hardcover

Odd, haunting, and beautiful, this two volume set consists of memory books kept by Michael Holroyd’s great-grandmother and aunt, respectively. The former, living in north east India, collected ferns which she carefully sewed onto the pages, creating exquisite nature studies full of colour and texture. She had a genuine flair for composition. The latter is less artistic and compelling, consisting of black and white photographs of silent movie stars cut out of magazines. We learn that this photographic collection sits amid the bigger book of ferns, on pages left blank in the large volume because of his great-grandmother’s depression. The botanical plates have been annotated by Christopher Fraser-Jenkins, a world expert on Indian ferns.

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The scrapbooks had been abandoned in the attic of the family home, and Holroyd didn’t see them until he was much older, despite living in the house throughout WWII. They were rescued by subsequent owners of the house, who presented them to him as a gift.

In separate (but overlapping) essays, Holroyd sketches portraits of his family. They’re poignant tales of isolation, undiagnosed postnatal depression, and suicide. This is a nice wee companion piece to Holroyd’s two longer memoirs, Basil Street Blues and Mosaic, and with Christmas coming, this handsome boxed set would make a terrific gift for Holroyd fans (that’s everyone, right?).

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Women and Power, A Manifesto
By Mary Beard
Out now from Profile Books, £7.99 hardcover

Another great stocking stuffer comes from Britain’s favourite bluestocking, the renowned, redoubtable, remarkable Mary Beard. It’s a small book packed with big ideas, classical references, and photographs, addressing the gender agenda and putting it in historical context. Our basic template for “powerful” is male not female — but why should that be so and how did it happen?

The text is based on lectures Beard gave in 2014 and 2017, on the theme of “how deeply embedded in Western culture are the mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously, and that sever them. . . from the centres of power.” By going back to ancient times, Beard proves that “When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.”

Along the way  Beard reminds us that “public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender.” She points out that Elizabeth I’s famous speech at Tilbury probably never happened — at least not in those words — and debunks Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech, with its Southern drawl cadences, pointing out that she came from the North and was brought up speaking Dutch. Further back in time, Amazon warriors were also a Greek male myth rather than a reality.

Beard explores the way women are silenced on social media, drawing on (but not dwelling there) her experiences with trolls. She notes that “unpopular, controversial or just plain different views, when voiced by a woman, are taken as indications of her stupidity. It’s not that you disagree, it’s that she is stupid.”

She admits that she hasn’t come up with a solution to these issues, but recommends that we go back to basics, revisiting our “rules” of rhetorical operations, to think about “the nature of spoken authority, about what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear authority where we do.” She adds, “If women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?”

A rousing wee book for these aggravating times. Recommended reading.

 

 

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RAPID FIRE BOOK REVIEWS Part I

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Dear Readers — If it’s not to arrogant to suppose you exist.

My apologies for not blogging for ages. My excuses include, but are not limited to:

•Massive amounts of prescribed reading for the McIlvanney Prize (judge); EIBF, Bloody Scotland, Wigtown Book Festival, Dundee Literary Festival …
•Ongoing pervasive melancholy
•Spending the past few months not knowing whether I was coming or going, mainly concentrating on being at a book festival on the right day at the right time with the right set of notes to hand
•All while finalising the programming of Granite Noir
•Turning 58 (what a dull, uninspiring number)
•Running back and forth to the post office thanks to the lovely people placing orders from my Etsy shop, PluckyCrocus
•And dealing with ongoing pervasive melancholy. Have I mentioned the melancholy?

None of this is as time or energy consuming as being a full time health care professional, a teacher, a firefighter, a parent, or — well you get the picture. It consumes me, though. C’est ma vie.

I have several different TBR piles. The one glaring daggers at me is recently acquired stuff, books I requested from publishers, books they sent me as lovely surprises, because they thought I’d enjoy them, and some that talented friends sent my way. I’m doing my best. There have been a few disappointments. Not naming any names, but also not reviewing those, as is my policy here.

In brief, are a few of the absorbing things I’ve read recently. Expect Part II soon:

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A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee. Out now from Chatto & Windus. £16.99 hardback

Not a review, because Neel and I are friends, and I don’t review my friends. Nevertheless I urge you to read this. Neel’s richly textured novels remind me of Tolstoy’s, with their attention to detail and their comprehensive — at times horrifying — introduction to a society most of us don’t properly understand. I’ve learned more about India from reading two of Neel’s novels than I did from paying a brief visit, or anything else I’ve read. This is a scathing portrait of a rigid and rigged society the likes of which you won’t see on a package holiday. His characters are complicated, their lives messy and circumscribed. Added bonus, the novel’s filled with mouth-watering descriptions of regional cooking that made me want to go out and try every dish he described.

