Punished for Appearances: Emma Flint’s Little Deaths

Little Deaths by Emma Flint is the kind of book which has been buzzing away on the horizon of my consciousness, with many excited tweets, some excellent reviews and then longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize. I finally read it last week but have been waiting to gather my thoughts about it, because it left me feeling rather spent.

It makes for a powerful reading experience, there is no doubt about that. I went into it not knowing much about the Alice Crimmins case upon which it is based. When I googled it afterwards, I was surprised just how many of the real-life details the author had incorporated into her fictionalised version. Another surprise is that the author has never been to that working-class neighbourhood in Queens in New York (and certainly not in the 1960s). She is in fact British and did most of her research of the setting on YouTube and Google Maps. Kudos to her for such an authentic recreation of time and place.

Ruth Malone is a glamorous red-head, separated from her husband, raising two children whom she loves but often finds hard going, working as a cocktail waitress and being overtly unrestrained in her sexual behaviour, too much so for the tastes of that 1960s neighbourhood (regardless of what people might have got up to behind closed doors). She is also in an acrimonious dispute over custody with her estranged husband Frankie. One morning in July she unlatches her children’s bedroom door to find her young children missing. Within days their bodies are found in a dump and a nearby woods, strangled, decomposed, and she becomes the prime suspect in their deaths.

Cover of Front Page Detective from 1968, featuring Alice Crimmmins.

It soon becomes clear that the police are far more interested in Ruth’s sex life than in proper detective work. They do not seriously search for any other suspects, fail to investigate all the clues and possible avenues, focus only on certain aspects of the evidence (the love letters Ruth has received from her admirers) while ignoring all others. Instead, they interrogate Ruth over and over again, in an attempt to ‘break’ her, which only makes her more angry. In her descriptions of the painfully lonely, eternally disappointed and perpetually defiant Ruth, the author brilliantly encapsulates the attitude of the original Alice Crimmins, who said:  ‘They wanted me to grieve—not for the sake of my children, but for them—the police. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction. They were my kids. Nobody was out looking to see who killed my kids. They were interested in making me break.’

The trial was already prejudged by the time they went to court. While Ruth is hardly an angel, she is not too far removed from the frazzled working single mum of today. The gossipy atmosphere, neighbourly resentments, as well as judgemental attitudes towards what makes a good mother are perfectly captured. How dare she take considerable time to put on makeup before talking to detectives or go out to buy a new dress? Never mind that makeup is Ruth’s suit of armour, a defence against acne and possibly some psychological scars. Interestingly enough, many readers’ reviews on Goodreads claim that they cannot feel any grief from Ruth, that she is too emotionally detached, too blank. So she is being judged all over again.

There are some repetitive moments, especially regarding Ruth’s bodily self-loathing and her ‘yellow smell’ – and that lengthy opening scene of putting on her make-up before and after the event which changed her life. [I thought agents and editors warn us to never start with someone looking at themselves in a mirror.] But overall, those poignant moments of enforced gaiety, going out and picking almost any man to combat her loneliness, successfully convey the despair, temporary madness, strange passivity and feeling of futility which do come with immense grief. Every one of us grieves differently.

Of course, we are encouraged to view Ruth in a more positive light because of Pete Wonicke’s growing sympathy towards her. Pete is a rookie journalist who initially contributes to the anti-Ruth rhetoric in an attempt to sensationalise the story and sell newspapers, but increasingly tries to find out the real person behind the mask. Or so he tells himself, in an attempt to justify his obsessive, almost stalkerish fascination with the case. Marking a clever counterpoint to the story, he is a compromised narrator himself.

Author photo from Jo Unwin Literary Agency website.

In this book, Emma Flint offers an alternative explanation for what happened that night, but the real case has never been solved. What made for more disturbing reading is knowing that this type of ‘trial by media and public opinion’ is still so common today. See for example Karen Matthews, often dubbed ‘Britain’s most despised Mum’, or Casey Anthony in the States. a.k.a. ‘America’s most hated’, who declared ‘People found me guilty long before I had my day in court.’ In an age of internet trolling, public reactions are even more frightening and extreme even in relatively mild cases, as in this example of a mother who took an innocent picture of her Down’s syndrome toddler hiding in a washing-machine.

Less of a suspense novel, more of a depiction of a particular era, so perhaps not one for readers who are looking for a true thriller. What it offers instead is both social commentary and an in-depth character study of two lonely misfits: one of whom tries to fit in by making compromises, the other furiously refusing to make any.

