Pedro Páramo – Juan Rulfo (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden)

Born in 1918, Juan Rulfo was considered an esteemed figure in the world of Spanish literature, and his novella Pedro Páramo, particularly, appears to have influenced the writing of many authors including Gabriel García Márquez who provides an introduction for this Serpent’s Tail edition. That’s not surprising because I thought this was a remarkable book.

Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is a hypnotic, fever dream of a novel of death, ghosts, visions, violence, and vengeance.

It’s a tad difficult to articulate my thoughts on this novella, its vivid imagery is striking and still etched in my mind, but there’s a slippery feel to the story that’s hard to capture.

In the opening pages, Juan Preciado makes a promise to his dying mother that he will make the journey to Comala to visit his father, Pedro Páramo, a man he has never met before. Complying with her dying wish (“Make him pay, Son, for all those years he put us out of his mind”), Preciado sets off for Comala (“you can see Comala, turning the earth white, and lighting it at night”); a town that both he and the reader soon realise is haunted by the dead.

The Comala of the present is a ghost town – deserted, barren, almost dystopian (“In the shimmering sunlight the plain was a transparent lake dissolving in mists that veiled a grey horizon. Farther in the distance, a range of mountains. And farther still, faint remoteness”).

Most people that Preciado encounters are probably ghosts, a town where the dead outnumber the living with every likelihood that Pedro Páramo is dead too.

“What happens with these corpses that have been dead a long time is that when the damp reaches them they begin to stir. They wake up.”

As he traverses these empty streets craving for the company of real people but is instead assailed by sounds or voices, Preciado meets several people along the way, but alas, they are probably apparitions or a figment of his imagination; indeed, Preciado himself is tormented by dreams and illusions, overwhelmed by fears and sometimes claustrophobia. Frequent references are made to purgatory and hell; many of Comala’s dead have not been forgiven for their sins, the doors to heaven are forever closed.

Interspersed with the present are flashbacks to Comala’s past, a period that seems more grounded in reality simply because it was a robust town of the living then. And yet, it’s a tortured place, simmering with violence, and driven by revenge, where boundaries – both physical and personal – are often encroached not only by Pedro Páramo but also by his illegitimate son Miguel. The timeline of these dramatic forays into the past is non-linear, fragments that when pieced together give a broader picture of the doomed fate of the town and its inhabitants.

Various characters are fleshed out as the novella progresses. We are told about Lucas Páramo, Pedro’s father who died a gruesome death and had a low opinion of his son; we learn of Pedro Páramo’s indifference towards his wife Dolores (Juan Preciado’s mother) who abandons him to settle in another town and his yearnings for Susanna who leaves Comala with her dad at a very young age.

The day you went away I knew I would never see you again. You were stained red by the late afternoon sun, by the dusk filling the sky with blood.

To Pedro, Susanna is the love of his life, the woman he desperately wants. Thirty years later, Susana returns with her father since reports of armed rebellion compel the pair to leave their remote hut on the site of the abandoned La Andromeda mines and head for Comala. Pedro’s happiness knows no bounds, although hints emerge about Susana’s madness, the true nature of which becomes clearer later on, and forms the kernel of Pedro Páramo’s desire to wreak havoc (“And all of it was don Pedro’s doing, because of the turmoil of his soul”).

“Don’t you believe it. He loved her. I’m here to tell you that he never loved a woman like he loved that one. By the time they brought her to him, she was already suffering – maybe crazy. He loved her so much that after she died he spent the rest of his days slumped in a chair, staring down the road where they’d carried her to holy ground. He lost interest in everything. He let his lands lie fallow, and gave orders for the tools that worked it to be destroyed. Some say it was because he was worn out; others said it was despair. The one sure thing is that he threw everyone off his land and sat himself down in his chair to stare down that road.”

Pedro wields a considerable influence over Comala (“He is, I haven’t a doubt of it, unmitigated evil”), a town he rules through frequent recourse to violence, a warped legacy he passes on to Miguel, who unsurprisingly given his brash personality, meets an untimely death in a freak accident. Despite his longing for Susana, Pedro also seems to be a chronic womanizer having fathered many children; at the very beginning Preciado comes across a tone-deaf man called Abundio Martinez who informs him that “Pedro Páramo’s my father too.”

So potent is Pedro’s power in Comala that even the priest, Father Rentaria, is compelled to pardon Miguel at his funeral, even when he internally revolts at the idea (Miguel had killed his brother and raped his niece).

