All For Nothing – Walter Kempowski (tr. Anthea Bell)

All for Nothing was published in 2006 and was the last novel by Walter Kempowski, an author considered to be one of postwar Germany’s most acclaimed writers.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction in my NYRB Classics edition:

Kempowski used autobiographical material in his work from the very beginning of his literary career, believing his own experience might be a source of historical understanding.

Kempowski was fifteen years old when the Soviets began advancing toward East Prussia and desperate German refugees looked to escape on ships departing from the East Prussian coast. His father was killed in battle during the final days of the war. In 1948, in East Germany, Kempowski, his brother and their mother were arrested for espionage.

All for Nothing

All for Nothing is set in the winter of 1945 in East Prussia at a time when the Soviets are advancing upon Germany.

A German defeat is imminent and yet the war serves as a backdrop; it is the inhabitants of the Georgenhof estate – the von Globig family – who form the focal point of the novel.

The Georgenhof estate was not far from Mitkau, a small town in East Prussia, and now, in winter, the Georgenhof, surrounded by old oaks, lay in the landscape like a black island in a white sea.

The husband Eberhad is away, in Italy, but rumoured to be in a cushy job rather than fighting on the front line. Occasionally, he sends exotic wine, chocolates, tobacco which his wife Katharina stows away at the estate in a cubbyhole.

Katharina, meanwhile, is shown to be a placid beauty, always in a world of her own. She prefers to spend her time in the couple’s private apartment in the estate and read her books.

Anyone who ever spoke to Katharina found her a total blank. She had never heard of anything at all, she hadn’t even guessed at it. ‘She hasn’t the faintest idea,’ people said of her, ‘but she’s beautiful…very beautiful.’ She was the most striking person present at any social gathering, although she hardly ever said a word.

What else could you say about her? She shut herself up in her own rooms, and heaven only knew what she did there. She read a lot, or rather she made her way through a great many mediocre books.

Their twelve-year-old son Peter, is mostly left to his own devices. He is spared from joining the Hitler Youth because of a tonsil problem.

Katharina never spent a long time standing beside the boy. She left him alone, just as she herself liked to be.

The only practical member of the Georgenhof estate is Auntie, ‘a sinewy old spinster with a wart on her chin.’ She keeps the estate running and takes a hands-on-approach to situations. She is in charge of the Ukrainian maids in the kitchen – Sonya and Vera – as well as Vladimir, the Pole, who helps around in the estate.

Since Eberhard had become a special officer ‘in the field’, she made sure everything went smoothly at the Georgenhof. Nothing would have functioned without her. ‘Nothing’s easy,’ she would say, and with that attitude she ran the whole show.

The von Globigs largely appear to be cut off from reality. Their only way of getting a grasp of what is happening out in the world is through the myriad of people who pass through the estate. These are people seeking temporary refuge for a day or two, but always on their way to somewhere else.

These people are more in touch with the realities of the war. So they are surprised that a place like Georgenhof even exists; a place offering them wholesome food and drink and warm hospitality.

At the beginning there is a political economist who finds his way into the estate and is surprised at the luxurious existence of the von Globigs.

Silver? Fine china? The political economist was astonished to find all these precious things still in use, not hidden away long ago, or sent to Berlin or somewhere else. ‘Suppose the Russians come?’ And with all those foreigners just down the road.

Afterwards, many others halt at Georgenhof – a Nazi violinist, a dissident painter, a Baltic Baron, and so on.

Then there’s Drygalksi, a staunch Nazi, who distrusts the motives of the von Globigs believing that they need to be brought down a peg or two.

As the advance of the Soviets seems more real than ever, there is a growing sense of uncertainty in Georgenhof – should they adopt a wait and watch policy, or should they pack their belongings and be on their way?

Meanwhile, moments of the past insinuate upon the present at least where Katharina is concerned. Not involving herself in the present day to day affairs, Katharina’s thoughts keep shifting back to the past. A trip to a seaside town with Lothar Sarkander (mayor of Mitkau) when Eberhad is away in Berlin, is especially a recurring recollection and gives the impression that Katharina is unhappy in her marriage. We are also given a glimpse of Katharina’s daughter Elsie, who dies of yellow fever two years ago. But her room is kept intact the way it was.

While Katharina appears largely passive and content with her own privacy and thoughts, at a pivotal moment in the novel she is asked to undertake a task at the insistence of Pastor Brahms; a task that fills her with a daring sense of adventure. Even then, Katharina is clueless about the implications of what she has agreed to do.

At the same time, a persistent rumbling in the background only highlights the inevitability of the Soviets approaching. A slew of people with carts and trucks packed with belongings begin to flee towards the West. As the urgency mounts, the von Globigs cannot stay in isolation for long and are compelled into action.

At around 350 pages, Kempowski takes his time in fleshing out the characters and building up the drama and tension. There is a rhythmic, fable-like quality to his story telling that accentuates the solitary world of the von Globigs. Like the chorus in a piece of music, certain points are often repeated for greater effect throughout the novel. As the harsh realities of Soviet occupation force their way into the private lives of the von Globigs, Kempowsi chalks out their fates with compassion and grace.

All for Nothing then is an elegy to a lost world, a world that has disintegrated upon the intrusion of war. The last many chapters are particularly poignant as they highlight the difficulties that ordinary people face when the treat of enemy occupation is imminent – the nostalgia for a way of life that is surely lost, the extreme anxiety of being displaced, of fleeing, of leaving things behind, of venturing into the unknown.  Could it ever be the same again?

The first cartloads of old people arrived from Mitkau. They were being evacuated from the monastery. The old people were transported in open horse-drawn carts, sitting on straw [packed well round them. They were nodding their heads, as if in time to cheerful tunes played on a concertina. They had never thought they would have to go on the road again in their old age…

This was an excellent and absorbing novel. Highly recommended!

The New Yorker has published an interesting piece on this book and Walter Kempowski’s life here.



Blast from the Past – Best Books of 2011 (Part 1)

I am greatly enjoying writing these ‘Blast of the Past’ posts. At the start of June, I showcased my Best Books of 2010.

Now it’s time to focus on the next year. As I was perusing the novels I read in 2011, I realized what a super bumper year it was in terms of the number of amazing novels I read. Quite a few have already become firm all-time favourites.

I was introduced to many superb writers for the first time. I discovered the wonders of NYRB Classics. And I also read quite a few novels set in the boarding house.

I eventually wound up with a list of 22 books that I wanted to highlight. Not wanting to tone this down any further, I was not keen on dedicating one post to all of them either.

So I have broken the Best of 2011 list in two parts. This is Part One where I will focus on 11 books.

Best of 2011 (Part 1)

Amongst Women – John McGahern

Ireland is never short of incredible writers. And John McGahern that year was an absolute find. I started off with his most well-known and acclaimed novel, Amongst Women.

Amongst Women is a drama centred on patriarch and IRA veteran Moran and his dominance over his family. Here’s how it begins:

As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters.

