Book Review: The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

Writing as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell shook off Inspector Wexford to produce suffocating psychological thrillers that probed the darkest reaches of the human mind in all too realistic settings.

Rendell, both as herself and as her alter ego, has always been adept at creating an atmosphere of seedy glamour that’s as alluring as it is terrifying, building the suspense by drip feeding clues, throwing in symbolic suggestions and hinting at trouble to come until the pages are bulging with all that tension.

The House of Stairs is thick with intrigue, with a languid plot that doesn’t reach a climax until the final few pages. Despite the genre, Vine’s thrillers aren’t disposable page turners, but novels that dig deep and reveal themselves slowly. Reading the House of Stairs was, for me, like climbing the 106 stairs in the Notting Hill house of the title on a hot and humid day on crutches. I was eventually hooked, but Vine unpicks the plot slowly rather than letting it unravel chaotically, building the tension at the expense of driving the plot. I admit that inbetween admiring her skilful writing I wondered when we’d get somewhere, anywhere with the story.

The protagonist, Elizabeth, is a seemingly reliable narrator who is keen to record every detail of her story accurately with the reader. The story begins at the end of one part of Elizabeth’s life and the start of another path that we will follow for a while. An only child, Elizabeth’s mother died when she was young and her father remained a distant and uninterested parent. Elizabeth’s loneliness is compounded when she discovers that she may have inherited the family secret, the defective gene that causes Huntington’s disease. Living under this shadow, the motherless Elizabeth finds comfort and sympathy with her cousin’s wife, Cosette, a warm, benign woman who I imagined smelled of talcum powder and hairspray.

(As an aside, the Huntington’s disease thread was an odd one, Elizabeth’s diagnosis at first seemed to be loaded with symbolism, but in the end appeared to be constructed purely to explain the lack of children as it sort of hovered around at the beginning seemingly With Significance, before being overshadowed by Plot.)

Anyway, one fateful Christmas Elizabeth goes to stay with friend’s family who live in a big house in the country (of sorts, they get the Central Line there – this is a very London novel). There she meets the mysterious and beautiful Bell who lives in the cottage in the grounds. On Boxing Day when the family in the big house are settling down to a quiz, Bell walks into the draughty hall and announces that her husband, Silas, has killed himself. Despite the circumstances, Elizabeth is enchanted by Bel – she’s cool and frank and intriguing and dresses in black. But right from the beginning of the novel we know Bell has been to prison, so the blast of cold air she brings in with her when she enters the steps into the big house is metaphorical as well as literal.

Not long after this eventful Christmas, Cosette’s (rich) husband dies suddenly on his way to work one morning and left alone but wealthy, Cosette sells her home in the suburbs and moves to a four storey townhouse in Notting Hill (the slightly charred W11 of the 1970s rather than today’s swanky postcode). And then the story really cranks up… ha, not really.

We are introduced to many waifs and strays who move in (including Elizabeth) and the House of Stairs becomes a sort of commune with fancy wine and meals in Chinese restaurants that Cosette pays for. The House of Stair’s features a large cast of characters, many of them drifting in and out of the house of the title and the page. Few of them mean anything to the bigger story, their presence is simply a way of filling up the House of Stairs (the building) and the House of Stairs (the book) as well as helping us understand Cosette’s drive to banish her loneliness by filling her home with people. One day Bell comes to stay and we all know that this is the beginning of the end, but for who? And how? It’ll take us a while to find out, but the suspense could kill you.

The House of Stairs is a clever, grown-up thriller that definitely isn’t one for people that like their crime novels pacey and immediate.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen published by Vintage Classics

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen published by Vintage Classics

Old fashioned and quirky with sentences that beat to a strange rhythm, you’re not even half way through the first chapter of The Heat of the Day before you realise why the once lorded Elizabeth Bowen has fallen out of favour with modern readers.

Bowen’s seventh novel is set largely against the scarred, smoky backdrop of a Blitz battered London in the autumn of 1940. The plot is languid and almost of little consequence, a hook to hang Bowen’s idiosyncratic but often lyrical prose. The slight story centres around Stella Rodney who is informed by a strange little man named Harrison that she first meets at her Cousin Francis’ funeral that her partner, the louche Robert Kelway, is a traitorous spy.

