Missing – Alison Moore

I was introduced to Alison Moore’s writing when her novel The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012. It’s been a while since I read it, and while I will need to revisit the novel to recall the basic plot point, I do remember being impressed at the skill she displayed in creating intriguing and compelling protagonists.

And it’s a feat she has accomplished in her latest offering – Missing – as well.

Missing
Salt Publishing Edition

They say when you lose someone, carrying on with daily routine is one way of coping, of blunting the sharp edges of pain.

That certainly seems to hold true for the main protagonist in this novel, Jessie Noon. When the book opens, we learn that Jessie is in her late forties, and living in Hawick, somewhere along the Scottish borders.

She lives alone with her dog and cat as companions, her second husband having walked out on her one day, leaving an enigmatic message in steam on the bathroom mirror.

Will left in the middle of winter, and now winter was coming again. At first, people had kept asking where he was, and she sometimes thought they asked in a way that made her sound responsible, as if she had been careless with him, or as if she might be keeping him trapped somewhere in the house. But after a while, word got around; he was known to have left, and people stopped asking about him. When Will had been gone for nine months, Jessie began using her own name again.

Jessie also has a son Paul from her first marriage. But relations have soured there too, although we are not told why. All we know is that Paul walked out of Jessie’s life even before she moved to her home in Hawick.

Jessie, meanwhile, is a freelance translator, and when she is not working or reading a biography on D.H. Lawrence, she is immersed in daily household chores which involve feeding the animals, gardening, cooking, doing laundry or taking the dog out for a walk.

And certain happenings in the spare room – noises, cracks in the windowpane and so on – convince her of the presence of a ghost. Is there really one, or is it just her imagination prompted by an early trauma?

but she thought about the fissures that had appeared in the house, as if it were succumbing to some pressure or force. She thought about her favourite glass, cracked, and her special mug, broken. She felt watched, and she did not feel forgiven.

There are two narrative threads in the novel. One is in the present, and this alternates with the other story thread set in 1985 when Jessie was in her late teens. That particular time period is significant because of a family tragedy that leaves a lasting scar on Jessie.

That’s as far as the basic plot goes.

What is amazing about the novel is the incredibly nuanced way in which Alison Moore has fleshed out Jessie’s character.

Jessie is a translator, for whom choosing the right words is probably a matter of life and death. But ironically, in her dealings with others, she displays a curious mix of uninhibitedness and lack of tact.

It is not deliberate though and her heart is in the right place; yet her inability to effectively communicate and lack of assertiveness lead to misunderstandings that are quite heartbreaking – we see this with her best friend Amy, her neighbor Isla and her son Alisdair and more importantly with her brother-in-law Gary.

Missing is also an examination of loneliness and alienation. As her life plays out, Jessie feels abandoned both literally and figuratively, it’s almost like she exists and doesn’t at the same time, and it’s the stability and comfort of her household chores that ultimately keeps her going.

The routine of Jessie’s days and weeks was much the same now as it had been during their marriage, as it had been before their marriage: she woke at fifteen minutes to seven, lay in bed until seven, and then got up, took a shower, made a cup of tea, ate fruit for breakfast.

There’s more here…

It had been necessary for her to find a new afternoon routine. After eating lunch at home, she did some cleaning. She went to the swimming pool at the leisure centre, where she ploughed up and down the pool, doing a punishing hour of crawl; or she went to a class, to aerobics or Zumba, something with thumping music.

At less than 200 pages, Alison Moore has composed a novel that is rich in the minute details of everyday routine while at the same time maintaining a tone that is suspenseful and an atmosphere that is unsettling.

The name of the novel – Missing – is quite apt signifying how events have unfolded in Jessie’s life. Friends, family members disappear from her life, and she loses things such as her favourite pair of turquoise earrings. There is a sense that Jessie could be on the verge of falling apart too, as if her sense of self is likely to crumble anytime.

As the novel progresses, and the author gradually and masterfully peels off the layers, Jessie emerges as a richly etched character and your heart just goes out to her.

It’s a superb novel. Highly recommended.

 

Basic Black With Pearls – Helen Weinzweig

My exposure to Canadian literature is rather limited. The only books I have read I think are by Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assassin, Cat’s Eye, Lady Oracle – all wonderful. But then Margaret Atwood is also rather well known outside of her country.

