Recovery

A week on from our various disasters and Mr Litlove is pretty much healed. Now the only actions that bother his shoulder occur in front of the computer, when too much mouse-work can make his arm sore. It was a revelation, watching his recovery process, however. He simply stopped, until the aches and pains from his trapped nerve had gone away, and then he gradually started moving again, easy household tasks to begin with – January’s been a washout work-wise but we’ve done a lot of de-cluttering – and then starting to exercise and return to his workshop. I am forced to realise I have never been that patient and accepting of my lot in my life. As for me, the optician was delighted with how much my eye had improved, and I don’t need to go back unless it flares up again. But ever since, I’ve had gritty, uncomfortable eyes, made worse by reading and looking at the computer screen. I’m typing quite fast here, hoping I can get through a post before the discomfort kicks in. I should be more like Mr Litlove, I suppose, content to stop until the problem has gone away, but I am not like him, alas.

the outrunBut the topic of recovery has been in my mind since reading Amy Liptrot’s memoir of alcohol addiction and tentative recovery, The Outrun. This is an exquisitely written first book that marries degradation and disgrace in London with a growing love of nature and its healing powers in Orkney. Liptrot comes from Orkney originally, where her mismatched parents went in search of a good life. Her father is a manic-depressive, her mother, since their divorce, a born-again Christian. Liptrot wanted nothing more than to escape the islands when she grew up, and moved south to London to pursue a university degree and a career in journalism. But the demon drink got a hold of her too. A self-confessed sensation-seeker, she fell so easily into the ready excesses of life in an isolating city, and her unflinching memoir gives a clear account of the humiliations consequent to too much booze. She loses the man she loves – which gives her even more reason to drink – gets chucked out of many a house share, is nearly raped by a stranger one drunken night, can’t hold down a job. London can do that to you, I think; the combination of opportunity and loneliness is a difficult one to negotiate.

If London can be a place of downfall, then the obvious thing to do is find a place of healing. After a course in rehab, Amy heads home, not for any better reason that she has nothing much else to do, and staying sober is hard, treacherous work. The cravings of the alcoholic never really go away, no matter how much damage is done to the self, and so the fight for sobriety is one that has to be fought daily. But the Orkney islands turn out to offer more solace than she at first imagines. She finds a job with the RSPB tracking the remaining corncrakes on Orkney – a tiny brown bird with a distinctive call that has almost become extinct due to modern farming practices. And this proves such an improving thing to do that she takes on a tiny cottage in the small island of Papa Westray for the winter. One thing about the Orkney islands: they are very windy. On one of her walks, Amy describes how: ‘I ascend the hill in a crouched position, probably watched by amused islanders in the houses below.  I lie forward into the wind, like a mattress of air: it takes my breath and exhausts me –  a full-body experience. It’s loud enough to hide in.’ She describes another windy day – one noted in Orkney history no less, when ‘tethered cows had been flying in the air like kites.’ It seems clear that this sort of wildness is congruent with Liptrot’s inner wildness, one that could not be appeased by alcohol, although it looked like it would suit the task, but can be calmed in a weather system that’s powerfully bigger than she is.

I wonder how often it is that we do not want what we think we want. I wonder how often we live in circumstances that do us damage in the long-run because we can’t think beyond our immediate solutions, and lack the courage or the motivation to try something else. I remember reading somewhere that humans tend to shy away from change because it’s so hard to do, and unless we’re really up against it, we’ll bumble on as we are.

The book has two rhythms. The first half is a rapid, forceful descent into the darkness of alcoholism, and it’s immensely gripping. The second part is a much more languid and dilatory affair, with chapters exploring different aspects of life on Orkney and Amy’s slow rehabilitation. It makes for a slightly uneven book, but I actually appreciated the honesty of this. Recovery does not happen in linear fashion. It goes back and forth, picks up new hitches and secondary issues, returns us time and again to things we thought we were done with. ‘I still have nervousness around other people,’ Liptrot writes. ‘When you’ve spent so long messing up, covering up and apologising, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve done something wrong and default to the secretive and even sneaky behaviour that addiction involves. I often have a flickering sense that I must have said or done something terribly misjudged.’ Although Amy Liptrot is, in theory, not my kind of person at all – an extrovert, a sensation-seeker, a louder-than-life person, I found myself relating effortlessly to her situation, her determination to recover and her courageous honesty. Only the truth will save us, they say, and that’s about right. This is a very truthful book, searingly so, and all the better for it. I wanted to tell her at the end: stay sober, Amy, so you can keep writing.