Running in tandem (or rather languishing in the shadows) to the Stella-Harrison-Robert triangle, is Louie a strange, almost-childlike woman who is floundering in a world where she is completely alone, her parents having being killed in an air raid and her husband, Tom, away fighting. In a bid to combat her loneliness, she has frequent one night stands with strangers – the novel opens with her attempting to seduce an irritated Harrison at an outdoor concert in Regent’s Park.

Harrison has got his (wonky) eyes on Stella and is willing to break all sorts of wartime rules to use the information he has on Robert to get Stella into bed. He never comes out and says so directly because no one comes out and says anything directly in The Heat of the Day. Stella, who is an archetypal 1940s siren, all lipstick and vagueness, spends most of the novel mulling this dilemma over, does she bow to Harrison’s demands or place Robert in danger by alerting him that his cover has been blown? Stella does an awful lot of thinking and most of it seems to require a great deal of standing around in rooms, studying the rugs (there’s several lengthy passages describing the room the character is currently standing in).

Bowen’s prose is as pitch-black as wartime London and the atmosphere she creates through her meandering, fractured, almost stagey dialogue and descriptions of this period is hugely evocative and quite different to anything I’ve read about living through the Blitz ravaged city. The Blitz is used as a backdrop in many books, but rarely as evocatively and as honestly as in Bowen’s novel. You can sense the darkness, the shadowy unknowingness, the fear that gave rise to love – or perhaps just a desperation to be wanted. Strangers say goodnight to each other so if they should die they would have left a tiny imprint. I loved Bowen’s description of the gang-like feel of Londoners left behind and also their loneliness in amongst all the ‘we’re in this together’ doctrine. We’re often lead to believe that dicing with death was wonderfully fun, but writers often leave out the loneliness and solitude, the nagging tiredness and the constant tension.

The Heat of the Day is a dense, claustrophobic book that’s frustrating and wonderful in equal measures, full of staccato syntax and odd asides – it’s like Graham Greene re-written by Virginia Woolf. For all Bowen’s commitment to conquering up an ambiance, her writing is also very witty and positively Wodehousian at times, particularly during Robert’s – and on one occasion, Stella’s – trips to his childhood home Holme Dene where we meet his comically awful mother and sister (the brilliantly named Ernestine).

To spit out a cliché – something Bowen would never do – this is a book you will either love or hate. Bowen makes you work hard and the reward is an enticing, enchanting read – if you like it. If you don’t, it’s a meandering, incomprehensible, self-indulgent slog.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre

Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre

Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre

Based on Katherine Boo’s non-fiction book of the same title, David Hare’s new play for the National Theatre feels both epic yet intimate, a play on a large scale that studies small human pettiness that can dominate – and decimate – our lives.

Behind The Beautiful Forevers is set in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi that exists, perilously and illegally, on land owned by the airport. Boo’s book and Hare’s play record the daily life of the residents on this marshy makeshift town that the city’s poor have made home. Day-to-day life is a struggle, many live hand-to-mouth from money made by rifling through the mountains of litter from the airport, reclaiming treasured plastics and metals for recycling. These ‘pickers’, as they are known, sell on their finds to a ‘sorter’ who in turn profits from selling on this trash.

The struggle to survive in this vast shanty town doesn’t overwhelm life’s petty dramas. Amongst the residents of Annawadi are the Husains, a Muslim family marooned between Hindus and Christians, their presence tolerated until they start flaunting their comparative wealth. The family can afford a ‘new’ kitchen thanks to Abdul (Shane Zaza), the eldest son and a star sorter, an expert at extracting the jewels from the rubbish piles in the bags the pickers bring him. He’s a peaceful, quiet boy, constantly despairing at his swearing, gobby mother Zehrunisa (an engaging Meera Syal). She is constantly squabbling with their neighbour Fatima Shaikh (Thusitha Jayasundera), an aggrieved and disagreeable cripple with a sideline in selling in her body. Their rows escalates when the Husains begin building work on their hut and soon pieces of rubble in Fatima’s rice kicks off a series of devastating events.

