Trust – Hernan Diaz

After many years, the Booker Prize longlist in 2022 has looked quite interesting. I thought Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These was great (it was recently shortlisted for the Prize), as was The Colony by Audrey Magee. To this, I will now add Trust by Hernan Diaz, another excellent read from the list.

Set in early 20th century New York, Trust by Hernan Diaz is a cleverly constructed, fascinating tale of money, deception, power and the ultimate question of who controls the narrative.

The book comprises four sections of which the first is called “Bonds”, a book written by the author Harold Vanner, who has seemingly sunk into oblivion. “Bonds” narrates the story of Benjamin Rask whose astounding success on Wall Street and the stock markets during the heydays of the 1920s, transforms him into one of the richest men in the world.

Because he had enjoyed almost every advantage since birth, one of the few privileges denied to Benjamin Rask was that of a heroic rise: his was not a story of resilience and perseverance or the tale of an unbreakable will forging a golden destiny for itself out of little more than dross.

We are told of his privileged background – a gregarious and sociable father whose success has come from running the family tobacco business and cultivating relationships in gentleman’s clubs, the haven where men smoke cigars; and Benjamin’s mother, a woman always surrounded by her coterie of wealthy friends, who spend their days in each other’s homes. Compared to his parents’ need for company, Benjamin grows up as a lonely child with a remarkable aptitude for mathematics and an outlook that differs sharply from that of his father’s.  On the death of his parents, Benjamin begins to chart his own course of success, one that is largely determined by his flair for numbers and staying ahead of the game in the world of high finance despite his awkwardness in social situations.

He was an inept athlete, an apathetic clubman, an unenthusiastic drinker, an indifferent gambler, a lukewarm lover. He, who owed his fortune to tobacco, did not even smoke. Those who accused him of being excessively frugal failed to understand that, in truth, he had no appetites to repress.

We are also introduced to Helen Rask, Benjamin’s wife – a reserved, introverted, deeply intelligent woman born into a family of eccentric aristocrats, parents who are often at odds with one another.  We learn of Helen’s precociousness as a child; her closeness to her father, who nurtures her talent and her thirst for knowledge; and her strained relationship with her mother, a woman with impeccable networking skills and a thirst for a vibrant social life.

Helen had left her childhood in Albany. Being constantly on the move, she met few girls her age, and those casual encounters never had a chance to blossom into full friendships. To pass the time, she taught herself languages with books she shifted between different homes and hotels…When books proved insufficient, she turned to her diary. The dream journals that her father had made her keep for a few years had instilled in her the daily habit of recording her thoughts. Over time, her writings turned away from her dreams and toward her musings on books, her impressions of the cities thy visited, and, during her white nights, her innermost fears and yearnings.

Benjamin and Helen’s marriage becomes a union of mutual respect and understanding given their respective solitary natures rather than love and passion, and while Benjamin goes on to amass unimaginable wealth from the soaring financial markets, Helen focuses her attention on philanthropy, culture, books and music. Until there comes a point when things begin to unravel as Helen’s health deteriorates and she is committed to a medical institute in Switzerland.

The second section titled “My Life” is an autobiography by Andrew Bevel, who is the chief protagonist of Trust (or is he?), an unscrupulous and powerful man willing to go to any lengths possible to restore his public image which he believes has been unfairly tarnished. It quickly becomes clear that Benjamin Rask is a fictional version of Andrew Bevel himself.

My name is known to many, my deeds to some, my life to few. This has never concerned me much. What matters is the tally of our accomplishments, not the tales about us. Still, because my past has so often overlapped with that of our nation, lately I have come to believe that I owe it to the public to share some of the decisive moments of my story.

Bevel’s autobiography is an account written in rough draft of his accomplishments as a financier par excellence, focusing mostly on his illustrious family history, his thoughts on the American economy and the rise of high finance, his instrumental role in shaping up the markets and the most important woman in his life, his wife Mildred Bevel.

