Book review: A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré

An upstanding British spy has a past murkier than the North Sea in John le Carré’s cool, poised classic

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Despite being a fan of TV espionage (I will watch anything with handsome spies sitting in smoky rooms, from ludicrous, bonkers Spooks to ludicrous, serious London Spy) my enjoyment of dramatised spy stories has never translated into books. Graham Greene’s murky world of post-war espionage in The Quiet American and his wonderfully comic novel Our Man in Havana are the closest I’ve come to the genre on the page.

And where else should I start investigating spy novels than with the master of the genre, John le Carré whose appeal has been given another boost with the recent super slick, beautifully peopled, totally ridiculous BBC production of The Night Manager. I enjoyed The Night Manager as much as I laughed at it, so I was keen to explore his written word and see how it compared to this campy, tense adaptation.

His 1986 novel A Perfect Spy is a dense doorstopper that follows the charming, mysterious Marcus Pym – a husband, father, respected member of The Firm, and the “greatest con I knew” according to his boss, Jack Brotherhood.

In the past and present, Marcus spins lies, creates personas to such an extent that even he no longer knows who he is. We begin at the end, just after the death of his estranged father an event that has tipped him over into an abyss that he’s been teetering on the edge of his whole life. His dad, Rick Pym (based on le Carré’s own father) was a crook, an old school cockney criminal who will charm your life savings from you and you’ll be glad he did.

The Pym we meet at the beginning is a seemingly upstanding English gent, his sometime landlady of the bed and breakfast retreat in an unnamed British coastal town is charmed by her ‘Mr Canterbury’. But unbeknown to her, Marcus is sitting locked in his attic room, spilling out his secrets and his past on paper, nurturing a burn box that holds information that could blow the USA and the UK apart. The race is on to find him, from his boss at M16 Jack Brotherhood, his wife Mary to his Czech agent Axel. Who will find Pym first?

As we follow the search, we move across time and the continent as we re-visit Marcus’ difficult boyhood to unravel his present. He sees his mother carted off to a mental institution, her stand-in, Libbie’s, twisted body after she jumps to her death. It is, as a great spy book should be, full of intrigue and suspense, but what I found most thrilling was le Carré’s writing. His style took me by surprise. I hadn’t accounted for the spymaster being such a beautiful writer, I always assumed his bestsellers were brash and plot driven, but his words are frequently lovely, even delicate despite his prose being as dense as the air in a room of chain-smoking spies. There is no easy chronological order to A Perfect Spy, his structure is fluid as we move between past and present with little fanfare.

I expected a heavy hand to write this most macho of genres, but the human relationships le Carré weaves are far bigger page turners than discovering which side of the iron curtain the protagonists are on. I didn’t always find A Perfect Spy an easy read, it was at times dense enough to be impenetrable, it’s aloof and unemotional and the female characters are willow-o-wisps, falling into either 1950s cookie cutter wives or sexy PAs who seduce their bosses with their minxy ways.

But while I may not be about to defect to the world of spies in fiction, I’ve definitely been caught in its web of intrigue.

 

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Book review: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry’s lyrical tale of an imagined John Lennon trip to the West Coast of Ireland hits all the right notes.

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Beatlebone by Kevn Barry, published by Doubleday Books

In 1967, in a bid to escape Beatlemania and find his own shangri-la, John Lennon bought an island off the west coast of Ireland. Dorinish Island – nickednamed Beatle Island – is one of hundreds (legend says 365, but there’s a little Irish story-telling in that myth) of islands overlooking Clew Bay that are actually hills flooded by the raging Atlantic that have formed an archipelago of uninhabited, weather beaten sanctuaries for birds – and the occasional Beatle.

Lennon only visited his island once, but in Kevin Barry’s wonderfully imaginative tale, the Beatle slipped in a second visit in 1978. This was a time in Lennon’s life when he was deep in dough and diapers, forsaking creativity for domestic bliss. But the former Beatle’s happiness was costly him artistically. In Barry’s story, his visit to this wind-battered, bird-shat on part of the world was an attempt to unlock his past and unleash his musical demons once again.

Lennon doesn’t find a great deal of musical inspiration on his journey, but he does meet Cornelius O’Grady and a dog called Brian Wilson. Cornelius’ unlikely relationship with Lennon – he becomes his chauffeur, his fixer, his enabler – forms the centrepiece of the novel. There are some wonderful moments between the two of them, my favourite, which I read three times in a row, was John trying to get Cornelius to unravel the meaning behind Kate Bush’s ‘wiley moor’ in Wuthering Heights as he crudely mimics her vocals.

