Archive for November, 2012

The Boy Who Followed Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

November 16, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Question: What is the perfect antidote to a string of (maybe too syrupy) sentimental novels?

Answer: Tom Ripley.

By way of background, regular visitors will know that I felt this year’s Giller Prize longlist featured perhaps too many novels centred on abandoned children, abused children or children searching for missing mothers. It wasn’t that they weren’t good books (in fact, one, The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler, was my Giller choice), it was just that the repetition in the story line wore on me.

So I promised myself that once my Giller reading was done, I’d take on volume four in Patricia Highsmith’s series featuring Tom Ripley (The Boy Who Followed Ripley) as a kind of “brain purge” to get me back to equilibrium. I knew from the first three novels that “Tome” (that’s what his French-born and raised wife Heloise calls him) would be the opposite of sentimentality — amoral (or at least “differently moral”), fully capable of murder and yet lovably intriguing in his own way. I was not disappointed in the least.

In The Boy Who Followed Ripley, Tom remains comfortably settled in semi-retirement on his estate in Villeperce, not far from Paris. His wife’s allowance from her family and his own income (mainly from shady dealings in the art world, detailed in volume two, Ripley Under Ground) leave him relatively worry free, since his past criminal excesses don’t trouble him. In fact, his major concerns as the book starts are the carpenter ants that have invaded his bathroom (Rentokill has failed to stop them) and how to avoid going along with Heloise and her friend Noelle on an Adventure Cruise to the Arctic, a proposed distraction that fills him with horror.

Ripley being Ripley we know that some form of adventure will soon introduce itself. Highsmith is not one for delaying the inevitable, so that takes place on page four and five when he notices that a boy he had observed outside his estate a few days earlier is now looking at him from across the room in bar where Tom has stopped for a drink. The plot thickens quickly when the boy departs at the same time as Tom:

Now it was dark. Tom crossed the main road under the not very bright light of a street lamp, and entered the darker road on which his house sat a couple of hundred yards away. Tom’s road was almost straight, two-lane and paved, and Tom knew it well, but was glad of the approach of a car whose lights enabled him to see the left side of the road on which he was walking. As soon as the car had passed, Tom became aware of quick but soft steps behind him, and turned.

A figure had a flashlight. Tom saw blue jeans and tennis shoes. The boy from the bar.

“Mr. Ripley!”

Tom tensed. “Yes?”

“Good evening.” The boy stopped, fiddled with the flashlight. “B-Billy Rollins, my name is. Since I’ve got a flashlight — maybe I can walk you home?”

Ripley’s curiosity has been sparked. It doesn’t take him long to hypothesize that he is being followed by a kindred soul and he asks “Billy” in when they get to the estate. He quickly learns that the boy is an American on the run (not that different in age or circumstances from the Tom of volume one of the series) and offers to drive him the seven kilometers home to Moret where the youth is working as a part-time gardener.

Tom watched him walk to the dark gates, shine the torch on the lock, then turn the key. Billy passed through, waved at Tom, then closed the gates. As Tom backed to turn the car, he saw number 78 plainly visible on its blue official metal plaque beside the main door. Odd, Tom thought. Why should the boy want a boring job like this, even for a short time, unless he was hiding something? But Billy didn’t look like a delinquent. The most likely thing, Tom thought, was that Billy had had a quarrel with his parents or suffered a disappointment with a girl, and had hopped on an airplane to try to forget it. Tom had the feeling the boy had plenty of money, and was in no need of garden work at fifty francs a day.

Tom’s feeling intensifies three days later while he is reading the International Herald Tribune:

He got up restlessly, went near the window, where there was a bit more light, and looked at the People column on the back page of the Trib. Frank Sinatra was making another final appearance, this time in a forthcoming film. Sixteen-year-old Frank Pierson, favorite son of the late super-food tycoon John Pierson, had taken off from the family home in Maine, and the family was anxious after nearly three weeks with no word from him. Frank had been extremely upset by his father’s death in July.

Needless to say, the death of the enormously wealthy John Pierson had questions surrounding it. He had been confined to a wheelchair for a decade, following an unsuccessful assassination attempt on him (business-related). His death came when his wheelchair went over a Maine cliff on his Kennebunkport estate, either an accident or suicide, or perhaps not. Okay, this is Highsmith, so pretty obviously “not”. (Aside: And, for modern readers, there is the additional head-scratcher of how she happened to feature Kennebunkport decades before the Bushes and Romneys made it a household name as a coastal retreat for the wealthy.)

