Sorrow and Bliss – Meg Mason

Martha Friel, the protagonist of Meg Mason’s widely praised novel Sorrow and Bliss, is in the middle of a crisis: her marriage is imploding. Things have gotten so bad that, on their way home from the last party they attend as husband and wife, she says to him “When you do that pointing thing it makes me want to shoot you with an actual gun.” Patrick’s response? “How about we don’t talk until we get home.”

Things weren’t always so vitriolic between the pair. Once upon a time, they were each other’s most favourite person and Martha felt as though “we had been melted down and made into another thing. […] It was the happiest I have ever felt.”

Happiness, as it turns out, is a rare commodity for Martha. She and her younger sister, Ingrid, comes from a relatively dysfunctional family. Her father, Fergus Russell, is a failed poet; her mother, Celia Barry, a sculptor. Fergus and Celia still live in the family home in Shepherd’s Bush (a district in West London), but they can only afford their lives because of Celia’s sister, Winsome, who at first seems like a rich snob, but in the end turns out to be the rock in the lives of these fragile, broken people. Patrick was childhood friends with Winsome’s son, Oliver, and Martha has known him since she was sixteen.

It is around the same time that Martha meets Patrick that she wakes up with “no feeling in [her] hands and arms.” It is the beginning of a long period of ill (mental) health for Martha. No one seems able to diagnose the problem, and her family reacts with varying degrees of sympathy. Her mother “no longer came into [her] room, except one with the vacuum cleaner. She pretended not to notice [her], but made a point of vacuuming around [her] feet.” Her father “stayed up with [her] in the night, sitting on the floor, leaning against [her] bed.” Ingrid tells her “You’ve basically turned into Mum.”

Sorrow and Bliss traces Martha’s journey through this unnamed mental illness (Mason uses dashes — instead of naming it, and a nurse in my book club said it sounded like schizophrenia), but Mason herself says that the book is not really about mental illness. In an article in The Guardian, Mason said “It’s not the schizophrenia book, the bipolar book, the borderline personality book, it’s a book about what it feels like to have X or to look after someone with X and what it does to the extended family and the marriage.”

By the time the book begins, Martha has been – with varying degrees of success -managing her mental health issues, the myriad dysfunctions of her family, her own stalled career aspirations and for the last eight years, her marriage to Patrick, whom one woman tells her she should feel so lucky to be “married to a man like that.” The truth of the matter is that life and relationships are complicated and Martha’s life sometimes spins itself into a deep, dark hole from which there is often no escape. Strangely, it is a tattoo artist who puts things into perspective for Martha

Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That is what life is. It’s only the ratios that change. Usually on their own. As soon as you think that’s it, it’s going to be like this forever, they change again.

I loved this book. I loved Martha’s family, particularly Winsome. I loved Martha’s relationship with Ingrid – which was often laugh-out-loud funny. I loved Patrick, who somehow didn’t come across as a martyr even though he was self-sacrificing. And I loved Martha, in all her messy glory.

This book is a winner and I highly recommend it.

All the Beautiful Strangers – Elizabeth Klehfoth

There’s lots of things to like about Elizabeth Klehfoth’s debut novel All the Beautiful Strangers. The story follows two timelines separated by a decade. In 2007 Grace Calloway, wife to Manhattan real estate mogul Alistair Calloway, has vanished without a trace. In 2017, Grace’s eldest daughter, Charlie, is in her final year at Knollwood Prep, a prestigious school where her father was once a revered student.

Charlie thinks she wants to be part of the only group that matters, the super secret A’s. But to become a part of that group is to participate in some extremely problematic initiation rituals. No matter: Knollwood is her life and the A’s offer an opportunity to belong in a way Charlie has never felt she has.

The thing is, Charlie is being chased by ghosts in the form of her mother’s mysterious disappearance. Then, she gets a message from her Uncle Hank, her mother’s brother.

I hadn’t seen Uncle Hank in years – since I was ten, and my father issued the restraining order.

No one besides Dr. Malby ever talked to me about my mother. But he wanted to know. What had that last month been like with her? Had she seemed different in any way? Who came and went at the house? How had things been between her and my father? And that night that she disappeared – what had I heard? What had I seen?

When Hank shows up with some photographs taken around the time his sister went missing, it sends Charlie back into her past, asking the questions she never knew to ask.

