Maggie O’Farrell: Instructions For a Heatwave (2013)

I’m so behind with book reviews that it’s highly unlikely, I’ll ever catch up. This would have been one of many I was going to put aside “for later”, but the title’s too fitting to postpone reviewing it. And it was enjoyable.

The heatwave of the title refers to the heatwave of 1976, one of the worst the UK has ever seen. I don’t know anyone who was alive back then, no matter how small, who wouldn’t remember it. While it’s possibly as hot now as it was then, the heat started earlier, I think, in June and there were massive water shortages. Let’s hope that it won’t come to that. Although it looks dire already. “Over here”, where I live, Continental Europe, it’s even hotter. And, just like in the UK, we have no air conditioning. In Switzerland it’s even forbidden to have them in your own home. Small ones, yes, but they don’t help much. Before diving into the review, let me moan some more – yesterday, the thermometer in our flat showed 35°! Only two degrees less than outside. Sleeping, you wonder? Not so much. My poor cats crawl into dark corners, hoping dark means cool and stay there until the evening. Normally, they run around all day. Unfortunately, he’s afraid of the fan, while she enjoys it

Now on to Maggie O’Farrell. As I mentioned already, Instructions For a Heatwave is set in 1976 during the heatwave and tells the story of the Riordan family. One morning, the dad, Robert Riordan, leaves the house and doesn’t come back. His wife Gretta is shocked and flustered. She calls her children hoping they will come and help her. Already the first phone calls show the family dynamics. There are misunderstandings, half-truths, accusations, exaggerations, tensions. And the three children are facing troubles of their own, that are now, through this family emergency, magnified. At the same time, the emergency shows how frail their family bonds are, how dysfunctional. Gretta is a hypochondriac. She changes subjects when she feels she doesn’t want to talk about something and that is often. She pops pills, makes stuff up and has her kids constantly on alert. Some of the reasons for her behaviour will be revealed later.

Michael Francis is the oldest sibling and in the middle of his own family crisis. It may very well be that his wife, who is reinventing herself, will leave him. He’s not entirely without fault though. Monica, the first daughter, married for the second time, is also doubtful about the future of her marriage. And Aoife, the youngest, is in New York, trying desperately to hold on to a life she loves but that is threatened because it’s built on a lie – nobody knows that she’s a functional illiterate.

When they hear of their dad’s disappearance they all return home. At first, the reunion is frosty and awkward. There are too many things that have been left unsaid in the past and too many family secrets. The biggest is the reason for their dads’ disappearance.

It will take them a few days to sort some things out and then they take a family trip to Ireland, where the parents originally come from.

Instructions for a Heatwave is in many ways an astonishing book. It’s so intricately told, the stories are so tightly interwoven that I was constantly wondering – how did she do that? She moves in out of characters’ minds, switches from the present to the past and back again, but it’s never confusing because it’s so well done.

This is the story of a dysfunctional family but one with hope. They do not give up on each other nor on themselves. Gretta was possibly my favourite character although she reminded me of my late mother (minus my mother’s meanness that is). It’s fascinating to see a character description that resonates so much. Just like Gretta, my mother would always change the subject if she didn’t want to talk about something, pretending she hadn’t heard what had been said and then pretending she had an attack of something (cough, sickness, stomach cramps, “nerves”) and urgently needed her pills. Also, like Gretta, she would start chatting with anyone, finding out family stories and other people’s secrets without ever revealing any of her own. Since the Riordan’s are Irish and Catholics, that was something I could relate to as well. Looking back, it was no fun being brought up by a Catholic mother – my dad was anti-clerical, so that balanced things out a bit.

While this book resonated a lot with me because of my own history, I still think anyone who loves complex family stories would like this very much. In the past, I had mixed experiences with Maggie O’Farrell. I loved The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, but didn’t care for another one of her books (I think it was After You’d Gone). This rich and lovely novel has put me in the mood to read more by her. Her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am is already on my piles.

Susan Hill: The Shadows in the Street (2010) Simon Serrailler 5

I read and reviewed several of Susan Hills books; her WWI novel Strange Meeting, the ghost stories The Woman in Black and The Small Hand, the memoir Howard’s End is on the Landing and recently – not reviewed – Jacob’s Room is Full of Books. I enjoyed them all. What I hadn’t tried yet, was her Simon Serrailler crime series. I can’t remember why I didn’t buy the first in the series but the fifth, I only know I bought it when it was published in 2010 – one of many pointless hardback purchases. Luckily, although it took me seven years to get to it, the novel was a very pleasant surprise.