That’s enough plot set-up (and hardly a spoiler — we know all this by page 26 in the edition I read). His curiosity now fully engaged, Tom in the succeeding pages will develop and maintain a friendship with Billy/Frank that will take them to West Berlin (this is the mid-1980s so the Berlins are still separated), Hamburg, Paris and, finally, Maine. Rest assured, for those who love Highsmith’s noir action, there is a lot of intrigue and violence along the way.

While The Boy Who Followed Ripley and volume five, Ripley Under Water, are regarded by some as not up to the first three Ripley volumes, I found this one to be every bit as good. That endorsement does come with a couple of caveats, however.

The first is that you do need to have read the first three volumes before trying this one — it makes frequent reference to “character-developing” incidents for Tom that take place in the first three books and those references are important. As well, as a reader, you need to have emerged from those books with at least a grudging respect or admiration for Tom, rather than regarding him as evil incarnate (which, it has to be said, would be a perfectly reasonable option).

Secondly, this novel is not nearly as cinematic as the first three — which might explain why they all have been made into movies (at least two of the three have been done twice) and this one has not, at least to my knowledge (and please correct me in comments if I am wrong). Indeed, the first half of the book is almost introspective: Tom discovers in Frank a younger version of himself, a character who, not totally unlike Tom, became a murderer more through circumstance than any kind of personal failure or planning. While amoral Tom quickly got over that, Frank is still troubled by what he did. Highsmith uses the first half of the book to firmly establish that tension between the two of them — the dramatic action returns to cinematic Highsmith form in the latter half.

Those qualifications aside, The Boy Who Followed Ripley was a complete success for me and not just in removing any lingering after-effects of sentimentality. I look forward with much anticipation to the final Ripley volume, although I intend to again leave it on the shelf for perhaps another year — that spacing has worked so well for me with the first four volumes that I see no reason to rush into reading the final one.

That They May Face The Rising Sun, by John McGahern

November 10, 2012

Gift from Kimbofo

I have said it before, but it is worth saying again: One of the joys of the book blogging world is being introduced to the work of outstanding authors who somehow have escaped my attention. And in my four-plus years of commenting and blogging, no author fits this description better than Ireland’s John McGahern. I am indebted to Kimbofo at Reading Matters for both my introduction to John McGahern and, even more, this post. She not only was the first to point me to McGahern (for which I am eternally grateful), she presented a first edition, hardback copy of his final novel, That They May Face The Rising Sun (2001), to Mrs. KfC when they had a Shadow Giller dinner in Toronto earlier this year.

I have reviewed four of McGahern’s earlier novels here and a brief description of each (in the order of my reading, not his writing) seems appropriate. It is fair to say that each involves the author’s representation of a “dark” element of the Irish experience. Amongst Women (1990) is probably his best known (there is a wonderful screen adaptation available) and perhaps darkest: the central male character reacts to his own frustration as a former IRA partisan with the continual brutal bullying of his second wife and his daughters. The Leavetaking (1975) explores the destructive influence of the Catholic church when a teacher loses his job as a result of incredibly petty religious politics. The Dark (1965) is a catalogue of the limited (and depressing) options available to young Irish males: subsistence farming, the priesthood, leaving for England or, joy of joys, winning a university scholarship. The Barracks (1963), his debut novel, contains all those elements as well, but focuses on them from a different point of view (and one seen elsewhere in Irish fiction), the life-sapping powerlessness experienced by the devoted Irish wife.

Despite all those depressing themes, there is joy as well as sadness in each of those books: it is clear that McGahern loves both his country and its people. None of those destructive elements have disappeared in this final novel but the novelist has smoothed their edges and reduced the hurt: That They May Face The Rising Sun is a celebration of rural Ireland and the people who live there.

Joe and Kate Ruttledge have come to their new small farm just outside Shruhaun from a productive, but unfulfilling, life in London. For Joe it is a return to the area of his birth and youth, for English-born Kate it is a new experience. McGahern uses his first chapter both to sketch their new setting and introduce the neighbors in the lakeside community to which they now belong:

The morning was clear. There was no wind on the lake. There was also a great stillness. When the bells rang out for Mass, the strokes trembling on the water, they had the entire world to themselves.

The doors of the house were open. Jamesie entered without knocking and came in noiselessly until he stood in the doorway of the large room where the Ruttledges were sitting. He stood as still as if waiting under trees for returning wildfowl. He expected his discovery to be quick. There would be a cry of surprise and reproach; he would counter by accusing them of not being watchful enough. There would be welcome and laughter. When the Ruttledges continued to converse calmly about a visit they were expecting that same afternoon, he could contain himself no longer. Such was his continual expectation of discovery that in his eavesdropping he was nearly always disappointed by the innocence he came upon.

