Passing Through

I am still somewhat brainless with chronic fatigue and turgid in spirit (isn’t turgid a good word?), though I don’t know what Mr Litlove’s excuse is. This is an exchange we had just the other evening:

Me: And how were your sandwiches today?

Mr Litlove: Very nice, very tasty. I do like that cheese. And the mayonnaise.

Me: That’s interesting. Considering the sandwiches I made you were ham and tomato.

Mr Litlove: (eyes darting from right to left in concentration) But there was mayonnaise in there… wasn’t there?

Me: You don’t have a clue, do you?

It’s a wonder they still let us drive. The only thing I’ve been doing with any consistency and engagement is, as usual, reading. But so many of the books that have passed through my hands lately have been for the magazine, one way or another. You’ll note the Monique Roffey in my sidebar, and the recent half-review of Archipelago I wrote. I’m actually putting together a special feature about her writing for our next edition because I think she’s an amazing author, fearless in her approach and so clever in her storytelling. She’s asking questions about power and politics, risk and catastrophe that no one else has the guts to tackle.

in love and warI’ve also just finished the new novel by Laurie Graham, who is a writer who really should be better known than she is. Several years ago now I read and loved The Importance of Being Kennedy, and since then she has produced a series of historical novels that focus on a sprawling dynasty at the height of a crisis. Only she is a wonderfully comic author who gives her characters the sort of lines that Maggie Smith would punch the air to have in Downton Abbey. This latest was a joy and my love of her continues unabated. I’m also at the start of a novel by Alex Preston set in the late 30s when a young man is sent (in disgrace) to Florence by his powerful father in order to set up a wireless station for the Faschists. It’s been wonderful so far. Honestly, if any idiot decides to proclaim the death of contemporary fiction, I shall be unrestrained in my scorn. I’ve read – and have still to read – a stream of brilliant books for the magazine.

Given my under-par nature at the moment, I’ve also been reading solidly comforting crime fiction. Last year, thanks to Danielle, I discovered Elizabeth Daly and her gentleman detective, Henry Gamadge. I read Any Shape or Form, set as usual in the grand houses and crazy families of New York in the 1940s and absolutely loved it. Gamadge is visiting his elderly Aunt Alice and obliged to visit the neighbours with her. There, two conflicted sides of a family – the stepmother and her stepchildren – are being brought together by Johnny Redfields, a friend to all concerned, in the hope of effecting a reconciliation. Before the end of the afternoon, however, the stepmother is dead. It was the sort of book that makes me think of Bertie Wooster who, when interrupting Jeeves in his reading of Spinoza, commented guiltily that he bet Jeeves’d just got to the place where they found the second body.

deadheadingI’ve also recently discovered Catherine Aird, though her books are a bit harder to get hold of. She has a hapless Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan (‘Seedy’ to his work colleagues) squashed between a boss half in love with the ill-digested propositions of whatever recent training course he’s been on, and the only reinforcement he can ever lay hands on, Constable Crosby, who no one believes will ever make a decent detective as he is so immune to the niceties of police work. They all take place in the fictional county of Calleshire and are sort of halfway between Caroline Graham with her Midsomer Murders and something a little older and gentler, Margery Allingham perhaps or Ngaio Marsh. I like ‘em.

the last asylumThere have also been a few new arrivals over the threshold, cough. I couldn’t resist historian Barbara Taylor’s memoir, The Last Asylum, about the four years she spent there recovering from a nervous breakdown. Nor The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark by Josh Cohen, which draws on psychoanalysis, literature and life to argue that we cannot lose our basic privacy because we have parts of ourselves that even we can’t access. (Mr Litlove skim-read this one weekend morning and said he found it a bit academic, but I don’t suppose I’ll mind that too much). I’ve also picked up copies of Sue Gee’s Coming Home, about colonial Brits returned from India, and D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, an alternative history novel which begins with the death of Wallis Simpson. Cleopatra had her asses’ milk, I have creamy pages of vanilla-sprinkle words to bathe in; I can thoroughly recommend it as a treatment. But what do we do about Mr Litlove??

 

 

A Geography Lesson

No matter how hard I try – and these past six months I have been attempting regular exercise, for crying out loud – I am doomed to hoard stress the way squirrels pack nuts for the winter. Now that things are a little quieter, and the internal imp who scans the horizon for trouble has relaxed, I’ve been feeling quite dreadful. It seems I can only process emotional wear and tear via a form of illness.

archipelagoBy sheer coincidence, a couple of books I’ve read and deeply enjoyed in the run-up to this week, offered an entirely different approach to stress management: the dangerous journey. In Monique Roffey’s wonderful Archipelago, Gavin and his daughter, Océan, take to the Caribbean seas with their dog, Suzy, as a way to deal with compounded grief. Almost a year ago their house was inundated by a freak flood, whose catastrophic results we only learn about as the story unfolds. Close to breakdown, Gavin decides to reawaken an old dream of his youth and take his trusty boat, Romany, west from Trinidad where they live, out towards the Galapagos Islands. Then in the memoir, Wild, Cheryl Strayed recounts her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail – or at least 1,100 miles of it – after her mother’s untimely death sends her life off course and her marriage breaks down.

