Like a poisonous vine, a complicated network of lies wound its way

The Empress and the Cake
by Linda Stift
translated from German by Jamie Bulloch

I read this as part of Women in Translation Month. This is one of those strange psychological thrillers where it is never entirely clear how much of what’s happening is real and how much is in the narrator’s head. I like that.

The narrator is walking past a cake shop in Vienna when an old lady asks her to share a Gugelhupf (a yeasted cake common in Austria), because the shop only sells them whole. This turns into an invitation to the home of Frau Hohenembs, where she is quite forcefully encouraged to help eat the cake. At first the narrator’s unwillingness to partake seems like the usual misgivings of a woman watching her figure. Then she goes home and eats her half of the cake then makes herself throw up.

Yes, it’s a story about bulimia. And it doesn’t romanticise or shy away from the details. It turns out that the narrator has been keeping her illness at bay for years, but now that she has been triggered, she spirals downward. Soon, the only other thing in her life is her growing relationship with Frau Hohenembs and her housekeeper Ida. And it’s a weird relationship, with some weird people.

Continue reading “Like a poisonous vine, a complicated network of lies wound its way”

Had he said that? Or had she just made him say it inside her head?

A Jealous Ghost
by A N Wilson

Way way back at primary school, I think for my 10th birthday, a boy in my class gave me the book Stray by A N Wilson. I hadn’t heard of the author and I wasn’t especially close friends with the boy, but it was a really well chosen gift. I loved that book (it’s about a stray cat and it’s sad and lovely and I’m pretty sure I still have it). But for some reason I never looked out for other books by the same author.

Then two years ago, Tim’s mum was clearing out some books and offered me my pick of them first. I couldn’t quite figure out why the author’s name was familiar when I picked this up but the story appealed to me, and then later I realised and was glad I was finally going back to Wilson.

The story is that of Sallie, an American student in London writing her PhD on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. She’s struggling to make friends, struggling to come up with a thesis argument that her PhD supervisor is happy with, struggling to pay rent. So someone suggests she takes time out with a summer job – perhaps as a live-in nanny so she doesn’t even have to pay rent. When at her job interview she learns that she will be looking after two young children in a country house with neither parent around – just like in The Turn of the Screw – it seems like fate.

Continue reading “Had he said that? Or had she just made him say it inside her head?”

I am more than I can dream of

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen

The Looking-Glass Sisters
by Gøhril Gabrielsen
translated from Norwegian by John Irons

Once again, I feel that I haven’t given a Peirene book a fair chance. These short novels are intended to be read in a single sitting and those I have read in a couple of large chunks do seem to be those I have enjoyed more. I haven’t had huge chunks of free time lately, so my reading has been split into 20 minutes here and there, which I don’t think really does any book justice.

But I digress. I should tell you about this book.

It’s the story of two middle-aged sisters, Ragna and her younger sister, who narrates the book. The narrator suffered a childhood illness that has left her body severely weakened, so that she never leaves the house and is largely dependent on Ragna. They have lived together alone since the death of their parents and their relationship is bitter and twisted, but it works…until a man comes into Ragna’s life. Johan upsets the delicate balance, revealing alternative paths for the sisters.

Continue reading “I am more than I can dream of”

For the record this is me talking

The Last Thing He Wanted
by Joan Didion

The Last Thing He Wanted

So Tim went on holiday without me and the only thing about it I am jealous of is his discovery of the Last Bookstore in LA, which looks pretty darned amazing. And because Tim is quite nice really he bought me some books there, a couple by authors he knew I’d like and one book entirely based on the recommendation of the bookseller. Now I’m not sure how long Tim spent telling this bookseller about my taste in books, but she got it so very right. I had never read any Didion (although I had heard of her and may even have one of her journalistic pieces on my wishlist) but this novel is completely up my street.

Usually this is the point where I give a very brief plot synopsis but that’s going to be quite tough here, not necessarily for fear of spoilers, but more because for most of the book I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on or what it was all about. It did all come together in the end, but I think that feeling a bit lost was an integral part of the reading experience for me.

“There were hints all along, clues we should have registered , processed, sifted for their application to the general condition.”