There may be a lot wrong with Ireland, but this small community of people is determinedly immune from that: they both respect and love the environment around them and the other individuals who inhabit it. Jamesie and his wife Mary live across the lake from the Ruttledges — their biggest challenge is coping with Jamesie’s brother Johnny, who left for England decades ago, but returns for a few disruptive weeks every summer. Bill Evans is a product of a rural Irish orphanage: kicked out to be a farm laborer at age 14 he now lives in a falling-down shack, carrying two pails of water up the hill each day from the lake to the nuns’ house. The Shah, Joe Ruttledge’s uncle, is as close to an economic “success” story as the community has — though he can’t read or write, he took over the abandoned railway station, sold the rails for his initial stake and built a lucrative business (for this rural settlement, at least) tearing apart rundown vehicles and selling the parts.

This wouldn’t be Ireland without the Church and the IRA, so there is also a priest and a local IRA commander — but the author chooses to emphasize their human side as members of the community rather than emphasizing their more sinister aspects as he did in previous novels.

McGahern introduces and establishes all this bunch early on — the early chapters feature a lot of dialogue as he gives each of them a voice, usually used to introduce their back story. Once he has his cast in place, however, he devotes more space to descriptive passages of what surrounds them that are every bit as powerful as the characters he has placed in this world. Consider this establishing introduction to a hospital visit when Ruttledge is taking local handyman Patrick Ryan to visit his dying brother:

The spires of the churches on the hill rose above the low roofs of Carrick, and on a higher isolated hill across the town stood a concrete water tower, like a huge mushroom on a slender stem. The long stone building had been the old workhouse and was now part of the hospital. Age had softened the grey Victorian harshness of the stone.

The open wards they walked through were orderly and clean. The men in the military rows of beds were old. As they passed down the brown linoleum-covered corridor, many were in their own world, a few engaged in vigorous conversation with themselves. Others were as still as if they were in shock. Sunday visitors gathered around certain beds in troubled and self-conscious uselessness, but they formed a semblance of company and solidarity against those who lay alone and unvisited.

That’s about as “urban” an example of descriptive power as the book contains. I’m not even going to try to find one where McGahern presents the natural environment — trust me, they are even more exceptional.

By conventional standards, not a lot happens in the lives of these people — haying season, a wedding, a cattle auction, a thought by Johnny that he will return from England all represent major “plot” elements in the novel. McGahern dealt with the “extraordinary” dark elements of Ireland in his previous novels; in this one, he is much more concerned with portraying the exceptional, ordinary people (yes, I know that seems contradictory) who are part of a very welcoming, ordinary world.

The result of all this is a perfect gem of a book. While I was somewhat overwhelmed by the author’s rapid introduction of the characters in the early pages, it did not take me long to feel very much a member of this community — it was a delight to get to know them better and to become a witness to both their challenges and triumphs. By the time the book finished, I had a deep affection for every one of them; even the rogues had their charming side.

My own approach to McGahern certainly colors my experience but, if you haven’t tried him yet, I would not suggest starting with That They May Face The Rising Sun, despite the effusive praise of this review. I fear that if you haven’t read McGahern’s portrayal of Ireland’s brutal side (he did not have a particularly pleasant personal life, it should be noted) this ode to the beauty and strength of both the country and its people might seem somewhat slight. Rest assured, you will want to read more than one McGahern — this novel is best saved as a soothing antidote to the harsh reality that he presents in his other books.

The Magic of Saida, by M.G. Vassanji

November 6, 2012

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

M.G. Vassanji was the first Giller Prize winner in 1994 with The Book of Secrets. In 2003, he became the first two-time winner with The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (Alice Munro would become the second the next year). And he made another appearance on the shortlist in 2007 with The Assassin’s Song.

So I think it is reasonable to say that there was some expectation that The Magic of Saida would show up on the 2012 Giller longlist. And some surprise when it didn’t — this novel was not published until Sept. 25 so the jury was handing out its judgment some weeks before readers could really test their decision. As someone who was less than enthused about this year’s list, I had the book in my sights as an early post-Giller read, if only to see whether the jury had made a mistake. I have to report that I am in agreement with their assessment: this is a very ambitious novel, but it fails in the execution.

Vassanji is a writer who could fairly be described as “difficult” for readers. Born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania, he came to Canada in 1978 — one of numerous East African Indians who were forced to emigrate from that continent. That experience weighs heavily in all his novels, including this one. His novels also feature extensive casts of characters, frequent snatches of language, ritual and customs not known to this reader at least, and a divergence of settings that reflects that diaspora. When he is good, he is very, very good (I have a high opinion of both The Book of Secrets and Vikram Lall), but when he is bad … well, I won’t say he is horrid, but he is very frustrating to stick with and I’m afraid The Magic of Saida comes all too close to fitting that description.