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The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld. Out now from Orion as an eBook and an Export TPB, £12.99; out in hardback in January, £12.99

Fans of The Enchanted will love Rene Denfeld’s new novel, which is less shocking but no less stirring. She returns to the theme of damaged, dispossessed lives, revealing the resilience of the human spirit, and showing how beauty may persist even in horrific circumstances.

Naomi Cottle is a child finder, called in by desperate families, often long after a police investigation has stalled or ended. As the novel opens she’s meeting the Culvers. Three years earlier their five-year-old daughter Madison went missing. Her mother, especially, believes that she’s alive, and might be returned.

This story, part mystery, part quest, alternates with the slow unpacking of Naomi’s increasingly vivid memories of her own childhood abduction, her rescue, and subsequent life in foster care. She pushes against the rising tide of memories, frightened of horrors she might remember. But she’s equally frightened of the steadfast love on offer from a man who’s pure of heart.

Another strand of the novel is Madison’s own tale of captivity — for she is alive, albeit enduring a feral existence, imprisoned by one of Denfeld’s now-trademark complicated — yet ultimately compelling — villains. It’s intriguing, and surely no accident, that both her novels portray the “villain” as a man without a voice, someone returned to a primitive state, someone removed from society, who can’t believe in his own existence because his own abuser erased him so thoroughly.

Denfeld’s language is unadorned, and the story rooted in the real world, in the crunch of snow and the smell of blood coming from sprung traps, in the stench of bodies and the comforting aroma of home cooking. Though seasons pass in Madison’s thread, it’s a cold book, the chill coming not only from descriptions of the mountainous, wooded terrain, and the people who live there, but from events, as well.

In captivity, Madison evokes a private world, drawing on the walls of her subterranean prison. She creates an ongoing fairy tale, calling herself a snow girl; it’s part autobiography, part remembered bedtime stories. She hides in her fantasy world: “On the dirt floor she drew a large shape called MOM. She lay down inside it, pretending it was hers. She cupped her body there, sucking her thumb like a baby.”

My one concern is that Madison reads much older than her years, which span ages five to eight. Early on, when she’s presumably nearer five, Denfeld has her “feel her veins filling with nutrients as she ate, as if she were one of the trees outside, drinking in the milk of the melted snow.”

She is a strong child, remarkably adept at maintaining her identity and studying her captor. “Maybe he cannot read, she thought. This thought gave her pleasure. Maybe she knew something he did not.” Ultimately the reader (this reader) suspends disbelief about the girl’s vocabulary and thoughts. This, I’ve decided, is what happens in Denfeld’s novels, which conjure a sense of the magical. Think back to the horses sequence in The Enchanted. Go with her story and see where it takes you.

Eventually we understand that “B,” the abductor, is deaf. He no longer feels real to himself and believes Madison is magic. He is filled with rage. The story of how he became this way is, like Naomi’s, eked out — and devastating. It is why I put “villain” in quotes. He has done bad, more than once. But is he bad? These ambiguities are at the heart of everything Denfeld writes, and should be at the heart of all human interactions.

Interviewed by Michigan Quarterly, Denfeld said, “I want to explore how crime happens as part of our culture, not outside it, and how the victims are among us — they are us — just as the offenders are created, not born. I also wanted the story set in the natural world, part of the landscape where we find beauty as well as challenge. I wanted to turn over the tropes about so many people, from foster parents to sex abuse victims, and to demonstrate the immense power we all have to change lives for the better. I wanted to show the power of love.”

She succeeds beautifuly. Her humanity and empathy are never in doubt. No one is written off, no matter what, for behaviour is always contextualised. Hope is possible. Love is possible. Damage, while ineradicable, need not define us.

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You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Princesses, Trainwrecks & Other Man-Made Women. By Carina Chocano. Out now from Virago. £14.99 paperback

American journalist Carina Chocano was a staff film and TV critic at the Los Angeles Times, a TV critic for Entertainment Weekly, and a staff writer for Salon. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Elle, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Aeon and elsewhere. She’s been anthologised in several humour collections, and is the author of Do You Love Me, or am I Just Paranoid.

This essay collection functions partly as memoir, partly as a history lesson for her daughter, its dedicatee. It is also part exposé of some of the ways that female identity has been — and still is — shaped by male popular culture and male ideas. And how women regularly buy into that, unthinkingly. Though Chocano’s younger than I am, much of what she recalls held true for me, coming of age about 10-15 years earlier, underscoring the painful truth that we haven’t come a long way, babies, not at all.

