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Five Bells by Gail Jones – four characters and Sydney.

November 17, 2019 15 comments

Five Bells by Gail Jones (2011) French title: Cinq carillons.

Five Bells by Gail Jones my third book for Brona’s Australia Reading Month.

Sydney, Circular Quay. James, Ellie, Pei Xing and Catherine converge to Sidney’s harbour for the day. Five Bells is evocative of Sydney, the beauty of the bay, its cafés and its crowds, people coming there to take the various ferries to go across the bay. Each character gives us their impression of the Sydney Opera and the bridge, the most striking features of the area, besides the pure beauty of the landscape.

Slowly, going from one character to the other, they unfold their past for us to see.

Then she [Pei Xing] saw herself from the inside: those layers of self slowly, gently, time-travelling across the water, the child receiving a white thin-lipped teacup from the hands of her mother, the student in plaits taught to sit still with her hands in her lap, the lover opening arched spaces to the engulfment of a man’s body, the mother bent, cloudy with joy, over her infant son’s head. In the wilderness of leaving Shanghai, these selves had blended and folded; now, in meditation, she was able to fan them apart. This was her habit, these days, to see herself in this way, the concertina of a life in which she saw her own folds and crevices. I have lived many lives. There was something reassuring in this, not to be single but many, not to be of one language but several, not to have but one discrete past but a skein, and multiple.

Pei Xing and James were the most striking characters for me. Pei Xing is the oldest of the four and she’s at Circular Quay to take the ferry to her weekly visit to a nursing home on the other side of the bay. She had a hard life, growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. She left to build a new life in Australia but she’s still haunted by her Chinese past and we gradually discover the scars left by the political events she survived. Pei Xing has the most terrible past of the four but she’s come to peace with it.

James and Ellie used to be neighbours when they were young. They were teenage lovers and they meet again for the first time in years. James comes from Italian emigrants, Matheus and Giovanna and her mother ended up raising him alone.

In this country in which men need not talk at all, except of workday details over a beer or two, Matheus gradually grew silent and then he was gone. Giovanna had seen him retreating for years, becoming thin and stretched as a Giacometti sculpture. One day he stretched into nothingness and slipped over the horizon.

James grew up with an anxious mother who wasn’t nurturing enough. She wasn’t a safe haven and he grew up without a secure emotional anchor. Ellie played that role when they were children and then teenagers. And now he’s in need of emotional comfort and he reached out to her. He’s desperate and looking for help but it’s not certain he’ll manage to ask for it.

Ellie lives in Sydney now and she’s happy and at the same time worried to see James again. He had disappeared from her life. Abruptly. And she never fully recovered from that abandonment, especially as it also came after her father’s death.

Catherine is an Irish journalist. She left Dublin to work in London after her role model, the journalist Veronica Guerin, was killed. Now she’s on the move again, from London to Sydney . She wants a fresh start because she cannot recover from her brother Brendan’s death. They were thick as thieves and losing him left a wound that won’t heal.

Gail Jones builds Ariadne threads between the characters. They have things in common, Sydney as a new beginning, traumatic deaths in their past, something around snow and Russian literature.

All the characters are in Sydney after leaving their old life behind. The city is a chance for them to start again and yet, they carry their past with them. All grew up without a full set of parents, their fathers died young. Due to the circumstances, they all lacked strong emotional roots that one builds in childhood or if they had some, they were cut-off too early. Ellie felt that James had abandoned her. Brendan’s death is untimely. Pei Xing lost her parents in the Cultural Revolution. James was not ready to lose his mother when she died.

Five Bells is contemplative and yet the story moves forward as the day progresses. I can’t reveal too much without giving out important details for future readers. The book’s construction is thorough and things fall into place neatly but not too neatly. I was drawn to the characters thanks to Gail Jones’s prose. I was in tune with her tone, the musicality of the sentences, like the gentle rock of a boat. I enjoyed her description of Sydney’s harbour and through these stories, she gives a picture of multicultural Australia. This is a country that welcomes strangers who want to start a new life. Living one’s country behind is never an easy decision to make and, in a way, Jones makes us think about all the ghosts that immigrants carry with them.

I discussed Gail Jones with Lisa when I was reading Five Bells and she told me that this author never worked for her due to heavy symbolism spread in her books. I didn’t notice anything is Five Bells but it doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Perhaps I missed it because I read it in English and it went over my head. Perhaps I’m not the kind of reader who notices things like this. I’m an easy public once I’m on board and Gail Jones embarked me within a few pages. So, who knows, it might bother other readers too.

