Flynn Berry: Under the Harrow (2016)

I’m so glad I came across Under the Harrow on Danielle’s site here. I knew right away I would love it and I was right. Flynn Berry received the Edgar Award for her début and she certainly deserved that. It’s one of the most convincing and surprising psychological thrillers I’ve read in a long time. Think “Gone Girl” or “Girl on a Train” but much, much better and tighter, in spare, convincing prose, and with a literary quality.

At the beginning of the book, Nora’s on a train from London to the English countryside where her sister Rachel lives and works as a nurse. Rachel doesn’t pick her up at the train station, which isn’t too strange because she’s very busy, but when Nora approaches the house she senses something isn’t right. And then she finds Rachel’s dog brutally murdered and her sister savagely killed.

We ate dinner together every night in Cornwall and had an endless number of things to say. She was my favourite person to talk with, because what caught her attention caught mine too.

The police investigate and soon Nora finds out she might not have known her sister as well as she thought. Because she’s not happy with the investigation and thinks she knows who did it, she starts to investigate on her own. Her emotions complicate things considerably. Her grief is so raw, so palpable, and very complex. Nora misses Rachel so much and often forgets that she’s dead. It’s absolutely harrowing.

She had so much left to do. It isn’t that she had something grand in mind, at least not that I know of. It is worse than that, she has been taken away from everything, she lost everything. She likes red lipstick, and will never again stand in the aisle at a chemist’s, testing the shades on the back of her hand. She likes films, and will miss all the ones coming out at the holidays that she planned to see. She likes pan con tomate, and will never again come home from work and mash tomatoes and garlic and olive oil, and rub it onto grilled bread, and eat it standing in her kitchen.

The reader finds out that there was a dark element in their relationship and begins to wonder whether what Nora’s saying is really true. So does the police.

And then there’s an incident from Rachel’s past that casts a shadow over everything. As a teenager she was brutally attacked and ever since then had tried to track down the man who did it and was never found by the police.

All these different plotlines come together in the end. The ending is one of the best I’ve come across in a long time. It’s a huge twist but it’s entirely plausible.

Flynn Berry is very good at creating great characters. Both Rachel and Nora feel very real. Full of contradictions, a mix of darkness and light. The secondary characters are equally convincing.

Under the Harrow is atmospheric and suspenseful but it’s much more than a simple page turner. It explores the often complex relationship between sisters, devastating grief, and the way the past can haunt us.

I know I’m raising the expectations of future readers but I have to say it— This book is stellar.

Nicci French: Saturday Requiem (2016) Frieda Klein Series 6

Those who follow this blog know how much I like the books of writer duo Nicci French. Their standalone novels and their Frieda Klein series.

I still think that the first two in the Frieda Klein series are the best but I did enjoy some of the others, even though Frieda’s life often took up much more space than the mystery itself. Not so in this book. From a mystery point of view, Saturday Requiem is one of the best in the series. Sadly, I liked it less than the others before because Frieda’s turned into a bit of a cypher. Her life took up minimal space. There was zero development on the personal front. That was a bit disappointing. In the last two books, the personal life was almost too much in the center and here, we got only glimpses.

The book starts when Frieda’s asked to visit Hannah, a patient in a psychiatric ward. The woman has been there for 13 years, ever since she was found guilty of savagely killing her whole family. The detective who had been working on the case back then, is under investigation and it’s possible that he made mistakes with this case. That’s why Frieda’s asked to try and talk to Hannah and tie up loose ends.

When Frieda visits Hannah, she shows every sign of being mad, but Frieda doesn’t think that she was always like this. It rather looks as if being charged with the murder and sent to a psychiatric hospital for life, may have caused her “madness”. Clearly, Hannah spends a lot of time in solitary confinement. Since the police do not want to reopen the case, Frieda, who doesn’t think Hannah is guilty, begins to investigate on her own.

Like in the other books of the series, there’s the shadow of the perpetrator from the first book looming in the shadows. Possibly he even enters Frieda’s house.

