Archive for May, 2011

The London Train, by Tessa Hadley

May 28, 2011

Purchased from the Book Depository

Consider this as the first of two related posts. Quite by coincidence, I’ve just read two books — The London Train by Tessa Hadley and The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright — that have so many similarities that they almost demand comparison. Both feature central characters who find themselves drifting along in a marriage which has lost whatever spark it once had. In both novels, the death or impending death of a mother provides the intitial shake-up in circumstances that produces a move to change. An affair — more fallen than jumped into — is the response. Children, or their absence, provide a counterpoint. The similarities extend beyond the story to the narrative style — just as their characters are placid and avoid drama, both Hadley and Enright opt for prose that pays attention to detail and downplays action. And, to complete the comparison palette, both novels are being touted as Booker longlist contenders — I’ll offer my own Booker vote on the mini-contest at the end of my next post, a review of Enright’s novel.

The London Train is actually two connected novellas — one of the title of the book, the other called Only Children. Both involve journeys on the train between Cardiff and Paddington, similar sets of circumstances and some overlapping characters. The project as a whole is probably best regarded as two views, from different sets of eyes, at the same types of conditions and locations.

The reader is introduced to Paul in The London Train as he arrives from Wales at the Home in Birmingham where his mother has just died. His passive character is introduced immediately:

By the time Paul got to the Home, the undertakers had already removed his mother’s body. He protested at this, it seemed done in indecent haste. He had set out as soon as they telephoned him: surely they could have waited the three or four hours it had taken him to get there (the traffic had been heavy on the M5).

Paul doesn’t like change or action — he’d rather the world waited for him. Hadley wastes little time in setting up the key dramatic tension of her story. After a few pages exploring Paul’s thoughts about his mother (and memories of his upbringing), chapter two opens with him thinking that he should call his first wife, Annelies, to let her know. His phone rings and it is Annelies — after a quick power exchange (“he cut her righteousness off in mid-flow” by telling her Mum died yesterday), she tells him that their university student daughter, Pia, has disappeared from home in London, along with all her things.

Paul’s present life is aimless, although it has material stability thanks to his second wife, Elise. He’s a “writer” — actually has produced a couple of minor books on unrelated subjects, writes poetry reviews and once tried (unsuccessfully) to write a novel. Elise, on the other hand, is a commercial success in the furniture restoration business:

In the barn, planes of yellow sunshine swam with motes of dust from the cloth Elise was using to cover an early Victorian chaise lounge, a raspberry velvet with a fine pattern in it, like tiny leaves. Her business partner, Ruth, scoured the sales and auction rooms for unusual pieces, found buyers for their finished products, and delivered them; Elise repaired and upholstered and French-polished as necessary. They had a genius for spotting derelict bits of junk and seeing how they could be made enchanting: the pieces always looked as if they were smuggled out of Alice in Wonderland, thick with mockery and magic.

Paul is soon off to London, at Annelies’ request (Pia has phoned to say she is fine but won’t say where she is), to search for his daughter. He finds her remarkably quickly (Hadley’s plot developments are not nearly as strong as her description), living in a near-squat with a Polish brother-sister pair. The final dramatic element has been put in place.

The bulk of the novella sees Paul wandering (literally, as he frequently takes the train between Cardiff and London) from element to element — childhood memories, unavoidable tensions at his country home in Wales, trying to deal with Pia, her circumstances and her new friends. Along the way we discover that he has had a few desultory affairs and, indeed, contemplates a new one with the sister half of Pia’s new friends, a woman young enough to be his daughter. He is not an action-oriented person — Hadley’s treatment of each of these story lines is to use them as opportunities for description, both physical and emotional.