When the novel begins, Moran’s family has gathered together to bolster his spirit in his twilight years. His family consists of his saintly wife, and three daughters, plus a son who is estranged. Steadily but surely, the novel rewinds to the past fleshing out the characters and events leading upto this moment. It quickly becomes apparent to the reader that Moran is a moody, unpredictable man, a tyrant in other words. But his relationship with his family is increasingly complex. On one hand, his oppressive actions take an emotional toll on them, and yet, they share a bond that is hard to dismiss.

Amongst Women is a quiet masterpiece. McGahern’s writing is eloquent and understated and yet the tension simmers in the dynamics between the cast.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – Brian Moore

Brian Moore is remarkable in his portrayal of women at moments of a crisis. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a prime example of this.

Judith Hearne is an unmarried woman of a certain age who has come down in society. With barely enough income, she is compelled to stay in a boarding house, stuck in a rut with people who are judgmental. The one outing she looks forward to every week is a tea invitation to the O’ Neills’ house every Sunday, in order to break the tedium of the other days. But while she enjoys the cakes and sherry, she is silently the object of ridicule in that home painted in scenes that are truly heartbreaking. To add to it all, Judith has a dark secret which will prove to be her undoing.

Judith Hearne is a marvelous book. It is a compelling depiction of the plight of women in their middle age who had neither the financials means nor the skills required to live a healthy, independent life. Moore’s writing is incredibly sensitive and astute, which ensures that the book is not a bleak, miserable read despite Judith’s heartbreaking plight.

Fifth Business – Robertson Davies

Fifth Business is the first book in the Deptford Trilogy, and it is a wonderfully absorbing read making me wonder why I never got around to reading the next two books in the trilogy. I need to correct that.

The story begins when Dunstan Ramsay is ten years old and living in Deptford. He and his best friend (and worst enemy) Percy Boyd Staunton have been sledding and have quarreled. On the way back to town Percy throws a snowball at Dunstan, who jumps aside. The snowball strikes passerby Mary Dempster, the pregnant wife of the town’s Baptist minister. The shock of the snowball hitting her head causes her to go into labour and deliver prematurely: the baby boy is Paul Dempster. It also means that the incident affects Mary Dempster’s mental faculties.

It is an accident that affects Ramsay greatly and he is tortured with feelings of guilt in subsequent years that refuse to go away. More importantly, it develops into an obsession prompting Ramsay to become an expert hagiologist (study of saints), take an interest in psychology and become enamoured by Mrs Dempster.

And I have barely scratched the surface of the novel here.

This is a rich novel boasting of an incredibly layered narrative and multiple plot points well executed. We are given a glimpse of rural Deptford, the high society life of Percy Boyd Staunton, the world of illusion and conjuring tricks (a theme that will continue in the subsequent books), and sprinklings of Jung and Freud. There is a lot of depth in character development making Fifth Business an absorbing and immersive read.

Light Years – James Salter

Light Years made me fall in love with James Salter’s writing. I have devoured most of his work since then barring his last novel All That Is.

From the blurb – “Nedra and Viri are a couple whose enviable life is centred on civilized pleasures, their children, a variety of friends, and days lived to the utmost, be it skating on a frozen river or summers by the sea. It is a world solidly built on matrimony, and its details – the one moment, one hour, one day – recapture everything. But fine cracks are beginning to spread through the shimmering surface…”

A marriage disintegrating is a theme that has been covered endlessly in literature. But Salter’s prose takes it to a whole new level. His writing is unique, lush and poetic. He crafts exquisite phrases that are second to none. It’s his ability to conjure up the essence of his characters and their situations in just a few sentences that really stand out.

The Shawl – Cynthia Ozick

The Shawl comprises a short story and a novella. The short story also called ‘The Shawl’ is barely eight pages. The rest of the book is the novella called ‘Rosa’.

‘The Shawl’ is a harrowing but powerful read based in a Nazi concentration camp. It begins with the mother Rosa walking with her baby Magda at her breast, and with her elder fourteen-year old daughter Stella. It is deathlessly cold. Rosa is using her shawl to cover Magda, a shawl which Stella longs for because she is freezing too. All are hungry and in great despair. And then a terrible incident occurs.

In ‘Rosa’, the mother of the same name, appears thirty years later, ‘a madwoman and a scavenger’ in a Miami hotel.

In both the stories, the shawl is a recurring motif that highlights the horror of the Holocaust and the unfillable emptiness of its aftermath. Powerful stuff.

Asylum – Patrick McGrath

What a wonderful novel by Patrick McGrath this turned out to be.

The deliciously named Stella Raphael is elegant, headstrong, and intelligent. She is married to Max Raphael, a psychiatrist, but quite staid and unimaginative. But then Max takes up a position in a maximum security mental hospital in the English countryside. There Stella becomes dangerously attracted to Edgar Stark who has been confined for murdering his wife.

To what extent will this impact Stella’s sanity and how will this affect those around her?

Asylum is superb and has everything – intense and hypnotic storytelling, great characters and an unreliable narrator. It’s claustrophobic but gripping and very well-written.

Stoner – John Williams

The re-issue of Stoner has become a hit with the result that it is well reviewed novel now.

This is the story of an ordinary, quiet and private man born in a simple rural family. Harbouring a passion for literature and language, he refuses to follow in his father’s footsteps choosing a life of professorship and study instead. This, then, is an account of both his personal and professional life.

Professionally, we learn of the crippling politics that mar university life and how Stoner is not spared from it either. Of his personal life, we are given a glimpse of his marriage to Edith, the subsequent unhappiness in this union accentuated by lack of communication, an awkwardness also present in his relationship with his daughter Grace. And then comes along a passionate affair which has ramifications for Stoner both professionally and personally.

I absolutely loved this novel and it remains one of my all-time favourites. John Williams’ writing is gorgeous and sensitive ultimately making the story of this ordinary man quite extraordinary. Recently, different viewpoints have emerged related to elements of misogyny in Stoner. But this is not something I noticed when reading the novel, and in no way marred my enjoyment of it.

The True Deceiver – Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson is reputed for her Moomin stories, but her novels are brilliant as well. The True Deceiver, in particular, won the Best Translated Book Award in 2011 and deservedly so.

As can be gauged from the title, deception – the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we tell others – is the focal point of this novel. Things are not necessarily what they seem.

Katri Kling is an outcast, and her only love and ambition is for her simpleminded younger brother left in her care. She does not care much for the white lies that sometimes form the foundation of social interaction.

Anna Aemalin is a successful illustrator of children’s books and lives alone in a large house. Even if aloof, she is well respected in the village.

Prompted by her ambition to ensure her brother’s security, Katri fakes a robbery of Anna’s house in order to make her afraid to live alone. In the process, she pushes her way into Anna’s service and confidence. But Anna is not necessarily the pushover that she is projected to be.

This is a marvelous, dark novel with enough tension to make it unpredictable and riveting. Another strong offering from the NYRB stable and a reminder that I must read more Tove Janssen.

The Slaves of Solitude – Patrick Hamilton

This is another brilliant boarding house novel.

The backdrop is England in the middle of World War II, a war that seems to show no signs of ending.