Sadly, many other Canadian authors are not. Helen Weinzweig is an author I had never heard of. So when NYRB Classics re-issued her novel Basic Black With Pearls, the title itself intrigued me.

The result? I thought the novel was brilliant, and is a dead cert to make my Best of the Year list.

Here’s why…

Basic Black with Pearls
NYRB Classics Edition

Basic Black With Pearls is arresting right from the first page and immediately hooks you in. The novel centres around Shirley, a married woman with kids, having an affair with another married man Coenraad.

When the novel opens, she is in an exotic city in the tropics on a secret rendezvous with Coenraad, as has been the case many times before.

Night comes as a surprise in the tropics. There is no twilight, no preparation for the disappearance of light. One moment the eyes must be protected from a merciless sun and the next, it seems, all forms vanish into the black night. I was sleepless in Tikal.

We learn that Coenraad is an international spy and works for a nebulous organization simply known as The Agency. Because of the clandestine nature of his work, their affair has to remain a secret at all costs. So they devise a complex code, known only to the two of them, by which they can communicate and decide on their next meeting – a code hidden in the pages of the National Geographic.

That’s not all. Being a spy, Coenraad is a natural in disguising himself, which means Shirley has to be alert to all possible clues pointing to his identity in whatever locales they are in. Meanwhile, Shirley has no illusions about herself admitting that she is an unremarkable, middle-aged woman. She always wears a basic black dress and a string of pearls (as in the title of the novel) to their meetings. And yet, she assumes the name of Lola Montez and when she is with her lover, she becomes vitalized and her persona undergoes a sea of change.

That’s the basic outline of the novel, all of which we learn in the first few pages.

Coenraad and Shirley carry on their affair in cities as exotic as Tikal, Tangier, Genoa, Marseilles, Rome to name a few. And although their time together is brief, it is suffused with a great deal of passion. To Shirley it is a rich life of travel, intrigue, adventure and meaning.

If all this gives the impression of an espionage novel with a straightforward plot, it is not. That would be describing it too simply and doing injustice to an incredibly multi-layered novel.

Now, things take an unexpected turn for Shirley when Coenraad, out of the blue, informs her that the next destination is going to be Toronto. It is a city that Shirley knows intimately but the last place she wants to go to. But meet Coenraad she feels she must, and off to Toronto she goes, albeit reluctantly.

What follows thereafter are long solitary walks through the city’s myriad streets, as she longingly searches for Coenraad afraid that she might have misinterpreted the clues.

It takes a great deal of energy to wait. Although I am quiet, I feel as if I were running all the while to a point in the distance, panting for breath. My entire being strains towards that moment when he will appear. Time is suspended; it goes on without me. And then, at the sight of him, in one split second, the waiting comes to an end: the clocks started their wild clacking, their hands race towards the time when he will go back out the door.

And that is one major theme of the novel – loneliness.  Shirley is lonely in her marriage, married to a man who is highly predictable in his ways, and does not really love her.

I was thinking particularly of Sundays at home when Zbigniew comes back from the stables, hangs up his riding crop beside the mantel-piece and settles in with the week’s newspapers.

In sharp contrast, Coenraad conjures up an image of a man with a vibrant personality.

When I see that stance of Coenraad’s all fears disappear: babies don’t die, cars don’t collide, planes fly on course, muzak is silenced, certitude reigns. That is how I always recognize my love: the way he stands, the way I feel.

But these trysts also have a price that she must pay; while her time with Coenraad is highly fulfilling, it also means that she has to deal with long waiting spells. And it is the waiting that can also many a time be quite lonely. It reaches its peak in Toronto –a city she knows like the back of her hand, and therefore there being no novel way for her to kill time.

It’s not all about Coenraad though. Her walks through Toronto also bring her face to face with many women whose stories of emotional imprisonment, suburban despair and impoverished immigrant experiences mirror her own.

The other major layer in this rich novel is the character of Shirley herself and her unique voice. This is where we realize that Weinzweig’s story is not just an espionage tale but something else entirely. This is Shirley’s narrative and it is through her that we get a glimpse of her inner world as she embarks on an erotic odyssey with Coenraad.