Only Childlren, meanwhile, opens in a near-echo of the first novella. Cora is in her parents’ home — her mother has died recently and she is renovating it in preparation for resale. She is remembering her wedding day, 12 years earlier, a rainy day that had threatened the plans to walk in procession to the church for the ceremony:

It had cleared up anyway later in the morning, the sun had blazed on the grass in the park pearled with little drops as she walked on her father’s arm, white dress dragging in the dirt of the Cardiff city pavement, from the front door of their house to the little church on the corner. They normally only came to this church when it was used for concerts; Cora had performed on the clarinet in here, on occasions organized by her music teacher. Her mother had been agonised, wanting to pick up the dress out of the wet dirt, afraid to countermand her headstrong daughter. Cora had loved the weight of the skirts kicking against her limbs; she had loved the passers-by, dog-walkers in the park, stopping to watch; she had laughed at her mother.

She thought of these scenes now with derision. They made her sick.

Cora’s life, in many ways, is a mirror image of Paul’s. She and husband Robert live in London — while she is a qualified teacher she is now working part time, aimlessly as a library assistant, comforted by the boring routine. Robert is a senior and successful civil servant in the Home Office, so they too live in material comfort. Ennui and lifelessness have come to dominate the relationship. She can’t stand Robert anymore (not for any active reason) and the Cardiff project offers a temporary escape; indeed, she decides to move back into her parents’ house in a trial separation.

All of this involves a number of trips between London and Cardiff and on one of them she strikes up a relationship with a seatmate that turns into a passionless affair — like Paul, Cora is more interested in not being in her current circumstances, rather than making a proactive choice about new ones.

So the two parts of The London Train train both focus on listless characters who are content to go with the flow, even if they don’t much like it. If I can extend the metaphor, the placid stream they are used to turns into unexpected rapids — but even here they are content to tumble, rather than steer, their way through. It is a not uncommon literary device; two books reviewed recently here, Linda Grant’s We Had It So Good and Nick Hornby’s How To Be Good, both started from the same premise. The difference is that while Grant and Hornby (and I much preferred the Grant) use this is a stage to explore the external circumstances, Hadley turns her focus inward to what is going on inside the minds of her characters.

My tastes run to that external exploration, so I found much of this book frustrating. Neither Paul nor Cora caught my sympathy (or distaste, for that matter) and the subordinate characters around them seemed placed more for convenience than development. Having said that, others are going to find more in this book than I did. Hadley’s introspective focus does allow her to apply her excellent descriptive abilities on almost every page (I hope the quotes illustrate that). I would conclude by observing that she is an accomplished short story writer and it shows in these two novellas. There are some truly excellent sections and, indeed, that may have been my greatest problem with the book — some great scenes that never came together properly for me into a bigger picture.


Montana 1948, by Larry Watson

May 24, 2011

Purchased at

This post is several days late — for a very good reason. Montana 1948 is only 169 pages but I was fully aware after reading just a few that it is a very special novel, one that was not to be rushed, but rather set aside frequently to allow time for contemplation. That doesn’t happen to me often — I’m normally a quick reader, opting for a second read of outstanding books that I feel I have not done justice to on the first, too quick read-through. With Larry Watson’s novel, not only did I take several days for the first read, I immediately went back to the start when I did finish it — and spread that second experience out over several days as well.

“Exquisite” is an adjective that you see fairly often in reviews of shortish novels, but not one that I have ever used. Until now. Montana 1948 is “exquisite” in every sense of the word. Larry Watson’s book was published in 1993 but I had never heard of it until it made Trevor Berrett’s Top Ten list last year. Trevor was raised in Idaho, I live in Alberta and we share an interest in Western fiction — the Montana of this book (it is the hardscrabble prairie in the northeast corner of the state, not the famous mountains) would be midway between us, albeit a little further east.

David Hayden, the narrator of the book, is 52 years old at the time of writing but he alerts us in a prologue that he has waited 40 years to recall the summer of 1948.

From the summer of my twelfth year I carry a series of images more vivid and lasting than any others of my boyhood and indelible beyond all attempts the years make to erase or fade them….

A young Sioux woman lies on a bed in our house. She is feverish, delirious, and coughing so hard I am afraid she will die.

My father kneels on the kitchen floor, begging my mother to help him. It’s a summer night and the room is brightly lit. Insects cluster around the light fixtures, and the pleading quality in my father’s voice reminds me of those insects — high-pitched, insistent, frantic. It is a sound I have never heard coming from him.

