Jenn Ashworth: A Kind of Intimacy (2009) A Very Noir Character Study

Annie is morbidly obese, lonely and hopeful. She narrates her own increasingly bizarre attempts to ingratiate herself with her new neighbours, learn from past mistakes and achieve a “”certain kind of intimacy”” with the boy next door. Though Annie struggles to repress a murky history of violence, secrets and sexual mishaps her past is never too far behind her, finally shattering her denial in a compelling and bloody climax. A quirky and darkly comic debut – giving readers a glimpse of a clumsy young woman who has too much in common with the rest of us to be written off as a monster.

I discovered A Kind of Intimacy thanks to a review on Danielle’s blog. It was also among her top 12 of 2010 and it was also one of the favourite reads of Guy Savage who also reviewed it.

I already jokingly “said” to Danielle in a comment that her top 2010 might become my top 2011 and,  yes, this book is certainly a candidate as it is astonishingly good. Very dark, absolutely fascinating, engrossing, and very well executed. While starting it I had forgotten Jenn Ashworth was compared to Ruth Rendell but the association immediately occurred to me as well.

A Kind of Intimacy is told by the main protagonist, obese, deluded Annie herself. She is what you call an unreliable narrator. The reader feels that something is wrong from the beginning, too many hints and little details tear apart the picture of perfection that Annie wants to draw for our and her own sake. These interfering details, as I would call them, make this a creepy read. Uncanny and creepy. It is not so much that we judge Annie as that we wish to never meet someone like her as she seems capable of doing really harmful things.

At the beginning of the novel Annie moves into a new neighbourhood. One of the first people she meets is Neil who has a natural capacity for being kind, which proves to be fatal in this relationship, as Annie doesn’t see things the way they are but the way she wants them to be. Unknown of Neil or anyone else, she is convinced, he is her soul-mate and the only thing that needs doing is getting rid of Lucy, his skinny and pretty girlfriend.

What starts like a comedy soon develops into something much darker. Bits and pieces of Annie’s past are revealed slowly. A miserable childhood, an odd marriage, a baby girl who seems to have disappeared and some really dodgy things Annie does to try to get “A Kind of Intimacy” despite her being revoltingly obese. The further you read the more you will hope to never meet anyone like Annie.

As deluded and extreme as she may seem, Annie is a character I am all too familiar with which added another dimension to my reading. However odd this may seem, I have met more than one Annie in my life. They were not always as dangerous and they were always male… Call me Neil… It’s really scary what some people can interpret into your tiniest actions.

I read somewhere that Jenn Ashworth was criticized for chosing an obese woman as her protagonist… I see Annie as a distortion, a caricature and as such the obesity did work for me. Unlike one critic I read, I did feel sorry for Annie. All through the web of lies and deceptions we catch glimpses of a very lonely and hurt soul.

Jenn Ashworth is a gifted writer. If you have ever tried to write yourself you will know that voice and point of view are always very challenging. Annie’s voice does sound so right. There is not one wrong note in this symphony of lies and self-deception. A Kind of Intimacy is one of the best character studies I have ever read. Fascinating, creepy and compulsively readable. I am sure this book will appeal to readers of crime and general fiction alike.

Just one aside, Jenn Ashworth won a prize for Best Blog Content in 2008. Here is the link to her site.

Bookish Christmas Memory: Mrs Dalloway

This post is my contribution to the Virtual Advent Tour. A big “Thank you” to Kailana from The Written World and Marg from Adventures of an Intrepid Reader for organising it. It is already day 22 and many interesting, touching and informative posts have been written so far. Mostly family memories, but also a few of another kind.

Christmas has always been a special and a very quiet holiday  for me. When I was very little, we spent the Christmas season in Paris, with my father’s family. My mother’s side is dispersed all over Europe, there was never a possibility or a will for a big gathering. Later, when I grew older, and family politics made it impossible to have one joint meeting, we mostly stayed at home. Due to these circumstances Christmas was always a time of intensified reading and watching of old movies on TV.

Books that I have read during a certain season, on a holiday, somewhere abroad, a special period of my life, have always seemed to stay more intensely in my mind than others. I have a mental treasure trunk full of cherished book memories of this kind.

