Tag Archive | incest

The House at the Edge of the World – Julia Rochester

Twins Morwenna and Corwin have grown up on the Devon coast with their unhappy parents, John and Valerie, and their paternal grandfather, Matthew. They are eighteen when the novel begins and their father has just fallen off a cliff to his death. Morwenna, the narrator of Julia Rochester’s compelling novel The House at the Edge of the World says “He was pissing into the brine at Brock Tor on his way home from the pub and fell headlong drunk into the spring tide with his flies open.”

house-edge-worldMorwenna draws us into a gothic landscape where people use language with scalpel-like precision and the characters are not particularly sympathetic.

Take Morwenna herself. I can’t remember the last time I read a book with a first-person narrator that I didn’t really like. Morwenna is prickly and often cruel. Her employer that eighteenth summer tells her she is “a bad-tempered, foul-mouthed little smartarse.” He’s not wrong. The only person she seems to even remotely care about is Corwin, her beautiful and enigmatic twin.

After the death of their father, Corwin leaves Thornton and heads to India where he says he is going to “move water.” Morwenna goes to London, first to school and then to a job as a book-binder. It’s incongruous to her personality – the care she takes to make these beautiful hand-crafted books with their embossed leather covers and beautiful end-papers.

Then Morwenna tells us “For seventeen years after my father’s death nothing much happened and then a pigeon flew through my window.” It’s a sign, surely. Corwin comes home and the siblings, again in each other’s orbit, start to pull at the thread of their family history.

Much of this history is captured in the map their grandfather, Matthew, has been painting for as long as they can remember. The map captures both the landscape and the history of their ancestral home and soon becomes an important clue in the mystery of Morwenna’s father’s life and death.

Even more intriguing to me is the relationship between Morwenna and her brother. To say it’s complicated would be the understatement of the year. His arrival back in England after a long absence offers Morwenna only “one last  lazy unspoiled afternoon” before Matthew’s map and their childhood home spills its secrets.

I really liked The House at the Edge of the World. The language is beautiful. There is an element of idioglossia between Morwenna and Corwin.  They are endlessly compelling even if you don’t particularly like them. The same is true for the rest of the characters. Only Valerie, when she finally moves away from Thornton, seems to manage a modicum of happiness.

I am not satisfied with the way I am talking about this novel. Gah! It’s probably because I don’t want to give anything away and I also have all these conflicting emotions about it. So let me just say this:

Highly recommended.

 

 

Our Daily Bread – Lauren B. Davis

ourdailybread

Picking a book for my book club  is serious business. The way our group works, we have one opportunity to pick and host per year and so you don’t want to choose a dud. The women in our group our merciless [cough] The White Iris [/cough] and it sucks to be on the receiving end of a book choice gone bad.  Usually I spend a lot of time choosing my book. This year I thought I would choose something from my own massive tbr  pile, but the problem was that every book I selected from my shelf was unavailable at local stores. In the end, I headed over to Indigo to peruse the shelves. The only criteria at that point was that there were enough copies on the shelf for the members of my club.

In the end, I chose a book I’d never heard of but which was plastered with accolades and a bright red sticker proclaiming that it had been longlisted for the Giller in 2012. Feeling confident of its pedigree, I brought home Lauren B. Davis’s novel Our Daily Bread.

Davis’s novel owes some of its gripping story to the real-life Golers from South Mountain, Nova Scotia. But Davis is quick to point out that Our Daily Bread is not ABOUT the Golers. While it’s true that Davis’s fictional Erskine family shares some similarities with the real-life family, that is only one small part of this mesmerizing and beautifully-written tale.

Albert Erskine is not like the rest of his violent, drug and alcohol addicted, sexually deviant family. He has already separated himself from the pack by building himself a small shack away from the main buildings on his family’s “compound”  on North Mountain.  His uncle Lloyd comments on Albert’s ‘otherness’ by saying: “You don’t act like the family at all now, do you? Don’t come visiting. Live in your little shack. Course maybe you have your own parties. That it? You have kids come to see you?”

It’s near impossible to trace the branches of  Albert’s family tree. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of younger kids with questionable DNA and Albert regards them with a mixture of annoyance and helplessness.  When ten-year-old Toots stops by his shack looking for food,  Albert ponders the sticky question: “What would she be like, if she’d been raised in some other place?” Albert often wonders how he might be different if his circumstances had been different. It’s a painful road for both Albert and the reader to travel.

Down in Gideon is another family with their own struggles: Tom and Patty Evans and their children Ivy and Bobby.  Tom is a good man. He grew up in Gideon and is well-liked and well-known. His wife, Patty, is another story. For starters, she’s from away. And although Tom seems desperately in love with her, she seems detached and unhappy. No matter what Tom does, it’s not good enough. As the tension in the household escalates, Ivy and Bobby seek shelter elsewhere. For Ivy, it is with the benign widow Dorothy Carlisle; Bobby’s new friend and confidant turns out to be  Albert Erskine. The intersection of these lives makes up the bulk of the narrative of Our Daily Bread.

I am guessing that some of the women in my group will have difficulty with the graphic (but never, imo, gratuitous) nature of the subject matter. As a mother, it’s certainly upsetting to see children in peril. The interesting thing about this book is that peril means different things to different people. Is Ivy’s falling-apart life any less horrible because she has a warm bed to sleep in? The impact Bobby and Albert have on each other’s lives is astounding and heart-breaking, too. Bobby is filled with a fifteen year old’s rage and angst and it isn’t until the novel’s powerful climax that he understands the value of his father’s love.

