Rattlebone – Maxine Clair

Last year I thoroughly enjoyed my first McNally Editions title – Winter Love by Han Suyin – and was keen to explore more from their catalogue. I settled on Maxine Clair’s Rattlebone which reminded me a bit of Gwendolyn Brooks’ wonderful Maud Martha, although the two books are very different in terms of style and presentation. My verdict? I absolutely loved Rattlebone and its characters who will linger in my mind for a long time.

Maxine Clair’s Rattlebone is a gorgeously written, heartbreaking compilation of eleven interlinked stories that capture slices of life of an African American community in 1950s Kansas City. It sensitively depicts the journey of Irene Wilson our protagonist from when she is eight years old to her last days in high school; she and her friends traverse a particularly rough terrain of tumultuous family life, challenges and heartaches of growing up, and the blight of occasional violence. Irene is often the central feature in each story, at other times she is on the periphery – the points of view sometimes shift and there are stories where the focus zooms on other members of her family or the black neighbourhood of Rattlebone where she resides.

For this review, I have deliberately refrained from writing on all eleven stories but will give a flavour of some of them followed by my overall impressions of the collection as a whole.

Irene is our narrator in the first story “October Brown”, a beautifully rendered tale of an eight-year-old trying to make sense of the complicated grown-up world of adults, the tenacity of familial bonds, and the sweet taste for revenge. We learn of Irene’s mother Pearl who is pregnant with a second child, her father James Wilson, and Irene’s sophisticated, fiery schoolteacher October Brown (“she became our grown-woman schoolteacher, the burnt brown of her left cheek was marked by a wavery spot of white: a brand, a Devil’s kiss”). Through Irene’s eyes, we witness the tumultuous relationship between her parents…

They were on opposite ends of the same track, and I knew from time and again that they would both speed up, bear down until they had only inches left between them, then they would both fall back and rumble until silence prevailed. Later my father would bring home orange sherbet and my mother would rub his back and they would both be laughing.

James and Pearl are fond of one another and yet James embarks on an extra-marital affair with October Brown during Pearl’s pregnancy (another married woman in one of the later stories will remark, “Some men act a fool when their wife is carrying a child“). Things are never quite the same after that but while a perceptible shift in the atmosphere at home is evident to Irene along with its cause, she can’t quite grasp the full meaning of it (“a no-name, invisible something had settled on us”). Afraid of her family breaking apart for good and the loss of quality time with her dad, Irene sniffs an opportunity to make her teacher pay for her actions.

The next story “Lemonade” is about music, differing religious views and beliefs, miracles, and the simple, unfettered gaze of children vis-à-vis complex perceptions of adults. The story begins with a subtle hint at the segregation prevalent in 1950s Kansas City; the neighbourhood of Rattlebone has only five to six inhabitants who are white. One day as Irene and her friends are enjoying their game of Lemonade out on the street, they are greeted by a white woman who preaches to them about the birth of Jesus and the holiness of his mother Mary. Calling herself Sister Joan, there’s a sense that she’s maybe trying to convert them to Roman Catholicism, but while the children don’t shun her, they are aware of where to draw the line. However, Sister Joan’s presence frightens a child of special needs called Puddin (Irene’s friend Wanda’s brother), and during one such encounter, she gifts him a necklace of beads; a gift that has forbidden written all over it and screams black magic to Irene. Meanwhile, we learn of Irene’s budding talent for music, and with the encouragement of their music teacher, she begins to learn and practice piano at Wanda’s home. But then the two girls witness a miracle that not only stuns them but also the community. The occurrence of this miracle culminates in a fierce debate on religious views in which Sister Joan finds herself embroiled – she is maligned by the adults, but the children are more forgiving. 

In “Water Seeks Its Own Level”, the focus shifts to Irene’s father James Wilson, who has just lost a well-paying job in a construction project for daring to protest about the differing treatment of the blacks as compared to the whites. James does not have it in him to head home yet and explain himself to Pearl. Instead, with ample time on his hands, he decides to stroll around the city. Meanwhile, floods have caused the Missouri river to swell dangerously, and while Rattlebone has been lucky to escape nature’s fury, some of the other low-lying areas have been completely inundated. While ambling along the town, James is restless, besieged by thoughts of living an unencumbered life, a life of action and adventure, and a non-paying physical job to sandbank the river offers that window of freedom for a brief period.