In fact, early on in the novel, it becomes vaguely apparent that things are not necessarily what they seem, and as the novel progresses the line between fact and fiction begins to get blurred. It all has the impact of disorienting the reader but in a highly compelling way.

There’s more. To me, Basic Black with Pearls is also a feminist novel because it gives an inkling (but not explicitly) of the limited roles for women in society and how the conventional roles of wife and mother are not something every woman wishes for. And it is also about a woman’s right to feel and express her desire (otherwise assumed to be only the man’s domain).

In fact, Shirley’s story, to a certain degree, also reminded me of Edna Pontellier, the protagonist in Kate Chopin’s wonderful, feminist novel The Awakening, and her yearning for an independent, creative life outside of marriage and motherhood. Another novel that comes to mind with a similar theme is Brian Moore’s excellent The Doctor’s Wife, all the more remarkable because it was authored by a man.

Helen Weinzweig’s writing is superb. Her prose is brisk, poetic and addictive. There is a surreal, dreamlike feel to it all that can be bewildering but is ultimately rewarding. And in Shirley, the author has wonderfully brought to life a complex, rich and an unforgettable character.

In a nutshell, Weinzweig has crafted an exquisite, haunting and poignant novel – leaving you in a daze, making you think a lot, long after you turn the final pages.

A note on the cover:

The covers of NYRB Classics are always top notch, but there is something about this one that caught my eye. The image is from the Canadian artist Michael Snow’s Walking Women series, and quite an apt one for this book.

It is also the image that captured Weinzweig’s imagination. Here’s what an interesting article in the Quill and Quire had to say:

When Weinzweig approached Anansi with an idea for her second book, about a middle-aged Toronto woman looking for coded signs from her lover in the pages of National Geographic, Polk admits he initially hesitated, but was intrigued by one of her influences: Michael Snow’s Walking Woman sculpture series. Weinzweig was moved by the concept of a one-dimensional woman moving nowhere. She told Polk, “That’s what I want to capture in prose.”

But she clearly did more than that, because her creation Shirley is anything but a one-dimensional woman.

An image from the same article – Michael Snow’s ‘Four’ from the Walking Woman series:

Four from the Walking Woman series
Michael Snow’s Walking Woman Series

 

The Expendable Man – Dorothy B. Hughes

If you are a film buff, you would have probably seen the 1950 film In a Lonely Place starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. Its classic, vintage noir fare and a film that has garnered accolades; Bogart’s performance in particular was considered to be his finest.

I have yet to see the movie. But what caught my eye was that it was based on a novel of the same name written by the author Dorothy B Hughes.

Typically, whenever there is a film adaptation of a book, I prefer reading the book first (there are exceptions to this self-imposed rule of course; Game of Thrones is one that comes to mind where I dived right into the TV series without having read the books).

In a Lonely Place was no exception. A couple of years ago, I read the book, and I loved it. Sometime in the future, sooner rather than later, I hope to view the film too.

The point is, I was so impressed by In a Lonely Place that I decided to pick up another of Hughes’ works and settled on The Expendable Man.

The Expendable Man
NYRB Classics Edition

This is going to be a short review simply because The Expendable Man is one of those novels where the less said the better.

When the novel opens, Hugh Denismore is on his way from Los Angeles to Phoenix, in his mother’s Cadillac, to attend a family wedding. We are in the desert region here, as the opening lines tell us…

Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the color of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing. But the pools and the rim of dark horizon were discerned only be conscious seeing, else the world was all sand, brown and tan and copper and pale beige. Even the sky at this moment was sand, reflection of the fading bronze of the sun.

While he is driving, Hugh glimpses a young woman sitting under a tree, possibly looking to hook a ride.

It looked as if there were someone resting under the tree. It couldn’t be possible, here, close to fifteen miles out of town. There wasn’t a car in sight in either direction, and there was no habitation of any sort in any direction. Yet it looked like a person’s shadow.

It was just that. The shadow, raised up from its haunches, waited for his car to approach. He knew better than to pick up a hitchhiker on the road; he’d known it long before the newspapers and script writers had implanted the danger in the public mind. Most assuredly he would not pick up anyone in this strange, deserted land.