“I know you hated him, Father. And with reason. Rumour has it that your brother was murdered by my son, and you believe that your niece Ana was raped by him. Then there were his insults, and his lack of respect. Those are all reasons anyone could understand. But forget all that now, Father. Weigh him and forgive him, as perhaps God has forgiven him.”

He placed a handful of gold coins on the prie-dieu and to his feet: “Take this as a gift for your church.”

Tired, defeated and burdened by the knowledge that he had set in motion a chain of events that got out of control, Father Rentaria seeks salvation himself from a fellow priest, but is refused. Salvation is not always forthcoming to Comala’s people. Father Rentaria, on his part, refuses to pardon a destitute woman called Dorotea who confesses to having brought girls to Miguel, this is revealed to us in her conversation with Juan Preciado in their graves…

“I don’t know, Juan Preciado. After so many years of never lifting up my head, I forgot about the sky. And even if I had looked up, what good would it have done? The sky is so high and my eyes so clouded that I was happy just knowing where the ground was. Besides, I lost all interest after padre Rentaría told me I would never know glory. Or even see it from a distance… It was because of my sins, but he didn’t have to tell me that. Life is hard enough as it is. The only thing that keeps you going is the hope that when you die you’ll be lifted off this mortal coil; but when they close one door to you and the only one left open is the door to Hell, you’re better off not being born. For me, Juan Preciado, heaven is right here.”

Pedro Páramo, then, is a novella about dashed hopes, twisted love and boundless tragedy, the fates of its characters inextricably linked to the senseless actions of a mercurial, brutal man. There’s a trancelike, hallucinatory quality to the storytelling that flits between past and present, where the boundaries between dreams and reality are often blurred. It’s an enthralling mood piece; prose that has a filmic texture to it, an amalgam of non-chronological snapshots patched together to form a rich reel of an ill-fated town. Not to mention the limpid, poetic sentences pulsating with haunting sensory images.

Green pastures. Watching the horizon rise and fall as the wind swirled through the wheat, an afternoon rippling with curling lines of rain. The colour of the earth, the smell of alfalfa and bread. A town that smelled like spilled honey…

Pedro Páramo is a vessel of collective voices and whispers as it effortlessly moves between the realms of the living and dead; the narrative switches between the first person in the present (Preciado is the narrator to be joined in the second half by Dorotea as the two begin conversing) and a third person point of view when the focus shifts to events of the past. Cinematic in scope, strange and unique, Pedro Páramo can be a disorienting experience in the beginning but then transforms into something magical as it coasts along. Highly recommended!

The Antarctica of Love – Sara Stridsberg (tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner)

Sara Stridsberg first came to my attention when her earlier book The Faculty of Dreams was shortlisted for the 2019 International Booker Prize. I’ve yet to read that one, but on the strength of The Antarctica of Love, she is definitely a writer to watch out.

The Antarctica of Love is a brutal but beautiful tale of chronic drug abuse, fragile familial relationships, isolation, death and loss.

The first thing that strikes you about the novel is the unique and distinct voice – Inni is our narrator but she is speaking to the reader from beyond the grave, after she has been violently murdered.

The book begins with Inni’s gruesome murder in a stark, bleak area, on the outskirts of civilization, close to a lake, the water as smooth as a sheet of metal. It’s a remote place with not a soul in sight. A slurry pit like a quivering marshland lends the area an eerie, ominous air (“When the engine stopped we sat in silence, surveying the lake’s silvery sheen; a solitary black bird, soaring and dipping over the inky surface, the world’s last bird”). This is the spot where the unnamed murdered has captured and brought Inni, the final hours before her imminent death.

It was the blue hour, the hour when the sun and the moon met and the first tremulous night-time light and vestiges of daylight merged like magical waters and swathed the world in a quivering violet phosphorescence, when everything grew soft and nebulous and all the outlines and shadows melted away.

Inni is not scared though. She is resigned to her fate and possibly even welcomes the prospect of her life being extinguished. A chronic drug addict, she has reached the end of her tether with nowhere to go and no one she can turn to. Death seems like a release.

The murderer does not waste time. He strangles Inni, and cuts her body into pieces. The head is thrown into the slurry pit where it steadily sinks (“mine disappears into the slurry pit with the pink surface, sinking slowly to the bottom; and as it descends, my hair opens out like a little parachute over my head“). The rest of the body is dumped in two white suitcases and left close to the road where they will be eventually discovered.

Perhaps the reason I was already at the end, too soon, far too soon, on this muddy road at the edge of an unknown forest, was because I had no words for who I was and what I had come from. Inside me was voiceless silence, above me only a bare, defenceless sky and beneath ne the earth’s unrelenting gravity, pulling me down.

