Pleasures: Pure and Bittersweet

Pure pleasure first of all: do hop over to Shiny New Books to check out the latest update we’ve made to the first edition. We’ve been calling it the ‘inbetweenie’ amongst ourselves, as it’s just enough to bridge the gap between now and the next big edition, out at the start of July. You’ll find my biographical piece on Celia Fremlin, as well as Five Fascinating Facts about Rumer Godden. Do check out the reviews of their work, too, as well as new reviews of novels by Meg Rosoff, Alice Hoffmann and Sophie Hannah. And lots more, besides.

bittersweetBittersweet is a twisty romp of a summer reading novel that will be out in the UK at the start of June and is published already in the USA. If Carol Goodman and Dynasty had a love child together, then Bittersweet would be the result. The situation is not wholly unfamiliar: Mabel Dagmar is a dowdy scholarship girl at a fancy East coast college and she feels it sharply, not least because her roommate is the beautiful and lethargically indifferent rich kid, Ginevra (Ev) Winslow. Then, when one of Ev’s cousins commits suicide, Mabel finds herself drawn into the role of comforter and conspirator, and she loves it. Ev invites her out to the family estate in Vermont for the summer and Mabel is desperate to go, wild to escape her own family with whom she has deep but unexplored issues.

Winloch is a sprawling estate, rich in an abundance of gorgeous nature, as well as just plain rich. It’s the vision of Ev’s great-great-grandfather, Samson Winslow who bought up huge tracts of Vermont land and scattered rustic cottages across it for his descendents to inhabit, a kind of natural utopia for a dynasty, where ancient plumbing vies with original Van Goghs on the walls. Ev has recently inherited a cottage named Bittersweet and needs Mabel’s help to make it habitable. Before long, Mabel has begun to infiltrate the family, hypnotised by a promise made by Ev’s crazy aunt, Indo, that Mabel can inherit Indo’s cottage if she helps her track down documentation that proves a wrong done to her many years ago. And of course, all the Winslow papers are just sitting in the attic in the main building where the family collects for its meals, laid out and ready for Mabel’s spying eyes.

Mabel has a lot on her hands, trying to keep the fickle Ev onside whilst figuring out who she’s seeing in the secret liaisons she sneaks off to, forging what feels like a genuine bond with Ev’s younger sister, Lu, and running scared of Ev’s terrifying parents, the falsely matey Birch and his frosty perfectionist wife, Tilda. She’s also falling in love with Ev’s brother, Galway, and can’t be sure if he is a better specimen than the rest of his family, or whether he’s just stringing her along, too. Amid the idyllic skinny dipping and the family picnics, she’s trying to figure out the disquieting secrets bound up with the family’s sudden acquisition of vast wealth in the aftermath of the Depression. Mabel feels compelled to get to the root of the problem, but if she does so, how can she keep her place in this brave new paradise she’s found?

This is a lot of fun – adolescent shenanigans, secrets and lies, hidden diaries, old documents, smiling tyrants, sexual tension and dead turtles all come together in a narrative that unites coming-of-age with the Gothic thriller. It’s extremely engaging until the last quarter, where Gone Girl has a lot to answer for. We could all see this coming, couldn’t we? Now any thriller worth its salt is determined to pile on the sensational melodrama as we rock up to a never-saw-it-coming conclusion. In all fairness, the final resting point of the story is in fact something I didn’t see coming, and it was rather intriguing. There is, however, some madness to weather before reaching that point. If you like your family scandal pungent and outrageous, you’ll enjoy it anyway. The best way to read this one is not to take it too seriously, but to understand it is like watching a glossy saga on TV on a weekday afternoon. For me it would have been a better book if it had lost a twist or three from that end section and remained within the realm of plausibility, but I realise I am old-fashioned in that respect. I still enjoyed it.

Mwah-ha-ha To You, Too

night filmThis isn’t the kind of book I’d normally read, but lately I’ve been drawn to stories with a horrific or extreme edge to them. I fear I’ve finally turned into the kind of person who reads about situations worse than their own for comfort. The ethical jury in my mind is still out on this; I’ll get back to you when the verdict comes in.

So Night Film by Marisha Pessl is a whopper of a book, almost six hundred pages interspersed with mock pages from internet sites and magazines like Rolling Stone that must have had the collective knickers of the publisher’s Right’s Department in a twist, so genuine do they appear. Already we can begin to spots the signs of a postmodern imagination at work, yet the narrative also draws heavily on the old-fashioned hardboiled thriller. That same slightly awkward juxtaposition will be at work in the content too, which reaches for the outermost edge of contemporary horror film making, whilst falling unashamedly into the tropes of the scary ol’ ‘B’ movie.

