A Month of Reading – July 2022

July was a great month of reading in terms of quality; an excellent novella, a terrific short story collection, and two impressive crime novels. And of course, the sixth book from Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – Deadlock – for #PilgrimageTogether.  

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first four you can click on the links.

MAUD MARTHA by Gwendolyn Brooks

First released in the US in 1953, Maud Martha is the only novel published by Gwendolyn Brooks, a Pulitzer-prize winning poet. It’s a striking and evocative portrayal of black womanhood in 1940s Chicago told with poetic grace and intensity.

Composed of 34 vignettes, sometimes bite-sized, sometimes running into not more than four pages, these mini-portraits build up to beautifully convey not only the experiences and dreams of the titular character but also the broader aspirations of her community and the difficulty in attaining them due to class and race barriers. 

Maud Martha lives life on her own terms, and refuses to let regrets, disillusionments and the cruelty of racism bog her down. It’s her refusal to let ways of society always dictate her actions that is testament to her spirit and individuality and gives the novella its power.

TIME: THE PRESENT SELECTED STORIES by Tess Slesinger

Time: The Present is a superb collection of 19 stories exploring marriage, relationships, unemployment and class differences  where Tess Slesinger displays the kind of psychological acuity that make them so distinct and memorable.

Most of these stories were published in the 1930s in various journals and publications and capture the great turmoil of the period; a country grappling with the Great Depression and its crippling, sobering consequences on everyday living as well as the grim prospect of the Second World War looming large.

Some examples – “The Friedmans’ Annie” is superb and poignant, a terrific portrayal of the internal drama of a woman and an incisive tale of class differences and manipulation, while Slesinger’s flair for sarcasm and sharp, biting observations are on full display in the piece “Jobs in the Sky.” “Ben Grader Makes a Call” explores the psychological consequences of unemployment on a relationship, while “Missis Flinders” is a scalpel-like, hard-hitting tale of an abortion, the emotional burden of which sets in motion the unraveling of a marriage.

What’s remarkable about Time: The Present is the sheer variety of themes on display marked by Slesinger’s grasp on a wide range of subjects. At once astute, razor-sharp, gut-wrenching, tragic, perceptive and wise, Time: The Present is a magnificent collection, one that definitely deserves to be better known.

SUNBURN by Laura Lippman

Sunburn takes its name from the opening scene in the novel. Adam Bosk is drinking at the bar of a rundown motel called High-Ho in the equally dead-end town of Belleville, Delaware. He observes an attractive redheaded woman, our protagonist Polly, just a few barstools away from him, all by herself and lost in thought. Her shoulders are peeling from too much exposure to the sun.

Adam finds her presence in this small, unremarkable town a bit disconcerting. Belleville is not the kind of place that screams tourism; on the contrary, it’s the sort of place that no person will even look at twice. But for that matter, the same could be said of Adam. What is Adam Bosk also doing in this run-of-the-mill town?

Sunburn, then, is a riveting piece of noir fiction that explores themes of identity, violence, survival and trying to start life afresh. With Lippman’s flair for sharp dialogues and the creation of an unforgettable, tough-as-nails female lead, Sunburn is smart, expertly-paced and intelligently written, and well worth one’s time.  

IN THE WOODS by Tana French

Tana French’s In The Woods, the first in the Dublin Murder Squad series, is a fascinating gothic mystery, but also a beautifully written novel of memory, identity and childhood trauma.

The place is Knocknaree, a small County Dublin town, sparsely developed with its housing estate bordered by the deep, dense woods quite vast. During that particular summer in August 1984, three children aged twelve – Peter Savage, Jamie Rowan and Adam Ryan – ventured into the woods as usual, but two of them never returned. Fast forward to twenty years later.  Our narrator is Rob Ryan, newly accepted into the elite Dublin Murder Squad, having assiduously worked his way to get there. We immediately learn that Rob Ryan is actually Adam Ryan, but he has deliberately changed his identity to begin life anew and leave his troubled past behind.

Also, a new recruit is Cassie Maddox, one of the very few women to find a place on the squad. Cassie is a tough young woman, exhibiting a flair for human psychology and profiling, adept at navigating the trickier moments of misogyny displayed by a heavily male squad. After a warm, cozy evening of wine, music and conversation reminiscent of their student days, Rob and Cassie quickly become best friends, pairing up to take on cases.