In The Antarctica of Love, then, Inni is sort of an omniscient narrator because we follow her story or certain critical portions of it right from her childhood to her afterlife. The narrative arc swings back and forth between three time periods – Inni’s troubled past with her family; the present which records the hours before her death when she is captured by the murderer; and the future, or to be more precise, the days and years after Inni’s death, where we are shown snapshots of how her family is getting on without her.

The story of Inni’s life is a tale soaked in sadness, a life filled with trauma and tragedy that leaves her vulnerable and shaken, sowing the seeds of chronic drug abuse. Just minutes before her death, when fragments of her past flash before her, the readers are also given a window into her world. At first, we are thrown headlong into a recitation of names the details of which remain hazy. We hear of Raksha and Ivan. We learn of Eskil, drowned many years ago. Shane is mentioned as is Valle and Solveig. These names are meaningless at the beginning, a clearer picture emerges as the tale unfolds, but we immediately get a sense that these are people integral to Inni in the way they shaped up her short life. In other words these are her closest family members whose destinies are very much entwined with hers.

Inni’s parents are Raksha and Ivan, a couple bound in a mercurial relationship. Inni adores Raksha, but her mother’s world is dominated by her passion for Ivan and for drugs. An early tragedy pushes Inni to the edge, a traumatic event that pretty much lays the foundation for how the rest of her life pans out. She and her younger brother Eskil are playing by the river; Raksha and Ivan are somewhere nearby. At a crucial moment, when the three are not looking, Eskil drowns. Attempts to revive him in the hospital are in vain, and Eskil is declared dead.

Everyone weeps apart from me, but something inside me has frozen. It isn’t just the tears, it is something else. A disillusionment so deep, so penetrating, the freezing point of blood, the ultimate Antarctica of love.

Eskil’s death not only affects Raksha and Inni badly, it increases the gulf between them. Inni still craves for Raksha’s love but Raksha remains distant and remote as ever. It’s also around that time that Inni develops an addiction for heroin; the heady rush of the drug coursing through her blood becomes a vehicle to escape a pitiless reality and get lost in a dream world. That steady descent into drugs will blemish her life forever – Inni does experience the joys of falling in love and of motherhood, but those new bonds are fragile; with her inability to remain clean, she is treading on eggshells, paving the way for more tragedy.

The Antarctica of Love, then, is an evocative, unflinching tale of a woman driven to the edge of an abyss from which there is no hope of redemption (“I had sunk deeper into the mire and slime that existed beneath the city, below the earth and asphalt where the filth gathered, in the underground sewers and metro bunkers where people lived like ghosts”).

What’s remarkable about the novel is Inni’s vulnerability – It would be easy to dismiss her as a woman who deserved what was coming to her because of the bad choices she made, but the emotional depth and beauty of Stridsberg’s writing refuses to let the reader judge her so harshly. There are moments when some sections seem repetitive and one wonders whether this is deliberate, given that we are inside the mind of a damaged woman who is plumbing the depths of her memories in recounting her tale…indeed, there’s a part somewhere in the middle of the book where Inni tells us something she’s already told us before and immediately follows up with the line – “but I already told you that, didn’t I?”

One of the themes explored in The Antarctica of Love is the debilitating consequences of parental neglect. Raksha is a self-absorbed mother, with Inni and Eskil for the most part left to their own devices. Inni yearns for her mother’s love, to be the centre of her world…Indeed, even minutes before death, despite Inni having accepted her fate, we witness brief moments of resistance with Inni calling out for Raksha. But the bitter reality of being denied her mother’s care manifests itself deep into Inni’s psyche with the result that this legacy of neglect is something that Inni passes on to her children as well.

It is strange that I fantasise so much about Solveig. I don’t know her and I never have. All I have is those two hours on the maternity ward when she was a tiny bundle of warmth in my arms. But it is easier to think about her than to think about Valle, because I never did her any harm. I kept her safe by making sure she would never need to be with me. For Solveig I did the only thing I could have done, even if Shane could never forgive me for it.

The novel is also a heartrending meditation on fragile familial bonds, loss, death and the momentous effort of pushing forward. The latter is particularly exemplified in how Inni’s parents and her children (her son Valle and her daughter Solveig) try to patch together the tattered fragments of their lives and attempt to move on, however, imperfect or arduous the journey. After years of separation, we see Ivan and Raksha reunite in their grief, and Raksha after having adapted to an independent existence, faces the prospect of being dependent on a man again. We also see the children Solveig and Valle, the latter in particular, try to adapt to their respective foster homes, and build a new life for themselves as they grow into adults.