The story begins with the ‘accidental’ death of young, beautiful and talented Ashley Cordova, whose body is found at the bottom of a lift shaft in an abandoned Manhatten warehouse. She was the daughter of the notorious and reclusive film director, Stanislas Cordova, whose eccentric life is legendary. The family occupied a huge and isolated estate, surrounded by a twenty foot high perimeter fence, in whose extensive grounds Cordova shot his fifteen films. Those films are only screened in select underground viewings – in the dead of night, in pitch darkness and often in condemned buildings. You can see where we’re going with this, and I hope you can hear the tremulous chords of the electric organ playing something portentous… Cordova’s films have spawned an impressive cult following, and his fan club hold their website on the onion, a black market version of the internet (is this for real?). The films are supposed to provoke the most terrifying viewing experience that has ever been created, and Cordova has been celebrated as a genius and reviled as a madman possessed of an evil, sick mind.

Enter stage right investigative journalist Scott McGrath. McGrath was researching a book about Cordova when he received a clandestine call from a man claiming to be the family’s ex-chauffeur, and suggesting that Cordova was involved in child abuse. This so rattled McGrath that when he appeared later that evening on a television interview program, he went so far as to suggest that ‘someone needs to terminate [Cordova] with extreme prejudice. The lawyers of the great man were instantly galvanised into action and McGrath has for some time now been a disgraced investigative journalist, unable to retain his credibility. Naturally the death of Cordova’s daughter awakens all his instincts, and he doubts the verdict of suicide. He also begins to believe that he saw Ashley shortly before she died. He was jogging around Central Park late at night when a ghostly vision in a red coat appeared to him in the shadows, and seemed to flit about the park following him at a supernatural speed.

Scott becomes engrossed in an unofficial investigation that soon brings him two young side-kicks, Nora Halliday, a would-be actress working as a coat-check girl in a restaurant, and the handsome young Hopper, a druggie with surprising capabilities. Together they start to patch together a timetable of Ashley’s final days, starting with her break out of a mental institution, and ending with her fall from the roof of the warehouse. Everywhere they turn they uncover more and more disturbing accounts of Ashley’s behaviour, that seem to indicate some kind of demonic possession. And the deeper they delve into the Cordova family’s murky past, the more dangerous their investigation becomes.

This is such a mixed bag of a book. The first 250 pages had me absolutely gripped, and then, when I reached the 400 mark, my interest began to flag. This could be me – I struggle with big books and this one did not do anything to dissuade me that anything over 500 pages has at least 200 pages of padding in it. But then it picked up a lot at the end, which is remarkably clever and inventive and finds Scott being chased through a series of old film sets on the Cordova estate, beset by the nightmareish visions they awaken, and by the menacing loss of distinction between fantasy and reality. In parts, the writing is excellent and wonderfully creative; for example, an image I loved of birds on a telegraph wire: ‘seven tiny black notes on an otherwise empty piece of sheet music, the lines and bars sagging.’ But the reader must contend with Marisha Pessl’s obsession with italicising words and snippets of phrases, two or three per page. This can become quite the irritant. Much about the plotting and the general idea of the book is extremely innovative; the characters of Scott and Nora and Hopper run the perpetual risk of dissolving into cliché.

The reason for this is due, I think, to the awkward juxtapositions I spoke about earlier. This is a book that can’t quite decide what it wants to be: a jolly, spooky romp of a thriller, a kind of adult version of Scooby-Doo, or a serious, postmodern story about the merger of fantasy and reality. Pessl has a game stab at making it both. I enjoyed it and admired it and sometimes rolled my eyes at it, but I’m glad I read it. One final thought: if you really do like the sort of filmmaking that Cordova is supposed to specialise in, give this book a wide berth. Its edges are too soft to be satisfying. But if you like horror-lite, and thrillers, and the idea of mismatched teams brought together through force of circumstances, there’s every chance you’ll love it.

Thursday Reading Notes

It has to be notes at the end of this week rather than a review because I’m reading Eleanor Catton’s magnificent epic, The Luminaries, and I’m afraid at this point that it might just go on forever. I am enjoying it and admiring it hugely. The writing is outrageously good. But heavens, it’s long. It’s also intricately plotted and where I am (250 pages in) there are still new characters being introduced, so I don’t like to put it down and pick anything else up for a mental palate cleanse. I’m keeping all the information in my head at the moment, but a break might set free details that will turn out to be essential to understanding the outcome later on. I worry about these things.

I’m really not good with very long books and it seems to me that, generally, books are getting longer. The average length for a novel seems to be about 350-400 pages, often with 50 pages that could have usefully been edited out. I’m not sure why longer books should be so fashionable, unless they look like better value for money. But I also wonder whether the length is about increasing complexity, and the urge, so prevalent in a tortured bookworld, to grip a reader and not allow them to go.

