Saturday, July 31, 2010

St. Aubyn adds another chapter to the harrowing story of Patrick Melrose

Having enjoyed Some Hope, St. Aubyn’s trilogy of abuse and recovery, I was eager to see what this follow-up novel would offer. The story concerns Patrick Melrose yet again, but now he is the husband-father in a family of his own. Here the usual brutal relations of family life are writ large, and, what is more, St. Aubyn makes us care deeply about the structure of family itself.

Mother’s Milk

Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk (235 pages, Open City Books, $14) takes up with Patrick Melrose some twenty years after the close of Some Hope. We left Patrick there in tentative recovery, with the hope that he might be able to put his life back together.

In Mother’s Milk, we see that he has made a lot of his life. He has a wonderful wife, Mary, and two amazing sons, Robert and Thomas. When the novel opens, in fact, we are swept into young Robert’s five-year old mental world, as he recalls what it was like to be born. This in itself would be a fictional tour-de-force, but because we are reading St. Aubyn, that almost miraculous recreation of the past also serves to delineate both the jealousy and the hatred Robert feels for his infant brother Thomas, now that Thomas has displaced him in his adored mother’s affection.

We follow the family through successive August holidays, first in the house in southern France, which also figured in Some Hope. Patrick imagined that he would inherit the house from his often frustrating and distant mother, but true to form, and true to the family tradition if disinheritance, she has decided to leave the house to the perfect sham of an Irish shaman, who has persuaded her that he has guided her onto another plane.

Patrick is raging—he rages through most of the novel—with how unfair this is, and he makes this known to both his mother and to Seamus, the shaman that he thinks has duped her. This does nothing to alter his mother’s decision, and among poor Patrick’s frustrations is his having to negotiate the transfer of property.
As summers tick by, the house gradually does change hands; Patrick starts drinking again—or perhaps it’s just that he intensifies the drinking that he has been doing all along—and he takes a mistress. Why should he not, he reasons to himself, when his wife remains so preoccupied with her youngest son.

As the story slowly disinherits Patrick from his birthright, we also watch the family grow. Robert is a wonderful character, and we readers can be forgiven for hoping that we will be treated more and more frequently to his uncannily penetrating understanding of the world, and of family relations.

Thomas is also a wonderful character, also wittier and more verbal that his tiny number of years would suggest, and we follow him with glee as he dashes for traffic or hurls himself from the top of a dangerous sliding board. St. Aubyn is nothing less than brilliant with these young boys, and I could read about them forever.

The true revelation here, however, is Patrick’s wife Mary. What an impressive fictional creation she is. A former loner who entered family life reluctantly now functions as the center of everything. St. Aubyn seems to understand how she feels: about her husband, about her sons, and about the exigencies of family life. She seems to take everything in her stride, but she also keeps them all together.
Once they have lost their wonderful house in Saint Nazaire, the family tries a holiday in America. St. Aubyn has fun recording the family’s shock at American values, and after one horrifying encounter with American jingoism too many—to say nothing of the overstuffed locals, bad food, and faceless freeway culture—they flee back to London, where life is at least dense in a way they understand.

Among the other strains on poor Patrick, who seems at one point on the verge of drinking himself to death, is the slow decay of his increasingly tormenting mother. All she seems to do is hurt him, but as she slips into dementia and physical decay, he finds he has no alternative but to care for her. At a certain point, that care seems to imply that he will help her with a suicidal wish, and that consumes him as the novel draws to a close.

I first thought that I couldn’t stand to watch Patrick slip back into the cavern of inebriation, but St. Aubyn portrays Patrick’s moods—from his rage at Seamus, to his desire for a girl on the beach, to his need for a cigar, and his frustrations about his wife or his mother—so vividly with such care, that they are hard to resist.
Even more amazingly, he creates a family here; but it is a family composed of all these fully realized members. Of course there is tension and discord as they find themselves trapped alone with nothing but their own resources to sustain them, but St. Aubyn makes us care that they survive and that they remain together.

Edward St Aubyn

Mother's Milk available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Wilkie Collins’s Victorian thriller still makes engaging reading.

I was at Heathrow Airport and Penguin Classics were two for one at W.H. Smith. I got my partner Oliver Twist, which he had been trying to read on his i-phone, and I got Wilkie Collins classic. I needed something to amuse me all the way back to California, and I certainly made the right choice.

The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins classic of Victorian “sensation” fiction first appeared in 1860; but The Woman in White (672 pages, Penguin, $9) is such a classic that I do not think it has been out of print since it first appeared in weekly installments in Charles Dickens’s periodical All the Year Round. It is an absolutely riveting tale, and Collins uses an inventive narrative technique to bring his readers closer to the story. Different narrators are used, across the spectrum, from such types as a family lawyer and the eccentric lord of the manor, to illiterate maidservants and others who know very little. But each narrator tells a crucial bit of the story; and in the end the composite is thrilling.