The Shadows in the Street is set in Lafferton, a fiction cathedral town in Southern England. It opens from the point of view of one of the POV characters, Leslie Blade, a single librarian who lives with his elderly mother. In the evenings, Leslie often visists the young prostitutes of Lafferton and brings them tea and sandwiches. From his point of view the book switches to Abi, one of the young prostitutes the book focuses on. When one of Abi’s colleagues is brutally murdered, Leslie’s quickly one of the main suspects. We’re then introduced to Cat, Simon’s sister, who lost her husband. She’s the council doctor and active in the church and the church choir. The next characters we are introduced to are two young police officers, one who is new on the force and only came to Lafferton because of Simon Serrailler. Simon too makes an appearance but not “on the scene”, but in Scotland, where’s he’s on a holiday. After the first young woman is murdered, another one follows and a third, not a prostitute this time, disappears. And finally, Serrailler, returns to Lafferton.

In many ways The Shadows in the Streets is a peculiar crime novel. It’s part of the series featuring DC Simon Serrailler. Naturally, one would expect a police procedural but that’s not really what this is. It’s a mix between that and a psychological thriller. And one would expect that the main protagonist would be present from the beginning, but he’s absent for almost half of the book. There’s good reason for that – he’s on a holiday, recovering from his last case. While that may be different in other novels, I’m pretty sure many of the other elements are not. As crime novels go, this was one of the more diverse ones I’ve read. It’s written from many different POVs, including that of the perpetrator, but never giving away his identity. I like that. It’s become a staple of recent psychological thrillers to switch POV mid-way through the book and thus reveal the identity of the killer, which I hate. So many of my recent reads have been ruined because of that – last case in point Lisa Jewell’s Then She Was Gone. The Shadow in the Street takes time to introduce us to most of the characters, which gives the book a larger scope and transcends the genre. One can read this like a crime novel or a social commentary. It works well both ways. Clearly, Susan Hill felt strongly about the topic of prostitution and what society could or should do to help the women get out of this occupation. Introducing us to different characters, she paints different portraits, shows the despair, the struggle. Sometimes on both sides. There are well-meaning people who want to help – social workers, doctors, clergy – but they mostly fail.

While Simon Serrailler isn’t present in the beginning of the book, we still get to know him  very well. He’s definitely the kind of investigator I like. A bit of a loner, unpredictable, doing things his way, not following strict orders or procedures. In his spare time he paints. He’s so talented that he could become a full-time painter but he loves to do two very different things. I can definitely relate to that.

As far as crime novels go, this isn’t the tightest but I didn’t mind because I enjoyed reading it. There’s suspense and the ending is not obvious, but at the same time it has a leisurely pace and takes a lot of time to show the characters and explore its main theme – prostitution. Susan Hill is famous for her ghost stories. Ghost stories need strong atmosphere and since she excels in the genre, it’s not surprising that this book is atmospheric too.

This isn’t going to be my last Simon Serrailler. I’m very tempted to go back to the beginning and read the first very soon. Susan Hill’s a skilful story-teller and this series is a great addition to the genre.

#LiveFromSofia – A Short Story Collection by Alexander Shpatov

I just reviewed Alexander Shpatov’s fascinating short story collection #LiveFromSofia for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth hosted by the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative. If you’d like to read it – here’s the review. The site is well worth checking out, especially if, like me, you’re not very familiar with Bulgarian literature.

Amélie Nothomb – Barbe Bleue – Blue Beard (2012)

In 1992, Belgian author Amélie Nothomb entered the literary scene with a bang. Her first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin – L’hygiène de l’assassin, was so successful, that to this day, it’s always the one novel mentioned together with her name. One could almost assume that she has not written anything else. One couldn’t be more wrong. Since 1992 she has published a novel per year. I read her first and wasn’t too keen on it, so I never returned to her until I saw Barbe Bleue (Blue Beard) in a book shop. I love fairy tale retellings or reinterpretations and Blue Beard is one of my favourites. Knowing that she’s famous for her dry, acerbic style, I thought it would be interesting to see what she would do with a tale like this. I was pretty sure, it wouldn’t be fantasy or fantastical and I was right. I had hoped I would like it, but I didn’t expect to like it so much. It’s clever, witty, and whimsical.

Saturnine, a young lecturer at the school of the Louvre in Paris, is looking for a room. When she sees and ad offering rooms in an elegant mansion in the 7th arrondissement, she’s thrilled. The rooms are big, the rent is cheap, what more could she wish for? Of course, she’s not the only one interested in the offer. The place is swarming with women. As Saturnine finds out to her surprise, most of them didn’t come for the rooms, but because they want to catch a glimpse of the rich, notorious owner. All of his eight former tenants have vanished and it is rumoured that he may have killed them. Because Saturnine is from Belgium, she had never heard of the story before. One of the women, applying with Saturnine, predicts that she will be the chosen one as she’s the youngest and the prettiest. And she’s right.