Death is a potent force in the book, always lurking in the corner – Eskil’s death is the starting point of Inni’s lifelong downward spiral culminating in her own death at the hands of a random man. It’s also a tale seeped in loss and isolation – with death taking away her two children, Raksha is now utterly alone in her old age, while Inni’s unfathomable dependence on drugs isolates her from the world even further. Unable to drastically alter her circumstances, she also experiences the anguish of losing her children, but she harbours hope that they will go on to lead better lives with her not around.

Familial bonds are as frail as bone china, ready to crack at the slightest signal of danger. Raksha and Ivan’s passionate, volatile relationship threatens to engulf them…Inni and Shane love each other deeply but as addicts theirs is a relationship always in peril, of not being able to withstand the pressures that life throws at them.

At its core, The Antarctica of Love is a pretty disturbing book given its dark subject matter, but what elevates it to the next level is the richness of the writing. The prose is simply gorgeous and haunting, suffused with tenderness, compassion and beauty, with that aching melancholic feel to it but also punctuated with glimmers of hope.

The book is lush with a strong sense of place, stark, surreal and even dystopian at times; whether it’s the desolate lake area where Inni meets her end (“The world seemed to be heavy with rain, a world of rain in which the green appeared in sharper focus, a world immersed in water”), or the murky underbelly of a metropolis like Stockholm.

It is an archaic landscape swept by cold, harsh winds; it looks modern but it is ancient. A cluster of islands surrounded by motionless seawater beneath a naked sky. A patchwork of faded facades in yellow and pink with modern buildings made of black steel and glass. Bank headquarters, shopping malls and multi-storey car parks have a futuristic look, but age-old thoughts fill people’s minds, ponderous, inalterable; there are victims, there are perpetrators, there are witnesses, and they all peer down at the ground. The well-heeled live in the centre, as they always have. And the lifeblood of this city circulates around Herkulesgatan and from there to the banks, the money moves in and out of the state, and the architecture framing all of this is raw and cold. Some are doomed to failure, others destined to advance, a certain few will rise above the rest; and you can see the early signs, children defined from the start.

As a victim of parental neglect, trauma, debilitating drug abuse, and eventually murder, Inni’s fate mirrors that of people who live on the margins and sink without a trace; lives that hardly cause a ripple on the surface of the broader world. But Inni does not face that ignominy, through the sheer poetry of Stridsberg’s writing, her life becomes alive and vivid…she transforms into an unforgettable narrator whose heartbreaking, poignant tale will leave a deep impression on our minds.

Gentleman Overboard – Herbert Clyde Lewis

I had read only one book from Boiler House Press until now – Animalia Paradoxa by Henrietta Rose-Innes, a wonderful collection of short stories that I liked very much but for some reason did not review. Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis is the first title in the Recovered Books series, a new initiative by the same publisher that brings unfairly forgotten books to a wider audience.

The only food on which a drowning man could subsist was hope of being rescued; otherwise all sanity must be lost.

About halfway through the novel, Henry Preston Standish, the protagonist, has a vague sense of having been in the water for more than 10 hours, an interminable stretch. Having fallen overboard the ship Arabella during sunrise at around 5 am (his watch stops when he hits the water), Standish has lost all sense of time, but gauging from the sun’s position, he assumes it’s 3 pm. The sun is blazing hot, the Arabella is nowhere in sight, and the enormous ocean is eerily calm and immensely frightening and remote.

The sun soared high, stayed for a while at the top of the sky, glaring diabolically upon its desolate world, and then, as if making up its mind to take a closer look, began a leisurely descent. The man in the ocean lay in a trance, lost in the contemplation of his fate.

It’s one of those key moments in the novella, where a whole range of thoughts flit through his mind – the strangeness of time (“Fortunes had been won and lost in less time, and here Standish was in the water ten hours and nothing decisive had happened”), and the stark loneliness of his position both literally and figuratively (“Standish considered the lack of an audience the meanest trick of all“). By this point, Standish has reached that half-way stage between hope and despair. He still harbours hopes of being rescued by Arabella and regaling his audience with his imagined astonishing story of survival. No sooner does he think this, he is gripped by utter desolation and terror at his bleak chances of making it ashore with death a looming possibility (“The colour of the sea was blue, and the blueness seeped into his soul”).

That desperate cry for an audience and to be alive is symbolic of Standish’s mental state not only because of his current gut-wrenching predicament but also because of his life upto that point, the emptiness of which compels him to undertake this sea voyage in the first place.

Gentleman Overboard, then, is a fabulous, taut, psychological novella of loneliness, emptiness, the randomness of fate, what it means to take one’s life for granted and how a radical change can bring about a shift in perception.