Tuesday's goneLast week I read the second Nicci French book featuring Dr Frieda Klein, their psychotherapist-detective. It was by sheer chance that I read the first book first – another thing I’m bad at is reading in the right order, prefering to cherry pick the best books from a prolific author when given the chance. But in this case, order is essential, because the opening chapters of the second novel give away pretty much eveything that happened at the end of the first, and continue to develop the plot lines that were started. I get the feeling that if you’ve read one, you’ve got to read ‘em all, and the second book has 450 pages, because now there’s not just a murder enquiry to be developed, there’s so much else going on in Frieda Klein’s life as well.

What I really appreciate about the books is their properly disturbing atmosphere. Nicci French have done a great job of tapping into the feeling of shifting sands that comes with mental instability, how dislocating and disorienting altered mental states can be. Tuesday’s Gone begins with the discovery of a corpse, but one that’s being given tea and buns by a woman with a severe mental abnormality. It was one of the creepiest openings to a work of crime fiction that I’d read in a long while. The character of Frieda Klein is also very well drawn, showing the way that therapists both seem calmer and more in control in emotional situations than most, but also how deeply wounded they may be in other ways. The third in the series Waiting for Wednesday, is just out and yes, I have a copy. I’m hooked in now.

I’m also writing about Dodie Smith, which involves reading all four volumes of her memoirs. Clearly this was an example of Dodie getting going and not being able to stop herself – she is having such a ball describing her life, but I found to my surprise that I wasn’t having so much of a ball keeping her company. In principle I should love these books; Dodie Smith is a very funny, self-deprecating writer who had a half-life on the stage before becoming an author (and writing 101 Dalmations and I Capture the Castle if you can’t place her). After reading up on a couple of male authors who could be rather full of self-pity, I thought I’d appreciate her sparky, spirited good humour. And I do. But her ability to brush problems and difficulties aside and to come out with a stream of amusing anecdotes is perversely turning her into an uninteresting person. The memoirs are funny, yes, and somehow relentlessly shallow. At the moment, we are in the thick of World War One, but after three years of warfare, world events have scarcely warranted a mention. So caught up with her failing and foolish love affairs is Dodie, that when she watches a zeppelin raid over London from the blacked-out theatre she’s appearing in, all she sees is a delightfully pretty phenomenon in the night sky and she’s rather proud not to feel in the least bit scared. It’s quite a mindset that can trivialise WW1. But the experience of the memoirs is telling me something very interesting: we hate the dark emotions, the painful events, the fear and the sorrow. But these are the things that give us depth and make us interesting people. 800 pages of frivolity is turning out to be the hardest going of all.

The Other Typist

RindellIt’s 1924, New York in the era of prohibition and Rose Baker is quietly proud of her job as a police stenographer. She is the fastest and most accurate typist at her police station, and she has an idol in the form of the Sergeant, with his moral rectitude and handlebar moustaches, and someone to despise in the form of the Lieutenant Detective, who is too greasily handsome and maverick for her tastes. For Rose Baker is an orphan who has been brought up by the nuns and one thing she knows how to do is judge. It’s another reason why she thinks she’s in the right job.

Rose’s comfortable but dull life is shaken up considerably when a new typist joins the precinct. The glamorous Odalie is a beautiful and dangerous manipulator, a woman with a hidden agenda and a secret life. When she befriends Rose, nothing is the same as it was before. In the early part of the story, we are not quite sure who we should be frightened for – Odalie is clearly an operator, but Rose has her secrets, too, including a girlhood friendship that ended in scandal, and a cruel streak that appears without warning. One girl is the cat, and the other the mouse, but which is which? When it becomes apparent that Rose is writing this story from some point in the future beyond its conclusion, when imprisonment is at stake, the tension doesn’t diminish; it becomes all the more intriguing to find out what happened and how.

There are all sorts of interesting influences in this book – it’s a kind of Single White Female meets The Great Gatsby, with a bit of Hitchcock thrown in too. But it rises above these elements in the pitch-perfect evocation of the 1920s and the remarkably consistent voice of Rose who narrates. I found it took a few pages to get into Rose’s voice – she is pedantic and eloquent, using long, complex sentences that nevertheless flow smoothly and well. But once I was in, I found this a clever, scintillating story, with a well-organised plot. This is a stunning debut for a first-time novelist, and the only place it shows is in the middle of the book, where Suzanne Rindell shifts her narrative around her characters, showing different aspects of their relationship in a way that can let the tension drop at the start of each chapter (though it’s quickly picked up again). The theme of identity – that we are all constructions one way or another, and this is the strongest and the weakest part of our personalities – is brilliantly explored.

I’m never sure about the term ‘literary thriller’ because literature slows the pace in order to make the reader appreciate the subtleties and nuances of events, whereas a thriller implies (to me anyway) some high-octane speed. But The Other Typist is pretty close to what a literary thriller might look like, if you take away the necessity of inhabiting fifth gear. I both admired and enjoyed it, and will be looking out for Suzanne Rindell’s next novel.