PS: I wish I had time to write a billet about French characters in foreign books. Foreign authors keep puzzling me that way. Here we have a guy named Luc who comes from Besançon. How did Jones even think of this town? Because it’s where Victor Hugo was born? Luc lives in London and is a translator of Russian to French. I know that there are more French people in London than in Lyon (before Brexit, that is) but I wonder why she chose a French companion for Catherine.

PPS: I also wish I had time to write a billet about typos on French words and expressions in books written in English because there are too many of them. And with all the resources available on the internet, it would be nice not to see them anymore.

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John – the waste of a relationship

November 3, 2019 12 comments

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John (1997) Not available in French. (Translation Tragedy)

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John is set in London, even if its author is Australian. I wonder why this novel needed to be in London, Sydney or Melbourne would have done the trick too. Well.

One night, when Nicola comes home after going out to buy a pack of cigarettes, her partner Jonathan tells her to come and sit down. The ominous “We need to talk” arrives and he coldly informs her that he wants her to leave their flat.

He considers that their relationship has run its course, he doesn’t want to live with her anymore, and since she can’t afford to buy him out, he will. He calmly explains that everything is settled, he’ll be gone for the weekend, implying she should be gone when he comes back. Meanwhile, he’ll stay in the spare room. Come Monday morning, a real estate agent will evaluate the flat’s worth.

Nicola is stunned, she never saw that one coming, she thought they were in a happy relationship. At first, she listens to him, flabbergasted. She thinks he doesn’t mean it. And she slowly realizes that yes, he’s serious and that she’ll have to leave her home.

We see Nicola stumble, trying to pick up the pieces of her life. She’s obliged to move on. Her friend Susannah is outraged for her and tells her she can move in with her family as long as she needs it. The dialogues between Nicola and her friends, between Susannah and her husband Geoffrey introduce a bit of lightness in the sadness. We witness the end of a relationship, the crushing pain inflicted on Nicola by a cold Jonathan.

Soon, Nicola finds her backbone and demands answers. She wants to know what happened, since when he felt that way and she feels utterly betrayed that he never mentioned anything before he reached the point of making such a rash and final decision.

Nicola loves him deeply and he says he doesn’t love her anymore. She wonders what she did wrong and her self-worth crumbles quickly. Her heart is broken but so is her self-esteem. She feels unworthy and questions her judgment: how could she be so blind and misread him that much?

We see her holding on to her job, taking care of the painful details of separating her life from Jonathan’s and living through her heartache. Jonathan’s rash actions planted darts in her self at several points at the same time: her heart, her pride and her self-esteem.

Nicola lay under the bedclothes, hunched around her pain, despising herself.

She despised herself for her failure to oppose Jonathan’s frozen blankness with the tears and shrieks which would have expressed her true feelings. She despised herself for the mean little sarcasms which had been her only mode of attack—she despised herself even though these slights had found their petty targets, because the wounded pride to which they gave expression was—or ought to be—the least of her complaints. She believed that the wound Jonathan had dealt to her heart (her truly loving, trusting, faithful heart) was a more serious and honourable wound than that to her self-esteem. She supposed these two could be differentiated, and so long as they could, she had shown him nothing of the real pain she was suffering. In the face of his cast-iron indifference she was apparently as dumb and cold as he. She despised herself for this dumb coldness. She had never before so plainly been shown the difficulty, the near-impossibility, of speaking truly to an interlocutor who will not hear, but she knew one must attempt it nevertheless, and thus far she had failed even to make the attempt. She swore she would make it on the morrow, and at last, wretched, now, beyond tears, she slept.

But we also see Jonathan’s side and discover a man who made a decision thinking he was doing the right thing. But why doesn’t he feel more relieved or happier?

Madeleine St John vividly describes the end of a love affair. I felt Nicola’s pain and heard with horror all the hurtful words that Jonathan threw at her with perfect calm. As you can see in the previous quote, St John conveys Nicola’s sorrow and you cannot help but empathise with her.

As the story unfolds, we understand that Jonathan is clueless, unable to express his feelings properly, even to himself and whatever they are. At first, like Susannah, I thought he was a perfect rat and then I felt sorry for him.

Apart from watching the train wreck of Nicola and Jonathan’s relationship, I had fun with all the French words peppered in the text. Lots of French words. Without any footnote or translation. How do you deal with that? And, as usual, the only French character has an improbable name considering he’s young and we’re in 1997. After a young Jean-Paul in a book by Max Barry and a young Michel in Zadie Smith, now a young Jean-Claude. Writers, these are typical baby-boomers’ names.