The first thing I needed with these books was an atlas. I confess my geography is appalling. It’s even worse than my historical knowledge, and in both cases, what meagre scraps I own come from literature. I am sorry to say that I had a rather shaky sense of where the Caribbean might be, although I knew it had something to do with America, having adored novels by Maryse Condé in the past. For those as ignorant as I was, Trinidad and Tobago are just off the north-east tip of Venezuela, and the Caribbean sits in the shape of a bird in flight between North and South America. The famous islands stretch off towards the North: Barbados, St Lucia, Martinique, and they curve around towards Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, much larger masses of land that form a rough barrier to the Atlantic. Whereas the travellers in Archipelago hug close to the coast of South America, heading through the Panama Canal and then far, far out west to where the Galapagos sit in solitary splendour.

‘I think I had the Panama Canal mixed up with the Suez Canal,’ I told Mr Litlove.

‘You thought it was the Suez Canal?’ said Mr Litlove, in terms of wonderment, which was rich coming from a man who would hesitate to identify the subjunctive.

wildThe Pacific Crest Trail is a wilderness trail that stretches from the Mexican border in California along the crests of nine mountain ranges, including the Sierra Nevada, Klamath and Cascades, traversing Oregon and Washington on its way. The book had a dinky map in the front of it, useful for following the landmarks in Strayed’s memoir but pretty undetailed in itself. My atlas made it look much more daunting; the colours were the ochres and browns, even into the violet blues, of high altitudes. Despite the huge scale of the atlas, there was absolutely nothing there; no civilisation for inches around.

So two books with one word titles to remind you that serious travellers are a close-mouthed lot. They are too busy struggling with the elements to chat. And in both cases, decisions are made to embark on a physical challenge precisely because words fail and are insufficient for healing the pain. Something intriguingly alchemical goes on in this idea: emotional pain becomes released in physical pain, and physical toughness translates back to emotional toughness. In both cases, the journeys worked their magic, though I wonder whether it doesn’t all boil down to an email apocryphal funny my brother sent me, which said if you want to forget all your troubles, wear shoes that pinch.

Cheryl Strayed does exactly that. Young and inexperienced, she has launched into her hike in a way that shows the difference between things as we imagine they will be, and the lived reality. Her boots are a source of extreme discomfort throughout the trip and I got used to skimming the descriptions of her feet she regularly gave when she took them off at night. She also packs too extensively for her trip, creating an outsize backpack that she calls ‘Monster’, which takes its own toll on her body. You wonder whether she might have saved herself some trouble by just heading downtown and getting herself beaten up:

I did not so much look like a woman who had spent the past three weeks backpacking in the wilderness as I did a woman who had been the victim of a violent and bizarre crime. Bruises that ranged in color from yellow to black lined my arms and legs, my back and rump, as if I’d been beaten with sticks. My hips and shoulders were covered with blisters and rashes, inflamed welts and dark scabs where my skin had broken open from being chafed by the pack.’

This hike is all about her powers of endurance for Strayed, who was only 26 when she undertook it, and all about the methods of transcendence she can teach herself. Ways to bypass the boredom, the fear of all that could befall her out alone. As Archipelago is fiction, it has a lot more scope to explore its ideas. In the novel, nature is on trial, understood to be both beautiful and sublime, feared as both vicious and destructive. Gavin isn’t sure whether he is still fighting a losing battle against nature or learning to accept his place as part of it:

He has had a romantic attachment, notions about the sea, but these are fantasies. Now he is aware that the sea isn’t interested in him – and yet he’s fascinated with her. The sea has no feelings towards him whatsoever, and yet she stirs unfathomable moods in him. The sea doesn’t care, cannot care, one jot for him and his boat, his child, his dog, and yet they’ve been held mesmerised. At best, the sea is an accomplice to his restlessness.’

In both books, nature is an accomplice at best – willingly offering up vistas of breaktaking loveliness as reasons in themselves for the pain and the trouble of the undertaking. In Archipelago, nature wears a much crueller face, too, the devastation of catastrophe a magnified version of the ordinary battle for survival. But a lot happens in a silent beyond, in the place where human and nature interact. This is where the humans heal, though as Gavin realises, it is an oddly one-sided attachment where we manage to find far more than just what is visible. Perhaps it’s the sense of perspective that saves all the protagonists in the end; the awareness of their own diminutive size in relation to a wild, dangerous, tenderly indifferent world.

I loved both these books – they were highly engrossing, the Roffey full of glorious descriptions, the Strayed balancing its material well between accounts of the trip and her past life leading up to it. And they both have plenty of adventures to recount. But I am left feeling that the Existentialists were right – people are either thinkers or doers and it’s hard to be both. Travel is not the answer to angst for me: instead I have to be attentive to my internal geography. When I was much worse with chronic fatigue, I used to consider my body as a wild and lawless land, with sacking and pillaging going on in ways I couldn’t control. These days, there is much more of a community feel about my internal world, though every so often we have to hunker down when the Visigoths of stress maraud through.