And in the hope of furthering my own recovery, I’ve signed up for an online course with the Optimum Health Clinic, the specialist chronic fatigue centre. ‘Conscious Transformation’ it’s called, and is about finding the right mindset to get through the illness and out the other side. I know what a long, slow process recovery can be, and I do hope that this will make a difference. It starts in February and I don’t doubt I’ll tell you about it as I go through the tasks.

 

A P.S. – I love your comments and appreciate them so much, but staying away from computer screens has put me behind in replying. I will catch up as soon as possible.

The American – Better Than Donna Leon?

the americanAs I mentioned, I’ve got a couple of reviews outstanding, and this is the first one for which I’m part of a blog tour. The American by Nadia Dalbuono comes with a sticker on the front promising you your money back if you don’t love it as much as a Donna Leon novel – perhaps the most famous crime writer currently working from Italy. Given that the novel is based in Italy, I guess Donna Leon becomes the most obvious point of reference, but stylistically, Dalbuono is so very different that other comparisons came to my mind. If you like John le Carre, or Charles Cumming or Sara Paretsky, then I think you’d like this. It’s a very sophisticated, intelligent piece of fiction writing, and one that functions on the intersection of crime and politics.

Detective Leone Scamarcio is a good guy in a bad world. He’s a cop with the flying squad in Rome, but his background is with the Mob – his late father used to be a prominent member (if that’s the right term). Scamarcio is trying to do everything by the book, but that isn’t easy in an Italy that’s fundamentally corrupt, and where the police are under pressure from both politicians and the church to keep secrets and turn a blind eye. In this, the second novel in the series, Scamarcio also has the added complication of a girlfriend he isn’t sure he wants, Aurelia, who works in the pathology department. You kind of fear for her from the start, and goodness knows she’s in for more trouble in the course of this novel than just a commitment-phobe for a boyfriend.

The catalyst for Scamarcio’s inquiry is an apparent suicide, hanging off the Ponte Sant’Angelo, close to the Vatican City. This John Doe seems to be a banker suffering from the economic hardships blighting much of southern Italy, but there’s something about the way the body has been presented that makes Scamarcio think of an older case, the 1982 murder of a man called Robert Calvi who was called ‘God’s Banker’ because of his dodgy links with the Vatican Bank. And then, when a senior priest is found stabbed in the Vatican City, it seems obvious that some sort of link must be forged between the bodies. But how that can happen, when the local police have no jurisdiction over the Vatican (which is steadfastly not seeking their help), and the original body is nicked from the mortuary by two American secret service agents who don’t seem quite the full ticket, is anybody’s guess. Scamarcio is asked, none too politely, by the Americans to let it go – it’s a simple suicide, nothing for the police in Rome to be bothered about. But his instincts tell him the case is far more complex and far more dangerous, and he keeps digging.

He will eventually embroil himself in a long-standing and deep-rooted conspiracy that stretches between America and Italy and involves the shocking manipulation of political power by both church and government. I don’t want to give too much away as the gradual uncovering of the extent of the situation is one of the best features of the novel. Suffice to say, my regular complaints that too much contemporary fiction boils down to a storm in a teacup are not about to be aired here. This is a novel that really goes for the jugular, and had me looking up bits and pieces of international history on the internet (Mr Litlove didn’t believe some of the events described in the novel had actually happened, and was forced to eat his words). I learned a lot, whilst admiring the way that Nadia Dalbuono handles the intricacies of her plot, and the way that she muddies the water before the conclusion. Trust me, she is one smart writer.

