There is an irony in there somewhere. On those days when you need to accomplish so much, but all you’d like to do is curl up in bed with a good book. I must resist!
There may be a Friday Fun picture post later on today, but for the time being here is a book review. During the last few days of my business travels, I have been entranced and slightly horrified by the book I picked up in Montreal: Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals.
It tells the story of terrible events in the life of an imaginative but neglected twelve-year-old girl called Baby.
If I’d had parents who were adults, I probably would never have been called Baby… I loved how people got confused when Jules and I had to explain how it wasn’t just a nickname. It was an ironic name. It didn’t mean you were innocent at all. It meant you were cool and gorgeous. I was only a kid but I was looking forward to being a lady with that name.
Her father Jules is still in his twenties and a bit of a junkie, drifting from one hopeless money-making venture to another, one grotty hotel to another, in the red-light district of Montreal. Based on the examples of the adults around her (her hopeless father Jules, the pimp Alphonse, the drunks and drug dealers in the neighbourhood), Baby finds adulthood a boring, disgusting and often pitiful state of being that she is in no hurry to join, although circumstances seem to conspire to get her there too early.
The adult world was filled with perverts, so it hardly seemed like something worth preparing for.
This is really the story of successive betrayals, large and small, by all the people around her, how the social care system fails her, but also of the small stolen moments of joy and the fragile friendships that are still possible. It is also the best description of the deliberate targeting and love-bombing of vulnerable young girls by pimps and how children realise that it’s only adults who have any power. Baby remains upbeat for most of the book, no matter how many things the author throws at her. She is non-judgemental and without a trace of self-pity. She sees people around her turning tricks and dealing drugs, she makes friends with outsiders and losers, and she finally descends into a morass of drug-fuelled frenzy.
Sometimes the description can get a little overwrought and the piling on of bad things can get repetitive:
We were addicted to kissing each other. We would kiss in shock, as if we had two buckets of water dumped on our heads. We would kiss sadly, as if the dog was lost in the night, We would kiss like cockroaches headed for the cracks… We stood there like hens pecking grains off the ground…
On the whole, however, the author manages to navigate the tricky path of rendering the unsentimental, clear voice of a child, although there are some odd moments of knowingness (and a hint that this is the grown-up remembering the child’s feelings at the time). Perhaps the innocence and good intentions of Baby do sound a little contrived initially. There is also perhaps too much impenetrable detachment later on in the book. Yet readers will be able to relate to her desire to be loved and her growing feelings of powerlessness, her despair at not being able to rely on anyone, not even her guardian angel.
Initially an honours roll student, Baby ends up neglecting school and finds refuge from an off-kilter, cruel world in heroin. As such, it is perhaps a Canadian version of Trainspotting or Christiane F.
I never thought I would end up doing heroin. I don’t think I did it because of Jules. I think we both did it for the same reason, though: because we were both fools who were too fragile to be sad, and because no one was prepared to give us a good enough reason not to do it.
With its sensitive descriptions of the competitiveness but also solidarity of deprived children of all backgrounds, I was not surprised to find out that there are autobiographical elements to this story. The survival of children in a world of inadequate parenting is described by the author thus:
An unwanted child is a bogeyman to its relatives… but a hero on the streets. Being neglected, you have a lot of freedom to develop outlandish, eccentric personalities in order to get love.
Even if I only spent a few days in Montreal, it was rather nice to recognise some place names and be able to place the action. I seem to have been reading a number of books about what the Americans like to call ‘white trash’ – the poor (but not ethnically diverse) on the fringes of society – but not by American authors. French women authors seem to be particularly good at this, and I wonder if there is a mutual influence going on there with Québécois writers. This book reminded me of Sophie Divry, Virginie Despentes, Alice Quinn or Jeanne Desaubry, but Québécois writers such as Nelly Arcan and Gabrielle Roy have also presented stark, realistic portrayals of working-class lives.
Who said you cannot combine your work with your secret passion? During my recent business trip, I’ve taken advantage of my location to indulge in some literary pleasures.
In Quebec, I discovered local authors and McGill University alumni:
1) Heather O’Neill with her story of twelve-year-old Baby living a precarious existence with her junkie father fleeing from one short-term furnished let to the next, Lullabies for Little Criminals.
2) Alain Farah’s Ravenscrag (translated from French), described as an original blend of retro science fiction and autobiography about resilience, literature as remedy and survival through storytelling.
In London, I could not resist the lure of Waterstone’s Piccadilly (I had no time to go further afield, but spent a happy hour or so in there):
1) Penelope Fitzgerald’s short story collection The Means of Escape – I’ve never read any of her short stories
2) Pascal Garnier: Moon in a Dead Eye because I have difficulty finding his books in France, and it has been mentioned as a favourite among his works by so many fellow bloggers
3) Clarice Lispector: Near to the Wild Heart – one of my favourite authors, or at least she used to be when I last read her twenty years ago – high time to reread!
