Two Very Different Holidays

It seems a bit unfair to feature these two books in the same blog post, as they couldn’t be more different if they tried. And yet… it’s not just because of time constraints that I am comparing and contrasting them. Both of these books are (at least partially) about people failing to understand another culture and being judged for it.

Stella Gibbons: The Swiss Summer was published in 1951 and already shows the desire for escapism of postwar British culture which culminated with Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Lucy Cottrell is observant, good-tempered and diplomatic, and at the age of 40+ she suddenly finds herself invited to a Swiss chalet for the summer. Although the people she gets to spend the summer with are not always the most compatible, she is nevertheless overcome by the beauty of the landscape and not at all put off by the Swiss over-reliance on tourism. She is, however, often embarrassed by the antics of her fellow countrymen, as spotted in some of the hotels and restaurants she visits.

It is a pity that they have to behave like that… because the Swiss do still like us, even though we have no money nowadays…

The entanglements (romantic and otherwise) of the people who visit the chalet over the course of the summer are amusing, and Lucy ties herself into knots trying not to lie but also not to reveal too much to the owner of the chalet back home in England. I haven’t read any Stella Gibbons other than Cold Comfort Farm, and there is none of that exuberant satire here. This is gentle fun, reminiscent in some ways of Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April, although without quite such a pleasing resolution. Above all, the descriptions of nature really resonated with me – it’s clear how much the author loved this area. Here Lucy is, unable to sleep on a full moon night.

The soft, sad, brilliant light poured into her eyes as she looked up towards the Jungfrau’s snows, which it blanched to unearthly whiteness; the waterfall spilled out of the radiance down into the vast shadow below the massif; the slopes by Murren were lost in rich brown mists. She looked down and saw patches of shut, colourless flowers scattered up the white slopes; she saw the dizzy precipices of the Monch muffled in motionless milky clouds, and the drifts of thinnest mist twisting and winding down over the highest ridges; they seemed to trail after them long wreaths of dimly glittering stars. There was silence except for the waterfall’s sound, and the air smelled of dew.

Olivia Sudjic: Asylum Road has only just come out, and is the first novel I’ve read by her. I heard her debut novel Sympathy garnered good reviews, but it was the subject matter that attracted me to this one: the heavy spectre of the Balkans and the possibilities of cultural misunderstandings. I understand that, although Sudjic is of Serbian descent, this is not based on her personal experience – she was born and raised in the UK as a third-generation immigrant and only experienced the Yugoslav war from a distance. This book also takes place over the course of a summer, although in three different locations: France, Cornwall and Croatia/Bosnia.

Nevertheless, I suspect that there is quite a bit of Olivia in her main protagonist, Anya, who was sent as a child to live with her aunt in Scotland to escape the war. Anya is engaged to the rather cool and distant Luke, who comes from a well-off and emotionally detached family with pro-Brexit tendencies. Although Luke proposes to her near the beginning of the book, their relationship is fraught with silence and resentment, and is utterly undone after their visit to Anya’s parents and old home in Sarajevo.

The war has obviously touched Anya’s family directly, but the book shows that you do not need to have experienced the trauma at first-hand to inherit its consequences. The inferiority complex that Anya seems to suffer in front of Luke and his family (while secretly despising or making fun of them) is something I have seen very frequently in East European migrants, including myself. This quote, for instance, struck such a chord:

Of the things I cared too much about then, one was appearing civilised. In ethical terms but also in aesthetic ones. I had read the right books, bought thrifted designer clothes, gained several degrees at elite institutions and, in Luke;s flat, arranged an elegant mise-en-scene that in fact held no emotional resonance. They were props, these objects I combed from life, smooth pebbles that had once been cliffs.

They meet Anya’s dead brother’s girlfriend, Mira, who, despite a successful career in publishing, is fed up with stagnation and pro-Putin posters in Belgrade, and wants to move abroad.

It’s only a shame, that’s all. To still be stuck talking about this. Even some of the publishing people I know say that we should move on, stop making art about it, they say we’re in paralysis, which is true, politically, economically, everything. That the worst books coming out of the Balkans are the ones still going on about war… But it seems impossible not to talk about it when these people, these revisionists, still exist, even if we’d prefer to forget it.

This made me smile, because it’s one of the conversations I often have with people about whether there is a tendency to ‘typecast’ a country’s literary output and only a particular type of book gets translated into English. For Croatia and Bosnia, it might be about the war, for Romania it seems to be about the Communist dictatorship in a terribly surreal or experimental or earnest prose etc. etc. Yet, at the same time, the attention span of the reading public in the West is very limited. I’ll never forget the American journalist who told me: ‘Can’t you people just draw a line under the past and look to the future?’