The last Christmas I spent with my parents, when still living with them, at age 19, is, in retrospect, one of the most enchanted ones. I already studied at the university but had no worries, lived in great comfort and was looked after. No illness, no precarious financial situation, no major burn-out, nothing of the kind, that all happened later. All I had to do, is come out of my room and join my parents for lunch and dinner. With hindsight, that Christmas seems like frozen in time, like a scenery in a snow globe and when I look at it, I see a young girl, curled up in an old wicker chair, holding a book with a greenish cover and reading it with utter enchantment.

That year, someone had offered me my first Virginia Woolf novel. It was Mrs. Dalloway. I will never forget that novel and especially not my favourite scene in it. This scene comes to my mind the very instant when I think of Christmas. Invariably since that time my mind wanders spontaneously along the following trail: Christmas, Mrs. Dalloway and off into a string of associations that are all tied to one particular episode in the book: Mrs Dalloway buying flowers at a flower shop. My memory of this scene is intense and sensual. I remember Mrs Dalloway entering a cool shop, an intense green scent of freshly cut flowers pervades the air and the odor of some sweet smelling blossoms seems to linger all over the place. I cannot remember what flowers she bought, I remember semi-darkness and this almost sparkling scent.

I often remember one particular scene from the novels I liked best. Everything else slowly sinks into oblivion but that one scene, with all the associations and meanings it represents to me, stays ingrained in my mind. I don’t know if others feel like this about books.

I have never read Mrs Dalloway again, I am afraid of what I might find. Maybe my memory has adorned it over the years with elements entirely my own. I fear disenchantment. I have read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, the novel that is dedicated entirely to Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway, and have seen the movie that is based on it. The novel is wonderful and the movie is one of the best I know, especially because of Philip Glass’ music. It has acoustic qualities that are corresponding to the flower shop scene’s visual ones; they are light, fresh and green.

It may be odd to tie Christmas to one distant reading experience but I love the memory.

I haven’t made many Christmas plans for this year apart from dinner with friends. I was toying with the idea to read Elizabeth Gaskell’ s Cranford or maybe Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. I have seen the movie during another Christmas season and found it wonderful. I like books and movies about writers and it is the only movie in which I liked Michael Douglas.

Does anyone else have any speacial Christmas reading memories or plans?

Don’t forget to visit the other stops today.

Jennie Walker: 24 for 3 (2008) A Novel by Poet Charles Boyle

24 for 3

Friday: as a Test match between England and India begins, a woman’s attention is torn between her husband’s insistence on explaining the rules of cricket, her lover’s preference for mystery, and the worrying disappearance of her sixteen-year-old stepson. By Tuesday night the outcome of the match will become clear – but whatever happens, the lives of the players will be changed forever. 24 for 3 is a funny and moving story about love, family, and whether or not one should always play by the rules.

24 for 3 is the first novel by poet Charles Boyle, written under the pen-name Jennie Walker. It is a very short novel, rather a novella. Crispy, clean prose, undoubtedly the work of a poet. Wonderful language. It’s a tricky little book as well. Tricky in many ways. Tricky because it didn’t find a publisher at first and Boyle published it himself and founded at the same time his own publishing house CB Editions. After he published it, he got a contract from Bloomsbury that’s why we can now read it in a brand-new outfit.

But it is tricky in many other ways. And quirky. You think it is a very small little book and that you can just gulp it down but you are wrong. This little treasure forces you to slow down and pay attention. Once it has made sure that you are focused it will enchant you completely. On barely more than 130 pages we get to read a linear novel, that can be read as such but, when paying really close attention, we realize what an ingenious composition it has. It consists of paragraphs which, in a lot of cases, can be read individually and work as poems, hint fiction and observations. Marvellous. Cricket serves as the backdrop on which a family history unfolds, a very rich tapestry of unusual relationships and non-traditional family life. And adultery. The narrator lives together with her husband, Alan, her step-son Selwyn and the former au-pair Agnieszka who has been staying with them for almost ten years. The woman who tells the story is drawn between her husband and her lover, a loss-adjuster. Surprsingly as this may seem, they are not at the heart of her emotional life. This place is occupied by her love for her step-son who disappears during the beginning of the five-day cricket test match. He ran off to stay with her lover.