These two narratives have similarities and yet differ significantly on crucial aspects. Andrew Bevel and his fictional avatar Benjamin rise to the pinnacle of wealth not only during the unsustainable boom of the stock markets in the 1920s, but they also earn immense profits during the massive Wall Street crash in 1929. But the stories differ on how Bevel’s meteoric rise is perceived. Vanner’s novel paints Rask as an opportunist, his greed for wealth and power starkly apparent and resented at a time when the country is plunged into the doldrums, while Bevel painstakingly paints a picture of a highly intelligent gifted man, who having engineered the country’s economic success is now unfairly accused of instigating its downfall.

The biggest anomaly in both the accounts is the depiction of Mildred Bevel (Helen Rask in Vanner’s novel), who remains an enigma, all the more because there are marked differences in how her personality and her circumstances have been highlighted by both men. Is the fictional woman real or is the real woman a figment of the imagination?

The third section focuses on Ida Partenza, an Italian immigrant, employed as Bevel’s secretary chiefly to type out his autobiography as per instructions given by him personally. After a few sessions with Bevel, Ida is disconcerted to find that rather than give a shape to the facts of Bevel’s life, Ida’s job is really to invent a narrative that aligns with the story Bevel wishes to tell, a large part of it centred on projecting Mildred’s “watered-down” personality to the world. This fuels her quest for the truth, a research that she secretly carries out on the side, if only to untangle fact from fiction.  

“Miss Partenza, I am writing this book to stop the proliferation of versions of my life, not to multiply them. I most emphatically do not want more perspectives, more opinions. This is to be my story.”

And in the fourth section titled “Futures”, we hear from Mildred Bevel herself.

In terms of structure, Diaz’s Trust employs a slew of narrative devices that add depth to the book – a novel within a novel, an unfinished autobiography, memoirs and journals – conjuring up varied perspectives on the same set of events.

With respect to subject matter and themes, in replaying the events of the halcyon years of Wall Street and the debilitating crash thereafter that sparked the depression of the 1930s, one could say that Trust is an exploration of the enigmatic and competitive world of finance, the immense greed and corruption that fuels it, the inequality bred by concentrated wealth at the hands of the very few. Diaz has excellently captured the milieu of the rich – the hush and the quiet, the aura of awe and invincibility that it exudes. One could also say that the novel takes a closer look at the topics of mental illness, deception in relationships and limited roles for women during the early part of the 20th century who languished in the shadows of men.

But at the end of the day, Trust is really a novel about how stories are told (what is revealed, hidden, enhanced or diluted), how viewpoints often differ and how power can warp reality and ultimately influence the narrative.

“It seems to me that you don’t understand what any of this is all about.”

“I do.”

“Is that so?”

“Bending and aligning reality.”

The Greengage Summer – Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden was a discovery for me last year, her novel Black Narcissus found a place on my Best Books of 2021 list. Naturally, I wanted to read more and settled on The Greengage Summer.

The Greengage Summer is a gorgeous coming-of-age tale of love, deceit and new experiences, a beguiling mix of light and darkness set in the luxurious champagne region of France.

Our narrator is the charming Cecil Grey, aged thirteen and at the cusp of womanhood. Cecil has an elder sister, the beautiful Joss aged sixteen, while the younger siblings are Hester and the Littles (Will and Vicky).

Cecil’s father is a botanist, often away from home for long stretches of time. Relying on her brother (called Uncle William by the children) for financial and emotional support, Cecil’s mother and the children reside in lodgings in the dreary, seaside town of Southstone.

Southstone lacks character and Joss and Cecil absolutely loathe it. The pair also bemoans the family’s strained monetary circumstances.

I think now that the discontent was because we were never quite comfortable in Southstone and the rudeness came from the discontent; it was as-if a pattern-mould were being pressed down on us into which we could not fit.

Fed up with their continuous grumbling, the mother whisks them off to France to see the battlefields hoping that some kind of an exposure and knowledge about other people’s sacrifices will open their eyes to how self-absorbed they are.