All the Beautiful Strangers is a layered story about family secrets, loyalties and the lengths people go to to protect those they love. Charlie is a tenacious, intelligent character who is determined, once and for all, to find out what happened to her mother. Although it’s not specifically YA, I think it would certainly appeal to patient YA readers. It makes for compelling reading, although at times it moved just a teensy bit too slowly. The two time lines are handled deftly, and the writing is terrific, so Klehfoth is definitely one to watch.

Our Kind of Cruelty – Araminta Hall

Mike and Verity spent much of their nine years together (from second year university until their late twenties) playing a game called the Crave. The two would head to a club, where Mike would hide in the shadowy corners watching while Verity waited at the bar until some poor unsuspecting guy would hit on her. When she’d had enough, she’d touch her necklace and Mike would “rescue” her.

I would push through the mass of people, pulling at the useless man drooling over her, and ask him what he thought he was doing talking to my girlfriend. And because I am useful-looing in that tall, broad way, and because V likes me to lift weights and start all my days with a run, they would invariably back off with their hands in front of their faces, looking scared and timid. Sometimes we couldn’t wait to start kissing, sometimes we went to the loo and fucked in the stalls, V calling out so anyone could hear.

Things are different now, though, for these crazy kids. Mike has just returned to London after two years in New York City. And he’s just received an invitation to Verity’s wedding. He’s pretty sure that this wedding is just a newer, more complicated version of the Crave. After all, he and Verity are end game. When he returned to London he bought a house he knew she’d like, had it decorated as she would like it, spent thousands of pounds redoing the garden. Mike knows Verity better than she knows herself.

Early on in Araminta Hall’s novel Our Kind of Cruelty, we learn that Mike is telling his story at the request of his barrister who “needs to get a clear handle on the situation.” Mike reveals his horrific childhood, living in extreme poverty with his addicted mother, and her various abusive boyfriends until he is taken into care by his loving foster parents, Elaine and Barry. Despite his past, Mike has had a successful and lucrative career as a banker but everything starts to spin out of control after he gets the wedding invitation. When it comes to Verity, Mike is not clear-headed.

Hall chooses to tell the story from Mike’s perspective; we never hear Verity’s side of things. Although Mike is clearly delusional, he isn’t unsympathetic. (Much in the same way that Joe in You, despite the fact that he is clearly a psychopath, isn’t unsympathetic.) To believe Mike is to believe that Verity took a shy, awkward, damaged young man and molded him into a physically imposing, devoted lover. And then, when she tired of the game, she abandoned him.

What’s missing, of course, is Verity’s perspective, which we never get. On top of that, Mike is an unreliable narrator. Then, in court, Verity is further punished – which hints at Hall’s political agenda. I kept thinking that the story might be slightly more interesting as a psychological thriller if, in fact, Mike had been right all along: they were still playing the Crave.

Nevertheless, Our Kind of Cruelty is well-written and moderately entertaining.

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel A Little Life garnered copious praise and was a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award, as well as making it onto many ‘Best of’ lists when it was published. It has been sitting on my TBR shelf for at least two years and I made it my mission this summer to make my way through at least two of my chunkier books: I read Empire of the Vampire in July and finished this one a few days ago.

The novel tells the story of four friends who were college roommates and are now making their way in the world in Manhattan in the nineties. There’s JB, the gay artist; Malcom, the bi-racial trust fund kid; Willem, the handsome wannabe actor and Jude, the mysterious, brilliant glue that bonds these men together over three+ decades.

Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.

At first I was wholly invested in their stories, although it’s really mostly about Jude. It’s clear early on that he’s had some sort of tragedy/trauma in his past (and although there are no trigger warnings: reader beware), but he is not forthcoming about the details of his life and spends most of the novel’s hefty 814 pages alternately berating and abusing himself. He doesn’t deserve happiness, after all, even though almost everyone who meets him admires him and loves him and even, in his early twenties, want to adopt him.

As the narrative starts to close in on Jude and his relationship with Willem (which morphs from besties to something more, although I am not sure there was really a point to having their relationship become romantic), it loses its focus on JB and Malcom. Suddenly they are bit players in their own story and perhaps they should have been treated as such from the beginning because Yanagihara clearly loves Willem and Jude the most. I started to feel a bit as if these two men were trauma-bonded. Jude has clearly had an horrific life and although I am sure there are lots of people who do, it just felt as though Yanagihara went way over the top with Jude (he meets one monster after another over the course of his life, but as smart as he is and despite having so many amazing people in his adult life, he never really gets the help he so desperately needs.) His story wore me out- and not in a good way where I felt as though there was a cathartic payoff; at a certain point, the book just became an exhaustive catalogue of misery.