Apart from this slight mishap only visible to a French reader, The Essence of Thing is book like the marmalade that Jonathan’s mother makes. It’s a good balance between the sassy conversations of the minor characters who rally around Nicola and the bitterness of the end of Nicola and Jonathan’s couple.

Highly recommended.

You can read Lisa’s review here.

This was my second book by Madeleine St John. The first one was The Women In Black and my billet is here.

It is also a contribution to Brona’s Australia Reading Month.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride – Historical, fun and thoughtprovoking

October 31, 2019 4 comments

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (2013) French title: L’oiseau du Bon Dieu. Translated by François Happe

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride relates the story of John Brown (1800-1859), an American abolitionist who was in favor of armed insurrection to abolish slavery. He’s responsible for the Pottawatomi Massacre in 1856 (Kansas) where his group killed five supporters of slavery. He took part in other battles and his last one was a raid against the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. According to historians, Brown’s campaign and its press coverage were one of the sparks that kindled the Civil War.

The God Lord Bird relates Brown’s story from the moment he arrived in Kansas to the fiasco of Harpers Ferry. (Btw, this is also the story of Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks.) The narrator is The Onion, a young black boy who was kidnapped by Brown when he arrived in Kansas. Kidnapped is a neutral word here, because, depending on which side of slavery you stand, Henry was either “stolen” or “freed”.

This kidnapping happens at the beginning of the novel and McBride introduced an comic effect: Brown (The Old Man) thinks Henry is a girl.

“We have to move. Courageous friend, I will take you and your Henrietta to safety.” See, my true name is Henry Shackleford. But the Old Man heard Pa say “Henry ain’t a,” and took it to be “Henrietta,” which is how the Old Man’s mind worked. Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man. “

Minding only of his safety, Henry decides to go with the flow and be a girl if need be. He becomes Henrietta, nicknamed The Onion. Henry is our only narrator and of course, he’s unreliable. He’s about 10 when Brown takes him. His only experience with life is living in his master’s saloon with his father. He has no education, a limited vision of the world. But he tells the story from the slave’s standpoint and it’s a way for McBride to give a voice to the people Brown fought for.

We follow Onion from 1856 to 1859, during his nomadic life with Brown and some years in New Orleans. The Good Lord Bird is a multilayered book, tackling the historical aspects of Brown’s combat, Henry’s identity problems since he’s impersonating a girl, the issue of slavery and its impact on the psyche of black people.

I had never heard of John Brown before opening The Good Lord Bird on my kindle. This is one of our Book Club reads, I didn’t really investigate what it was about. Kindle book means no physical book and no glance at the blurb on the back cover. There’s no foreword, which doesn’t matter because I never read them before finishing a book as they tend to be full of spoilers. This explains why it took me getting to half of the book, when Brown meets Frederick Douglass to even think that this crazy religious Brown guy was real and that I was reading historical fiction.

John Brown is a controversial character and McBride depicts a complicated man, a zealot and a humanist, a violent man ready to sacrifice everything to his cause and yet be gentle with his family, a man who can camp in the harsh conditions of the west and hold his own in the salons of the east.

Brown’s drive comes from religious grounds. He’s a Christian zealot and his interpretation of the Bible tells him that black people should be free, that slavery is condemnable and should be abolished at all cost. He doesn’t do it for himself but because he thinks it’s right. There’s no personal gain for him in this combat, no political aim, no financial gain of any kind. He fights with words, like here:

I never knowed a man who could spout the Bible off better than Old John Brown. The Old Man straightened up, reared back, and throwed off half a dozen Bible verses right in the Reverend’s face, and when the Reverend tried to back-fire with a couple of his own, the Old Man drowned him out with half dozen more that was better than the first. Just mowed him down. The Rev was outgunned.

But doesn’t neglect more material weapons:

He had more weapons hanging off him than I ever seen one man carry: two heavy seven-shot pistols strapped to his thighs by leather—that was the first I ever saw such a thing. Plus a broadsword, a squirrel gun, a buckshot rifle, a buck knife, and a Sharps rifle. When he moved around, he rattled like a hardware store. He was an altogether fearsome sight.

In passing, enjoy McBride’s playful tone in his descriptions. Henry retells long prayer sessions before battles, when the men wait Brown out because when he starts preaching, there’s no stopping him or knowing when it will end. He’s passionate and gets carried away. He has absolutely no military planning skills. He can lead his men on the battlefield but he’s unable to manage the rest: food, camp, where to stop and when to go, taking weather conditions into consideration and having proper intelligence. And arriving to battle with an army in good conditions is a key success factor.