There are other images in the Prologue: “The events that produced those sights and sounds are so rapid and tumbled together that any chronological sequences seem wrong. Imagine instead a movie screen divided into boxes and panels, each with its own scene, so that one moment can occur simultaneously with another, so no action has to fly off in time, so nothing happens before or after, only during.”

Having alerted the reader to the confused pastiche of his memory — and introduced a few blurry images that promise ominous events — the narrator proceeds to apply a very deliberate approach to his project. The first third of the book is devoted to capturing what life was like in Bentrock, Mercer County, Montana where his father is in his second term as sheriff (having succeeded his own father — the Haydens represent both wealth and power in this desolate corner of the world).

And 1948 still felt like a new, blessedly peaceful era. The exuberance of the war’s end had faded but the relief had not. The mundane, workaday world was a gift that had not outworn its shine. Many of the men in Mercer Country had spent the preceding years in combat. (But not my father; he was 4-F. When he was sixteen a horse kicked him, breaking his leg so severely that he walked with a permanent limp, and eventually a cane, his right leg V-ed in, his right knee perpetually pointing to the left.) When these men came back from war they wanted nothing more than to work their farms and ranches and to live quietly with their families. The county had fewer hunters after the war than before.

All of which made my father’s job a relatively easy one.

Like most Prairie towns, Bentrock has a Native American community — and there is a level of accepted racism that delegates them as second-class. David’s family employs one, Marie Little Soldier, as a housekeeper — he loves Marie and her athletic boyfried as much as he does his own parents. The storm clouds of the novel start forming when Marie catches a cold that is threatening to turn into pneumonia — and she absolutely refuses to allow the town doctor (David’s Uncle Frank) to see her.

Unlike David’s 4-F father, Uncle Frank is a war hero and we are introduced to some of the tensions in the Hayden family at a homecoming picnic for the vets where Grandfather Hayden has the stage in his role as Bentrock’s outstanding citizen:

He said a few words honoring all the men who served (no one from Mercer County was killed in action — not such an improbability when you consider the county’s small population — though we had our share of wounded, the worst of whom, Harold Branch, came back without his legs). Then after a long, reverent pause, Grandfather announced, “Now I’d like to bring my son up here.”

My father was standing next to me when Grandfather said that. My father did not move. Grandfather did not say “my son the veteran,” or “my son the war hero,” or “my son the soldier.” He simply said, “my son.” And why wouldn’t the country sheriff be called on to make a small speech?

But my father didn’t move. He just stood there, like every other man in the crowd, smiling and applauding, while his brother stepped up on the table. Uncle Frank had not hesitated either; he knew immediately that Grandfather was referring to him.

I have included some longish quotes here to indicate the pace and discipline that Watson shows in his narrative style. He painstakingly establishes the elements of his story — family conflict, uncertain memory, overt racism, hints about justice versus convenience — before setting them in motion. All of it viewed with the benefit of 40 years of life lived by the narrator.

We know from the prologue that trauma will occur and it does; that David’s extended family will be split and they are; and that for a 12-year-old too many things are going to happen too quickly for him to comprehend. Watson uses that incompleteness and confusion to good effect — that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to take just about as much time reading the book as 12-year-old David did when he experienced the events back in 1948.

The result was that I ended up “living” this book as much as I did “reading” it. And that was just on the first time through. I do have my favorite Western writers (Guy Vanderhaeghe, Wallace Stegner, John Williams, to name a few) and Larry Watson’s name is now added to that list. My only concern is that Montana 1948 is so good that his others just can’t compare — I may wait a few months before I put that to the test. In the meantime, do read this “exquisite” novel for yourself.

Hash, by Torgny Lindgren

May 12, 2011

Purchased at

Translated by Tom Geddes

The phenomenon of the “unreliable narrator” is one that arises fairly frequently in book blog discussions. Just how much credence should we give this person?, it usually starts out. And as we start to question more and more of what is narrated, what does it mean about the book?

