#YoungWriterAward: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

When I saw the shortlisted titles for the Times/Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, I have to admit that Exciting Times by Irish writer Naoise Dolan was the only one I had heard of. She had been praised as the ‘next Sally Rooney’, which was not the happiest of comparisons for me, since I wasn’t bowled over by Rooney. But I thought I would start there nevertheless, mostly because it was set in Hong Kong and I’ve always been keen on reading about different geographical locations and the culture shock that expats might experience.

At first all went well. The staccato style and deadpan, deadly sentences were amusing at first, especially when they make fun of rich people.

He’d said everything very slowly that night, so I’d assumed he was drunk – but he still did it sober, so I gathered he was rich.

[…]

Periodically she touched her Celine trapeze bag. I thought: it’s still there, Victoria. It’s not going anywhere. The cow’s dead.

Ava, the main protagonist, is well educated but comes from a less privileged background in Dublin and is now teaching English to children of wealthy Chinese families in Hong Kong. I failed to care about her lukewarm relationship with wealthy banker Julian, and was only marginally more invested in her burgeoning love for the dainty, Cambridge-educated Edith (Chinese name: Mei Ling), perhaps because Ava herself was so confused, cold and self-involved. This was not the charming confusion or deep despair of first love we might encounter in Le Grand Meaulnes or Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart. It is not even the scheming machinations that ends in tragedy of Bonjour Tristesse. It is clinical and detached, at the mercies of modern technology: the one poignant moment was Ava watching the three blue dots that are a sign that someone is typing a message you are eagerly awaiting on the phone.

Next, I was disappointed in the lack of atmosphere. Although the book dutifully dropped Hong Kong place names and mention of local holidays, there was no sense of being immersed in that particular culture or location. The book might have been set anywhere else (in fact, it felt like a very London-based book, with so many of the characters being British). Perhaps that is typical of the Anglo expat experience in Hong Kong (I have certainly seen this replicated in Geneva), but it felt like a missed opportunity.

There were some things I did enjoy about the book. I enjoyed the acerbic observations about the ‘only correct form of English’ being British English.

‘Tings’ was incorrect, you needed to breathe and say ‘things’, but if you breathed for ‘what’ then that was quaint. If the Irish didn’t aspirate and the English did then they were right, but if we did and the English didn’t then they were still right. The English taught us English to teach us they were right. I was teaching my students the same thing about white people. If I said things one way and their live-in Filipino nanny said them another, they were meant to defer to me.

And there was a fair amount of English-bashing which seemed to bring Ava and Edith closer, and which certainly made me guffaw:

We both found it hilarious that Brits thought their international image was one of flaccid tea-loving Hugh Grantish butterfingery. If they’d been a bit more indirect during the Opium Wars, or a bit more self-effacing on Bloody Sunday, then our countries would have been most appreciative. ‘That’s why they can’t accept that they did colonialism,’ Edith said. ‘They see themselves as people who can’t even get a dog put down.’

However, after a while, these clever remarks started to sound a bit too much like the class clown trying to impress everybody with their cynicism. And it turned out that in terms of cultural differences, this book was more revealing about the differences between English upper middle classes and Irish working classes.

He was a rich Irish person, preferred having wealth in common with Victoria to Ireland in common with me, and was annoyed at us both for disabusing him that Victoria saw it that way. His moth said it was great to see another Mick out foreign, and his eyes said: don’t fuck this up for me.

Each of these quotes taken in isolation are rather brilliant, and I certainly appreciated certain passages. Perhaps I’d have enjoyed this more as a sharp, short novella. But the overall sensation I had after reading the book was that I’d been frozen by Ava’s icy temperament, and that I had been slashed and cut by too many razor-sharp remarks, without encountering any effort to thaw or heal me.

We will see what my fellow Shadow Judges made of it, but for me personally, it doesn’t feel like the winner of The Young Writers’ Award. However, the two next reviews will be of the poetry books, and I loved both of those!

#20BooksofSummer: No. 11 – Shirley Hazzard

Once I read Shirley Hazzard’s mischievous portrayal of the United Nations in People in Glass HousesI knew she would be the kind of writer that I’d like. I quickly ordered two more of her books (which are not easy to find, she seems to be somewhat out of print) but have only just read one of them now, five years later. I can relate so well to this ‘citizen of everywhere and nowhere’.

Born in Australia, she nevertheless felt somewhat ambiguous about it, a backwater that she was all too eager to escape from. Although she made America her home for many years, she did not feel she fitted into the sassy, young, casual style of writing there. She felt closer to the more formal English style and has been compared to her contemporaries Anita Brookner, Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge. In fact, she reminds me more of  earlier writers such as Ivy Compton-Burnett, Henry Green or Barbara Pym – an excellent ear for dialogue, especially for what remains unspoken, much more tightly controlled and tight-lipped – but without their obsession with class.

This is the best cover, the Virago Modern Classics edition. I’ve seen some awful US covers.

