Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Good House by Anne Leary

This is not the type of book I normally pick up. It looks too "woman's interest", and the endorsement by Jodi Piccoult didn't help either. However, there was something that drew me to it regardless of these obstacles. And I decided to give it a go. If I didn't like it after 10 pages, I could just abandon the effort and find another book to read. Well, those 10 first pages were literally devoured, and there was no way I was putting it down.

We enter the story two years after Hildy Good had to sit through the intervention staged by her two adult daughters claiming she's an alcoholic. After rehab, Hildy stayed off the booze for a while, until one night when she stumbled over some wine. Since then, Hildy's been drinking "two or three" glasses, or rather, finished the bottle, because wine doesn't taste as nice after being uncorked one night, in the evenings by herself. She has strict rules governing her drinking; she's not allowed to phone anyone or see anyone, or go anywhere, after drinking. And up until now, she's been following her rules.

Hildy lives in a smallish New England town, and her whole family has always lived there for generations. She claims to know everything that goes on in town, and the story starts when Hildy is becoming curious about one of the families that recently moved into a house she sold. It is clear that the wife, Rebecca, is not happy. Her husband spends the week in the city, and despite having two young sons, Rebecca seems restless. After her husband buys her a stunning new horse, Rebecca seems to bloom, and after seeing Peter, the therapist whose offices are above Hilyd's, Rebecca is hardly recognizable.

Rebecca doesn't seem to make friends with the other young mums in the area, and one night Hildy is sneaking wine from her garage, Rebecca drives past and stops upon seeing Hildy. Not knowing Hildy's rehab history, Rebecca joins Hildy for some wine, and a friendship starts to build between the two women.

A strong motif or doubleness in the story is that between female lunacy and reading/psychology. These two opposites become interchangeable at times in the story. Rebecca is depressed at the start of the story, then becomes happy, and then starts becoming very unstable (she might suffer from bipolar disorder). There's also a kind of magic attached to her. Her husband Brian claims that if Rebecca comes in touch with any kind of electric device such as clocks, remotes and so on, they just break. On the other hand, Rebecca performs a miracle when she first meets Hildy, where she saves the life of two horses. She will perform another "miracle" before the end of the story. On top of all this, Rebecca is very fascinated with the moon, which she loves painting. Historically, the moon is connected to "lunacy", madness, depression and bipolar disorder, which supposedly affected women more than men.

Hildy also have some strange traits. Her friends claims that she's a psychic, but Hildy herself admits it's nothing more than a scam. She "reads" people. Body language, eye movement, and so on. This allows her to deduce certain things about the people she meets. Despite how much she claims this is all a hoax, an art more than anything more supernatural, there is a moment in the book when she relies on her intuition, and makes conclusions beyond her "reading". Hildy's 8th great grandmother was accused of being a witch, whereas Hildy's own mother committed suicide when Hildy was only 11. Hildy's aunt, however, believed herself to be a clairvoyant, and made her living based on that.

The juxtaposition to these women is the psychologist Peter. Hildy's known him and his family since childhood and has nothing but respect for him. The feeling, however, is not mutual. Peter feels that Hildy's ability to "read" makes her a charlatan. This juxtaposition comes to a head when Hildy visits Peter in his office, sits in his chair while he sits in the patient's chair, and Hildy "reads" him, while challenging him that what he as a therapist is doing, is no more than a glorified "reading". At the end of the story, the doubleness between male "sense" and female "intuition" comes to a climax, and it seems that Peter is no better equipped to deal with his problems than the ladies are.

Hildy's alcoholism is a theme that runs throughout the story and challenges our perception of everything she tells us. Because Hildy is also the narrator of the story, we see everything through her eyes. She claims to handle everything well, to be a successful business woman, to have everything going for her, but as the story progresses, we see that this is not necessarily the case. There is a discrepancy between how Hildy sees herself and how the world sees her. Further, as the story progresses, Hildy's alcohol consumption is spinning gradually more and more out of control. It starts with her drinking with Rebecca, then moves on to her secretly spiking her own drink at a family dinner. Soon Hildy's experiencing blackouts, and it all comes to a head one morning when Hildy's lover Frank suggests that Hildy might be responsible for something terrible that might have happened the night before. Hungover with frayed nerves and a complete blackout, Hildy has no clue, and like her, we are dumbfounded that things could have come to this.

