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The Killer Koala: Humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook.

April 16, 2018 12 comments

The Killer Koala – Humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook (1986) French title: Le koala tueur et autres histoires du bush. Translated from the English by Mireille Vignol.

I bought The Killer Koala, humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook at the Fête du Livre de Bron and it seemed to be a common collection of short stories published in France. Since I’m reading Australian books this year, it sounded a light and funny read. I wasn’t mistaken, these fifteen short-stories are a wild ride through Australia. Not sure they are good for tourism, though. They might frighten potential visitors.

To write this billet, I tried to find the list of the short stories’ original titles and I discovered that it’s OOP in the English-speaking world and I couldn’t find the table of content of this collection of short stories. So, sorry, I can’t give you the list. If anyone has it, please feel free to post them in a comment below.

Kenneth Cook (1929-1987) is best known for his Noir novel Wake In Fright, a book I’ll read too. The Killer Koala is part of a trilogy of short stories, the other volumes being Wombat Revenge and Frill-Necked Frenzy. He loved the Australian bush and all the stories are related to his supposedly true adventures in the outback. They are too extraordinary to be invented, he said.

I think that all the Australian states and territories have at least one dedicated story. Let’s me see:

  • Queensland, north of Mackay: With poisonous snakes like black snakes and king browns, it’s better not to fall asleep in an aquarium full of them,
  • Northern Territory, near Arnhem: There’s a story featuring the violent sex life of crocodiles and another story is about venomous snakes,
  • Tasmania, Kudulana island and its irate koala that grips you like vise,
  • South Australia, Coober Pedy and its crazy opal miners.
  • New South Wales, near Sydney: another encounter with poisonous snakes,
  • New South Wales, the narrator is at a friend’s farm where he performed a rectal injection on a female elephant,
  • Queensland, Cape York and its deathly crocodiles,
  • Western Australia, in the desert where cunning Aborigines sell camel tours to naïve tourists,
  • South Australia, near Marree: our narrator encounters a strange cat while bringing cattle to the Marree railway station,
  • New South Wales, the Macquarie swamps and its wild boars,
  • Western Australia, near Kalgoorlie and its gold trafficking,
  • Queensland, near Rockhampton, where his crazy dog George keeps bringing him a poisonous snake as a gift,
  • Queensland, Airlie Beach, where he almost drowns when he goes diving in the Great Corral Reef.

After reading these stories, only Victoria seems a safe place to be in Australia. Strangely, there’s no encounter with wandering kangaroos or monstrous spiders or poisonous jelly fishes. They must be too common, I don’t know. Or they’re part of the Wombat Revenge.

Kenneth Cook is the Australian equivalent of Jim Harrison, I think. They both were bon vivant, liked food and alcohol and had the body to prove it. Working out wasn’t their thing. They loved the wilderness in their country, Australia for Cook, the Upper Peninsula for Harrison. Some of the stories also reminded me of Craig Johnson’s Wait For Signs. Twelve Longmire Stories, probably because of the hilarious story involving an owl, a bear, a tourist and a Porta Potty. The three writers share a love for life, a good dose of humanity and a deep respect for the natives.

All along the stories, we see the narrator in dangerous situations, always told with a fantastic sense of humour. This large man who wasn’t in the best shape ends up in situation where he needs to run, walk, flee, swim, crawl or ride a camel to get out of perilous adventures. He’s not as good a gunman as he should be, which endangers him. He’s open and trusting and this leads him to interact with swindlers, nutcases, poachers and other various adventurers. In these stories, he has dubious encounters that almost lead him to disaster. It’s normal, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything funny and gripping to tell. However, I bet that he also met great people through his travels and thanks to his openness.

When you read The Killer Koala, it’s not surprising that Kenneth Cook died of a heart attack in the Australian bush in 1987. If he really lived the way he describes in his short stories, he didn’t treat his body well and pushed it to its limits. I hope he died happy, doing what he loved.

If anyone from Australia has read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. If you want to know what these stories sound like, I found the text of The Killer Koala here.