He’s also an idealist who doesn’t have field knowledge of the slaves’ mind and condition. He’s never lived in the South, he’s certain that slaves will rally his cause quickly because, who wouldn’t want to fight for their freedom, right? He has no clue about the mental barriers that decades of slavery have built in slaves’ minds. They are built out of fear, abuse and being somebody’s property.

Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure. You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog or a shovel or a horse. Your needs and wants got no track, whether you is a girl or a boy, a woman or a man, or shy, or fat, or don’t eat biscuits, or can’t suffer the change of weather easily. What difference do it make? None to him, for you is living on the bottom rail.

Rallying to Brown is a huge risk. This is also why Henry doesn’t protest when Brown takes him for a girl. He keeps the lie alive even if he could easily prove otherwise. He thinks he’ll be safer as a girl.

I come to enjoy them talks, for even though I’d gotten used to living a lie—being a girl—it come to me this way: Being a Negro’s a lie, anyway. Nobody sees the real you. Nobody knows who you are inside. You just judged on what you are on the outside whatever your color. Mulatto, colored, black, it don’t matter. You just a Negro to the world.

He even enjoys some aspects of impersonating a girl: he doesn’t have to fight on the battle field, he only has ‘light’ chores to do and his condition protects him sometimes. People treat women differently, obviously. He experiences from inside how people treat you differently if they take you for a girl.

On the trail, Chase did all the talking. He talked about his Ma. Talked about his Pa. Talked about his kids. His wife was half cousin to his Pa and he talked about that. There weren’t nothing about himself he didn’t seem to want to talk about, which gived me another lesson on being a girl. Men will spill their guts about horses and their new boots and their dreams to a woman. But if you put ’em in a room and turn ’em loose on themselves, it’s all guns, spit, and tobacco.

In the end, it’s all about people’s preconceived notion about who you are according to the tag that is attached to your person. People see you as a woman, they treat you a certain way. People see you as a slave, they treat you another way. Onion will impersonate a woman during 17 years and then adolescence kicks in, it complicates his life. He’s attracted to women and cannot show or act on it. White people still don’t notice that he’s not a female, confirming that for them, blacks are all the same. Black people notice it right away and it’s harder for him to keep the lie with them.

The Good Lord Bird is an interesting book in many aspects and Henry’s voice is genuine, full of humor. He takes us among Brown’s followers and America in the 1850s comes to life under McBride’s pen. Henry made me laugh with his quirky ways. But sometimes I thought that the descriptions of their travelling were too long, too precise, even if they help today’s reader understand what it was to live in Kansas in that time. Just for the fun of it, this is what 1850s GPS was like:

“Circle ’round the cabin and move straight back into the woods, past the second birch tree beyond the corn field yonder,” he said. “You’ll find an old whiskey bottle stuck between two low branches on that tree. Follow the mouth of that bottle due north two miles, just the way the mouth is pointed. Keep the sun on your left shoulder. You’ll run into an old rock wall somebody built and left behind. Follow that wall to a camp.

Given my sense of direction, I’d have died the first time I went out alone, with this kind of instructions.

I really enjoyed Henry’s spoken tone because it sounded more genuine. I toyed with the idea of reading Cloudsplitters right after The Good Lord Bird, as I have it on the TBR. I flipped through the first pages, discovered that the story was told from Owen’s POV (Brown’s son) in a perfect English and it sounded fake after Henry. I’ll read it later, after McBride’s book has faded away in my memory.

My last question is ‘what does McBride think of John Brown’? I think he tried to show his good and bad sides but that in the end, he is grateful for this idealist and his fight. Brown is the Good Lord Bird of the title.

He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a Good Lord Bird feather. “The Good Lord Bird don’t run in a flock. He flies alone. You know why? He’s searching. Looking for the right tree. And when he sees that tree, that dead tree that’s taking all the nutrition and good things from the forest floor. He goes out and he gnaws at it, and he gnaws at it till that thing gets tired and falls down. And the dirt from it raises the other trees. It gives them good things to eat. It makes ’em strong. Gives ’em life. And the circle goes ’round.”

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner – life assessment at old age

October 27, 2019 8 comments

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (1987) French title: En lieu sûr. Translated by Eric Chédaille.

I have heard of people’s lives being changed by a dramatic or traumatic event–a death, a divorce, a winning lottery ticket, a failed exam. I never heard of anybody’s life but ours being changed by a dinner party.