The Good House is quite a good title now that I've read the book. Hildy's last name is Good, so it could literally refer to her house. It could also refer to the sense of House as in a family or line, and we've already learned some of the dark history connected to the women of the Good line. Hildy is also a real estate agent, so it also works in terms of her job, which makes up an important part of the story. The first sentence in the book says "I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions". This refers also to Hildy's ability to read people, and ironically to her inability to see herself and the secrets she's denying. Finally, a house also refers to our minds, and the rooms and secrets we keep hidden there. This is alluded to when Rebecca tells Hildy that dreaming of houses doesn't mean dreaming of work, but rather of what's going on in her psyche. 

From early on in the novel there's a sense that something bad is going to happen. It wasn't until the very end that it started becoming clear what that bad thing was. Anne Leary builds up the story and the tension slowly, but with great skill.

I am so happy and so surprised at how much I liked this book. It has a serious theme about alcoholism, but although Hildy is in denial, she is sympathetic, funny, strong, and I have to say I quite like her. A definite book to recommend as Christmas gifts, but make sure you read it yourself first!

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane | I grow old, I grow old

Ruth is a widow living by herself in what used to be the family's holiday house by the beach somewhere in Australia. Her two adult sons live too far away to visit often, so their contact is limited to sporadic telephone calls. Her husband passed away about a year ago, and until the night when Ruth is sure she hears a tiger prancing around in her lounge, Ruth has coped quite well alone. The arrival of the tiger, however, changes everything.

In the tiger's wake comes Frida, a lady who claims she's been sent by the government to be Ruth's "right arm". Ruth quickly gets used to having Frida around, who she thinks is from Fiji, the place where she spent her childhood. She starts reminiscing about her adolescence, and her big crush on Richard, a young doctor who stayed with her and her missionary family on Fiji. Through Frida, Ruth sends Richard a letter, and he comes to spend a quiet weekend with her. While he is there, Ruth realizes that Frida has moved into one of her son's rooms, uninvited, but when she confronts her about it, Frida claims that Ruth asked her to stay.

Soon the net that is tightening Frida and Ruth together is becoming more and more tangled. Ruth is completely dependent upon Frida, and when the tiger returns, Frida swears to protect Ruth from it. Then one night Frida fights the tiger all night, and in the morning claims to have killed it. But Ruth, in her heart of hearts, refuses to believe it.

There is a strong tension between Ruth and Frida throughout the novel. We never know if we can trust Ruth, who is old and seems to grow more and more confused with every passing day. At times I don't even know if Frida is there, or a figment of her imagination, because Ruth's perception of Frida's physical appearance keeps changing. We also don't trust Frida, whose motives are unclear. One minute she is all bright and happy, the next she is menacing and dark.

This is a different tiger story to any other I have read. But once again, the tiger seems to be associated with death somehow. Ruth has an ambivalent relationship to the tiger. She both fears it, and admires it. She doesn't want it to die. I'm not sure if the tiger then represents Ruth herself, and her ability to make sense of the world, or if, perhaps, the tiger is death itself, coming for Ruth. The Lord's return comes like a thief in the night. The tiger comes like a thief in the night, but so does Frida. The question is, who is the biggest threat to Ruth; the tiger or Frida?

This is an interesting novel about aging and facing death. Through revisiting her adolescent years in her reveries, Ruth desperately clings to life by trying to relive the past. But in the present, Ruth is forced to choose if she should trust Frida or be helplessly by herself without her.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole | All is Fair in Love & War

This unassuming little book with the haunting cover really took me by surprise. As the title indicates, it is written in letter form, which is becoming more and more rare in today's world of emails and instant messaging. The letter form keeps the pace fairly quick, but it also leaves room for delays and for us as readers to have to fill in a lot of blanks ourselves.