His first instincts tell him to carry on, but the idea of leaving the woman there alone does not appeal to him either, and so he stops to drop her to her destination.

From the glimpse, a teen-age girl. Even as he slowed the car, he was against doing it. But her possible peril if left here alone forced his hand, He simply could not in conscience go on, leaving her abandoned, with twilight fallen and night quick to come. He had sisters as young as this.

At the outset the class distinction becomes clear. Hugh is a medical intern at a reputed college in LA. His family is highly respected, educated, and well to do. It’s a large close knit family with solid social connections. It would be fair to say that Hugh’s has been a privileged, comfortable life so far.

The complete opposite holds true for the young woman he picks up. Her family life seems dysfunctional with not much income. And she is rather brash and rude.

Throughout the ride, Hugh is rather uneasy and on the tenterhooks. One instance being when a car filled with kids passes him on the road.

In his rear-view mirror, he watched until it disappeared in the distance. Just for a moment, he had known fear. It might have been the same group which had hectored him in town. The trap might be sprung by his picking up the girl; they might swing about and come after him. Only when the car had disappeared from sight, did he relax and immediately feel the fool. It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumedly educated, civilized man.

Why is Hugh uncomfortable? What is he afraid of? At that point, we don’t know.

But, it is enough to prompt him to drop the girl at a bus station rather than all the way. And, he heaves a huge sigh of relief when she finally takes leave of him.

Or does she? Unfortunately for Hugh the matter does not end there. In fact, a violent crime takes place, and Hugh finds himself embroiled in it much against his wishes.

That’s the basic premise of the story.

But it is about a quarter into the novel, where things get really interesting. That is where author Dorothy Hughes expertly introduces a ‘twist’.

This twist is an eye-opener because it ultimately forms the core around which the novel revolves. It makes you go back and recollect what you have read so far. And it makes you question your assumptions and prejudices.

It’s really rather well done and takes the novel up a notch.

Besides this central premise, The Expendable Man is also a novel that examines class and wealth, and how having both does not always guarantee ‘safety’ as commonly perceived. It can be an illusion and an untoward event, in a single stroke, can simply destroy it.

Is that what happens to Hugh Denismore? Does he extricate himself from this sticky situation?

This is another solid, superb noir fare from Hughes’ pen.

Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz (tr. Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)

When it comes to translated literature, independent publisher Charco Press is the new kid on the block. But if the quality output it has churned out so far is anything to go by, one can safely say it is a publishing house worth watching out for.

Charco Press’ mission? To find outstanding contemporary Latin American literature and bring it to new readers in the English-speaking world.

And with this, I decided to try out one of their earlier releases – Die, My Love. This novel has already garnered rave reviews and shortlisted for book prizes and I am only happy to add to the praise.

So here goes…

Die, My Love
Charco Press Edition

Just like the eye-catching title Die, My Love is a raw, visceral tale of a woman struggling to adapt to motherhood and instead yearning for freedom.

But first, if you look at the author profile on the flap of the book, this is what it says:

Compared to Nathalie Sarraute and Virginia Woolf, Ariana Harwicz is one of the most radical figures in contemporary Argentinian literature. Her prose is characterized by its violence, eroticism, irony and criticism of the clichés surrounding the notions of the family and conventional relationships.

It is apparent in this novel too; from the opening lines which hit you right in the gut…

I lay back in the grass among fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular. Behind me, against the backdrop of a house somewhere between dilapidated and homely, I could hear the voices of my son and my husband. Both of them naked. Both of them splashing around in the blue paddling pool…I was a few steps away, hidden in the underbrush. Spying on them. How could a weak, perverse woman like me, someone who dreams of a knife in her hand, be the mother and wife of those two individuals?

Society assumes that every woman wants to be a mother or that motherhood naturally comes to every woman. But that does not necessarily have to be the case.

In the novel, the narrator is unnamed and we learn that becoming a mother was not something that she chose; rather motherhood was thrust upon her. And it is a role she struggles to conform to.

The tale is set in the bucolic French countryside although the exact location is not named. She feels like a foreigner in her surroundings and her erratic behavior only heightens her sense of not exactly fitting in.

Her role as a housewife bores her, and motherhood to her is a chore. Not only does she not want to embrace the responsibilities of being a mother, she also feels she is incapable of it.

