Not Your Average Holiday Romance

lemongroveHelen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove is definitely going to be a Marmite book. How you feel about it will probably depend on your tolerance for Forbidden Passion; Madame Bovary is probably a good acid test. Imagine it mixed up with a holiday-from-hell narrative and you’re not so far off this succès de scandale.

Jenn and Greg Harding are at the end of an idyllic first week of holiday in their Mallorcan villa. Each year they return to Deià on the rocky west coast for the beauty of the landscape, the luscious food, their stylish accommodation. This year is going to be a little different. Usually they come out of season when it’s cooler, but here they are in the furnace heat of full summer, for Jenn’s stepdaughter, Emma, a precocious and rather spoiled 15-year-old, is flying out to join them with her new boyfriend, Nathan. Jenn and Greg have been together so long that Emma feels almost like the child of their marriage, but there are clearly fault lines of tension that reveal the scars of the family graft. Greg is only a moderately-paid academic, but he will spend lavishly, and somewhat secretively, on Emma. He is a sop for her melodramatic teenage ways, too. Whilst Jenn often feels that Emma’s drama queen antics require a bit of cold treatment, Greg is a willing audience to her every emotion. And of course, Emma is growing up and as highly-strung and volatile as any adolescent; rebellion and rejection are braided into her behaviour with her parents.

Things begin badly when Emma’s arrival catches Jenn unawares. She has been sunbathing topless and has fallen asleep, and her groggy attempts to get her clothes on over her sticky skin bring out Emma’s contempt and embarrassment. It’s only much later that Jenn realises the real reason for her anger is that Nathan saw her too. Nathan is a young Apollo with a Manchunian accent and the narrative pants and drools over him: ‘He is wearing a pair of plain blue swimming shorts, otherwise, he is naked before her. He is muscular, but graceful with it, balletic. He is shockingly pretty.’ And thus the plot of the book instantly unfurls before us. Jenn is forty-five and on the cusp of a crinkly middle-age; Nathan is forbidden fruit every which way you look at it, but he’s also gorgeous, virile and apparently hot for her. Yikes.

In all fairness to Helen Walsh this is a great deal better than one might fear. It could so easily have descended into Fifty Shades of Sunburn, but it’s infinitely classier than that. The story moves at an inexorable pace, steadily ratcheting up the tension, so that even quite ordinary holiday-making events like visiting a local market or taking a late-night swim are rimed with an aura of dread. The writing is very good; the rocky promontaries of the coastline, the self-consciously artisanal local stores of tourist regions, the succulent food, the treacherous currents of the sea are all vividly rendered and provide a suitably wild landscape with that hint of holiday dislocation against which strange and unusual things may happen.

The relationship itself is also cleverly portrayed. Walsh doesn’t bother attempting justification: Jenn knows full well she is doing a crassly stupid thing, but she can’t seem to help herself. She loves her husband, but there’s a moment when she looks at him, working at his laptop in the villa:

observing him now in the hard white glow of the desk lamp, his body has never looked so slack, so tired. The loose skin of his chest hangs down as he hunches over the pad. His skin looks lived in; soon he will be like the crones in the backstreets. His pelt will hang from his body like old pyjamas.’

It simply isn’t fair. Nathan’s peachy perfection, his taut muscular body and smooth beautiful face are a taunting sensual delight, irresistible. This isn’t about having anything in common, or admiring one another’s good qualities. It’s sheer lust.

As I’ve said before, it’s situational clichés that bother me, and I wasn’t sure how I’d get on with the older woman-younger man thing. Not because I have shockable morals, but because I have a blueprint in Colette’s amazing novel, Chéri, that I didn’t think could be surpassed. This doesn’t come anywhere near Chéri for me, and I did heave a sigh when the climax finds one of the teenagers missing in a storm. But it’s not a bad piece of beach entertainment; a narrative that holds together well, written with a lot of style, and that ends very cunningly. I’ve heard the ending described as ambiguous, but that’s just plain wrong: it’s one of those endings where one small clue tells you exactly what’s going to happen although the narrative stops short of describing it. I thought that was rather good.

Riptides, Or What Makes A Good Short Story?

riptidesWhen, several weeks after I had expected this book to arrive, it was still missing, I emailed a friend who knew the publisher and could track it down. The response was that it was travelling to me by boat. Boat! From Canada to Cambridge! And when it finally arrived, the package certainly looked like it had been on one hell of a journey. It was bashed up on one corner, with rips in the brown paper, the ink of the address smudged and tearful. I wondered if it had been personally rowed to shore by some hardened old seasalt, nestled under a stinking tarpaulin while wild Atlantic storms tossed the craft like a cork circling a city gutter.