PS: Funny translation anecdote. I was reading several stories in a row and all involved animals. So, I thought that each story was about a different animal. When I reached the story Cent cannettes, I expected a story about a hundred quills (as ducks or cannette in French) and I read a story about someone drinking a hundred beer bottles (also a cannette in French)!

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin – Road trip from Gaspé to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail

April 2, 2018 14 comments

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin (1988) Original French title: Volkswagen Blues.

Volkswagen Blues caught my attention because it’s a road trip from Gaspé, Québec to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail and it goes through places I’ve been to.

The trip starts in Gaspé, the far east of Québec, a beautiful place where they have the phare du bout du monde, the lighthouse at land’s end. It’s the story of a forty-years-old man from Québec City who’s looking for this brother Théo and the last time he sent him a postcard, it was from Gaspé. He meets a young woman who’s half Native Canadian – half white. She’s from the Montagnais tribe and her Indian name is Pitsémine.

Both characters don’t have a real name. The man is a novelist whose nom de plume is Jack Waterman. He nicknames the girl La Grande Sauterelle, the Tall Grasshopper. The narration alternates between calling the man The man or Jack. The girl is mostly the girl or La Grande Sauterelle and sometimes Pitsémine. It’s hard to ignore that the man chose a penname composed of Jack (like Kerouac) and Waterman (a brand of fountain pens, an instrument for a writer). I couldn’t help thinking of Van Gogh with a brother named Théo.

Names are important details as they are both on an identity quest. Jack has a sort of mid-life crisis that pushes him to look for his estranged brother. They haven’t seen each other for twenty years. La Grande Sauterelle has trouble with her mixed origins. This common point brings them together and they start a tentative friendship.

Gaspé

La Grande Sauterelle decides to embark on Jack’s VW bus and be his companion on the road. She has a kitten as a pet, his bus is like a pet to him and their common pet project is to find Théo. The starting point of their trip is an old postcard from Théo with a quote by Jacques Cartier, the French explorer who arrived in Gaspé, discovered Canada and claimed it as French territory. Théo was fascinated by the exploration of territories in Canada and the United States.

From one place to the other, they follow Théo on his trip to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail. During their journey, they learn about the Indian tribes who used to live there, revisit the story of the conquest of the West. They’re on the trails of the pioneers and their wagons. They encounter historical places of this westward migration and its difficulties. They also explore the terrible fate of the Native Americans, the massacres of the Indian wars and the extermination of the bison and the Plains Indian populations.

It’s a trip that reflects on the construction of North America. In its way, it’s a colonization war and shows that violence is at the basis of the construction of Canada and the USA. Violence against Native Americans but also violence of the climate and living conditions of the pioneers. All this is explored in mild tones, Jacques Poulin is a soft writer. His characters are friends, lovers sometimes but sex is more a comfort than anything else. They’re both adrift, looking for their place in the world. Who is the man? Is he Jack the writer, Théo’s brother or someone else? La Grande Sauterelle explains how tough life was for her parents and herself. They were ostracized in both communities, being a mixed couple was a tough choice to live with.

Volkswagen Blues has the music of mild rain, a comforting sound. I wanted to know how their trip would end, to see who they’d meet on the way and to which places they’d go. Like I said at the beginning, I’ve been to several places they visit on their trip. Gaspé, Québec City, Chicago, St Louis, San Francisco. I’ve been to some of the museums they visit and this personal side added to my reading. I enjoyed being with Jack and La Grande Sauterelle, two persons who are very different but adjust to each other and live in harmony. They accept each other the way they are, without a question, without judgment. They slip into each other’s life and habits to live this road trip together.

This is a book I bought in Montreal, which explains why I have the Quebec edition and not the French one. All the dialogues in English speaking places are partly in English, without translation. I don’t know what choice the French publisher Actes Sud made. Did they translate the passages in footnotes? As always, French from Québec has a special ring to it with its own words like chum, its expressions like faire le pouce for to hitchhike, where a French speaker would say faire du stop. I love the word cuisinette for kitchenette and still don’t understand why they didn’t find another word for coke and just use the English term.