It truly is the mark of a great novel when you can empathize with so many of the characters. I loved Ivy’s resolute determination and Albert’s jaded hope and Dorothy’s refusal to bend to the will of small-town politics. And I loved Tom. A lot. As he copes with his unraveling marriage, as he asked himself the question, “How can I ever trust myself again?” I just saw so much of myself in him. But, ultimately, it all comes back to Albert. I so desperately wanted him to get in his truck and just go. I will be thinking about him for a long time.

Our Daily Bread isn’t ‘light’ reading, but this is a book that will stay with you long after the final page is turned.

As expected, our discussion of this book was lively and we were SO excited to be able to Tweet with Ms. Davis about her book. Here is some of our conversation:

Lauren B. Davis:  Oh, that’s wonderful, Christie!  If you have any questions, just send me a tweet! Thanks so much. #Ilovebookclubs

The Ludic Reader: Lively discussion about Our Daily Bread. @Laurenbdavis girls want to know if you think Albert ever contemplated a sexual advance towards Bobby?

Lauren B. Davis‏:  Not consciously, altho I do think the conditioned response of his childhood arose (pardon the pun) a few times, including that moment in the cabin the night Bobby came up to the compound with him.

@bitebymichelle wants to know where the wife went.

Lauren B. Davis‏: At the very end of the book?  Ah, who knows.  She is a lost soul, I fear.  I wonder if she’ll  ever come back and finally make that long walk up to the door.  What do you all think?

The Ludic Reader: Nobody is going to love her like Tom did, but we don’t think she’ll come back until her life is shit.

The Ludic Reader:  We all loved Albert so much – why did he have to die? (Altho we do know the answer.)

Lauren B. Davis‏: Can’t tell you how I tried not to kill him.  In the first draft he survived, but it just didn’t work.  I suppose it’s the symbolic sacrifice, but to be honest, I still grieve him. I found the final scene difficult to write.

The Ludic Reader: Some feel the trial was not necessary. Why did you decide to include it?

Lauren B. Davis:  It is rough, isn’t it?  But I felt readers would want to know what happened to the abusers, and since the courtroom  dialogue was taken from trial transcripts, I felt I was bearing witness to the children whose story inspired me. There was so much more of the Goler case which I did not include, because it was simply too horrible. But the response of the townspeople was important to the meaning of the book  I understand the squeamishness.  I felt I, too.  But yes, I think it’s important to be fearless in our gaze and to speak  truth to power even if our voice shakes.

A Spell of Winter – Helen Dunmore

I read Helen Dunmore’s novel With Your Crooked Heart many years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since. Dunmore’s prose is like poetry, every sentence a perfect balance between beauty and truth. Winner of the 1996 Orange Prize, A Spell of Winter is the fourth novel I’ve read by her, and I have also read her collection of short stories, Ice Cream.

A Spell of Winter concerns the lives of Cathy and Rob, siblings who live in a crumbling manor house in England.  Their guardian is their maternal grandfather, “the man from nowhere”, and through Cathy’s eyes he is seen as stern and unsympathetic.

When A Spell of Winter begins Rob is nine and Cathy, our narrator, is seven. They are on their way, with Miss Gallagher, to visit their father in the sanatorium. It’s a traumatic visit – and also marks the last time the children will see their father alive.

The children’s lives are isolated and insular. Cathy remarks:

I look at the house, still and breathless in the frost. I have got what I wanted. A spell of winter hangs over it, and everyone has gone.

Perhaps it is isolation, perhaps it is abandonment, but eventually Cathy and Rob cross the line. Their story reminds me of another pair of British siblings who become lovers: Cathy and Christopher, protagonists of Carolyn Slaughter’s magnificent novel Relations (also published as The Story of the Weasel.) With a huge house to creep around in and no one to pay attention to them except Kate, their trusted servant, Cathy and Rob fall into a strange spell of their own.

A Spell of Winter has many of the gothic hallmarks: the gloomy dwelling, a sense of mystery, a distressed heroine. As long as Cathy and Rob are isolated, they manage to sustain their relationship. But like winter, it can’t last. Eventually, the real world seeps in in ways both expected and unexpected.

I loved A Spell of Winter. It’s not a ‘love’ story in the way Relations is. I wasn’t rooting for Cathy and Rob. I was rooting for Cathy. She is abandoned many times during her life, but her resilient nature, whether through necessity or tenacity, keeps her going.  The language is beautiful. And the story despite its dark subject matter, is brimming with the promise of spring.

 

The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison

Appalling but beautifully written…jumping back and forth in time yet drawing you irresistibly toward the heart if a great evil. – Christopher Lehmann Haupt, The New York Times

Memoirs are all the rage these days and I have read a few- but I’ve never read anything like The Kiss, by Kathryn Harrison. I’ve read a couple other books by Harrison and I now more fully understand some of the recurring themes in her novels (dysfunctional families, issues of love and the withholding of it, estrangement, emotional blackmail) after finishing The Kiss.

This is a well known book, I think, despite having been published ten years ago. It received copious praise and, despite its difficult subject matter, I can see why. In fandom, we often write incest fic and consider it to be hot- but Harrison’s story of her affair with her father is never titillating. Instead, it’s a breathtaking and gut-clenching examination of how her seemingly unrequited love for her mother manifested itself into an all consuming and ultimately devastating sexual affair with her estranged father.

Harrison’s father left the family (at his in-law’s request) when the author was six months old. Until she was twenty she only saw him twice. Her father, a well-educated preacher, drew her into an affair with a kiss.

The book is frighteningly honest – Harrison doesn’t spare herself or her part in the relationship. She turns a keen, intelligent (but very emotional) eye on her life, the important relationships she had (or desperately wanted to have) and her father- who is one of the vilest characters I have ever met.

I couldn’t put this book down and when I was done I felt such a great sadness for her.