Henry Preston Standish is the “gentleman” of the novel and the opening lines tell us that when Standish “fell headlong into the Pacific Ocean, the sun was just rising on the eastern horizon.” In the immediate hours since his fall, Standish is ridiculously struck with shame instead of fear…secure in his belief that he will be rescued by Arabella when his absence aboard the ship is noticed. Standish takes pride in not descending into panic; he is after all a calm man with a thinking, analytical mind, in keeping with his education and profession as a successful financial stockbroker.

Standish is the archetypal gentleman (“Standish was one of the world’s most boring men”); he holds a respectable well paid job that enables him to stay in an upscale apartment in Central Park West, New York. He is married to the beautiful and loyal Olivia, blessed with two children he dotes on, Junior and Helen. Standish is well regarded in the field of high finance, a partner in a stockbroking firm along with Pym & Bingley, and the trajectory of his life follows a set pattern associated with men of his class and wealth – visits to clubs, entertaining and weekend family parties. Things coast along smoothly, until one day Standish is overwhelmed by a feeling of emptiness which hits him out of the blue. A walk around the city fails to alleviate his uneasiness and sense of futility and when he expresses his wish of going away alone to clear his head, Olivia understands perfectly.

He was the completely jaded man at that hour, trapped in a void of nothingness; and that was why it was so terrible, that was why he had to get away.

That journey of a few days stretches to a month as Standish keeps postponing his imminent return to New York, which greatly perplexes Olivia but she does not protest.

Standish’s travels aboard a variety of ships finally culminate in the Arabella, set to sail from Honolulu to the Panama. It is a three-week journey, and it is on the thirteenth day that the freak accident occurs – a grease spot causes Standish to lose balance and fall into the Pacific.

The irony of his upbringing and its crucial bearing on his fate is not lost on Standish and the reader. Any other man would have been rightly fearful and screamed loudly for help; cries that would alert those on the ship that a mishap has occurred. But Standish is not any man. He is a gentleman. And his correct, polite manner of speech and expression means that Standish’s shouts for help when he does attempt them are subdued and feeble. Nobody hears a thing.

He had known instinctively that a modified voice with a dignified tone was the Standish forte, one of the many subdued traits that enabled the Standishes to flourish in the cosmopolitan world.

Standish loses the battle in those immediate critical moments, but he is not a man to give up easily, still confident that the Arabella will turn around. As long as the Arabella is in his line of sight, Standish’s hopes of rescue remain high. But the ship moves further and further away, becoming a speck on the horizon until it completely disappears leaving behind a plume of smoke. That is when the possibility of death chillingly dawns on him.

Meanwhile, we are given a glimpse of the passengers on the ship and how a string of unfortunate coincidences keeps the quick discovery of Standish’s disappearance at bay. There’s Captain Bell, a short-tempered man engrossed in building his model schooner, and his first mate Mr Prisk whom he bosses around. There’s the ship’s cook who by now is well versed with Standish’s daily routine and how he likes poached eggs for breakfast. There’s the bosomy Mrs Benson and her brood of children with whom Standish often plays. There is that irascible missionary couple Mr and Mrs Brown, and last but not the least Nat Adams, a New England farmer, who having been struck by wanderlust, abandons his farm to see more of the world. Unsurprisingly, he latches on to Standish and the two become friends. To the ship’s crew and passengers, Standish is a perfect gentleman – well-mannered, kind and considerate.

What is remarkable about Gentleman Overboard is the depiction of Standish’s fragile state of mind; the subtle changes in perception as he veers from sheer embarrassment at his stupidity right at the beginning to the terrifying prospect of dying alone as the novel progresses.  It’s a book laced with philosophical musings as Standish wonders about the cruelty of time and the tricks it plays on the mind, as well as a sense of being inconsequential in a massive, pitiless ocean whose depth and vastness is simply unfathomable.

There’s another moment in the book when Standish ponders on how your whole life flashes before you when death is knocking at the door. When this fails to occur, Standish is a tad elated – maybe, it’s a sign of imminent rescue, and that he won’t die? Or does it simply mean that his life was too banal for such an experience?

Brad Bigelow of Neglected Books has provided a fascinating afterward – the rebirth of this wonderful book in Argentina, Netherlands and Israel and finally a reissue in the UK along with Lewis’ background as an aspiring writer, his stint in Hollywood, his tumultuous personal life and how he eventually died alone in a New York hotel, penniless and broke.

Gentleman Overboard, then, is a multifaceted, richly layered book pulsating with though-provoking themes such as loneliness, finding meaning, the quest for newer experiences and how dramatically altered circumstances can completely change the way we view the world.