I had a very peaceful and pleasant literary trip with these two lost souls. Volkswagen Blues is a quirky book told in mild tones but it still presses on difficult issues, to try to diffuse the pain they left as a trail. This trip is like a massage to their soul, a way to ease the tension, work in the knots they carry with them in the hope that they are gone when the journey ends.

Other review by Leaves and Pages: Crossing America in search of something ultimately undefined.

The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal

March 24, 2018 14 comments

The Little Town Were Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal (1985) French title: La petite ville où le temps s’arrêta. Translated from the Czech by Milena Braud.

Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) is a Czech writer considered as one of the best Czech writers of the 20th century. The Little Town Were Time Stood Still is my first encounter with his work and it was a pleasant journey into the past.

We are in a little town on the banks of the River Elbe, in the early 1930s. Our narrator is a child whose father Franci runs a brewery. His mother is a stay-at-home mom and his uncle Pepi lives with them. We don’t know how old our narrator is but when the book opens, he’s old enough to run around, slip into a bar to get a tattoo from a sailor.

It’s hard to describe this novel. It tells the tragic fate of this family as history catches with them. It starts during the Czech Republic between 1918 and 1935. We are after fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its domination over Bohemia and before the Nazis destructions followed by the Communist catastrophe. This little town has the same fate as Wilno, now Vilnius. It’s as if the Nazis and then the Communists sucked the life out of it. The River Elbe is a waterway to Hamburg, the little town’s harbor brings the world to its inhabitants. It brings life and during the Republic, the place was lively. When the Republic ended, it’s as if this city that was joyously feasting on life was put on a diet.

The narrator relates his years in this little town, his quotidian between a capricious and loud uncle and a mousy industrious father. It’s like Franci tries to even out Pepi’s eccentricities by being the exact opposite. The salt of the book lies in observing the different scenes the narrator shows us. The little town and its inhabitants come to life with their quirks, flaws and qualities. It’s like observing details on a peasant scene painted by Pieter Brugel the Elder. Lots of details, various characters in diverse situations that show everyday life. Hrabal has a great sense of humor which lightens the tragedy of this family and their town. It borders on burlesque sometimes and there’s a definite whiff of nostalgia.

Harbal grew up in a town like this and The Little Town Were Time Stood Still is part of a trilogy that starts with Cutting It Short and ends with Harlequin’s Millions. Highly recommended.

A word about the French cover. I don’t understand it at all. It’s a detail of the painting Australian Beach Pattern by Charles Meer. Frankly, I wonder what it’s got to do with the book. I prefer the English one, with the sailor who could be Uncle Pepi or the one with the city street. The Italian cover gives an idea of the narrator’s voice.

 

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

February 15, 2018 12 comments

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke (1987) French title: La Pluie de néon.

“It’s not a matter of guts, my friend,” Murphy said. There were small breadcrumbs in the whiskers on his chin. “Some people are adverbs, others are nouns.”

After reading Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, I turned to The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke because I wanted to read another book set in New Orleans and wash away the memory of DeWitt’s phony detective methods. The Neon Rain is the first book of the series featuring Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux, a police officer working for the New Orleans PD. He’s paired with Cletus Purcel, a cop with old-fashioned methods who drinks away his personal problems. Cletus is a liability in their partnership because he’s not at the best of his abilities and because of his dubious morals.

When the book opens, Robicheaux learns from a convict on death row that the mob has a contract on him. His life is threatened because he found the corpse of a young girl in the bayou and doesn’t want to let it go. The local police won’t really work on the case because she’s a poor girl and a prostitute. Robicheaux doesn’t give up, puts his nose where it doesn’t belong and gets in the middle of an IRS investigation, a FBI investigation, rotten cops, arm trafficking and political interference in the civil war in Nicaragua. Needless to say, none of the participants want a lone wolf investigating their business. Life gets dangerous for Dave Robicheaux.