When Saturnine sees the host for the first time she’s totally underwhelmed. He’s not very attractive and full of mannerisms. He’s a Spanish nobleman with a long, flourishing name. Don Elemirio is very proud of his origins and of himself. He shows her around and tells her she can go anywhere she likes with the exception of one room with a black door. He warns her that it wouldn’t be dangerous for her if she entered.

Saturnine isn’t a nosy person and so she’s never tempted to open the door to the forbidden room, but she would like to know what happened to her eighth predecessors.

On the first evening, her host begs her to join him for dinner. She accepts and this will be the first of many dinners. They are all eccentric and downed with large amounts of the most expensive champagne. During these meals, Saturnine teases the nobleman but he doesn’t really get it. He stays serious and finally confesses he’s in love with her. Saturnine is shocked that someone could fall in love so quickly and very certain that she will never love him back. Soon, however, it becomes clear that the mysterious and many talented Don Elemirio fascinates her.

If you’d like to find if she falls for him, and whether or not she’ll access the forbidden room and what happened to the eight women before her, you’ll have to read the book.

To tell this whimsical retelling of the famous Blue Beard fairy tale, Amélie Nothomb uses mainly dialogue. There are only few descriptions and some of Saturnine’s reasonings added. The result is very lively as the discussions are so witty and original and touch upon subjects as diverse as the Spanish Inquisition, Ramon Llull’s Ars Magna, and the perfect color. Saturnine is anything if not feisty. Any other woman would have fled the premises. While she teases, questions, and criticizes the nobleman, he shows her a world of idealism and perfectionism that’s as far from our world as could be.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a clever reinterpretation of an old tale. Since it’s so dialogue heavy, I could imagine it would make a wonderful play.

Most of Amélie Nothomb’s books have been translated into English, but not this one.

I’ll be reading another of Amélie Nothomb’s books bery soon. After having read a few rave reviews I got Les CatilinairesThe Stranger Next Door.

Have you read any of Nothomb’s books. Which ones would you recommend?

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

Before reading The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I could have sworn I’ve read it already. It’s one of those tales most of us are so familiar with that it’s easy to understand why I thought so. It’s always interesting when we then finally read one of these books, to see how much of what we thought we knew corresponds to what the book is really about. In this case, funny enough, hardly anything. Yes, there’s a doctor, Dr Jekyll, who experiments with a substance that turns him into his evil alter ego, Dr Hyde, but that’s it. The finer details were completely different and so was the structure. I’d expected a first person narrative, from beginning to end, a bit like some of Edgar Alan Poe’s tales, but what I found is a rather diverse structure. At first some acquaintance of Dr. Jekyll tells the tale or rather, how he meets Mr Hyde and how revolting he finds him. Then there are other people’s stories and finally letters from Dr. Jekyll.

The most interesting bit however is the psychological dimension of the story. I had thought that it was a bit of a black and white tale. Good Dr Jekyll turns into evil Mr Hyde, which isn’t entirely the case. Dr Jekyll is far from a good person and at first, he relishes Hyde’s evil deeds. It’s a lot as if his repressed urges surface and he can finally do what he always wanted. Initially what he does is merely shocking, but then he becomes truly murderous.

I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.

I’m not going to say much more, I’ve already revealed a lot.

I liked reading this very much. Not because of the story as such and definitely not because of the structure which I felt didn’t work so well, but because of the atmosphere and the writing. The descriptions of foggy London at night are eerie and atmospheric. Although, one might question, if its really London Robert Louis Stevenson had in mind. My foreword tells me that the descriptions match Edinburgh far better than London.

The writing is not only excellent when Stevenson describes the city but also when he characterises someone like here:

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable. . . . He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theater, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years. But he had an approved tolerance for others; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds; and in any extremity inclined to help rather than to reprove. . . . [I]t was frequently his fortune to be the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of down-going men.

While I liked large parts of this novella for the descriptions and the psychological and philosophical aspects, I think that for us, today, it’s also a problematic tale because of the description of Hyde. Hyde is evil and that’s easily detected by people who see him because he’s ugly and deformed.

Here’s one of the quotes that describe him:

He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.

