Are you one of life’s gourmands when it comes to a buffet dinner? Do you eat too much simply because it is displayed there in front of you?
In the buffet of life and activities, I certainly tend to be greedy (for fear of missing out on something) and pile my plate up high. I commit to far too many activities, help far too many people, combine things in spectacular fashion (things which are perhaps best left uncombined)…
Not all of it is my own free choice, of course. Some of the things on my plate are the boring administrative details which simply need to be dealt with: the napkins, cutlery and cups of the buffet, perhaps. (Yes, I’m determined to extend this metaphor like a rubber band!) And before people tell me that the housework can wait and cake-baking for the end of year school fair is not compulsory… I’ve given up on those things long ago!
Other goodies on my plate benefit my children – because they too have the right to a happy life and a supportive mother when they are doing exciting things for the first time, such as participating in a professional theatre production (opening night tonight, break a leg!) or doing a fundraising run for charity. If I were to compare it to meat and two vegetables for dinner, I would say the meat is my writing, the potato is my day job and the more exciting vegetable is my family (perhaps asparagus, as they are tall and skinny?). Of course, being both a gourmet (fan of quality) and a gourmand (fan of quantity), I also add liberal lashings of cheese, additional vegetables, fruit, desserts, wine and so much more: blogging, tweeting, voluntary work for Geneva Writers’ Group, keeping up with friends and visiting all the places I know I will miss once I leave this area…
Most of the time, it just about works and I can carefully balance the plate all the way back to the table, sit down and enjoy it with gusto. However, if just one element of this precarious edifice fails or is missing… if the internet and phone don’t work, if a babysitter cancels, if a child falls ill, if a scheduled workshop date gets postponed… it just takes one minor, tiny, apparently insignificant detail to go wrong, then this happens…
Scarred on the battlefield with internet service providers, your dedicated war correspondent is signing off here before using language which may be too colourful for the time of day you are reading this!
Everyone loves a little crime in holiday places – as long as we are reading about it and dreaming of a beach, rather than directly affected by it. This must be the reason why there are so many crime novels set in popular holiday destinations – or combining popular holiday activities, such as cruise ships. As it so happens, four of the books I’ve recently read take place in various parts of the Mediterranean. All four of them are what I would call ‘enjoyable holiday reads’, with a few disquieting elements to keep you on your toes, but not the kind that you will remember for years to come.
Annabel Kantaria: The Disappearance – cruise ship
This barely qualifies as crime fiction, although it has a mystery and a missing person at its heart. It is really a book about family secrets and the dangers of allowing them to fester. It is also a loving recreation of India in the 1970s (where the main protagonist, Audrey, went to work after the death of her parent and met her husband) and Greece in the present day, where Audrey has invited her twin children on a cruise around the Greek islands to celebrate her 70th birthday. But then, on the night of her birthday, Audrey goes missing, suspected of falling overboard.
I first encountered the author online as a fellow expat writing about her experiences of living abroad, and there is plenty of flavour and colour to her descriptions of life as an expat in India. Despite some predictable moments, the book as a whole slid down the reading throat like a nice glass of Bailey’s or Amaretto: rich, indulgent, smooth. Perfect summer reading.
Catherine Ryan Howard : Distress Signals – cruise ship
Adam Dunne is a rather self-absorbed 30 year old who still dreams of becoming a great writer. He has said no to a regular job or a painful climb up a career ladder, a mortgage, a family and kids – so far – and has been encouraged and supported (often financially too) by his girlfriend Sarah. Then he finally manages to sell a script to Hollywood (pending some rewrites), but he has no time to celebrate, because his beloved Sarah – who had gone to Barcelona on a business trip – has vanished into thin air. Her phone is switched off, nobody seems to know about her whereabouts and the hotel she was staying at claims she only stayed there one night. Adam initially keeps trying to calm himself (and Sarah’s parents) down with plausible excuses, but becomes frantic when it becomes likely that she disappeared on board a cruise ship. The author knows the holiday industry pretty well and she has found the perfect fertile ground for crime on board a cruise ship. I had never thought about it before, but the murky borders of jurisdiction, the coming together of an international crowd for a short period of time, the sheer size of those ships making it quite easy to ‘disappear’ people… It has certainly made me more determined than ever to never go on a cruise!
Parker Bilal: Ghost Runner – Egypt
Makana is a former police inspector from Sudan, who has found refuge in Cairo. He lives on a rickety houseboat on the Nile and tries to forget the cruel death of his wife and young daughter back home. He makes a living as a private investigator and, as the story opens, he believes he is involved in a routine surveillance job to appease a jealous and suspicious wife. However, it turns out that the ‘errant’ husband is in fact visiting a badly injured girl in hospital, the victim of a horrific arson attack. This leads to a more wide-ranging and unpleasant investigation involving the girl’s father, who was associated with terrorism, and their home town of Siwa, an oasis in the Sahara Desert. Makana discovers the law means little in this frontier town on the edge of the great desert, nor can he count on the local police for help.