Apart from the investigation, James Lee Burke introduces us to Dave Robicheaux, his present and past life, to New Orleans and Louisiana.

Dave Robicheaux is a Cajun, I suppose his last name gives it away: nothing sounds more French that words that end with eaux. His brother Jimmie is friend with the New Orleans mob and has activities that flirt with legality but he never goes too far. Let’s say he’s friendly with gray areas. The Robicheaux brothers have been raised in the bayou by their father, who did as best he could as an illiterate single dad.

The Neon Rain was published in 1987, it’s not a surprise that its main character was incorporated and shipped to Viet Nam in his twenties. Robicheaux didn’t come back intact from this dirty war and its remnants weigh on his life. He’s a recovering alcoholic and he has been off drinking for four years when he falls off the wagon after he was kidnapped and forced to drink. This one occurrence throws him off, his intoxication is immediate and massive.

After four years of sobriety I once again wanted to fill my mind with spiders and crawling slugs and snakes that grew corpulent off the pieces of my life that I would slay daily.

James Lee Burke shows us what a powerful drug alcohol is and how strong its hooks are once they are clawed in someone’s skin. The only other time I’ve seen alcohol described that way is in Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. Nothing glamorous in it.

Robicheaux’s hope for the future is in Annie, a social worker he meets early in the novel. She’s ready to stand by him despite his dangerous job, the damages from his time in Viet Nam and his angst. It’s a second chance at happiness with someone who accepts him as he is, baggage and all, probably because she’s as bruised and battered as him.

I loved Robicheaux’s voice. He’s full of thoughtful musings on life and about the impact of our past in our present despite all our efforts to cut it loose and focus on moving on. He tells us we should embrace it because it is part of our self.

I reflected upon the ambiguous importance of the past in our lives. In order to free ourselves from it, I thought, we treat it as a decaying memory. At the same time, it’s the only measure of identity we have. There is no mystery to the self; we are what we do and where we have been. So we have to resurrect the past constantly, erect monuments to it, and keep it alive in order to remember who we are. For some, even our darkest past moments are preferable somehow to those few interludes of peace and sunshine in the world.

It is a brave way to live and probably a wise one, one that brings peace and self-acceptance.

One of the perks of the job as a cop in New Orleans is the questioning about police methods and honor. Robicheaux reflects on his belief system, on honor and how each of us builds its own standard, the one that allows us to face the mirror every day. We all have our own limits and some give themselves a longer leash than others. Robicheaux believes in staying on the right side of law and he’s not ready to use violence. He still believes in the system…

I pretended to be a pragmatist, a cynic, a jaded war veteran, a vitriolic drunk, the last of the Louisiana badasses; but like most people I believed that justice would be done, things would work out, somebody would show up with the Constitution in his hand.

…but he’s not naïve and knows that the system has faults that profit to criminal organizations.

That sounds like a cynical conclusion for a man to arrive at while sitting on a shady stone bench on a cool morning under banana trees, but most honest, experienced cops will tell you the same thing. It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court for the pornographic bookstores and the live sex shows. They usually exist because somebody on the zoning board is getting greased. Kids don’t do dope because their parents and teachers are permissive. They do it because adults sell it to them. No psychological complexities, no sociological mysteries.

Being with Dave Robicheaux is being with someone on a quest. He hasn’t found his place in the world yet. He’s hasn’t found himself yet, he’s trying hard to pick up the pieces of his self and his life after alcohol, his personal hurricane, wrecked his life. It brought devastation to his body and mind, he’s aware that it’s a sickness that will never leave him. Alcoholism is like an alligator asleep in the bayou waters; it is rooted in his soul, under the surface, ready to strike at any moment and cut him deep or choke him.