Meanwhile, the main setting is the boarding house located in the suburban town of Thames Lockdon. The central character is Miss Roach, a middle aged woman, who is renting a room in this boarding house run by Mrs Payne. Here on a daily basis she has to deal with mind numbing boredom and the bullying at the dinner table by the nasty Mr Thwaites.

Miss Roach is savvy and sensible but to escape from her drab surroundings, she starts going out drinking with a wayward American lieutenant, a relationship based on rather shaky grounds. And then comes along Miss Roach’s friend Vicki Kugelmann, whose presence makes the proceedings in the boarding house only livelier.

Hamilton is great at portraying London at the time of war, the great uncertainty permeating daily living, and the drab and dull existence of its inhabitants. And his depiction of the claustrophobic confines of a boarding house – the politics, the nastiness, the excruciating boredom – is spot on. In addition to this, there are also some wonderful comic scenes in the novel, all of which make The Slaves of Solitude a heady cocktail not to be missed.

Sexing the Cherry – Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is such a wonderful and assured writer. I have read just two – The Passion and Sexing the Cherry. Both are great and an excellent entry point into her oeuvre.

Sexing the Cherry is a dazzling and inventive novel that brims with fairy tales and history, dancing princesses and singing toads, at the centre of which is the mother Dog Woman and her boy Jordan.

Here’s the snippet from Wikipedia – Set in 17th century London, Sexing the Cherry is about the journeys of a mother, known as The Dog Woman, and her protégé, Jordan. They journey in a space-time flux: across the seas to find exotic fruits such as bananas and pineapples; and across time, with glimpses of “the present” and references to Charles I of England and Oliver Cromwell. The mother’s physical appearance is somewhat “grotesque”. She is a giant, wrapped in a skirt big enough to serve as a ship’s sail and strong enough to fling an elephant. Her son, however, is proud of her, as no other mother can hold a good dozen oranges in her mouth all at once. Ultimately, their journey is a journey in search of The Self.

I am not sure I can add more to this other than to urge you to read it.

Of Love and Hunger – Julian Maclaren-Ross

This is another one of my all-time favourites.

The central character is Richard Fanshawe who is struggling to lead a decent life. He has managed to secure a dreary job selling vaccum cleaners during the day. The nights he has to spend in a tedious boarding house under the watchful eyes of the landlady, Mrs Fellows.

Until one day, his friend Roper asks him to look after his wife Sukie when Roper has to go go away for three months to the sea. Fanshawe is unsure at first but as he interacts with her more, he finds himself falling in love with her.

In real life, Julian Maclaren Ross was considered to be quite the raconteur and even appeared as a character in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series. His story telling abilities are well in display in this novel; his writing is lyrical, slangy and crisp.

To quote from the blurb – Of Love and Hunger conjures up his world of smoky pubs, prying landladies, unpaid debts and seedy love-nests with brilliant wit and acuity.

That’s it as far as the first part is concerned. I will put up a Best of 2011 (Part 2) post in the coming days. Stay tuned!

The Wind That Lays Waste – Selva Almada (tr. Chris Andrews)

I am beginning to rely on Charco Press for interesting literature from Latin America. Already this year, I have read and loved two wonderful books – The German Room by Carla Maliandi and Fish Soup by Margarita Garcia Robayo.

Thus, when The Wind That Lays Waste was recently released, I was very eager to delve right into it. And I also thought that the cover was the most gorgeous of their books so far.

Wind that lays waste

The Wind That Lays Waste is set over the course of a day in a remote town in Argentina, somewhere in the Chaco region.

The novella (it’s slim at 114 pages) is centred on four characters – Reverend Pearson, a forceful Evangelical preacher who strongly believes in Christ, his sixteen year old sceptical daughter Leni, Gringo Brauer, a garage mechanic and his young assistant Tapioca, who is the same age as Leni.

Reverend Pearson and Leni are on their way to Pastor Zack’s home when their car breaks down. They have no choice but to take it to Gringo Brauer’s garage and wait while the car is getting fixed.

Gradually, the personalities of the four characters are revealed to us.

Reverend Pearson is passionate about his calling as a priest and is renowned for the power of his sermons. His mother and even his church mentor for that matter view his gift for preaching as a means to secure funds for the church, but for Reverend Pearson it is all about winning souls for Christ to purify.

Once again, he felt that he was an arrow burning with the flame of Christ. And the bow that is drawn to shoot that arrow as far as possible, straight to the spot where the flame will ignite a raging fire. And the wind that spreads the fire that will lay waste to the world with the love of Jesus.

Leni’s relationship with the Reverend is complicated. She resents that her father’s affection for her is not total; there is always Christ between them. She is also disdainful of her father’s belief in divine intervention at a time when having a practical view makes more sense. And yet despite these feelings, she admires and respects his charismatic preaching.

But that’s not all. Leni cannot forget that Pearson one day abandoned her mother and took Leni with him. It is something they have never spoken about since then but it hangs like a Damocles sword.

Her childhood was very recent, but her memory of it was empty. Thanks to her father, the Reverend Pearson, and his holy mission, all she could remember was the inside of the same old car, crummy rooms in hundreds of indistinguishable hotels, the features of dozens of children she never spent long enough with to miss when the time came to move on, and a mother whose face she could hardly recall.

Gringo Brauer is the opposite of Reverend Pearson. He is getting old and cynical and believes in the power of nature, in the power of the present. He has not much use for religion.

He had no time for lofty thoughts. Religion was for the women and the weak. Good and evil were everyday things, things in the world you could reach out and touch. Religion, in his view, was just a way of ignoring responsibilities. Hiding behind God, waiting to be saved, or blaming the Devil for the bad things you do.

He had taught Tapioca to respect the natural world. He believed in the forces of nature. But he had never mentioned God. He could see no reason to talk about something he thought irrelevant.

And then there is Tapioca. When he was a child his mother visited Gringo one day and left the child with him, claiming that Tapioca is Gringo’s son.

Tapioca, meanwhile, is an eager assistant; vulnerable, innocent and ripe for being influenced and molded by whomever takes him under their wing. Tapioca feels uncomfortable around revered Pearson but at the same time is fascinated and mesmerized by the preacher’s talk on Christ.

Eventually, as the weather worsens, and a storm is approaching, tensions between these four (or more precisely the two men) reach boiling point.

The Wind That Lays Waste is an intense and beautiful novella that can be read over the course of an afternoon. Almada’s storytelling is straightforward and spare. And her writing is languid and lyrical.

Her descriptive powers, when it comes to either nature or man-made surroundings, stand out. She is particularly great at evoking the stark landscape of Argentina.

She couldn’t remember a storm like this. Blue cracks flashed the sky, giving the landscape a ghostly look.

Five hundred yards away, in a field, lightning struck a tree, and the orange flames held out against the rain for a good long while.

It was a beautiful spectacle. Sometimes the curtain of water was so dense they couldn’t see the old petrol pump, although it was just a few yards away.

The one thing I was not sure about when beginning this novel was the extent of religious overtones. I am averse to books where religion is the focal point, but thankfully Almada manages to not make this novel preachy. All the characters’ viewpoints are presented and there is no indication that Almada prefers one view over the other. It is left for the reader to decide.

