The Housekeeper – Melanie Wallace

Melanie Wallace’s novel, The Housekeeper, was longlisted for The Orange Prize. For about the first 100 pages, I couldn’t figure out why. The story itself – if the synopsis is to be believed – sounded intriguing: When Jamie Hall finds a boy tied to a tree and cuts him loose, she can have no idea of the desperate chain of events her act of humanity will trigger.

Jamie is 17. When her mother dies of cancer, she leaves home with her dog and heads for Dyers Corner – the only place she has any connection to; a place her grandmother, while alive, lived. She has nothing and she seems to want nothing. She falls into a strange relationship with Damon, a married man who eventually returns to his pregnant wife. She becomes housekeeper for an elderly photographer, Margaret. Galen, a trapper, pines for her. It is winter and the stark landscape adds to Jamie’s isolation.

The boy Jamie cuts loose is wrong. “He thought of nothing in words and so gave no thought to those things he saw before him…” Jamie’s act of kindness begins a series of violent acts that culminate in a tragedy that seemed inevitable, but still left my mouth hanging open.

It took me a while to warm up to Wallace’s story and the way it was written, but once I fell into its rhythms, I loved Jamie. She is a smart and resilient character who seems to accept her lot in life without complaint. But her life is grim. And so is Wallace’s story. Spring never comes for these characters, even those who deserve it most.

The Sister by Poppy Adams

It’s ten to two in the afternoon and I’ve been waiting for my little sister, Vivi, since one-thirty. She’s finally coming home, at sixty-seven years old, after an absence of almost fifty years.

 

Thus begins Poppy Adams’ strange debut novel, The Sister.  Narrated by the incredibly brilliant Ginny, The Sister tells the story of the sisters and their parents, Maud and Clive. They share  a crumbling English estate known as The Red House because of the Virginia Creeper. Whole areas of the house have been shut down because Clive, a moth expert, and Maud can’t afford the estate.

Ginny takes the reader back in time, to the moment that her mother brought Vivi home from the hospital “her fluffy hair sticking up and her big round eyes gazing at me”. She recounts the time Vivi fell off the bell tower, an injury which very nearly cost her her life, but which did make it impossible for her to bear children. Ginny is the keeper of the memories and is in sole possession of the secrets, too.

Why did Vivi leave, never to return? It will be left to the reader to decide whether her homecoming is worth the hype. For me, the book falls short of the opening line’s promise. I was expecting something altogether more suspenseful. Instead, Adams spends a great deal of time instructing the reader on the nature of moths – a subject that holds absolutely no interest for me- and not nearly enough time examining just what keeps two sisters apart for fifty years.

The novel is well-written, certainly, but it moved too slowly and didn’t deliver on its early promise.

Moth lovers will likely be delighted.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

Almost 20 years ago I stumbled upon Donna Tartt’s fantastic novel The Secret History, a novel which has stayed with me all these years. Having recently finished her second novel (and I believe there was almost ten years between the two books), I now have an overwelming desire to re-read The Secret History to see if it’s as good as I remember. I wonder if I’ll be saying the same thing about The Little Friend in 20 years?

There’s no doubt, Tartt is a talented writer. The Little Friend is a gorgeous book, certainly a book to linger over. (It’s over 600 pages long.) It concerns 12 year old Harriet Dufresnes. On Mother’s Day, when Harriet is just an infant, her older brother, Robin, is found hanging from a tree in the yard. His murderer is never found. Harriet has decided that she will discover who has killed her brother because  while she is neither pretty or sweet, Harriet is smart.

The Little Friend is a densely-written, slow-moving novel. Set in Alexandria, Mississippi in the 1970s,  the novel evokes the period (without bothering to fuss with specific details) and sets a tone which it sustains throughout. Harriet is surrounded by a cast of eccentric characters including her grandmother, Edie and Edie’s unmarried sisters. Harriet’s mother, Charlotte, has never fully recovered from the loss of her son. Harriet’s father, Dix, has long since removed himself to Nashville. Harriet’s best friend, Hely, is her constant companion. Harriet’s family once had money, but they don’t any longer. They all have ‘negro’ help, though. The maid/cook/surrogate mother in Harriet’s household is Ida Rhew and Harriet loves her fiercely.