“Cherry Bomb” is a piercing, poignant tale of loss, the possibility of love, and growing up. A third-person account, it brims with the whiff of scorching summers, those languid carefree breaks between school terms infused with new friendships and budding romances. During one such summer vacation, Irene gets her first taste of young love, pursued by a boy called Nick who has taken a fancy to her. Nick’s attentions, not always welcome, often torment Irene, but when Nick gifts her cherry bomb, a firecracker that has already caused her cousin to lose an eye in a freak accident, Irene stores it in her secret box of keepsakes. It’s also a summer when Irene has taken to diary writing, and she laments at the fact that Wanda possesses a diary identical to hers, a diary that Wanda seems to have effortlessly purchased, while Irene had to save up to buy hers. When a tragedy subsequently occurs and fuels in Irene a searing sense of loss, her secret box of distilled memories causes her to wonder about things that could have been.

Another fine story is “The Roomers”, a first-person account by a new character called Mrs Pemberton whose husband Thomas Pemberton was introduced to the reader in an earlier story. When this story opens we learn that Mr and Mrs Pemberton have been running a boarding house for a long time, and the type of roomers they select has also changed significantly over the years. The Pembertons, especially Mrs Pemberton, are quite conservative and strict about the decorum to be maintained by their roomers. For this reason, the profile of their roomers is largely made up of teachers who are single, responsible, and not likely to engage in unsavoury behaviour. But the arrival of October Brown changes all that, at least in Mrs Pemberton’s eyes. October Brown is the embodiment of sophistication and elegance, and she has aspirations that are quite at odds with Mrs Pemberton’s traditional viewpoints. But when October Brown starts going out with a married man (“she wasn’t no more to him than a piece of poontang on a Saturday night”), its consequences unexpectedly cause a clash of principles between Mr and Mrs Pemberton – compassion versus keeping up appearances. But could this difference of opinion also be attributed to Mrs Pemberton’s jealousy and Thomas Pemberton’s yearning to be something that fate has denied him?

“A Most Serene Girl” is one of those stories that begins in a certain fashion and ends up in a different place, not what the reader expected. The story begins with a hard-hitting paragraph of violence – a man kills his wife with a knife, a gruesome act that clearly traumatizes his daughter Dorla, the witness to this horrific crime.

Dorla Wooten was the most serene girl in all of Lincoln Junior High. I never saw her talk behind anyone’s back. She never got loud in the lunchroom, or ran wildly when we changed classes. In the halls she glided along close to the walk with her head up and eyes straining forward as though something in the distance had caught her attention. And if you said anything to her, she looked down.

Psychologically scarred, Dorla has retreated into a shell, and out of sympathy Irene tries to befriend her but hits a stone wall. Meanwhile, Irene makes a new friend Geraldine, although the latter is reluctant to invite Irene into her home. The reason is soon clear – Geraldine resides with her mother in a basement flat of a building called a “tourist home” where rooms are rented for couples to have sex. Shame is what makes Geraldine hesitant to invite Irene into their home at first, and Irene is sympathetic. Irene’s feelings of sympathy for both Dorla and Geraldine possibly stems from a sense that she comes from a secure place, a relatively happier home. But then Irene makes a shocking discovery at the tourist home that upends this perceived security and causes her to look at Dorla and Geraldine in an altered light.

 “The Great War” is a short piece on Irene’s mother Pearl, a woman who has always “been waiting”, her mounting frustration with her life pretty evident as she ponders on the elusive meaning of love. “Secret Love” is a finely crafted story on the stigma of mental illness, the breakdown of family life, the angst of separation, and how shared family troubles can become a catalyst for deeper friendships.

Rattlebone, then, is a simmering cauldron of myriad characters whose lives and actions enhance the richness and beauty of this collection and brings to the fore the complex dynamics of communities. The milieu of Rattlebone may appear small and inconsequential but the range of feelings, emotions, and experiences of its inhabitants is universal. Death, trauma, and violence co-exist with kindness and compassion. Wives grapple with their husbands’ wayward ways. Unwed mothers bear the burden of patriarchal thinking and struggle to be accepted. Some children suffer alienation and isolation, others a sense of shame often a consequence of their parent’s actions. But a feeling of community spirit is also palpable – tragedies often bring families together as do wondrous miracles. At the centre of it, is our protagonist Irene Wilson whose personal experiences and relationships will mold her character and influence how she sees the world.

I hated that. I hated to hear her say women have needs. I hated that dark sea of mysterious passions women were supposed to have, that apparently made them behave in uncontrollable ways, like in all those magazines. Some women. I was never going to dip into it.

These are beautiful, sharply-observed stories with their tender portrayal of characters who display a quiet strength, an inner reserve that compels them to dream big and carry on despite obstacles and hardships.

There’s such a variety of themes explored – the meaning of love, the yearning for a stable family life, the excitement of new friendships, the sorrows of growing up, the power of dreams and aspirations, the disappointment of thwarted hopes and desires, the clash between modern and traditional values, the pain of adultery, cheating and shame, death and random violence, and so on.  Ever present is the stain of racism and segregation – it does not always form the focal point of the stories but it does seep in, stubbornly lingering in the background and occasionally coming to the fore.