The Neon Rain is also a tribute to New Orleans and Louisiana. Robicheaux lives on a houseboat on the Lake Pontchartrain and the view from his deck is simply stunning:

When we got to Lake Pontchartrain it was like walking out from under a layer of steam into a slap of cool, salt-smelling air. Pelicans dove for fish out of the blue sky, plummeting downward with their wings cocked behind their heads as though they had been dropped from a bomb rack, exploding in the smoky green water and rising suddenly with silvery fish flipping helplessly in their beaks. Far out on the horizon the water was capping in the sunlight, and a long, gleaming white yacht with red sails was dipping into the troughs and sending geysers of foam bursting into the air.

Beautiful, right? There are tons of descriptions of nature around New Orleans and of New Orleans itself.

A few genuine bohemians, writers, and painters still lived in the Quarter, and some professional people paid exorbitant rents for refurbished apartments near Jackson Square, but the majority of Vieux Carré residents were transvestites, junkies, winos, prostitutes, hustlers of every stripe, and burnt-out acid-heads and street people left over from the 1960s. Most of these people made their livings off middle-class conventioneers and Midwestern families who strolled down Bourbon Street, cameras hanging from their necks, as though they were on a visit to the zoo.

I wonder what remains of that after Katrina. I suppose that Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead answers that question. And the answer is : Not much. Both books have something in common: talks about food in New Orleans, which sounds pretty special : I picked up my poor-boy sandwich and started to eat. The shrimp, oysters, lettuce, onions, tomato, and sauce piquante tasted wonderful. I wonder how tasty that is…

The sauce piquante part leads me to the French vibe of the novel. For a French reader, all the French names and words create a strange feeling of familiarity. I feel at home. Names are evocative, something Proust points out brilliantly in In Search of Lost Time. Sentences like “So buy me a beignet and a coffee at the Café du Monde.” give me the impression of reading of a familiar place. I didn’t get that vibe from Gran’s book and I wonder if Burke, with his Southern English, sounds different to English natives as well. He uses phrases I would never dare to say in English because they sound too French. Here’s an example:

When you’ve hunted through the whole marsh for the bull ’gator that ate your hog and you come up empty, go back where you started and commence again.

I would never use the verb commence, I’d have the impression to make a mistake. Same for the word tranquility or the It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court you can see in a previous quote.

All this, the beignets, the Café du Monde, the Bourbon Street, the sauce piquante and the pralines make me feel close to the place, even if I’ve never been there and even if it’s actually very different from where I live.

Everything concurs to make of The Neon Rain a masterpiece of literary crime fiction. A character who has depth, baggage but not too much to make him implausible. An incredible sense of place. A fantastic literary style as you propably noticed in the previous quotes. An intriguing investigation with fascinating ramifications. Very highly recommended.

PS : Out of the three covers, I think the first one reflects better the atmosphere of the novel.

 

Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver

July 24, 2017 4 comments

Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver. (1989) French title: Une île sous le vent. Translated by Michèle Levy-Bram

Homeland and Other Stories is a collection of twelve short-stories by Barbara Kingsolver. It was first published in 1989. Set in different States, they all have a literary family tie. Most of the stories have a female narrator, a little girl or a woman. They all feature characters and families from the working class and fathers and partners are often absent or useless. They explore the central place that women occupy in life and the ambivalence of motherhood.

In Quality Time, Miriam is a single mother with a five-years old daughter, Rennie. Miriam is a working single mother. In other words, she’s a master at scheduling and organizing tasks to fit everything in her already packed agenda: chores, work, driving Rennie here and there, taking care of a million of tiny details that make everyday life. Her head is constantly populated by an army of sticky notes to make sure everything is taken care of. Rennie wants for nothing but Miriam worries and feels guilty. “Do I spend enough quality time with my daughter”, she wonders. Does that sound familiar? Kingsolver subtly reminds busy mothers that kids are easier to please than we think and that they don’t expect to live with Wonder Woman. Some things aren’t as important as they seem.