Overall, the book is suspenseful. Not unputdownable, but very readable.

It’s pretty obvious, the series is coming to an end, not only because it’s logical, given the titles of the books, but because this one ends with a major cliffhanger, something none of the other books in the series do. Nicci French is definitely gearing up for the finale.

If it wasn’t for this cliffhanger and the overarching story, I might not have picked up the next one. There are just too many great crime series out there that I still want to read. But then again, I want to see how it all ends and so I’ve already got Sunday Morning Coming Down waiting on my piles.

Here are the other reviews of the series

Blue Monday

Tuesday’s Gone

Waiting for Wednesday

Thursday’s Child

Friday on My Mind

Literature and War Readalong September 2017: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony is the second Native American novel we’re reading for this year’s Literature and War Readalong 2017. I truly hope it’s more accessible than the first we read N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn. I struggled quite a bit with it as you can see here.

Leslie Marmon Silko was born in 1948, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is of mixed heritage, Laguna Pueblo, Mexican and white. She grew up on a Laguna Pueblo Reservation and continued to live there later in life.

Ceremony immediately became an American classic after its publication in 1977. It especially spoke to the Vietnam war veterans who related to the novels’ exploration of a veteran’s way of healing.

Here is the first sentence of Ceremony:

Tayo didn’t sleep well that night. He tossed in the cold iron bed, and the coiled springs kept squeaking even after he lay still again, calling up humid dreams of black night and loud voices rolling him over and over again like debris caught in a flood.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join:

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, 243 pages, US 1977, WWII

The great Native American Novel of a battered veteran returning home to heal his mind and spirit
More than thirty-five years since its original publication, Ceremony remains one of the most profound and moving works of Native American literature, a novel that is itself a ceremony of healing. Tayo, a World War II veteran of mixed ancestry, returns to the Laguna Pueblo Reservation. He is deeply scarred by his experience as a prisoner of the Japanese and further wounded by the rejection he encounters from his people. Only by immersing himself in the Indian past can he begin to regain the peace that was taken from him. Masterfully written, filled with the somber majesty of Pueblo myth, Ceremony is a work of enduring power. The Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition contains a new preface by the author and an introduction by Larry McMurtry.

*******

The discussion starts on Friday, September 29.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman (2017)

Sarah Winman’s Tin Man is another novel I bought because of some rave reviews. Luckily, this time, I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s actually surprising because Sarah Winman does something I normally don’t like. She switches narrators in the middle of the novel, using a narrative device that can easily sink a novel – the use of a diary. In this case, the switch added poignancy and turned a very good novel into an excellent, heartbreaking book.

Before I start with a brief summary, let me emphasize what a great cover this book has. Until you read it, it’s just a pop of yellow color with a man riding a bicycle on it, but once you’ve read the book, you know that the yellow cover alludes to one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings – The Sunflowers.

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

The painting stands for beauty and the belief, as one of the characters’ mother says, that boys and men are capable of beautiful things.

As a matter of fact, the book starts with the painting or rather how Ellis’ mother won a copy of it in a raffle and put it on a wall, in an act of defiance. Her brutish husband would have preferred her to take a bottle of whisky. The year is 1950 and it’s Ellis’ birth year.

The book then moves to 1996. We are in Elli’s house. There’s a photograph of three people on a bookshelf. A photograph Ellis rarely looks at because two of the three people in it are gone. One, his wife, is dead. What happened to the other one, his best friend Michael ,will be revealed over the course of the novel.

Annie, Ellis’ wife, has been dead for five years, but the grief is still raw. It’s one of the reasons why Ellis works at night. In a factory. Factory work wasn’t exactly his calling. He wanted to become a painter but after his mother’s early death, his dad didn’t allow it.