She feels trapped and stifled, detesting conventional norms she feels forced to adhere to, dying to break out. But where will she run?

And if I want to leave my baby in the car when it’s forty degrees out with the heat index, I will. And don’t tell me it’s illegal. If I want to opt for illegality, if I want to become one of those women who go around freezing their fetuses, then I will. If I want to spend twenty years in jail or go on the run, then I won’t rule those possibilities out either.

But Harwicz’s protagonist does not withdraw into a shell. Rather, she is filled with rage and directs her violence outside.

They’ve been treating my cuts for several days now. I can’t see my whole body, but I’ve gotten them all over: on my shoulder blades, my chest, my belly, my neck.

Not content in the house, with a feeling of the walls closing in around her, most of the time she is outdoors, the vast expanse brimming with possibilities.

Then there is her husband. She does not have a high opinion of him either and finds faults in his actions. Though interestingly, the husband does not really abandon her despite their fights and puts up with her moods.

We’re one of those couples who mechanise the word ‘love’, who use it even when they despise each other.

And sometimes she wonders why…

So many healthy and beautiful women in the area, and he ended up falling for me. A nutcase. A foreigner. Someone beyond repair.

In all of this chaos, a mysterious motorcyclist emerges on the scene and embarks on an affair with the woman. Is this her way of craving for excitement?

Spellbound by a woman who wears flared skirts and spends her afternoons sprawled out like an amphibian on her lawn. I see her for as long as the slowest speed of my motorcycle allows. Those few fatal seconds. I think about her and heave with desire.

How is all of this going to turn out?

At 122 pages in the Charco Press edition Die, My Love is a short book that packs quite a punch. There is no plot per se and the drama is all internal. And even then, there is no real action in the traditional sense in the woman’s domestic surroundings – the action is all in her head; it’s her mind that’s all over the place.

Therefore, what makes this novel so unique is the narrative voice. It’s angry, violent, intense and scathing. The language is akin to a knife piercing your skin – provocative, and confrontational. And yet there is a poetic and lyrical feel to it too.

On one level, you could interpret this novel as an examination of postpartum depression, although that is just an inference and never explicitly stated.

Overall, Die, My Love is an immersive and rewarding experience, and not a novel one will forget anytime soon.

Indeed, as far as Harwicz’ writing is concerned, the blurb at the back of the book could not have put it better:

In a text that explores the destabilizing effect of passion and its absence, immersed in the psyche of a female protagonist always on the verge of madness, Harwicz moulds language, submitting it to her will in irreverent prose.

And that is why credit must also go Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff for superbly translating it.

The Wardrobe Mistress – Patrick McGrath

I was first introduced to Patrick McGrath’s writing when I read his well-known novel Asylum. It was an incredibly well written and well plotted novel focusing on an extra marital affair and the theme of obsession. What also made the novel so interesting was the narrative voice, which I will not discuss here, but will urge you to read that novel instead.

But clearly, Patrick McGrath was an author to watch out for and I was eager to read more of his work. Port Mungo followed, which was an immersive read too, with many of the traits that made Asylum so good.

After a long hiatus, it was time for me to try my hand at another McGrath, and I chose his latest offering – The Wardrobe Mistress.

Wardrobe Mistress
Hutchinson Edition

When the novel opens, the famous theatre actor Charlie Grice is dead. The funeral is attended by many of his friends and well-wishers. And of course, also present is his wife, Joan Grice (the wardrobe mistress of the title), and his daughter Vera Grice, who is also set to become an established actress in her own right.

We are in London, in 1947, just after the end of the Second World War. It is also one of those bitterly cold winters, and a time when England is struggling to rebuild from the ruins of the war.

We are introduced to Julius Glass, Vera’s husband, who was having an argument with Charlie Grice when the latter fell and died. Just what the bone of contention was, we don’t know.

Joan, meanwhile, is shown to be a well-known costume designer in the theatre world. She is grappling to come to terms with her grief. It does not help that her daughter Vera is prone to bouts of hysteria, and at such times Joan misses having Charlie around, to tell her what to do. Also, it seems that Vera and Julius Glass are having problems in their marriage.

That is one story thread in the novel.