On the other side of town live the Ratliff’s: Farish, Eugene, Danny and Curtis. Farish runs a meth lab out of a trailer on the property. Eugene is a self-proclaimed preacher and Danny is addicted to the drug his brother produces. Curtis is Harriet’s age and a little on the slow side. Harriet decides that Danny is responsible for her brother’s death – something Ida told her reinforces her belief that Danny hated Robin. She and Hely set out to prove his guilt and exact their revenge.

The Little Friend isn’t really about Harriet’s quest to find a murderer, though. It is about Harriet on the cusp of adulthood; about that long, hot summer between innocence and experience. This is a novel about loss. Harriet has more to lose than she might have thought and what she learns about herself and others surely shapes the woman she will become.

This is a novel to savor. It evokes a time and place that is both familiar and exotic. I have to say, though,  that when the end came I didn’t feel all together rewarded for my time and effort. But maybe that’s exactly what it feels like to leave childhood behind.

Girls by Frederick Busch

The best word I can think of to describe Frederick Busch’s novel Girls is muscular. The novel has certainly received much higher praise than that. Glamour Magazine called it “powerful,” and went on to describe it as an intriguing crime story although the novel’s real strength lay with the main character’s  “growing insight about his marriage, his town, and himself [which] transforms this page-turner about lost children into a tender and eloquent examination of the even greater mystery that is the human heart.”

Jack is a somewhat cantankerous Vietnam veteran who is currently a campus cop at a small college in upstate New York. His wife, Fanny, is an emergency-room nurse. Jack and Fanny are mourning the recent loss of their infant daughter, Hannah. They can barely be in the same room with each other and so they work opposite shifts, drifting past each other in a haze of exhaustion and grief.

Then a local girl goes missing and someone suggests Jack help out with the investigation, ostensibly as a way of working through his own issues.

The characters in Busch’s novel are all messed up.  Jack and Hannah are locked in a grief-fueled stalemate and neither seems to know how to make the first move. As Jack observes:

I thought, as I stayed where I was, that somebody ought to walk around the table and hug this woman hard and just hold on.

Instead, Jack fills his days helping cars up icy hills, rescuing suicidal co-eds, drinking sour coffee with his confessor, Archie, and trying to figure out just what happened to the missing girl.

Girls is a  atmospheric and tragic story and the characters, particularly Jack, are well-drawn and convincing. The novel is often funny, too. In one scene, where Jack runs a drug-dealer off the campus, I laughed out loud.

Busch is a new-to-me writer, but he’s written 20 other novels and he’s impressed me enough to look for more.

The New York Times has a terrific review of the novel here.

Before the Knife by Carolyn Slaughter

The Betty and Boo Chronicles is hosting a Memorable Memoir Reading Challenge and as I actually have a few memoirs on my tbr pile, I thought I could manage to fulfill the challenge’s requirements: read four memoirs in one year. That’s doable.

I just finished my first memoir, Before the Knife by Carolyn Slaughter.

Before I talk about the book, let me say a few words about the author. I discovered Carolyn Slaughter 20 odd years ago, purely by accident. I came across her novel, The Banquet in a book store and its tag line “a taut and powerful story of obsessive love” caught my attention.  Well of course it did. At the time I was madly (and a little obsessively) in love myself. I devoured the book and then went looking for more. In a second hand store I came across her novel Relations (which is also known as The Story of the Weasel in that weird way books have their name changed between the UK and North America). That book was stunning. That book caused me to write a letter to Ms. Slaughter, the first and only fan letter I have ever written to an author. A letter to which she replied. In total I have read six novels by Ms. Slaughter (I highly recommend Magdalene as well as the two I have already mentioned) and I count myself a huge fan. She is an immensely talented writer.

Her memoir wasn’t what I expected, however, and I can’t say I loved it. Born in India, her parents moved to Africa when Slaughter was very young. Her father had some sort of government job; her mother was mostly emotionally unavailable and Carolyn, her older sister, Angela and her younger sister, Susan had a weird and unhappy childhood.