 

Old World and New: Louise Penny and Antonin Varenne

More escapist comfort reading, which took me to some very strange places indeed. Quite a contrast in style and subject matter, but both proved to be excellent distractions and got me back into the reading groove again.

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery

I am an unabashed Penny fan, cannot get enough of her delightful, gentlemanly, wise and slightly melancholy Armand Gamache. While I quite enjoy closed room mysteries, I couldn’t help but be sceptical of the audacity of setting this book in a secluded monastery, locked away from the outside world, and with no mention at all of our beloved Three Pines, the idyllic Quebecois village that we all want to live in. But I should trust the author: I have followed her before, moving away from the realm of crime fiction in The Long Way Home, and I have continued to enjoy everything she brings to the table.

As always with the Gamache novels, there is a murder to be solved, as well as a personal vendetta and conspiracy within the Sûreté du Québec. I’ve not read the books in order, so I already knew how things had worked out between Gamache and his faithful sidekick Beauvoir once their corrupt and evil boss Francoeur waggled his serpent’s tongue. That took some of the suspense out of the book, but there is still the mystery of who killed the choir director in the tranquil and long-forgotten community of monks, who have recently become famous because of their amazing recording of Gregorian chants. Comparisons to The Name of the Rose are inevitable, given the setting, but Louise Penny makes this her own, with beautifully rounded characters and sensuous details (those chocolate-covered blueberries!). She turns this very much into a meditation on good and evil, the search for the divine vs. seeking fame, the virtues of silence vs. communicating via words.

As for the reason why I find her books so comforting, the author herself describes it best:

My books are about terror. That brooding terror curled deep down inside us. But more than that, more than murder, more than all the rancid emotions and actions, my books are about goodness. And kindness. About choices. About friendship and belonging. And love. Enduring love.  If you take only one thing away from any of my books I’d like it to be this: Goodness exists.

 

Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road (transl. Sam Taylor)

You will love this book if, like me, you were excited by the premise of the recent BBC TV series Taboo, starring Tom Hardy, but somewhat disappointed by its execution (great build-up, but didn’t go very far and let down by its ending, as is so often the case with a story told over several episodes). A damaged but principled individual returning from a traumatic experience abroad, the East India Company as an out-and-out villain, the dirt and miasma of London and its poorest people, the lure of the New World across the Atlantic – both stories have these elements in common. The book is a chunky 500+ pages, but it’s one of those rollicking adventures of the Alexandre Dumas/ Robert Louis Stevenson type, so it didn’t take long to read.

It’s panoramic, epic and historical crime fiction, three epithets which usually put me off a book, but it really works in this case. A further no-no in my book: it’s about a serial killer, and it spreads over three continents and 11 years. It starts in 1852, with an ill-fated mission in Burma organised by the East India Company. The men are captured and tortured; there are only ten survivors, and they come back more like zombies or ghosts rather than men.

Six years later, one of the survivors, former sergeant Arthur Bowman, works as a policeman in a pestilent, drought-ridden London, and continues to battle his demons in a haze of opium and alcohol. Then he discovers a corpse in a sewer, bearing the same mutilations as they experienced in the jungle, and he becomes convinced the killer is one of the ten men. His mission to discover the killer – who does not stop at one victim, of course – takes him to the New World and ultimately to the Wild West, but above all it’s a journey to find himself.

It takes great courage to combine all these different genres together: adventure story, serial killer thriller, Western and character study, so bravo, Monsieur Varenne for this ambitious tour de force! It has all the breadth and variety of RL Stevenson, the darkness of Joseph Conrad and none of the ‘going off on a tangent’ of Moby Dick.

The book was published on 9th March by MacLehose Press.

#Eu27Project: France – Marie Darrieussecq

Marie Darrieussecq: Men (transl. Penny Hueston)

The original title in French Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes is from a famous quote by Marguerite Duras:

Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes. Beaucoup les aimer pour les aimer. Sans cela, ce n’est pas possible on ne peut pas les supporter.

[You have to love men a lot, love them so much in order to love them. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to put up with them.]

So that gives you a clue that this is not necessarily going to be a feminist treatise. Yet, although readers seem to find the first person narrator, French film star Solange, irritating, she strikes me as quite an independent, strong woman, who just happens to become smitten with a younger man. It’s a bit more complex than that, though, because her paramour, Kouhouesso, is a black man who has ambitions to direct a revamped version of The Heart of Darkness on the river Congo. All the clichés about l’amour fou (crazy love), gender and race are examined, although Solange herself seems unaware of the facile assumptions she makes.

