Archive for June, 2011

The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates

June 30, 2011

Purchased at Chapters.ca

While this is the first Richard Yates’ book reviewed on this blog, it is certainly not the first that I have read. Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes introduced me to Yates a few years back (pre-blog) with an exceptional review of Revolutionary Road and I quickly dived into the back catalogue of this over-looked American author. Yes, his work is uneven, but I have enjoyed the journey and The Easter Parade is as good as it gets when you are looking for a first-class read.

It is worth noting that Yates is enjoying a deserved revival. Revolutionary Road was made into a not-very-good movie with top-flight stars (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) a couple years ago — even more important, the creators of the television hit, MadMen, apparently had all the cast read Revolutionary Road for context. MadMen (which is a favorite in the KfC video library) is, indeed, the up-dated, screen version of Yates’ fiction. After reading The Easter Parade, I would argue it is even more of an influence on the popular series than Revolutionary Road was.

Yates was born in 1926 and the strength of his fiction is his portrayal of Americans who came to maturity in the post-war years, as he himself did. Their adolesence was dominated by the Great Depression, their coming-of-age obscured by WWII and their early adult years pre-occupied with finding a niche in the world of post-war recovery.

Easter Parade has elements of all those themes, but its carefully-controlled focus adds even more to its value: how did young women cope with these challenges? The two central characters are the Grimes sisters, Sarah (born in 1921) and Emily (1925), and the over-arching story line is about how each struggles to find a path in the ever-changing American world of that era.

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce. That happened in 1930, when Sarah was nine years old and Emily five. Their mother, who encouraged both girls to call her “Pookie”, took them out of New York to a rented house in Tenafly, New Jersey, where she thought the schools would be better and where she hoped to launch a career in suburban real estate. It didn’t work out — very few of her plans for independence ever did — and they left Tenafly after two years, but it was a memorable time for the girls.

Anybody who has read Yates knows that the alcoholic, unsuccessful mother is a constant presence in his fiction and you have to accept that if you read him. Having said that, he uses it (and one can only assume it reflects his own history) as a staging device, not a central theme. Certainly that is the way that it plays out in this novel.

Sarah will become the secondary, dull version of the two in this book (that doesn’t make her story any less important), but let’s deal with her first. Her response to the constant change around her is to grasp at some version of stability. Pookie’s lifestyle means frequent moves for her daughters as they grow up — here’s the way Yates portrays the sisters as Sarah enters adulthood:

There was another town after Bradley, and then still another; in the last town Sarah graduated from high school with no particular plans for college, which her parents couldn’t have afforded anyway. Her teeth were straight now and the braces had come off; she seemed never to sweat at all, and she had a lovely full-breasted figure that made men turn around on the street and made Emily weak with envy. Emily’s own teeth were still slightly buck and would never be corrected (her mother had forgotten her promise); she was tall and thin and small in the chest. “You have a coltish grace, dear,” her mother assured her. “You’ll be very attractive.”

Sarah opts for the marriage/motherhood option and marries Tony Wilson, an English public school product, who labors in an aircraft plant on Long Island, never advancing beyond the foreman stage because he doesn’t have the education that has become the ticket to promotion. One of his responses to his frustration is that he beats his wife — her need for stability and confirmation of the path she has chosen requires that she find ways to avoid confronting this abuse.

Emily, meanwhile, wins a scholarship to Barnard and embarks on a life that, a few decades later, will emerge as a pattern for the feminist movement. She’s smart and she’s independent — she is also more interested in exploring opportunities with men than in reaching the kind of blindless commitment that her sister has chosen. Given her family history with alcohol, it plays an important part in all those relationships. Emily falls into them easily — she becomes frustrated even more easily and quickly establishes a pattern of falling out of love ever bit as quickly as she falls into it.

That conceit gives Yates the palette to explore what is happening in the world around these sisters. Emily’s “committed” lovers include a poet who gets a two-year fellowship at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a senior counsel at a major New York chemical firm among others — Emily’s job in the ad business and the lovers’ careers serve as platforms for the author’s observations on what is happening in the “bigger” world at the time. None of this is relevant to Emily, as she is too busy discovering how the man of the time is inadequate. Here’s how Yates introduces her affair with a client, the legal counsel at National Carbon, a company that has invented Tynol, a fabric that “seemed almost certain to revolutionize the fabric industry — think what nylon did!”

Howard Dunninger filled her life. He was as appealing as Jack Flanders [the poet], with none of Jack’s terrible dependency; he seemed to make as few demands on her as Michael Hogan [another former lover from the public relations industry]; and when she sought comparisons for the way he made her feel in bed, night after night, she had to go all the way back to Lars Erickson [Emily's first sexually-accomplished lover].

After the first few weeks they stopped using his apartment — he said he didn’t want to be constantly reminded of his wife — and started using hers. That made it easier for her to get to work on time in the morning, and there was another, subtler advantage: when she was a guest in his place there seemed to be a tentative, temporary quality to the thing; when he came to hers it implied a greater commitment. Or did it? The more she thought about this the more she realized that the argument might easily be reversed: when he was the visitor he could always get up and go away.

We know from the start of this novel that neither Sarah nor Emily will have a happy life — the power of the book is the way that it captures two very different paths to unhappiness. We are now far enough removed from the end of WWII that we know the Western world went through an eruption of change. What we perhaps don’t appreciate is how that change complicated the lives of the bit players who were at the centre of the hurricane, people like Sarah and Emily. Easter Parade was written in 1976 so we have had more than three decades since to refine our impressions — in reading this book, it is amazing how accurate Yates was in capturing some of those pressures.

I would argue that the popularity of MadMen illustrates that there is a continuing interest in just what life was like for young adults in the post-1945 age (most of the central cast on the show are of the same generation as the Grimes’ sisters, although they are entering their middle-age, high-earning years in the present tense of the show). Yates was interested in the world that produced that generation — The Easter Parade, like Revolutionary Road, is a vital contribution to that chronicle. Well-written, with fully-developed characters, it captures an era — what more can a reader ask from a novel?

The Modern Monarchs: Prince William and Catherine Come to Canada — a Mrs. KfC Guest Post

June 27, 2011

The eyes of the world will be on Canada from June 30 to July 8, as the dazzling royal newlyweds, Prince William and Catherine Middleton — the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, make their first royal tour to Canada. Hundreds of members of the press from around the world are accredited to follow the tour, ensuring that every minute of the Cambridge’s Commonwealth coming out party, will be recorded and scrutinized.

There will be the inevitable comparisons to the first Canadian tour by William’s parents in 1983. Tens of thousands of Canadians turned out at every stop of that tour, and at every event the mania for the young and glamorous Princess Diana overwhelmed the interest in her stodgy husband, Prince Charles, to his considerable dismay. There will also be comparisons to the return visit in 2009 by Prince Charles and his long time mistress – now wife – Camilla Parker Bowles. The tour was a flop by any measure, as Canadians stayed away in droves and the dour duo played to almost empty venues wherever they went. A poll conducted at the time of their arrival in Canada showed that most Canadians were apathetic about the monarchy, and thought Charles was out of step with modern times.