He had never felt so strongly on the subject before; he had just lived with scarcely any thinking about it, imagining vaguely that some day, naturally, he would die. But now he saw clearly that life was precious; that everything else, love, money, fame, was a sham when compared with the simple goodness of not dying.

It’s short, gripping and powerful with an air of fatality running through it; superb on atmosphere and psychological insight, rendered in prose that is lush and melancholic. It’s also a sober meditation on death; how it is a leveler and a rather lonely affair irrespective of an individual’s circumstances.

Had he known, maybe Standish could have drawn comfort from the fact that he need not have died unforgotten – he had made his presence felt aboard the ship despite his seemingly boring personality, and for the reader he is definitely an unforgettable creation. Highly recommended!

Gentleman Overboard: Image from the inside flap…

Death and the Seaside – Alison Moore

I was very impressed with two of Alison Moore’s novels I had read some years earlier; The Lighthouse and Missing with the latter particularly finding a place on My Best of 2018 list. As part of #ReadIndies hosted by Karen and Lizzy, it felt time to read another of her novels – all published by Salt – and I am glad to report that Death and the Seaside is also another wonderful novel.

Death and the Seaside is a terrific tale of failure, of being easily influenced, death and writing that unravels in a rather unexpected way.

Our protagonist is Bonnie Falls, a young woman about to turn 30. Bonnie’s life so far has been without any direction or purpose and she has not much to show for her half-hearted efforts. She is a college dropout having abandoned a degree in literature, which rather limits the job opportunities available.

After a few years of literary criticism, Bonnie has found that she could no longer read a story without seeing it through a lens of critical analysis, as if there was always some underlying meaning that you might miss if you were not paying attention. And at the same time, she began to see the real world in terms of narrative; she saw stories and symbolism everywhere. She found it all exhausting, and left her course – which her father had called a Mickey Mouse degree anyway – before taking her final exams or completing her dissertation.

However, she manages to secure two cleaning jobs, one at a pharmaceutical laboratory and the other at an amusement arcade, quite dreary but she needs the money.  

Bonnie has lived with her parents for most of her life, but as she approaches thirty they feel it is time for her to move on and out. Bonnie manages to find a place on rent at the end of the ominously named ‘Slash Lane’ but given that her income is not sufficient to cover the full rent amount, her parents offer to chip in a bit.

Meanwhile, Bonnie remains as untethered and adrift as ever. She seems to be going nowhere and can’t bring herself to dramatically alter her circumstances. Her state of mind is reflected in the apartment she has chosen – characterless rooms saddled with bric-a-brac left by previous renters giving the impression of the transient nature of an impersonal hotel room.

Bonnie does seem to show some promise in one area though – she is an aspiring writer. In fact, the first chapter of Death and the Seaside is actually the beginning of a story that Bonnie has typed out. Bonnie’s protagonist is Susan who goes for a holiday to a seaside hotel and witnesses strange happenings. A note inserted under the door of Susan’s hotel room has faint markings of some elusive words imprinted on it that only she can see; to all others the note is blank.

She walked over and picked up the scrap of paper, but when she looked at it she found that it was blank; although perhaps there was the faintest suggestion of something there, as if it had been photocopied to oblivion…She turned again to the piece of paper, and she almost thought that she might be able to make out a message after all, or just a word, but even as she looked, her sense of that dim outline disappeared, like a shadow when the sun slips behind a cloud.

In another incident, Susan is roused from her sleep in the middle of the night and notices the word ‘jump’ etched on the window. That story ends there simply because Bonnie has no idea how to proceed further.

We are then introduced to the other main character in the novel and Bonnie’s landlady, Sylvia Slythe. Sylvia comes to visit Bonnie one afternoon after she has settled down in the flat…

Bonnie opened the door. The woman standing on her doormat – a tall woman wearing a sheepskin coat – looked at Bonnie with a degree of interest that made Bonnie feel uneasy, and she touched the front of her dressing gown to check that it was securely fastened. The woman’s big, bright eyes made Bonnie feel like Little Red Riding Hood being looked at by the wolf.

The two women strike up a conversation which mostly consists of Sylvia asking Bonnie a slew of questions about her life and the motivations behind her writing. Sylvia takes an unusual interest in Bonnie, particularly in the specific story Bonnie has written about Susan and is very keen to learn how it will evolve. In their conversations, certain incidents in Bonnie’s past are revealed to the reader, which are subconsciously reproduced in Bonnie’s unfinished story although she vehemently denies it and insists that her story is just pure fiction. For instance, Bonnie has been troubled by sleepwalking in her childhood, and there are times in the past when she displayed a tendency to jump from heights as some sort of a death-wish.