It’s an uneven anthology, but that’s the nature of these beasts. The best of these essays more than make up for more lightweight fare. She’s done her research, and pulls in fitting references from a range of feminist texts. She also links to fairy tales and other children’s stories, especially Alice in Wonderland, making them illustrate her bigger arguments about the role of women and our place in society. She uses pernicious messages in the stories we’re told told and absorb — received wisdom, or so it seems, to a kid — to contrast with the shock of awakening, sputtering to one’s senses, saying, “Hey wait just a minute!” (Which reminds me of the version of Sleeping Beauty in which she’s raped while deep in enchanted sleep, and has a baby.)

Favourite essays of mine include Bunnies, which talks about her grandfather, and the warped world of Playboy magazine, and Can This Marriage Be Saved, which looks at her parents’ marriage and the institution as a destination, taking in The Stepford Wives, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and the eponymous advice column that ran for years and years in Ladies’ Home Journal. It contains this sobering realisation: “In societies where women’s rights are no longer openly, blatantly denied — as they are not in most of the Western world — women are instead encouraged to deny them voluntarily.”

The Bronze Statue of the Virgin Slut Ice Queen Bitch Goddess is good on Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. What a Feeling tackles how, during puberty, “It’s not that you lose control of your body so much as that you lose control over the way your body is interpreted.” She looks at the differences between male and female coming of age stories — yes, through the prism of Flashdance, decoding its dark messages.

You Play The Girl is absorbing, anger-provoking and worth reading at any age. An excellent Christmas gift for young people, it will remind them to question all the storytelling conventions that keep women down and help perpetuate toxic masculinity.

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Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken. Out now from Pushkin Press. £7.99 paperback.

Are there two more delicious words than “slim volume?” This SV, a collection of shortish short stories which won the PO Enquist Literary Prize, comes beautifully packaged by Pushkin Press, who do everything with style. Dorthe Nors is the author of four novels, a novella, and this collection. She was the first Danish writer to have a story appear in The New Yorker, and has been shortlisted for the Booker prize (For Mirror, Shoulder, Signal).
To be honest, I’m still coming to grips with these sharp, funny, unsettling tales. It feels as if the reader’s dropped into the thick of things — entire worlds evoked in a few sentences — then plucked out jarred, but not fully absorbing what’s just happened.  These are not stories for a once-over, but stories to return to regularly, to argue about and ponder.

In one, the unexpected delivery of a four-pound tomato leads to an even more unexpected romance. Another seems to be about neighbours, their dogs and the deaths of these dogs. Blink or skip a word and you miss what’s really going on.

I’ll return to Nors’s work — I’ve two more on deck — and to these stories, and hope to speak more knowledgeably about them. Meanwhile, I recommend them to anyone who enjoys spare, rich prose, and stories whose intensity belies their brevity.

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Who Dat?

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Years ago, dining with a friend, I dropped my credit card on the table to cover my share of the bill. Glancing at the name it bore, she recoiled and hissed: “Who ARE you?”

Names have been on my mind since reading a flurry of tweets and opinion pieces about women who take their husbands’ names after marriage in this day and age. Strong opinions abound. There are suggestions of letting down the sisterhood. Questions of identity (and the politics of identity) arise.

My thoughts tumbled like a Pachinko ball, catching on pegs, bouncing from name to name, careening past nicknames, given names, and a chosen name, the fixed place where my identity rests, at last, in defiance of legalities. Jackpot!

I blame the parents. Eli, who had a middle initial but nothing behind it; Gloria, who hated that and her middle name, Phyllis, passionately.

They adhered to Ashkenazic conventions when naming their children, choosing either names or initials signifying recently dead relations. Mom wanted to name me Leah, in honour of the aunt she’d never met. The original, a doctor, was murdered by Nazis. Lined up against the hospital wall and shot, was how our family described it. Poppy, hearing Mom’s plan, rebelled. He said it would hurt too much, hearing his favourite sister’s name in constant use.

Then, the oft-repeated story goes, she decided to call me Andrea (pronounced AHNdreeuh) René. The A for my father’s father, Alex, the R for my maternal grandmother, Rebecca.

In Mom’s telling, her mother, Elsie, rushed into the hospital shortly after my arrival — while Mom lay flat on her back, high as a kite, because that’s how births were handled in 1959 — screeching, “You can’t name your child after a sunken ship! It’s bad luck.”

The SS Andrea Doria, an Italian vessel, had gone down off the coast of Nantucket in 1956, when it collided with the MS Stockholm. Though most on board were saved, it was deemed the worst maritime disaster in US waters since 1915, and generated lots of headlines.