So, this is a high stakes trip for William and Catherine, with great hopes for the future of the monarchy resting on their young shoulders. How will they handle it?

To get a sense of who they are, and how they respond to pressure, it is instructive to read the recently published biographies of each.

William and Harry: Behind the Palace Walls by Katie Nicholl was published in 2010 and is a surprisingly candid and interesting account of the lives of the two royal princes, focusing primarily on the years after their mother died. It documents the struggle each of them has had to try to deal with the chains of destiny that bind them and their desperate, if different, ways of seeking some degree of normalcy.

For William, the love and support of his grandmother, The Queen, is a key factor in his ability to understand and deal with the burden that never leaves him. This book portrays a touching relationship between the two and details the light touch the Queen employs in mentoring him for the job which will be his, hopefully in a very long time.

It is also clear that William and Harry are very close and rely on each other as only they can understand the dysfunction and sadness they witnessed as their parents’ marriage was disintegrating during their formative years. Prince Charles comes off as a very loving father who supports his sons and tries hard to prepare them both for the lives which await them.

Katie Nicholl does an excellent job highlighting the difference between William and Harry. While William, the Heir, is intelligent studious and responsible, Harry, the Spare, can afford to be reckless, risk-taking and raunchy, following in the steps of other recent Spares, Princess Margaret and Prince Andrew. It is when Harry finds his calling in the military that he begins to shine and, by all accounts, his tour of duty in Afghanistan was the making of the man. His fond hope is to be a career military man, in the full sense, deploying with his lads wherever that may take him.

In the short two months since his marriage, William has taken on a series of high profile royal engagements with Catherine, and seems to be growing in to his royal role. That said, he and Catherine desperately want to live as normally as possible for as long as possible before they are locked in their gilded cage. The Queen has given him permission to keep his search and rescue job in Angelsey, Wales, until 2013, and undertake only a minimum of royal duties as long as he is gainfully employed.

kate — Kate Middleton: Princess in Waiting by Claudia Joseph is an interesting read, but not nearly as detailed as the Nicholl book. This volume was published in 2009, fully a year before Catherine became engaged to William. In the early chapters, the author gives a detailed history of Catherine’s ancestors on both sides of the family and, to this reader, it falls under the category of “so what?”

Much more interesting is the description of Carole Middleton, the original mompreneur, who started a home-based business when her children were little and needed her attention and grew it into a hugely successful mail order business in the UK and abroad. While she started her career as a stewardess (aka flight attendant) in the early 70’s and had no formal business training, she identified a niche, and figured out how to fill it successfully, all the while raising a close knit and loving family. The British upper classes used to make snide references to Carole, muttering “doors to manual” – a reference to her airline job- but now are falling over themselves to snare Carole and Michael Middleton as guests at their posh dinner tables.

The Middleton family is painted in this book as extraordinarily close, authentic and grounded. Once Prince William and Catherine became an item, he spent as much time as he could with the family, seeing for the first time normal loving people living normal lives. He couldn’t get enough of it.

The book becomes very frustrating once it begins to focus on Catherine and her life from the time she enrolls at St Andrews. While it is just a series of stories from the tabloids (they are together, they are breaking up, no wait: they are together, will he propose?, will he not?, etc. etc.), on reflection, it does give one a sense of who Catherine is. From the time it was clear that they were a couple in 2002, she has had to endure nothing but gossip and speculation in the tabloids, not to mention criticism of herself and her family. Over the course of eight solid years of that, she never once lost her cool, or lost her nerve for the relationship. There was no tittle tattle coming from her friends, and she appears to be universally liked and respected.

When she was at school, her friends experimented with drugs and a lot of alcohol, and although she never indulged, she did keep a watch out for authorities so her friends didn’t get in trouble. In this age of instant celebrities and checkbook journalism, it is remarkable that there is no skeleton in her cupboard, and that no one has anything but good things to say about Catherine. Her set, known as the glossy posse, are loyal and true, which says a lot about who she is.

Andrew Morton couldn’t wait to cash in on this story and published William and Catherine: Their Story right after the wedding. While we all thought Morton was an accomplished royals watcher and investigative journalist in the 1980’s with the publication of Diana: Her True Story, we now know that he was just a stenographer, transcribing the tapes provided by Princess Diana to counter the stories being put out by Prince Charles and his set portraying her as bonkers, so he could go on bonking Camilla. Morton was Diana’s dupe, and he made a reputation and a lot of money from it before we cottoned on to that fact. His new book is not for buying – there is nothing in it that hasn’t been printed elsewhere, and it is full of pictures, large ones, including 23 pictures of the wedding, all of which we have seen numerous times before.

Robin Nunn was ready to cash in on the Cambridges as well, publishing William and Kate: Celebrating a Royal Engagement right after the engagement was announced. Clearly, he (she?) had this book ready to go at the drop of a ring and there is nothing new in it either. The pictures are all previously seen and very large to justify the cost of the hard cover volume.

The publication of these type of books feels eerily familiar to the rash of books, magazines and related paraphernalia that burst out when the world became obsessed with Princess Diana in 1980. Here we go again, perhaps.

So now we wait and see how this royal tour plays out. There is a long history of royal tours in Canada. George VI and the Queen Mother came here in 1939, and the Queen spontaneously broke from the schedule and invented the walkabout, which has become a feature of royal trips ever since. Prince Charles has been here 16 times in all, the Queen has been here 22 times, while various other Royal odds and sods have been here over the years.

There is a lurking danger with this tour – that it will be too successful. The Queen has convened a “Way Forward Group” consisting of senior royals and senior palace staff. The mission of the group is to ensure that the monarchy endures. The Group was alarmed in 2009 when Charles and Camilla visited Canada and there was no visible response to them. There has been growing republican sentiment in Australia and there is really no appetite in most of the commonwealth for Charles to ascend the throne.

The monarchy depends on the support of its subjects, and while the British aristos fall in behind Charles and his odious second wife, mutterings of skipping Charles persist and could grow much louder with the growing popularity of this modern and exciting couple. Both William and Catherine would be horrified to have to take on the top job a minute sooner than is the normal course of succession.

Stay tuned….

Mennonites Don’t Dance, by Darcie Friesen Hossack

June 23, 2011

Review copy courtesy WordFest, Calgary

I was born and raised in Kitchener, Ontario, the home of central Canada’s Mennonite and Amish country, it’s claim to fame long before the Kitchener-Waterloo area became famous for Research in Motion and the Blackberry. Growing up in K-W a half century ago meant Saturday visits to the market and the Mennonite stalls there — free slivers of cheeses (Colby was my favorite), cherries, peaches, plums and pears in the summer (I was tasked with taking the baskets back to the car while Mom completed the shopping) and chunks of homemade summer sausage fresh from the “sock” that I remember to this day. And a welcome supper of pig-tails (I kid you not) in spicy tomato sauce. We won’t even mention the sweet pastries that completed the meal (don’t say “strudel”, whatever you do!).