‘Are you a believer, Mr Brauer?’

The Gringo poured himself some more wine and lit another cigarette.

‘I don’t have time for that stuff.’

The Reverend smiled and held his gaze.

‘Well, I don’t have time for anything else.’

‘To each his own,’ said Brauer, getting up.

Overall, another strong offering from Charco Press!

Fish Soup – Margarita Garcia Robayo (tr. Charlotte Coombe)

Charco Press books have been the highlights of my reading so far this year. I had already loved and written about The German Room by Carla Maliandi.

And now it is Fish Soup by the Colombian author Margarita Garcia Robayo, another equally wonderful offering, from the same publisher.

Fish Soup

Fish Soup comprises two novellas ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’, and ‘Sexual Education’ as well a collection of seven tales titled ‘Worse Things’.

The opening lines of ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ hit you right in the gut.

Living by the sea is both good and bad for exactly the same reason: the world ends at the horizon. That is, the world never ends. And you always expect too much. At first, you hope everything you’re waiting for will arrive one day on a boat; then you realize nothing’s going to arrive and you’ll have to go looking for it instead. I hated my city because it was both really beautiful and really ugly, and I was somewhere in the middle. The middle was the worst place to be: hardly anyone made it out of the middle.

Our narrator is a woman, tired and self-aware, obsessed with escaping both her life and her country (Colombia).

She is emotionally detached from her family with not much respect for them. Her dad “was a pretty useless man. He spent his days trying to resolve trivial matters that he thought were of the utmost importance in order for the world to keep on turning.” Her mother “every day was involved in some family bust up.”

Stories of travel offer our narrator glimpses of hope, of running away and not coming back. There’s Gustavo, the local fisherman living in a shack by the sea, who enthralls her with his stories of travel. She keeps coming back to him even though “he stroked her down there with two fingers” when she was a young girl.

Even when she does fall in love with a man called Tony, there’s that cynical feeling that it’s not going to last.

Tony would cling to my back like a limpet, his arm around my waist, and whisper in my ear: one day we’ll get out of here. Me: we’ll always be here, waiting for a hurricane to come.

Escaping, leaving, getting out of the rut are feelings that permeate the consciousness of our narrator with the result that they form the focal point around which her relationships and even her profession is based.

She manages to find a job as an air hostess with an airline, even though Tony doesn’t like it. The route she is assigned to is Miami and even if it involves frequent visits to the same city, for her it is still a start.

Tony had a lot of ideas about air hostesses, but I had just one: air hostesses could leave.

An affair with the captain of the plane, not surprisingly, ends up nowhere like all her relationships. And there are moments of regret, of whether chances have passed her by and she failed to grab them or latch onto.

‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ is a beautiful novella. Despite the all-pervading cynicism, wariness and the tiredness, there is something lyrical and poetic about Robayo’s writing that makes it intense and absorbing.  It is a novella about the frailty of relationships, of missed chances and regret, of why travel may not always be the answer to everything.

The second novella that also packs quite a punch is ‘Sexual Education’. As the title suggests, this is a topic that is explored through the eyes of adolescents in a school which strictly preaches the doctrine of abstinence. However, what is taught at school is hardly what goes on outside its confines.

Here’s how it opens…

“In girls, just like in other fauna, moisture attracts all sorts of nasties.”

The characters that people this novella are part of the narrator’s inner circle of friends. There’s Dalia ‘a bad apple’ who doesn’t care about going to university, preferring to travel instead.

Others – me included – thought that backpacks and dreads and Latin American travels were an invention of poor people who liked to think they were bohemians. Dalia was not poor, but she smoked weed and that was enough to make her feel bohemian.

Then there’s Karina, a real devotee of Mary…

She had convinced everyone that the Virgin talked to her in her sleep and gave her instructions about how to behave at moments of moral conflict.

‘Sexual Education’ is essentially a novella that explores the existence of opposing forces side by side – sex and confronting desires as against celibacy and self-denial.

Between these two novellas, ‘Worse Things’ (a collection of seven short stories) is sandwiched. These stories examine frayed relationships, death and illness.

In ‘Like a Pariah’, Ines who is dying of cancer, refuses to have people fussing around her and insists to her son “I’m perfectly alright.”

In ‘Worse Things’, Titi, who suffers from a debilitating condition causing obesity, prefers staying in his room, engrossed in games.

In ‘Better than Me’, Orestes is trying to connect with his distant daughter Becky, sometime after his other daughter Rosa has committed suicide.

In ‘Fish Soup’, one of the stories, from which the overall title of the book has been taken, an old man is beset by the smell of overpowering fish soup. This is a strange tale in which the man’s dreams and reality merge making it disorienting to distinguish one from the other.

Overall, Fish Soup is a very strong collection, stimulating and refreshing despite the tiredness of the characters. Most are struggling to keep head above water and fight even if they perceive their circumstances to be bleak and meaningless.

The blurb at the back of my edition states:

Throughout the collection, Garcia Robayo’s signature style blends cynicism and beauty with a rich vein of dark humour. The prose is at once blunt and poetic as she delves into the lives of her characters, who simultaneously evoke sympathy and revulsion, challenging the reader’s loyalties throughout the remarkable universe that is Fish Soup.

Highly recommended!


The Juniper Tree – Barbara Comyns

Sadie Stein, in her introduction to the novel, states:

Among Comyns devotees, The Juniper Tree is divisive.

Having read only one Comyns (The Vet’s Daughter) prior to The Juniper Tree, I can’t really compare and comment.

But I loved The Juniper Tree, so I can certainly hope that her other novels will be just as good or even better.

Juniper Tree

The Juniper Tree is Barbara Comyns’ retelling of the macabre fairy tale of the same name. But of course, Comyns provides her own twist on it.

The book is narrated in the first person by the central female protagonist, Bella Winter.

Here’s how it opens…

Quite soon after I left Richmond station I turned into a quiet street where the snow was almost undisturbed and, climbing higher, I came to a road that appeared to be deserted. Then I noticed a beautiful fair woman standing in the courtyard outside her house like a statue, standing there so still. As I drew nearer I saw that her hands were moving. She was paring an apple out there in the snow and as I passed, looking at her out of the sides of my eyes, the knife slipped, and suddenly there was blood on the snow.

In the subsequent pages, it will become clear that this woman is none other than Gertrude who will play a significant role in how Bella’s life shapes up.

Meanwhile, in the same chapter, we learn that Bella is on her way to a job interview. Little by little in the first few chapters itself, Bella’s past is revealed to us.

We learn of her mother’s indifference towards her in her childhood and the strained relationship that they continue to have even well into Bella’s adulthood.

Bella had been a relationship with Stephen, a ‘mean’ man especially when it comes to money. Due to an accident, which is Stephen’s fault, Bella has a scar on her face, something which she is conscious of all the time and which disconcerts her greatly. Not surprisingly, the relationship ends.

Bella carries on. As she adapts to her new surroundings as a single woman again, in one of the parties, she ends up having a one night stand with a coloured man whose name she can’t recall. Bella subsequently becomes pregnant and her daughter is born whom she names Tommy or Marlinchen.