“When I was a kid,” said Bonnie, “I started sleepwalking. I’d wake up and find myself standing at a window, like I was looking out, although I wasn’t really seeing, I suppose. But one time, the window was open, and Mum found me halfway out of it. She had to keep the windows locked and hide the keys.”

Sylvia is persistent that Bonnie finishes her story and with this aim in mind arranges a seaside holiday for the two of them, possibly at the place where Bonnie holidayed once as a child and which Bonnie inadvertently has used as a backdrop for her story.

Why is Sylvia so deeply interested in an unremarkable person like Bonnie? Is there something sinister lurking behind Sylvia’s motives?  This remains a mystery to the reader until it all becomes clear as the novel progresses and reaches its dark conclusion.

Bonnie is a fascinating character simply because she is so unmoored, malleable and easily influenced. She has no clue where she is headed and as far as society is concerned, she is something of a failure. For the most part, she is ambivalent about her circumstances showing no inclination to take charge. She is also readily suggestible. To cite an example, at her laboratory cleaning job, her colleague, the brash Fiona, who loves playing Truth and Dare, challenges Bonnie to open one of the lab doors and let all the animals free. Any other person would have point-blank refused or ignored Fiona. But Bonnie can’t say no, and actually attempts to carry out that challenge, then invariably chickens out only to be subjected to further ridicule.

Bonnie is also lonely. Every day, between her two cleaning jobs, she spends the afternoon at the cinema all by herself.

During these matinee showings, she was often the only person in the auditorium. In the dark, she ate her popcorn and lost herself in the film, something historical or futuristic, something set in another country or on another planet. It only took an hour or so, ninety minutes, for the world outside to become unreal. When she emerged, the familiar town would look strange, like a set, the oblivious shoppers like walk-ons. After horror films, she felt uneasy in broad daylight, and made an effort to avoid alleyways and underpasses and anywhere deserted…

Even her 30th birthday, a milestone one, is a rather desultory affair – a restaurant dinner where the only guests are her overbearing parents, Fiona and Sylvia, an odd assortment. It does appear that Sylvia is the only genuine friend that Bonnie has had for a while, and since neither of them has anyone else to go on a holiday with, they readily agree to go away together. Sylvia’s role in the story appears a tad murky and how their tales ultimately intertwine is what makes the novel so interesting.

With respect to the novel’s structure, most sections are from Bonnie’s point of view with some chapters devoted to Bonnie’s developing story about Susan. Only three chapters are narrated in the first person from Sylvia’s angle gradually giving a glimpse into her character and her reasons for striking up a friendship with Bonnie.

As the title suggests, one of the prominent themes of the novel is death or a preoccupation with death. There is a particular chapter in the book where Sylvia alludes to Bonnie’s abandoned thesis on the subject of how death and the sea are irrevocably interlinked.

All these unfinished stories of Bonnie’s are set by the sea, and one must ask: why this obsession with the sea? She does not live there, although she could. When considering this question, one ought to take into account the fact that in each of Bonnie’s stories – as well as in many of the novels on her bookshelves – the sea is a metaphor for death. Correspondingly, to be at the seaside is to be at the edge of death. The seashore is a threshold.

It is a chapter brimming with literary references such as Veronique Olmi’s tragic novella Beside the Sea, John Banville’s The Sea, Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth, Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and so on. The novel also examines how a child’s upbringing in a certain manner can carry repercussions well into adulthood offering a window into Bonnie’s tendency towards jumping from heights and why the idea of death remains embedded in her subconscious.

In Alison Moore’s assured hands, the novel unfolds in a style that is clever, original and uncanny, as she effortlessly weaves in literature and elements of psychology in this compelling narrative. She excels at creating an atmosphere of dread and creeping unease especially in the way Bonnie and Sylvia’s relationship plays out. The last few chapters, set at the seaside resort, have a feverish, surreal quality to them as the circumstances described in Bonnie’s written story eerily merge with that of her own life. This is a very character-driven novel (there’s nothing remarkable about Bonnie’s life generally) and it is to Moore’s credit that she manages to make both Sylvia and Bonnie unforgettable.

In a nutshell, Death and the Seaside is another excellent novel from Alison Moore’s oeuvre, definitely worth reading.

The Friend – Sigrid Nunez

The Friend is a beautiful, poignant novel of grief, love, loss, writing and more importantly the uniqueness of dogs and what makes them the best of companions.