On top of being written in letter form, we also follow two parallel stories, which happen to be between mother and daughter. The stories are set respectively in the 1st and 2nd world war.

Elspeth/Sue is a young poet living on Skye. The story kicks off the day she receives a letter from a fan from America. When Elspeth writes back, she sets things in motion that will drastically change her life, and she goes from living a sheltered life on Skye to braving the ferry that she's avoided her whole life and setting forth into London and Paris to get to know David, her fan. It would be the perfectly romantic love story had it not been for the fact that Elspeth is already married to her brother's best friend Iain. Elspeth's choices will tear her family apart and leave open wounds in her life for decades.

Twenty-something years later, the raging war bring ghosts to life for Elspeth, and she sets off to see if she can make sense of her past. Her daughter Margaret is left in the loop. Since Elspeth never told her the story, Margaret decides to try find out for herself what is haunting her mother. She tracks down Elspeth's estranged brother Finlay and her grandmother on Skye who she's never met. Meanwhile, her boyfriend is a pilot in the war, and Margaret has her own love worries.

Letter by letter, we read on as Elspeth and David's friendship grows ever closer before it emerges as something else entirely. As David enlists, and therefore finds himself in Europe, the war brings them closer, before ultimately separating them completely.

Letters from Skye really grew on me the more I read. The love on every page was so pure and real. The plot is down to earth, yet heart shattering. Several times towards the end of the book I had to wipe away a few tears and put the book aside to properly digest what was happening. When I read the last page I cried happy tears.

A literary pearl, Letters from Skye will make you fall in love, break your heart, then mend it again. It tells the story of everlasting love, and as the true romantic I am, it really spoke to me. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

Colum McCann swept me away with Let the Great World Spin a few years ago. With his new novel TransAtlantic he manifests his positions as one of the greatest novelists alive. With a masterfully crafted plot structure, binding together major "transatlantic" public events before narrowing it down to the private, McCann truly manages to address issues of identity, heritage and history.

Three historical events make up Book 1 of the novel. The first one is set in 1919 and gives us an inside look into Brown and Alcock's minds before and during their flight from Newfoundland to Ireland. Their feat was the first non-stop transatlantic flight, and it was to change world travel. With them on the plane they carried a letter from Emily and Lottie Ehrlich, which was never to reach its destination.

The second story revolves around Frederick Douglass who came to Ireland in 1845 for whip up support for the abolitionist movement. The crowds generally love him, but on the sidelines, Douglass sees a starving people. The social gap is huge, and Douglass cannot fail to see the hypocrisy in his Irish supporters. Slavery, it seems, isn't only about being in chains. During his stay, Douglass inadvertently inspires his host's maid Lily to break free, and sail to America.

The last story almost echoes the first. The American senator George Mitchell is part of the Irish peace process in 1998, and makes the transatlantic flight on a weekly basis. Trying to reconcile Ireland's bloody history, where every word and turn of phrase is under scrutiny from all sides, is no easy task. To get some distance, Mitchell plays tennis, and this is where he meets Lottie Tuttle, nee Ehrlich, who ended up marrying an Irishman, and so finds herself in the middle of a life her grandmother escaped from.

Book 2 moves us away from these public figures, to the private ones. A move also from male voices to female voices. We finally get the story of Lily, the maid who sailed to America. We follow her as she makes a life for herself there, as she becomes a wife, a mother, a businesswoman. We follow her in her happiness and in her devastation.

Then Emily, the reader, who one day becomes a journalist. Emily who is happy to have no husband, but who spends every waking hour with her daughter Lottie. Emily and Lottie who watch as two pilots set forth on the very first transatlantic journey. Emily who years later, when visiting one of the pilots for a follow-up interview gets the letter back; it was never posted after they landed. Emily who must say goodbye to her daughter when they visit Ireland, as Lottie falls in love.

Lastly the story of Lottie and Hannah. Or rather, of Hannah's boy Thomas, who fell victim to the bloodshed before the peace. The lament of mother and grandmother for the end of a bloodline.

The last story. Hannah alone, with only her dog and the unopened letter her grandmother wrote all those years ago. At 72, Hannah is bankrupt and looks into selling the letter, which may or may refer to Frederick Douglass' visit to Ireland.