I’m not sure why this book has received so much critical dissent. Yes, the first part of the book is all Hollywood froth, very easy to read on the surface, a bit like the gossip magazines.  This serves to make the contrast or gap between Lalaland and the African jungle all the wider. Solange has all the reactions one might expect to the ‘natives’, the insects, the primitive accommodation, although she so badly wants to make this work. Underneath the apparently banal interracial love story, there is a lot lurking: objectification, the attraction of ‘otherness’, construction of identity through gender, race and passion. Fascination with the other yet ultimately a lack of genuine curiosity and desire to embark upon the interior journey (on both sides). It is indeed a modern answer to The Heart of Darkness, written from a woman’s perspective.

There is an excellent review of the book by Compulsive Reader, but I can understand why many people found the story not very original or the characters at all likable. I flip-flopped a lot in my opinion as well: it is a hair’s breadth away from being silly, but I think it just stayed within the realm of the painfully dissecting scalpel.

The reason I chose it for my #EU27Project to represent France (although I will probably read and review other French authors as well) is because I think it says something about the way the EU countries view ‘the others’, the refugees spilling over the borders. Lip service to liberalism and humanity, rhetoric about helping and supporting, but beneath all of that: a lot of fear, stereotypes and excuses. (Incidentally, the English language cover could be said to be objectifying black men somewhat…)

WWWednesday 15th March: What Are You Reading?

WWW Wednesday is a meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Currently reading:

Emma Flint: Little Deaths

From the blurb: It’s 1965 in a tight-knit working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, and Ruth Malone–a single mother who works long hours as a cocktail waitress–wakes to discover her two small children, Frankie Jr. and Cindy, have gone missing. Later that day, Cindy’s body is found in a derelict lot a half mile from her home, strangled. Ten days later, Frankie Jr.’s decomposing body is found. Immediately, all fingers point to Ruth. As police investigate the murders, the detritus of Ruth’s life is exposed. Seen through the eyes of the cops, the empty bourbon bottles and provocative clothing which litter her apartment, the piles of letters from countless men and Ruth’s little black book of phone numbers, make her a drunk, a loose woman–and therefore a bad mother.

Harriet Lerner: Why Won’t You Apologize?

From the blurb: Lerner challenges the popular notion that forgiveness is the only path to peace of mind and helps those who have been injured to resist pressure to forgive too easily. She explains what drives both the non-apologizer and the over-apologizer, and why the people who do the worst things are the least able to own their misdeeds. With her trademark humour and wit, Lerner offers a joyful and sanity-saving guide to setting things right.

Just read:

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery – Gamache and Beauvoir are not in Three Pines this time, but in a remote monastery awash with Gregorian chants. Comfort reading for me, as I love everything that Penny writes.

Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road – rip-roaring adventure, think Taboo with more international travelling and a serial killer. Varenne will be at Quais du Polar in Lyon this year.

Next in line:

Rachel Cusk: Transit – good timing or too close to life?

In the wake of family collapse, a writer and her two young sons move to London. The process of upheaval is the catalyst for a number of transitions—personal, moral, artistic, practical—as she endeavors to construct a new reality for herself and her children.

Thomas Enger: Cursed – now this sounds like perfect escapism, I;ve been saving it up for comfort reading.

When Hedda Hellberg fails to return from a retreat in Italy, where she has been grieving for her recently dead father, her husband discovers that his wife’s life is tangled in mystery. Hedda never left Oslo, the retreat has no record of her and, what’s more, she appears to be connected to the death of an old man, gunned down on the first day of the hunting season in the depths of the Swedish forests. Henning Juul becomes involved in the case when his ex-wife joins in the search for the missing woman, and the estranged pair find themselves enmeshed both in the murky secrets of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, and in the painful truths surrounding the death of their own son.

So, what are your reading plans for this week? And have you read any of the above?

Seeking Comfort in Crime Fiction (1): Susie Steiner

In times of unrest, I always find comfort in a few well-chosen and lovingly recommended books. I turn to favourite authors and locations like the Quebec of Louise Penny, or I try out something completely new that I’ve seen other authors enthuse about, like Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw series. Of course, poetry is always there to nourish and enlighten me. This is the first of three posts about comfort reading.

Susie Steiner: Missing, Presumed

From the blurb: Over the airwaves come reports of a missing woman – door ajar, keys and phone left behind, a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. Manon knows the first 72 hours are critical: you find her, or you look for a body. And as soon as she sees a picture of Edith Hind, a Cambridge post-graduate from a well-connected family, she knows this case will be big.