The production is a fantastic ensemble piece that pits strong characters against each other without tipping over into hysteria. Rufus Norris’s smooth direction ensures the production is even more moving in its evenhandedness, although he doesn’t shield away from the harsher realities; it’s barbaric at times and Shakespearean in its tragedies (and eye injuries). Behind The Beautiful Forevers shines a light on human nature and shows that we’re not always at our best when we’re at our lowest ebb despite what art can claim. It shows that when the world is against you, we often lash out at our neighbours (both physical and metaphorical). As a judge passing a verdict on the Husain’s points out, the poor are squabbling amongst themselves when they should be fighting the authorities.

The cast are all outstanding in what is very much an ensemble piece. As standouts, Thusitha Jayasundera is brilliant as Fatima, thoroughly convincing as a sly, nasty woman while not losing sight of her vulnerability. Meera Syal also elicits our sympathies as the cocky Zehrunisa who is cruelly cut down to size by her neighbours.

While the production deals with heavy themes, there is no agenda to Norris’ production; this is a touching, powerful drama that tells a story both big and small.

by Suzanne Elliott

Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre until April 13th 2015

Book Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson published by Black Swan

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson published by Black Swan

I dismissed Kate Atkinson’s novels for years, snottily turning my nose up at her books after skim reading the first chapter of Human Crochet for a review for my university newspaper and deeming it ‘daft’. My savage undergraduate review didn’t stop her from becoming one of the UK’s most enduring and loved writers and, despite my first impressions, her novels have continued to buzz around the periphery of my reading list. In a bid to bat away the hum – and perhaps reinforce my opinion – I picked up a copy of her first Jackson Brodie novel Case Histories in a charity shop.

I love a good detective yarn and Atkinson’s lyrical, clever, witty prose completely seduced me. Life After Life, is Atkinson’s ninth novel and the third of her’s I’ve read (not counting that Human Crochet chapter). It leaves present day detective work for a different England that begins – again and again – in 1911.

Ursula has the ability to live her life over again, trying out different paths for size (she is always born on the same day and into the same family). She is first born on a snowy day in February 1911, the third child of Sylvie and Hugh Todd, only to die minutes later, strangled by the umbilical cord. But life is not over for Ursula yet – she gets plenty of other chances, each time tweaking her life in an attempt to avoid the heartache, loss and suffering that each life brings. Some of her lives lead her back along the same path despite taking a different fork (she returns repeating to the same spot in Blitz battered London) and inevitably she learns that she can’t control history – or can she? Ursula survives into adulthood after a few more false starts, but cold, hungry and surrounded by misery in war torn Britain (and, in one life, Germany) her purpose in life becomes apparent. Can Ursula change the course of history and save her loved ones and millions of others?

Life After Life is a journey through a period of time in England’s history that shaped today, from those Arcadian times we’re encouraged to believe in before a bullet in Sarajevo put an end to easy Edwardian days, and would later lay huge swatches of urban Britain and Europe to waste.

Life After Life’s protagonist Ursula Todd is brooding and bright, the novel littered with literary quotes from Milton, Keats, Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets. Ursula is less a character than a time-travelling vessel, but in all her guises she’s  unpretentious and lively, sparkling with intelligence and – having learnt the hard way – in her later lives, sassy and ballsy. The cast of characters may not be hugely original, but they are an entertaining bunch, especially Ursula’s aunt Izzie, a glamorous rebel who particularly comes to life when set against Ursula’s stuffy Edwardian mother, Sylvie.

Life After Life is ambitious without being punishing, a family saga with a metaphysical element that is less about the abstract and more about the humane. It’s about those small decisions and tiny moments in time (those Sliding Doors moments) that can change everything (or nothing as Ursula discovers).

This novel is imaginative and far reaching and Atkinson’s easy prose gripping, there is poetry even in her gruesome descriptions of the bomb sites (“he came apart like a Christmas cracker” she writes of one unfortunate victim). Life After Life is desperately sad at times, but it’s also witty and heartwarming and brimming with energy and inventiveness. ‘Daft’ it most certainly isn’t.

by Suzanne Elliott