Given that, it is worth noting that Torgny Lindgren opens Hash with a definitive statement about his narrator. It is December, 1947 and the narrator, a 53-year-old freelance journalist in northern Sweden, is working on “a local news report” about developments in Avaback when his mail arrives. One piece is a letter from his newspaper editor that includes the following:

“For some time now, after tactful inquires from perplexed and concerned readers, we have carried out careful investigations into the veracity of the reports you have submitted over the course of the years, the all too many years, which we have published conscientiously honestly and fearlessly.

“Having done so, we have found your reports, not to put too fine a point on it, completely devoid of any basis in fact. The reality which you appear to describe is nothing more than a figment of your imagination.

“The dramatic week-long struggle to rescue an elk from Hoback marsh never took place. The schoolhouse in Avaberg that burned down three years ago never existed. No unknown celestial body “with shimmering corona” ever rose above your horizon. There has never been a turkey farm ravaged by a bear in your district. Nor has there ever been a factory producing a vitamin shampoo. I could go on.”

And indeed the editor’s letter does, but that is enough of a quote to supply flavor. Okay, I am a sucker for journalism novels, and journalists can be just as unreliable as any other narrator, but here is one whose credibility is totally destroyed by page 10. For that reason alone, I’d give Lindgren 10 out of 10 for sparking initial interest.

The narrator puts his writing-stand and pencil into storage at the end of that chapter (although he does spend some later pages composing wonderful, but unwritten, replies of denunciation to the editor). We next meet him exactly 53 years later in 2000 when the death of the newspaper editor (at the age of 98, it should be noted) causes him to ask for his writing-stand and pencil again. He is now living in the Sunnybank Rest Home and, at age 106, it is not just that request which signifies change:

Year by year his skin was becoming smoother. And like Goethe, he woke with an erection every morning. Death was receding further and further from him. Two new wisdom teeth had emerged in his upper jaw. He was once more able to hum Peterson-Berger’s arrangement of Froding’s Titania, even the difficult passage conveying the rustle of hazel and birch. His hair had started regrowing on the nape of his neck and at the temples, dark and thick. The podiatrist heaped praise on his feet, no corns any more and the nails increasingly strong and firm. Even his sight had improved: he was reading the newspaper without spectacles, including everything that had been written by the former editor.

We aren’t just dealing with a compulsive, if inventive, liar here (as a former journalist, I love the idea of the week-long story about freeing the trapped elk), we are dealing with someone who at the age of 106 has reversed the aging process. And, having called for his tools, he is about to take up writing again. The world of his imagination continues to acquire concrete reality as he begins his new “journalistic” story, also set back in 1947:

The war criminal Martin Bormann, wanted throughout Europe, and even in South America. In the two years that have elapsed since the war there have been countless sightings of him: as a ski instructor in the Austrian Alps, on trains near Paris and Budapest, as a sailor on an Atlantic steamer, a baritone in a chuch choir in Jylland in Denmark. He was even spotted attending a conference on nuclear disarmament in Amsterdam.

Now he has turned up here.

Lindgren has completed the introduction to his fantasy world, but hang on to your chair. He introduces a couple of other characters: Bormann’s landlady, Eva Marklund, and, more importantly, the new schoolteacher in the district, Lars Hogstrom. Hogstrom has spent his young life in hospitals as a tuberculosis victim (the condition pervades the area and kills a lot of its residents) and he has emerged not only healthy, but “immune”. The two become friends and, after a little bit more stage setting, embark on the search that dominates the book.

A search for the perfect Swedish hash.

I am pretty sure that every culinary culture has its version of “hash” (we can discuss our personal favorites in comments). The base is offal and other apparently useless parts of meat, stewed, spiced, boiled slowly over days and set in aspic. In Sweden, apparently, every village and valley has its own version — cooked in the fall and left to age in the cold cellar. Potatoes and condiments (especially beetroot) are frequently present, but how the eater mixes this all up is left to individual taste.

“It’s not like anything else at all,” [Lars] said. “Not sausage and not veal loaf or headcheese or meat roll or pigs’ trotters. And certainly not like sausage meat.”

“No,” said Eva Marklund. “Of course not.”

“It’s absolutely unique,” said Lars Hogstrom. “It could conquer the world.”