Ellis’ whole life is slowly revealed. At its heart is his friendship with Michael, a lonely orphan, who lives nearby and visits often. The two boys are very close. Also physically close and for the longest time, one of them, Michael, thinks they will be lovers. They will, in fact, but it’s a furtive thing. Ellis doesn’t really seem to be gay. And once Annie comes along, there’s no doubt, this is the love of his life. At least romantically speaking, because in terms of emotional love, there’s not much of a difference. He loves Michael just as much as Annie.The truly magical thing, though, is that Michael and Annie become best friends as well.

Of course the reader wonders where Michael is. Why is Ellis’ best friend not with him and helps him to get over his grief?

Ellis has an accident and is on sick leave for a long time. Having so much time for himself, has a huge impact. He revisits his life, his aspirations, his dreams. And then he finds Michael’s diary and we finally learn what happened. How they lost contact and why they are apart.

The first part, Ellis’ part, is sad, but the second, Michael’s, is heartbreaking. The relationship seen through his eyes, gets another meaning and the book explores another form or grief—heartbreak.

Here’s what Michael says

I rest till I’m calm and my breathing has settled. I lift myself out and sit by the edge of the pool with a towel around my shoulders. And I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.

Both men travel to the South of France, following Van Gogh’s itinerary but also, in Ellis’ case, exploring where Michael spent some time.

These parts are beautiful and capture the landscape, its colors and scents so well

It’s a rare overcast day and I walk over to Mausole, to the St. Paul asylum where Van Gogh spent a year before he died. The air along this stretch of road is filled with the scent of honeysuckle that has crept over a neighbouring wall. I think it’s honeysuckle. It’s sweet and fragrant, but I’m not good with plants – that was Annie’s thing. I veer off through olive groves where the sun has yet to take the colour of the wildflowers. In two weeks, though, the grass will be scorched and lifeless.

Since this novel is mainly set in the 90s of the last century and does explore what it was like to be gay back then, it touches on so many really sad topics like HIV, the way homosexuals were perceived by society, how many never came out, how they had to hide. Things have gotten so much better by now, that we almost tend to forget that not too long ago, they were very different. In the early 90s HIV was still synonymous with Aids. Once you were infected there wasn’t a huge chance you wouldn’t get seriously ill sooner or later and then, because there was no cure, die. There are passages, in which Michael visits men in an Aids ward. They are harrowing.

Tragic books, especially when they describe raw emotions can turn mushy or tacky. This one never crosses these lines. It’s moving and deeply touching without being sentimental. It’s an emotional ride that explores themes like grief and loss, loneliness and unrequited love, finding one’s path, following one’s calling and, most of all, fining beauty where there seems to be only ugliness. A truly beautiful book.

Claire Fuller: Swimming Lessons (2017)

Swimming Lessons is English author Claire Fuller’s second novel. After coming across more than one raving review by book bloggers and critics, I decided I had to read it.

Flora and Nan’s mother has disappeared twelve years ago. One day, their father, Gil Coleman, thinks he’s seen her and while trying to get a better look accidentally falls from a seafront. Nan, the older sister, a nurse, calls Flora and begs her to come home and help her look after their dad.

Unlike Gil and Nan, Flora doesn’t believe that her mother has drowned. She thinks that she simply chose to leave and might still return one day.

After the first chapter in which Flora travels to her childhood home, a swimming pavilion, the narrative splits. The parts in the present are told from Flora’s POV, the parts in the past are written in the form of letters Ingrid writes to Gil before she disappears. Ingrid hides the letters in the pages of Gil’s books. Gil Coleman, who is the famous author of a scandalous book, has an interesting hobby. He collects old books. Not because of the books but because of the things he finds in them— the notes and drawings of their readers. In one of these he finds a letter from his missing wife. Ingrid’s letters unfold their complex, difficult, and destructive marriage.