Gradually building up a solid reputation and a good solve rate, Rob and Cassie go from strength to strength until they land up with the Devlin case. For Rob, the Devlin case is a trigger for his old ghosts returning to haunt him. Strictly from a point of view of conflict, Rob shouldn’t be on the case, but he can’t tear himself away, a part of him wants to know the truth. What if the two cases are linked?

It’s a deliciously slow-burn of a novel (although at times one does feel it’s a tad too long), but French’s prose is electrifying and gorgeous, blurring the lines between literary fiction and traditional crime. 

DEADLOCK (PILGRIMAGE 3) by Dorothy Richardson

Deadlock is the sixth installment in Dorothy Richardson’s extraordinary Pilgrimage cycle of novels, after Pointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, The Tunnel and Interim.   

Just like in Interim, in Deadlock, Miriam continues to be in London, residing at Mrs Bailey’s on Tansley Street and working at the Orly dental practice for Dr Hancock and the partners on Wimpole Street.

The striking feature about Deadlock is Miriam’s relationship with a Russian Jew boarding at Mrs Bailey’s – Michael Shatov. At first, Shatov comes to Miriam to improve his English, and as the book progresses, Miriam is stimulated by Shatov’s intelligence and towering personality and gradually finds herself attracted by him. Deadlock is peppered with intellectual conversations between the two on myriad topics such as Russian Literature, particularly Tolstoy and Anna Karenina, philosophy, the meaning of race, and the advantages of English privilege, and sometimes on events that are personal to both.

They even kiss in the final chapters but one gets a sense that this is not a relationship that will move forward, one of the reasons being that Miriam baulks at the idea of converting to Judaism should she marry Shatov, although he has no expectations from her in this regard.

In the middle sections of the book, a translation project given to Miriam by one of Mrs Bailey’s boarders, a Frenchman called Lahitte gives Miriam much pleasure as she revels in the joys of solitude and writing, of sitting at her desk in her room absorbed in her work. Here’s a passage from that chapter that highlights that feeling…

It was a curious marvel, a revelation irrevocably put down, reflecting a certain sort of character….. more oneself than anything that could be done socially, together with others, and yet not herself at all, but something mysterious, drawn uncalculatingly from some fund of common consent, part of a separate impersonal life she had now unconsciously confessed herself as sharing. She remained bent motionless in the attitude of writing, to discover the quality of her strange state. The morning was raw with dense fog; at her Wimpole Street ledgers she would by this time have been cramped with cold; but she felt warm and tingling with life as if she had been dancing, or for a long while in happy social contact; yet so differently; deeply and serenely alive and without the blank anxious looking for the continuance of social excitement. This something would continue, it was in herself, independently.

And the chapter concludes with the following paragraph of the joys of her room which she experienced when she first came to stay at Mrs Baileys…

Rising from the table she found her room strange, the new room she had entered on the day of her arrival. She remembered drawing the cover from the table by the window and finding the ink-stains. There they were in the warm bright circle of mid-morning lamplight, showing between the scattered papers. The years that had passed were a single short interval leading to the restoration of that first moment. Everything they contained centred there; her passage through them, the desperate graspings and droppings, had been a coming back. Nothing would matter now that the paper-scattered lamp-lit circle was established as the centre of life. Everything would be an everlastingly various joyful coming back. Held up by this secret place, drawing her energy from it, any sort of life would do that left this room and its little table free and untouched.

But she also remains wary of the shortcomings of her writings as evinced by the criticism heaped upon her by the celebrated writer Hypo Wilson (HG Wells in real life) when she shows him some of her translations. We getting an inkling of it in her conversation with Shatov…

“Well. What did he say?”

“Oh, nothing; he made a great opportunity. He didn’t like the stories.”

“Remarkable!”

“I did it all the wrong way. When I accepted their invitation I wrote that I was bringing down some translations of the loveliest short stories I had ever read.” I was suddenly proud, in Lyons, of remembering “short stories” and excited about having something written to show him at last. The sentence felt like an entry into their set.

“If he did not agree with this I pity him.”

“I don’t know how it would have been if I had said nothing at all.” He might have said look here this is good stuff. You must do something with this.

“I tell you again this man is superficial.”

