Three book reviews to start the new year off.
Serpent’s Tail, 14 January, £8.99 paperback
The twelve stories in this collection span the length of Valerie Martin’s celebrated thirty-year career. Of the earliest stories, she writes: “They appear unsophisticated to me now, innocent, unguarded, and sometimes uncouth.” It was only after living in Rome and immersing herself in Chekov, that she upped her game, she says. Her theme shifted from explorations of nature and death, to the idea that the practise of art both saves lives and ruins them. The final, most recent, clutch of stories (two previously unpublished) return to themes both mythological and historical. Martin says that her stories explore the question: are we animals or something else? “These Arcadiana stories offer an answer at once whimsical and disturbing: We are neither, and we are both.”
For a reader who is squeamish, and especially so where animals are involved (ie: me), the first four stories are uncomfortable. Animals do not fare well. In the opening pair, Spats and The Cat in the Attic, pets mirror their owners’ marriages, and as the rot sets in, hideous outcomes ensue. These early stories vibrate with menace and violence, terrible versions of everyday life made almost unendurable.
Martin’s writing is strong and it is beautiful — concise and precise. Here, a woman flees a party after suffering rejection: “Anne was oblivious of everything save her own humiliation, which she did not ponder. Rather, she held it close to her and wrapped her senses around it. It was a trick she knew for postponing tears, a kind of physical brooding that kept the consciousness of pain at bay.”
Here, a famous artist’s neglected girlfriend is assessed: “If struggle, poverty, and rejection actually did build character, Maria should have been an Everest in the mountain range of character, unassailable, white-peaked, towering above us in the unbreathably thin air. But of course she wasn’t. . . she never stopped weeping. She wept for years.”
The middle four stories about artists are ruthless depictions of monstrosity and self-deception, drawn sharply enough to make us wince. If, as Martin asserts at the start, art saves as well as kills, there’s precious little evidence of it here.
The concluding quartet owes the most to magic. Animals are no longer mirrors but morph with the humans themselves. The Change finds a couple negotiating the stresses of middle age, but its open-ended conclusion suggests that change can take radical forms. The title story could have been called The Little Mermaid’s Revenge, and another features a mysterious naked man rescued at sea, like Conrad’s Secret Sharer. Like any stranger entering a closed community, he changes everyone — and not for the good. In the final tale, woman meets centaur and their relationship is equal parts romance and horror.
Every story is masterful and mesmerising. It is easy to see why Fay Weldon said, “[Martin] moves around flawlessly in tim and space: nothing frightens her.” This is one to save and savour.
Scribner, 14 January, £14.99 hardback
Smart, snarky, subversive, and sometimes laugh-out-loud silly, American Housewife is being marketed as “Molly Ringwald crossed with a drunk Lorrie Moore, channelling Beyonce.” I don’t know about that. Why not say it’s The Twilight Zone crossed with Father Knows Best (or any twee 1950s American family sitcom)? Or call it Mrs Miniver on mushrooms, for the British contingent?
The point is, these moreish morsels of satire look like one thing and are something else entirely. Think of the picture of an Edwardian woman at her vanity table that, with a squint and a mental adjustment, manifests as a skull.
Ellis’s premises are zany, yet with enough plausibility to give you the creeps, and she holds her nerve through to their absurd, inevitably messy ends. A deadly war breaks out over wainscotting in the shared lobby of a swanky apartment block; a struggling author competes on Dumpster Diving with the Stars to boost book sales; a woman methodically murders her building’s doormen; an inductee to a book club is actually being assessed as a Rosemary’s Baby style surrogate.
The unfussy language has an underlying Southern tang, a reflection of the author’s Alabama roots. There’s a folksiness to it, and throughout, the sense of a smartly dressed society matron — twin set, pearls, immoveable coiffure — smiling as hard as she can. But listen to her honey-coated venom and be reminded of the last time you played the game of cooing to your cat in tones of love while actually saying, “You f***ing wee s***, if you poop on the bathroom tiles one more time I’m going to wring your adorable little neck.”
Interspersed with the longer stories are plotless pieces I’m going to call “instructional” stories — How to be a Grown-Ass Lady, Southern Lady Code — which are indeed evocative of Self-Help-era Lorrie Moore, though far less substantial. They are little spikes of humour, piquant, like sorbet between courses, and tonally, a tad repetitious. Nevertheless, they’ll make you giggle.
As fun diversions go, American Housewife is a winner.
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt
Aardvark Bureau, January, £8.99 paperback
This debut comes from the other side of the globe on a wave of good reviews and having been long-listed for Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award. It is the “fictional memoir of Dame Lena Gaunt: musician, octogenarian, junkie.”
It’s also that lovely thing: a good story, well told.
For this Western reader, the novel felt exotic because of its settings: Malacca, Perth, Sydney, New Zealand, and because of Gaunt’s unorthodox choice of instrument, the theremin. Both elements kept me slightly off kilter, though in the end what’s distinctive is not the (ultimately familiar) story arc, but the engaging voice with which it’s told.
We move in time between the “present”, 1991, when Lena is 80, and along the many years of Lena’s past. She is an exiled child, sent away to preserve her health and all but abandoned. She finds a refuge in her uncle’s home, and develops proficiency at the cello. In 1928, she shifts her allegiance to that odd newcomer, the theremin. Farr explores Lena’s key relationships: a love affair with Beatrix Carmichael, a child, the kind couple who take her in when she’s pregnant, a new lover called Gus, and finally, a burgeoning friendship with a documentary maker with whom she decides to collaborate.
Floating delicately overhead, like the vapours of the drug itself, is Lena’s ongoing relationship with heroin. It’s an apt verb, for the novel begins and ends in water, and often conveys the dreamy sensation of floating on one’s back being outlined by gentle waves. If sound is its key metaphor (see below), then water is the book’s natural element — and remember water is the strongest of the four elements, able to vanquish the other three, given enough time.
Lena’s most vital relationship is with music and sound, which Farr reinforces via musical imagery and description. Recalling the “symphony” of her mother’s dressing table, Lena thinks of “the bristle and rustle as her hairbrush ran electric through her hair. . .[it] creaked and crackled. . . tapped percussion as she placed it o the dressing table. Crystal rang like tiny chimes, and her rings sang gold and silver against the china tray she dropped them onto.”
All sensual detail is lingered over, adding lushness to the prose. These smells and colours thrum through Lena’s psyche like the music she conjures by waving her arms around an instrument that is “like a lover I cannot touch.” Playing the theremin means disturbing the electromagnetic field, and this story underscores the myriad ways we “disturb” one another, as well.
Lena does not rush to judgement and is herself untouchable, self-contained, secretive and secret-preserving. Farr packs Lena into a series of Chinese boxes, and their slow reveal drives the narrative onward.
In one passage, her future partner, Beatrix, a painter, enthuses about her medium: “The water, the light. The shapes. The spaces between the shapes. The way they change as we move past them. I like to try to paint that.” Farr’s exploring whether or not we can reproduce experience and capture the world whether in words, sounds, or images.
On the basis of this skilful debut, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” For all its etherealness, the novel is solid, and substantial. I predict it will find a legion of fans.