Holiday Reading (and Snowy Pictures)

A rather unusual Monday post for me – as I’ve just come back from completely offline holidays, so have had no time to plan or prepare a thorough post. My ‘What got you hooked’ feature will have to wait until next week, and my more in-depth, ‘impeccably researched’ reviews (at least to my mind, although I inevitably think of the best things AFTER I publish the review) will appear later during the course of this week. Children’s additional week of holidays permitting.

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It was great to disconnect completely and to worry only about physical things. Will I be warm enough? Have I forgotten any goggles, gloves, boots, socks, hood, ski-helmets? Will my knees hold out for a full day’s skiing? Can I bear to carry those heavy skis a step further? And I promise you: there is nothing better than the sound of silence when you are the first down a piste, when you can feel the cold air on your face and hear the swoosh-swoosh of your skis turning in the fresh snow.

 

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There may not have been an open fireplace in the evening to savour a hot chocolate with a dash of Chartreuse (the local speciality)… but turning in early in the evening and reading in bed was equally delightful.

My reading matter could hardly have contrasted more with the view outside. I was reading Eva Dolan’s two novels about present-day Peterborough, rife with poverty, immigration problems, prostitution and crime. Eva deftly describes a small town overcome by its social problems, and the resulting picture is grim, dark, with few glimmers of hope. Perhaps best read when you can look up from the page and see a sunny landscape, where the shadows are only picturesque.

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You may think this sounds similar to J.K. Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’, which has just been adapted for TV. But it’s far better than that. First of all, both of Dolan’s books are proper crime novels, with suspense, pacing, mystery and enough twisty turns to keep any fan busy guessing. Secondly, they are pitch-perfect in describing the difficult social mix in present-day England: the tensions between the older and newer waves of immigrants; the anxiety about the overburdening of the social services, schools and hospitals; blatant and hidden xenophobia, as well as an increasingly nasty discourse about the undeserving poor and scroungers. It expresses all the fears that are beginning to haunt those of us who have not been born in the UK but have come there because of its reputation for tolerance and fair-mindedness.

tellNoTalesYet the immigrants described by Dolan are by no means all angels or innocent victims. Horrendous things happen to some of them (especially in the first novel ‘The Long Way Home’, which looks at unscrupulous companies employing foreign workers in inhumane conditions). But fear, distrust of the police force, misplaced national loyalties and the sheer desperation of survival makes them all act in dangerous ways, often not helping themselves at all in the process. So the characters are complex and flawed, and their views of the English are often quite funny (and not very complimentary).

The two investigating detectives are fascinating characters as well. Zigic was born and bred in England, but is of Croatian descent. He is usually the rational voice of the enquiry, patient, compassionate, a man sensitive to psychological and cultural nuances. And happily married, even though he wishes his wife weren’t quite so keen on an upwardly mobile lifestyle. His partner is the volatile, sparky Mel Ferreira, who came to the UK aged seven and whose Portuguese family run a pub in the local area. She relies heavily on gut instinct, is quick to flare up and take offence, yet it’s impossible not to fall in love a little with her ardent desire for social justice.

 

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But what I love best about Dolan’s books is the depth of her writing. A multitude of voices – often voices that are never heard in English fiction – are present here. Every sentence is rich with nuance, with multiple layers of meaning. It’s like hearing a complex piece of music with many instruments, after the rather monotonous strumming of simple bands.

One small descriptive passage is enough to set up all the background and contrasts of Peterborough: the cathedral town visited by tourists and the rather more scummy underbelly.

There were pop-up stores selling cheap clothes and pound shops all with the same plastic tat outside them, four different gold-cashing places which would have been based in council flats in Bretton a couple of years ago. Now they were respectable, or near enough, fences with business cards and backstreet accountants, legitimised by austerity.

She turned into the Wheelyard, a few morning drinkers sheltering under the budding cherry blossoms ont he corner, then turned along a cobbled alleyway into the cathedral precincts, high stone walls rising above her, spackled with moss and noxious yellow lichen. A loud woman with a Home Counties accent was leading a group of tourists across the cathedral green…

DolanLongThese two books should be required reading for those who laugh at UKIP and other nationalist parties, believing that they could never come to power today. They should also be read by those who fear the unknown and who find themselves sympathising with hard-core immigration policies. They are not comfort reads, but extremely thought-provoking and realistic, in their unsettling depth and refusal to find easy, neat solutions.

In the last two years, there are only a handful of writers I encountered on the page for the first time got me so excited with their perfect blend of subject matter and style: Stav Sherez, Denise Mina, Louise Penny. Now I can add Eva Dolan to this group. And one more gratuitous picture to remind me of the perfect downhill descent.

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Reading with a Theme: Thorny Marriages

A while ago I happened to read a whole series of books about mothers. Since my return from holiday I seem to have been on a roll with books about marriages – I was going to say ‘difficult marriages’, but at least one of them is about a happy marriage… interrupted by death. Incidentally, it also seems to have been a bit of a catch-up with North American writers, as Anne Carson, Louise Penny and Maxime-Olivier Moutier are all Canadians, while two of the remaining authors are American.