I am pretty sure that I have Mennonite blood in my heritage, although neither of my parents went out of their way to point that out. I do know that when we took Sunday drives into the surrounding farming country we passed many a church like that pictured here — dozens of buggies and not a single car dominating the “parking” lot and none of us in the car thought that was the least bit strange. (You would find the same picture today, I must say.)

The Mennonites in the area of my childhood rejected all technological devices — no cars, phones, tractors or machines of any kind. As for radio and television, forget it — even “dance” was forbidden. In the 50 years since, parts of the faith have split off and accepted at least parts of the modern world. I have a number of Mennonite friends whom I would classify as “closet lefties” — they are quite happy accepting technology, but remain true to the history of their faith in a commitment to helping the developing world and a devotion to pacifism that I happen to share.

All of that is a way of backing into a discussion of a “Mennonite” book. Canada has more than one author with a Mennonite background — Darcie Friesen Hossack, with this debut story collection, joins Miriam Toews and David Bergen in the ranks of Canadians writers who grew up Mennonite. Like both Toews and Bergen, she comes from the harsher, repressive side of the faith (particularly as it relates to daughters, I must say) and that shows in this collection. Friesen Hossack’s Mennonites are in transition — especially the younger, female generation — and they are not really comfortable with it. Their parents, needless to say, have an even bigger problem. That theme, along with another that is every bit as prominent — mothers and maturing daughters — makes this collection an intriguing study of the pressures of change that are present in modern North American society (if you will, it is similar to that portrayed in Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories, only these ones have a few more generations of North American history behind them).

Let’s consider the title story of the volume, “Mennonites Don’t Dance”, at 40 pages the longest (and, for this reader, most accomplished) in the book. Lizbeth is 13, a soon-to-be-adult daughter in a large Mennonite family in Saskatchewan. The first four sons were named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in order — Paul followed and the daughters are Mary, Ruth and Lizbeth (that naming error perhaps marks her) so we know the ritual commitment to the Bible runs strong in Ma and Pa. Here’s how the author introduces us to Lizbeth:

If she’d had her way, Lizbeth would’ve hitched a ride into town that morning with her father and two of her brothers. Even though all they planned to do there was buy two more cartons of grapefruit and maybe argue down the price of a reconditioned tractor.

Lizbeth would’ve given her left braid to get near a little civilization, even if it was only Swift Current. From the tractor yard she could watch people as they walked along the sidewalk. Imagine they were going to the mall or a matinee. More than anything, Lizbeth wanted to go to a matinee.

She was a bother in the kitchen, anyway. But because hundreds of years of Mennonite tradition weren’t about to give her a day off to indulge in some civilization, she swaddled herself in an apron first thing every morning, just like her mother and sisters. Sisters who, unlike Lizbeth, never thought of running to the edge of their village to see whether they’d fall off a precipice. Straight into the real world.

The defining event in Lizbeth’s life happens only days later when her favorite brother, John, is murdered by the neighbor’s sons in a semi-religious outrage. Lizbeth cannot accept the way her parents forgive the parents of the killer — it begins the process that, as the story unfolds, leads to her marriage to a non-Mennonite and the tensions (and humanity) that that exposes.

Without giving anything away, let’s also reveal the passage that produces the title of the story:

“You know why Mennonites don’t dance, don’t you?” [Lizbeth's first teenage boyfriend, Liam, asks]

“Uh-uh,” Lizbeth said, mentally kicking herself for having nothing clever to say.

“I heard my mom whispering it to a bunch of ladies once.”

“Yeah, okay. So tell me already.”

“Mennonites don’t dance because it might lead to sex.” He twirled her around and when she spun to face him, she saw that his face was as red as hers. “I can’t believe that.” He stopped and stared down at his feet. “Sorry.”

“Um. It’s okay.” Lizbeth pushed her toes through the dirt. Secretly, she was already planning to re-live the moment in her imagination, turning it over and over and savouring it like a lozenge.

That theme of a young woman trying to escape a repressive home is present in a number of the stories in this collection and it does not always hinge on the Mennonite connection. In the book’s final story, “Poor Nella Pea” returns home to the house of her dead mother, six months after the death.

In January, rather than sort and box all the memories that exist as shelves of chipped curios, antique linens and decades of clothes, I simply locked up and left. The only think I took was my mother’s childhood diary, my other inheritance. It’s (sic) paperboard cover is swollen and tatted now, from being read while I washed dishes, and being dropped in the rain.

Six months has left the narrator prepared to contemplate both her past and her future — she thinks. But she soon discovers that she has not left enough time (perhaps no time would be enough):

After a walk-through of the main floor, trying to appraise it as a buyer might, I take the staircase to the second storey. The banister is so thickly waxed it feels like a candle, and when I touch it, dust sifts down around the spindles like silt settling in a pond after it’s been churned up. It’s going to take a lot of work to scrape away all the evidence of the lives lived here. Much more though, my realtor says, if I want to sell the house rather than pay someone to push it over.

Penelope, the narrator, is moved to contemplate her own history with her mother — it comes down to an experience with a cat and her kittens, but it has marked “Poor Nella Pea’s” life ever since. Those of us who are old enough all have versions of these childhood memories — Friesen Hossack does a very good job of capturing some of them.

While I liked those generational stories and the description of tensions between mothers and daughters, I will admit to a preference for the ones that explore some of the tensions of being a young Mennonite — perhaps because it brings back such strong reminders of my own childhood, my parents involvement in faith and my own rejection of it. Throughout my part of North America, there are sects like the Mennonites, or Amish, or Hutterites, or Doukhobors, or even Mormons, who live outside the “norm” as I know it. Any author who undertakes to make that more understandable is performing a valuable service for us non-believers I would have to say.

The Fates Will Find Their Way, by Hannah Pittard

June 20, 2011

Purchased at Chapters.ca

I have had a good time following the Tournament of Books at The Morning News online for the last two years, but I’ll admit my favorite part of the ToB is the day that color commentator John Warner asks visitors for their last five books read and supplies a recommendation (this year it produced more than 100 lists and responses — you can see them here). Last year, I stole John’s “five book exercise” when I reviewed his recommendation for me, Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, and we had a lot of fun with that here. So we’ll do it again this year — check out the bottom of the review on how to participate.

John’s recommendation for me this year was a debut novel from American author Hannah Pittard, The Fates Will Find Their Way, a book that proved to be an enjoyable, quick read — not the greatest book that I have read this year, but one that has much to recommend it.

The central event of the novel is the disappearance of 16-year-old Nora Lindell on Halloween night, an event that will have a major impact on all those around her, both then and in the years to come:

Of course, it wasn’t until the first day of November that most of us found out she was gone, because it wasn’t until the day after Halloween that her father realized she hadn’t come home the night before and so started calling our parents.