The story tells of a vicious plot to deprive a young heiress of her rightful inheritance. We first hear about the girl, Laura Fairlie, from the perspective of the handsome young art instructor Walter Hartright. Walter has gone to the home of Laura and her half-sister Marian Halcombe as their art instructor. Though invited by their eccentric uncle, who is also their guardian, Walter finds him an impossible hypochondriac who is quite happy to leave him alone with the girls.

Walter finds himself deeply engaged on two levels. Laura is a beautiful willowy blond, and he finds that her drawing talents are considerable. They find themselves spending more and more time together, and before long it seems that they have fallen in love. Marian, Laura’s sister, does not share her beauty, but she is deeply intelligent and even masculine in her direct approach to things. When she sees that her two companions have fallen in love, she takes steps to separate them. She does this to protect them both. Laura, it seems, was engaged to a local aristocrat before her father’s death. Even more to the point, however, is Marian’s observation that Walter is not of a station to be able to make a claim on Laura, who is herself the heiress of Limmeridge House and her father’s great wealth.

Walter takes Marian seriously and leaves Limmeridge. To salve his wounds he decides to travel in Central America. While he pursues his travels and risks his life because of disappointed hopes, Marian’s journal provides the narration of what happens after Walter's departure. Sir Percival Glyde makes his appearance and claims Laura as his own. A dashing middle-aged baronet, he is as suave as they come; but Marian suspects that he might have a mean streak. Laura and Marian are confused about how to approach him, and Laura feels that it would be wrong to marry him while she loves Walter. Still, she cannot bring herself to break the engagement, but she imagines that he will do so when she tells him the truth. Of course, since we already suspect that he is marrying her for her fortune, his insistence that they marry anyway comes as no surprise.

After the marriage, when the couple moves to Sir Percival’s house at Blackwater, Marian goes to live with them. No sooner does she arrive than the other house guests make their appearance: the Italian Count Fasco and his wife, who happens to be Laura’s aunt. The Count is a vivid character, and also a forbidding one, and before long it is clear that Sir Percival and the Count are conniving together to deprive Laura of her inheritance.

Into this maelstrom of bad feeling, Collins introduces the quasi-supernatural in the form of a woman in white, who seems to have escaped from an insane asylum, but who comments tellingly on the central movements of the plot. She is desperate to keep Laura from marrying Sir Percival, and after they are married she tries to give Laura the means of escaping him.

As the plot develops, and Laura seems to be easily victimized, Walter returns from his travels, and he and Marian plot to challenge the two villains and gain for Laura what was rightfully hers. The later sections of the novel are harrowing in their depiction of espionage and deception on the dark streets of London. Characters who are hidden are always found, and the darkest secrets are always revealed. I won’t tell the ending, but I will say that it is not disappointing. Instead, this thriller stays thrilling until its final page.

Wilkie Collins

Pick up a copy at Vroman's, Powell's or Amazon.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Jamie Ford relives internment and its hideous consequences.

This novel about conflict in the Seattle Asian community during World War II received strong reviews. That was enough to get me to put it on the Kindle for my trip to England. It was great to have while traveling.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford, himself an Asian-American writer living in Seattle, has constructed a compelling account of Asian life in Seattle during the internment years, 1942-1945. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (320 pages, Ballantine, $15) is set in two time periods. It tells the story of a young Chinese American, the son of immigrants, who came of age in Seattle during the 1940s. Henry Lee’s father is deeply political and his hatred of the Japanese, who had been at war with China well before WWII, is beyond discussion. Henry’s mother defers to her husband in these matters as well. Imagine their distress, then, when Henry falls for the young Keiko Okabe, a second generation Japanese American, when they first meet while working on the cafeteria line in their junior high.

Henry and Keiko become great friends, and as they bond over the jazz music that Henry loves, they also experience a sense of foreboding at the mood of the country as the war with Japan deepens. Henry dreads to tell his parents about Keiko; and when he does, his father does all but disown him. As Keiko and her (really delightful) family are sent off to internment, Henry is distraught, and he does everything but spirit her away, even as his father becomes more and more overbearing.

These scenes are interwoven with scenes of Henry in the mid 1980s. His wife Ethel has recently died, and he finds himself remembering Keiko and that time before interment. These memories are especially intense when Henry discovers, in the forty-five year old boxes that are uncovered in a long-boarded up hotel in the Japanese district, an old jazz record that he and Keiko had shared. The record brings back details of their young love, and the ways in which it involved a local black saxophone player whom Henry befriended.

