You – Joanna Briscoe

youjoannabriscoeYou, by new-to-me author Joanna Briscoe, is the elliptical story of two families, the Bannans and the Dahls, whose lives first intersect in Dartmoor, England in the 1970s.

Dora and Patrick Bannan have moved into a dilapidated longhouse, Wind Tor House, with their children. The house is in rough shape and soon there are various “men with foxy beards and fluty women in dresses resembling aprons” living in various outbuildings on the property, ostensibly to help with the mortgage or help fix up the property with their labour.

Cecilia, the middle child, is an adult returning to Wind Tor when the novel opens. She and her partner, Ari, and their three daughters have moved back to her childhood home to help Cecilia’s mother recover from breast cancer and to hopefully patch up a rocky relationship. But the move sends her spinning back to when she was seventeen and “slender and omnipotent and powerless.”

That’s when Cecilia first meets James Dahl, an English teacher at the local school, a bohemian place called Haye House. Cecilia feels like a misfit there; she’s a bookish, dreamy girl and “she couldn’t even pretend to relax in a school where class attendance was voluntary and children swarmed naked across the lawns.” Mr. Dahl and his wife Elizabeth have come to teach at Haye House and their arrival changes everything.

At fifteen, Cecilia is almost immediately smitten with Mr. Dahl. He’s beautiful and the two bond over a shared love of literature. Briscoe does a beautiful job of capturing  those impossible feelings of longing  as Mr. Dahl opens first Cecelia’s mind and then her heart.

But James is not the only Dahl making an impression. Dora is also teaching at Haye House (Wind Tor is proving impossible to maintain and she has the marketable skills) and she is as drawn to Elizabeth Dahl as her daughter is to James.

Dora couldn’t tell anyone. It was imperative. Distraction had come upon her and yet she had barely noticed its arrival, its source was so outlandish. Elizabeth Dahl, that wife, mother, new housemistress at the school – above all, that woman – was nagging at her thoughts, staining them, unsettling her.

You hops back and forth in time as the Bannan women navigate their untenable circumstances. Dora is married and her attraction to another woman is, even in the bohemian 70s, unthinkable. James is more than 20 years older than Cecilia and their relationship is fraught. Both mother and daughter keep secrets from each other, but as we all know the truth will out. Cecilia’s return to Wind Tor reveals the fault lines and complicates her already complicated life in unexpected ways.

I loved this book. The poetic writing reminded me of one of my favourite British authors, Helen Dunmore.  It’s a book to savour, even though you desperately want to know how this riveting family drama is going to play out. And the ending….perfection, although it is perhaps slightly too loose-endy for some readers.

Highly recommended.

 

The Saturday Night Ghost Club – Craig Davidson

The ghosts in Craig Davidson’s novel The Saturday Night Ghost Club are not literal saturdaynightghosts. The ghosts haunting 1980s Niagara Falls (and man, did I love this novel’s setting – from the actual seedy city itself to the allusions to super specific Canadian touchstones like The Beachcombers) are personal.

Davidson is probably best known for his 2013 Giller Prize nominated novel Cataract City, but I have never read that book. I have read Davidson’s horror novel The Troop, though, which he wrote using the pseudonym Nick Cutter. That book was super icky, but also really good. This book, The Saturday Night Ghost Club, is not icky at all. It’s a coming-of-age tale reminiscent of Stephen King – which is a compliment.

Jake Baker is a loner. He lives with his parents, spends a lot of time with his mother’s brother, Uncle Calvin, and  tries to stay out of the way of the town bully, Percy Elkins. Percy isn’t Jake’s only tormentor, but he is the kid who is, perhaps because they were once friends, relentlessly cruel.

The novel takes place the summer Jake turns 12. That’s when he meets Dove and Billy Yellowbird. When Billy shows up at Uncle Calvin’s occult shop looking for a way to contact his dead grandmother, the boys form a fast friendship.

Jake recounts this summer from the vantage point of adulthood.  Now a successful brain surgeon, Jake is fully aware that “memory is a tricky thing….memories are stories – and sometimes these stories we tell allow us to carry on. Sometimes stories are the best we can hope for. They help us to get by, while deeper levels of our consciousness slap bandages on wounds that hold the power to wreck us.” Memories are, in fact, ghosts.

Uncle Calvin suggests that the he and the boys, and Lex, Calvin’s best friend who owns the video store next door, form a sort of ghost hunting club. Calvin knows all the haunted spots in town and on Saturday nights they meet at graveyards and lakes and burned out buildings, where Calvin tells the story of whatever might have happened there. Although there are certainly some creepy moments, that’s not really what The Saturday Night Ghost Ghost Club is all about.

I loved this book. I loved the characters. I loved how Canadian it was. (I know, that’s probably a weird thing.) I loved that this is a story about growing up, which is exactly what Jake does that eventful summer. He goes from being a friendless kid afraid of the monsters in his closet to being someone who is deeply empathetic. It’s a journey well worth taking.

Highly recommended.