I suppose you could call it a thriller, maybe a political thriller. It has the right elements: spies, embassies, arms deals, shady characters, multiple identities, an unspecified island location. It even has a reporter as its central character, Elena McMahon, only she’s not there as a journalist, she’s somehow involved more deeply in the murky goings-on of an island that should be tourist heaven but isn’t. However, it’s not written like any thriller I’ve ever read before. The story is in a jumble, not stream of consciousness but not straightforward narrative either. But it’s not messy, it’s carefully constructed. There are repeated phrases and fragments, like memories someone is trying to put back together in the right order.

Goddamn what’s the matter out there.
Smell of jasmine, pool of jacaranda, blue so intense you could drown again.
We had a real life and now we don’t and just because I’m your daughter I’m supposed to like it and I don’t.”

And who is that someone? The story is narrated by a curious combination of omniscient narrator and background character. But how can one character possibly have all these veiled links to Elena and have access to all these government files and interviews that are supposedly being used to put together the story of what happened to Elena McMahon on that island in 1984? So are we being misled?

“For the record this is me talking.
You know me, or think you do.
The not quite omniscient author.
No longer moving past.
No longer traveling light.
When I resolved in 1994 to finally tell this story, register the clues I had missed ten years before, process the information before it vanished altogether, I considered reinventing myself…a strategy I ultimately jettisoned as limiting, small-scale, an artifice to no point…
The best story I ever told was a reef dream. This is something different.”

In some ways, this book reminded me of a good film, like Open Your Eyes or Tell No-one, in the way it unfolds, with repeated flashes of key scenes and the situation devolving further and further from safe normality. As a reader, it’s an odd experience. I never felt I “settled into” the story; more than halfway through I was still shaking my head trying to figure out where it was going (though the clues are all there, and it would be interesting to read this again to see if it’s a more straightforward read second time around) but I still enjoyed it.

My only reservation is that to sell the government side of the plot, there are forays into political language that I would characterise as mumbo jumbo, or even corporate speak. And there’s a very definite attempt to make sure you don’t know if you can trust Elena, to the point that it becomes a little alienating. But then again not knowing who to trust is half the fun of a thriller, right?

Published 1996 by Vintage Books.

Source: Present from Tim, who bought it in a real (and awesome-looking) bookshop.

What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths

Enduring Love
by Ian McEwan

This is a story of love in all its forms, and both how painful and how uplifting that love can be. It also manages to be a compelling thriller, beginning with an event that sets wheels in motion for a series of misfortunes, building up to a dramatic climax.

Clarissa and Joe are happy, utterly in love after many years together. While at a picnic, they unwittingly become part of a terrible accident. At first it seems that the rest of the book will be them coming to terms with tragedy. But it quickly turns out to be something else, or at least, as the narrator, Joe keeps insisting that something else is going on, but Clarissa and the police don’t believe him. Is this a classic case of the unreliable narrator? Or is there a genuine terror stalking Joe and Clarissa, ready to erupt at any time?

For a start, Joe is easily lost in daydreams or work-related thoughts from the reality at hand. From the first page he is challenging his own memory. Did it happen the way he describes? He knows certain details conflict with other witness accounts gathered by the police and Clarissa’s memory. He says, “I’m holding back, delaying the information. I’m lingering in the prior moment because it was a time when other outcomes were still possible.”

Joe is a freelance science writer, a successful one, but also a man who feels that he made a mistake leaving research behind, so he is not entirely happy with where he is. He loves Clarissa unreservedly but she is unable to have children, which has always been a huge source of pain for them both. It’s a set-up that allows pure happiness to fall apart very quickly.

Through a psychological thriller framework, McEwan examines relationship love, parental love, religious love (though only at the extreme end), the love shared in friendship, sibling love (quite briefly) and obsessive love. It also examines a few forms of psychological instability, from the uncertainties of grief through to a far more troubling example.

McEwan writes well and keeps the possibilities open as he carries us along to the climax. In true thriller style, the augurs are all there that something is coming, but as a literary novel you know that the actual ending may be a more mundane realisation of truth.

I didn’t greatly like Joe. He is a bit dismissive of Clarissa, even condescending at times. While he has acquired tidbits of knowledge from far outside his original physics training, he seems to assume Clarissa’s only interests are her scholarly work on Keats, and children. I’m not sure if this is a failing of the character or of McEwan. Certainly, neither of the other female characters comes off well from Joe’s descriptions either. One is a widow too distracted by her loss to pay attention to her children, the other essentially a bimbo. I hope the problem is Joe’s.