In this part of the world, the past is never quite buried, and has a way of rearing its nasty head and influencing the present. Not exactly a cheery holiday read, this novel blends topical events with a solid mystery and a noir atmosphere despite the relentless, blazing sun.
Patricia Highsmith: The Two Faces of January – Greece
January is not the name of a girl: it is the month in which the novel is set, but it is also an allusion to the two faces of Janus, and to the two main male characters, who in many ways represent two sides of the same coin. Chester MacFarlane is a con man, with many names and identities: he runs pyramid schemes, investment frauds, and disappears with his clients’ money. He is now on the run in Europe with his beautiful young wife Colette. Rydal Keener is a young American who quarreled with his father when he decided to come to Europe and stay there without doing anything much to build a career for himself. He seems to be drifting through life, but has a thirst for adventure which makes him somewhat foolishly rush in to help Chester when a Greek policeman catches up with the glamorous couple. After that fatal moment, they are fated to stay together, even as temptations abound and tempers fray.
This is not top-notch Highsmith, but even in her more average work, she remains the mistress of the innuendo, the slow psychological burn and strange love/hate competitive relationship between men. It’s not top-notch Highsmith, but it’s an interesting playing around with certain tropes and scenes, almost like a dress rehearsal for Ripley. I enjoyed the Greek setting and the unreliability of each one of the characters. Sometimes it’s completely opaque what motivates them – but isn’t real life like that too? Chester and Rydal are the two faces of the same coin, and you can’t quite decide which one of them is more despicable – and yet there is a ‘can’t live with or without each other’ aspect to their relationship which is deliciously subversive, smart, sinister story in its own right, well worth a read.
Written by Maylis de Kerangal, it has been translated as Mend the Living by Jessica Moore and as The Heart (although I am not sure if that was by a different translator) for the US markets.
The story is incredibly simple: we follow 24 hours in the life of a heart transplant, from 5:50 in the morning until the following morning at dawn. The story certainly does not lack in incidents: we witness an accident – not a surfing one, although that is what we suspect at first – we see the emergency services spring into action, we see everyone rush around the young man in a coma – Simon – in a desperate manner: doctors, nurses – including the wonderfully named Cordelia Owl, new to the ICU unit (much more poetically called the ‘reanimation unit’ in French), organ donor coordinators, specialists all over France, the parents, friends and other families affected by this tragedy.
But, of course, the story is not about this febrile activity. It is all about the interior life of all the people involved: Thomas Remige the organ donor liaison nurse, who grew up on a farm in Normandy and likes to sing in the nude; Simon’s parents – French mother Marianne, New Zealand father Sean- who are currently living apart; his girlfriend Juliette who is slightly jealous of his surfing buddies; the recipient of his heart, Claire, who has put her life on hold for the past three years, living in a poky little flat just opposite the hospital in Paris which can do heart transplants, hoping against hope that this moment would come.
Do we need to know all those concerns (in many cases, peripheral) of people whose lives are touched (and in some cases, irrevocably changed) by Simon’s death? Too many descriptions, too many details? Take for example the multiple phone calls and sounds Marianne receives or tries to make, her Simone Signoret eyes, Charlotte Rampling eyes, the roads she drives on en route to the hospital – all this minutiae seems useless. But this accumulation of details slows down time – we feel the second hand ticking – which makes some readers give up, I can fully understand. And perhaps I would have too, if I wasn’t keen to compare the French and English language version and switched from one to the other constantly.
I interpreted this, however as a way of distancing oneself from the subject, avoiding sentimentality. The rapid switches from one protagonist to the next can be disorientating, and we have no time to connect emotionally with some of them, despite the wealth of details we are given – yet this contributes to that sense of urgency. Quick, harvest those kidneys, liver, lungs, heart before they perish… Ultimately, this is about the fragility of life itself, and what it means to be human, what remains of us after we die.
This is another example of a book which demands surrender to its rhythms and oddness and fragmentation. If you allow yourself to be hypnotised by its long sentences, patient accumulation of detail, then it becomes a most moving experience. To know if this is the book for you, just try that waltz of an opening sentence which goes on for 1 ½ pages – spiraling and twirling, up and down movement, all the rhythm of a heart beating, in ¾ time, with emotion and experience, the black box of a healthy 20 year old male body in love with the sea and adventure and surfing and a pretty girl.
‘ce que c’est ce Coeur, ce qui l’a fait bondir, vomir, grossir, valser leger comme un plume ou peser comme une pierre, ce qui l’a etourdi, ce qui l’a fait fondre – l’amour…’
‘What it is, this heart, what has made it leap, swell, sicken, waltz light as a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, what has stunned it, what has made it melt, love…’
A translation very close to the eccentric original, yet not afraid to change the order fo things for added musicality in English. The only thing I was unsure of was why Simon’s surname Limbres had to be changed to Limbeau in the English version.