“Avabeck hash is more or less entirely meat,” she said. “Maybe just the odd extra ingredient. But in Morken it’s even stronger.”

Yes, she went on, there were plenty of other types of hash, and they were all more remarkable and more complex than Avaback hash. She should make special mention of Lillaberg hash, which was very finely minced and kind of smoother. Not to speak of Raggsjo hash, which was darker in color but light in taste and had an aroma reminiscent of ginger yet not exactly ginger. Any chance to eat that hash was a real privilege.

And then there is Ellen’s hash in Lillsjoliden, but saying any more about that would be a spoiler (no pun intended).

Hash is an exercise in imagination, a very successful one for this reader. Everyday elements are spun off into fantasy — well-developed characters are given entirely fantastic traits, but Lindgren keeps returning to the very-real present. The overall impression is like looking at this part of Sweden through a literary version of an intricate kaleidoscope. There are lots of laughs along the way and, when the author demanded licence, I was more than willing to grant it. The novel won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I am sure that images from it are going to keep coming back to mind. One that I haven’t got around to mentioning yet is Bertil, a character who appears frequently: “That’s only Bertil,” [Eva] said about the young man by the door. “He pops up all over the place.”

And he does.

My thanks to Kimbofo at Reading Matters for drawing my attention to this book (you can read her review here) — she and I exchange thoughts on “journalist” books. This is a very worthy addition to the genre. If you want an entirely entertaining read that takes you away from the present, without in anyway denying it, Hash is worth your attention.

Some Hope, a trilogy by Edward St. Aubyn

May 5, 2011

Purchased from Abebooks

Forewarned is forearmed: this is a “catch-up” post. Earlier this year when participants at a number of book sites were looking at possible Booker Prize contenders for 2011, Edward St. Aubyn’s At Last was frequently mentioned. The author says it concludes the story of Patrick Melrose, begun with the trilogy of this volume (Never Mind (1992), Bad News (1992), Some Hope (1994)) and continued in the Booker-listed Mother’s Milk (2006). I had not read any of the four so getting started seemed like a good idea. At Last was released this week (you can read a couple early reviews at The Asylum and Just William’s Luck) and I will get to it in the forthcoming weeks. If, like me, you haven’t already started on the Patrick Melrose story, here’s a look at the opening volumes.

St. Aubyn is often compared to Evelyn Waugh — both not only observe the English gentry in their writing, they came from it (not without some damage). So, while the trilogy under discussion here may be Patrick’s story, he is the child of his parents and their class — and it is worth taking a bit of time to see how they are introduced. Here’s his mother, Eleanor, contemplating her car:

Globules of translucent resin were stuck to the Buick’s bonnet. One splash of resin with a dead pine needle inside it was glued to the base of the windscreen. She tried to pick it off, but only smeared the windscreen more and made the tips of her fingers sticky. She wanted to get into the car very much, but she went on scratching compulsively at the resin, blackening her fingernails. The reason that Eleanor liked her Buick so much was that David never drove it, or even sat in it. She owned the house and the land, she paid for the servants and the drink, but only this car was really in her possession.

Doctor David Melrose has already been introduced to us, bulllying the servant at the family’s Provence estate, so that observation about Eleanor’s powerlessness comes as no real surprise. St. Aubyn expands on the relationship a few paragraphs later:

There had been a time when she admired the way that David became a doctor. When he had told his father of his intentions, General Melrose had immediately cut off his annuity, preferring to use the money to rear pheasants. Shooting men and animals were the occupations of a gentleman, tending their wounds the business of middle-class quacks. That was the General’s view, and he was able to enjoy more shooting as a consequence of holding it. General Melrose did not find it difficult to treat his son coldly.

The doctor is his father’s son and he models that parental behavior — a few pages later, he humiliates five-year-old Patrick by picking him up by his ears. It is a game that he has played before and Patrick knows to hang on to his father’s wrists:

His father still held him dangling in the air. “You’ve learned something very useful today,” he said. “Always think for yourself. Never let other people make important decisions for you.”