Excited by the idea of a short stint in Paris on the way for shopping and visiting museums, Joss, Cecil and the gang are in a state of great anticipation but the trip is doomed right from the start. The mother gets bitten by a horse-fly, her feet swell and she begins to develop a fever. Beset by fear, anxiety and a sense of being lost in a strange, unfamiliar country, the family somehow makes it to Vieux-Moutiers region to finally land at the enchanting Les Oeillets hotel.

However, things do not get easier when they reach the hotel – the mother’s condition deteriorates, language being a barrier the children struggle to communicate, and the hotel manager, Madame Courbet, is not particularly welcoming. Madame Courbet refuses to have a sick patient under her roof, and is not keen on the idea of assuming responsibility for the children. Angered by the terrible treatment meted out to them, Joss is all set to storm out of the hotel with the rest of the gang in tow, when Mademoiselle Zizi and Eliot make an entry.

An Englishman, Eliot quickly gauges the predicament of the family, the mother is settled in a room, and subsequently transferred to the hospital. Meanwhile, he offers to be a guardian to the children.

In the initial days, Joss is also struck by illness and is confined to her room. Thus, Cecil, Hester, Will and Vicky are pretty much left to their own devices and given free rein. Cecil is overcome by the newness and strangeness of not just the hotel, but also its people and their unique mannerisms.   

The staircase was paneled in pale green, riddled with curious holes, but the holes did not take away from its elegance. The hall was elegant too. It was odd that we, who had never seen elegance before – though it was our favourite word – immediately recognized it.

Reveling in their newfound freedom, the kids begin to explore the hotel, the gardens and the orchards around it gorging on greengages that give the novel its name.

Stepping in dew, my head in the sun, I walked into the orchard and, before I knew what I had done, reached up to touch a greengage. It came off, warm and smooth, into my hand I looked quickly round, but no one came, no voice scolded and, after a moment, I bit into the ripe golden flesh. Then I ate another, and another, until replete with fruit and ecstasy, I went back to my post.

Vicky latches on to Monsieur Armand, the hotel cook. Wills finds a spot under the cherry tree to be alone and pore over French fashion books. Cecil and Hester befriend Paul, the cook’s helper, who regales them with hotel gossip. It gradually emerges that Eliot and Zizi are lovers; Zizi especially is besotted with him. Madame Courbet, devoted to Zizi, despises Eliot but is powerless.

Eliot, meanwhile, develops a soft spot for the Grey family much to Zizi’s chagrin. When Joss, having recovered from her illness, finally emerges out of confinement, things begin to hot up. Eliot is mesmerized by her beauty and can’t take his eyes off her, Zizi is insanely jealous, and Cecil becomes a reluctant spectator watching Joss become embroiled in a messy drama…What’s more, thrown into this mix is the renowned French painter, Monsieur Joubert…

Eliot is an interesting, mysterious character, by turns warm and inscrutable whose motives remain hazy to the children. He is generally fond of them, but Cecil also glimpses the occasional changes in mood, the coldness and curt responses which are a sign to her to keep her distance. There is a part of him that remains inaccessible and bewilders Cecil, but his suave, charming personality endears him to the gang and they find themselves loyal to him despite his faults.

He had a carnation in his buttonhole, a dark-red one, and it seemed to symbolize Eliot for us. Why are flowers bought by men so much more notable than those bought by women? I do not know, but they are. Father brought flowers into the house but they were dried, pressed brown, the life gone out of them; with Eliot the flower was alive.

Blessed with striking good looks, Joss has awakened to her sexuality and is aware of the effect it has on men including Eliot. But it is Cecil who, in many ways, is the show stealer with her flair for storytelling and for being in the thick of things. She has reached that point in her life where she wants to be treated like an adult, but still remains innocent in many aspects. The torment that she suffers because of this conflict has been astutely conveyed by Godden. Compared to Joss, Cecil considers herself plain with unremarkable features, a fact that she resents. But she is a wonderful narrator, displaying the naiveté of her age, while occasional moments of astuteness shine through.