The letter begins and ends the novel. Unopened, it is pure potential, a story to be told. Once opened, however, the truth is irrevocable, and there is nothing left to hope for.

This is a big story. People and events crisscrossing the Atlantic. Ripples that cause currents. All in McCann's beautiful prose.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

Shotgun Lovesongs, Nickolas Butler's debut novel is due for release early next year. It is full to the brim with love and nostalgia for smalltown life. At the core, however, is the endless story of friendships that can stand the test of time - and betrayal.

We follow the four 30-something childhood friends Henry, Lee, Ronny and Kip who all have taken very different roads in life. Henry is the traditionalist, who took over his father's farm and is living the farmlife with his wife Beth and their kids. Lee is now a successful musician who travels the world, but always returns to the town Little Wing. The former rodeo Ronny always wanted to leave, but after a drunken accident, his brain never fully healed, and he finds himself unable to leave the town where people now look at him funny and tell him what to do and not to do. And finally we have Kip, the Chicago "bigshot" who returned to town with his bride Felicia, and bought the run-down old mill in an attempt to make something happen in Little Wing.

If it sounds like this book has a very male focus, it's not the case. Henry's wife Beth has a very strong central role on the story. So do the other wives. In fact, the book might have been called 4 Weddings and a Shooting (as there is no funeral), because the action that drives the story forward all happen at the weddings of each of the men. The novel starts as Kip is getting hitched to Felicia. Lee returns to town for the wedding, and brings his Hollywood girlfriend with him. At Kip's bachelor party, Ronny meets his future wife to be. Kip manages to thoroughly alienate Lee at his wedding, and the consequence is that Kip and Felicia are ignored by everyone in town for a while. 

The story then skips forward in time to Lee's Hollywood wedding in New York. Lee's paid for Henry, Beth, Ronny and Lucy, Ronny's girlfriend, to come to the wedding. The point of view shifts between the different characters, and we learn from Beth that since Kip and Felicia's wedding, she and Felicia have become very close friends. We also learn of Beth and Lee's secret history.

Once again the storyline skips until the next wedding. This time it's Ronny and Lucy's time to walk down the aisle. But not all the other 3 couples are doing so well anymore. Lee's wife has left him, and Lee's determined to stay permanently in Little Wing. Kip and Felicia are having serious problems as well. Felicia is determined to have children, but Kip cannot imagine himself being a father. Even Henry and Beth, the perfect couple, are going through hard times. In a moment of utter despair, Lee confessed his and Beth's secret to Henry, and the consequences are devastating.

The final wedding is ten years back in time. Henry and Beth's wedding. Beth the most beautiful bride imaginable. Henry and Beth carrying on traditions, in more ways that one. And while Lee is thinking back on the day his best friend married the most beautiful woman he knew, he is trying to patch things up with Henry in maybe not the smartest way.

So why this obsession with weddings? It brings people together, it breaks people apart? It brings to the table strong emotion and leaves room for confrontations, both between people and inside a person? It carries on tradition and the hopes for the future? I really find it interesting how Butles makes it one of his strongest recurring motifs in the story. I guess it might be because a wedding is symbolically one of the most important events in an adult person's life. It is a catalyst for change in a life which can indicate who you are, what you are, where you are.

Love, friendship, family, tradition, home. Butler approaches these universal themes with great tenderness and care. I'm not from a small town like Little Wing, but I really understand the complicated relationships the characters have to the town that is home to them. The contradiction between the desire to stay and the will to leave. Hopes, dreams and disappointments. I am also getting close to that age when I will look back on my life and try to make sense of my status quo and question my choices.

I am asking myself if this novel is Butler's ode to his own hometown of Eau Clair, set close to Little Wing in the novel. And is this novel his "shotgun book", to prove to himself that he can do it? If so, he has me convinced. The characters are authentic and real. All flawed, all sympathetic, all with their own reasons, their own codes of conduct, their own internal battles and contradictions. They are just people like me and you, going about their lives trying to make the best of things. If you read it, they might just inspire you.