From what we could tell, and from how the phone tree was ordered that year, Jack Boyd’s parents got the first phone call. Mrs. Boyd, as presribed by the tree, called Mrs. Epstein, who called Mrs. Zblowski, who called Mrs. Jeffreys. By the time the tree had been completed, many mothers had already gotten word of Nora’s disappearance either from us — running from house to house — or from Mr. Lindell himself, who’d broken phone-tree etiquette and continued making calls even after getting off the phone with Mrs. Boyd. It was a breach of etiquette that our mothers forgave, obviously, but one that they agreed tacitly, behind the back of Mr. Lindell, added unnecessarily to the general confusion of the day.

The disappearance of a teenage girl, with all the potential tragic consequences that implies, is a relatively common literary device, but Pittard adds her own twist. The present tense of the novel is more than two decades on; Nora’s schoolmates were marked by the event at the time, but its implications have continued to influence them throughout those decades. While the group has dispersed and moved on with all the diversions (marriage, kids, divorce, even crimes) that that implies, they still get together on occasion and when they do they keep returning to Nora’s disappearance and how it has influenced them ever since.

No one knows exactly what happened. Two of the gang said they had seen her at the bus station that day, but one says “she got into the passenger side of a beat-up Catalina just before the bus pulled out”. Was Nora running away and simply hitching a ride? Or was the driver of the car her murderer who has hidden the body? And is Sarah Jeffreys telling the truth when she insists she had driven Nora to the abortion clinic in Forest Hollow the day before, after Nora had taken a pregnancy test in the school washroom? Teenagers being teenagers, the details of both what was supposedly seen and speculation on what might have happened are constantly changing, adapted to the interests of the individual doing the recounting.

That uncertainty of memory is enhanced by the fact that Nora and her sister, Sissy, were being raised by their father, following the death of their mother. That is unusual in this middle class community (better characterized by the parental phone-tree and the 10:30 curfews of the teens) — which adds fuel to the speculative potential.

Strangely, in the months to come, it was Nora’s younger sister, Sissy, who garnered much of our attention. We thought about Nora, of course. We wondered where she was, what she was doing. We told stories. But the more time that passed and the more we began to understand she was really gone, the more we kept those fantasies to ourselves, saved them for the times we spent alone after school, in our bedrooms, or in the kitchen in the dark before anybody else was awake, when our stomachs ached from an emptiness both primitive and prehistoric.

Pittard handles that aspect of the story more than competently, but the strength of the novel lies in the way that the gang has extended “those fantasies” and the uncertainty/speculation into their adult life. Did Nora in fact escape to Arizona where she found a waitressing job and a friendly Mexican male, as some argue? Does that explain some of the otherwise strange aspects of the way Sissy is choosing to live her life? Various members of the group keep saying they have spotted an adult Nora in locations around the world. And perhaps most important, can all of the gang use this event, and how it may have turned out, to explain and excuse some of their own failings as they struggle with adult life? Uncertainty, and the ability to speculate about what might have happened, can be a very convenient excuse to explain the unexplainable.

In the final analysis, The Fates Will Find Their Way deserves to be described as a “come-of-age” novel, rather than a “coming-of-age” one. I’d also observe that it is stronger on the process of what happened and continues to happen than it is on the characters involved — if Pittard had managed to give the cast even more depth, it would have been an even better novel, one that invited re-reading, rather than simply providing a worthwhile first read.

Comments on the book are certainly welcome, but let’s also move on to year two of KfC’s own “five book exercise”. Simply leave a comment listing the last five books that you have read (you don’t have to have liked them all — an indication of what sparks your reading curiosity is every bit as valuable as the outcome of the read) and I’ll offer a recommendation that reflects my impression of what your tastes are. Yes, given who and where I am, there will probably be more Canadian titles recommended than in John’s effort at the ToB, but it won’t be strictly Canadian.

This is not altruism on my part — I suspect I got more leads on books to read from the lists that visitors provided last year than leads that I gave people. So do pay attention to people’s lists — and if you have a recommendation of your own to make to someone, don’t hesitate to provide it. All thoughts are welcome.

Half in Love, by Maile Meloy

June 17, 2011

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Maile Meloy pretty much blew me away with the first book of hers that I read, the 2009 short story collection Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It. All 11 stories in that volume were very good or excellent, in my opinion — and that assessment was shared by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and a number of prize juries. The book remains on my shortlist of favorite story collections.

Meloy, born in 1972, has only published four works to date with two novels and this debut collection of stories comprising the remainder. While I promised myself I would spread out reading the rest of her work, I’m not doing a very good job of honoring that pledge — I read and liked the novel Liars and Saints last December, so with this one under my belt, I only have A Family Daughter to go.

Half in Love was published in 2002, so Meloy wrote all of these stories before turning 30. I think it is a fair assessment to say that she was still experimenting with finding her voice in terms of both style and content. The 14 stories in this debut are all between 10 and 15 pages (a good length, frankly, for an author still finding her ground). While they are all on the positive side of neutral, the overall collection is not up to Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It. That is an observation, not a criticism, but if you haven’t read Meloy yet I would recommend starting with her most recent work and then coming back to this one.

While the best stories in the collection are set in Meloy’s native Montana, let’s start with a look at one set in California (she got her MFA from UC Irvine), “Four Lean Hounds, CA. 1976″. In what has become a harbinger of Meloy style, she wastes no time in setting up the story for the reader in the opening paragraph (I confess to loving short story writers who do that):

The first time Hank slept with Kay — the only time — was the night her husband drowned. Her husband was his best friend, had been for years. Duncan was a great diver, a crack shot, a good storyteller. He seemed to like being in the world more than most people did. He’d married Kay on the grassy bank of a lake up in the Swan River Valley, and everyone danced barefoot and camped out for the weekend. The way Kay looked at Duncan, it was like he was the whole world. Everyone who saw them knew that.

Hank and Duncan were in the underwater-welding business; the fatal accident came when they were looking for earthquake damage to the Hansen Dam in Los Angeles. They were 80 feet underwater when Duncan waved Hank to the surface. He took off his wet suit and packed his gear before realizing that Duncan had not surfaced. It truly was an accident, but that in no way lessens his guilt. Hank goes to fetch Kay after bringing Duncan’s body to the surface.

They drove in silence back to the reservoir, and as they approached they could see Duncan’s body next to a police cruiser. One officer snapped pictures while the other sat sideways in the open car door, talking on the radio. Hank wished he had waited to call them, so Kay could have been with Duncan alone. She knelt by the body and pushed her husband’s hair from his forehead. Hank answered the cops’ questions, feeling awkward and angry. Yes, he had surfaced first alone. When he found Duncan there had been no pulse, and CPR had failed. He felt the cops’ contempt for him, for letting his partner die. Finally they took Duncan away.

That quote supplies a representative sample of the economical way in which Meloy handles both detail and emotion. She has a seductive manner of engaging the reader in both and uses it to excellent effect. I’ll leave it to you to experience how Hank and Kay handle the disaster that is troublesome to both.