I think this is a novel that has been quite divisive. People seem to love it or hate it, although I wouldn’t characterize my reaction to it as quite so black or white. The book is not without its charms. In the beginning I enjoyed the writing (it was Donna Tartt-lite), but I found the last 300-ish pages almost unbearable. (It just felt more of the same: misery heaped onto misery.) I also grew weary of the long lists of names — like, really, what are the chances that you’d know two dudes with the same name so you have to call them Asian Henry Young and Black Henry Young? — and the balance between the horrible things that happened to Jude and the amazing things that happened seemed, frankly, unrealistic. By the time the men were in their late forties I expected them to at least sound different than they did at twenty, but no. I didn’t believe in them.

Although there are many critics who love this book and have called it a masterpiece, there are others who point out the book’s flaws. I rarely read reviews before I write my own, but I felt like I had to go see if I was the outlier; it seems I am not. Slate took a closer look at the book when it first came out. The New York Times also had somewhat ambivalent feelings about the novel.

Would I recommend this book? Not really. I am not sure there is an emotional payoff big enough to wade through all the trauma for. It is almost relentlessly grim and not even decent writing can save it from its perpetual bleakness.

The House Next Door – Anne Rivers Siddons

When Anne Rivers Siddons’s 1978 novel The House Next Door begins, Colquitt Kennedy tells us that she and Walter are not the sort of people who you’d find in People magazine. Colquitt and her husband, Walter, are a couple of 30-something yuppies who live on a tony street in suburban Atlanta.

We have a good house, but not a grand one, in a better neighborhood than we can really afford, because the down payment was a wedding gift from my parents. We have two cars, which is all we need since there are only two of us.

Walter is the president of an advertising agency and Colquitt does free-lance public relations. By her own estimation they are “fairly ordinary people,” but all this is about to change because Colquitt and Walter have decided to tell their story to People.

The house next door is haunted, and I am the one responsible for all the publicity.

For the longest time, there was no house next door to the Kennedy’s – just an odd pie-shaped lot which seemed impossible to build on.

In our midtown neighborhood it was an oasis of wild, dark greenness, luminous in the spring with white dogwood and honeysuckle and rhododendron blooms, giving one the feeling of being cloistered away in a mountain retreat even though our street is only one block off one of the city’s main thoroughfares.

When news spreads that someone has bought the land and is intending on building, no one on the street can quite believe it. The newly married Harralsons, Buddy and Pie, (I know – what’s with the names? But, it is the South), and their young, brilliant and handsome architect Kim Dougherty do build there, though, and the house is magnificent: everyone says so. But then stuff starts to happen: dead animals around the property, Pie has a devastating mishap and then, at their housewarming party – well…

Then the Sheehans move in. Anita is emerging from a long convalescence, her husband Buck tells the Kennedys. Things don’t go all that well for them, either. Colquitt has a niggling fear that the house is sinister and that fear is confirmed by Kim, who seems to have lost his designing mojo and tells Colquitt that he believes the house is responsible.

And so it goes. More owners: more troubles, until Colquitt feels that the only thing she can do is warn people.

By today’s standards, The House Next Door isn’t particularly scary and there are some references that certainly haven’t aged well. In his introduction, Stephen King calls the book “well planned and brilliantly cast” and I would have to agree. The book has elements of the southern gothic, which include “the presence of irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation” (Oxford).

I wasn’t scared reading this book, or even creeped out, but it is well-written and wholly enjoyable.

Writers & Lovers – Lily King

From my vantage point, a 31-year-old college grad should have it all together. Of course, that’s a ridiculous assumption to make especially given that the last thing I was when I was that age was together.

Casey, the first-person-narrator of Lily King’s novel Writers & Lovers, lives in what is essentially a potting shed, hiding from the creditors who are after her for defaulted student loans, desperately trying to finish the novel she’s been working on for the past six years, and trying to come to terms with the sudden and devastating loss of her mother.

Casey is aware that she is “not the youngest kind of adult anymore.” She has a crap job at Iris, a restaurant located on the third floor of a building owned by Harvard. She doesn’t get the best shifts and is shafted by her co-workers who are always “making sure everything is to their advantage.” Anyone who has ever worked in the service industry will recognize the hierarchy and kitchen shenanigans as King has written them here.