The Bay of Noon is one of her early novels, published in 1970. Already, the author demonstrates her ability to write satire, cast her withering cold stare on absurd people and behaviours, yet still show some vulnerability. Her remarkably clear and precise, yet poetic prose style is already fully formed in this book. It is perhaps a style that has become unfashionable in recent years – maybe even in her own lifetime (which might explain a long gap in her writing.) This is not about sparkling linguistic gems and fireworks; instead, it rewards the patient and attentive reader (above all, the rereader) – because nothing is wasted, everything is packed in tightly.  Blink and you might miss an important point.

As in most of her novels and short stories, the story seems to be comfortably domestic at first: about expats trying to make a home for themselves in a different culture and caught up in a sort of love triangle. But there are bigger issues at stake – the effects of war (in this case in Italy, in other novels we have Occupied Japan or post-war England) and personal trauma.

Jenny is an expat working for a section of NATO headquartered in Naples in the 1950s. She befriends the glamorous writer Gioconda and her loud macho boyfriend Gianni, and also has occasional forays into a relationship with taciturn Scotsman Justin. Feeling supplanted in her brother’s affections by his wife, not quite at home in any part of the world, she has had to learn to cauterise her heart and wounds. Yet she finds herself once again cast as the spare wheel in a tangle of relationships where no one is entirely happy or satisfied, and everyone is lying to themselves and to others.

Jenny is ferociously bright and observant, but lonely – you can’t help feeling that Hazzard has put a lot of herself in that character, but there is something in the elegance and more resigned sadness of Gioconda which is perhaps the portrait of the more mature author.

But that’s a way to go on loving – a place or a person. To miss it. In fact, to go away, to put yourself in the state of missing, is sometimes the simplest way to preserve love.

Naples is the main character in this novel – and Hazzard clearly loved the place (she eventually settled in Capri with her husband after a peripetatic career all over the world). But she does not romanticise it or avoid its poverty and social problems:

Ordinariness, the affliction and backbone of other cities, was here non-existent. Phrases I had always thought universal – the common people, the average family, the typical reaction, ordinary life – had no meaning where people were all uncommon and life extraordinary; where untraceable convulsions of human experience had yielded up such extremes of destitution, of civilization.

Summing Up the Decade: Blog Posts

I’ll have a separate blog post for my favourite books or cultural events of the decade, but first for something rather personal. It’s been a long, hard old decade for me. I started off with a moribund marriage but tried desperately to keep it alive for another 4 years or so. Then to hide its disintegration from the children for two more years. Then another 3.5 years to finally untangle property and finances. So you can imagine I will not be looking back fondly upon this decade. However, there have been good moments, mostly relating to the five years we spent in my beloved Geneva area.

So I’ll start with my favourite posts from the blog I started in Geneva in February 2012. Not quite 10 years old, but boy, has it accumulated a lot of material! Expect a mammoth post:

My very first book review – because it was a book about expat experience https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2012/03/15/book-review-the-expats-by-chris-pavone/

A rather uncharacteristic short story https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2012/05/26/the-washing-machine-chronicles/

My reaction upon reading Knausgaard for the first time https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/a-man-a-writer-in-love/

A brief essay about motherhood and what ifs https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/my-life-isnt-open-to-revision/

My series of interviews What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime?

Reading Habits and Resolutions https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/changing-my-reading-habits-part-1/

German Women Writers Fighting Against National Socialism https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/german-women-writers-fighting-against-national-socialism/

Rereading The Tale of Genji https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/the-tale-of-genji-readalong-2/

A political piece and plea for sanity just before the 2016 Referendum https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/i-wasnt-going-to-enter-the-debate/

I visited the Quais du Polar Crime Festival in Lyon several times and wrote a series of posts about it

The most popular post I ever wrote – about The Handmaid’s Tale and what it brings back to me https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2017/06/05/why-its-painful-to-watch-the-handmaids-tale/

Reunited with the books in my loft and rediscovering the most obscure on my bookshelves

Possibly the best holiday I’ve had this decade https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2018/11/04/romanian-road-trip-little-house-in-the-forest/

The Victor and His Family. This is a bit how this decade has felt like for me.

Before I started this blog, I had a professional blog for my business as a coach and trainer for all matters intercultural. Some of the posts were quite business-like, but some wittered on about expat experiences and my family. Here are a few posts that bring back fond memories:

The Racism of St Nicholas – this one is from December 2009, but just about fits into the decade, with a bit of indulgence https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2009/12/11/st-nicholas-is-an-unfair-racist/

British Heritage and Stereotypes – oddly prescient that, although it dates from March 2010 https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/british-heritage-and-stereotypes/

The Dramas of Being an Expat Light Wife https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2010/11/17/the-dramas-of-expat-light/

Remembering my first stint on the border of France/Switzerland (this article first appeared in the expat section of The Telegraph) https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2010/11/02/and-now-for-something-completely-different/

Trying to make light of relocation problems https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2011/05/24/househunting-abroad-art-science-or-pain/

I wanted to close this post with a picture of the Mont Blanc peak, which has been such a huge part of my decade. But when I did a search for Mont Blanc through my saved pictures, I found this special edition Virginia Woolf pen by Mont Blanc instead…

Running Home

P1010699The mountains are closing in today.