While “Native Sandstone” is set in Utah, it certainly feels like Montana. Here is another Meloy opening:

There was no house yet, just a wellhead where the house would be, under an overturned box to keep the sand out. Clay was building the house, and it would be one to live in for a long time, so they were trying to get everything right. From the passenger seat, Susan watched him wedge the box between the green metal stakes that kept it in place. He climbed into the car and threw the water sample into the back seat.

“Now,” he said, and he sat with his hand on the ignition.

“The sandstone,” Susan said. She checked her watch, hoping they wouldn’t interrupt Albert’s dinner.

“Right.”

Albert is 83 and not long for this world — he has always refused sales offers for the sandstone since they are his link to history:

A pile of cut sandstone from the pioneer days, chiseled by pioneer hands, spilled down a slope into the rice grass and knapweed. Susan scanned the pale red blocks, wondering, not for the first time, how much exactly there was, how much might be buried in the lawn and under the visible stone. The stone had once been a schoolhouse. On a pilgrimage to the library in Blanding, Susan had looked up an old sepia photograph of boys in caps and girls in aprons standing before a tidy one-room structure with a peaked roof, the blocks held together by mortar now long eroded.

Susan wants the sandstone although she is more certain on why she wants it than how she will use it (“It’s beautiful stone. We want native stone to build with, railroad ties, things that fit in.”) Clay is more sensitive to how important the old stones are to Albert — and has a pretty high avoidance tendency which causes him to skirt making a sales request. What you have is three characters all attached in different ways to the stone blocks; the story explores the tension that that creates.

I acknowledged my affection for horse racing fiction in my review of Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule, so let’s end this review with a brief look at Meloy’s “A Stakes Horse”. Addy and her elderly, ill father spend their summer weekends hauling broken-down horses to cheap throughbred racing meets held across Montana (I know from experience that these weekend meets are, indeed, very cheap — and often suspect in their commitment to fair outcomes). When the story opens it is the first weekend of the state fair in Great Falls, a meet that features the highest purses in the state.

Addy and her father have a contender for the biggest purse of all (and survival money for the winter) in a filly they have raised since it was a foal. One complication is that father insists on riding Connell as the jockey: “My ex-husband had just ridden our fastest horse, a filly we called Rocky, to a surprsing loss. My annulled husband — we weren’t married long enough to earn the “ex”.”

That result suggests some race-fixing in the jock’s room and later results suggest that is exactly what is up. Addy has her own, heart-breaking way of handling it.

Don’t let my critical qualifications at the start of this review scare you away from this collection. Half in Love is a fine piece of work, even if Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It is better. Perhaps the best news is that there is every reason to expect even better work in the future — Meloy is a talent who bears watching and reading.

Big Blondes, by Jean Echenoz

June 13, 2011

Purchased from Chapters. ca

Translated by Mark Polizzotti

This the fifth Jean Echenoz book reviewed on this blog (check the right sidebar to link to the other four), which nudges him ahead of John McGahern in the “most-reviewed” category, but McGahern will catch up soon (so will Edith Wharton for that matter). Obviously, I like Echenoz, so before addressing Big Blondes, I perhaps should explain why.

Echenoz does not write big books; he writes big small ones — at 201 pages, Big Blondes is the longest that I have read, with Ravel checking in at 117. And for serious readers, who want a two to four hour read, with even more hours of contemplation, he fills a niche that few other authors even attempt (fans of the shorter fiction of Henry James and Wharton should pay attention). When I want to be challenged — but not for too long — he is on a very short list of my “go to” authors. If you have not read him, you should.

Big Blondes fits that description exactly. First published in translation in 1997, about midway in his translated career work to date, it has everything that you can want from this exceptional writer. He has written better books (I will admit upfront that Ravel, my first Echenoz, is still my favorite to date) but this one is not only great fun, it is excellent reading — and very, very contemporary, despite the fact that it is approaching two decades since Echenoz wrote the original French version.

Paul Salvador is a television producer on what we would now know as the cutting edge of “reality tv”. He works for Stochastic Films in Paris (“six floors of offices and studios, sixty million francs in yearly revenues”) and he has ideas about a new project about “blondes” — natural or chemical, he hasn’t sorted out which or both — who had their moment in the media sun. There are the obvious ones — Monroe and Bardot on one end of the spectrum, Jean Harlow and Doris Day on the other — but he is even more interested in those of the Warhol 15-minute variety.

In the short term, mainly he is obsessed with finding Gloria Stella:

Career brief: Born Gloire Abgrall, precocious teenage fashion model. Entered the world of variety shows under the pseudonym dreamed up by Gilbert Flon, her lover-cum-agent.

Bottom line: Those two 45s ["Excessive", "We're Not Taking Off"], a shot at the Olympia, a few tours as special guest star, number three on the hit parade for “Excessive”; photographs, autographs, fan club, movies on the horizon. It all looked very promising until Gilbert Flon took a suspicious dive down a fourth-floor elevator shaft.

Since then: suspicion, investigation, prosecution witnesses, indictment, trial, verdict (five years; extenuating circumstances), prison, release for good conduct, disappearance.

Okay, that reads a lot like a summary of the life of Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan. Except… when Echenoz wrote this book, Paris Hilton was only 14 years old and Lohan 9 and both had yet to find their rather weird niche. And the first edition of the reality prototype for “Survivor” was still two years away — on Swedish TV, some years before the American version. What did Echenoz know that the rest of the world didn’t?

In addition to warning us of what the television world is going to look like a few decades down the road, Echenoz likes to pay homage to the mystery and spy novelists and movie makers of the past (you can spend endless hours with this book spotting references from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Ian Flemming to Alfred Hitchcock). The references show up early in this novel in the opening chapter as Salvador is meeting with Jouve (his private investigator/subject tracker) in the film company offices, coincidentally not far from the headquarters of the French counterintelligence service. Here’s a look at his instructions:

“Take a look anyway,” said Salvador, handing him a ream of press clippings and photos depicting the same young woman, always on the point of departure, with captions mentioning the name of Gloria Stella.

Two kinds of photos. On the four-color ones, cut from the glossy pages of weekly magazines, one could see her leaving the stage, or bursting from a Jaguar or a jacuzzi. On the other, slightly more recent ones, in poorly screened black-and-white garnered from the Society pages of the daily press, you could see her exiting a police station, leaving a lawyer’s office, or walking down the steps of a courthouse. If the first batch of photos, perfectly lit, abounded in dazzling smiles and triumphant looks, the second was filled with averted eyes behind dark glasses and closed lips, flattened out by the flashbulbs and hastily centred.

And so as a reader you have your three points of view, each of which Echenoz uses as a brilliantly-lit stage to launch a set of very different observations about the modern world.

Gloria: Her efforts to escape her 15 minutes of fame range from Paris to Brittany to Australia to India — and she is tracked down each time. The author uses those venues to turn a critical eye not just on those who are chasing her but the international travellers who are a feature of the luxury hotels in those locations (and those who exploit the rich visitors). What is life like when you have had a brief moment of fame and now merely want to escape its consequences? Just as a teaser, she has a homunuclus, the one-foot tall Beliard, to help her in times of difficulty — Echenoz likes the surreal as much as he like foretelling the real.