The novel’s plot is thin – Lennon’s quest to get to the island is really a springboard to life’s greater issues – death, love, the past, family. Barry’s Lennon is haunted by his childhood and his absent father and dead mother. Despite his success and present happiness, he still feels the gaping hole of the abandoned child.

Barry captures Lennon’s acerbic wit, his brooding bitterness and eye for the absurd. You can hear his Liverpudlian drawl in the lyrical beat of Barry’s dialogue. The novel has elements of magical realism, at times it’s a trippy stream of consciousness, like a literary I Am The Walrus. In one chapter about half way through the novel, Barry breaks through the novel’s fourth wall and writes about why he choose to tell this story, detailing the research he carried out to follow in Lennon’s footsteps. It should be jarring, but it only fuels the story and adds another interesting stylistic element to a novel not afraid to stray off the narrative path.

Beatlebone is a warm, funny, charming novel that’s thick with insight and humour. Barry captures voices and dialogue with a poet’s ear, from Lennon’s old-fashioned Scouse to the music of Cornelius’ ramblings. You can taste the salty tang of the Atlantic and feel Lennon’s tension as he hunts desperately for his piece of privacy followed by the press, doused with whiskey and side-tracked by primal scream advocates (of the therapy, not Bobby Gillespie’s bunch).

Beatlebone is a joy, an exhilarating, fantastical, witty tale fused by Barry’s wild literary imagination and intoxicating lyrical language. 

Book review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This huge literary hit may not be pretty, but it’s one hell of a page turner

Editorial Producer - Suzanne Elliott

The Girl on the Train was the book smash of 2015. A stonking success for former journalist Paula Hawkins and the publishing industry. Dubbed  the “British Gone Girl”(yawn), Hawkins’s debut was the latest amnesia thriller, riding the page-gripping wave of Before I Go To Sleep and Elizabeth is Missing.

Always a bit slow to the hype party, it took me until the end of the year to read it, managing to avoid spoilers and hyperbole until the bitter end of 2015.

The titular girl on the train is actually a thirty-something women called Rachel Watson. Don’t expect to like her. She’s a woman soaked in gin, wine and self pity. She travels on the 8.04 to Euston every day to a job she was sacked from to avoid having to tell her flatmate, her only friend who she doesn’t really like, that she’s unemployed. Her lodgings in a far flung London suburb has been her home since her divorce from her ex husband, Tom, who Rachel pines for with a force that borders on the obsessive.

Rachel clings onto her old life and still hovers on the cusp it. On her fruitless daily train journeys to London, Rachel passes the house she lived in with Tom and where he still lives with his new wife, Anna, and their baby daughter. Rachel has also become a little mentally over invested in the couple who live a few doors down from her former address, cultivating a narrative for them despite never having met them. After a particularly drunken evening, Rachel finds herself on the other side of the train tracks, embroiled in the lives of the people she’s been watching silently for months, in a tale of lies, madness and murder.

There is nothing pretty about The Girl on the Train. Hawkins’s prose is as lumpy as Rachel’s badly fitting polyester suits (I don’t know that she wears badly fitting polyester suits, but you can almost hear the scratching from the pages). The characters are messy, the narrative repetitive (the constant to-ing and fro-ing on the train gets tedious) and it’s written in an odd journal-style from the point of view of Rachel, Anna and the missing Megan that is half-heartedly confessional but, so as to give nothing away too soon, unconvincingly opaque.

But the novel’s power lies in its ability to suck you in. I read it in two days and, while not terribly invested in it, admired how Hawkins’s plot weaves itself to its conclusion convincingly and unhysterically. There are, of course, niggles in the story – no thriller is without its plot tripwires – largely the over reliance on Rachel’s mangled booze memory. Much of the plot relies on her not remembering this one particular evening on which the whole book spins rather too conveniently (there’s a small thread where Hawkins attempts to cover her tracks using Google and Science).

There were interesting elements in among the hectic plot, I thought Hawkins highlighted the precariousness of our lives well – the novel is in many ways a story about how easily our lives can crumble –  the hard slog of being a single woman in her 30s and the difficulty of every really knowing anyone (I would like to have had at least a tidbit on how Rachel and Tom met). Hawkins also captured the quiet mundanity of commuting with few words. In those moments when she evoked the stale sweat, the simmering frustration and sighs, I was the girl (woman) on the train.   