If I had a niggle, it would be with the paragraphs in italics which open some of the chapters and describe scenes that occurred way back in the past. They are meant to be enigmatic, but initially I was quite confused. I could have done with a better grounding in world politics too, in all honesty, but that didn’t matter so much; the novel will tell you all you need to know to understand it. On the plus side this is extremely well-written and very cleverly conceived. Scamarcio is a strong character, torn between his desires to act ethically, and his old contacts who could actually achieve some beyond-the-pale justice for him, the sort of justice it’s almost impossible to mete out legally in current day Italy. There’s violence in the novel, viewed unflinchingly, but nothing gratuitous. All in all, this is a properly first-rate, literary, fiercely contemporary and proudly intelligent thriller. I must say I’m really intrigued now to see how Dalbuono manages to save Scamarcio from the situation he’s in by the finale – I’m not sure he could survive a long series. We may have to savour his few cases while he holds out.

 

The Temporary Gentleman

the temporary gentlemanJack McNulty, the hero and villain of Sebastian Barry’s novel, The Temporary Gentleman, which tells the story of a doomed marriage in the first half of the twentieth century, is not the first of his kind to love his wife in a fatal fashion.

No, he has illustrious literary ancestors that include the haplessly persistent Chevalier des Grieux with his Manon Lescaut, and Charles Bovary whose terminal dullness and inability to give his wife, Emma, any emotional satisfaction leads to her sex-and-shopping fuelled rush to the grave. What’s perhaps most interesting in all three cases is that a showily gorgeous prose style is supposed to balance things out in the man’s favour.

If the story is told beautifully enough, the reader will forgive all? It’s an interesting equation, and one that crops up time and again. I think Edgar Allen Poe may have to stand up for some of the blame, having declared in 1846 that ‘the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.’ (Though I’ll let him off the hook for Manon Lescaut which was written just over a century earlier.) This is essentially the impetus behind Barry’s latest novel which is narrated by Jack McNulty towards the end of his life, as he contemplates his marriage to his late, troubled wife, Mai, and begins to perceive maybe the glimmer of a suspicion that he carries a heavy burden of guilt for her tempestuous life and her untimely demise. It was a question that I struggled with time and again across the pages of exquisitely crafted prose: how much did the beauty of the writing compensate for the utter frustrating stupidity of the irritating, denial-ridden, drink-sodden hopelessly oblivious Jack?

Hmm, still not sure.

So, if you are a veteran of Sebastian Barry’s books (which I was not; this was my first) you will apparently have come across Jack already in other stories in which he has been a bit-player. In this novel we begin in 1957, with Jack a ‘balding, ageing Irish ex-major’, hanging about in Accra in Africa, afraid to go home to Sligo. We’re aware pretty early on that back he is going to have to go, as the local authorities have caught up with him for a spot of gun-running. While he waits in limbo, knowing he must leave but unable to shift himself (a pretty common state of affairs for our man), he begins writing about his past:

Maybe now when I think I am understanding, I am instead mistaking everything, but at least I am perceiving something in the place of the great fog that has persisted through my life. A fog that no light apparently could properly pierce. There is a great mountain, and high ravines, and great danger, but the fog says nothing about that, the fog only talks on and on about itself. It is not interested in any fashion in clarity, naturally. But now and then, the fog disperses, and in little gloamings of clear light I seem to see the figures, my parents, Mai, my children, standing or sitting, talking, prosecuting you might say their lives and days.’

When he was a young man in University College, Galway, training to be an engineer and a hard drinker, Jack fell in love with Mai Kirwan, a ‘woman replete, laden with gifts, musical, athletic, clever as a general’. She also happens to be a leg up the social class and therefore out of his reach, theoretically. But Jack displays unusual persistence, and aided by the early deaths of her parents, persuades her to marry him. A teeny clue that something might be up is given when Mai flees the wedding ceremony and runs in the drenching rain to her parents’ house where Jack will find her, half-demented, telling him she ‘wants to go back’. Jack decides to carry on as if nothing odd has happened, and when Mai is given her parents’ home by her brother (a gift that hints at a broader family awareness of the couple’s fragility) they do seem to live the high life in it for a while. Until, that is, the bank manager comes to take away the deeds and the furniture to pay Jack’s gambling debts. We have kept pace with Mai’s awareness of this situation, and so it comes as much of a shock to the reader as to Mai, who rushes upstairs to her hidden bag of coins, convinced she can save the day, only to find it empty, too. They move to more squalid housing, Mai falls victim to post-natal depression, Jack essentially runs away to fight in the Second World War (entirely unnecessary for him, being Irish) in order to escape the situation at home and Mai takes to drink. Jack has already provided an effective example in how to drink, after all.