We meet the central character, Kamal Punja, in a hospital in (presumably) Dar es Salaam — he thinks he has been overdosed with hallucinogenic drugs to make him talk, but it turns out to be malaria. Vassanji’s prologue also introduces us to a sometime narrator of the book, a publisher who has heard Kamal is there, is intrigued by the prospects of his story and drops in to see him — he will join Kamal on his search. Kamal is a doctor who has spent his career in Edmonton, Canada but he was born and raised in Kilwa, Tanzania, sent off to India by his mother at age 12, returned to Africa for his medical studies before fleeing Idi Amin’s regime for Canada and has returned in a search for Saida, his close friend/first love, as a way of closing the loop on his globe-trotting life.

Vassanji reveals all that in a tidy prologue, but the novel immediately becomes even more confusing and complex. The first section of the book itself (“the boy, the girl”) returns us to the Tanzania of Kamal’s childhood in the 1960s. His relationship with Saida begins as a tutor, but the roles are swiftly reversed: Saida is living in the home of Mzee Omari Tamim, “one of our pre-eminent bards, found hanged from Kilwa’s equally famous mango tree, sometime during the 1960s” and Kamal becomes fascinated both with her and her family.

The family relationship story, from the children’s point of view, is complex enough to decipher, but the author soon adds an entirely different layer in the form of introducing the element of global politics. Mzee Omari came to maturity when the Germans were the imperialists; he speaks German and was supported by his political masters. Part of the price he paid was serving as a kind of native poet laureate, composing odes of salute to the German rulers.

By this time, however, the British are in control and preparing to hand over the territory to native leaders. Past co-operation with the Germans is now a crime and the aging poet’s own collaboration a source of considerable discomfort, which will eventually lead to his hanging from that famous mango tree.

The challenge of uncovering what led to that, coupled with the desire to find Saida, are what led to Kamal’s return and the first section (it is slightly more than 100 pages) ends with a tidy summary of his several decades of searching:

“The revelation dawned rather slowly.”

The discovery of the truth did not follow a chronology, coming at the end of painstaking research; it did not come as an explosion of light, lux and veritas. Bits of Mzee Omari’s story had already tantalized him as a child, often to his mother’s exasperation. After he left Kilwa he learned the story of his own Indian grandfather. His later obsession with rare books that had anything to do with the town of his birth revealed to him a patchy history of a backwater belonging to the farthest fringes of mainstream interest. But it was his.

Is it too precious to draw a connection between a middle-aged doctor in the wintry isolation of his study in Canada, carefully turning an illustrated page of a rare book, and the boy sitting quietly on a tropical shore at night listening to a verse recitation of a history? On a couple of occasions of conference travel he had entered the hushed preserves of colonial archives. His revelation is what he arrived at gradually, a story of Kilwa. It begins in the distant past and ends with the death of the poet.

Section two of the novel (“…of the coming of the modern age”) is Kamal’s story told in his own words — the conceit is that this will be part of the book that the narrator publisher hopes to bring to market. It begins in India where Kamal’s father, Punja, has an experience at Sidi Sayyad’s shrine which convinces him that he should go to Africa. Most of this section is the story of Punja (and how he came to know Mzee Omiri), the product of decades of “research” by Kamal into his own roots and what took place before his birth.

Having given us all the back story (and it takes almost two-thirds of the novel’s 305 pages), Vassanji returns to the present day and conventional narrative form for the final two sections of the book. Kamal tells the publisher of how he came to decide that a return to Africa was necessary, what happened during his search and how he came to end up in hospital. By this time, the novel has three distinct narrative streams (albeit centred on the same individual), each with its own cast of characters (and politics) and a host of questions that have been raised and are in need of answering.

Vassanji’s successful novels feature an equal amount of complexity — they work because he performs the difficult act of keeping them all in perspective and enables the reader to join in sorting out the mess that is his over-riding plot. Alas, The Magic of Saida did not do that for me — by the time that I got to the final 75 pages there were simply too many balls in the air for me to keep up with the author. While I certainly appreciate his need to convey the intricacies that produced Kamal’s life, putting them into a pattern became a chore not a reward — quite unlike my experience with either The Book of Secrets or The In-Between Life of Vikram Lall.

The diaspora of East African Indians is a story that deserves telling and Vassanji should be given full credit for devoting his writing life to it. If it is a story that sparks your curiosity, however, either of Giller Prize winners would be a better place to start than The Magic of Saida.


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