That’s her past.

In the present, Bella manages to find work in an antiques shop and also set up residence there with her daughter. Bella is good at her job, she loves her new abode. And after her struggles of the past, finally she appears to have found her peace and more importantly her independence.

Bella seems to be happy. And yet she is still beset by feelings of loneliness.

All of these developments take place fairly early, so you know that there is more to come.

Meanwhile, as I pointed out earlier, Bella and Gertrude Forbes (the beautiful young woman she comes acorss in the opening paragraph) strike up a friendship. The Forbes are wealthy with a comfortable home and gradually Bella becomes a regular part of their life.

There was a great feeling of love and happiness in the house, and a feeling of goodness too.

As I’d thought, Gertrude was of German origin but Bernard was English. Both were tall and very handsome, Gertrude really beautiful with a kind of radiance about her.

Gertrude’s husband Bernard takes to ‘improving’ Bella by trying to teach her things.

He lent me books on subjects I’d hardly been interested in before, botany for instance, and architecture. He seemed to enjoy stretching my rather ignorant mind.

This where things surely and steadily start getting ominous.

I won’t point out what happens, but a development takes place putting Bella in a position where she has to make a decision.

Those sections of the novel are riveting and unsettling all at once.

Comyns’ storytelling here is brilliant. The prose feels like a fairytale and the tone is light and delicate deceptively and cleverly blunting the impact of Bella’s hardships earlier on and the events that are about to unfold later. She superbly lulls the reader into a false sense of security and yet with a niggling thought that something might happen to threaten this. The elements of dread and unease that are sprinkled earlier on only gain intensity as the novel progresses.

Bella herself is a wonderful creation. She is frank and honest so as a reader you can’t help but feel for her. Her independence is her strength as she finds her vocation in selling antiques. She also manages to stand up to her mother, who is intolerant of Bella’s daughter earlier on because of her mixed race. But Bella is also naïve at least in the way she ingratiates herself with the Forbes.

The Juniper Tree was published in the 1980s. But it confronts and highlights the eternal issues and struggles that women have to grapple with even today – of trying to retain a sense of independence, and finding the balance between work and family.

I loved The Juniper Tree and Barbara Comyns has quickly turned out to be a writer I want to read more of. I had immensely liked the strangeness of The Vet’s Daughter when I read it some years ago. Next on the list are Who Was Changed, and Who Was Dead and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – both deliciously named titles, that have generally received great reviews.

Mini Milestone – 100 Books

Here’s a mini milestone on my blog since I started it a couple of years ago – 100 books discussed!

105, to be more precise.

Whether through detailed individual posts or through a couple of lines or paragraphs, it’s been a pleasure highlighting books that I have enjoyed reading all this time.

100 Books

For the most part, I have discussed one book in detail in a single post.

However, there are some which do not have dedicated entries, but are part of a post in which a group of books have been written about. The links for these group posts are as follows:

Blast from the Past – Best Books of 2010

Reading Bingo 2017

My Top 12 Books of 2017

The Best of 2016

For the dedicated book posts, scroll over to the bottom of the page to access the Archives section, authors and books classified by themes.

Happy reading!

Blast from the Past – Best Books of 2010

I started my blog in early March 2017 to discuss and write about books I had enjoyed reading. This has gradually evolved to become a very enjoyable activity as much as reading itself has been and will continue to be.

It also means there were several excellent books which I read pre-blog that I could not discuss unless I chose to re-read them. The problem is that I have so many books unread, it’s always a dilemma between re-reading a favourite or trying out something new.

Anyway, as I was deleting notes on an old phone, I came across some lists I had made – the best books I read every year.

The seed of an idea was born. Why not highlight these books on my blog?

This exercise was also a great reminder of some wonderful authors I had read and my resolve to seek out more of their works which somehow never came to fruition because there were always other books to tempt me.

I started making these lists from 2010, so that’s the year I will start with (the last of these being 2015, since the Best of 2016 was already the first ever post on this blog).

Also, I don’t intend to write a detailed view on any of these books. It is more of an attempt to bring them into focus once again and so the write-ups will be short.

So without much ado, here were my top reads in 2010…

Best of 2010

Bonjour Tristesse – Francoise Sagan

I loved this slim and stylish novella set in summer in the French Riviera. Cécile and her father Raymond are holidaying in the South of France on the coast. They lead a carefree, languorous and bohemian life – Cécile in particular is content to soak up the sun and laze with her boyfriend Cyril.

Until one day Anne arrives into their lives, eventually to become Raymond’s partner. Anne is cultured and intelligent and regards herself as a sort of godmother to Cécile. She tries to take Cécile under her wing, to compel her to stop seeing Cyril and get back to her schoolbooks, all of which agitates Cécile greatly and propels her to hatch a plan.

Haweswater – Sarah Hall

I love Sarah Hall. Haweswater was the first novel of hers that I read and I was blown away by it. The book is set in the beautiful Lakes District in England.

Here’s the blurb:

The village of Marsdale is a quiet corner of the world, cradled in a remote dale in England’s lovely Lake District. The rhythm of life in the deeply religious, sheltered community has not changed for centuries. But in 1936, when Waterworks representative Jack Ligget from industrial Manchester arrives with plans to build a new reservoir, he brings the much feared threat of impending change to this bucolic hamlet. 

Jack then begins a passionate affair with one of the residents of that village Janet Lightburn and it is in the depiction of this relationship where Sarah Hall has excelled. Her writing is so spiky, raw and visceral and it was unlike anything I had read at the time.

The Good Doctor – Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut was a find that year as I gulped down three novels in quick succession.

The Good Doctor is a taut, lean and compelling novel set in post-Apartheid South Africa that essentially focuses on two main characters – Frank Eloff and Laurence Waters, two doctors of different personalities and opposing perspectives, who are now thrown together in the same hospital and are also sharing a room. The novel charts the actions of these men as they respond to the challenges that they face in the hospital as well as in the community in their own ways, each with a varied view on what is moral or ethical.

The Impostor – Damon Galgut

The Impostor is another superb offering from Galgut and even better than The Good Doctor.

When Adam moves into an abandoned house on the dusty edge of the town, he is hoping to recover from the loss of his job and his home in the city. But then he meets Channing – a mysterious and shadowy figure from his past – along with Channing’s enigmatic wife.

Greed and corruption in South African society is at the centre of this novel. Galgut’s prose is top notch – spare, lyrical and absorbing. There is a sinister air that pervades the novel that is both unsettling and thrilling at the same time.

In A Strange Room – Damon Galgut

In A Strange Room is a completely different beast from both The Good Doctor and The Impostor but incredible in its own way. This is a more reflective and quiet novel which explores the themes of travel and relationships and what they entail – does travel give the much desired freedom or does it intensify feelings of loneliness?

The novel is told in three parts – the only link being the narrator who is Galgut himself. Besides the beautiful writing, what impressed me was the ease with which Galgut was able to move between first and third person in a single sentence. It’s a credit to the quality of his prose that instead of confusing the reader, this ploy actually enhanced the effect of what he wanted to convey.