The story is profound but I particularly apprecaited the style and would like to give you a few examples:

His face is lined; he looks older than Alan although in fact is younger. He has lived in cities and survived on little sleep. (s. 73)

Or this one that reads like a poem:

“What are you thinking about?”


“In general, or in particular?”

“In particular. You?”

“Ants. Oh, and hanging, shooting, poison.”

“Are you asking me to choose?” (s. 49)

Towards the end there are two pages which consist of 8 paragraphs that all begin with the words “We used to play…” and are allusions to lost joy, childhood, change, futility and memories.

And here is the narrator thinking about her two men and the choice she will be forced to make:

Me, I am married to a caring, conscientious man who rearranges cookery books by the light of the moon, and I rush away into the arms of a man who wears yellow Wellington boots and whose job – and possibly whose life too, if  I cared to investigate further – reeks of doom, disaster, things gone awry.

Since this is a multilayered novel, allusions abound. I am sure many readers will understand these:

“Is that okay?”

It appears to be so. Indeed, Selwyn is safe, Agnieszka has not been raped, no rash crime of passion has been committed, no one has thrown him- or herself under the train. But it is not okay. (s.105)

There are many more great passages and sentences, as a matter of fact, one is tempted to quote the whole book. And then there is cricket. For those who like the game this will add additional charm, for those who don’t care about it, it’s another symbolical subtext to explore.

Apart from being a poet, an editor and a novelist Charles Boyle is also blogging at Son of a Book.

I came across 24 for 3 while browsing the site of the Swiss editor Unionsverlag who is dedicated to publish a very exquisite choice of translated books. I had to order the English original right away.

What English (or other) editors, apart from Peirene Press, do you know who publish only translated books?

Fünf Tage. Ein Spiel is the German title, its literal translation would be “Five days. One game”.

Fünf Tage. Ein Spiel

Elizabeth Taylor: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971)

On a rainy Sunday in January, the recently widowed Mrs Palfrey arrives at the Claremont Hotel where she will spend her remaining days. Her fellow residents are magnificently eccentric and endlessly curious, living off crumbs of affection and snippets of gossip. Together, upper lips stiffened, they fight off their twin enemies: boredom and the Grim Reaper. Then one day Mrs Palfrey strikes up an unexpected friendship with Ludo, a handsome young writer, and learns that even the old can fall in love …

I am not that easily moved but Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont moved me a lot. What a touching story. Elizabeth Taylor is really a wonderful writer. Her style is so exquisite. I am really annoyed with myself as I read it much too fast. This should be savoured sentence by sentence. I think I will have to re-read it. I loved the style of Blaming too but I didn’t care for the characters. I found them so unkind. This is quite different. Mrs Palfrey is really a darling. But the other characters, even the embittered ones, are still endearing. They are all very eccentric and put up a front. They know exactly that the Claremont, that has seen better days, much like they have, will be their last chance at a little bit of freedom. After the Claremont comes the hospital and ultimately death. Their boredom and the way they try to grasp every little bit of excitement is described so well.

I don’t think hotels like this still exist and if so the people who live there must maybe even be richer than those described. The elderly women and the only old man at the Claremont are very well off. And lonely. No one visits them, they have become a burden to their families.

When Mrs Palfrey falls in the streets and handsome Ludo, an aspiring writer, kindly comes to her rescue she takes the opportunity and asks him to be a  stand-in for her own grandson who doesn’t visit her.

The other people at the hotel envy her immediately and she becomes quite a success thanks to Ludo. Their relationship is very special and Mrs Palfrey even develops a little crush. Ludo uses her as the model for his novel that he calls after something Mrs Palfrey said: “We aren’t allowed to die here”. He does have a bit of a bad conscience to exploit her like this but he does like her too and enjoys spending time with her. She is nothing like his own mother who couldn’t care less about him.

The novel is full of bon mots that are like little pearls on a necklace. Some are used by the narrator, some by the protagonists. Some are pretty, many are funny, like this one, uttered by Ludo during his first dinner with Mrs Palfrey: “I have never enjoyed myself more with my clothes on”. Here is what the narrator says about Mrs Palfrey: “She would have made a distinguished-looking man, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.” This may sound unkind but Elizabeth Taylor isn’t unkind, she really likes her characters, their crankiness and eccentricities.