This is Larry Morgan’s voice, the narrator of Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. He’s now 64 and he and his wife Sally arrived at the Lang compound in Battel Pond, Vermont. This is the property of Charity and Sid Lang, their long-life friends. (There is was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters.) They’re not here for fun, though, but more for a last farewell to Charity who’s losing battle against cancer.

Larry starts recalling their lives and tells us how their friendship started in 1937, in Madison, Wisconsin. Larry and Sid were both teachers in the English department at the local university. It’s the Great Depression and positions are rare. Larry and Sally are poor, they come from the West and from working class. They have to live on Larry’s salary, unless he keeps selling stories and develops his writing.

Charity and Sid come from the opposite side of the country and social ladder: they are a wealthy couple from New England. Sid’s fortune comes from his family’s business and his father was very disappointed when he turned to literature. Charity comes from a family of academics, her father is always buried in a book and in research while her mother runs the house.

On paper, they come from different worlds. In reality, they clicked immediately and bonded over their love for literature. Larry reflects on these early years in Madison, on the start of their friendship and how Sally and Charity took an immediate liking to each other, how it started at this diner party and wonders:

Is that the basis of friendship? Is it as reactive as that? Do we respond only to people who seem to find us interesting?… Do we all buzz or ring or light up when people press our vanity buttons, and only then? Can I think of anyone in my whole life whom I have liked without his first showing signs of liking me?

This and the opening quote earlier represent Larry quite well: he’s unassuming. He wonders why Charity and Sid are so fond of them. They graduated from Smith College and Harvard while he went to Berkeley and Sally dropped out of school to support them. They are more worldly than he and Sally are. Even if he doesn’t say it that way, he doesn’t understand what they bring into the relationship that puts them on equal footing.

[Friendship] is a relationship that has no formal shape, there are no rules or obligations or bonds as in marriage or the family, it is held together by neither law nor property nor blood, there is no glue in it but mutual liking. It is therefore rare.

Larry is a gifted writer and he brings the aura of talent into their tightknit group.

Sid wanted to write poetry but neither his family nor his wife support him. He was strong enough to go against his family about literature but not enough to fight Charity on writing poetry. She thinks he needs to have an established career as an academic for him to indulge into writing poetry. He doesn’t think he’s a talented enough and gives up. But it gnaws at him and Larry thinks it’s a shame he doesn’t keep on writing poetry even if he might not be a good poet, as long as it makes him happy.

And sure, why should he stop writing poetry just because he’s not good enough to be published? (Something we are not even sure of) Do amateur painters or photographers stop doing their hobby because they’ll never have an exhibition in a gallery? They don’t, and nobody tells them to stop painting or taking pictures. Why do we expect that a writer should be published or stop writing? Isn’t it what we think, in spite of ourselves?

Charity is a force of nature. She has ambition for the four of them and works to reach her goals. The issue is that Sid needs to publish articles about literature, if he wants a promotion. Stegner makes fun of this obligation that takes precedence over being a good teacher:

You hear what the dean said about Jesus Christ? ‘Sure He’s a good teacher, but what’s He published?

Larry loves to write, for himself first, but also because selling short-stories helps paying the bills. Sally and he have no family money to fall back on. They have no safety net and need the money to keep coming in. That’s his first ambition.

Ambition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can be something else — pathway to the stars, maybe. I suspect that what makes hedonists so angry when they think about overachievers is that the overachievers, without benefit of drugs or orgies, have more fun.

I love the idea that Ambition is a path, no a destination. In Larry’s eyes, Charity has unconsidered ambition for Sid and that she had to carry him during their hiking on her ambition path because he didn’t quite have it in him to walk this trail alone and succeed. She’s also both generous and stubborn about how things need to be done. She loves control and cannot bear to relinquish it, whatever the cost. Larry and Sally give in because most of the time, they are guests and don’t feel untitled to go against her wishes. Sid does because he knows from experience that he won’t win. He loves her and indulges her.

Crossing to Safety is a celebration of friendship, a scrutiny of its workings, a reflection on two long marriages but it is also an older man looking back on his hardworking life, its ordeals and its successes. Of his marriage to Sally, he won’t say much, probably because it is a happy one. He resents Charity’s micromanaging of Sid’s life, he questions their marriage and the Charity’s domination.

It’s also a novel about old age, on looking back on one’s life and assessing what it was compared to what one imagined when they were young. Larry is on out on the porch, looking and smelling and recherching temps perdu and he tells us:

“Though I have been busy, perhaps overbusy, all my life, it seems to me now that I have accomplished little that matters, that the books have never come up to what was in my head, and that the rewards – the comfortable income, the public notice, the literary prizes, and the honorary degrees –have been tinsel, not what a grown man should be content with.”