Read it, enjoy it, don’t expect it to change your life (unless you’re Paula Hawkins or her editor).

Book review: Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925 by Vera Brittain

A stunning, vital, often gruelling memoir that retains its stiff upper lip while punching you in the stomach

Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander in the 2015 film of Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth

Kit Harington as Roland and Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain in the 2014 film adaptation of Testament of Youth

 

Reading a first hand account of the war that was meant to end all wars just as the UK steps into another conflict made Vera Brittain’s fascinating, terrifying, heartbreaking memoir even more poignant.

Written 13 years after the end of what became the First World War, Testament of Youth records not only the huge loss of life that affected Brittain and Britain (and her allies), but captures the lives that were left shattered – by grief, by injury, by despair and shell-shock – in cool-headed yet determined prose.

Brittain’s story begins in the almost pastorally perfect, peaceful Edwardian era. Even as a teenager, Vera is not content to stay contentedly within the very narrow boundaries set out for middle-class women in the early 20th century. As a woman in pre-War Britain, Brittain was expected to keep house and keep quiet, but Vera never intended to do either. From the beginning she is a fearsome force – resolute, self-possessed, tenacious – her fierce intelligence drives her to Oxford, overcoming the many hurdles thrown in the way of women at the time.

Vera has a close relationship with her kind, musical older brother, Edward who sees her as an equal in a way women were rarely viewed by the opposite sex. Men aren’t hugely romantically interesting to Vera, she sees her future in literature not love, but despite having her head in a book, she falls in love with a friend of Edward’s, Roland, a serious, poetic young man cut from that almost cliched, chivalrous, romantic  Edwardian cloth. Their romance is intellectual rather than lusty, only revving up a gear, much to Vera’s distaste, after Roland is sent to the Front. She is not a woman for whom an engagement ring is a replacement for a matrimonial lobotomy.

Her first enrolment at Oxford doesn’t last long after the outbreak of War. With Roland and Edward – along with their friends who Vera becomes increasingly connected to, Geoffrey and Vincent – away doing their bit for King and Country, Vera becomes dissatisfied with a staid academic life and longs for a practical role in this new world. She signs up as a VAD (voluntary aid detachment) nurse. Her training takes her first to London, but after the first of a steady stream of tragedies, she asks to be transferred abroad, into the heart of the blood, mud and danger, and is sent to Malta and then France.

The fact that the First World War and it’s revenge-driven rubbish peace process were a monumental fuck up that had catastrophic and far reaching results, both personally and worldly, is news to no one, but Vera’s great skill is building the suspense in her stiff yet ornate prose, so that we’re standing in her sensible nursing shoes, experiencing a little of her seemingly endless punches to the stomach. I cried several times reading this book, yet Brittain was never trying to manipulate my emotions; her writing is level-headed, free of histrionics or wallowing. The sheer, startling facts are enough to have you bawling on the bus. Sure, there are bitter laments, Vera is angry, not just at all she’s lost, but how the War – started by and badly managed by an older generation –  left her generation shattered, their youth – along with their brothers, lovers, friends and husbands –  snatched away from them.

Brittain’s book teaches us so much more about war than history text books. The sheer wastefulness of it somehow feels even bigger told from someone who saw the fallout of the trenches without being in them (she rather plays it down, but the injuries Vera stoically treats are staggering). Her personal assaults are more harrowing than many a history book because they’re so personal and so all too easy to imagine.

Vera’s voice may grate on some, her tone is a little Downton’s Lady Mary side-eyeing Edith. She is unapologetically snobbish about her upbringing in conservative, uptight Buxton, although I relished her put-downs of small town life with guilty glee. Her prose is old-fashioned, but I found that her reserved, borderline priggishness only heightened the catastrophe that befalls her and her contemporaries.

This is not an easy read – I put it down a couple of times to read other, less painful, books. But it’s a hugely affecting memoir about a lost people who fought and lived through a War that for them never ended. Perhaps their on-going trauma is best summed up in this sentence Brittain wrote in 1933, recalling the dreaded telegram death knock: “Even now, I cannot work comfortably in a room from which it is possible to hear the front-door bell”.

This book should probably be handed to every MP faced with a war vote.