As I mentioned earlier, Miriam is not convinced by the fact of what it means for a woman to convert into Judaism, a point that stops her from committing to Shatov. But another factor exists too, embedded in Shatov’s past from which Miriam recoils. The details are never explicitly clear (or maybe I missed it), but opaque allusions by Shatov such as “Remember I am no more that man,” probably indicate that maybe he slept with prostitutes.

There are other events that take place – Miriam is briefly fired from the dental practice where she honestly states her views on how pathetic it is to be employed and receive a pension, while the owners of the practice continue to live a life of wealth and well-being. But she is subsequently reinstated.

“In the train I saw the whole unfairness of the life of employees. However hard they work, their lives don’t alter or get any easier. They live cheap poor lives in anxiety all their best years and then are expected to be grateful for a pension, and generally get no pension. I’ve left off living in anxiety; perhaps because I’ve forgotten how to have an imagination. But that is the principle and I came to the conclusion that no employers, however generous and nice, are entitled to the slightest special consideration. And I came back and practically said so. I told him that in future I would have nothing to do with his Mudie books. It was outside my sphere. I also said all sorts of things that came into my head in the train, a whole long speech. About unfairness. And to prove my point to him individually I told him of things that were unfair to me and their other employees in the practice; about the awfulness of having to be there first thing in the morning from the country after a week-end.”

Finally, there were moments in later parts of the book when some of the chapters were heavy going, particularly the one where Miriam attends a philosophy lecture and I found myself skipping over many details because it bogged down the reading experience. But overall, I would say I enjoyed Deadlock and the Miriam-Michael Shatov sections were very interesting and more than made up for some other parts that were not. Next up is Revolving Lights!

That’s it for July. Since August is WIT Month, I finished the brilliant Space Invaders by Nona Fernandez (tr. Natasha Wimmer) as well as The Colony by Audrey Magee, a brilliant book on colonization longlisted for the Booker Prize. Plans on the anvil also include the seventh book from the Pilgrimage series – Revolving Lights.

In The Woods – Tana French

Tana French is an author I had been meaning to read for quite some time. Some love her, some have mixed opinions and I was curious to know on which side of the fence I would fall. As of now, she has written six novels under the Dublin Murder Squad series and two standalone novels, and I decided to begin with the very first, In The Woods. My verdict – I really, really liked it.

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolour nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silk-screen blue.

Thus begins Tana French’s In The Woods, the first in the Dublin Murder Squad series, a fascinating gothic mystery, but also a beautifully written novel of memory, identity and childhood trauma.

The place is Knocknaree, a small County Dublin town, sparsely developed with its housing estate bordered by the deep, dense woods quite vast. During that particular summer in August 1984, three children aged twelve – Peter Savage, Jamie Rowan and Adam Ryan – ventured into the woods as usual, but two of them never returned. The woods were no stranger to the children; they knew it like the back of their hands.

These three children own the summer. They know the wood as surely as they know the micro-landscapes of their own grazed knees; put them down blindfolded in any dell or clearing and they could find their way out without putting a foot wrong. This is their territory, and they rule it wild and lordly as young animals; they scramble through its trees and hide-and-seek in its hollows all the endless day long, and all night in their dreams.

So when they asked for permission that day to spend some time there, they were allowed to do so provided they were back in time for tea. But when the children failed to return by teatime, one of the parents knew that something was amiss. Large search parties went further into the forest to hunt for the children, and came across one of them – Adam Ryan – standing with his back and palms pressed against a large oak tree, his nails digging deep into the bark. Adam’s shoes were heavily bloodstained but otherwise he suffered minor injuries. However, he had no recollection of the events, of Jamie and Peter’s whereabouts, or why he was the only one to be discovered. Given Adam’s memory loss and no new leads, the case goes cold.

Fast forward to twenty years later.  Our narrator is Rob Ryan, newly accepted into the elite Dublin Murder Squad, having assiduously worked his way to get there.

What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass.

We immediately learn that Rob Ryan is actually Adam Ryan, but he has deliberately changed his identity to begin life anew and leave his troubled past behind. Also, a new recruit is Cassie Maddox, one of the very few women to find a place on the squad. Cassie is a tough young woman, exhibiting a flair for human psychology and profiling, adept at navigating the trickier moments of misogyny displayed by a heavily male squad. After a warm, cozy evening of wine, music and conversation reminiscent of their student days, Rob and Cassie quickly become best friends, pairing up to take on cases.