I look beat up. like someone who has gotten ill and aged a decade in a few months. I look into my eyes, but they aren’t really mine, not the eyes I used to have. They’re the eyes of someone very tired and very sad, and once I see them I feel even sadder and then I see that sadness, that compassion, for the sadness in my eyes, and I see the water rising in them. I’m both the sad person and the person wanting to comfort the sad person.

Working at Iris isn’t the only thing sucking the life out of Casey though. Shortly after her mother died unexpectedly, she went to a writer’s retreat and met Luke. It ended badly. Casey has been struggling with the double loss ever since.

King’s novel is a coming-of-age story, really. It is a story of the difficulties of navigating life when you are stuck, as Casey most decidedly is. Enter Silas and Oscar, two different men who offer two different opportunities. I very much enjoyed her journey, even though she seemed very young. I suppose I was once, too.

The Bed I Made – Lucie Whitehouse

The Bed I Made is my third outing with British writer Lucie Whitehouse (The House at Midnight, Before We Met). Like Before We Met, this novel concerns a love affair gone wrong.

Kate works as a translator in London. One night, out with her friend Helen, she meets Richard.

He was watching me intently but didn’t speak. It was strange: it should have unnerved me but instead I found myself responding to the intensity, It was like suddenly finding myself in a spotlight.

Kate is generally practical and reserved, but her attraction to Richard is immediate and intense and soon they are in a full-fledged relationship. Richard is handsome, charming and successful – quite unlike anyone Kate has ever dated before. And if you’re thinking he sounds too good to be true, you’d be correct. Eighteen months after they first kiss, Kate sublets her apartment and flees to the Isle of Wight, a place that has personal significance to her, but where she is a stranger in the community.

The problem is that Richard isn’t about to let her go so easily. He might not know where she is, but he can still text her (until she changes her number) and email her (she can’t seem to stop herself from reading his messages and when she finally tells him that they are never, ever, ever getting back together, he starts making unpleasant threats.)

I guess you could say that The Bed I Made is a relatively straightforward domestic thriller. The Isle of Wight is supposed to offer Kate sanctuary, but soon after she arrives, a local woman goes missing and she becomes fascinated with her disappearance. Then she meets the woman’s husband, Pete, and things start to get even more complicated.

I found this book kind of slow, actually. Not slow in that I didn’t want to read it or find out what was going to happen – even though I had a pretty good idea. Whitehouse captures Kate’s sense of loneliness and isolation and claustrophobia really well, and she was a likeable – if often times naïve – character. By the time we get to the novel’s dénouement, I sort of felt as though I was reading a completely different book. There was a lot of time when nothing much was happening – Kate was wandering around the town, or she and Pete were sailing – and then bam. Thriller mode.

Still, Whitehouse has been a dependable author for me and I will definitely continue to read her.

Cascade – Craig Davidson

The first Craig Davidson book I ever read was actually a book by his alter ego Nick Cutter. The Troop is the gruesome story (and there are parts of this book that are so gross, I had to read the pages through slitted eyes) of a troop of Boy Scouts who, on their annual overnight camping expedition, come face-to-face with bioengineered evil. It was only after I got my hands on The Saturday Night Ghost Club that I realized Craig Davidson and Nick Cutter were one and the same. Since then I have also read Davidson’s Giller-nominated novel Cataract City and I just finished reading his collection of short stories, Cascade. I guess at this point I am going to have to say that I am a fan.

Short story collections aren’t something I read a lot of, and I am not sure why that is because I do love short stories. They’re like these perfect little miniature worlds. There are six stories in this collection and I enjoyed every single one of them.

Davidson writes about family – both biological and found – and about the places that root us (for him it is Cataract City aka Niagara Falls.) None of these stories is tidy – or even necessarily linear – and even better, none of them have tied-up-with-a-bow endings. Ambiguity is a friend of mine. And apparently Mr. Davidson’s.

In “The Ghost Lights”, a car crash leaves a mother and her infant son stranded in s snow storm. The mother has grappled with the whole idea of subverting her own identity after her son’s birth, but now she is “filled with a mindless need to protect.”

“One Pure Thing” returns an basketball player to the court after a stint in jail. In “The Vanishing Twin”, fraternal twins Charlie and Hen looks out for each other in a Juvenile Custody Facility. A social worker looks after a little boy, while waiting for the birth of her own child in “Friday Night Goon Squad.” Each of these stories scratches at the surface of the choices we make, the sacrifices and compromises. Davidson’s writing is assured and nostalgic and I found myself sinking into each of the worlds created by these stories after only a line or two.