Testament of Youth is published by Virago Classic

Book Review: Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson’s second novel sees her sketching out ideas she’ll revisit again, but with less compelling results

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Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson (published by Black Swan)

What was meant to be my year of non-fiction also became my year of Kate Atkinson. During 2015 I rediscovered Atkinson after a nasty brush with her second novel, Human Croquet as a student. This year I was finally sucked into her magical realistic world via Jackson Brodie’s brooding presence in her more grounded Case Histories series.

I had read all of Atkinson’s work, including her latest (and, in my opinion, best), God In Ruins, by the fag end of 2015, only Human Croquet remained, the novel that had derailed me from Atkinson’s books 17 years ago.

Human Croquet was Atkinson’s second novel, following the success of her Costa Book Award winning debut Behind The Scenes as the Museum. She’s since published a further seven novels and this 1997 book has been repackaged by Black Swan in light of Atkinson’s more recent literary success (Life After Life won her a Bailey’s Prize nod and a South Bank Sky Arts award) .

It’s interesting reading an author’s work backwards, you can see the outlines of more recent books in the earlier works, see their craft in action, the sketches that will one day become their masterpiece. This is particularly apparent in Human Croquet where Atkinson examines themes she later revisits in Life After Life, and to a lesser time-traveller extent – God In Ruins.

I gave Human Croquet a through bashing in my university paper, but I don’t think I actually read past the first page. Already overburdened with modernist poetry and Virginia Woolf’s novels, the opaque opening page was too dense a word forest for me to venture into the story beyond it.

Human Croquet is the story of Isobel Fairfax, a sixteen-year old girl who lives in ‘Arden’, a damp ridden mock-Tudor house on the site of the ruined Fairfax Manor on a street of trees that was once a dense forest.

Isobel’s family are fairytale-like gruesome. Her mother ‘disappeared’ when she was small, closely followed by her father who at least had the decency to return albeit with an uninspiring New Zealand wife, Debbie. Her Aunt Vinny is a chain-smoking ugly sister while her brother Charles has dubious parentage and an unfortunate face.

Isobel discovers on her sixteenth birthday that she can slip between time when she briefly finds herself in what will become Hawthorne Close, a man running past her with house plans shouting “soon there are going to be houses. everywhere you look, there will be houses, young lady”.

The novel swings trippingly between the past and the present, Atkinson erasing some of the events for another scenario, although sometimes with the same results. As I’ve discovered during my Atkinson book binge, her novels are deceptive, she writes with a lightness, littered with literary references, puns and (sometimes annoying) asides, but the subjects she explores are the stuff of Martina Cole thrillers- murder, incest, child and domestic abuse, rape. Human Croquet is a rich stew of nasty ingredients wrapped up in a magical world and sparkling language.

Human Croquet isn’t Atkinson’s best work, at times it’s sluggish and, yet, jarringly, manically busy with characters and alternative realities that aren’t as tightly drawn as Ursula’s in Life After Life. The weaving in and out of other characters’ lives and the dropping into time pockets distracted from the far more compelling backstory of Isobel’s family and, if 2015’s taught me anything, it’s that Kate Atkinson is at her best when she’s writing about humans and our  funny ways that are every bit as baffling as time.

Book review: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

An enthralling, sometimes heart-wrenching novel this companion read to Life After Life is another Atkinson gem

A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

I don’t know about God, but I was certainly in ruins at the end of Kate Atkinson’s latest novel as her deceptively light tone took a dive to the dark side as sudden and as catastrophic as a Halifax bomber hit during the Battle of Berlin.

God in Ruins is a companion piece, not a sequel, to Atkinson’s compelling time and death defying Life After Life. While Life After Life was the story of Ursula, A God In Ruins is her brother Teddy’s, the golden light of the Todd family, his mother, Sylvie’s, favourite.

We meet the Todd family once again at Fox Corner, the blissfully Edwardian Home Counties pile, untouched by the ravishes of the blooming century. Teddy is destined for a life in the bank, following in the gentlemanly (bankers were still gentlemen then) footsteps of his kindly, distant father, Hugh. Ted tries to duck and dive his fate, travelling through France one glorious summer, picking olives and discovering cream-soaked dishes that his memory savours through war rations and nursing homes.

He is saved from a life at the bank by the outbreak of war when he signs up immediately to the RAF, a life in the skies, now matter how dangerous, being less deathly than a lifetime in the bank.

Not only does he leave behind his family, but his childhood sweetheart and next-door neighbour Nancy, a super brainy maths type who spends the war at Bletchley Park – and we know this because everyone knows, she’s not terribly discrete about it.