“Please let go,” said Patrick. “Please.” He felt that he was going to cry, but he pushed back his sense of desperation. His arms were exhausted, but if he relaxed them he felt as if his ears were going to be torn off, like the gold foil from a pot of cream, just ripped off the side of his head.

The abuse of young Patrick will get worse, but it is only one of the threads in the opening volume of the trilogy. Indeed, most of the narrative of this volume is devoted to a study of the class to which the family Melrose belongs, in the form of a gathering at the Provence estate. Guests include the despicable Norman Pratt and his empty-headed wife, Bridget; the philosopher, Sir Victor Eisen, and his wife, Anne Moore (a former New York Times reporter); and an acquaintance of Victor’s, Vijay Shah, who has the advantage of wealth if not birth. These are empty, decadent people and, in the final analysis, living examples of evil.

That cast gives St. Aubyn ample opportunity for critical assessment — like Waugh, the result has frequent moments of black humor. St. Aubyn was born to this class, experienced similar abuse and responded with drug addiction. This opening volume is devoted to examining the environment that produced Patrick — it should come as no surprise that he too turns to drugs for his escape.

That addiction is at the centre of volume two, Bad News. David Melrose has died suddenly in New York and Patrick is flying in (on the Concorde) to collect his ashes:

The thought that had obsessed him the night before cut into his trance. It was intolerable: his father had cheated him again. The bastard had deprived him of the chance to transform his ancient terror and his unwilling admiration into contemptuous pity for the boring and toothless old man he had become. And yet Patrick found himself sucked toward his father’s death by a stronger habit of emulation than he could reasonably bear. Death was always, of course, a temptation, but now it seemed like a temptation to obey. On top of its power to strike a decadent or defiant posture in the endless vaudeville of youth, on top of the familiar lure of raw violence and self-destruction, it had taken on the aspect of conformity, like going into the family business. Really, it had all the options covered.

Attempts at self-destruction are ever-present in Bad News; Patrick indulges in a smorgasbord of coke, heroin, uppers and downers, washed down with copious amounts of alcohol. If Never Mind was reminiscent of Waugh, Bad News is more like the story of John Self in Martin Amis’ Money, a relentless pursuit of substance-based escape that only produces more complications. The book ends up with Patrick headed to the airport and the flight home (although he has had to send the bellman back up to the room for the box containing his father’s ashes since he forget to bring them). The volume is depressing and exhausting throughout — that should be treated as a description, not a criticism.

In Some Hope, set eight years after Bad News, the adult Patrick has moved into full membership in his class. As the book opens, he is contemplating a schedule of dinners and parties, none of which he is enthusiastic about:

Perhaps all of his problems arose from using the wrong vocabulary, he thought, with a brief flush of excitement that enabled him to throw aside the bedcovers and contemplate getting up. He moved in a world in which the word “charity”, like a beautiful woman shadowed by her jealous husband, was invariably qualified by the words “lunch”, “committee”, or “ball”. “Compassion” nobody had any time for, whereas “leniency” made frequent appearances in the form of complaints about short prison sentences. Still, he knew that his difficulties were more fundamental than that.

Patrick’s father may be gone, but his world isn’t. Nicholas Pratt is still on hand, having arranged an invitation to an up-scale party at Chealey: “No need to thank me for getting you invited to this glittering occassion tonight. I owe it to your dear Papa to see that you get into the swim of things.”

As the novel’s title implies, volume three is somewhat less depressing. St. Aubyn introduces a new group of Patrick’s contemporaries, although they are every bit as vapid and decadent as his father’s — and Pratt is present throughout the book to serve as a destructive guiding force.

I have done the author some disservice by attempting to outline the narrative thread. As depressing as it is (and this trilogy is definitely not a “fun” read), it does provide a platform for some bitingly acrid observations about what goes on in this class. St. Aubyn is a gifted writer — I hope the quotes that I have chosen illustrate that (he is an author who demands a lot of quotes, I must say).

I am now ready to move on to At Last — yes, I probably should read Mother’s Milk next to keep the chronology intact, but the appeal of the new book simply is too attractive. I’ll let you know in a couple of weeks if that turned out to be the right choice.

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