The Greengage Summer, then, is a heady cocktail of themes – the loneliness of entering into adulthood, loss of innocence, the intensity of love, and lies and deceit that pepper the world of adults. Under the veneer of languid summers and the joys of new experiences, run currents of darkness with hints of violence, death, sinister happenings. Cecil, accustomed to the straightforward world of children, is often confused by the behaviour of the adults around her, the ease with they lie and extricate themselves from a challenging situation. And she and Joss are faced with the possibility that Eliot may not be what he seems, he has his own secrets to hide.

We were told not to come back until four o’clock and the boundary we were set was the box hedge. On one side lay the house and its happenings, a shifting and changing pattern of Eliot, Mademoiselle Zizi, Madame Corbet, Paul, Monsieur Armand, Mauricette, the carloads and chars-a-bancs of visitors; when we were away from it, it was as unreal as the cocktails they all drank…

On the wilderness and orchard side was an older, more truthful world; every day as we passed into it, I caught its older, simpler scents.

The novel sizzles with the sensuousness of French summer – the light filtering in through the canopy of lush green trees, the shimmering surroundings burnished into gold by the rays of the sun, the languor of the heat, the liquid, dreamy atmosphere inducing feelings of exhilaration and being alive. The exotic food, delectable pastries, sparkling champagne and various others sights, sounds and smells dazzle Cecil and Joss, it is such a stark contrast to the dullness of their English existence. Breathing in the air of elegance and sophistication, they are intoxicated by the ease and glamour of the French way of living. Godden’s storytelling is wonderfully absorbing and she is great at describing things.

At that time of day the sun sinking behind the trees struck through the landing window and turned the staircase into a funnel of light; even the treads of the stairs seemed barred with gold, and through the round window came the sound of trills and flutings, the birds singing their evening song in the garden, before it dropped to silence. The staircase might have been Jacob’s ladder, stairs to heaven.

And here she is describing the ambience in a restaurant…

…As the patron cooked our steaks in front of us and dusk came down, shutting the little glass-sided restaurant into a world of its own, the disappointment went. Eliot gave us vin rosé, and the rose-coloured wine, the réchaud flame, the lights were reflected in the windows over and over again, shutting us into a warm lit world.

The prose is simple and unadorned and perfectly captures the voice of its naïve yet perceptive teenaged narrator.

What is also astonishing about The Greengage Summer is that much of it is autobiographical, based on true events. My edition of this novel has a preface by Rumer Godden and an introduction by Jane Asher. In her preface, Godden reveals to us the actual events that took place during their French holiday in 1923, the richness of material giving birth to this novel (Cecil is Rumer), while Jane Asher gives a flavor of her experiences of filming the book and of being cast in the role of Cecil. Both make for fascinating reading, but I would suggest reading them after the novel.

In a nutshell, The Greengage Summer is a glorious read with its evocative portrayal of summer, a meaty storyline and a cast of memorable characters. Highly recommended!

A Wreath of Roses – Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. My first of hers was A Game of Hide and Seek, which I loved, followed by Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and The Soul of Kindness. The latter two books found a place on my best reads for 2019 and my list of 2020 favourites respectively. A Wreath of Roses, then, is another winner from her oeuvre.

A  Wreath of Roses is a beautiful, dark tale of dangerous deception, lies, friendship and mortality.

The ominous opening scene pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the novel. We meet Camilla Hill – possibly in her late thirties who holds a secretarial position in a girls’ school – on a railway platform waiting for the train. Camilla is on her way to the countryside to spend the summer with her two best friends – Liz and Liz’s former governess Frances – just like they always did in the previous summers.

It is a blistering, scorching day, the white buildings shimmer, and an air of lethargy descends upon Camilla. She notices another individual waiting on the same platform as her (later revealed to us as Richard Elton). But this is just the lull before the storm. Very soon, both of them witness a man climb the parapet above the tracks and jump in front of the oncoming train.