Yes, it is frustrating, yes, we do wish we could escape the burden of the past. ‘The past keeps intruding. We are sick to death of it.’ Anya says at one point. I like the way the author make the narrator ashamed of her family’s rhetoric, how she tries to tone down her emotions, how she endeavours to describe everything without melodrama or fuss. Underneath it all, there is a sense of disquiet, of tension building up… Better to be the crushed victim – or the destroyer doing the crushing? And if this carapace that Anya has carefully built around herself is no longer capable of protecting her – what price tearing it down and starting from scratch?

You have to admire the control with which Sudjic navigates the story of trauma, search for identity and breakdown, and the (not always physical) violence we wreak upon others and ourselves. Certainly not a comfortable read, but an accomplished one, with echoes of Penelope Mortimer and Leonora Carrington.

Unusual Books about Unhappy Childhood

Once again, by complete coincidence, my reading seems to have followed a pattern: powerful and often unhappy childhood memories which have cast long shadows onto the protagonists’ later lives. I generally avoid ‘misery memoirs’, as they feel almost voyeuristic to me, but these books each have a more unusual perspective on traumatic pasts.

Fiona Melrose: Midwinter

Midwinter is the time of year when the book takes place, but it is also the name of the father and son duo at the heart of this book. It is also about the icy coldness and lack of communication which seems to exist between the two. Landyn and Vale Midwinter are hardy and dour Suffolk farmers. Ten years ago Landyn had tried to save the family from financial ruin by moving them to a farm in Zambia. During their time there, his wife (Vale’s mother) was killed and the two returned home but have never fully come to grips with the tragedy. Vale starts to act up, with stupid and tragic consequences, but his father is unable to talk to him about it, in this fierce indictment  of the ‘stiff upper lip’ or manliness which refuses to talk about pain and grief. Meanwhile, Landyn is fascinated by a fox he sees in the neighbourhood, whom he associates with his dead wife. This is very reminiscent of the Japanese folk tales about kitsune, fox spirits, who shape shift into human form, and are typically the guardians and protectors of the family, as long as you do not try to delve too deeply into their secrets.

This is a slow, atmospheric read, designed to capture a farmer’s fierce love of the land and its creatures. There are some beautiful descriptive passages and sentences, polished like gemstones, but I can see how the overall effect could strike some readers as overloaded and cumbersome. I was enchanted by the book, despite its occasional repetitions. There is a timeless quality to it, you feel it could have taken place at any time over the past 100 years or so. Although very rooted in its local area, it reminded me in many ways of Michelle Bailat Jones’ Fog Island Mountainsright down to the fox spirit, the complex husband/wife dynamic, the difficulty in communicating with the next generation, the loving respect and careful observation of nature.

For additional, longer reviews of Midwinter, see Savidge Reads, Lonesome Reader and Alba in Bookland.

Edouard Louis: The End of Eddy (transl. Michael Lucey)

Undeniably grim and yet no worse than other ‘misery memoirs’ about neglected/abused children or real stories I’ve heard about growing up gay in Eastern Europe or the Middle East. The shocking thing is that it’s not taking place in the 1950s or in some developing country, but in France in the 1990s, early 2000s. The contradictory nature of his parents, the equal amounts of disdain for politics and yet yearning for authority that they display is perhaps the best description of the background of many Le Pen voters. Yet I have to agree with Emma that this feels like a very one-sided description of his childhood, that there must have been teachers and school authorities involved in helping him leave that miserable life behind. Nevertheless, it’s a more measured, dry, objective way of describing traumatic events than in some American memoirs of this type.

There were some fascinating similarities and differences with the film ‘Moonlight’, which also shows a perspective on what it means to grow up as a ‘double outsider’ in society, a perspective which is not often given a voice. Both show how violence (gun crime in the American perspective, brawling and fighting in the French perspective) is fetishised as ‘proof of manliness’. This book is as violent an indictment of working class values and prejudices, as Hervé Bazin’s Viper in the Fist is of Catholic rural bourgeois values.

For more thoughts on The End of Eddy, see Grant , Lonesome Reader and of course Emma’s outstanding review, which gives you the view from France (about the name Eddy Bellegueule, for instance).

Heather O’Neill: The Lonely Hearts Hotel

Suffolk, Zambia, Picardy and now Quebec: proof that childhood unhappiness, abuse and neglect can be universal. Unlike the more contemporary novels above, O’Neill’s story takes us back to the 1920s/1930s, with this tale of two orphans, Pierrot and Rose, who find temporary comfort and escape in each other and the magical world they create with their music, dance and entertainment.

A strange, unsettling, provocative tale, with moments of magical flights of fancy and the language of legends applied to the very grim and unvarnished reality of the Great Depression and trying to lighten the mood of this bleak story. I am still not quite sure what to think of it, as it seems to be rather uneven or a novel of parts. Initially the style seemed almost too plain and bare (describing the rape of a minor), then it became increasingly ornate, even baroque at times. I was enchanted by it in parts, repelled in others – which is what I think the author intended. I expected the story to end when Pierrot and Rose finally find each other again as grown-ups, but this is a book about the desire to escape into fairy-tale, not a fairy-tale as such, so it doesn’t end on a happily ever after.