Highly recommended.

Saint X – Alexis Schaitkin

When the Thomas family, eighteen-year-old Alison and her seven-year-old sister, Claire, visit Saint X with their parents, they have no idea how this Caribbean holiday will irrevocably alter their lives. On the last night of their vacation, Alison disappears, and then turns up dead on a nearby cay.

This event sets Alexis Schaitkin’s debut novel Saint X in motion.

Looking back, the things I remember most clearly from the days after Alison went missing and before she was found are strangely inconsequential. For example, I remember the hunger I experienced on that first day when my parents forgot about breakfast and lunch, and how I felt sorry for myself in that banal way any child feels sorry for herself when she finds herself overlooked in a flurry of attention devoted to her older sibling.

Although Clive and Edwin, two men who work on the resort, are questioned about Alison’s disappearance, they are never charged and the circumstances of Alison’s death remain a mystery. Many years later, Alison is working at a publishing house in NYC when she gets into a cab driven by Clive and that chance encounter sends her spiraling into the past, desperate to connect to the sister she didn’t really know.

While not a thriller, Saint X does read like one in many ways. Alison contrives a way to meet up with Clive again and then essentially starts stalking him until she orchestrates yet another chance encounter. She is convinced Clive can answer all her questions about Alison. Her obsession with her sister’s death and with Clive himself takes over her life. She cuts herself off from her friends, loses focus at work and spends her time listening to the audio diaries her sister kept as a teenager.

Schaitkin layers Claire’s journey with Clive’s story – one of abandonment and longing. We learn of his early life on Saint X, and his childhood friendship with Edwin, who grows into a gregarious man who knows how to flatter the tourists at the resort and make double the amount in tips. We see Alison through Clive’s eyes, a skewed portrait of a teenager on the cusp of understanding her tremendous power.

While the novel is certainly about Claire’s quest for understanding, this is also a book about privilege, fate, grief and family. When Clive finally reveals what he knows (or doesn’t know) about Alison, Claire realizes that the details “had very little to do with me.” That’s one of the brilliant observations in Schaitkin’s novel. You can’t possibly know everyone’s story – not even the people closest to you.

This is a beautifully written book, one to savor, and I highly recommend it.

Migrations – Charlotte McConaghy

In the not-too-distant-future Charlotte McConaghy imagines in her novel Migrations, “The animals are dying. Soon we will be all alone.”

When the novel opens, Franny Stone is in Greenland tagging Arctic terns. Now she needs a way to follow them. Enter Ennis Malone, captain of the fishing vessel Saghani. Franny just needs a way to convince him to let her come along. She tells him that the terns will lead him to the fish; all they have to do is follow them, and they can do that because of her electronic tags. This is a big deal because fish are scarce, but it’s a risk for Ennis because the birds are likely going further south than he normally sails and Franny has zero experience on a boat.

Franny is an enigma. Born in Australia to an Irish mother, Franny spends the first ten years of her life in Galway before her mother disappears and she is sent back to Australia to live with her paternal grandmother. Her father’s whereabouts are unknown. She spends much of her young adulthood trying to figure out what happened to her mother.

Then she meets Niall, a lecturer at the National University of Ireland, where Franny works as a cleaner.

My heart is beating too fast and I will myself to be calm, to breathe more slowly, to really take this in. To savor it and remember every detail because too soon I will be gone from the circle of his perfect words.

Their attraction is immediate and deep, and while Franny is on the Saghani, she writes letters to Niall to tell him of her progress. He is, she knows, as invested in her results as she is.

There is a lot going on in McConaghy’s novel: tracking the terns, Franny’s hunt for her mother, the complicated relationships which develop on the Saghani and, of course, Niall. Some might argue that there is too much going on and that the multiple, shifting timelines are unnecessary. But those shifting timelines unspool Franny’s complete story and keep you turning the pages. Franny is a complicated character. She is the sum total of all her experiences, plus also a victim of her own restless nature and readers must parse the information she provides.

I found Migrations almost unbearably beautiful. Although the Epilogue was a tad contrived, it didn’t spoil my overall reading experience. And sure, you could argue that McConaghy has never actually been to Newfoundland, but niggles like that are a waste of energy. This is a novel that asks some big questions: what are we doing to our climate? what does any of this mean? what will we take when we go?

Highly recommended.