Teenage Kicks

The Baltimore Boys by Joel Dicker is a novel in which The Sorrows of Young Werther meets Sidney Sheldon, a sentence I’ve been looking forward to writing ever since I read this book, way back in May. A story of family rivalry, young love, exceptional achievement, loyalty, idealism and tragedy it’s a sort of male coming-of-age saga set in Baltimore, Florida, New Jersey and New York. It reminded me of the big, chunky novels I used to hoover up as a teenager, all angst and money and fame, but it has a bit more literary panache. Not a great deal more, but definitely a bit. I enjoyed it very much and am typing this feeling guilty, as I really should have reviewed it a lot sooner.

If you’ve seen it around you’ll know it’s a real doorstep of a novel, clocking in at 450 pages plus in hardback. It took me a little over three weeks due to my grumpy dry eyes and this was so depressing at the time that I put the book in my to-review pile and didn’t manage to get around to writing about it all summer. I read Joel Dicker’s first novel, The Truth About the Harry Quebec Affair (which was a monster hit) in about three days a few years back, and this is, I think, a better book. It’s a lot less reliant on showy tricks and devices and uses its preoccupations in a more coherent way. Intriguingly, though, it focuses on the same male narrator – bestselling author Marcus Goldman – and digs deeper into his family history, gradually revealing the details of a tragedy in his youth that rocked his extended family.

So, when the story begins, we’re the present day in Florida, with Goldman coming to his second home in Florida suffering from writers’ block. Imagine his surprise when he finds that living nearby is his first love, Alexandra Neville, who is now an international pop superstar. Seeing Alexandra again awakens painful memories in Goldman concerning a tragedy (that will be much trailered, have patience) and we return with him to the past and his late childhood. Marcus’s youth was defined by a rivalrous split in his family between his father and his uncle. The Baltimore Goldmans, headed up by the patriarch Saul Goldman, a rich and successful lawyer, live a life of big houses, fancy vacations and preferential treatment by Marcus’s grandparents. His own Montclair-based family seems humiliatingly ordinary by comparison and at any opportunity Marcus jumps ship to spend time with the high achievers. He longs to be a part of their gilded tribe and to leave his own, lowlier, background behind.

But all is not as perfect with the Baltimore Goldmans as it may first appear. Marcus’s cousin, Hillel is an annoying smartie-pants, a perilous combination of precocious intellect and weedy body, who is constantly bullied at school. His parents despair of finding him an education that he’ll survive, until that is, Woody joins the family. Woody is a young offender who’s received help and guidance from Uncle Saul, and who can’t really find a place to live contentedly either. He and Hillel become firm friends, and Woody uses his superior muscle power to protect him in the playground. This dynamic changes everything, and Uncle Saul and his family pretty much adopt Woody from then on. Marcus loves them both, and visits whenever he can, subsuming himself into their friendship and, with his usual self-conscious awareness of moments when life and art coincide, naming them The Goldman Gang.

Woody’s going to be a sports star, Hillel some kind of genius and Marcus doesn’t know yet what he’ll do but it’s going to be impressive, he’s determined about that. So what ruins this perfect state of affairs? A girl, of course. Alexandra moves in next door to Hillel and Woody and all three fall for her. Cue angst, betrayal and disaster.

The novel takes a long time and drives you round the houses a lot, through numerous time zones, until the denouement is finally reached. But I really like Dicker’s writing style, which is easy and unpretentious, heart-felt without being sentimental. I get very impatient with stories that take a long time to go anywhere, it’s a critical weakness of mine, but I was never impatient with this. He is an author who’s good at creating a world, and what works especially well in this novel is the way that Marcus’s perspective – agog all the time at his amazing relatives and obsessed with achievement – becomes in some ways what this novel is about. Youthful idealisation is the key to the story and the reason why Marcus is the last person to understand what’s happening around him.

There’s something about this novel that gives it an odd throwback feel to me, though the books it reminds me of almost all used to be written by women (Sidney Sheldon being the exception that sprang to mind). I saw a very interesting article by Siri Hustvedt the other day in which she suggests that Knausgaard writes like a woman. Is this the new 21st century literary transgender? Men writing in ways that used to be considered female?

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Hilary Mantel and Elizabeth Strout

There was a moment, a few weeks back, when I was listening to four audio books (not simultaneously, obvs): Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Autumn by Ali Smith, Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout and They Came To Baghdad by Agatha Christie. And I thought to myself, wow, what a line-up. Does it get any better than this?