I was impressed by Elena Ferrante’s fierce honesty and gritty style in ‘The Days of Abandonment’, but I avoided the Neapolitan novels for a long time. The hype, the marketing of it as a family saga, the sheer wordiness of 4 thick volumes seemed to me run counter to everything I admire and aspire to be as a writer: elegant and pared down style, hidden and allusive observations, modest and restrained topic matters.
But then I found the whole set in English at the local library, so I thought I’d give them a whirl.
The flashes of insight and genius which I’d glimpsed in the standalone novel were what sustained me for the first few chapters. 60-70 pages in, I scoffed: ‘Soap opera’. After the next few chapters, I paused: ‘Hmm, soap opera with gender politics.’ Halfway through the first volume, I readjusted this to: ‘soap opera with gender and class politics’. I never watch soap operas on TV, but I started to understand why my mother would: this made for compulsive reading. I finished the first volume and almost immediately made a trip to the library for more. And now I’ve finished all four in record time and am tempted to say: ‘political and feminist discourse disguised as a soap opera’.
Many reviewers have spoken of its ferocious howl of anger – but there is also resignation, resilience and ‘getting on with things’ in the most unheroic of ways. I have mentioned before how it reminds me of my female relatives: the trials and tribulations, small joys and greater pains of their own lives, the way they come together to support but also sabotage each other. Events unfold at high speed, often with melodrama, blood, guts and tears, much shouting and throwing of objects, families and friends breaking off relationships for years, then perhaps reconciling for practical reasons. One of Ferrante’s brilliant abilities as a storyteller is to accelerate and slow down time at will, move from the overarching universal to the very particular detail and then zoom out again, in a way which feels very natural and effortless.
She has also been described as the Dickens of Naples. Yes, she conveys the noises, smells, charm and grubbiness of the city, she is unafraid to show its darker sides rather than the picturesque touristy bits, and she populates her pages with numerous vividly drawn secondary characters, but there is also a running commentary and analysis of events (through Elena/Lenu), as they occur, which is seldom the case with Dickens. Ferrante’s narrator shows a lucid self-awareness and hunger to understand, and the reader embarks upon the journey of self-exploration with her and gains her wisdom at the end of the tale. I am not quite sure that we get this level of self-dissection and clear-eyed, unsentimental analysis of those close to one’s self, even in David Copperfield.
One touching and very revealing moment occurs when the two friends, Lila and Lenu, both pregnant, are caught up in a major earthquake. Lila becomes surprisingly fearful and breaks down, trying to explain herself and her world view to her friend like never before (or after). She speaks of her need to control and manipulate things, and explains it as arising from her terror of dissolving boundaries, of being caught up in a messy flood, of something seeping through the cracks of reality (very reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s famous diary entry), of overthinking and overcomplicating things until you lose all joy in life:
…the fabric that I weave by day is unraveled by night, the heads finds a way. But it’s not much use, the terror remains, it’s always in the crack between one normal thing and the other. It’s there waiting. I’ve always suspected it… nothing lasts… Good feelings are fragile, with me love doesn’t last. Love for a man doesn’t last, not even love for a child, it soon gets a hole in it. You look in the hole and you see the nebula of good intentions mixed up with the nebula of bad.
Elena finally understands that perhaps brilliance comes in flashes rather than a steady lifelong light, and that she had been the stronger one after all in their friendship:
Everything that struck me… woud pass and I – whatever I among those I was accumulating – I would remain firm, I was the needle of the compass that stays fixed while the lead traces circles around it. Lila on the other hand… struggled to feel stable… However much she had always dominated all of us and had imposed and was still imposing a way of being… she perceived herself as a liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself. When, in spite of her defensive manipulation of persons and things, the liquid prevailed, Lila lost Lila, chaos seemed the only truth and she – so active, so courageous – erased herself and, terrified, became nothing.
I’ll be honest: Ferrante inspires me with mixed emotions. She writes in a voice which, despite my best efforts to be polished and Anglo-Saxon in attitude, comes through far too loudly and clearly in my own life. As with Javier Marias, I recognise in her a kindred spirit: she writes the way I think when I don’t censor myself, when I allow my Romanian side to come out. A voice which I have suppressed and perhaps slightly disparaged all my life. A voice which is easy to mock as too convoluted, messy and therefore inferior. A voice which has been misunderstood, laughed at, satirized or met with aggression and prejudice. So it will take a while for me to appreciate this voice – and I find it surprising that English speakers are so attracted to it.
At the same time, I feel exhilaration and liberation when I read her work. It is OK to be like this. And she also fills me with envy and the sadness of a missed opportunity. If in future I were to write the saga of my own extended family, farmers and shepherds in the sub-Carpathians, against the backdrop of war, Communism and then wild capitalism, with all the mixed messages about gender and family which have been the bane of my life… it wouldn’t be my story, because it’s all been done now by Ferrante in a different location.
Not all of us want to remain in bed all day. So we need to find alternative places to lounge, for when the great laziness sets in… or when you just need to leave the world behind and look after yourself. Because you are most certainly worth it, now and forever!