Is Edith alive or dead? Was her ‘complex love life’ at the heart of her disappearance, as a senior officer tells the increasingly hungry press? And when a body is found, is it the end or only the beginning?

When I first read the blurb of this book, I thought: ‘Not for me. Sounds far too similar to far too many recent releases, nothing special to attract me.’ How wrong I was! Luckily, I got intrigued enough by an exchange of tweets between Sarah Perry, Adele Geras and others to give the author a chance – and I am so glad I did.

It breaks all the rules of crime fiction with which agents and publishers hit us around the head. It does not start with a dead body, in the heart of the action. It has multiple viewpoints, not all of which take the story forward, but merely add nuances to it. It focuses on the characters and the private lives of the investigators more than on the plot. The plot ‘twist’ is not that surprising and the villains are not that hateful. And yet, and yet…

It is great fun to read: clever, humorous, sarcastic at times, sharply observant of human nature with all its foibles. It is Jane Austen writing crime thrillers – and not at all of the cosy sort. The main detective, Manon Bradshaw, is immediately relatable – not dysfunctional, not a drunk, not heavily traumatised, but just starting to feel the pangs of middle age and the fear of loneliness. Her dating mishaps are both sad but also hilariously cringe-worthy. And the author pokes fun at the pretentiousness of Cambridge students or London professionals with connections.

It’s an unusual police procedural, because it really takes its time to discuss department funding and interactions between team members, rather than rely on clichéed shortcuts. It felt more like the TV series Happy Valley or Scott and Bailey. Having given up on the book Tennison recently (although I loved Prime Suspect), because it had too many irrelevant details, I really connected with this one instead and stayed up all night to finish it. Not because it was full of ‘unguessable’ twists, but because it was so life-like, caring and well-written. I can’t wait to see what happens next with Manon and Fly and, luckily, I won’t have long to wait. The second book in the series Persons Unknown is due out in May 2017.

The #EU27Project: Two Months On…

It’s almost exactly two months since I dreamt up the #EU27Project of reading a book from each of the countries remaining in the EU, and about 7 weeks since I set up a separate page for linking reviews. So it’s time for a bit of an update.

I’m delighted to say that a number of you have responded – and it’s doubly appreciated, because it’s not the most intuitive linking method. You have to write the country, the author or book title and then your name in brackets, as it doesn’t have separate lines for each item of information.

We have 16 reviews and blogger Lizzy Siddal has been the most prolific reviewer to date. She has posted two books from the Netherlands: Gerard Reve’s masterpiece from 1947 translated at last into English, and Esther Gerritsen’s description of a toxic mother/daughter relationship. Also, two from Austria: short stories by Stefan Zweig (perennial old favourite) and a disquieting thriller by Bernhard Aichner. There is also a sly dig at behind the scenes of literary prizes by Filippo Bologna from Italy and a collection of short stories by Spanish writer Medardo Fraile described as ‘one of the best I’ve ever read’ – high praise indeed and it’s gone straight onto my TBR list. So here is a bouquet for Lizzy and her sterling work!

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Netherlands is front-runner in terms of number of book reviews. In addition to the two by Lizzy, there is also a review of Herman Koch’s story of personal and social meltdown The Dinner. Joint top of the leaderboard is Germany, with three historical novels. Susan Osborne reviews Summer Before the Dark, a fictional account of Stefan Zweig and Josef Roth spending the summer of 1936 together in Ostende, refugees in vacation land. Joseph Kanon’s thriller Leaving Berlin is set in post-war, post-partition Berlin and is reviewed by Maphead. Finally, Ricarda Huch’s novella The Last Summer is set in Russia just on the cusp of the 1917 revolution.

There are two book reviews for Ireland, both for Lisa McInerney’s riotous description of the less touristy side of Cork The Glorious Heresies: one by Kate Vane and one by myself. Finland can also boast two reviews, both for historical novels: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen reviewed in French by Sylvie Heroux from Montreal; while Mrs. Peabody investigates Kjell Westö’s The Wednesday Clubwhich provides a rather grim insight into Finland’s troubled history.

muse
A Greek muse, from theoi.com

Peirene Press is represented with no less than 3 reviews: in addition to White Hunger and The Last Summer, there is also a Danish representative The Murder of Halland which is not so much a crime novel as a story about grieving, reviewed by Karen at BookerTalk.