4) Javier Marias: A Heart So White – high time I explored this author – plus he was translated by Margaret Jull Costa, whom I got to see in my second extravagance on this trip. See below.
The London Lit Weekend, a little-known and not very widely publicised event (at least not online), took place on the 3rd and 4th of October at King’s Place in London. I attended a fascinating discussion on literary translation with Margaret Jull Costa (prize-winning translator from Portuguese and Spanish) and Ann Goldstein (translator from Italian, including the recent Elena Ferrante tetralogy), chaired by Boris Dralyuk, himself a translator from Russian. I’ll write a separate post about this event, as it was full of quotable insights. But I was too shy to take any pictures.
Well, what is London without a visit to the theatre? I couldn’t resist the adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which my older son and I both read and enjoyed recently. And yes, he is very envious that I get to see it and he doesn’t!
Yes, I know it’s already October, but this is written in-between bouts of work and travel. The list below shows that I spent far too much time in airports, on planes and in hotel rooms this past month, as I got a lot of reading done but far less reviewing.
16 books, of which 5 ‘imposed’ for reviews. 8 crime fiction or psychological thrillers. The ones marked with an asterisk are ‘review still to come (hopefully, at some point, in the fullness of time)’.
- Linda Huber: The Attic Room
- Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None
- Tessa Hadley: Everything Will Be All Right*
- Christos Tsiolkas: Barracuda*
- Sophie Divry: Quand le diable sortit de la salle de bain
- Michelle Bailat-Jones: Fog Island Mountains
- Martha Grimes: The Old Silent
- Martha Grimes: Foul Matter
- Martha Grimes: The Case Has Altered
- Martha Grimes: Belle Ruin (the four above were read/reread for a feature on Martha Grimes for Crime Fiction Lover’s Classics in September)
- Fran Pickering: The Cherry Blossom Murder
- David Young: Stasi Child
- Shirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses*
- Richard Yates: Disturbing the Peace
- Matt Haig: Reasons to Live
- Nicholas Grey: The Wastelanders*
Although I said I would switch to more male writers this month, to make up for an all-female author list during the summer holidays, I ended up with 11 books written by women (albeit 4 of them by the same woman) and only 5 by men. I have a little more testosterone planned for October, as well as more books from Netgalley (where my reviewing percentage has plummeted).
My crime fiction pick of the month is And Then There Were None (still one to beat, and one of my favourite Christies – not just mine, but also one of the world’s favourite Christies), closely followed by Stasi Child. I had some great contenders for literary favourite of the month, with Tessa Hadley, Shirley Hazzard and Tsiolkas all in impressive form, while Richard Yates is one of my old stalwarts. However, Fog Island Mountains beat them all – it really hooked into my heart and dug itself a quiet little place there.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a beautiful house must be in need of a perfect water feature, natural or artificial.
OK, this one above stretches the notion of ‘water feature’ somewhat, but many disused water towers in Britain have been imaginatively converted. The one below even has a pool on the 4th floor.
And let’s finish off with a classic villa in Tuscany, which probably required just as much renovation work.
David Young’s new series set in 1970s East Germany just about qualifies as historical crime fiction, but the history is so recent that the scars are still prone to reopen and suppurate. Personally, I found this book quite an emotionally draining experience (some things were just too familiar, even though I did not grow up in East Germany but in another Soviet satellite state). But for those who have a sufficient distance from the events, it is a thrilling and entertaining tale. The background feels quite fresh, as it’s not been used too much in crime fiction to date.
Young takes a number of historical facts, such as political prisoners making IKEA furniture in East Germany, repatriation agreements for under-16s between the West and the East, the Stasi turning family members against each other, youth work camps for ‘difficult’ children and escape tunnels to the West, and spins an enthralling and claustrophobic tale out of them. If anything, one might reproach the author with trying to tackle too many of the grim GDR realities at once, throwing everything plus the kitchen sink at this story, a common enough failing with debut authors. He does, however, blend the multiple storylines quite skilfully, and there is no arguing with the sinister atmosphere of paranoia and fear which he creates.
Karin Müller is everywoman – as her name (a very common German name) indicates – a police officer trying to survive in a tough world. She gets roped into a strange investigation into the death of a young girl in the no-man’s land around the Berlin Wall. It appears the youngster was trying to escape from the West to the East – almost unheard of at the time. So why is the Stasi getting involved, are they trying to cover up something? Karin feels increasingly uncomfortable about Jäger – her Stasi superior – and his interference in the investigation, nor is she sure she can trust her partner Tilsner, despite the strong physical attraction she feels for him. Finally, she feels guilty about her husband Gottfried, a good man, a teacher with Western sympathies, from whom she feels more and more estranged. The author does an excellent job of conveying that feeling of helplessness, of not being able to trust anyone, which was a permanent fixture of Communist dictatorships.