This happening broke the afternoon in two. The feeling of eternity had vanished. What had been timeless and silent became chaotic and disorganized, with feet running along the echoing boards, voices staccato, and the afternoon darkening with the vultures of disaster, who felt the presence of death and arrived from the village to savour it and to explain the happening to one another.

This sudden juxtaposition of suicide and death in an otherwise seemingly calm environment unnerves the reader as much as it instills a sense of unease in Camilla. To add fuel to the fire, more unwelcome surprises await Camilla.

On reaching their holiday cottage, Camilla notices a marked change in both Liz and Frances. In earlier years, their summers were always ripe and filled with shared confidences, literary jokes, painting, and going for long strolls. But this year, it all feels different. Liz has married a clergyman and is preoccupied with her baby. Frances is growing old and frail and has departed from her trademark style of painting – having switched from gentle portraits and bucolic landscapes to producing wild, terrifying abstract works of art.

She felt ashamed of her preoccupation with stillness, with her aerial flowers, her delicate colours, her femininity. She was tempted outside her range as an artist, and for the first time painted from an inner darkness, groping and undisciplined, as if in an act of relief from her own turmoil.

In terms of personalities, Camilla and Liz could not be more different. Liz is warm, vivacious, sweet-natured, and holds no grudge. Camilla is guarded and reserved, certain disappointments in her life have made her defensive, and she employs sarcasm as a shield to keep hurt at bay.

Into this picture, we are once again introduced to Richard Elton, the man Camilla travelled with on the train. Richard is a sinister character, full of secrets, a man not to be trusted. At first glance, Camilla dismisses Richard as a type of character she typically despises, an empty man ‘who could never have any part in her life, whose existence could not touch hers, which was thoughtful rather than active and counted its values in a different way.’

Yet, she finds herself dangerously attracted to him. Afflicted by a sharp bout of loneliness, and painfully aware that life is passing her by, Camilla begins to see Richard often against her better instincts. This is partly as a form of revenge against Liz because she believes the latter has abandoned her, and partly because she feels the urge to venture outside her comfort zone and plunge into excitement and adventure. After all, Liz and Frances have taken dramatic decisions regarding their lives, so why can’t she, Camilla, do something similar?

While the reader is already aware that Richard is a dangerous liar with an aura of threat about him, will Camilla eventually see through his façade, his odd behaviour sharpened by fear?

A Wreath of Roses is a novel of many themes. There’s mortality and Frances’ preoccupation with it. Having been independent all her life, Frances worries about old age and the state of dependence that it implies. Also, just when she is about to explore new territories in her painting style, health issues begin to mar her.

The novel also touches upon friendship and how a change in circumstances can considerably alter the dynamics between friends, in a way that they can no longer connect on a deeper level as they once did.

A Wreath of Roses is also an unflinching portrayal of deception and lies – not just told by others, but probing deeper into the lies we tell ourselves to justify our actions.

Taylor excels at visual imagery and the landscape is as much a character in the novel as the people in it. The village where the women are staying is a place of holiday and of menace, and throughout the novel these two states remain intertwined.

Adept in her depiction of big drama in small-scale settings, Elizabeth Taylor is truly perceptive, an excellent chronicler of human nature complete with sharp observations and keen insights. Throw in some dash of wit and humour, and what we have in our hands is a rich and textured novel.

This is one of her darker novels looking as it does at the pain of life, its random cruelty and agonies of isolation. Throughout its pages, an air of violence and peril lurks, all kinds of fear grips its characters, and the reader is overcome by a feeling of dread and an impending sense of doom.

We are eventually left to ponder – Can crossing the boundaries of our individual limits traumatize us forever? And can real friendship survive the myriad changes in character and upheavals in circumstances that make up life?

Just as A Wreath of Roses opens on an ominous note, so does it end with darkness at its heart.