Mother and daughter relationships are also at stake on Islands on the Moon. The title of this story is the name of the trailer park where Magda and Annemarie live, separately. Magda is forty-four and she got pregnant with Annemarie when she was sixteen. Annemarie always believed that her birth was like a huge rock in the middle of Magda’s way in life. Annemarie has a nine-years old son, Leon. Magda is a militant mother, an environmentalist who brought her daughter to marches and who made and repaired things instead of buying them. Annemarie resented it and craved normalcy. Magda’s eccentricity weighted upon Annemarie and the two never found a working channel of communication. This is why they live in the same trailer park but aren’t on speaking terms. Annemarie is thrown off after Magda called her to say she was pregnant and needed someone to accompany her to her amniocentesis. Annemarie is pregnant too and had not told her mother yet, she feels that Magda steals her thunder, again. Will this reunion help them find a way to each other?

In several stories, an accident or a sudden death remind the characters that they are mortal. Life is short, nothing new here. Mostly this event pushes the characters to mull over parenthood and the implicit pact that you make with your child-to-be. As a parent responsible for a child’s wellbeing, you’re not allowed to be reckless anymore. You have to do as much as you can to stay alive until your child is grownup. In Blueprints, Lena is allergic to wasp stings. At 37, she was seriously thinking of having a child with her husband. After an anaphylactic shock and coming very close to die, she decides it’s too risky for her to be a mother. She’d worry all the time about leaving an orphan behind.

In Kingsolver’s world, society should be organized around taking a good care of children. Their needs prevail. It doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t have lives or should make great sacrifices but that the care of children must be taken in consideration first. Children are a priority but not an excuse to avoid difficult decisions and they are more adaptable and resilient than we think. This is what the narrator in Stone Dreams discovers when her daughter Julie gives her permission to make a tough decision regarding her marriage.

These stories also explore the lot of the working class, of the minorities. They are all set in small towns in California, Kentucky, Arizona, New Mexico or Tennessee. One of the stories I liked the most was Why I Am a Danger to the Public. Vicky lives in Bolton, New Mexico and her life is a permanent fight. She’s a single mother with two children, her husband abandoned them soon after the second’s birth. She’s of Mexican origin and works in a mine. She has to fight to earn enough to raise her children. She has to fight for her rights as a Latino, as a woman working among men, as a worker and as a single mother. In the story, she’s leading a tough strike against Ellington, the company who owns and runs the mine and Bolton. Kingsolver shows us all the dirty tricks Ellington plays to break the strike and get rid of disobedient workers. It’s done with the support of the local police, more interested in helping the rich getting richer than about respecting laws. I’m sure that what Kingsolver describes is real. This is not the first time I read about the police working in favor of the powerful of the town. The last example was in Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller.

Kingsolver is a soothing writer. She looks at the world with benevolence but she’s not naïve. She’s not trying to convince us that all for the best in the best of all worlds. She chooses to look at the good in people and she attaches a great importance to our link to nature. As in some of her other books, one story features Cherokee Indians.  She’s interested in their view of the world and their traditions because they offer an alternative to our model. I like that she focuses her literature on social classes that don’t have a voice. She sounds like someone at peace with herself and her characters reflect this. They might be lost sometimes but their inner compass is never totally broken.

Homeland and Other Stories is a lovely book, one to read after a depressing one. Kingsolver doesn’t write about an idyllic world. She writes about ours, with its hurdles and joys but in such a way that you feel better.

The Snuff-It Princess by Kââ – Crime fiction

June 25, 2017 11 comments

The Snuff-it Princess by Kââ (1984) Original French title: La princess de Crève. Not available in English.

I bought La princesse de Crève by Kââ at Quais du Polar. I was drawn to the great cover and the play-on-word in the title. Indeed, La princesse de Crève is a reference to the famous novel La princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette (1678) The best translation I can come with is The Snuff-it Princess, since the verb crever in this context is a slang word for to die.

My copy of La princesse de Crève is a new edition of Kââ’s 1984 crime fiction novel or polar. I’d never heard of Kââ as a writer. According to Wikipedia, it’s the pen name of Pascal Marignac who also wrote under the names of Corsélien and Béhémoth. Kââ is a reference to the python’s name in The Jungle Book.