 

Tell Me Lies – Carola Lovering

tellmeliesI am SO glad I am not in my 20s anymore. That’s the takeaway from Carola Lovering’s novel Tell Me Lies.  This is the story of Lucy Albright and Stephen DeMarco, East coasters who are both on the West Coast attending Baird, a small college in Southern California.

Told from two different perspectives, both in the past and in the present, Tell Me Lies unspools the story of Lucy and Stephen’s relationship. If ‘relationship’ is actually what you want to call it.

So, Lucy is this beautiful and privileged girl from Cold Spring Harbour, Long Island. She’s traveled all the way across the country, mostly to escape her mother, CJ. Once they were close, but then the “Unforgiveable Thing” happened and Lucy stopped calling her mother Mom, and started using her initials. The “Unforgiveable Thing” weighs heavy on Lucy’s fragile psyche.

Stephen is also damaged goods, but his damage takes the form of sociopathy. Well, at least I think there’s something seriously wrong with him. Is he meant to be charming? Irresistible?  Well, he is to Lucy, at least.

I’ll never forget his eyes. I think I’ll lie in bed years from now, when I have children and my children have children, and I’ll see those two bottle-green orbs, watching me, on the precipice of changing everything.

Okay, I get it. We’ve all been in love with the “wrong one.” The guy you can’t seem to get away from – mostly because you don’t want to get away from them. You chalk it up to chemistry because, hey, in its thrall you are helpless. Been there. Done that. Was I this  big of an idiot, though?

I say idiot because Stephen is a player with a capital D (for dick). His shtick is to reel Lucy in, then let her go. Repeat. He has the ability to make her (and all the other girls he hooks up with) feel validated, understood, listened to. Also, apparently, despite the fact that he is not drop-dead good looking, he is mighty fine in the sack. Moth meet flame.

Tell Me Lies  is well-written, but it doesn’t really have anything new to say on the subject of being with the wrong person. And at the end of the day, Lucy has learned nothing about herself. When the novel opens, she’s hung over, having just spent the night with her super-hot leech of a boyfriend, Dane. C’mon girl. Get it together.

The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer

What does it mean to be a feminist? At its core, feminism is about equality, right, femalemeaning that women are afforded the same privileges as men: personal, economic, social, and political equality. It’s hard to look at the state of the world and think that we’re actually there, though.

Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Female Persuasion is the story of Greer  Kadetsky. When we meet Greer, she’s a freshman at Ryland College. She’s like many other naive college students – well, okay, she’s not naive exactly, but she hasn’t found her voice. At a college party, she’s inappropriately groped by the loathsome Darren Tinzler. She doesn’t know exactly how to cope with this until she meets super-famous feminist Faith Frank in the woman’s washroom after a lecture. Faith gives Greer permission to use her outside voice, but also warns her “forget him” because “There’s plenty more for you to do.”

This impromptu meeting fuels Greer because Faith is an icon, someone Greer looks up to and wants to emulate. After she graduates from college, she finds her way to NYC and a job with Greer at a foundation meant to left women up by way of symposiums and workshops. Or something. None of it was particularly interesting to me.

Strangely enough, the most interesting character in the novel is Cory Pinto, son of Portuguese immigrants and Greer’s boyfriend.  Cory doesn’t attend Ryland; he got into an Ivy League school. He is faithful (mostly) and kind and smart and way more interesting than Greer, who spends most of her time slavishly devoted to her own journey. When personal tragedy strikes close to home, it ultimately causes a rift between Cory and Greer. Any time spent with Cory, however, is time well spent.

Faith is, to me, a caricature. She’s meant to be all about the gals, but not every decision she makes would demonstrate care and concern for the sisters. I’m not saying that perfection is realistic, but when Faith and Greer finally part company, the way it happens is so  – well – ridiculous really. So much for having each other’s back.

The Female Persuasion  was easy to read. I didn’t dread my time with these characters, but the irony wasn’t lost on me that the most feminist character in the novel was a guy.

What Has Become of You – Jan Elizabeth Watson

I love books featuring English teachers because I am an English teacher. Vera Lundy is whathasthe protagonist of Jan Elizabeth’s compelling thriller What Has Become of You. She’s pushing forty and has just accepted a maternity leave position at a private school in Dorset, Maine. Although Vera is well educated – she earned her master’s degree at Princeton – she is also somewhat awkward, and although being at the front of a classroom doesn’t come naturally to her she has “come to appreciate certain aspects of teaching.”

Jensen Willard is in Vera’s first period class, Autobiographical Writing: Personal Connections. Before Vera has even begun to teach, she receives an email from the precocious Jensen, asking her if it’s okay if she uses her own personal copy of Catcher in the Rye. This first correspondence sets in motion a peculiar relationship between teacher and student. In her journal, Jensen reveals very personal things, and Vera is both flattered to be on the receiving end of such honest reflection, but  also, as time goes on, troubled.

What Has Become of You mines the teacher/student dynamic to great effect. I think all  teachers have had students to whom we feel a special bond. Things get tricky for Vera, though, because Jensen is not your average kid. She’s odd, doesn’t fit in with the other students, is a bit of a loner.  She reminds Vera of herself.