Nowadays, in speculative fiction, nobody would get away with describing an evil person in the way Hyde is described. It’s not only that he’s ugly and deformed but it’s said that one could easily sense that he was evil because of the way he looked.

The Strange Tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a classic of Victorian literature and now that I’ve finally read it, I can see why. What it says about the duality of human nature is interesting and still valid.

If you’d like to read another review of the novella, here’s a review on Brian’s blog.

I know that there are several film versions of this story, but I’ve never watched any. Which one would you suggest?

Terri Windling: The Wood Wife (1996)

Terri Windling is an American author, editor, artist and essayist. Together with Ellen Datlow she’s edited numerous anthologies of fantasy/speculative fiction short stories. As a writer she’s famous for the use of mythology, folklore, and fairy tales.

Her second novel, The Wood Wife, which was published in 1996, is set in the Sonora desert and tells the story of the poet Maggie Black. Maggie Black has inherited the house of poet Davis Cooper who lived in the Rincon mountains, near Tucson for decades. Cooper was something like a mentor for Maggie and it was always her greatest wish to meet him in person. Unfortunately, this never happened. She’s surprised that Cooper, who was found murdered in the desert, chose her as his inheritor and travels to the Sonora desert with great trepidation. She hopes she’ll be able to write his biography and find out whether, as she suspects, he’s been writing secretly. Officially, Cooper stopped writing a long time ago. Possibly because he didn’t get over the death of his wife, Mexican painter Anna Naverra.

Maggie is used to big cities and coming to a place that’s as remote as Cooper’s house, is a huge challenge. Living there, even more so. Luckily, she finds the people living close by, former friends of Cooper, are very welcoming.

Soon after her arrival, strange things begin to happen. It’s as if the mountain and its fauna has a life of its own. All seems linked to Anna’s paintings and Cooper’s poems. Or is it the other way around? Did the paintings and poems come alive? Maggie embarks on a journey of discovery that is anything but safe.

The Wood Wife is such a haunting, beautiful book for many reasons. The way Terri Windling captures the desert, its flora and fauna is magical, even before she mentions any mythological creatures or folklore. The reader can feel how powerful it is and how it transforms Maggie from the beginning because she’s open to its beauty and wildness. Maggie has left behind a life that wasn’t all success and happiness. She was married to a famous musician who was unfaithful and cost her a lot of energy. In traveling to the Sonora desert, Maggie also hopes to return to her own writing. The connection of art and life and the theme of relationships between artists or between famous and less famous artist are some of the most important elements of this story. The book explores different possibilities and also different views of art.

Here’s Maggie:

I supported my ex-husband all through the lean years at the beginning of his career. I stopped writing poetry and hustled my butt getting every magazine assignment I could. Cooper was furious with me but I wouldn’t listen; I was in love, and ready to join that long tradition of the little woman behind the great man. . . I think I had this romantic vision of being The Artist’s Muse–but instead I was just The Hardworking Wife. And the muses were all the ladies that my husband had on the side.”

And this is Fox:

“You assume that what I want is what you would want: Success, Recognition. I’m not like you. I’m not like Cooper. That’s not what a good life means to me. Playing music is a high, for sure–but there’s other things that I like just as much. Carpentry, for instance; it’s honest work, it’s solid, it’s real, it pays a living wage . . . I give free music lessons to kids . . . I like having time for things like that. And time for my friends. And for myself. I don’t want to spend all my time hustling music. Just want to play it, enjoy it, and have a life.”

The Wood Wife tells, among many things, also a beautiful love story and stories of friendship. The strength of these stories stems from the wonderful, complex characters.

I enjoyed this book very much and read it very slowly. Terri Windling created a magical world that is beautiful but not cute. Life in the desert is harsh. For months it’s dry and then when it rains, everything is flooded and the people living on the mountain are trapped there. Coyotes and rabbits roam freely but they are also hunted by poachers and tourists who think it’s a fun sport. In many ways, this is a very realistic depiction of a landscape and a way of life but then the book goes deeper and uses mythology and folklore to show what a magical, powerful place the Sonora is.

Here’s what Cooper says:

I need a land where sun and wind will strip a man down to the soul and bleach his dying bones. I want to speak the language of stones.

The Wood Wife reminded me of a few European fantasy books, like Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock or Alan Gardner’s The Owl Service. They use European folklore and mythology, in the same way Windling uses North American Indian folklore. The juxtaposition of these two different, yet similar approaches is even addressed in the book.

“I’ve studied Davis Cooper as an English poet. Born and raised in the West Country. So when I read his poems I see English woods, I see the moor, and hedgerows, and walls of stone. And then I drive up here,” she waved her hand at the dry land around them, “and I realise that these are the woods he’s been talking about all along. These hills. This sky. Now I’m reading a whole different set of poems when I look at Cooper’s work.”