La princesse the Crève is a roadtrip/chase classic crime fiction. It’s told at the first person by an unnamed narrator. From the context, we can guess he’s a white man in his late thirties or early forties. He’s literate, amateur of good wines and connoisseur of fire arms. He’s a criminal with principles who has the right connections in organized crime circles. As we say in French, he’s not an altar boy but still acts according to his own moral code.

When the book opens, our narrator is sitting at a terrace, on a look-out. Mr de Warny is going to cross the border between France and Switzerland with 150 000 francs hidden in the trunk. And our narrator and his accomplice have decided to block De Warny’s road and steal the cash before he gets to Switzerland. Everything goes according to plan and they manage to pinch the money right under Roman Markos’s nose, the man behind the money laundering business.

Our narrator decides to let things cool off and chooses to hide in Bruges, Belgium. He’s having dinner at a restaurant when he meets Michelle. She’s on her own. She’s the archetype of the femme fatale, a stunning blonde with smoldering eyes. She captures his attention, he chats her up only to realize that she has hitmen after her. After putting the pieces of the jigsaw together, he understands that Markos’s men are after her. He wonders if it has anything to do with him stealing the money near Switzerland. He decides to help her escape her killers, knowing his life is at stake since he took the gangster’s money.

Who is Michelle and why does she have this string of killers chasing after her? I won’t tell more about the plot. Suffice to say that La princesse de Crève is a road trip from Belgium to the South of France and even Italy. The death toll keeps increasing along the way as more hitmen pop on their road. Michelle and the narrator are constantly on the run and escaping a painful death.

I can’t say I loved La princesse de Crève. It’s well-written but there were too many corpses, too many gun fights and too many precise references to firearms I know nothing about. The constant chase was tiring in the end. There was too much action and not enough insight on the characters’ psychology. I felt like I didn’t belong to the right gender to enjoy it. All this admiration for weapons was too much testosterone for my tastes. It’s as if the genre needed landmarks to meet virility requirements. And yet, as chauvinistic as this description sounds, it’s not. Women have a good place in the novel, Michelle is not a wallflower, she has spunk. And two of the hitmen are lesbians, quite daring for 1984.

You can’t forget that La princesse de Crève was written in the 1980s. Of course, there are these constant stops at cafés to get a phone, the models of the cars used during this roadtrip/chase are well-known cars from this decade. They smoke all the time and everywhere. They pay in francs and it’s strange now that we’re used to euros.

What felt truly dated is this narrator without a past or a future, as if he were born for this moment, this plot. The reader doesn’t know much about him, he’s a bit of a hologram. We only see him in action and we draw a portrait in our head. He’s literate and never vulgar. He enjoys female company and casual sex but doesn’t objectify women. He’s a little romantic and while he never has qualms about shooting an enemy, torture is not his MO. Recent crime fiction doesn’t work that way anymore. Authors create series and the subplot about the main character’s private life is as important as the crime plot. We are used to this now and I missed it. Despite a clever writing, La princesse de Crève lacked substance on the characters developments.

Perhaps it just didn’t work for me and I shouldn’t have expected more than easy entertainment from this book.

The Christmas Tree by Jennifer Johnston

December 29, 2016 17 comments

The Christmas Tree by Jennifer Johnston (1981) French title: Un Noël blanc. Translated by Arlette Stroumza

Winter 1980. Constance Keating is 45 and dying. After hearing about her cancer, she left her flat and her job in London to come back to her childhood home in Dublin. Her parents are dead and she and her sister Bibi had decided to sell the house but now it will be Constance’s last home. It’s almost Christmas and Constance wants a Christmas tree to recreate the atmosphere of happier times.

I was always a great day when the Christmas tree was brought into the house. The fresh smell of pine needles in the winter room; the excitement of unwrapping the sparkling glass ornaments from the tissue paper in which they had been so carefully packed eleven months before; the warm waxy smell as the tin corkscrew candles flicker for the first time in their scalloped holders. Those early days of the tree were almost better than Christmas itself, which never came up to anyone’s expectations. I must pull myself together and get a tree, something manageable, something I can cope with on my own, something that will cause no anxiety to Bibi. The latter, of course, may not be possible. I will use electric lights, not candles. I will assure her of that.