Alas, Autumn has fallen by the wayside. I love Ali Smith so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the novel. What I suspect is that her style doesn’t translate well to audio – so few styles do. I love her whimsicality on the page, but it doesn’t come across so well when you’re listening. I must get hold of the book. And the Agatha Christie was a delight, but you probably don’t need me to tell you anything about it. You will either love Agatha or not, as the case may be, but if you love her, it’s a really fun and clever outing on her part.

Which leaves me with two novels to talk about here, one of which I expect lots and lots of people have read, the other of which I expect lots and lots of people are intending to read. And what fine novels they both were.

Bring Up The Bodies will scarcely require a summary. The second of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels, we’re following Thomas Cromwell through the wreckage of Henry’s love life. Cromwell is mostly definitely Henry’s right-hand man, but this is rather like being the enforcer for the Godfather. Cromwell accepts this, in fact, he almost welcomes it. But you do sense that this is at least in part because he knows that a fall from grace at this stage will mean death; so doing Henry’s bidding, however crazy or daft it might be, is a no-brainer nevertheless. And it’s hardly as if Cromwell needed the mental focus that would ensure.

When the novel begins, Henry is falling in love with Jane Seymour. She’s described as quiet, whey-faced, retiring, prudish, submissive. All the things, in other words, that Anne Boleyn is not – and this is not a coincidence. But Anne is in the early stages of pregnancy and so her position on the throne is relatively safe. Jane Seymour’s brothers and her father are in no doubt about the upswing in their fortunes that Henry’s infatuation might bring them. Jane is primped ready to meet the king’s needs while Anne is with child. But this never happens. Anne loses the child and, already out of love with her, torn by the desire for a male heir and by the desire for Jane, Henry starts to whine. He decides that this abrupt u-turn in his feelings can only be accounted for if Anne actually bewitched him into loving her in the first place.

Honestly, men! It’s bad enough they come up with this nonsense, but to see a long, inevitable chain of events unspooling from this ridiculous notion that will lead to Anne’s death is quite another matter. If ever a reader were in any doubt as to why power should be controlled by law and divided by as many people as possible, this is the book to clarify the reasons.

Ironically enough, Anne’s execution is facilitated by the death of the first queen, Katherine. While Katherine was alive, Henry had a reason to stick to his guns over Anne, out of stubborn contrariness if nothing else. But when she dies, then Henry starts to feel how lovely it would be if he and the Pope were on better terms again. Anne was an interloper, she put Henry in disfavour with the Catholic church, she has caused him problems without producing the required male child. Oh poor Anne; as spiky, egotistic and loveless a character as she is in Mantel’s version (and Mantel is brilliant in her portrayal), the sheer mendacity and corruption of the case that is brought against her is enough for outrage on her behalf.

Oh and lots of other things happen too: Cromwell is gearing up for his assault on the monasteries, an indication, I felt, of the general overreaching that is creeping into his management of the king’s affairs. Henry is often described as a big baby, and Cromwell, in that case, becomes his over-indulgent mother, giving him everything he really ought not to have. But in doing so, in the ever swifter dynamic of tending to the king’s needs with no hesitation and the experience of power it brings, he is starting to lose sight of the integrity he might once have possessed. If this book had been a movie, a sequel to Wolf Hall and a precursor of the final conclusion to Cromwell’s life, it would probably have been a mess of storylines without satisfying resolution. The kind of in-fill number that you are cynically made to watch if you want to follow the entire story. But in Mantel’s hands it’s all kinds of wonderful. Sharp, insightful, dramatic, gripping and exceptionally written. I expect you’ve heard other people say that, too.

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout is also a sequel of sorts to her huge hit, My Name Is Lucy Barton. In it, Strout returns to Lucy Barton’s home town of Amgash, Illinois, and tells the stories of a number of characters who received only brief mentions in the first novel. Do you remember all the local histories Lucy’s mother tells her about, all those failed or difficult marriages that she recounts while Lucy is in her hospital bed? Well, along with Lucy’s siblings, those lives now take centre stage.

It doesn’t really matter if you haven’t read the first novel, because the real beauty of this novel – comprised in a series of interconnecting stories – is how the dots are all joined up between the people who feature within it. There was a moment in every story, a gorgeous AHA! moment, when I realised who it was we were reading about, which of the characters who had made a short appearance or been referred to in an earlier story. As in Lucy Barton, it’s a way in which the structure of gossip is used so cleverly and given such unexpected depth. It’s a gossipy small town situation that we always find ourselves in, and if you feel inclined to find that insignificant in any way, there’s plenty of times when you’ll say: Oh, so that’s what happened to so-and-so! And you’ll realise that gossip is storytelling at its most compelling.