Most readers seem to have liked the marriage story told by Ingrid in the letters. While I found some elements interesting, overall, the parts set in the present, spoke to me much more.  The most interesting element of Ingrid’s story is her feelings for her children. She doesn’t relate to her two daughters. The first one, Nan, was an accident and somehow Ingrid always saw her as an independent being. Flora, the third, is very much Gil’s daughter. I guess that’s why the parts in the present are told from her and not from Nan’s point of view. She adores and idolizes her father. Finding out the truth about her parent’s marriage is more of a surprise and a shock to her than it is to the reader. One of the tragedies of Ingrid’s life is that the child she relates to the most was stillborn. When she’s pregnant with him, she already knows that Gil is unfaithful and she’s very lonely. She projects so much on this child and is sure he will become her companion. When he dies, she feels like she’s lost her only true child and her chance at happiness and companionship. I found this extremely sad and problematic for everyone involved. For Ingrid, because she lost that baby and for her two girls because they mean less to their mother than a child who didn’t even live.

The parts told by Flora were those I could relate to the most. They show how difficult it is to live with a family secret and what a challenge it can be, coming from a dysfunctional family, to have healthy relationships.

One of the main themes of the novel is ambiguous loss. There’s a story one character tells the others, in which a child gets lost and it mirrors Ingrid’s story. The loss is magnified because they never get closure. It’s possible she’s dead but it’s just as possible, she left them. Gil and Nan, both believe she’s dead and have moved on, but Flora, for the longest time, cannot move on as she’s still hoping her mother’s out there somewhere.

Whole books have been written about ambiguous loss. There are other forms of ambiguous loss, not only those, in which the body of the disappeared was never found but also those in which the mind has gone but the body’s still around, like in the case of dementia or Alzheimer patients. I haven’t experienced anything like this but I always thought it must be devastating. It’s an important topic and I loved how subtly it was explored in this novel.

This is one of those books I enjoyed far less while reading it than after finishing it. I’m not always keen on split narratives. I often prefer one narrator/POV and going back and forth between two or more can get on my nerves. But when a book is really good, it can come together as whole, once we finish reading. And that was the case here. The longer I thought about it, the more I liked it. I found the characters, especially quirky Flora, interesting and relatable and I absolutely loved the sense of place. The descriptions of the swimming pavilion and the surrounding landscape of marshes and ponds, is what held the book together. The imagery was so strong that I can still picture the place with great detail. The ending was unexpected and powerful.

If you like stories of dysfunctional families and family secrets, books with a strong sense of place, and fully rounded, complex characters, you might enjoy this subtle, haunting story that lingers in the mind long after the book is finished.

Frédéric Dard: C’est toi le venin (You’re the Poison) (1957)

I have no idea why I haven’t read any Frédéric Dard novels so far. Possibly, because in France his standalone novels are a bit overshadowed by his San-Antonio series, which never tempted me. Or because he was so prolific that I had no clue where to start. He wrote at least 280 novels, twenty plays, and sixteen adaptations for the cinema. There was one novel, however, I always meant to read because it has been made into a movie (Toi, le venin – Night is Not For Sleep aka Blonde in a White Car), of which my dad was very fond. He even had a single of the film music. That’s why I chose this book over all the many others that sounded just as good and also over all those already translated into English.

Ces’t toi le venin, which I would translate as “You’re the poison” tells the story of Victor Menda. Victor Menda, a young man of twenty-eight years, is down on his luck. He has no job, no money, no relatives, no friends and serious dept at the casino. The story’s set on the Côte d’Azur and at the beginning we see Menda walk along the sea, contemplating suicide. He eventually decides against this drastic measure and takes a walk along the water. Suddenly a car stops. A woman’s at the steering wheel and demands that he join her. Menda does as he’s told. He’s intrigued and wants to see the woman’s face but a scarf hides it. She finally stops again and wants to have sex with him. Although he finds this openly demanding behaviour a tad intimidating and even revolting, he still accepts. When she finally boots him out again, there’s nothing else he can do but write down her number plate.

Don’t worry, I haven’t given away too much of the plot, as what I just summarized doesn’t take up more than a few pages. The story as such begins when Menda finds the owner of the car. The car belongs to Hélène, the older of two very beautiful and rich sisters who own a huge villa near Nice. The younger sister, Ève, sits in a wheelchair since the age of thirteen. The young girl develops a massive crush on Menda and so the older one begs him to stay with them. Unfortunately, Menda falls in love with the older one.