Heather O’Neill is a poet of a writer who can seem to play around with words, always intriguing me but also punching me hard in the stomach. Despite the wistful waltzing around with imaginary bears, make no mistake: this book is just as hard-hitting as Lullabies for Little Criminals. But don’t believe the marketing hype – it has very little in common with The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, except that it defies easy categorisation.

It’s difficult to review this book coherently, but others have succeeded much better than me: Steph, the Literary Llama, Naomi Frisby.

 

Three British Crime Novels in a Row

This doesn’t often happen to me, but over the past 10 days I’ve read three British authors in a row (albeit with English, Welsh and Scottish roots, so a good attempt at some diversity). This is what comes of letting my children choose the next book for me to read on the tablet! They go by titles alone and, being at that zombie-loving age, of course they wanted something hinting at death or goriness. So I’ve read: Where the Dead Men Go, Someone Else’s Skin and Talking to the Dead.

Image from pcadvisor.com
Image from pcadvisor.com

Each excellent in its own way (never let it be said my boys don’t have good taste!)

It struck me that the first is very macho and masculine (gangland Glasgow, after all), the second is feminine (whatever that means; in this case it addresses issues such as domestic abuse and features a female lead detective), while the third is ambidextrous (written by a man, featuring a female detective… but one who displays very few traits which we might have been conditioned to label feminine).

LiamMcIlvanneyLiam McIlvanney: Where the Dead Men Go

It’s hard to make your mark in the Scottish crime writing landscape, crowded as it is with giants such as Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Denise Mina and William McIlvanney. The last of these is the father of Liam, so it is hard not to compare the two, especially since they both deal with gangs, tough guys and drugs in Glasgow. Yet the younger McIlvanney makes his own mark with this very topical, thrilling view of a Scotland on the brink of independence, getting ready to host the Commonwealth Games in 2014, and a newspaper industry on its last dying gasp. Reporter Gerry Conway is a lovely creation: morbidly curious, dogged in the pursuit of truth, yet also a loving and very involved father. When Gerry’s younger colleague goes missing and is later found dead, he’s left wondering just how shallow Glasgow’s veneer of modern respectability is. This is taut, muscular writing – not as philosophical or lyrical as McIlvanney Père, perhaps, but as dark and addictive as very strong coffee.

SarahHilarySarah Hilary: Someone Else’s Skin

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read Sarah Hilary’s shorter fiction: she really can write, but this accomplished debut novel proves that she is a long-distance runner as well as a sprinter. This novel skillfully handles a disturbing topic (domestic violence), and introduces a resourceful if rather troubled lead investigator, Marnie Rome. Her own parents were stabbed to death by their foster son five years earlier, so she has traumatic flashbacks when she witnesses a knife-attack at a women’s shelter. However, she is a successful, no-nonsense DI and swiftly gets down to business to get a reliable account of what happened from the other women at the shelter.  Meanwhile, she is also trying to convince a young Asian girl to give evidence against her brothers, who nearly succeeded in blinding her with bleach.

It’s a fast-moving plot, with plenty of unexpected twists to keep you on your toes, but where the story really comes alive for me is in its depiction of hidden suffering. How we can never really know what lies beneath the apparently calm surface of a house, a marriage, a family. How we can never really put ourselves into someone else’s skin. And how most of the women at the shelter where Marnie and her team conduct their investigation would ideally like to be somebody else, start a new life, but are not sure how.

TalkingtotheDeadHarry Bingham: Talking to the Dead

The first in the Fiona Griffiths series, introducing a very unusual, highly intelligent but socially not at all well-functioning heroine. (We later find out she suffers from an unusual form of post-traumatic stress disorder called Cotard’s Syndrome, but this is only hinted at in this book.) The crime itself and the investigation that follows are solid enough (and the child victim whose head is crushed by a Belfast sink is very affecting), but there is a feeling of déjà vu about the plot.  The final revelations about Fiona’s past did not catch me entirely by surprise, either, but the big plus of this book is the heroine herself. The author is onto a winner with her: she reminds me in so many ways of Saga Norén,  the ever so possibly autistic Swedish investigator in the recent series ‘The Bridge’. Despite her yearning to belong to ‘Planet Normal’, Fi is eccentric, rebellious, has a problem following orders and cannot really understand other people’s feelings (or her own). She does get herself into some very dangerous situations, almost implausibly so, but it all makes sense to her at the time. I am stunned at how well a sane male forty-something author can enter the mind of a young disturbed woman.

I also liked the secondary characters: Fi’s parents, her colleagues, her potential love interest, and the indomitable Lev (surely Ukrainian?).  I will certainly be reading more in this series simply to see what Fi does next.