What Elizabeth Strout also does with supreme narrative efficiency is draw us into lives of quiet anguish and the unexpected compensations they contain. Strout’s characters suffer: they have trauma in their past, and poverty, and deep, abiding sadness. But these sorrows are balanced by the genuine rewards that sometimes enter their lives – and Strout knows exactly what a real, honest reward looks like. Patty Nicely, a counsellor at the local high school, is bruised by an encounter with an ugly-mouthed teenager, who lets it be known that Patty’s worst secrets are common knowledge. But Patty finds her equilibrium when she summons the strength to understand the young woman and actively help her. How does she find it? Well, in between these two moments, she reads the latest book by Lucy Barton, a warts-and-all memoir of her childhood, and it delivers the grace of insight. ‘The book had understood her’, Strout writes in one of her devastatingly simple sentences. And I wonder how many people feel understood now in their ordinary sadness by Strout’s luminous writing.

There are so many wonderful stories in this narrative that it’s tempting to go on too long about them. My favourite was probably the one about the artist who comes to town for a week’s conference and is lodged with a couple who seem very respectable on the surface. Until the guest goes to bed and the hosts go upstairs to watch her do this on the webcam they have planted in her room. And I did love the story where Lucy briefly returns (as part of her book tour) to Amgash and a reunion with the brother and sister she hasn’t seen in seventeen years. It goes as well and as dreadfully as you might expect.

It’s funny when I think back on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-prize-winning Olive Kitteridge and remember that I really didn’t like it. It was one of the very few books back at that time in my life that I didn’t finish. I’m not sure which one of us has changed. But I feel that Strout’s writing has more emotional balance to it now, and that it makes all the difference. Boy, does she know how to do anguish! And she can take you to places that are almost too painful to tolerate – such ordinary humiliations, such unspeakable losses. In Anything Is Possible, though, the title holds a clue. People can be so reliably surprising; life can be so unexpectedly, ironically generous. These are the touches of grace that we live for, and which Strout captures so beautifully on the page.

When CFS Meets the NHS and No One Wins

So, last week was an unusual one for us because Mr Litlove was unwell. I always find it intriguing when he falls ill, because I get to witness what happens when a healthy person goes through a virus. Mr Litlove is a stoical type on the whole, but being ill makes him anxious and miserable, especially when, as in this case, he has an unpleasant symptom like stomach cramps. Then he struggles as anyone would not to make them worse because they are unfamiliar and unpleasant and causing him some concern. But the moment that those symptoms start to abate and he begins to feel better, I can almost see him overlaying the diminishing symptoms of illness with his memory of good health. He’s only been away from it a few days and now it’s a template he can hang onto, drawing himself nearer to normal with the simple confidence of its being his natural and typical state.

These things interest me, because the experience of chronic illness is so different. Last Friday was ME/CFS Awareness Day, apparently, and thinking about what it might be useful to make people aware of, it’s the effects on a person’s soul (if you like) of ongoing illness that are so often misunderstood. When you have an illness like CFS, you are at the mercy of a lot of symptoms which, if suffered in isolation, as Mr Litlove suffered some of them, are quite normal and readily overcome. But the effect of CFS is to hold you hostage in illness and therefore also in that anxiety state, with symptoms refusing to go away, and new ones popping up all over the place, and no diminution to give you hope that wellness will return. As the days stretch into months and then years, you forget what normal looked and felt like. You have only memories of illness and fear and they increase every time some fresh hell occurs to you. Anything stressful is that much harder to deal with because the inner ‘pint pot’ that contains stress is already half full. What kind of a monster would I have been if I’d told Mr Litlove that his stomach cramps were all in his mind, and that he should stop whining about them and just manage the best he can? And yet that’s what a lot of CFS sufferers get told, and mostly from the medical profession. Oh, doctors might couch it in more neutral terms, but often with the force of their indifference, it’s what they imply.