Mommie Dearest chose two other names representing the letters A and R. I won’t say what they are, in case identity thieves try to buy a heroin plantation in my name. I will reveal that my birth surname begins with S, and yes, my little brother did once ask Mom why she didn’t cut to the chase, giving me the middle name Sally, to spell ASS. Little did we know that I’d settle in the UK, where ARS is exactly that, give or take a vowel.

My first name was not in common usage in those days, and the parents compounded my problems by choosing a damned peculiar spelling. Our surname’s vowel arrangement proved equally vexing for the general public. Every teacher, every school chum, every school chum’s parent, on down the line, mispronounced both my names, all the time. You get tired of correcting them after a while, and answer to any reasonable approximation.

It gets worse. At home I was Lysa. Which is Lisa, inflated with artistic pretensions and adapted from my first name’s spelling. This, too, was mispronounced by those flummoxed by the presence of a Y. Who can blame them? Then it was shortened by friends who called me “Lease”. I hated it. I am not for rent, I said.

There were other nicknames. My father, all too briefly, called me D’Artagnan. Mom called me Sarah Heartburn in recognition of my drama queen tendencies. One elementary school teacher who had me for math lessons (it was America, it was math) called me Little Green Onion, because he wilfully misheard my maternal grandparents’ surname as “shallot”. My sixth grade teacher — he of the tie-dyed curtains — called me Suzy Kumquat and no, I don’t remember why. (If any of you reading this who know me in real life try these food-related monikers on for size, you’re dead to me.)

A childhood friend and I signed letters Ziggy (me) and Jean Genie for years. Later I was Anti, because Brian and his partner adopted a dog and I was its aunt. Being in every way the antithesis of maternal and family-oriented, I christened myself in the spirit of Bette Davis in one of her vehement-with-a-cigarette roles.

A friend’s child called me Leebeegeebee. I loved that, but alas, he grew out of it. The redoubtable Duchess Goldblatt, of international Twitter renown, calls me Lee Lee. My now adult godson (and his siblings) has called me Louie since he was in diapers, and mysteriously found it easier to say than Lee.

Every now and then a beau, after a tutorial on correct pronunciation, says, “That’s a beautiful name” and calls me by my given. Disliking it, unmoved by romance, I will not answer. It’s said that a person’s name is the sweetest sound they can hear. I beg to differ.

I shouldn’t be obdurate. I’ve often observed (and done it myself) that women involved with guys using shortened names (Mike, Bob, Rich) employ the full magilla publicly to plant their flag and signal intimacy.

Off I trotted to university where I convinced everyone to call me Lee. It comprised and compressed the first syllable of Lysa. Required the least amount of effort. The fewest letters. It’s pronounceable, spell-able, un-fuck-up-able. Genderless. Odourless. Perfect.

Nearly. Believe it or not, Dad’s nickname throughout university (where he met Mom) and well into the marriage, was — you guessed it, Lee. I’d sort of forgotten that, because by 1977 my folks were barely speaking. Why a man called Eli needs a nickname is anyone’s guess. (Before they were married Mom also called him Mr Fire — cringe along with me — because their “meet cute” was that he would light her cigarettes in the college cafe before he knew her properly. Dad didn’t smoke; maybe it was his patented suave move with all the girls.)

Being lovely and proponents of self-determination, my parents accepted my name change, adopting it instantly. Only the first year was rough, when Dad and I both answered if someone called, “Lee”.

That moment, that choice, changed everything. I’d found myself in Lee. I’d named me and claimed me. If naming things is how we make sense of the universe, with that decision I began making sense of myself. Avrah KaDabra, I create as I speak.

Then I went further. About to publish something in an anthology, I adopted a new surname: my brother’s middle name. It’s also his family name, now, since he changed it legally. We joked that we’d want people to know we were related after we got famous (the hubris!), and knew the family name was no use for marquees, book spines, and other advertising. We wanted something that would roll off Johnny Carson’s tongue.

And so it is that whenever I tell people my name, I give them the name I selected — unless they’re a government agency, hospital or a bank. Even at The Scotsman they published Lee Randall (gave her an email address, business cards, the works) and paid another legal entity.

Having circled this house enough times to dig a moat, I can now explain that when I married my Scottish ex-husband I deliberately took his name, though many of my friends were aghast. I reasoned it this way: I wasn’t using my family name for anything that truly mattered to me; I wanted the authorities to accept that ours was a genuine marriage and not an immigration scam; I had no intention of being Mrs, and went with Ms even with this new surname; and finally, I never much used his name, though I still bear it on every legal document. When I divorced, I flirted with the idea of changing my name by deed poll, to coincide with my heartfelt identity, but frankly cannot be arsed to do the paperwork twice in a lifetime, and doubly so, since it would affect both names.