Probably because

It is love and friendship, the sanctity and celebration of our relationships, that not only support a good life, but create one.

Highly recommended.

PS: I haven’t read Cicero’s De Senectute and De Amicitia but Larry mentions them. I wonder how they influenced Crossing to Safety.

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge – No sex, lots of drugs and a bit of rock’n’roll

October 19, 2019 8 comments

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge (1987) French title: Not Fade Away. Translated by Nathalie Bru

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge is a road trip novel with a soundtrack of 1950s rock-‘n’-roll and a driver who pops Benzedrine into his mouth as if they were M&M’s.

We’re at the end of the 1950s. George Gastin operates a tow-truck in San Francisco and participates to insurance scams, mainly wrecking cars and making them disappear. One day, his employer asks him to get rid of a brand-new Cadillac Eldorado. This car was bought by an eccentric old lady as a gift to the Big Bopper, who died in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens before his fan could give him the car. Now the lady passed away and her heir wants to get money from the insurance.

George decides not to destroy the car but to drive it to Texas, where the Big Bopper is buried. He leaves San Francisco with a few clothes, some cash and a huge bag of Benzedrine. He takes us to a road trip from San Francisco to Iowa.

Early in his trip, he meets Donna, a mother of young kids, married to a useless husband and who struggles to stay afloat. She has a collection of old 45s from the 1950s and George buys them from her to help her financially They will be the soundtrack of his road trip and of our reading trip.

As you imagine, George will meet several colorful characters during his travelling. The most engaging one was Donna, lost in a small town, struggling to survive in her trailer, trapped in a life she didn’t truly want and overwhelmed by motherhood. She met her husband on the song Donna by Ritchie Valens, married young and didn’t truly know what she was getting into. She was not ready to be an adult.

I liked the passage with Donna but I got bored later with the other crazy characters George meets along the way. Reverend Double-Gone Johnson and the world’s greatest salesman weren’t as convincing as Donna. I guess that the three of them represent America: women at home (we’re just before the feminist revolution of 1960s), self-proclaimed preachers and crazy salesmen who could sell ice to an Inuit.

To be honest, I thought that Not Fade Away was too long. 420 pages (in French) was too much in my opinion. I really enjoyed the early moments in San Francisco, the description of the nightlife and the jazz clubs.

George has a blue-collar job but spend his time with artists and books. He struggles to find his place in the world. His life unravels when his girlfriend Kacy leaves him abruptly to embark on a trip to South America. This is when his boss assigns him the Cadillac job and he decides to get out of Dodge with the Cadillac. Not Fade Away had a good start but I got tired of reading George’s drug induced trips, his hallucinations and his crazy driving. The visions and the jokes aren’t that funny if you’re not under influence yourself.

I suppose that Jim Dodge wanted to describe a short period of time, the turning point between the 1950s, the beat generation and the 1960s. I imagine that he wanted to take George to some sort of mystical journey that I didn’t understand, just like I didn’t get Naked Lunch. I’m a Cartesian, a no-nonsense person who’s a bit impervious to soul-searching trips that involve recreational drugs or alcohol. I am not fascinated by On the Road.

Besides the get-high moments, the bits about the beginnings of rock-‘n’-roll are nice. I had a lot of fun making a playlist with all the 1950s songs George mentions as he goes through Donna’s 45s and more. That’s not my usual kind of music but it was nice to hear the songs he was referring too.

The story of the 1950s singers is mentioned and of course, the plane crash that killed the Big Bogger is part of the book. Incidentally, it brought me back to my own adolescence, because I was a teenager when the movie La Bamba went out. (In 1987, same year as Not Fade Away.) New versions of the songs La Bamba and Donna were released at the time and they were big hits.

I’d say Not Fade Away is a nice read but not a must-read. I often associate a book with a song that pops up in my mind while I’m reading. Even if Not Fade Away is full of cheesy songs of the 1950s, I’d say that it goes well with a darker song like Les dingues et les paumés by Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine or with Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan.

PS: It’s amazing how different the French and American covers are.

The House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien – Disorienting

October 1, 2019 5 comments

The House Of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien (1994) French title: La maison du splendide isolement.

History is everywhere. It seeps into the soil, the sub-soil. Like rain, or hail, or snow, or blood. A house remembers. An outhouse remembers. A people ruminate. The tale differs with the teller.

I’m terribly late with this billet since I read The House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien in June. Fortunately, I have some notes and some quotes because I don’t have clear memories about this novel set in Ireland. It’s blurred with an overall impression of Irish landscapes, customs and intricate politics.