We also get an inkling of the other thread early on in the novel – Germany has been defeated, but the fascism hasn’t entirely died away, even in England.

The Blackshirts that got banged up during the war under Regulation 18b – sympathy for enemy powers – they were back out on the streets.

They marched through the East End three abreast, they held public meetings, they papered walls with swastikas, spewed hatred like they’d never been gone, like there hadn’t even been a war, which they’d lost.

At first, Joan is a difficult character to pin down. She seems probably cold and distant?

We’ve heard Joan Grice called a beautiful woman. A striking-looking woman, certainly, and a formidable one. Her hair was black and without a thread of silver. She wore it pulled back with some severity from her face, the better, it was said, to come at the world like a scythe. As tall as her late husband and a slim woman, her face was pale and sculpted, with the chin carried high, the whole seeming forged from some hard white stone; the effect could be dramatic. But oh dear – we hate to say it – her teeth were horrible!

But then, about halfway through the novel, she stumbles upon Charlie’s secret and her world turns upside down. It is then that our sympathies shift towards her.

But before that happens, Joan finds solace in gin – Uncle Alcohol as she calls it – and an understudy called Frank Stone. That’s the third thread in the novel.

Frank Stone piques Joan’s interest because of his convincing portrayal as Malvolio in Twelfth Night. It is a part that Charlie Grice excelled in before his death, and Frank Stone has now replaced him. Stone effectively portrays ‘Charlie’s portrayal of Malvolio’, and that is why he comes alive as Charlie Grice to Joan. They begin an affair.

Joan, in the meanwhile, is hearing Charlie’s voice, and is also haunted by ghosts in his bedroom cupboard. Is this a woman who is deeply grieving or a woman who is slowly losing her mind?

Besides the character study of Joan, there are two aspects which make The Wardrobe Mistress compelling.

The first is McGrath’s superb portrayal of the theatre world – the rehearsals, the pressure before a performance, the ambition of the actors to get noticed, and the backstabbing to get ahead.

For instance, Frank Stone is cast in a minor role in the same play where Vera Grice is playing the lead. But he is eyeing any opportunity that will help him bag the male lead opposite Vera.

Then there is Vera herself. She is blossoming into an exciting actress, following her father’s footsteps. She is all set to play the lead role – that of the Duchess – in the dark and tragic play The Duchess of Malfi. But she is stressed, afraid of not doing a great job.

And yet, as the rehearsals progress, her confidence blooms. In the days leading to the opening night, McGrath wonderfully conveys the intensity and the anticipation is.

First…

She felt she possessed a charge of human passion like a fermenting spirit in a corked bottle which, once released would inebriate the world.

And then…

She’d entered what she recognized as the impatient period which occurred in the days before the first dress rehearsal when the role has been learned and the character so thoroughly assimilated that any delay is fraught with the risk of loss of vital energy.

Now with the Duchess she was impatient to step out of the wings and into the light and find herself at home and in control and in every fibre of her being so alert it was a kind of ecstasy, yes, acting was ecstasy when the work had been done, all the blind alleys gone down, all the wild risks taken, and she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that, yes, she had it!

The other interesting aspect of the novel is the narrative voice that McGrath employs. It is a choral ‘we’ (or first person plural, if you will), like in the ancient Greek plays.

We saw her in the pub around this time. We thought we should take her out, cheer her up. There were a few of us she knew, old friends… We knew what she was thinking about, it was Gricey, of course, who all that time had had a secret, and herself practically the only one who didn’t know it because nobody wanted to be the one to tell her. Well, why would we?

It is a bit tricky at first, but ultimately McGrath pulls it off.

Tragedy is clearly the dominant theme in the novel – either in ancient or today’s modern times. We have Joan and her grief over Charlie’s death, we have Vera herself acting in a tragic play, and then we have the ‘theatrical chorus’ narrative voice commonly displayed in Greek tragedies.

The Wardrobe Mistress then is a gripping theatre novel with the characters of Joan and Vera Grice coming alive on every page.

But there is a quibble. For this reader, while the depiction of theatre life was fascinating, the fascism angle didn’t quite work.

Although still not up there with the rather excellent Asylum, The Wardrobe Mistress is nevertheless a strong read.