There are some elements which stretch belief here (the tricks which Karin and her team have to resort to at times, the lengths to which she is prepared to go for the sake of the investigation), but overall it’s a cracking little thriller, with a fantastic cover to boot. I’ve also heard it’s been recently optioned for a TV series – and it does sound perfect for that, so here’s hoping it gets made.
This is the world of Mad Men: 1960s New York and advertising, men earning enough money to support their families whilst feeling strangely alienated from them, trying to find some deeper meaning and purpose, but not quite succeeding. Except, of course, Richard Yates was the original and the writers of Mad Men have been influenced by him. This is not as moving a book as Revolutionary Road, possibly because it only presents one man’s point of view, not is it as subtle, but it’s nevertheless a masterly description of a disturbed psyche who refuses to help himself.
Yates is one of the best authors to scrape away the thin veneer of comfortable, civilised, well-adjusted lifestyles and expose the despair and sense of emptiness lying beneath. Our main protagonist John Wilder was not wildly successful at school and university, but has made a reasonable career for himself in selling advertising space. One night, on his way back home from a business trip to Chicago, he has a nervous breakdown and gets sent to Bellevue mental hospital for a few days, where he feels like the only sane person in a sea of madness.
This experience marks him profoundly, but it estranges him further from his wife Janice (who craves nothing more than normality) and his sulky pre-teen son. His psychotherapy sessions are a joke, he goes to AA meetings without any intention of giving up his drinking and he embarks on an affair with a young girl, Pamela, believing she will help him to reinvent himself and resurrect his childhood dream of becoming a film producer. Needless to say, everyhing he touches turns to rot. There is a lengthy impressionistic scene describing John’s descent into paranoia and violence which is chilling, but perhaps even more sinister is the final resignation and incarceration. (Hopefully that’s not a spoiler alert – you just know there’s not going to be a happy ending with a book by Yates.)
John is not the most sympathetic character; at times you may find it hard to even pity him. He is obnoxious, selfish, stubborn and self-pitying. Yet he is also riddled with doubt and lack of self-esteem. He is so obsessed, for instance, about being too short, that he sees even the big moments of American history entirely through his self-centred perspective. Here’s what he has to say about the assassination of JFK:
He felt sympathy for the assassin and he felt he understood the motives. Kennedy had been too young, too rich, too handsome and too lucky; he had embodied elegance and wit and finesse. His murderer had spoken for weakness, for neurasthenic darkness, for struggle without hope and for the self-defeating passions of ignorance, and John Wilder understood those forces all too well. He almost felt he’d pulled the trigger himself…
Many readers think this is one of the weakest of Yates’ novels: it is true that it feels rather disjointed and episodic. There are some great set pieces and memorable scenes, but jerky transitions. I found it can still be ‘enjoyed’ (if that’s the right word) on its own terms, and it’s this ‘anti-American dream’ stance which makes all of Richard Yates’ work so interesting.
You can’t help feeling that if John Wilder had read Matt Haig: Readons to Stay Alive he might have found a way of managing his life better. Haig’s book is a very personal description of his own experience with an apparently sudden attack of depression in his twenties and he is careful to explain that each person’s depression is different. Yet it also contains very wise statements about perceptions (and self-perceptions) of depression, brings in other people’s views on finding reasons to keep on going on, raises many important points for a serious debate about mental health.
Anyone who has experienced depression or known someone with depression will find this a very useful and at times quite uplifting book. It is not a self-help book, nor is it a systematic autobiography of the darkest hour and coming out of it. There is quiet humour, but none of the manic energy which spoiled Furiously Happy for me. There are some very well-written scenes that convey just how it feels to try and cope with panic attacks and overwhelming depressive pain.
What was most interesting to me was that the author was very sceptical (as I am) of medication and that he found alternative ways of dealing with his depression. I found his conversations between ‘then me’ and ‘now me’ very revealing, while his descriptions of being overly sensitive and anxious spoke to me directly. The only criticism I would have is that perhaps the structure is too loose, it tends to jump around between subjects. But what brilliant subjects can be found here: Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations; Things depression says to you; Boys don’t cry and many more, each worthy of a lengthy discussion in its own right.
I’ll close with a couple of quotes out of the many quotable passages in the book, one that links back so well to the Yates novel:
Life is hard. It may be beautiful and wonderful but it is also hard. The way people seem to cope is by not thinking about it too much. But some people are not going to be able to do that.
I’m not talking about all that What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger stuff. No. That’s simply not true. What doesn’t kill you very often makes you weaker. What doesn’t kill you can leave you limping for the rest of your days. What doesn’t kill you can make you scared to leave your house, or even your bedroom, and have you trembling, or mumbling incoherently, or leaning with your head on a window pane, wishing you could return to the time before the thing that didn’t kill you.