Josie is an old lady who lives alone in a big and isolated house and who mulls over her past. McGreevy is an IRA activist who is hiding from the police. He decides to invite himself at Josie’s house. He “kidnaps” her house and imposes his presence. The two will start an odd relationship.

Josie was married to an alcoholic, their marriage fell apart quite fast. They lived like strangers. Her marriage was a failure and muddied by her inability to adapt to her new life. On one side, we see her reflections on her life, now that she’s old and fragile. On the other side, we see McGreevy’s life, his actions as an IRA activist. We see him during missions, and hiding.

When I write this, you know about the setting and the two main characters but you still have no idea about the atmosphere of the book.

Edna O’Brien takes us back and forth in time and there were not enough time stamps in the book for me. I was lost. I got lost in time, I got lost in Irish politics.

Josie is not a character you’d like to be friend with. She’s tough and indirectly responsible for her husband’s death. She married too young and was not very mature at the time, even if she had spent several years in Brooklyn. She should have grown up there but didn’t. Edna O’Brien’s mother had the same life journey: she used to live in Brooklyn, working as a servant for a rich family. She came back to Ireland to start a family and married a peasant who was alcoholic and violent. Since Edna O’Brien was born in 1930, that Josie is really old in the book, I guessed that Josie was born around 1910.

The novel is also full of references to the fight of the IRA, the consequences on civilians, the exactions on both sides. Honestly, you need to be Irish to fully understand this book. O’Brien shows the violence on both sides and tries to give a voice to the IRA and to the Guarda. To be honest, there were too many subtitles that went way over my head because I’m clueless about Irish history but I could feel the helplessness and the bitterness in O’Brien’s tone.

The way they train them is probably macabre. To be invincible. No chinks. Out in isolated places shooting targets, reading up, mettling themselves, taking the oath. Once they cross that divide they’re never the same again, like iron put into a fire. They cannot return to their old shape or their old ways. The saddest bit is that we’re the same stock, the same faith, we speak the same tongue and yet we don’t. Language to each of us is a braille that the other cannot know. Words like justice or love or bread turned inside out or outside in.

She seems to tell us: how will we move forward? How can we go past this? Will we ever find peace? Will this violence ever stop?

I also noticed the constant presence of religion in the novel and its power. It appears at the oddest times, like here, during an ambush where someone gets killed:

‘I got him,’ he says to Ned who is trembling beside him. ‘We should say an act of contrition.’

And later:

‘We’ll get an ambulance over here,’ the sergeant says, getting into his own car. ‘And a priest,’ Ned says as they whiz past him,

I have trouble reconciling the idea of being a fervent Catholic, which supposes that you do not kill people and these off-handed comments, about asking for forgiveness for the murder and have a priest come over to bless the body. What is wrong with them? It seems so twisted and I couldn’t help thinking that the Church covered murderers on both sides. It didn’t endear me to the institution.

To lighten the mood, I’ll mention the French words and expressions I found here and there. I found this quote amusing:

‘Canapés …’ someone else shouts and the second clue is written into place. ‘What the hell are canapés … Are they a fruit?’ ‘You’ve never heard of canapés … You’re a bog man.’ ‘They’re things with things on them … My favourite is a prawn …

Indeed, we don’t use the word canapé anymore for that. The canapés that you eat at a cocktail party…we call them toasts! (or bouchée) A canapé is usually a couch. So, don’t worry if a French wants to sit on a canapé instead of eating it.

French fun apart, what’s the verdict about The House of Splendid Isolation? Same issue as for Dubliners. I wondered if you needed to be Irish to really enjoy it…Since I’m not, I found it frustrating and sometimes disturbing. If anyone has read it, I’d be interested to discuss it with you.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent – it will leave you breathless

September 15, 2019 13 comments

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (2017) French title: My Absolute Darling.

Gabriel Tallent was at Quais du Polar in 2018 although My Absolute Darling is not crime fiction. After reading it, I understand why he was invited: this is a novel that walks on the thin line between literary fiction and thriller.

Turtle Alveston is fourteen and lives in an isolated cabin on the Northern California coast with her father Martin. Her paternal grandfather drinks himself to death in a trailer in the backyard. Martin is a survivalist. He believes that the world is going to collapse, he doesn’t trust the system and trains his daughter to prepare for the end of the world. He’s also abusive and a totally unfit parent.