Joan Didion and her family in Malibu in 1976. From back cover of the book.
Joan Didion and her family in Malibu in 1976. From back cover of the book.

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The portrait of a 40 year marriage of true minds. Didion’s husband died of a heart-attack in 2003, and this is the searing memoir of her befuddlement, grief, sense of guilt and sheer madness of the year following her sudden loss. (At the same time, her daughter was in and out of hospital, in and out of a coma, so it was probably the hardest year of the writer’s life.) This may not be her most polished work stylistically, but it has a rawness and honesty about it which is very moving.

I’m not sure why this has been branded as pretentious or whining or self-pitying rants of a rich bitch. It shows how grief can drive us all mad, whether privileged or not, whether calm and collected or dramatic and hysterical. The author has also been accused of coldness, because she tries to present things in a detached way. This feels to me more like a deliberate strategy to remain calm, to try and understand, to analyse oneself. The polar vortex of memory that she tries to avoid by not going to places that were familiar to them: how can that be described as cold and unfeeling?

Anne Carson: The Beauty of the Husband

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By contrast, Carson’s collection of poems all add up to an essay on beauty and truth, our search for perfection but our paradoxical human ability to put up with imperfection for a very long time. All in all, it presents the picture of a toxic marriage, a destructive relationship captured with true poetic flourish. Based on Keat’s assertion that beauty is truth, the poet then shows us just why the husband was anything but truthful, no matter how beautiful he was (and remained) in the eyes of the wronged wife.

 

Louise Penny: The Long Way Home

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I’m already a confirmed Louise Penny fan, but this 10th book in the Armand Gamache/ Three Pines series is less crime fiction and more the story of a Quest: for a missing husband, for inspiration, for one’s true self, for the Holy Grail almost. I wrote a full review of it for Crime Fiction Lover, but from the perspective of marriage, it is the sad story of the dissolution of a loving long-term partnership when the insidious three-headed serpent of jealousy, envy and inadequacy makes its appearance. Clara and Peter Morrow are both artists, who met in college. Peter has always been the more successful artist with his carefully controlled, intricate paintings, while Clara was the wild and messy experimentalist. But when Clara’s star begins to rise, Peter finds it impossible to rejoice for her, as he becomes aware of his own artistic stagnation.

 

louise douglas your beautiful liesLouise Douglas: Your Beautiful Lies

Set against the backdrop of the miners’ strikes in Yorkshire in the 1980s, this is the story of Annie, a woman who is feeling trapped in a very correct but rather dry marriage of convenience, which has provided her with a comfortable lifestyle but has also isolated her from the rest of the community. When her old boyfriend (who had been convicted of manslaughter) is released from prison and shows up on her doorstep, trying to protest his innocence, she is at first reluctant to engage with him. But then she unravels rather spectacularly and becomes very reckless indeed… This book has an old-fashioned feel about it, as if it were set in the 1950s rather than the 1980s, and I struggled to empathise with Annie.

And, just in case you thought that only women can write about marriage, here is the most depressing one of all, written by a man but from a woman’s perspective.

scelleplombeMaxime-Olivier Moutier: Scellé plombé

The title roughly translates as ‘sealed with lead’, which was apparently an old method for food preservation – until the poisonous qualities of lead were discovered. This hints at the poisonous conjugal relationship and what an odd, unsettling story it is. The husband is struck by lightning on a golf course and is buried by his wife and children in secret.  Told entirely from the point of view of the wife, but addressed to her husband in a tone designed to humiliate and provoke, we then discover the story of their marriage, the rising ennui, the many daily cruelties and sarcasms, the lack of communication, the secret lives each partner found refuge in. A chilling disregard for the children emerges from this novel: it appears it’s not the marriage, but the hearts themselves which have turned to lead.

 

Finally, I almost hesitate to include Ann Patchett’s ‘This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage’ in this post, not because of the word ‘happy’ in the title, but because this collection of essays is about so much more than marriage: it is about creativity, travelling, a beloved dog, a burgeoning interest in opera music, family, friendships and, above all, writing. It also talks about the author’s first marriage and divorce, which led to many years of avoiding commitment to her second husband. In her characteristic clear-eyed, fluid style, she describes the compassion and understanding that she developed for all women who suffered in their marriages, whether they were able to get away from them or not.

www.annpatchett.com
http://www.annpatchett.com

My mother had divorced my father when I was four. Two years later she remarried. My mother and stepfather spent the next twenty years trying to decide whether or not they should stay together. While growing up I had never faulted her for the divorce, but I hated what I thought was her weakness. My mother didn’t want to be wrong a second time. She wanted to believe in a person’s ability to change, and so she went back and back, every resolution broken by some long talk they had that made things suddenly clear for a while. I wanted her to make her decision and stick to it. In or out, I ultimately didn’t care, just make up your mind. But the mind isn’t so easily made up. My mother used to say the more lost you are, the later it got, the more you had invested in not being lost. That’s why people who are lost so often keep heading in the same direction. It took my own divorce to really understand… I understood how we long to believe in goodness, especially in the person we promised to love and honor. It isn’t just about them, it is how we want to see ourselves…