I truly enjoyed this novel, it’s sad, funny, bitter-sweet and beautiful. And thought-provoking. After all, none of us is spared old age, let alone the grim reaper. And some of us may have old parents or grandparents. Maybe we really should visit more often.

I would like to watch the movie and attached the trailer for you.

Has anyone seen it? Joan Plowright is a wonderful actress and seems perfect in this role.

Susan Hill: The Woman in Black (1983)

Proud and solitary, Eel Marsh House surveys the windswept reaches of the salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway. Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral Mrs Alice Drablow, the house’s sole inhabitant, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows. It is not until he glimpses a wasted young woman, dressed all in black, at the funeral, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black – and her terrible purpose.

The Woman in Black is the second ghost story by Susan Hill I have read in a very short time. But since we are nearing the end of the R.I.P. Challenge this was the time or never.

I feel tempted to compare them as there are a lot of similarities but The Woman in Black is the creepier of the two. The settings are similar as well, although in this novel most of the horrifying events take place inside of a grand old mansion and only a few in the foggy marshes. The nature of the ghost in The Woman in Black is much more evil. It does really mean to harm those who see it.

Susan Hills writing is again very traditional, old-fashioned. This novel could have been written in the 19th century. This includes the narrative style as well as the themes and motives. Even so or maybe because of this it is beautifully written. The descriptions are detailed and atmospherical.

The story begins some thirty years after the main events. It is Christmas Eve and Arthur, our protagonist, is enjoying the company of his extended family on his beautiful estate Monks’ Piece. The family is gathered in the drawing room telling ghost stories when Arthur comes back from a short refreshing walk outside. They urge him to contribute to the fun and tell a ghost story of his own. He is not willing to do this as he is reminded of horrible events he hasexperienced as a very young man. Instead of telling what happened he decides to write it down.

As a young solicitor he was sent to Crythin Gifford. Mrs. Drablow an elderly client of the firm he is working for has died and his boss wants him to attend the funeral and spend some time sorting out the papers the old woman has left behind. It gets creepy early on as no one in the little town wants to talk about the deceased or her property. At the funeral Arthur sees a woman in black who looks very wasted as well as a group of children that no one else sees.

Later, at Eel Marsh House, the stately home of Mrs. Drablow, he sees the woman in black again. The estate is located on Nine Lives Causeway and is completely cut off from the mainland at high tide, surrounded only by the sea and marshes. The setting alone would creep out many but Arthur also  hears terrible noises, the cries of a child,  noises as if someone had an accident in the marshes. It is also spooky inside of the house. He feels he is not alone. There is one room he doesn’t have access to but there are distinct noises coming from  inside and when the door stands ajar all of a sudden he almost freaks out.

After his first stay at the house he goes back despite his fears and it gets worse. The incidents culminate.

Like in The Small Hand the story is resolved in the end. We get to hear who is the ghost and why he haunts people. The spite- and vengeful being will not stop to haunt Arthur after his departure. It strikes again.

The Woman in Black is a dark tale, darker than The Small Hand. As a whole I think I liked The Small Hand better. But the beginning of The Woman in Black, the chapter titled “Christmas Eve” is one of the most pleasant initial chapters I have ever read and stands in striking contrast to the events that are narrated later.

Apparently the novel has been adapted for the stage and been made into a TV movie.

Has anyone read both? Which one did you prefer?


Nymeth’s review

Susan Hill: The Small Hand (2010) A Ghost Story

Returning home from a visit to a client late one summer’s evening, antiquarian bookseller Adam Snow takes a wrong turning and stumbles across the derelict old White House. Compelled by curiosity, he approaches the door, and, standing before the entrance feels the unmistakable sensation of a small hand creeping into his own, ‘as if a child had taken hold of it’. Intrigued by the encounter, he determines to learn more, and discovers that the owner’s grandson had drowned tragically many years before. At first unperturbed by the odd experience, Snow begins to be plagued by haunting dreams, panic attacks, and more frequent visits from the small hand which become increasingly threatening and sinister …

I really bought The Small Hand with the R.I.P challenge in mind when I found it at a local bookstore. And because I love the cover and had wanted to read something  by Susan Hill anyway. I enjoyed it quite a lot. It is beautifully written but surprisingly old-fashioned in tone. It is quite an eerie and mysterious ghost story. What I appreciated is the fact that the mystery is solved in the end.