When the book opens, it’s Spring and Turtle is in her last year of middle school. She does her best to keep everyone at arm’s length. She doesn’t engage with other students, donning a coat of aggressivity to push everyone away. Her English teacher Anna isn’t giving up though. Turtle fails at her spelling tests and Anna pokes at Turtle, feeling that things aren’t right at home.

Martin is a lunatic with his frightening theories, a sort of guru with only one attendant to his cult: his daughter. Martin is a damaged man, intelligent, charismatic and powerful. He’s controlling and uses every means in his possession to nail his power over his daughter. He manipulates her with love, he threatens her and he’s violent, verbally and physically. He beats her up and assaults her. Martin loves his daughter in a very sick way, he calls her my absolute darling. He wants to own her. He leaves nothing out to ensure that she doesn’t venture outside of the cocoon he has created for her. Except that his cocoon isn’t soft and nurturing, its walls are made of sea urchin.

Turtle’s mother is dead, her grandpa cares about her but is too deep in his drunkard hole to take action. Martin does everything he can to keep Turtle under his spell. He’s her dad, her only parent, her only figure of authority. They are isolated and she doesn’t know anything else.

Turtle finds solace in the nature around her house. She’s tough, knows how to live off the land, how to avoid dangers, how to build a fire, how to orientate herself in the wilderness. Martin and her grandpa taught her these skills. She’s an expert with guns, Martin makes her practice all the time. She is a warrior, accumulating a lot of survival skills and inner strength.

Fourteen is a pivotal age. Puberty hits. Children start to take their independence, of mind and of action. They start to hike the awkward trail to adulthood and parents do not control as much as before what they are exposed to and who they are in contact with. Their own social circle starts to be more important than the family one. Parents stop to be heroes who know everything and are always right and become mere humans. It’s the age where Martin’s control over Turtle is meant to slip and this father is not about to accept it. He can’t let her go.

Several events arrive in a short time span. Anna is more insistent in her follow-up. Turtle rescues Brett and Jacob, two teenagers from the local high school who went hiking and got lost. The outside world makes a dent in Turtle’s shell and begins to get to her. Martin taught her skills to cope with the end of the world and to be self-reliant. She will use these skills to claw herself out of her abusive father’s large paws. She will use them to put an end to her world.

And we, readers, follow her, silent witnesses to all her failings, her strength and her inner pep talks.

She thinks, you will trust in your discipline and your courage and you will never leave them and never abandon them and you will be stronger, grim and courageous and hard, and you will never sit as he sits, looking at your life as he looks at it, you will be strong and pure and cold for the rest of your goddamn life and these are lessons you will never forget.

We are rooting for her. We are horrified by her home situation and we watch her looking for her way out, trying to get out of the mental maze where her father holds her prisoner. She’s like a princess, hostage of a dark prince, except that this princess doesn’t wait idly for her knight to rescue her. She’s been raised to think that one can only count of themselves. Fortunately. And in a sense, she’s right. Where are the adults in this story?

My Absolute Darling is Tallent’s debut novel and it is truly extraordinary. He manages to insinuate himself into the mind of a fourteen-year-old abused girl. We are in Turtle’s mind, seeing the world through the distorting glasses she wears, courtesy of her father’s twisted education.

The novel holds together in every aspect. It’s built like a psychological thriller but it isn’t one. Things happen, one at a time, each one adding a brick to the story, pushing it forward, building up suspense and threat. Some scenes are extremely intense and disturbing, some at home with Martin and some in the wilderness, along the shore. Turtle’s life is surrounded with dangers, at home and outside. She has no real safe place.

Gabriel Tallent shows us how hard it is to go out of an abusive relationship and even more when it is a parent/child one. Turtle loves Martin and hates him at the same time. He loves her and is the one who hurts her the most. In an interview, Tallent says he used the relationship between Albertine and the Narrator in The Captive to draw Martin. (See my billet here about The Captive. It’s entitled Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you.) I can see how Proust could be helpful.

There is no attempt at psychology or psychiatry in My Absolute Darling. Tallent never tries to put a medical name on Martin’s behavior. We only understand that he had a destructive relationship with his own father. Tallent doesn’t dig further, it’s not his purpose. He focuses on Turtle and we really want her to succeed and climb out of this dark world to join ours. Even if we are destroying nature at a frightening speed and if this world is imperfect.

My Absolute Darling is an excellent book, unbearable to read at time. I had to put it down sometimes, to reconnect to my surroundings because I was too far away with Turtle and her bad place. I had to bring my mind back from that hellish cabin in Northern California. And that, ladies and gentlemen, means that we are in the presence of a very gifted writer.

Highly recommended. Of course, in France, it’s published by Gallmeister.n

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