Oh it’s not like he hasn’t been told. Mai’s friend, Ursula, summons all her courage to make Mai’s mental state known to Jack (‘Whatever you can hear of this, pay no heed, pay no heed.’), and the doctor tries to take him aside too: ‘”Might I just make the observation that your own drinking is very considerable, and not a help to her, especially if you would like her to stop.”‘ To which Jack replies: “‘Well I only drink sociably to be sociable,” I said to my discredit. I think I must call that a lie.’ So what we have here is really a portrait of denial – knowing that is firmly pushed to one side – and also a portrait of guilt. Jack repeatedly tells us how much he loves his wife, and he behaves as if mystified by the collapse of their relationship into abuse and drunkenness, but running through the narrative stealthily and quietly there is this undeniable chain of events and consequences that reveal the ugly truth.

But if Jack can’t help but reveal his guilt, the reader can’t help but be impressed by Barry’s writing. He is a quite brilliant producer of metaphor and simile. Describing his own father in the best clothes he could find to attend the funeral of Mai’s father, Jack says that ‘he looked like one of those old photographs of executed train robbers in America, put out somewhere as a warning to the frontier populace.’ Just a casual description of the days after the monsoon rains have stopped in Africa tells us ‘the mosquitoes are now in a fervent of happiness and hang about everywhere after dark like a crowd of cornerboys in Sligo’. And two of the most striking passages in the entire novel concern extended, extraordinary descriptions of war bombings, both of which spare Jack his life. The first opens the novel, when he is on a supply ship heading out to Accra which gets torpedoed; many good men go down but by sheer luck, Jack survives. The other is when he is training men in bomb disposal in Yorkshire. A random air bombardment destroys the building they are training in, a supposedly safe place for them to be, and kills his company of men, while Jack sits in the bar with a pint of beer.

Perhaps, at the end of the novel, it’s these two scenes of near-misses which stick with me more than the unsurprising decline of his marriage. Why is Jack’s life saved? Is the message of the book that we keep being given second chances until, finally, we manage to see ourselves clearly? Or is it that existence is driven forward by an arbitrariness touched with cynicism, that good men die while the wasters live on to continue creating havoc? In this beautiful, enraging novel maybe it’s that question that ultimately makes it more than the poetic rendering of yet another unnecessary female death.

 

Lila

I really must do what I can to tackle the large pile of to-be-reviewed books that have built up over the course of December, not least because I have read several very good ones. It’s my own fault for being so absent from blogging in the lead-up to Christmas – which I hope was good for everyone? (Mine was very nice, thank you.)

lilaFirst up must be Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. I attempted Gilead many years ago now and got nowhere with it. I think I gave up after about fifty pages, it was such a contemplative and abstract sort of affair I couldn’t get any traction in it. So I didn’t have high hopes for Lila, though I was urged on by the other co-eds at Shiny who promised me it was at least about something. And indeed it is an unusual but extremely poignant love story between two people who never believed they could ever find love. It sounds awful when I describe it that way, maudlin and saccharine and full of cliche, but it isn’t these things at all, perhaps because of its thoughtful, careful bringing together of poverty, faith and homecoming against a backdrop of existential uncertainty. Or maybe it works because its main character is a force of such resistance – a woman who fights hard against love, who is only interested in the most challenging questions of theology, whose intelligence is constructed out of mistrustful peasant wisdom, who wants to want nothing for safety’s sake. As I write this and look back over the novel, what I see is a delicately held balance between light and dark, tragedy and hope; a narrative that holds its breath, gazing in perplexity at its own situation, and perhaps it is the very strangeness of such a narrative perspective that makes Lila such a striking piece of art.

