Quick Reviews: Santiago Gamboa, Laura Kaye and Helen Dunmore

Sadly, I have little time to write leisurely reviews, so I thought I’d better write these short impressions, before too much time lapses since I read the books.

Helen Dunmore: Birdcage Walk

Having previously enjoyed Dunmore’s novels and having mourned her death earlier this year, I read her last novel with a rather biased view and excessive attention to detail. The strange, uncomfortable marriage of John Diner and Lizzie Fawkes seems to me to be a metaphor for death, and our own twisted relationship with it: longing for it, fearing it, trying to make sense of it, blinding ourselves deliberately to it at times. Above all, there is the dread of being forgotten, of leaving nothing behind – like the unmarked headstone of John’s first wife or the lost works of Lizzie’s writer mother Julia.

This is a slow-moving novel, far too slow perhaps for many readers. It relies upon gradual building of layer upon layer of atmosphere and characterisation. Sometimes the reader jumps ahead with conclusions (certainly in one scene, if they can read French), but the author won’t be rushed along. I won’t lie: initially it was a book that I returned to willingly but not with particular impatience. By the end, however, I grew to love it and it left me with a sense of uncertain chill but also profound satisfaction. If we slow down to the pace of the narrator, we can more fully appreciate the poetic language and allow ourselves to be fully attuned to the story. I enjoyed the beginning of The Essex Serpent more, but I enjoyed the ending of this one more.

Santiago Gamboa: Return to the Dark Valley (transl. Howard Curtis)

I haven’t read Colombian author Gamboa’s previous novel Night Prayers, where two of the characters in this novel first make their appearance. But the novel stands up very well on its own: if you can accept a rather zany stop-and-start beginning, where we move from one point of view to the next. It’s like putting your eye to an old-fashioned kaleidoscopic tube and waiting for the bright colours to resolve themselves into a pattern, but then they morph into something different. We meet troubled Manuela trying to make her way out of poverty and abuse into a life of poetry and love – and being thoroughly let down along the way. A fastidious consul searching for his beloved Juana, whom he wants to rescue from a life of prostitution. Tertuliano, a fiery Argentinian preacher with pronounced racist tendencies. Last but not least, and somewhat surprisingly, the poet Rimbaud, restless lifelong seeker, a devil with the face of an angel. Somehow, all these stories mingle against a backdrop of terrorists holding hostages in the Irish Embassy in Madrid and a newly prosperous Colombia trying to forget its vicious paramilitary past. This tale of learning how to hate and demand revenge is often surprising and has some memorable scenes set in a rather cruel (and uncomfortably familiar) world. It has conviction, but lacks coherence, to my mind.

Laura Kaye: English Animals

At times satirical, at times sad, this is a fearsome and fierce, but not savage depiction of cultural differences. Mirka is a young Slovakian girl who takes on a job as a housekeeper/trainee taxidermist in an English country home. Her bosses Richard and Sophie are by turns generous, chaotic and self-absorbed. Their marriage is a bit of an unknowable mess and puzzles Mirka, and she gets involved more than she should. Some of the secondary characters are completely outrageous, but Richard and Sophie are more like Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby: ‘careless people, who smash up things and creatures’ – only in this case they hunt and stuff them. It’s the carelessness which grates more than anything. I suspect that if this book had been written by a non-English person, it would have been far more vicious, and perhaps all the worse for it (but perhaps also better for it, it’s  hard to know). I’m thinking of A.M. Bakalar’s corrosive depiction of cultural differences in Madame Mephisto.