Any Human Heart – William Boyd

This is a wonderful, ambitious novel by Boyd told in the form of diary entries of a single man’s life against a landscape spanning the twentieth century in many continents – the Bloomsbury set, the General Strike, the Spanish Civil War, 1930s Americans in Paris, wartime espionage, and New York avant garde art. The central character is Logan Mountstuart and he chronicles his life from his early childhood in Montevideo, through his years at a Norfolk public school and Oxford, tracing his haphazard development as a writer.

We learn of his successes, his failures, his marriages and his alcoholism, with 20th century events serving as the backdrop and a richly etched supporting cast.

The Fall – Simon Mawer

I had loved Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize earlier, and was therefore keen to try more of his work.

The Fall in set in Wales.  Jim Matthewson, one of the great climbers of the modern era, has died in one of his mountaineering expeditions. His old professional partner Rob Dewar attends the funeral and the inquest, and gradually begins a relationship with Jim’s wife Ruth. That’s the present. The novel then goes back to the past highlighting the lives of Rob and Jim’s parents, and the impact it will have on the younger generation.

While the splendor of nature and obsession with mountaineering are wonderfully evoked by Mawer, this is also a novel of friendship and family secrets, the crux of which is revealed in the final pages.

The Way We Live Now – Anthony Trollope

The first and the only Trollope I have read till now. This is one of his standalone works and not part of either the Barchester or the Palliser series.

This is a richly layered novel with many sub plots. But what impressed me at the time was how prescient the novel was. Trollope penned this inspired by the financial scandals of the 1870s. And I delved into it just when the crippling effects of global financial crisis of 2008-09 were still playing out. In essence, The Way We Live Now is a satire on the greed and corruption that seeped into the moral fabric of the society at the time. The most notable creation was Augustus Melmotte, a wealthy financier with a mysterious past.

Stone’s Fall – Iain Pears

An Instance of the Fingerpost was a favourite of mine many moons ago and Iain Pears’ Stone’s Fall did not disappoint either.

This is an ambitious novel comprising three sections that move backwards from Edwardian London (early 1900s) to Paris in 1890 and finally to Venice in 1867, in search not only of the reasons for Stone’s death but of the man himself. Also, every section is told from a different point of view.

As I recall, of the three, the Paris and the Venice sections were the most absorbing for different reasons. The Paris story was peppered with enough tension and drama exploring the worlds of banking and financial management, as also wonderfully evoking the atmosphere of intellectual salons.

The Venice section was more melancholy but no less gripping. Here, Pears has superbly conjured the rot and decay of Venice – of not just its grand palazzos but also of its people. All of this ultimately culminates into a satisfying end to Stone’s saga.

Sacred Hunger – Barry Unsworth

Sacred Hunger was the joint winner of the Booker Prize along with The English Patient. But while the latter went on to garner accolades even to be made into an acclaimed film, Sacred Hunger comparatively sank into oblivion.

Here’s an excerpt of the book from Wikipedia:

The story is set in the mid-18th century and centres on the Liverpool Merchant, a slave ship employed in the triangular trade, a central trade route in the Atlantic slave trade. The two main characters are cousins Erasmus Kemp, son of a wealthy merchant from Lancashire and Matthew Paris, a physician and scientist who losing everything that he loves decides to go on the voyage. The novel’s central theme is greed, with the subject of slavery being a primary medium for exploring the issue. The story line has a very extensive cast of characters, some featuring in only one scene, others continually developed throughout the story, but most described in intricate detail.

This was a richly layered tale, which besides the themes of slavery and vengeance, also explored the topics of mutiny and setting up a utopian society.

And that’s it for 2010. Next month, I will highlight the best books I read in 2011.


Tentacle – Rita Indiana (tr. Achy Obejas)

A quick glance at author Rita Indiana’s profile shows that she is a Dominican music composer, producer and key figure in contemporary Caribbean literature. It also tells us that her novel Tentacle has already won a prestigious prize.

Now translated into English by Achy Obejas and published by the wonderful And Other Stories (through whom I discovered one of my favourite authors Deborah Levy), both the cover and the blurb were enticing enough to catch my eye. Well then, what about the content within the pages?

It was excellent.

Here’s why…


When the book opens we are in the future in 2027 in Santo Domingo the Dominican Republic. Acilde, the central character in the book, is working as a maid in Esther Escudero’s house.

It soon becomes apparent that we are in some kind of post-apocalyptic world with an environmental disaster having occurred much earlier. A virus has plagued the other part of the island, and Esther’s house has a mechanism by which anyone infected by the virus can be detected and shot down.

Recognizing the virus in the black man, the security mechanism in the tower releases a lethal gas and simultaneously informs the neighbors, who will avoid the building’s entrance until the automatic collectors patrolling the streets and avenues pick up the body and disintegrate it.

Acilde, meanwhile, was not always a maid. She was a prostitute at the El Mirador with a body like that of a fifteen year old boy. That’s how she meets Eric – Esther’s right hand man.

Eric convinces Acilde to work in Esther’s house as a maid in return for which she will get the opportunity to attend culinary school.

But Acilde has a greater desire – to transition into a man. At first she discovers a valuable sea anemone in one of Esther’s rooms (valuable because all other marine creatures have been destroyed in an environmental catastrophe). Her initial plan – to steal and sell the anemone, the proceeds of which she would use to buy Rainbow Brite. This is a drug that allows sex change without surgery.

But she changes her mind. Subsequent events compel Acilde to flee Esther’s although Eric later secures the Rainbow Brite and helps Acilde in her transformation into a man.

All of this pretty much takes place in the first chapter.

In the alternating chapter, the first of which is deliciously titled ‘Psychic Goya’, the focus shifts to Argenis, a budding artist, who soon realizes that the classic art school in which he studied has not much use when it comes to contemporary art.

At the School of Fine Arts, a public institution with a budget even smaller than the local barbershop’s, the professors – for whom there was no art after Picasso – were proud of Argenis’ technical expertise and Catholic themes and predicted a successful and prosperous future for him.

But when he finished at the School of Fine Arts and got his father to send him to the School of Design at Altos de Chavon, it was a different story. His fluency with perspective and proportion wasn’t worth a dime. His classmates were rich kids with Macs and digital cameras who talked about Fluxus, video art, video action, and contemporary art.

Down on luck, and fired from his job (communicating tarot readings over the telephone), Argenis is recruited by Giorgio Menicucci and his wife Linda for their Sosua project to raise funds and repopulate the sea with marine life.

Argenis, meanwhile, is the archetypal misogynist with dreams of sleeping with Linda, not to mention harbouring thoughts bordering on racism.

On an expedition, Argenis gets stung by a sea anemone. This leads to a situation where he is leading two lives – one in Giorgio’s house as part of the group of other artists also enlisted for the project, and the other way back in the 1600s as part of a band of buccaneers skinning hides.

The stories of Acilde and Argenis alternate between chapters and then the two very cleverly merge.