The Small Hand has quite a lot to offer. Adam Snow being a bookseller every book lover will feel a certain affinity right away. What sounds more enchanting than a job that involves travelling the world and looking for rare books? One of his trips brings Adam to the South of England. On his way back he gets lost and discovers an abandoned house with an overgrown garden. This is not exactly an original idea, especially not in a British novel as the British novel has a great tradition of descriptions of grand old  houses and mysterious gardens (from Great Expectations to The Secret Garden, Tom’s Midnight Garden to The Forgotten Garden and many more). The lack of originality did not disturb me one tiny bit as I love descriptions of old houses and descriptions of gardens that return to a state of wilderness. Susan Hill is very talented in describing nature with great detail. It is in this very garden that Adam feels for the first time the presence of the ghost of a little child.

Ghosts are normally bound to certain places but this one is not. It will haunt Adam all through the story and wherever he goes. Telling more would be a spoiler so I will stop here.

On one of his hunts for rare old books, a First Edition of Shakespeare in this case, Adam travels to a forlorn French monastery. This is another extremely well rendered description. And such an appealing one. I would love to spend a few weeks there myself.

I think this book could be quite scary for some readers especially if they have a history of recent panic attacks as this is the way Adam experiences the presence of the ghost or rather ghosts.

The Small Hand is a wonderfully old-fashioned and very British (a high compliment coming from a fervent Anglophile) Ghost Story creating a pleasant frisson. It is best read at this time of the year, preferably at night in bed.

I have already ordered The Woman in Black, another of Susan Hill’s Ghost Stories. What Susan Hill novels did you read and like?

Here’s another review of The Small Hand by Susan Hated Literature

Ian McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers (1981)

As their holiday unfolds, Colin and Maria are locked into their own intimacy. They groom themselves meticulously, as though there waits someone who cares deeply about how they appear. Then, they meet a man with a disturbing story to tell and become drawn into a fantasy of violence and obsession.

I can’t forget The Comfort of Strangers. It keeps on haunting me.

This is not a novel, I liked. The world McEwan unleashes is too gloomy, too disgusting. Even though I didn’t like the novel  I am fascinated how obstinately  it stays in my mind, and even in my feelings.

I truly enjoyed Atonement. It did stay with me for a very long time as well. When you are engrossed in a novel that you enjoy you don’t pay so much attention to the skills of the author. You are just enchanted by the feelings he evokes in you. McEwan is one of the most renowned British writers and when reading a book like The Comfort of Strangers, that you do not even like but that still resonates in your mind, you know why he gets so much praise.

The Comfort of strangers narrates the stay of a young English couple in Venice. There is something sinister from the very beginning. The way McEwan describes the city gives the impression as if Venice was a lurking animal. The Venice he describes is neither idyllic nor romantic; on the very contrary. His description of those labyrinthine, narrow streets that make orientation difficult, of those alleys whose walls tower too high to permit an overwiew, is unsettling.  I was reminded of the movie Don’t Look Now. The young English couple is described as if they knew each other too well.  They don’t talk much, they drift and only barely escape deadly boredom. It is not exactly clear why but all of a sudden their  sexuality changes radically. They are suddenly drawn to more violent, sadomasochistic lovemaking.  On one of their nightly forays they meet a mysterious local man who takes them to his own restaurant where they drink far too much. On their way back to the hotel they get lost and wait on some doorstep till dawn approaches. As if out of nowhere the man reappears and takes them home where he introduces them to his wife. His wife seems to be an ailing invalid. They don’t know it, but from the moment they meet these two people they are doomed.

McEwan’s slim novel touches many topics: relationships, love, power, sadomasochism, people abroad, Venice,  disorientation, voyeurism. The list is almost endless. On top of that McEwan´s writing is scarce, concise, and very atmospherical and visual.

The Comfort of Strangers is not a pleasing novel, but one that shows you what good literature is capable of.

Are there any books that you did not like but still consider to be very fascinating?