Salvador: The obvious candidate for contemporary satire, with his television series plans, he emerges — at least for this reader — as an ominous omen of what has come to pass in the degeneration of the medium in the two decades since this book was written. Marlene Dietrich, Kim Novak and others join the list I have already detailed as he contemplates his project. One has to feel sorry for Gloria and her future if he ever finds her. If you are even mildly curious about that historical, blonde movie world, you will find much to contemplate in this novel.

Jouve (and his associates): Echenoz uses this operator for a whole different set of observations on the notion of intelligence, tracking and all the shadowy aspects of that (it is one of his specialities in some of his other novels). This storyline does not just relate to its predecessors like Doyle and Flemming, it moves on to the equally troubling world of modern intelligence, both state and private-operated.

And while the author delivers on specific aspects of all three of those stages, he never lets them wander off independently of each other. They may be separate platforms, but there are consistent links between all three and the central story never loses focus. All of this in 201 pages of tightly-written narrative, thanks to an excellent translation from Mark Polizzotti.

So do you think this will be the last Echenoz reviewed on this blog? Not a chance — I have two more in hand already (Double Jeopardy and I’m Gone) and there are more available to order. I would predict with confidence that regular visitors can expect to read about another volume from this wonderful author every six months or so in the near future. If you haven’t read Jean Echenoz, now is a good time to start the project — you have a healthy list of excellent books still awaiting you.

Volt, by Alan Heathcock

June 10, 2011

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Alan Heathcock’s Krafton is a rural mid-West town in an un-named state. Surrounded by corn fields, the occasional quarry and stubble, the town is big enough to feature some three-story brownstones on its main street. Freely’s Diner and Freely’s General are side-by-side in one (Freely is also the mayor — Krafton is a small town). Sheriff Helen Farraley’s office, including jail cell, is on the second floor; her apartment is on the third.

Heathcock sets all eight of the stories in this debut collection in Krafton. That’s a device that is not uncommon for short story writers — Sherwood Anderson did the same thing back in 1919 with the outstanding Winesburg, Ohio, as Elizabeth Strout did with the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteridge. And of course Alice Munro has staked her claim to a whole corner of south-western Ontario as the setting for many of her short stories.

Krafton is not the only common element in Heathcock’s collection, however. In each of the stories, the central character (occasionally characters, plural) is an “ordinary” person who comes to a sharp curve in the road of life — and does not respond well.

Consider “Peacekeeper”, a story featuring Sheriff Helen, Krafton’s only law officer, whom we meet as she copes with a disastrous flood that has put Krafton under water:

Spring 2008: There were more direct routes to the Odd Fellows Hall, on a dry knob north of town, but Helen Farley could not see below the muddy floodwater, couldn’t risk wrecking the boat on a tree or chimney or telephone pole. Who knew what was just below the surface? The streets of the town were lined with ancient oaks, the leafy tops of which stuck out from the water like massive shrubs. Helen steered the boat through the channel between them. The others in the boat sat silent as they passed their neighbors’ homes, slate-shingled Victorians under water to their second-floor windows. Helen trolled high above the town’s main street, Old Saints Road, and the treetops dropped away as the land sloped into the valley’s low.

The flood isn’t the only abrupt twist to ordinary life in “Peacekeeper”, as the author indicates in the next section. It is a flashback to Christmas Eve, 2007, and Helen (“Her left eye was badly swollen, and she tried to hide it by tilting her cap over her brow”) has arrived at Freely’s Diner in the mid-winter cold and stopped in to say hello before heading upstairs:

“No, no,” the old man said, hustling behind a glass counter. He pulled one of two pies from the dessert case and put the pie in a box. “You coming for Christmas supper? Marilyn said you might.”

Helen studied the front window. Jocey Dempsy’s photo was in all the shopwindows; her middle-school portrait, a ponytail tied with red ribbon, braces, a blemish on her hawk nose. MISSING across the top. REWARD across the bottom. “Don’t know,” Helen said.

Between my summary and the author’s own presaging, you have enough of the set-up to speculate about what happens in the rest of this story. Heathcock keeps his prose straightforward and unemotional, but rest assured that the dark elements hinted at in those two quotes will definitely come into play and what happened around Christmas will return to the world of Krafton in the spring flood.

Sheriff Helen also features in the title story, “Volt”, which opens with her being called to a farmer’s field where there is a dead calf. When she says this is a case for a vet, not a police officer, Moss Strussfeld, the farmer, objects:

The old man wagged his finger. “No vet,” he replied. “Marta say listen, Moss. Three nights I hear. Some messing been in my cows.”

Again, that premonition is only the start of a story’s that becomes increasingly black. Krafton is again experiencing weather issues with a severe storm breaking windows in the main street shops and threatening another flood (“You fetch the animals,” Freely said, his old eyes somber. “I’ll set to building the ark.”)

“Volt” quickly builds tension when Helen gets a phone call from a marshal in the county seat saying he will be coming to Krafton the next day to arrest Jorgen Delmore who has skipped bail in the city on a felony charge and asking for her help:

“Got to hunt him out,” he said. “How’s this look from your end?”

Helen’s jaw tightened. She hadn’t heard Jorgen was home, hadn’t heard any of this. “Those Delmores,” she said, considering how much to tell. “Well, they just ain’t right.”

The marshal grunted. “How well you know the boy?”

“His family’s rough, but he ain’t bad.”

“Hell, he ain’t.”

“Well –”

“Got to bring him in.”

Helen’s cheeks flushed. “Yes, sir.”

The Delmores live in one of a collection of cabins out by the power line that runs past Krafton. When Helen arrives to investigate they are in the middle of a quarrel — when she intervenes, she gets a fist in the face, bloodying her lip and knocking a tooth loose. Helen makes her arrest and takes the boy to the town’s only cell, pitch black because the storm has knocked out the power.

Helen went to school with Jorgen’s mother, Winnie, and later returns for a conversation which eventually turns to a discussion of the boy’s older brother, Harlan, twice sent to state prison for battery and drugs (“Jorgen’s the best of all of us, my opinion”, Winnie says). Winnie also offers an observation that could be applied to the disturbed people who are present in almost every one of the book’s eight stories:

She touched her own cheek, her eyes turned into the window’s light. “You think some are just bad or evil or whatnot, but somewhere along the way they was someone’s baby, suckling the teat like anybody. Then something puts a volt in ‘em and they ain’t the same no more. You might think a man like Harlan don’t care much what his mama thinks. But I shunned him and he couldn’t never shake it.”

While some of these stories are better than others, they all are of a consistent high quality. The collection came to my attention with a review from Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes. He goes into detail on the volume’s opening story (and arguably the best), “The Staying Freight” — rather than duplicating that here, I’d urge you to check out his review for an example of how Heathcock builds his troubling stories in a very different kind of context.