Yes, I must get a tree.

Re-creation.

All that is left

noel_blancConstance comes from a bourgeois family from Dublin. Her parents were a socialite couple, living separate lives but staying together. Constance doesn’t know if they loved each other or only tolerated each other. But in Ireland at the time, did they have another choice than staying married? Bibi followed their parents’ footsteps. She married well, popped four children and lives the bourgeois life, with all the narrow-mindedness you can imagine.

Constance has always been a free spirit. She refused to make the comfortable choice and marry Bill, who became a doctor. She decided to leave her Irish life behind and start fresh in London. She wanted to become a writer. It didn’t turn as well as she hoped but she stayed in London, took a job and never married. She remained faithful to her lust from freedom. Then she decided to have a baby and had a holiday fling to get pregnant. Her lover was Jacob Weinberg, a Jew from Poland who emigrated to Great Britain after WWII. Even her choice of lover is unconventional.

Her little girl is now nine months old and going to lose her mother. Constance writes to Jacob, to tell him about his daughter, about her upcoming death and asks him to come and get his daughter. Will the letter reach him on time? Will he come?

Constance and Bibi obviously don’t see life through the same lenses. Bibi does her duty to Constance. She takes care of her little girl, makes sure that she’s fed and well but it’s cold as a duty. She doesn’t understand Constance at all, why she doesn’t want to stay in a hospital and do treatments to prolong her life. But Constance doesn’t want to go through unnecessary painful treatments. She wants to let cancer run its course and die at home.

Bill, her former beau, comes regularly as a doctor and as a friend and accepted her decision. He would have liked for her to go to the hospital but he respects her decision. Bibi doesn’t let go and it might not be out of love. It is hard to figure out her feelings and her opinion. On the one hand, she’s upset that Constance doesn’t follow the rules and because she can’t pass on the problem to the doctors and nurses. It’s convenient. On the other hand, she refuses to acknowledge the truth: Constance is dying. Is it because losing her sister after losing her parents is too much to bear? Or is it only some obnoxious stubbornness to accept the evidence? She keeps telling Constance that she’ll get better.

We follow Constance’s last weeks in her parents’ home, a house that brings back childhood memories. She also feels the urge to write again. We learn more about her, her life and her family. Constance is a strong independent woman who chose to go against conventions to remain true to herself. She’s not one to compromise and let age and society eat at her resolve. She chose to have a child by herself, a scandal for her family. She even chose an improper lover to father her child, a Jew, a foreigner.

Constance never connected with her family. Bibi and Constance’s mindsets are too different. Their mother never understood why she left for London. Perhaps it questioned too much her own reasons to stay in an unsatisfactory marriage. And their father did his best to escape from family life, from spending time with the three females of his life. Would he have been different if he had had a son? Constance wonders.

I liked Constance for her courage. She remained true to herself, resisted peer pressure even if it came with costs. She had to emigrate, she was estranged from her family. She went against people’s expectations and lived with her decisions. It’s the mark of a true free spirit. To hell with propriety even if it can be selfish sometimes. She never wonders if her conduct exposed her mother and sister to gossip or if Bill was heartbroken when she left.

It should be a sad novel but it’s not. It has the musicality of a piano piece in Minor. I’ve read it in French, so I don’t have any other quote to share. The translation is smooth and it reflects Johnston’s prose. It’s like one of those films with flash backs in black and white family films showing a character’s past. We see vignettes of Constance as a girl, as a young woman and as Jacob’s lover. The narrative alternates between present and past, between first person narration and an omniscient narrator. It reflects Constance’s mind. She drifts to sleep. She medicates herself with alcohol and painkillers. She’s weak and the switch of point of views, the back and forth between the present and the past wonderfully create the illusion that we are with Constance, in her mind, in her room and in the last days of her life.

Highly recommended.

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