The book in question was Riptides, an award-winning collection of short stories from writers based on Prince Edward Island. Its dramatic arrival gave it a sort of subversive feel, as if the writers in question were lost in isolation, left to resort to a message in a bottle.

In fact, the introduction to the book suggests that the literary history of the region has been dominated by Lucy Maud Montgomery and her perennial childrens’ favourite, Anne of Green Gables. In subsequent eras, the island has produced a lot more poets than fiction writers, perhaps the editor says, because the islanders knew each other’s business too well, and writers feared that every character they created would be hijacked by someone in real life, convinced they had been plagiarised on the page. Anyway, this collection is offered as a way to showcase the up-and-coming talent in the region. And, it seems, to place some literary distance between contemporary writing and that commercially successful but twee and safe world of Lucy Maud. The island has been ‘transformed by the juggernaut of change’ the editor writes:

Where one might detect echoes of Avonlea, that resonance is often troubled by our era’s insistent ironies, scepticism, malaise, wryly or sardonically complicated longings and antipathies, comic bite, and plaintive vulnerability. Too, the transmutations of gender roles, marital and sexual relations, and class awareness transgress by a country mile the boundaries of Montgomery’s fiction and the idyllic and genteel heritage parameters of tourism promotions.’

All of which rather made me wish my book was still on its romantic-sounding journey to me, not laying bare its garbled agenda. Because I don’t know about you but I’m no fan of agendas. They usually mean violent emotions have been transformed by overthinking into something potentially self-righteous. In the urge to run for the hills away from anything charming or ‘quaint’ or comforting or cheerful, I feared I would be on the receiving end of a great deal of dirty realism.

The good news is that the introduction was by far the worst thing in the book. The stories themselves were generally very good and there were several real highlights. In ‘The Nothing’, Melissa Carroll’s wonderfully sarcastic narrator nearly loses her winning lottery ticket to the machinations of a scheming work colleague after an unfortunate accident with a printing machine. In Malcolm Murray’s ‘The Enlightenment Tour’, an elderly gentleman alone on an equally elderly bus tours lost outposts and turns a rip-off into a meditation of sorts. In ‘Watermelon’ by Beth Janzen, a young girl watches her family’s spotlight of attention shift away from her to an ill, overweight relative in a story of exquisite subtlety. And in what was perhaps my favourite, ‘At The Red Light’ by Bonnie Stewart, a chance encounter at traffic lights leads a woman to reflect back on a turbulent period in her life.

There was, in all honesty, a bit too much dirty realism for me. I get weary fast of stories about drug-takers, cancer sufferers and would-be suicides. Those topics seem too… easy, somehow, a swift, callous route to the reader’s nerve centre. But there were also plenty of stories that tried something intriguingly original, and these were ones I deeply appreciated, too. In ‘A Torch Did Touch His Heart, Briefly’, Jeff Bursey creates a properly intriguing voice, with a narrator who has always clung tightly to the emotional coldness that keeps him superior, but who now finds himself helplessly adrift in an unaccountable crush on the actress Juliet Stevenson. And in ‘The Widows’ Dinner’ by Philip Macdonald, a group of elderly women sit down to eat a delicious lunch together, harboring unexpectedly sinister secrets.

With twenty-three stories ranging across all sorts of subject matter and voice, there probably is something for everyone in this collection, from the psychologically astute and chilling ‘Dust’ by Shirley Limbert, in which a young woman disassociates from her abusive relationship, to ‘Where The Wind Blows’ by Samantha Desjardins, a final carefree fling with quaint and charming, in which the narrator’s grandmother and her sewing circle finally finish the hot air balloon that will transport the diminutive grandma on a long-awaited journey of discovery.

In fact, by the end, I wondered why I shy away so often from short stories. At their best they are a remarkably satisfying genre. But then, the fashion for so long has been the short story as a slice of life, a glimpse into a startling situation, that can be powerful in its style, but also leave you wondering where the rest of the novel has gone. I’m going to come right out and say it – I much prefer short stories that are obviously complete within themselves. Where something happens, and a proper ending is reached, not some sort of trailing off or hanging loose. I want a short story to be, above all else, a story, just a compact one. But that’s just me, and given the range of short stories in this collection, there must be all sorts of different tastes. What makes a short story good for you?