One final word of advice. If you are motivated to try this collection (and I certainly found it worthwhile), plan on reading a maximum of two stories at a time. Heathcock’s characters are very human in their response to those sharp bends in the road, but that also means they are usually depressing and, sometimes, frankly evil. It is the author’s greatest strength but I’d say that over-exposure in too short a time-frame would make it his greatest weakness as well — the stories would acquire a depressing sameness that is not in any way a fair reflection of their value. I will be very interested in where this debut author heads next.

The Spoiler, by Annalena McAfee

June 5, 2011

Purchased from the Book Depository

Honor Tait is “an old-school journalistic heroine”. The present in this novel is 1997, but Honor comes to it with more than a half-century of being a journalistic witness to history. She interviewed Franco before the Spanish Civil War started — wearing a swimsuit because he demanded an interview with her when she was on the beach. She was with the Allied troops when they entered Buchenwald — and won a Pulitzer Prize for her story on the discovery of the concentration camp. As a foreign correspondent, she was also present in Korea (and interviewed MacArthur), brought Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s thoughts to the world when she was on her deathbed and covered the Vietnam War. But there is another side to her as well. She has always been a femme fatale (three husbands, the latest a popular movie director, recently deceased, and countless affairs) and spent time in Hollywood. Sinatra, Monroe and Crosby are also part of her journalistic history and who knows how many of them she slept with.

But Honor is approaching her 80th birthday and, like so many journalists, has lived on the “spend as you go” financial plan. Her economic survival is dependent on a friendly book publisher who produced a life-saving volume collecting some of her best work — volume two is about to appear and a third is in proof form. Honor needs them to sell to continue her current style of life — and that means granting an interview to promote the second volume of her collection:

She had two hours to conceal the secrets of her life. Evidence of vanity, foolishness and worse must be expunged. Domestic disorder was not a concern; the maid had remedied that this morning. And though Honor Tait might have been a slattern by inclination, she was never a collector, of people or of things. Divorce, bereavement, a house fire, a stringently unsentimental nature and the protocols of regular travel had ensured that, for a woman of her years, the flotsam was minimal. She had always travelled light. In love, as in life, it was hand baggage only. So what was left here in the London apartment? Which piece of junk, what accidental survivor of time’s winnowing, would betray her?

The reporter who is about to arrive is one Tamara Sim, a “regular casual” at The Monitor, a national newspaper with pretentions, who is looking for a more secure footing, i.e. a full-time post. She’s in her twenties and her knowledge of Honor is limited — the piece on “the wife of a Chinese dictator from the 1950s” was a set text in her Media Studies course and that is about all she has read. She has been commissioned to do a 4,000-word piece for S*nday, the paper’s upscale weekend magazine known more for the credentials of its contributors (Nobel and Booker prize winners) than its actual content. Tamara hardly fits the mold:

Tamara worked four days a week on The Monitor as a freelance sub editor and writer for Psst!, the paper’s Saturday celebrity gossip and TV listings magazine — a brash oik to S*nday’s snooty metaphysician. The world described in the primary-coloured pages of Psst!, peopled by sex-addicted soap stars and feuding boy bands, anorexic footballers’ molls and drug-taking TV hosts, was as remote from the intellectual aristrocrats of S*nday as was Pluto, in both its planetary and Disney incarnations. Lyra Moore’s [she is S*nday's editor] magazine, irreproachably elegant and cerebral, was regarded as the British riposte to the New Yorker, with the added appeal of pictures.

I’ve confessed previously a fondness for newspaper novels, so I approached The Spoiler with a positive frame of mind. Added to that was the appeal of what author McAfee personally brings to the project. On the professional side, she has worked in newspapers for more than three decades, including a stint as Arts and Literary Editor of the Financial Times and she founded the Guardian Review. So she has met and worked with more than one version of Tamara Sim in her career,

Perhaps more important to the success of The Spoiler, however, is McAfee’s private background — she is married to British author Ian McEwan. In the literary world, McEwan is as close as you can get to being a “celebrity” and he has experienced both the ups and downs of press coverage that come with that designation in the world of journalism. McAfee knows as much about what it is like to be Honor Tait as she does Tamara Sim.

Tamara shows up for the reluctantly-granted interview totally unprepared — she hasn’t actually read the new book and her “research” has been limited to looking at the Monitor’s clipping file on Honor, mainly the Hollywood aspect, with particular attention to the sexy pictures. There is more Psst! than S*nday to her planned story — she wants sex, celebrities and scandal, not ancient journalistic history like discovering concentration camps. Honor, who wants no part of the interview at all, is only willing to revisit the circumstances of the serious journalistic pieces that are being recycled in the book — and would far prefer that the reporter read those instead of talking to her. In no time at all, using her inherent reporter’s skills, she reduces Tamara to tears by exposing her shoddy preparation for the interview.

That establishes the two ongoing story themes of the novel and McAfee is faithful to them throughout the book. Tait’s social life at the moment is pretty much restricted to the Monday Club, a monthly meeting of younger, male sycophants at her Maida Vale residence, which Tamara (who crashes a gathering of the Monday Club) zooms in on as the possible “sexy” angle for her story — what scandal lies behind these poseurs who regularly visit an elderly woman? On the other side of the coin, Tamara needs to keep performing for Psst! — she does the A lists (Ten Best/Ten Worst — haircuts, diets, cellulite thighs, that sort of thing) and other lists (What’s In/What’s Out, Going Up/Going Down, Good Week/Bad Week). If you read newspapers at all, you know about those lists which seem to show up on every other page. Somebody has to compile them — and I can assure you the “journalists” who do all aspire to be doing something else.

I have done no more so far in this review than outline how McAfee sets her story. After this, she sets both Honor and Tamara’s stories in motion and performs admirably in keeping the novelistic version of the story together.

It is time for full disclosure, before offering an assessment. I spent 27 years in the newspaper business, the last half as a senior editor and publisher — it is a coincidence of timing that I left the business in 1997, the present day of this novel. I employed and mentored versions of ambitious Tamara; I dealt with scores of versions of Honor (or their agents) complaining on the other end of the phone or, even worse, in person. I also supervised Canada’s largest international news agency for a number of years, so I even have experience with the foreign correspondent part of Honor’s background (rest assured, they are a very special breed — and McAfee portrays it well). It is impossible for me to just be a “reader” of this novel — so bear that in mind when considering the following assessment.

What’s good about The Spoiler? What works best for me is the way that McAfee uses the superstructure of her story to explore in significant satirical detail the way that contemporary print media work. Just as an example, she has an extended riff on what departments are located where in the Mirror building — Psst! and TV listings are in the basement, S*nday is on the top floor, along with the editor’s office (he’s rarely there as he enjoys visiting aristocratic friends in the country). Aspiration in the Mirror is literal — moving up a floor, or more, is promotion. If you want to learn about how newspapers work, this novel is an excellent source. Equally strong is McAfee’s understanding and portrayal of the tension between reporter and celebrity subject — in the final analysis, she doesn’t come down on either side, since she knows both equally well.