Unlike Life After Life, we’re on a single time trajectory, there are no second chances here. We follow Teddy on his raids over Europe that Atkinson brings so vividly to life that we could be there in the gunner’s seat; the camaraderie of Ted’s unit and the always-on-the brink-of-death tension, the mortally wounded Lancaster bombers spinning down into a fiery unknown, the ditches in the North Sea that they fear will be their watery grave – it’s all terrifying realised.

Ted seemingly outwits all the odds and grows to be an old man. He marries Nancy and they have a  daughter ,Viola, who turns out spoiled, unimaginative, angry and ungrateful, a dud in the brilliant Todd clan. Her children, Sun and Moon (known as Bertie, obv) grow up dented by her aggression while granddad Ted helps them navigate the choppy waters of life like a life jacket of reason and kindness.

Ted is lovely company, an intelligent man with a quiet kindness who, like so many of his generation, hides a chamber of horrors inside his placid shell. Atkinson never shields away from awful things and I enjoy how her writing skips along with glee, only to trip you up with a sentence like this one about a Jewish friend of Ursula’s: “There was a suggestion that Hannie was still alive when she was shovelled into the ovens at Auschwitz.”

Atkinson’s writing is so often about the art of fiction itself and her novels drip with references to literary masters of the past that she weaves expertly into the dialogue with no pretension. Her writing is always a joy, the descriptions of Ted’s bombing raid are tense and alive with movement without being chocked by adjectives. A God In Ruins is as refreshing as a dip in the North Sea yet, at times, heartbreaking and is as beautiful a book as Atkinson has ever written.

  

Book review: The Green Road by Anne Enright

This tale of a family reunion seething with resentment and disappointment may not hit the heights of Enright’s finest, but is still a literary joy

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)

Anne Enright excels at the sort of novel where everyone hates each other, but who are all ultimately bound by a shared history, communal self-loathing and, even, love.

Enright’s novels are usually set within the raging heart of a family where the protagonists seethe silently – and sometimes not so silently – with unresolved jealousy, unspoken traumas and petty feuds. I love her novels, seeped as they are with disappointment and unfulfilled dreams. Real life in other words, but told so much more eloquently than our own; in Enright’s novels, the everyday is elevated to art.

As in all the best novels, little happens in The Green Road. Like other Enright books it’s character led, although the plot is always on the cusp of kicking off, that simmering resentment within the nuclear family threatening to explode. The Green Road, in Enright tradition, doesn’t follow a neat narrative cliche; when you think you know what’s going to happen, Enright changes down a gear and the result is far less dramatic – and yet somehow more dramatic – than you think it’s going to be.

Everyday life and its blandness is reflected back at us with Enright’s illuminating prose. In The Green Road, the spotlight falls on the Madigan family. There’s Constance, overweight, kind, put-upon; the youngest (and the prettiest) Hanna who finds solace for her shattered dreams in a sherry bottle while second son Emmet tries to heal real wounds in the developing world, but can’t mend his. (I wasn’t convinced by Dan, the gay oldest son who runs off to the New World, he seemed a bit uneven, a little lightweight).

Their backstories lead us to a reunion at the family house in County Clare in 2005, herded back home by their infuriating, magnetic mother, Rosaleen. Her character is established at the beginning of the novel, set a couple of decades before the ill-fated Christmas reunion, when she takes to her bed after Dan tells her he’s going to become a priest (mothers in literature Who Take To Their Beds is one of those Things That Happens In Novels, like it always being a hot summer). Rosaleen is a childlike, snidey woman who her children are desperate to run away from (New York, the developing world, the bottom of a bottle, biscuits) but are so shaped by her that they can never truly escape.

Despite great acclaim (including another Man Booker Prize nod) The Green Road fell a little flatter than her previous novels, the wonderful The Gathering and the equally startling The Forgotten Waltz (her selection of short stories, Yesterday’s Weather, is also excellent), it never quite pulled me into its snare in the way her other books have. But with Enright’s writing as its star, it’s still a novel that is as lush and stimulating as the Irish countryside.

Suzanne Elliott

Book review: Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín published by Viking

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín published by Viking

Nora Webster is one of those extraordinary ordinary novels that is riveting in its everyday-ness

Nora Webster, the 10th novel from Irish master of words, Colm Tóibín, is loosely based on his own mother’s experience of grief. This novel is personal enough for to Tóibín to have struggled for 10 years to write it, so close was it to his own family’s experience.