It soon becomes obvious that things are not as they should. There’s someone using the car at night but it doesn’t seem to be Hélène. Other strange things happen, which alert Menda.

The atmosphere and the mood in the novel get darker and darker. At first Menda thinks, he’s struck gold, but soon he can’t shake off the feeling of being trapped and used. Someone is playing cat and mouse with the people living at the villa. Is it one of them or someone from outside?

I absolutely loved this novel. Some of it is predictable but there are still enough surprising twists and the end is chilling.

Like Simenon, Dard relies heavily on dialogue. There are just a few descriptions here and there to create a mood and atmosphere. That’s why reading the book feels a lot like watching a movie. It has immediacy and a pretty brisk pace.

I’m a sucker for books set on the Côte d’Azur, but even if Dard had chosen another setting, I would have enjoyed this book a lot.

I hope to watch the movie soon, until then, I’ll listen to the score. It’s captures the mood of the novel perfectly.

While C’est toi le venin hasn’t been translated yet, some of Dard’s other novels have been published by Pushkin Press in their Vertigo series.

 

 

Toni Morrison: God Help the Child (2015)

I’m so annoyed with myself. I have three or four unread books by Toni Morrison on my piles but instead of reading those, I went and bought her latest, God Help the Child. That wouldn’t be a problem if this was a good book but it’s not. It’s so flawed, it could be a beginner’s novel. And the style? Well, when you pick a Toni Morrison novel, you expect it to be challenging. You don’t expect it to be bland mainstream, with descriptions like “the sky was baby-blue”. Honestly, what went wrong?

The book’s premise had so much promise. The blurb said it’s a book about the way parents damage their children and the repercussions this has later in their life, but somehow that’s not really what it is about. The book doesn’t really take this theme seriously. Maybe because it’s about so many other topics— race, skin color, trust, self-esteem, child abuse.

When the main character Bride is born, her mother rejects her immediately because of her black skin. Nobody in Bride’s family is this blue-black. In fact, they are so light, some of them did pass as white. Her mother, too, could, if she wanted, pass as white. Bride’s father is so shocked that he leaves her mother. He can’t imagine that two rather fair African-Americans could be the parents of such a black child. Of course, he suspects she was unfaithful.

Bride grows up as an outsider and only later, in her twenties, is she able to embrace her skin color and discover her beauty. She even learns how to underline it by wearing only white. At the age of twenty-two, she’s a successful executive at a cosmetic company, ready to launch her own beauty line. While she’s still fighting for her mother’s love, she’s also happy about her success and her beautiful lover, Booker, until the day she tells him something and he leaves her without an explanation.

The reader learns that Booker’s reaction has something to do with Bride’s idea of helping a woman who was convicted for child abuse.

I will stop here as the book basically is about why Bride does what she does and why this makes Booker flee. Both reasons are tied to the protagonists’ childhood.

For such a slim novel – under 180 pages – it has just too many themes. While some are really well done, especially all those linked to colorism, others didn’t get the depth they would have deserved. It isn’t fully explored what being rejected by her mother really meant for Bride. She does something cruel to gain her mother’s love and this affects her, but there doesn’t seem any real and deep damage. This struck me as odd.

What also struck me as odd was the number of child molesters we come across in this book. This too is such a serious problem, but it just didn’t get the careful treatment it would have deserved.

I’m really disappointed and wish I hadn’t bothered with this book. At the same time, I find colorism such an important topic, that I liked the book for that.

I’m glad this wasn’t my first Toni Morrison. It would have been my last. I’d rather read some bestseller than something that is written like a mainstream novel but saddled with heavy, carelessly treated themes. Don’t read this unless you’re a Toni Morrison fan and want to read everything she’s ever written. That said, I think she’s a terrific author and I’ll be reading more of her. Let’s just hope this was a one-off.

Have you read Toni Morrison? Which of her novels do you consider must-reads?