Carolyn prefaces her story by telling the reader of a horrific incident that happened to her when she was six. Then she goes on to say that Before the Knife isn’t a memoir about that. Except it is –  because Carolyn was clearly shaped by what happened to her. She does her best to survive her cruel mother and horrible father and much of her survival depends on her affinity with the land. She clearly loves Africa, its wild and exotic landscape a place of  refuge for her.

The story covers Slaughter’s life from her arrival in Africa to her return to England when she’s 16 or so. The pages in between are filled with striking images of the land, the people (both blacks and whites) who occupied it and Slaughter’s complicated and strained relationship with her siblings and parents. She’s not entirely likable – prone to violence against others and herself.

It’s not until years later, when she herself remembers what had transpired when she was just a little girl, that her story comes into focus. By then, though, I felt disconnected from her – the strange little bits of revealed life never really coming together. And I really wish she’d talked about writing.

Nevertheless, I have no regrets about reading her story. There was certainly nothing ordinary about it!

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee is a South African writer and former winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Disgrace is the first novel I’ve read by Coetzee. It won the Booker Prize in 1999.

Disgrace is the story of Literature Professor, David Lurie. Lurie is a man who answers only to himself. Twice divorced, Lurie has “solved the problem of sex rather well.” But then his life starts to unravel; he pursues a student who seems ambivalent (but not altogether resistant) about his advances. When she accuses him of impropriety, Lurie does nothing to defend himself.  He packs himself off to his adult daughter’s farm on the Eastern Cape. His relationship with his daughter, Lucy, isn’t a particularly close one. Lurie, it seems, has been a haphazard father. He loves her, but he doesn’t know her. One day a horrific event changes their lives forever.

On the surface it would seem that Disgrace is about one man’s midlife crisis. Lurie chases beauty. He’s attractive and charming enough to grasp it – however fleetingly. What Lurie doesn’t have, however, is substance. And it isn’t until he’s forced to reorder his self-centered world that he gains real insight into what makes him human. That compassion, when it comes, is hard-earned. One of the interesting things about Lurie is that as a teacher of Romantic poetry (a movement that reveres nature), he actually finds all things natural distasteful – so life on the farm isn’t comfortable at all for him.

Disgrace was an easy book to read, but don’t let the prose fool you. This book is jam-packed with thoughtful ideas: how does a parent love a child; how does a man, at the mid-point of his life, reconcile who he thinks he is with who he is in actuality; how do the white people of South Africa co-exist peacefully with the Blacks – can they?

Disgrace isn’t a feel-good book. I did, however, feel that Lurie attained a certain grace by the novel’s final pages and, while in his company, I felt a little like it might be possible for everyone to achieve a similar state – although the trip is often unpleasant.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses has been on my tbr list for ages, so I was happy when it was chosen as the December read for my book club. I was also surprised because the woman who chose generally dislikes translations and this novel was translated from the original Norwegian. Anyway, I settled in and finished the book (one of the few in the group who actually did) and even after discussing it – I am not sure how I feel about the book.

The story concerns 67 year old Trond Sander who is living in isolation after the death of his second wife. The novel moves seamlessly between Trond’s every day concerns (getting his driveway plowed and stacking wood) and his memories of his youth. The summer he was 15 he and his father had left Trond’s mother and sister in Oslo and come to a cottage quike like the one Trond is currently inhabiting. It was there that Trond’s world was knocked off-kilter – not only by a tragedy that occurred in his friend Jon’s family, but also by events in his own life.

It took my a while to settle into this book. It’s a quiet novel and while the writing is quite powerful (particularly Pettersen’s descriptions of the natural world), I found the long sentences strangely difficult…too many commas or something. Still, I eventually stopped wanting to add full stops and gave myself over to Trond’s remarkable childhood recollections.

I’m not sure this book will appeal to everyone and so it’s not one that I can whole-heartedly recommend. That said – I do think it achieves something quite remarkable. As Trond’s story unfolds we learn a universal truth – sometimes there are no satisfactory explanations for life’s mysteries.