Acilde, now a man, is also leading several lives, all part of the grand plan to rebuild marine life and save the environment. But while, Acilde is able to effortlessly move between his various selves, Argenis is driven mad by them.

All these ingredients make Tentacle a very potent read. The book is just 130 pages, but it’s a hybrid of time travel, art, sex and politics all which Rita Indiana seamlessly and with great imagination mixes together to create a heady brew.

The obvious themes are the fluidity of gender, and the impact of environmental disasters. But Indiana also manages to throw in others such as the place of art in the world and the perception of contemporary art.

Despite the strangeness of the overall tale, within its confines, the story has a rationality and lucidity that is unmistakable.  Moreover, Indiana’s prose is vibrant with enough chutzpah to drive the narrative forward.

Overall, this was a wonderful read and one that is a strong contender for my Best of the Year list.


The Spoilt City (Vol. 2 of The Balkan Trilogy) – Olivia Manning

Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy has been one of my reading highlights so far this year and is sure to make my Best of 2019 list.

Although I finished reading the trilogy in February, I have lagged in posting reviews of them.

I had already written about the first book in the trilogy called The Great Fortune.

The second book – The Spoilt City – takes off from where the first book ends.

Balkan 2

Guy and Harriet Pringle are now settled in their flat in Bucharest. But they are not alone. Yakimov, who had installed himself in their flat in the first novel, is still living with them, a fact that irritates Harriet greatly.

The problem is that Guy whose basic nature revolves around befriending people is not inclined in giving him the boot, and when it comes down to it, Harriet realizes that she does not have the heart to do so either.

So Yakimov stays on. And his craving for rich food and drinks only gets more intense even as his finances deteriorate, and the political and economic environment in Bucharest starts getting worse.

Meanwhile, there is another guest who is installed in the Pringles’ flat. But he is in hiding, and even Yakimov is not aware of it at the time.

On a broader scale, Germany’s advance in Europe gains ground. Romania decides to ally itself, albeit reluctantly with the Germans. But it’s hardly hunky dory. A key Romanian region, Transylvania – is annexed by the Hungarians, and while Romania seethes, it still kowtows to Germany which rationalizes these developments saying it’s for the greater good.

Over the course of the novel, more such Romanian regions are annexed – all for a greater cause as highlighted by Germany. But it angers the Romanian people and so looking for someone to blame, increase their cries for the abdication of the King.

Against this political backdrop, the private lives of the Pringles and their friends and acquaintances play out.

As was the case in the first novel, the Pringles’ marriage continues to remain the centre of focus in the second book too.

As the war picks up pace and the scenario gets incredibly tense and uncertain, the position of the English people in the city becomes all the more precarious. Especially when the calls for the abdication of the King gather momentum – he was a King whom the British supported.

She began to think of England and their last sight of the looped white cliffs, the washed white and blue of the sky, the sea glittering and chopped by the wind. They should have been stirred by the sight, full of regrets, but they had turned their backs on it, excited by change and their coming life together. Guy had said they would return home for Christmas. Asked how they took life, they would have said: ‘any way it comes.’ Chance and uncertainty were part of it. The last thing she would have wanted for them was a settled life lived peaceably in one town. Now her attitude had changed. She had begun to long for safety.

At a time when many of the people begin to leave, Guy insists on staying on which frustrates Harriet. Guy is intent on keeping the summer school open even when the number of students attending his classes dwindles substantially.

There are many more points about Guy that continue to irritate Harriet, although by now she is used to his personality. Although Guy’s basic nature of gregariousness, accepting anyone into his circle does not really change, Harriet begins to view him in a different light, compared to how she looked upon their situation in the earlier novel.

She is beginning to get a hang of Guy’s motives and what drives him although she does not always necessarily agree with it. Guy continues to not give Harriet the attention that she expects as a married couple.

Becoming conditioned to Guy’s preoccupation, she was learning the resort of her own reflections. With him, in any case, talk was too general for intimacy. He despised the metaphysical and the personal. He did not gossip. She was beginning to believe that what he had lacked was a fundamental interest in the individual – a belief that would astonish him were she to accuse him. But she did not accuse him. Once she believed that finding him, she had found everything; now she was not so sure. But here they were wrecked together on the edge of Europe as on an island and she was learning to keep her thoughts to herself.

Towards the end, however, for once Guy decides to put Harriet’s interest above his when things in Bucharest reach a head and they have no choice but to evacuate.

Once again, Olivia Manning has done a marvelous job of depicting a city on the brink of a war, the great amount of uncertainty in people’s lives, and yet the belief that maybe, just maybe the war will not reach them. Not just its people, the city itself is decaying.

Rumania then had been sleek and prosperous, a land of plenty. Even this café, one of the cheapest, had given plates of olives, cheese and gherkins when one bought a glass of wine. Now those things were scarce. She seemed to remember the water, beneath its haze of heat, as translucent as crystal. Now it smelt of weed. The crusted surf round the café held captive floating bottles, orange-peel, match boxes and paper bags. As for the café itself, it reflected in its grayish weathered timbers, its crippled chairs, its dirty table papers, the decay of the whole country.

She’s also adept at highlighting the shifting loyalties during such times. For instance, in the first volume Harriet and Bella become good friends, at a time when Romania considered England its ally and the English were treated with respect in Bucharest.

That changes in the second novel. With the cry for the abdication of the King getting louder, the English who had supported the King, also find themselves at the receiving end. And this spills over to ordinary friendships too. Bella is now afraid of being seen pally with Harriet publicly. Harriet, intelligent and perceptive, is of course quick to adapt to this changed reality.

The same cannot be said for Yakimov though. Yakimov is naïve enough to assume that war has no impact on friendships forged before its outbreak. That particular section in the novel is quite harrowing when he turns to an old German friend for help, who is now a high ranked officer in the Nazi party. His meeting with him and the outcome thereafter, while riveting, was laced with dread.

In the meanwhile, some more English characters come into play including Professor Pinkrose, and as events in Bucharest begin to reach boiling point, things come to head forcing all the English including the Pringles into action.

All in all, Vol. 2 of The Balkan Trilogy was compelling and absorbing paving the way for events to unfold in the third volume.

The Spoilt City






The Ivory Grin, The Barbarous Coast & The Doomsters – Ross Macdonald

I can easily say that I have become something of a Ross Macdonald addict. The first book in the Lew Archer series that I read and was impressed by was The Way Some People Die (the third in the Lew Archer series). That novel was great in terms of plot, superb characterization, and in the evocation of California.

It was my intention to stick to the order in the series, although that is strictly not necessary. However, on a short trip to London some years ago, I bought Archer #13 called Black Money and couldn’t resist delving right into it. I learnt that it Macdonald considered that book his finest achievement, and I agree that Black Money was brilliant. I also learnt later that in some way it was a retelling of The Great Gatsby, a novel Macdonald had a high opinion of, although that was a connect I did not make at the time.

I needed some comfort reads for the month and Macdonald fit the bill perfectly. I ended up reading three this time, and stuck more or less to the order.

Here, I have decided to post short write-ups for each in a single post rather than go in for a lengthy review of the three separately.