The book opens with a suicide. We learn that the narrator, an unnamed woman, has just lost her lifelong best friend who chooses to end his life. Like the woman, we don’t really know what caused her friend to undertake such a drastic step, there is no suicide note either to give any sort of clue.

But gradually a persona of the woman’s friend emerges. He was a professor teaching creative writing, and at one point she was his student. They have a brief affair, but their romantic relationship quickly peters out. And yet, they remain the best of friends, very close in fact, much to the envy and chagrin of his wives. We learn that the man was married thrice, but divorced twice. The wives are not named either but are referred to as Wife One, Wife Two, Wife Three. While his marriages, while they lasted, were unions based on love and passion, Wife One and Wife Two were always disturbed by the fact that they were never his confidantes in the way the narrator was.

Meanwhile, when Wife Three requests to meet our narrator, the latter is perturbed but she agrees. It seems that Wife Three has an unusual request. Now that her husband is no more, she does not know what to do with the pet he has left behind – a Great Dane called Apollo, who is ageing and pretty much on his last legs. It was the man’s wish that the narrator adopt the giant dog, but she is initially reluctant. Dogs are prohibited in the building where she resides. But when subsequent attempts to re-home the dog fail, she decides to adopt him even when the threat of eviction looms large.

One of the biggest themes explored in this lovely novel is the joy of canine companionship. With a few failed relationships behind her and now quite alone, our narrator seeks solace in Apollo’s presence. She reads Rilke’s poems to him, takes him for walks to the park, and allows him to sleep on her bed, his huge bulk is a constant source of comfort to her.

It occurs to me that someone used to read to Apollo. Not that I think he was a trained certified therapy dog. But I believe that someone must have read aloud to him – or if not to him at least while he was present – and that his memory of that experience is a happy one.

Or maybe Apollo is a canine genius who has figured something out about me and books. Maybe he understands that, when I’m not feeling so great, losing myself in a book is the best thing I could do.

Our narrator also ponders on the intelligence of dogs, whether they are capable of feelings, and the endless trouble they endure of making themselves understood to a human.

She questions – Does a dog understand betrayal? For instance, she talks about mastiffs and their great size and how they are known for being fiercely protective and loyal to their masters. But let us suppose, the master decides to abandon it one day. Will that mastiff feel betrayed? After some contemplation, Nunez decides probably not. It is more likely that the main thing on the mastiff’s mind will be – Who will protect my master now?

Another point to think about – What do we really know about animal suffering? She cites that there is evidence of dogs and animals having a higher tolerance for pain than humans do. But their true capacity for suffering, like the true measure of their intelligence, must remain a mystery.

The book is also a lyrical meditation on grief, not just grief felt by the narrator but also by Apollo. Apollo grieves in his own way for his dead master and our narrator tries various tricks to draw him out like music and massage therapies. But it is apparent to us that the narrator is also profoundly affected by the loss of her dear friend.

The friend who is most sympathetic about my situation calls to ask how I am. I tell him about trying music and massage to treat Apollo’s depression, and he asks if I’ve considered a therapist. I tell him I’m skeptical about pet shrinks, and he says, That’s not what I meant.

Maybe, what she felt for him was something deeper, it could be that she was in love with him. She doesn’t readily acknowledge this, but we know that the two of them shared a special bond, which was not sexual, but one of lasting friendship, the kind where they could easily confide and talk to each other. When our narrator wonders why she is looking after his dog, she admits that perhaps on some subconscious level, she is hoping that the love she displays towards Apollo will bring her dead friend back too.

As Apollo gradually becomes an intrinsic part of our narrator’s life, she realizes that she has been shunning her friends and acquaintances and veering more and more towards solitude. She becomes increasingly obsessed with his care to the point that she prefers his company rather than to reach out for any sort of human connection.

He has to forget you. He has to forget you and fall in love with me. That’s what has to happen.

In a way, the novel is akin to a letter that the narrator is writing to her late friend, she addresses him as ‘you’ throughout the book. Nunez’s writing is simple, lucid…and to emphasize her ideas, she relies on anecdotes and interesting references, be it books, films or newspaper articles. She particularly focuses on J.R. Ackerley’s memoir My Dog Tulip, and the intense love Ackerley felt for his pet, almost as if they were in a serious relationship. That book is new to me but I did read his We Think the World of You many years ago, which I thought was brilliant. The other book frequently mentioned is Coetzee’s Disgrace.

Filled with wry observations and keen insights into friendship, the nature of love, suicide and its implications, the art of writing and whether it is the right medium to process grief and so on, The Friend, then, is a truly wonderful book that sizzles with charm, intelligence and wisdom in equal measure.