Apparently the scene appears in both Gilead and Home, of the preacher, John Ames, noticing a young woman entering his church to shelter from the rain. This woman is Lila, who lives in a shack on the road out of town and offers herself at daily rates for domestic work among the families in Gilead. She is beyond poor. Her life has been a hardscrabble one, abandoned as a child but then brought up by the kind Doll, who had nothing herself but a knife that she will eventually use to commit murder. Doll and Lila joined a work party that fell apart during the years of the Depression, when they all nearly starved. Lila then moved to a whorehouse in St Louis for a while, but unable to see the point of high heels, she quickly switched jobs and became their cleaning lady instead. Forced to move on again, she took the bus to nowhere and got off on the outskirts of Gilead. Loneliness and mistrust are her closest friends, the worst is all she wants to know about, assuming it will be her lot.

Lila finds herself unaccountably drawn to the goodness of the preacher, despite her best intentions. And John Ames, despite being 67, almost twice her age, is drawn to Lila; her hardworking spirit that barely cloaks the wildness of the cornered animal. Ames has been a widower for decades, since his first wife died in childbirth, so he has his own emotional damage to contend with. But when Lila starts to grow roses over the graves of his wife and child, this unexpected tenderness sinks him. How on earth do these two people come together, you might ask? The story doesn’t even attempt to explain it. A kind of inner longing for the good things in life, so sidelined and silenced inside Lila that she never even sees it coming, makes her blurt out to the preacher that he should marry her. Ames, scarcely crediting his luck, is quick to agree. Then they both anxiously renege on the decision, fearful of the poor bargain the other is getting. But goodness and hope win out; the preacher baptises Lila in the midst of this conversation, choosing the river with its absence of any kind of pretension, and Lila, who has not been able to face the conventionality of a church, feels miraculously understood; the agreement is back on.

What is so striking in this novel is the emotional wisdom that fuels this tentative, fearful love affair. Both Ames and Lila have suffered so much in the past that they have a hard time believing that anything can come right. They have lost faith in their own abilities to attract the good and the reliable. Robinson understands that in order to love, we have to believe we are loveable, and much of the narrative is bound up with working through that Gordian knot of fear and concern. ‘But when folks are down to the one thing that keeps them alive,’ Lila thinks to herself, ‘that one thing can be meanness. It makes you feel like you’re there, like you’re doing something.’ How to break that particular habit? How to let go of the security it represents? And how to bypass the shame of all that poverty, not just material, but emotional, too? Lila brings these questions to John Ames in a curious kind of courtship, fascinated by his religious belief and the gentleness in which it is made manifest. She brings her toughest questions to him, questions about the meaning of life and the value of evil experience that he repeatedly fails to answer sufficiently. But perhaps there is truthfulness in this, and Lila can begin to trust a man who is so clearly trying to find a way to comfort her, whilst accepting that there is no easy comfort to be had.

Yet Lila is experiencing comfort – the kindness of Gilead and its inhabitants, the warmth of a real house around her, the love of the preacher. ‘The quiet of the world was terrible to her, like mockery’ the narrative tells us. She cannot believe this is anything other than a false lull in the storm of existence.

Mystery and wonder are large component parts of Robinson’s literary imagination; they balance out the unyielding, intractable parts of her characters’ lives. That a pure and poignant love can grow and start to flourish on such unlikely ground, unexplained, unaccountable but undeniably there, does restore a true sense of the miraculous to love itself. The narrative wanders, back and forth, between the strange contentment of the present moment and the various hardships and punishments of Lila’s former life; given the insistent but subtle religiosity of Robinson’s writing, it’s easy to read an allegory into this of wilderness endured before paradise can be found. The hard-nosed realism of her writing reminds us that paradise is only gained under the shadow of the deepest mistrust.

I don’t think I could face another go at Gilead, but I’m very glad indeed to have read Lila and to understand why people go on about Marilynne Robinson being such a great writer; she is indeed a great writer.