Aren’t We Sisters?

aren't we sistersI am not the first person to write with a sigh in her voice about the way that ‘women’s fiction’ still seems to have a taint of inferiority about it. And it’s hard to pin down what separates one sort of fiction, presumably read more by women than men, from another. Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove, for instance, a steamy tale of lust set on Mallorca during a family holiday from hell, garnered plenty of reviews from the main newspapers. I certainly enjoyed it but can’t imagine Mr Litlove reading it (I am very sorry to say there are certain parts of it he would enthusiastically read, but not the novel in its entirety). Whereas the splendid Aren’t We Sisters? has a review from mumsnet topping its search engine enquiry and a steady silence emanating from the dailies. Is it because the focus of the novel is reproduction, rather than sex? Remove the fun component and inevitably one must leave all that business with bowls and hot water and screaming to women alone?

Well, whilst Aren’t We Sisters? combines a number of perspectives on childbirth into a clever and enjoyable book, it is happily less interested in the gore than in attitudes of society and the amazing lengths women had to go to, to hang onto their veneers of respectability. Set in the 1930s it vividly depicts a world in which women’s bodies were policed with ferocity but rarely protected from harm.

Nurse Lettie Quick has taken up residence in the Cornish town of Silkhampton for reasons she is keeping to herself. Even her official business is too shocking to be openly discussed, for Lettie is a disciple of Marie Stokes and has arrived in town partly to save the local women from more babies than they can afford to feed, and the dangerous methods currently available to prevent them. But this isn’t all she is here to do. Lettie, who knows what it is to scramble out of poverty and has her sights set on the finer things in life, is open to more innovative ways of earning her keep. Several miles away, in a deserted area of the county, a young, pregnant woman has come to have her baby in hiding, and Lettie, if she can overcome her terrors, is here to help.

Norah Thornby has recently lost her mother and gained the debts and expensive maintenance of her large family home. What she unfortunately has not lost is her mother’s opinionated voice, reaching her from beyond the grave. ‘Such a stalwart thumper of a girl!’ her mother used to sigh over her, and Norah is aware she has very little going for her, shy and unskilled and hopeless as she is. Only her passion for the movies keeps her spirits up, and her belief that hidden within the folds of life there are Tests, that only a Great Woman will know how to rise to; she hopes one day to rise to them herself. And then Lettie moves in as a lodger and her attitude is a breath of fresh air: scornful, quick-witted, realistic, Lettie swiftly dispenses with the cumbersome chains of Mrs Thornby’s draconian opinions, and the women form a tentative, mismatched but genuine friendship, one that will bring all sorts of Tests for Norah in its wake.

Out in her isolated manor, actress Rae Grainger waits for her baby to arrive, tended by the competent hands of her housekeeper, Mrs Givens, but tormented by the uncanny happenings in the old house, and her ignorance of childbirth. Her reading of 19th century novels does not seem to be enough to carry her through the experience. When she first hears about her waters breaking, she is disconcerted. ‘Rae sat down on the edge of the bed, trying to fit the idea of a big gush in with what she already knew. Had Mrs Dorrit protected her bedding? Had Jane Eyre had a big gush? Perhaps Mr Rochester had stood her a new mattress.’ In the meantime, Rae delights in the intricacies of Mrs Givens’ Cornish accent and begins to learn more about her past with her deceased twin sister, the local midwife, and their life running the former orphanage in which she finds herself staying.

This is a clever, neatly plotted novel whose strands all dovetail beautifully by the end. There’s also a line running through it about a dodgy doctor that perhaps could have been dispensed with, but it all comes together to form a vibrant picture of the desperate business giving birth used to be. I particularly enjoyed the style in which it is written. There are wonderful lines, like the moment when a young boy realises that his dead mother can’t be found in the stories she wrote: ‘Katherine Mansfield wasn’t in Bliss. She was a voice, she was a sharp pin holding reality still for him to look at… It was another complicated way of being absent.’ Or the moment when Lettie finally lays her hands on evidence of the doctor’s wrongdoing: ‘It felt so powerfully present in her pocket. A muscular trouble, its teeth so very sharp.’ The dialogue is wonderful and I found the characters very endearing: Norah with her determination to meet life’s Tests, Lettie’s unapologetic eye on the main chance, Rae’s affectionate, generous personality. If this is that pitiful creature, women’s fiction, then bring it on. I would happily read many more books with as much wit and charm as this one.