Life, But Not As We Know It

The Ageof MThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is not my usual kind of book. I’m not at all into disaster movies or science fiction, though this book, despite having elements of both, doesn’t really fall plum into either of those categories. Nor do I read much YA, although yet again, I’m not sure whether the fact of an 11-year-old narrative perspective constitutes YA by itself (and in any case, technically this is written from some point in the future, looking back). But I was intrigued by the premise: with no warning, the earth begins to rotate more slowly and the days and nights grow longer and longer. The novel charts the gradual unfolding of this crisis.

Julia is an ordinary child growing up in an ordinary household in California. Like other citizens she hasn’t noticed the first incremental steps of what will become known as ‘the slowing’. It’s not until a television announcement is made that she and her parents have to face a freshly uncertain world.

Later, I would come to think of those first days as the time when we learned as a species that we had worried over the wrong things: the hole in the ozone layer, the melting of the ice caps, West Nile and swine flu and killer bees. But I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different – unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.’

Inevitably panic sets in, but this is a global problem – it’s not like people can run to a safe place. After a few days of confusion and unpheaval, stringent attempts are made to return to something approaching normal. The schools open again, businesses and hospitals keep going but the experience of time has been altered irrevocably: now every day is shot through with an uneasy waiting, waiting to see when darkness will finally fall, when daylight will finally return. Steadily, the days are growing longer, and there is nothing anyone can do.

Some people attempt to continue living on ‘real time’, arguing that their bodies will adapt, and that nature will overcome. Meanwhile, as the usual 12-hours of  daylight becomes sixteen, seventeen hours long, government steps in and declares a return to clock time. The 24-hour day is reinstated, no matter what the sun happens to be doing in the sky. A schism opens up between those who comply and those who insist on remaining in step with the skies; they are considered subversives and in the wake of persecution most leave to form colonies of their own. For the rest, trying to sleep in broad daylight or commute in darkness is odd enough, but other strange problems are arising. Birds fall from the skies and balls fail to follow their usual trajectory as gravity loosens its grip. Sport becomes difficult to play. As the slowing continues, the crops begin to fail unless they are given artificial light; the increased drain on power reserves is enormous and problematic. Eventually, the daylight will last so long and the magnetic force surrounding the earth will become so weakened that it is dangerous for people to be out in its burning heat, whilst the long nights bring artic conditions.

And people begin to fall sick with an unexplained syndrome – dizziness, nausea, fatigue. Julia’s mother comes down with it. This is the most immediate effect on Julia and her family, although it is not the first. Her mother is a worrier, easily made anxious, whilst her father, a doctor fully accustomed to shift work, refuses to be unsettled by what’s happening. Her parents grow ever more estranged in their differing attitudes. And for Julia, the global crisis is a kind of amplified version of the trials of adolescence. Her best friend, Hanna, leaves town soon after the slowing starts as her family want to be with a Mormon community. When she returns, weeks later, their friendship is over in ways Julia can’t understand. Julia is secretly obsessed with a boy from school, Seth Moreno, and it’s hard to tell whether her crush is a way of keeping things normal, or another casualty of a world braking on its axis.

Maybe it had begun to happen before the slowing, but it was only afterward that I realised it: My friendships were disintegrating. Things were coming apart. It was a rough crossing, the one from childhood to the next life. And as with any other harsh journey, not everything survived.’

This is a beautifully written novel, full of admirable sentences (‘At last, like a fever, the night broke.’) and the slow breakdown of life as we know it is creatively imagined. I was engaged with the narrative and wanted to read it to the end. But – and here’s where the buts begin – this is a problematic novel in all sorts of ways. Essentially the main issue is that we have a very intriguing situation but no story. Everything that happens in the book can be placed under the heading of: Things Get Worse. When we reach the end, it is as unsatisfactory as only an ending can be when the situation depicted is essentially one of steady entropy. To say it fizzles out is kind. And the events depicted are the product of a deeply pessimistic imagination; things get worse even when they don’t have to. Why does Hanna stop being Julia’s friend? Why do Julia’s parents fall apart? Why does Seth shun her? And where is the entrepreneurial spirit that always arises in humans in crisis situations? Part criminal, part creative, people are wired to take advantage of changing conditions as much as they are wired to fear them.

All this is beside the dodgy science. I am woefully uninformed in scientific matters; you could get anything past me. But readers with more knowledge seem united in decrying the situation that is the best part of this novel. It seems it would not happen this way: there would be a great deal more of a prologue, and earth would likely be sucked out of its orbit altogether. Which would considerably shorten the story, I guess.

So this is an interesting one. A good book in some ways, a bad book in others. A readable book and a plausible book, and simultaneously an impossible book and a disappointing story. I enjoyed the first half a great deal, and felt my admiration steadily drain away in the second half. But the writing was consistently good; I’ll definitely be curious to see what the author does next.

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.