As the scenes in the 1940s intensify, Keiko and her family are interned, first in a local campsite near Seattle and later in a new camp that they helped to build in Idaho. Henry visits Keiko, and they have some very touching scenes together, but eventually the war pulls them apart and they lose touch before it ends.
While writing his unrequited missives to Keiko, Henry meets another girl who helps him to overcome his sense of loss. Ethel is from another Chinese family, and Henry’s parents are delighted with his choice this time.

Meanwhile the Henry of the 1980s is confused about whether to tell his only son, Marty, about this earlier love affair. When Marty turns up with a great new girlfriend, Samantha, though, Henry gets up his nerve. Marty and Samantha encourage him in these memories and even urge him to seek out the woman he remembers.

Ford tells of the real pain of internment, even as he paints a portrait of what happened to Seattle during those years. He also makes us feel the painful regret and eventual hope that the hero experiences. It makes a wonderful story.

Jamie Ford

Available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sebastian Faulks offers his diagnosis for contemporary British culture.

I was delighted to see that Sebastian Faulks had a new novel out, and I have read it with pleasure. It is a deep and entertaining analysis of a culture in a malaise.

A Week in December

Sebastian Faulks new novel, A Week in December (400 pages, Doubleday, $27.95) is a wonderful analysis of twenty-first-century culture in England. By crafting a novel with several different central characters, and by taking us deep into their conscious—and unconscious—thoughts, he offers his own diagnosis of what is wrong in the modern world.

The key to the puzzle of contemporary life, at least as this novel seems to suggest, is the utterly amoral hedge fund manager, a man who is wealthy beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, who actually enjoys manipulating international funds so that governments are brought down, pensioners are left high and dry, and entire African countries are rendered bankrupt. It is not so much that this character, John Veals, takes pleasure in these “side-effects” of his monetary manipulation; rather, he cares deeply only about making money, and he has no moral compass to shape his decisions or cause him to hesitate when the effects are particularly devastating. He wants only to succeed. Because success brings him so little pleasure, though, he finds that he has to make larger and more breathtaking moves. The world of hedge funds, and stocks, by implication, are all working on the same set of values, and that begins to explain how the recent depression had such a painful social effect.
At the other end of the social scale, a near-penniless barrister, Gregory Northwood, and a black underground train driver, Jenni Fortune, meet on account of a case that is brought against the underground, and their tentative relationship offers a beacon of hope in this corrupted world.

Gregory is reading the Koran because he wants to understand the Arab perspective. As we watch him react to the sacred book, we also watch the young Hassan, son of a Scottish-Pakistani lime pickle magnate who is set to receive an OBE from the Queen. The award, the Order of the British Empire, is awarded to prominent civilians and military officers as well. Hassan's father is thrilled to be appearing before the Queen, but Hassan is young and directionless, and holds his father's enthusiams in contempt. He is drawn into a terrorist cell, where he is asked to help with the construction of bombs that he and others will detonate in a psychiatric hospital.

Among the female characters, there is Vanessa, who is the wife of John Veals. She spends most of her time in an alcohol-induced calm, but both her daughter, who spends almost every night on sleepovers with friends, and her son, who is pushing himself over the edge with stronger and stronger doses of “skunk,” or high-powered marijuana, are desperate for some parental attention. John Veals barely recognizes that they exist, but Vanessa learns just how much is at risk.

Hassan’s mother is also a wonderful character. The wife of the lime pickle magnate, she recognizes that there is something wrong with her son. As he studies religion more and more exclusively, she tries to explain a more healthy approach to belief. He rejects her utterly, but later, at the moment of truth for the would-be suicide bomber, his mother is one of the women he thinks about.

The other woman who enters his mind is Shalala. She is also an Arab girl, and she is completing a Ph.D. in literary studies. She is in love with Hassan, but she can’t quite figure out what is happening to him. Her willingness to listen is one of the things that saves Hassan at the end.

This is a beautiful analysis of contemporary culture. I hope everyone will read it!

Sebastian Faulks

Available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Elizabeth George imagines new challenges for Linley and Havers.

I am a fan of Elizabeth George’s British detective series, and the latest installment is a fine achievement. Setting her tale in the New Forest area of Hampshire, in England, George creates a complex and compelling detective story.

This Body of Death: An Inspector Linley novel

Elizabeth George’s This Body of Death (704 pages, Harper-Collins, $28) finds her suave, aristocratic detective inspector, Thomas Linley, still alienated and grieving over his wife’s death. Isabel Ardery, the new, “acting” Detective Superintendent, realizes that Linley is on the mind of everyone in the unit, including, especially perhaps, his former partner, the indefatigable, and badly dressed, Barbara Havers.