 

p.s. I should mention that this is apparently a sequel to The Midwife’s Daughter. I didn’t realise this until I’d finished it, and it didn’t make any difference really to me.

 

 

 

The Farm, Or It’s Not As Nice In Sweden As You’d Think

the farmA few weeks ago, Mr Litlove was under the weather and so he decided to distract himself with a book. He settled for The Farm, by Tom Rob Smith, a novel I’d given him for his birthday. He started it that morning, ‘this is very good,’ he said at lunchtime, and by the late afternoon he had finished it.

He’d found it both gripping and clever, and since he’s quite hard to please when it comes to fiction, I was very curious about it now. So a couple of days later, I picked it up too.

Daniel has thought that his parents are enjoying a quiet retirement in Sweden, his mother’s native land, where they are running a small, remote farm. Then one day, returning to his London apartment after a trip to the supermarket, his father calls him, clearly distressed. His mother is ill, disturbed; she’s been making wild accusations and suffering from paranoia, and has been taken to a mental hospital. Daniel hardly has time to digest this shocking information and buy a plane ticket to Sweden before he gets another call, this time from his mother. ‘Everything that man has told you is a lie,’ she insists to him. ‘I’m not mad. I don’t need a doctor. I need the police.’ She is on her way to Heathrow airport where she wants him to meet her and provide her with sanctuary.

Unsurprisingly, Daniel doesn’t know what to believe. He hasn’t seen his parents for a while, not because of any rift, but because he is keeping a secret of his own. He’s gay, and doesn’t know how to tell them. His mother, he knows, had a difficult childhood and has made every possible effort to keep his happy and free from care. To Daniel, it’s not the fact of his homosexuality that will bother them, but his own reluctance to confide in them. His mother’s determined creation of a perfect upbringing has in fact disabled him in two ways: the first is that he can’t tell them anything that may blemish the smooth surface of their past, the second that if that smooth surface breaks down, he fears that all sorts of terrible things may emerge. When his mother arrives, it’s the meeting with his partner, Mark, that he worries about. But she is so strung out, so bursting to tell him her strange tale, that she barely notices anything about her surroundings.

She has with her a satchel that she tells him is packed full of ‘evidence’, and she insists on taking him through it piece by piece, convinced that it has been the scattered, disjointed nature of her narrative that has left her open to the charge of insanity in Sweden. Even so, her story treads a fine line – is she overreacting to the things that have happened? Has her troubled past finally caught up with her? Or is there really something dark and disturbing going on that involves the corruption of a small town?

Funnily enough, I found myself distracted in the opening parts of the story by the conviction that it was autobiographical in nature. It was something about the way the narrator described not being able to tell his parents about his sexuality, the urgency of those opening scenes. In fact, a quick online search revealed that the whole premise of the novel actually happened. Tom Rob Smith’s Swedish mother did turn up at his flat to tell him and his brother that she was recently released from a psychiatric institution where she had been placed against her will, after uncovering wht she thought was a conspiracy involving their father. Woah – after that sort of family drama, you probably would have to write about it. In an article in The Telegraph, he says: “with writing it’s like you can retreat from the muddle that is everything else.” Perhaps that’s one reason why the novel is brilliantly plotted.

In The Farm, the narrator, Daniel, eventually takes a trip to Sweden to find out the truth about his mother’s wild accusations, and the truth turns out to be something intriguingly twisted and different. Viewed overall, from a bit of a distance, this really is a clever novel that takes the tropes of Scandi noir thriller and makes something quite unusual out of them. It is very gripping and the mother’s tale is spookily unnerving, her recounting an uneasy mix of insight and extraordinary leaps of assumption. The way that stories generate their truths via the alliance of events and emotions, and the way coherence can be utterly misleading, is beautifully explored. But this isn’t a perfect novel. The first part, the mother’s story, takes 286 pages to tell, the resolution in Sweden a mere 80, and this imbalance has a cost, I think. The thriller element is lost along the way, Daniel’s initial sense of being torn between his parents simply fades. You still end up with a good story; but it isn’t quite the story you thought you had at the beginning.

I felt a bit mean telling Mr Litlove that I’d thought it a tad flawed here and there, after his wholehearted enthusiasm for the novel. But it may well be that this is a book best consumed in a single sitting. It’s very smooth and easy to read, so the prospect is quite do-able. And it is really clever and well written. It’s certainly left me with a strong desire to read his Moscow trilogy that began with Child 44.