Interestingly, although this all sounds plot-driven, despite having watched the film made of this book a few years back, I could not remember where it was going. Perhaps that’s just my memory, or the film was somehow incoherent, but perhaps it is because this book is sneakily about the writing after all: “What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness.”

First published 1997 by Jonathan Cape.

Hunting for metaphors which might convey something

The Alexandria Quartet
Book 4: Clea
by Lawrence Durrell

And so at last I have finished the quartet. Was it a fitting end, full of vagueness and mystery? Did the poetic unreliable narrator return, both as a narrator and to Alexandria itself?

The Alexandria Quartet

Well, the answer to question two (both parts) is yes but to question one…I’d hazard no. The series began, in Justine, with a lot of vagueness, events in uncertain order and a lot was left unsaid. As the Quartet proceeded, the narrative got clearer and clearer until this book, even though it is once again narrated by Darley, who was previously so unreliable, was perfectly straightforward and linear. I mean, there were memories and extracts from old letters, but they were clearly signposted as such. To be honest I found this disappointing, though it was good to get closure on all the characters and storylines at last.

Which is not to say that the writing in this book is less good than it has been previously. In fact, I have bookmarked more quotable passages than ever. But as a story it didn’t grip me. Which is odd because there was a lot going on in this book. Darley has been called back to Alexandria from his Greek island to return the child he has been looking after to her true father. World War II has finally got under way and Alexandria has not escaped unscathed. Mountolive (the British Ambassador to Egypt) finds Darley a job in the censorship department of the War Office, which is a perfect statement on his narrative. No mention is made of Darley ever having been expected to fight, despite his being a British citizen of, I assumed, good health and young age, but I don’t know what the situation was for ex-pats.

And so, until the end of the war and a short time afterward, Darley catches up with the lives of his old friends, makes sure the girl settles in with her new parents and discovers more details about his previous stay in Alexandria that once again force him to re-evaluate the truth. Clea is, as ever, everyone’s friend and confidante, and a cheery one at that, so through her we hear the little anecdotes that people really do tell about their friends, particularly those who have died. She is a good influence on Darley, encouraging him to not just face the truth but actively seek it. When one friend asks Darley how his writing is going, he replies:

“It has stopped…I somehow can’t match the truth to the illusions which are necessary to art without the gap showing…”

The picture of a city at war is hauntingly real. A lot of the time, Alexandria is on the outskirts of the war, the place where soldiers come on leave from the desert frontlines, but it is for a short time bombarded and the harbour is full of warships rather than pleasure boats.

“How had things changed? It was not danger, then, but a less easily analysable quality which made the notion of war distinctive; a sensation of some change in the specific gravity of things. It was as if the oxygen content of the air we breathed were being steadily, invisibly reduced day by day…”

One thing I found a little strange was that one longish chapter takes the form of an essay written by (Darley’s former flatmate) Pursewarden years earlier after a series of conversations with Darley about literature. It is eloquent and interesting and so, so quotable (“Words being what they are, people being what they are, perhaps it would be better always to say the opposite of what one means”) but it perhaps went on a little long and broke up the story more than necessary for its purpose: making Darley realise he had misjudged Pursewarden.

Despite the apparent changes in Darley, perhaps he is still unreliable, because he still manages to fool himself and he repeatedly declares that he is done with writing yet he narrates as if he is writing it down:

“I am hunting for metaphors which might convey something of the piercing happiness too seldom granted to those who love; but words, which were first invented against despair, are too crude to mirror the properties of something so profoundly at peace with itself…”

And lest all the revelations and clarifications of this book fool us into thinking we are here learning the absolute final truth about these characters, we have this pearl from the wise old doctor Balthazar:

“When one casts around the fields of so-called knowledge which we have partially opened up one is conscious that there may well be whole areas of darkness which may belong to the Paracelsian regions—the submerged part of the iceberg of knowledge.”

So on the whole it was a fitting end to the Quartet. It made me laugh, it made me sad. It has a surprisingly modern attitude to sex, love and homosexuality (though the characters do not necessarily have modern attitudes) and I can now go and have a look at the last discussion of the Guardian Reading Group without having the story spoiled for me!

First published 1960 by Faber & Faber.

N.B. It’s too late now to join in the Guardian Reading Group discussion about this book but you can still listen to the Guardian Books podcast about Lawrence Durrell at 100. It discusses and quotes heavily from The Alexandria Quartet and is well worth checking out.

See also: my reviews of
Book 1: Justine
Book 2: Balthazar
Book 3: Mountolive