Ardery decides that if she is going to succeed to win the permanent position as superintendent, which she openly covets, she needs Linley’s help. She invites him back to help with a specific case, and he quickly finds himself deeply involved once again. No sooner does he do so, however, than he discovers that Isabel Ardery is something of a drunk. She slips airline-size vodka bottles into her purse, and she knocks one or two (or three) back whenever the stress gets too much for her. After a few of these extended trips to the ladies’ room, and the strong smell of cover-up mints, Tommy, as Linley is known to his friends, realizes what is going on. When he confronts her, she is all denial; but it's not long before her behavior gets the better of her, and Tommy is throwing her, fully-clothed, into the shower to help her try to sober up.

While all this is going on, Havers looks on from a distance and suspects that something sexual might have transpired between these two attractive figures. She is right in that assumption, but it does not devastate her as much as it might have in earlier times, when her crush on Linley was almost paralyzingly strong. She has other interests herself, and the middle-aged father of a young South Asian girl who has befriended her, starts to offer her a clear and more realistic alternative.

While these personal lives are unfolding, the team is facing a gruesome murder case. A young woman was brutally murdered—her throat was slashed—in a cemetery in London, and Ardery’s first challenge is to find the murderer. In true Elizabeth George fashion, the case is crowded with characters, and because the victim had recently moved from Hampshire, in the area of the New Forest, much of the action of the novel takes place down there.

The victim had been involved with a handsome and rugged youngish thatcher—the person who puts thatch on all those stone and timber houses—whom she left abruptly for no apparent reason. Once in London, she had taken up with another guy (or two), but the thatcher, Gordon Josee, still made attempts to reach her.

As the case develops, Ardery decides that London is more important than Hampshire, and she drags everyone back to London, including Havers and her partner Winston Nkata. Havers’ instinct is that this is the wrong move, and she is openly defiant of her new boss. Linley sympathizes with Havers, but he thinks she needs to obey orders.

These tensions deepen, and Ardery starts a new tragic-pursuit of a subject who turns out not to be the murderer. George is recounting a chilling tale of three young boys who, sometime in the nineteen-nineties, were found guilty of the wanton abduction and murder of a young London toddler. This account, written in the voice of a sociological historian, is utterly riveting, but it is hard at first to figure out what it has to do with the already convoluted main plot.

Elizabeth George brings it all together beautifully, and the ending is in some ways more satisfying than one could imagine even ten pages before it. I have nothing but praise for this sophisticated mystery writer, and I am delighted to say that she has left things so that we can look forward to more Inspector Linley novels!

Elizabeth George

Pick up a copy at Vroman's, Powell's or Amazon.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Alan Furst tells a tale of espionage in the Balkins early in WWII.

Alan Furst has written a wonderful series of novels set in the Second World War. His latest is no exception.

Spies of the Balkans

Alan Furst’s latest novel, Spies of the Balkans (268 pages, Random House, $26) is set in Greece. World War II has just begun, but so far Greece has managed to stay out of the fray. Furst tells the story of those years.

Constantine Zannis—Costa to his friends—has an important diplomatic job in the police force. He handles, often in secret, all the most difficult political cases. Because of his position and his international circle of friends, he finds himself bemired in wartime espionage.

In the first place, this means offering his aid in a mission to help various endangered German Jews out of Germany, through Austria, Yugoslavia, and Greece on the way to Turkey. He gets involved in the last phase of this escape, but he also attempts to refine the process on the basis of the reports that he gathers after each escape.

In addition, Zannis has his ear tuned to the military situation as well, and when all the reservists are mobilized, he proceeds to a village in the northern mountains, where he establishes a communication base and deals with the effect of an Italian invasion.

With the help of British allies, the Greeks fight off the Italians and push into Albania, but everyone in the Greek administration is worried that Germany will get into the action. They feel that they have no chance in this case, and important figures in Greek society, like Zannis and his friends, are urged to flee with their families.

Zannis decides to stay, and in that position he gets a much closer look at the intricacies of wartime espionage. For one thing, his British friends, who turn out to be spies, force him on a near-suicidal mission to occupied Paris, where he is to pick up a downed British pilot, who is also a key scientist, and escort him back to Greece (and onto freedom). Furst is very good at creating the tension of such a project, and he makes truly harrowing what would otherwise be a simple train ride.

Furst is also very good at showing what happens to intimate relations when the world goes to war. When Zannis discovers that a woman with whom he was intimate was nothing but a foreign agent, he begins to doubt his ability to have a personal life at all.

Even worse, he finds he cannot sleep when he thinks about the poor refugees whom he is helping across the border. He worries about those who cannot get through. He does not know the full horror of the German treatment of the Jews, but he knows enough to understand that any failure can mean death to those who are caught by the Gestapo.

Alan Furst has written another powerful thriller. I look forward to his next one.

Alan Furst

Pick up a copy at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.