So here goes…


The Ivory Grin

This is the fourth novel in the Lew Archer series.

In The Ivory Grin, private detective Lew Archer is paid a visit by a tough woman who calls herself Una Larkin. Una wants Archer to trace her maid Lucy who used to work at her place.

Archer’s immediate instincts are that he is being taken for a ride as Una concocts a cock-and-bull story of why she wants Lucy tailed.

Una refuses to divulge her motives but eventually Archer becomes curious enough to accept the assignment.

Archer follows Lucy into Bella City, a run-down place filled with desolate houses, ramshackle factories, restaurants and cheap motels. It is a place with a clear divide between the affluent and the low income groups.

Main Street was loud and shiny with noon traffic moving bumper to bumper. I turned left on East Hidalgo Street and found a parking space in the first block. Housewives black, brown, and sallow were hugging parcels and pushing shopping carts on the sidewalk. Above them a ramshackle house, with paired front windows like eyes demented by earthquake memories, advertised Rooms for Transients on one side, Palm Reading on the other. A couple of Mexican children, boy and girl, strolled by hand in hand in a timeless noon on their way to an early marriage.

Archer tails Lucy but she is murdered and Archer finds a newspaper clip in her motel room announcing a US$ 5,000 reward for any person who comes forward with information on the whereabouts of a wealthy widow’s son Charles Singleton.

Clearly, these two cases are connected and Lew Archer makes it his mission to find out how.

Meanwhile, Lucy’s boyfriend Alex is arrested for her murder although Archer is not fully convinced.

There are also many characters enter the fray, but one of the most notable is Inspector Brake who is all too keen to arrest Alex and has many sharp exchanges with Archer.

The Ivory Grin is superbly plotted. It is a tale of fear and money and is tightly woven. The dialogue crackles.

Macdonald is also great in his descriptions and evocation of a small time town such as Bella City – the physical and wretched character or lack of character of such places and the pronounced divide between the people based on money and social standing. And the various characters peppered throughout the novel are also richly drawn.

Plus, Lew Archer is a wonderful creation as a detective. What is fascinating is that we don’t know much about him but enough to gauge that he is world weary but compassionate and a man who listens. He is the lens through whom the other characters, who occupy the centrestage, are filtered.

The Barbarous Coast

This is the sixth novel in the Lew Archer series.

Once again, Macdonald has written a complex plot and this time the spotlight is on Hollywood.

Archer is summoned by Clarence Bassett, the manager of an exclusive country club for the wealthy. While he is entering the club he notices a young and hot-tempered man having an altercation with the guard Tony Torres.

Bassett wants Archer to locate the whereabouts of Hester Campbell, a star diver at the club, who is now missing. The hotheaded young man, in the meanwhile, is Hester’s husband from Canada who accuses Bassett of having an affair with her.

Archer subsequently learns that Hester is somehow mixed up with the ‘mob’ and is with Lance Leonard – Tony Torres’ nephew. Tony Torres, a retired boxer, had taken Lance under his wing and trained him as a boxer, before Lance gives him the boot.

The deeper Archer investigates, he realizes that a lot of the developments are somehow tied up to the murder of another young woman Gabrielle Torres a couple of years – a case which never got solved. Gabrielle was also Hester’s good friend.

In addition to this characters, we are introduced to many more – Simon Graff who is a successful filmmaker and a resident of the country club, his wife Isobel Graff, and some mobsters Leroy Frost and Carl Stern.

That’s the basic outline of the plot.

In typical Macdonald style, there are various threads that are woven together to form a complex story. Having said that, while this is still a solid novel, it was not as strong as The Ivory Grin. At one point it felt that there were too many characters and the story sagged a bit especially in the middle. But all in all this was a worthwhile read and I have yet to come across a Macdonald that hasn’t worked.

The writing remains as sharp as ever though…Here is Archer describing Isobel Graff…

A taste of whiskey had changed her mood, as a touch of acid will change the color of blue litmus paper.

And then sometime later, here’s an exchange…

“You are joking. You must want money. You work for money, don’t you?”

“I want it very badly,” I said. “But I can’t take this money. It wouldn’t belong to me, I would belong to it. It would expect me to do things, and I would have to do them.” 

The Doomsters

The Doomsters is the seventh novel in the Lew Archer series and in a way significant because it is this novel where Macdonald departs from the influence of Chandler and Hammett. In terms of the themes and psychological depth, it certainly felt different from The Ivory Grin and The Barbarous Coast.

One morning Archer gets a visit from Carl Hallman, a man in his thirties. We soon learn that Carl has escaped from a mental asylum where he claims he was committed by his family against his wishes. Carl is not the only one who has escaped though. The other man to flee with him is heroin addict Tom Rica, whom Archer had mentored many years ago.

Carl’s mother committed suicide many years ago, and soon after his father dies of a heart attack the same evening that he had a vicious quarrel with him, his brother Jerry also being present at the time.

His behaviour is what convinces Jerry to confine him in an asylum and he forces Carl’s wife Mildred to sign the papers.

The beginning of this Hallman family history is narrated to us through Carl while in conversation with Archer. Meanwhile, Archer is of the view that Carl needs to go back to the hospital first, and he would carry out the investigation on his behalf outside. Archer even drives him to the hospital but before that Carl manages to hoodwink Archer, steal his car and flee.

We learn that Carl has been spotted on the Hallman family ranch with a gun. It’s the same ranch where his brother Jerry and his wife Zinnie reside. Since, the parents are dead, Jerry and Zinnie stand to gain from the estate.

We also learn that Carl’s wife Mildred is the only one who believes in him and ready to defend him no matter what.

Soon another Hallman is murdered, and the blame for it falls on Carl who is still in hiding.

Archer is convinced that Carl is not the suspect, and sets out to find out how the recent murder is linked to Carl’s parents’ death many years ago. In the process, many skeletons in the Hallman closet begin to tumble out.

That is the bare outline of the story.

It is this novel where Archer’s role also evolves. He is not only a private investigator but also akin to a therapist, always listening but not immediately ready to judge. He understands that there is never a stark black and while, but in fact several shades of grey when it comes to a person’s personality.

In that sense, it is probably more Freudian in tone and plot as compared to his earlier novels, and marks the turning point, as I understand it, in terms of psychological depth, insight and the notion of deep family secrets – themes that recur in the later novels as well.

I was an ex-cop, and the words came hard. I had to say them, though, if I didn’t want to be stuck for the rest of my life with the old black-and-white picture, the idea that there were just good people and bad people, and everything would be hunky-dory if the good people locked up the bad ones or wiped them out with small personalized nuclear weapons.

I’ll end with another quote…

We passed a small-boat harbor, gleaming white on blue, and a long pier draped with fishermen. Everything was as pretty as a postcard. The trouble with you, I said to myself: you’re always turning over the postcards and reading the messages on the underside. Written in invisible ink, in blood, in tears, with a black border around them, with postage due, unsigned, or signed with a thumbprint.

The Doomsters was another excellent novel in the Lew Archer series and I look forward to the next one in line – The Galton Case – which has touted as one of his best.