Set in Tóibín’s hometown of Enniscorthy, Wexford County at the end of the 1960s, the brewing Troubles provide a TV level hum of discontent to an otherwise millpond life. The eponymous hero, Nora Webster, has, when we first meet her, recently been left widowed at the age of 44 with four children, two almost grown up girls and two young teenage boys. Told chronologically, the novel is the story – or as much of a story as Tóibín will ever tell – of her grief, from the raw early days to three years later, when her pain lies lighter in her heart and Maurice, her late husband, becomes a less frequent presence on the page.

Maurice’s death takes place off the page just before we meet Nora – who is, in those early days, having to contend with a constant parade of well-intentioned visitors who are lining up to offer condolences and dish out orders. From that point, we follow Nora as she sells the family’s seaside house, goes back to work, dyes her hair to the shock of the small town, goes on holiday to Spain where she sleeps in a boiler room to get away from her aunt’s snoring, and paints her back room.

There are many moments of quiet awakening, most notably in her discovery of music, something Maurice never took an interest in. Nora joins a choir and the rather pompous Gramophone Society, through which she discovers Bach and Dvořák. She even buys a record player and begins making trips to Dublin to buy records as the music lifts her out of numbness and gently nudges her into her new life post-Maurice.

Tóibín’s novel is a wonderful study in a woman’s struggle with grief and her self-discovery. Maurice’s absence is felt through her loneliness and a sense of free falling, the feeling of being trapped without the anchor of a partner by her side.

Nora Webster is written in Tóibín’s characteristically plain prose that’s stripped of any creative writing flourishes. Broken down, at times it reads like a list, or a functionary weekend diary entry, but its very plainness beautifully captures the mundane everyday of grief and the daily grind of life. This, after struggling to make ends meet after Maurice’s death. “After much argument, she had finally been granted a second pension, and both pensions had been increased in the previous year’s budget. She had not been aware at first that the extra money had been backdated by six months and she was surprised to get cheques in the post for what she thought were large sums of money.”

As ever, there’s poetry in Tóibín’s bleak prose that serves to highlight the streak of sadness that runs through Nora’s life as she wades through her grief, watching her children struggle to overcome their sorrow while finding her own way through the darkness. I was particularly touched by stuttering Donal who finds solace in photography and whose loneliness Nora is powerless to prevent.

Nora herself is a extremely private person with a steeliness that lays buried until she’s forced to defend herself or her family. She is a divisive person we come to understand, some of the characters are drawn to her while others – her sisters included – find her prickly, uncooperative, rude and, to her family she often is. The book is told from her perspective, and, while it’s never stated, they are, in their familial closeness, clearly the target of her grief fuelled anger.

But there is a warmth too to this novel that seeps through the spacious prose that pulls you into the minutia of Nora’s small life with the force that only a truly great novel can.

Book Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer  (Vintage)

Flashes of genius can’t prevent The Interestings from too often getting stuck in a word bog 

Meg Wolitzer’s modern classic The Wife is a gripping, thought provoking and provocative novel that has become one of the defining feminist fiction books of the past few years. I loved it and, after taking so long to discover this great American writer, was delighted to see she had a back catalogue I could explore. The Interestings is her latest novel, published in 2013. It’s in the great American tradition of family sagas – a story for the sake of a story, the lives, loves and loses of a group of friends who meet at summer camp in the 1960s and – with an ironic wink – call themselves the interestings.

The plot is largely discarded for character, something I’m usually all for, but there was something a little meandering about The Interestings that never quite held me hostage to it in the way The Wife did. It seemed to be missing a heart;The Wife was cold and impersonal but that suited  the narrative. The aloofness of The Interestings meant I never felt I was there on this journey with the characters. I don’t believe in having to like characters to enjoy a book, in real life people are flawed so why can’t fictional humans be as irritating, self-obsessed and vacuous as we are. But when the characters are the novel’s driving force, it’s imperative that they’re, well, interesting. And I found them rather underwhelming

Jules – in many ways the story’s narrator and centre – should have been larger than life, a teenage misfit who finds herself in with the cool gang, including the beautiful, ethereal Ash Wolf and her brother, the beguiling if troubled Goodman. But instead she sat flat on the page, never quite pinging to life. I liked her husband, the great, hulking Dennis, the ordinary male provider and protector in a book full of creative dreamers.