On a clear day, just after a drop in temperature, they open up as endless as your life seems in childhood. On a day like this, when clouds display a full arsenal of grays, when rain is announced every few minutes, the mountains seem closer.  Too close.  They press against you, crush you, lock you in. You begin to understand the danger of the Alps. Ominous is a word created for that brief silence before the storm breaks.

So you start running. Mud, pebbles, asphalt: the terrain varies and so do your steps. What you cannot get used to is the running between borders.  After a lifetime of being punished for your nationality, of not being allowed in or out of countries, it is such a thrill to be able to weave your way in and out of France and Switzerland. A grey, moss-covered border stone dating from the 1870s is your only witness.

You moved to the area unwillingly the first time round. You had to give up a good job, family and friends, a good-sized house in the process of being slowly renovated, the language of your comfort. The children were fully dependent on you that first time, each day was a struggle with unfamiliarity. You couldn’t wait to get back ‘home’.

MountainsBut home had moved on, as had you. You found yourself struggling to fit in. You were still the alien, perhaps even more so with your new-found love for croissants and small coffees. You missed the extreme landscapes, the seasons. You remembered breathing in air so fresh that it rushed straight to your lungs in unadulterated delight.

Life has a way of playing with your emotions. Just when you are settled in again, when you have arranged your memories in a neatly labelled box to be put up in the attic, it is time to resurrect them.  You are going back to the space on the border for a second time. But this time it’s all different again. The children are older, your French is better. You continue working, but you are determined to make each minute in this wonderful location count. You are not going to leave this area again, regretting all that you didn’t do and see.

Home is a word you have bandied about far too often in your existence. You’ve believed you were at home in many places, with many people, but have you ever fully understood it? 

GrapesCould this be home now? You hardly dare to hope.

Yet there is a lilt in your peasant soul as you run through the fields, worrying about the harvest. 

The peaks and valleys, now green and pleasant, now eerily bare, mirror your own innerscapes. You surprise yourself with the sudden onset of storms, but you recognise a twin spirit.

If you weren’t so marked by years of taunting, you might almost think you are communing with nature.

Whether this is home or not, this is the best of you. Use this time wisely. Write it all down.

Signs You May be Turning French…

You know your children are turning French when…

… they know more swear/slang words in French than they do in English.

… every sentence is prefaced by the exclamation ‘La vache!’ (and no, they weren’t referring to the Montbeliard cows producing Comté cheese, who were grazing peacefully on every field we passed during our holidays).

… they demand ‘explications’ for every single command you issue.

… older son is writing an encyclopedia because he likes to pontificate about things and he has heard of Diderot.

… younger son builds Eiffel Towers with rulers, protractors, pens and rubbers (in earlier years, it used to be the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth).

… they have opinions on the policies of François Hollande and compare him with Sarkozy

Maybe it’s time to head home soon?

Then again, on a sunny day like this…Image

 

Mal- Entendu (Take Two)

Over at dVerse Poets Pub, the prompt tonight is ‘Anecdote’.  So I decided to rewrite an older poem of mine, which very much arose from a personal anecdote. (P.S. I am now expanding my boulangerie vocabulary and sometimes get handed the right bread.)

‘A few months’, they told me,

‘Immersion is good.’

Just jump in the pool, fully clothed,

then swim, swim some more, swim for your life,

always almost, but never quite there.

 

Haunted by failure, aware of the dangers,

I navigate, anxious, between the extremes.

All blandness in word choice,

I crawl through the accents raining in all directions

submerged in hot water when phone brings rapid riposte.

 

My jokes are more plodding,

some meaning eludes me.

I paddle along even when I am lost.

 

Distracted by how I pronounce the word ‘pain‘,

the baker hands me the wrong kind of bread.

I think I’ll stick to baguette in the future.

Book Review: ‘The Expats’ by Chris Pavone

As a serial expat myself and a big fan of thrillers, I had high expectations of Chris Pavone’s debut novel ‘The Expats’ and it did not disappoint.

The story in a nutshell: Katherine is a typical American expat in Luxembourg, dissatisfied with her life, missing her sense of purpose and past career, but unsure what she wants.  Or is she? Her husband Dexter is a good-natured computer geek working on security issues for banks.  Or is he?  They meet an attractive, yet strangely mismatched childless American couple, who seem keen to befriend them. Or are they?  Well, as it turns out, no one is quite what they seem in this page-turner, with more plot twists than I have had coffees.  I woke up during the night and adjourned to the guestroom to finish reading it, which is unusual behaviour indeed. Continue reading Book Review: ‘The Expats’ by Chris Pavone