Gradually building up a solid reputation and a good solve rate, Rob and Cassie go from strength to strength until they land up with the Devlin case. For Rob, the Devlin case is a trigger for his old ghosts returning to haunt him. Strictly from a point of view of conflict, Rob shouldn’t be on the case, but he can’t tear himself away, a part of him wants to know the truth. What if the two cases are linked?

The brief outline of the case is this – at an archeological site in Knocknaree bordered by woods, the very woods where Rob’s friends vanished all those years ago, Katy Devlin, a twelve-year old girl, is found dead on a high rise altar. Brutally hit by a stone and subsequently strangled, Katy’s death sends shockwaves throughout the small Knocknaree community. We learn that Katy had become quite the talk of the town before her untimely death having secured a place at a prestigious ballet school for which the community had organized a fundraiser. Enmeshed in this story is the politics of the place – the archeological site is to be completely razed to make way for a motorway funded by nebulous corporations, a development that does not sit well with certain members of the community.

We are then introduced to a host of characters – the motley crew of archeologists digging for finds at the site, the dysfunctional Devlin family, the protestors signed up for the ‘Move the Motorway’ campaign, not to mention certain key figures from Rob’s past.  

In The Woods, then, is a fascinating exploration of fractured memories, the elusive aspect of them; memories like jagged shards that pierce the consciousness when least expected. It’s a closer look at how certain events can trigger seismic shifts in memories forcing those wedged in the subterranean recesses of the mind to suddenly reveal themselves, but that too only partly. For Rob, the Devlin murder in Knocknaree is too close to home, a painful reminder of a traumatic period he would rather forget. Rob is an extremely flawed character, and as the novel progresses seems more and more lost grappling with a range of emotions – anger, guilt, suspicion and fear. It is crystal clear that the trauma entrenched within him is unresolved threatening to spill over into his work and personal relationships jeopardizing them.

And then, too, I had learned early to assume something dark and lethal hidden at the heart of anything I loved. When I couldn’t find it, I responded, bewildered and wary, in the only way I knew how: by planting it there myself.

French uses the Devlin murder as a medium to study the widening cracks in society, particularly the unholy nexus between politicians and property developers and how small time residents end up getting a raw deal.

Corruption is taken for granted, even grudgingly admired: the guerilla cunning of the colonized is still ingrained into us, and tax evasion and shady deals are seen as forms of the same spirit of rebellion that hid horses and seed potatoes from the British.

References are made to the Celtic Tiger, or ‘Ireland’s Economic Miracle’ and the accumulation of wealth it fuelled, how the generation before it slipped through the cracks never to corner a slice of the country’s rapidly expanding wealth pie.

There’s a gothic feel to this book amplified by the fear of the unknown; the deep, dark, mysterious forest at once terrifying and familiar. The other strength of the book is the depiction of Rob’s relationship with Cassie, the camaraderie and banter between them becomes a febrile ground for close friendship to the point that they gradually become comfortable sharing their secrets with each other, secrets they have told no one else.

It’s a deliciously slow-burn of a novel (although at times one does feel it’s a tad too long), but French’s prose is electrifying and gorgeous, blurring the lines between literary fiction and traditional crime. She is interested in character studies, of delving into their minds…highlighting the psychological aspects which expose their flaws as well as their strengths. The flashbacks often have a filmic quality to them, tinged with nostalgia and regret and French is great at portraying the simplicity and innocence of children to whom the complex world of adults is unfathomable.

Trauma is a theme that pulsates throughout the novel; French is particularly keen to examine this topic from varied angles. For instance, while the events of Adam’s childhood form the core of this theme, Cassie is not without scars either having been profoundly affected in her student days by the actions of a pathological liar.

In a straightforward police procedural, the solving of the crime takes centrestage, the resolution is neat with the threads all tied up, and I liked how In The Woods refused to conform to these requirements. It’s a beautifully written crime novel, melancholic, haunting and poignant, a reminder of how our childhood crucially defines who we shape up as adults.

I have now bought the rest of the books in the Dublin Murder Squad series and am looking forward to making my way through them.