Jules’s life is set on its path when she arrives at the Spirit in the Woods summer camp a geeky, suburban, awkward teenager and leaves an aspiring actress with a newly discovered funny side. Her and Ash will be life long friends. Ethan Figman, ugly and talented loves Jules, but marries Ash. He will become widely successful as an animator and creator of a Simpsons’s style show, his life becoming all staff and houses in the country while Jules and Dennis struggle to pay the rent on their one-bed apartment. Then there’s Jonah who drifts in and out of the story, a beautiful gay boy who becomes an increasingly wisp of a character as the novel progresses. I can’t remember the last time I was so bored by a character.

Maybe the novel’s lack of commitment is writing about friendships – and this is essentially what The Interestings is – is like breakdancing to town planning – it can never quite tell the whole story. Wolitzer tries to capture these complex relationships that are so full of happiness, sadness, secrets, simmering anger, pettiness, loyalty and compassion and yet are never as fiercely bonded as family. In fiction, friendships are often so perfect, devoid of the dramas and jealousies that bind you to people. Wolitzer does tap into the envy and the divide money creates between old friends, both socially as well as materially, but even she seems to chicken out of confronting it full on.

On form,Wolitzer’s prose is as arresting as ever, although there were pages when I felt the sentences got stuck in a word quagmire, some of the themes laboured intensively over a few chapters, before being left fallow (the friends with money thread being the obvious one, did I miss the point it suddenly went from being A Major Issue for Jules to her being totally fine with it?). And there were some fascinating paragraphs when Wolitzer speaks so eloquently about the human condition that it punches you hard in the heart. These parts are an absolute joy to read and the reason why the rest of Meg Wortlizer’s back catalogue remain mid-table in my TBR pile.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer published by Penguin Classics

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer published by Penguin Classics

‘Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater

Had a wife and couldn’t keep her…’

Penelope Mortimer was as celebrated as her husband John, he of Rumpole of the Bailey fame in the 1960s, but has drifted out of fashion and with it print. But now her most successful and critically acclaimed novel, The Pumpkin Eater, has been published as a Penguin Classic.

The Pumpkin Eater is a short, sharp, quirky little book that has a wonderfully barbed dreaminess to it. Published in 1962, this novel is rich in language, an evocative tale of a Mrs Armitage (we never know her first name) who suffers a breakdown in the linen department of Harrods ground down by the domesticity of her life and bruised by many betrayals. She is a woman saddled with the constraints of her gender and time.

Twice divorced, when we meet her she is about to marry again. She already has a brood of children – we’re never told how many, in deed Mrs Armitage seems to have lost track of her offspring and seems baffled by their presence.

When she first meets her third-husband-to-be Jake, Mrs Armitage is still married to her second husband and living in a barn. Attracted by the bohemianism poverty, Jake, who is then a struggling writer, falls in love her and she him and, leaving three of the kids in boarding school at the insistence of her father, they marry. Jake becomes an increasingly successful screenwriter and Mrs Armitage moves from poverty to a life of confusing leisure where she’s weighed down by the grinding invisibility of being a wife and a mother.

The novel is an singular description of a woman suffering from depression,  burdened by the domesticity of her life and bruised by many betrayals. There is languid air hangs that hangs over Mrs Armitage, moving through her life as it were treacle, bemused at the presence of all these children and confused by her husband’s infidelity and cruelty. She doesn’t know any other way than the life she is leading – as many women didn’t in the days before the sexual revolution. She was born to breed and dust and not concern herself with her husband’s affairs – in every sense.

The Pumpkin Eater is a loosely autobiographical story. Penelope Mortimer was a woman very much of her time, at the tail end of the 1950s when women were still confined to the domestic world. Mortimer also married several times and had six children. The world The Pumpkin Eater inhabits flirts with Nancy Mitford’s descriptions of a boho world where no one gives a damn about morals, but this is a far more serious, unusual book . I was often reminded of Penelope Gilliatt in the sparse, dialogue-heavy narrative that had an almost filmic quality to it. Mortimer actually succeeded Gilliatt as film critic of The Observer, a fact I gleaned from this great article by Rachel Cooke in the same paper.

The Pumpkin Eater is a darkly funny, wry look at one woman’s world that is so small it’s crushing her, but that isn’t consumed by its own earnestness. Mortimer deserves to be back in print – maybe it won’t be long before she’s back in fashion too.

by Suzanne Elliott