The illustration of the book cover shows artwork by Susan Seddon Boulet. Her artwork captures the spirit of Windling’s book. I’ve attached another example of her work above.

In the afterword, Terri Windling writes that she was inspired by the art of British artist Brian Froud. The picture above is one of his Faerie Realm series.

I discovered this book a while ago on Grace’s blog Books Without Any Pictures. You can read her review here.

Those who are interested in mythology, folklore, and fairy tales, might love Terri Windling’s blog, Myth and Moor. The essays are outstanding and the photos so beautiful.

Some Thoughts on Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things or Should There Be Trigger Warnings on Books?

I finished Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things a couple of days ago and wasn’t sure whether I should review it or not. But then I thought of the many glowing reviews in newspapers and on blogs that made me pick this up and so I decided, while I won’t review it, I will write about my reactions to this book because they are so different from any one else’s. While most people loved it and even put it on their “Best of the Year” list, I truly hated it and wish I hadn’t read it. And, frankly, if I had known what to expect, I wouldn’t have picked it up. But before I write more, I have to emphasize – this isn’t a bad book. It just has elements in it, I wish I’d been made aware of.

I’ve read another Charlotte Wood novel, a few years ago, which made my end of year best of list. It’s a marvelous book and very different from this one. It’s one of the reasons why I continued reading The Natural Way of Things although I disliked it from the beginning. And since I’m bad at putting away books, once I’m halfway through, I finished it. It gave me nightmares and has planted some images in my head, I have a hard time getting rid of.

If you’ve read other reviews, you might be puzzled that it upset me so much and I can tell you, I get it, because nobody mentioned those elements.

The Natural Way of Things is a story about a group of girls who were each involved in a sex scandal. While the men aren’t punished, the girls are sent to a remote place, stripped of their clothes, shaven, barely fed and guarded by two brutal men who hit them and force them to work like slaves. It’s a lot like a concentration camp. Every review I read, mentioned this and how this is a feminist look at the way the media sees women and how women are still mostly the ones blamed when there’s a scandal. I didn’t have a problem with that, I had a problem with what follows. In the middle of the book, the captives and their captors realize they have been abandoned by the outside world. They run out of food and other basic supplies. And that’s when it started to get horrible for me because one of the girls decides to set traps and catch rabbits. Anyone knows that catching animals with traps, especially certain traps, is barbaric. Reading about this made me sick. Reading about the detailed ways the animals were taken apart, skinned, their fur prepared  . . . You get the picture. And there’s a scene towards the end, when a larger animal gets trapped . . . I’m not going to forget that.

I’m not sure why nobody mentioned the traps or those awful scenes linked to that. I wish they had because, as I said, I would have stayed away from this book. It would have worked as a trigger warning.

I suppose, you get why I still had to write about this because I know there are other people who are highly sensitive to anything involving animals.

That said, I don’t think Charlotte Wood should have written this any other way. I guess it works. One of the themes in her book is that of predator and prey and the trapped rabbits are linked to that theme. It’s not a bad book, but I was the wrong reader. If you’re like me and anything harming animals upsets you, you might want to stay away from this book.

The above may give you the impression that there isn’t any explicit violence against women in this book, but there is. I found that hard to stomach as well but I could handle it better.

This brings me to the topic of trigger warnings. I’ve seen debates, where people said that there should be trigger warnings on books. For all sorts of things. Cruelty against animals, kids and women, swearing, explicit sex, violence  . . . The list is as endless as people’s sensibilities. I don’t think that there should be trigger warnings because there’s always the risk that those could, in some countries, lead to the banning of certain books. I’m against book bans and I think that trigger warnings are also problematic because they simplify a complex theme. Let’s take The Natural Way of Things as an example. What should the warning have looked like “Violence against women” – that would have been possible, but the animal topic couldn’t have been covered by a similar concise warning. There’s no gratuitous violence, like in the case of the women. There’s killing, trapping, skinning and slow death. “Warning – animal trapping”. Weird. Some readers who are sensitive to cruelty against animals in books, might not even have found the instances here problematic because they are not gratuitous. You see, it’s tricky.

While I don’t think trigger warnings are the way to go, I still would have wished the one or the other review had made me aware that some of the content could be problematic for me. Nonetheless, it’s my fault I didn’t stop reading. I wish I will finally be able to abandon books that aren’t good for me, even when I’m halfway through.

How do you feel about this? Trigger warning or no trigger warning?