Another publisher which is well represented here is Pushkin Press, with 5 reviews, most of them by Lizzy, but also Summer Before the Dark by Volker Weidermann. So well done to these two independent publishers for making so much European culture available to us in the UK!

Last but not least, one of the youngest EU members, Croatia, is represented by the book Girl at War by Sara Novic, highly recommended by Maphead.

In terms of personal plans, I’ve already veered away from my original ones. I oomed and aahed about my selection for Germany, gave up on considering Kati Hiekkapelto for the Finnish entry (because her book takes place in Serbia), switched my Irish entry, found a women’s writing collective for Lithuania (still to be reviewed) and am still conflicted about France… And I still have zero inspiration for Malta or Cyprus.

Another thank you to all participants, from my garden...
Another thank you to all participants, from my garden…

Thank you to all the participants and I hope to see many more of you in the months to come. I believe there are a few of you who have reviewed books which would fall into the EU27 category, but have not linked up yet, so please do so if you get a chance. There is no deadline, no pressure, and absolutely no shame in back-linking to older reviews from late 2016 or early 2017.

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Herman Koch: The Dinner – #EU27Project

Herman Koch: The Dinner (transl. Sam Garrett)

Why is Dutch literature comparatively unknown abroad? It’s a small country, certainly, but it has many cultural and even linguistic links with Germany and the United Kingdom. Why has Scandinavian noir taken off so dramatically, while authors like Gerard Reve, Harry Mulisch and Willem Hermans (collectively known as the ‘Three Giants of Dutch literature’) languish unread and untranslated? It’s not so much the problem of it being spread across two countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) – after all, German has that problem too, spread across three countries.

Foto: Joost van den Broek (c)'07
Herman Koch. Foto: Joost van den Broek (c)’07

One writer who seems to be bucking this trend is Herman Koch, yet he is seldom listed in the recommended readings of Dutch literature. Perhaps because he writes something which may be sailing a little too close to ‘genre’ literature to be considered literary? The Dinner was his sixth novel and the one which brought him international recognition, translated into more than 20 languages, adapted for stage and film, and selling over a million copies in Europe alone.

I’m not surprised that Christos Tsiolkas is the first one to blurb the book and describing it as ‘a punch to the guts’, as both authors have that kind of shock value. Yet the book starts sedately enough, perhaps even too much so. Two couples, two brothers and their wives, are having dinner at a rather pretentious restaurant in Amsterdam. The first few chapters seem to be entirely given to the satire of consumer culture and fashionable Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s funny enough, but doesn’t seem to move the story on significantly.

The brothers don’t really see eye to eye, despite the outward show of bonhomie between them. Serge Lohman is a politician and derided by Paul for his hypocrisy and ambition, while Paul himself seems hyper-critical and resentful. Their wives, Babette and Claire, try to smooth things over, but it becomes clear that they are both suffering and hiding things. The conversation starts off with polite banalities, but grows more and more strained, while the first person narrator (Paul) gets interruptions and flashbacks to the underlying issues which has brought these four people to the restaurant in the first place. I don’t want to give too much away (although the back cover of the book does just that), but suffice it to say that the two families have got together to see what should be done about the ‘scrapes’ their sons have got into.

thedinner
Hardcover edition.

This slippery sliding to and fro through timelines initially irritated me, but then it becomes clear that this messy way of telling the story reveals much more about Paul’s state of mind and about the layers of protective secrecy which the families have tried to weave around themselves. There is the shock factor of what the youngsters have actually done, of course, but what was more shocking was the gradual unravelling of all morals and ethics as the parents try to justify the actions of their offspring and their own reactions. Equally disturbing was that, at first, we find ourselves nodding along sympathetically to Paul’s grumpy assessments of Dutch restaurant culture, tourists in the Dordogne or people’s reactions to meeting celebrities, but then we realise there is a much darker, more sinister aspect to everything that Paul says or does. I’ve never been one to demand likable characters in a novel, but Koch really outdoes himself here in the presentation of unlikable ones.

dinner
Paperback edition

There is something of the unvarnished, forthright depictions of society or ‘shocking realism’ here which has coloured so much of contemporary Dutch literature. It’s a very cleverly constructed book, designed to make us question our own morality and assumptions. I admire its intention, but have to admit that, upon finishing, I felt a strong need to gurgle or wash the unpleasant stains off.

Can I also say how much better and more subtle the cover of the hardcover version is than the paperback (although the latter copies the Dutch language edition)?