I last saw a GP back in February with the usual range of things that were not in themselves worrying, but were dragging me down because they came all at once and hung around far longer than necessary. I had the throaty/chesty-thing I’d caught the previous November that was still recurring (mostly gone now), styes in my eyelid (still got those), and a range of perimenopause symptoms which were making the CFS worse (they’re not going anywhere either). The doctor told me that these days they ‘didn’t think CFS was all in the mind anymore – there’s definitely something there.’ But that ‘no one can cure you so don’t believe anyone who says they can.’ Just pause for a moment here and consider that I have had chronic fatigue syndrome for almost 20 years now. I lost an excellent career to it and live a much reduced life; I’ve visited my son in London once in the four years he’s lived there; I have all kinds of skills I would love to contribute to my society but cannot. And this is what the doctor thinks to say to me? That I should give up on the thought of getting better? (I relate her words to you verbatim, with nothing added or taken away.) In fact, there are things that you can do to help with CFS, but the NHS is about 15 years behind, and the tactlessness, not to mention unhelpfulness, is quite breathtaking. I must admit that I was annoyed, and I felt determined to make the NHS do something for me. I’ve never complained to a doctor about the lack of help or support in all these years, or demanded testing or any form of possibly experimental treatment. I really felt they owed me.

However, squeezing something out of the system is not easy. I asked if I could be referred to the CFS centre at Peterborough (about 30 mins away), but the doctor refused on the grounds that I was probably doing all the things they might suggest already. Which was pure assumption because she asked no questions. So then I asked whether I could have CBT counselling, which I had seen advertised widely as a new NHS service. The doctor was not optimistic but said she would put my name forward. Naturally nothing happened, and I presumed that the doctor had forgotten about me the moment I’d walked out the door. So imagine my surprise when an appointment for an ‘assessment’ came through last week.

The assessment was an other-worldly experience. I drove to the far side of the city and found, in the middle of the wilderness beyond the outer ring road, a dilapidated collection of buildings that held the breathless silence of a ghost town. It was as if I’d stepped back in time to 1955 and been sent to the ramshackle remains of Bletchley Park. Half the buildings were derelict with broken windows and overgrowing foliage, as I found in my tour, having taken a wrong turn which proved impossible to undo. I had to exit the complex and come in at the front again. When I did locate the building I required, it seemed completely empty. Eventually a young woman came to find me and take me to her room. We passed a number of rooms off a corridor, some set up like classrooms, others just empty spaces, but everything seemed decades old and abandoned. However, something was working: the heating. According to the young woman, the therapists had been freezing all winter, asking if the heating could be put on, and now that the weather had finally warmed up, someone had flipped the switch. In consequence I felt I was being cooked. It was so hot in that room that I actually had to ask if I could leave and walk up and down the corridor for a moment. Really, it was almost unbearable.

But we sat and sweltered through an hour of questions. I had gone in asking if I could receive CBT for my phobias. In decreasing order I experience quite extreme anxiety and fear of: medical treatment, travelling and socialising. The latter I’m not exactly afraid of, but I find it exhausting because so often being social means a certain level of performance. By the time I left, we had agreed that I would receive CBT for my phobias. The only ‘decision’ I’d made was to have this CBT online rather than one-to-one, so why I’d needed to be assessed, I had no idea. In retrospect, I suppose that the NHS waiting list for treatment is so long that an assessment is required to see if you’ve become a risk to yourself since the initial referral. If I’d wanted one-to-one treatment, I’d have had to wait another eight weeks. I have to say my heart went out to anyone who wanted to use this service who was really at the end of their tether. It would be enough to push you over the edge.

So I left the tropically heated ghost town behind me and returned home. A few days later I was invited to sign in to the service and having done so was instantly sent an online questionnaire to fill in that was essentially all the questions I’d been asked in the assessment. This was to ‘match me’ to a therapist, clearly not the young woman I’d met, who was also clearly not able to pass on the details I’d given her (though I should point out that she was very nice and doing the best she could under trying conditions). So this is the NHS: hobbled by administration, cumbersome and complex and slow, with the resources that make you think you’re living in a third world country. There must be better parts of it than I’ve seen this past week; here’s hoping I’ve just had a less-than-ideal experience.  I mean, my normal experience of therapy has been to ring up a therapist, have a chat on the phone and then make an appointment. That’s it. Well, I guess we’ll see what happens next.

What, then, to take from all of this? Well, I suppose I’d like to send a shout out to all those suffering from CFS for the Awareness Day because it’s a pig of a condition that still has a lingering stigma. But I’d like to to extend that greeting to anyone suffering from an ongoing chronic condition, who feels like they have exhausted the patience of their doctors, but who is anxious and fearful because managing life around ill health is all that can be done. Mr Litlove is one of the lucky ones. If you fall ill and it’s a passing thing, just a part of wellness as it were, then you are very lucky.  And if you are that lucky, don’t assume that other people who can’t do what you can do are lazy, morally weak or malingering. No one wants or chooses to be ill; it’s always distressing to experience. And finally, what on earth are we going to do about the NHS? Having come up close to it, I’m under the impression that its inner chronic fatigue is worse than mine.