In this piece from The New Yorker, Adam Alter writes: “Beyond their meaning, words also differ according to how easy they are to pronounce. People generally prefer not to think more than necessary, and they tend to prefer objects, people, products, and words that are simple to pronounce and understand.” I wonder who I’d be now if I’d had different names then? Would I have been more popular, and grown up impregnated with self-confidence? Thus fortified, would I have achieved more?

In choosing my name I didn’t entirely reject my parents. It was they who gave my brother the middle name Randall. In keeping my ex’s name I do not cling to him, merely to convenience. It is generic, easy to say and spell when that’s necessary.

Where I live now is deep inside the name I created out of scraps of the family fabric, the name I’ve publicised and published. As I told my friend all those years ago in that restaurant, “I am who I say I am.” Lee.

 

 

 

 

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BOOK REVIEW: Seeing Red

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Seeing Red by Lina Meruane
Translated by Megan McDowell

Out 3 August from Atlantic Books
£12.99 hardback, and eBook

(In Edinburgh? Lina’s at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 26th August)

Writing this in tearing haste, as the saying goes, but with the strong recommendation that you read this energetic, gripping novel by one of the stars of Chilean literature, Lina Meruane. It’s been beautifully translated by Megan McDowell, into English that’s vivid, striking, urgent and occasionally stomach-churning.

Seeing Red begins with a long-anticipated catastrophe: at a party in New York, the narrator suffers a haemorrhage in her eye. “And then a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye.  . . . With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw the pressure rise, I watched as I got dizzy . . . and even so I didn’t even try to breathe while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.”

Lina the narrator, like Lina the author, is a Chilean writer, living in New York while pursuing a PhD and working on a novel. She is diabetic. The novel’s Lina has recently moved in with her boyfriend, Ignacio. (The real Lina received a PhD in Latin American Literature from NYU, where she is Professor of World and Latin American Literature and Creative Writing.)

Ignacio cannot see what lies behind her eyes, but he’s swept up in the drama. Part of this story is an exploration of how illness can transform us into demanding, self-centred creatures, and diminish our ability to empathise. Thus when, late in the novel, Ignacio proposes marriage, Lina’s reaction is: “It depends, I tell you, in a moment of suspense filled with love and vileness; it depends on how much you love me, on how much more you’re willing to do for me.”

Lina borrows Ignacio’s sight in more ways than one, living through his descriptions, allowing him to navigate her through the streets and through their new flat, even stroking his eyeballs — and by the end, threatening to pluck them out as replacements for her broken eyes, so that she’ll no longer move around “like a disoriented bat,” so that she can read, instead of listen to audio books, so that she can write her own books again.

The specialist, Lekz, has been her doctor for years but cannot remember her name. He never forgets a retina or a cornea, though. The prognosis is iffy, and she has a month to wait before they can contemplate the possibility of surgical intervention. During that time Lina flies back to Santiago, while Ignacio goes to Buenos Aires on business, ahead of joining her at her family home. There is friction between Lina and her parents — both doctors, which is exacerbated by their concern for her health and her mother’s need to star in every family drama. Lina’s determined individualism ultimately wins the day. This is a family dynamic everyone will recognise, whatever their circumstances, and the frustrations of becoming an infantilised adult in the presence of people you adore and can’t stand are beautifully rendered.

Lina takes Ignacio sightseeing, navigating by memory. She predicts the weather by smelling the air. She’s rehearsing blindness. Because she cannot see, Lina projects visions and memories onto her mind’s eye, noting her father’s long femur, experiencing her mother as “A medusa, a jellyfish, an ocean flagellum, a gelatinous organism with tentacles that would cause a rash. There was no pulling my mother off of me.”

This is the sort of chewy prose to set the heart alight. But fair warning, there are equally vivid, visceral descriptions of her operation and bodily functions, which can be bracing if you’re the least bit squeamish. Her frustrations with the American healthcare system, notably the insurance requirements, are as funny as they are horrifying.

Meruane’s writing crackles with electricity (it reminded me of reading This Side of Paradise, which for all its flaws, crackles with life). She plays with syntax, ending sentences where they would in your head, if not on the page. For example: “. . . even their whispers were exaggerated, while I.” She describes Lekz running his hand through his hair “in search of his future baldness.” There are countless other felicitous moments, but you must discover them for yourselves. Trust me, you’ll enjoy this treasure hunt!

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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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