What’s not good? The author has a tendency to go overboard on some detail. I love newspapers, but the repetition started to grate even with me. McAfee also employs another device that just doesn’t work. Honor is composing a “coda” to introduce volume three of her collected works, a look back at the Pulitzer-prize winning story about Buchenwald. She retreats to working on it whenever she is upset in the present (which means most of the novel) and there are more than 20 versions of the opening paragraphs in the novel. Tamara does the same thing with her magazine piece. In both cases, it is interesting the first four or five times — after that, it becomes annoying.

Despite those quibbles, I heartily recommend this novel for anyone who is even mildly interested in how the news gets presented to you in print form — be it on dead trees or online. McAfee knows the business and has captured it exceptionally well, acknowledging that there is some exaggeration for effect. What makes The Spoiler special, however, is her understanding of the “other” side, the persecuted subject. As the novel moves to a close, the conflict between these two points of view becomes ever more important — and McAfee uses her knowledge of both to great advantage.

(A special thanks to Kimbofo at Reading Matters who drew my attention to this book. Kim is a journalist as well and we exchange touts on “newspaper” novels. Click on her blog title for a link to her review of The Spoiler.)

The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright

June 1, 2011
If it hadn’t been for the child then none of this might have happened, but the fact that a child was involved made everything that much harder to forgive. Not that there is anything to forgive, of course, but the fact that a child was mixed up in it all made us feel that there was no going back; that it mattered. The fact that a child was affected meant we had to face ourselves properly, we had to follow through.

Review copy courtesy McClelland & Stewart

Those are the opening words to the preface to Anne Enright’s new novel, The Forgotten Waltz. The child is Evie, daughter of Sean, a girl both peculiar and special, and we learn a few paragraphs later that on New Year’s Day, 2007 “when she saw her father kissing me, in his own home — she laughed and flapped her hands. A shrill, unforgettable hoot.” And her mother called up the stairs to ask her what she was doing.

As I indicated in my previous post, I read this novel immediately after finishing Tessa Hadley’s The London Train and, from the start, it felt very much like I was reading a third part that continued Hadley’s duo. In the present tense of the novel, Gina, the narrator, has been living with Evie’s father for some time, looking back trying to figure how she got there. Also, as in Hadley’s book, we learn early on that Gina’s mother is beginning to go downhill, adding another element of tension:

That winter, Joan complained of swelling in her feet, which for our mother was a terrible comedown, the row of shoes she had, going back thirty years, all forsworn for Granny boots: she just hated it. She got supplements in the health food shop and complained of depression — she was, actually, depressed, I thought — and it never occured to her, or to any of us, to do anything about it except mope and talk on the phone about kitten heels and peppermint lotion and the various shades in which you might get support tights.

On the other hand, there is a crucial difference from the Hadley book (I promise that is my last reference to it until the end of this review) that is apparent early on. Gina is much more engaged with the world, although not very successfully, than either of Hadley’s narrators. Conor, her boyfried when the memories start and later to become her husband, has a Masters in multimedia — Gina herself is in the the IT world, using her talent with languages (“Not the romance languages, unfortunately, I do the beer countries, not the wine”) to work with European companies on their websites.

She first meets Sean, and the seeds of their affair are sewn even before her marriage, at a housewarming party thrown by her sister and her husband — the couple represent the success of the Celtic Tiger and it is a fancy place. He is standing at the end of their expansive garden, looking out at the coming sunset over the sea:

Sean.

He is, for a moment, completely himself. He is about to turn around, but he does not know this yet. He will look around and see me as I see him and, after this, nothing will happen for many years. There is no reason why it should.

That last sentence, indeed, is the nub of the matter. Gina may be engaged with the world in her working life, but she is very much not in control of her personal one. It is apparent, even to her, that Sean is a distracted, selfish character, with a personality that is as remote as remote can be. Her eventual marriage to Conor comes about more as “let’s have a new experience” than an expression of commitment, so there is no anchor there. A one-night stand with Sean at a conference in Montreux should have been the end of him, but it wasn’t. Gina finds herself becoming increasingly obsessed with him — most of the time, his response is neutral at best but on occasion his selfishness turns into an interest.

It is not just in their relationship (“there is no reason why it should” happen, remember) that Gina and Sean lack initiative, let alone control, but also in two sets of circumstances that surround it. And it is these that Enright leverages to produce a fully-formed novel.

One is Evie, who looms as an influence throughout the book. Diagnosed with a form of epilepsy at age four, her natural mother responds with ever increasing demands on a medical system that can produce no satisfactory response. Sean is less openly aggressive in his response but has an even deeper emotional attachment to Evie (which he neither understands nor acknowledges). When he and Gina do get together, both Evie’s presence and his attachment to her become a barrier that cannot be scaled.

An equally uninfluencable barrier, particularly for those whose financial survival depends on the Celtic Tiger’s IT industry, is the collapse of an overheated economy. Enright takes an interesting approach to this (it comes into the book in the final third) as she never writes about it directly, but does introduce its damaging and unaddressable consequences. Just as one example, there is the situation with Gina’s mother’s house, which she and her sister inherit — she needs a good price so she and Sean can continue living in the style to which they have been accustomed:

Selling the house was still the answer to everything. We brought the price down from ‘two and a bit’ to ‘nearly two’ and it was still short odds on winning the lottery; it was five-hundred-and-seventy-five-thousand lamb chops, it was one-and-a-half-thousand years of lamb on your plate, it was so many shirts you would never have to wash another shirt, it was half of the townhouse in Clonskeagh and enough left over for a roof over our head, it was freedom and time to kiss, which is also called love.

But no one bought it.

Funny that.

It was sections like that that caused me to become more and more engaged with The Forgotten Waltz as the book went on. Both Gina and Sean are woefully incomplete — and at risk of becoming annoying — in the first half of the book, but it is hard not to develop some sympathy for them as even bigger crises (Evie, the collapse) come along which they are even more hapless at addressing. Not only did they not make a conscious choice to abandon their previous lives for each other, they now find themselves beset by forces in which they had even less choice and with absolutely no skills to cope with them.

That is why, for this reader at least, The Forgotten Waltz is a far better novel than The London Train. While the central characters in both books are shallow and passive, Enright introduces two external elements that add depth to hers — in the final sections of the book, it is hard not to start thinking that there are a lot of people in the real world who are paying an even bigger price than one would expect for their foolishness.

Enright’s Booker Prize-winning The Gathering had some similar circumstances in it involving external inevitability that made bad things worse. I did not like that book, but for me she is much more successful here. I suspect part of that is the very contemporary setting of this novel and its circumstances — most adults know a version of Gina and Sean whom the world is punishing more than seems reasonable for their weaknesses. It isn’t a cheery picture (I don’t think Enright does cheery) but it is an all too common one. Add to that Enright’s substantial prose skills and you have an entirely worthwhile book.


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