She herself had not enjoyed being that age. On the contrary, those had easily been the worst years of her life. They had been the years of being ostracized, of being heartbroken, of being hunted down.

Vera sees something of a kindred spirit in Jensen, but then life goes off the rails for Vera. One night, walking home through the park, she stumbles upon the body of another one of her students. The ensuing investigation, and Jensen’s subsequent disappearance, puts Vera in the cross-hairs.

What Has Become of You is a well-written  – I hesitate to say ‘thriller’ so I am just going to say mystery. Our narrators are wholly unreliable, the plot is intricate and, although it mines somewhat familiar territory, it still manages to be surprising.

I would definitely recommend it.

 

 

 

And the Trees Crept In – Dawn Kurtagich

When Silla and Nori arrive at La Baume, their mother’s ancestral home, they are tired, hungrytrees and afraid. They’ve run away from home and come to the only place they thought they might be safe. But La Baume is not safe.

“You must never, never go into Python Wood” their Aunt Cath tells them.

You need to hear this as well, Silla. A monster of sorts. He did terrible things. And then he returned to the woods. He’s still in there, waiting for young girls to go wandering so he can capture them. So he can tear them up and eat their flesh from their – “

Dawn Kurtagich’s YA novel And the Trees Crept In is a nightmarish tale of impending doom. Silla is just 14 when she and Nori, 4, arrive from London. They’ve run away from home, specifically from their father who is a violent drunk. La Baume seems magical, if a little dilapidated, at first. There was a garden, plenty of food and “It was paradise. It was almost a home.”

But Aunt Cath wasn’t joking about the woods or The Creeper Man, and soon the girls, particularly Silla, are feeling isolated. The post man stops coming, there’s news of an impending war, and then, after months of not seeing a living soul, Gowan appears.

And the Trees Crept In is a page-turning puzzle of a book. Kurtagich includes diary entries, pages ripped from books, lists, and odd typography. If you’ve read Kurtagich’s novel The Dead House you will be familiar with some of these literary bells and whistles. It makes for an immersive reading experience.

Life becomes increasingly more claustrophobic for Silla and Nori, particularly once Cath seems to suffer from some sort of breakdown and cloisters herself in the attic. There’s no food. A terrifying trip through the woods to the local village reveals boarded up businesses and houses. If not for Gowan arriving from somewhere  with apples, Silla and Nori would starve. Worse than that, though, there seems to be someone in the house with the girls, and even more horrifying, the trees seem to be closing in on them.

And the Trees Crept In is like a horrifying fairy tale. The boogey man is right outside their door, and there is no escape for the sisters. Even Gowan seems helpless. I changed my mind several times about what was happening, and I was wrong. When the narrative resolved itself, and I am happy to say that it’s a terrific ending, I felt utterly wrung out and 100% satisfied (although a little gutted, too.)

If you’re looking for a creepy, compelling, well-written read-past-your-bedtime book, I highly recommend this one.

 

 

The Perfect Nanny – Leila Slimani

nannyLeila Slimani’s novel The Perfect Nanny was one of The New York Times  Top 10 books of 2018. Hmmm. It was also the winner of the Goncourt Prize. (Yeah, I’d never heard of that one, either, but apparently it’s “a prize in French literature, given by the académie Goncourt to the author of “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”. Wikipedia) To me, I thought it was going to be a quick little thriller with a pedigree that was perhaps a cut above. Because go into any bookstore these days and there are about a zillion thrillers out there. How are you supposed to know what’s good?

I’ll save you the trouble: not The Perfect Nanny.

Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, and Paul, her husband who is a music producer,  need someone to look after their two small children, Mila and Adam. They live in a small apartment in Paris and Myriam has recently decided to go back to work. They interview a few potential nannies, and then they meet Louise.

She must have magical powers to have transformed this stifling, cramped apartment into a calm, light-filled place. Louise has pushed back the walls. She has made the cupboards deeper, the drawers wider. She has let the sun in.

To Myriam, Louise is “a miracle worker.” Not only does she transform their living space, she “sews buttons back on to jackets…hems skirts…washes curtains…changes sheets…she is like Mary Poppins.”

She works her magic with the children, too and “When Myriam gets back from work in the evenings, she finds dinner ready. The children are calm and clean, not a hair out of place.”

But of course, not all is as perfect as it seems and we know that from The Perfect Nanny‘s opening line “The baby is dead.”

Slimani weaves Louise’s backstory throughout the novel, snippets of information about her dead husband, the horrible Jacques, her MIA daughter, Stephanie, other homes and families she has worked with. Simmering just below the surface, Louise is fragile. It seems she has buried all her own needs in service to others. She lives in a shithole; she has no friends; she has no money. Without someone else to look over, Louise is a non-person.

The Perfect Nanny has been compared to  Gone Girl  but I don’t think it’s an apt comparison. This book is a slow-moving, naval-gazing look at motherhood and surrogacy. It’s about how we treat people in subservient positions, about privilege. Yes, that opening line might make you think you’re about to read a thriller, but there’s never any question of whodunit and so all that remains is the why. At the end of the day, I didn’t care about any of these characters, so the why hardly mattered.