In terms of structure, every story introduces a new character while familiar characters introduced in the earlier stories reappear in the later ones thereby adding much depth to each of them, and while Irene’s story unfolds linearly, each story feels complete by itself. The writing style is clear and uncluttered, but what also stands out is the musicality of the language – a wonderful symphony of poetic prose and colloquial diction, a singular manner of expression that perfectly captures the thoughts, conversations, and views of a community and makes its characters feel intensely real.

Spring was unraveling everywhere. Summer was coming when I would go hunting for wild greens with my father, when we would be up in the warm, damp mornings taking his gunnysack with us along the railroad tracks all the way to the woods. Summer was coming when he would show me which was dandelion and which was dock, which was pokeberry and which was nettle. We would bring back morels and truffles for my mother to dip in egg and crackers and fry them crispy brown. Summer was coming and maybe my father would come back. 

Profound, gentle, wise, and laced with empathy, Rattlebone is a superb collection of vibrant, bittersweet sketches of small-town life that deserves a much wider audience. Highly recommended!


The Hearing Trumpet – Leonora Carrington

Originally published in 1974 and reissued by NYRB Classics in 2020, Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet had been languishing on my shelf for more than a year (I could say that for most of the books that keep streaming into the house endlessly) and it was Kim McNeill on Twitter and her excellent #NYRBWomen23 reading challenge (there are many gems on that list) that finally prompted me to pick it up.

If you thought a story centred on a 92-year old protagonist was bound to be dull and depressing, think again. Leonora’s Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet is a delicious romp, a stunning feat of the imagination and an iconoclastic book if you will that refuses to be pigeonholed into convenient definitions and genres; and in Marian Leatherby, the nonagenarian in this superbly off-kilter tale, Carrington has created an unconventional heroine who is charming, feisty and memorable.

The book begins in a quiet, residential neighbourhood on the outskirts of an unnamed Mexican city where Marian Leatherby, our narrator, resides with her son Galahad, his wife Muriel and their 25-year old unmarried son Robert. It soon becomes clear that Marian is not welcome in that house; the family considers her an embarrassment. Marian has been allotted a room that opens into a little garden and she pretty much keeps to herself for larger parts of the day hardly venturing into the main house. She seems content in her own little world with a couple of cats, a red hen and her fanciful daydreaming to occupy her time. She also enjoys the company of her spirited and loquacious friend Carmella with her penchant for conjuring up unrealistic and improbable schemes and ideas.

“Men are very difficult to understand,” said Carmella. “Let’s hope they all freeze to death.”

One day, Carmella in a considerable state of excitement gifts Marian a hearing trumpet she purchased in a market.

When Carmella gave me the present of a hearing trumpet she may have foreseen some of the consequences. Carmella is not what I would call malicious, she just happens to have a curious sense of humour. 

It’s a thing of beauty (“encrusted with silver and mother o’pearl motives and grandly curved like a buffalo’s horn”), and with its aid Marian’s hearing is now amplified to such a degree that she can hear conversations hitherto inaccessible to those with normal hearing. Until one day, she inadvertently chances upon a conversation between Galahad, Muriel and Robert plotting to dislodge her from their house and park her in an old age home much against her true wishes.

Marian internally seethes but realises that resistance is futile and resigns to her fate. When the family finally arrives at the old age home, Marian is completely taken by surprise; the institution (the building itself and the area around) run by the overly pious Gambit couple gives the impression of an enchanting medieval castle quite unlike the bleak, cheerless structure she had envisaged.

First impressions are never very clear, I can only say there seemed to be several courtyards, cloisters, stagnant fountains, trees, shrubs, lawns. The main building was in fact a castle, surrounded by various pavilions with incongruous shapes. Pixielike dwellings shaped like toadstools, Swiss chalets, railway carriages, one or two ordinary bungalows, something shaped like a boot, another like what I took to be an outsize Egyptian mummy. It was all so very strange that I for once doubted the accuracy of my observation. 

Marian soon begins to settle in, gets introduced to her fellow residents, finds herself entangled in various adventures and is caught up in the fascinating life of an abbess. Indeed, in the middle of the book, the story goes back several centuries in time to a convent where this Abbess takes centrestage, an iron-willed woman with her proclivity for unimaginable luxuries and riches, an unconventional way of life and her daring quest to restore the Holy Grail back to the Goddess of Venus. Also enmeshed in the story are Marian’s reminisces, her carefree childhood spent in the company of her mother “who had lived a constant round of dizzy pleasure” that involved trips to Paris, Biarritz, Monte Carlo, Sicily and so on.

Murder and mystery, cross-dressing, hunger strikes, rebellion, midnight dancing and revelries, poetic riddles and the spectre of a looming frozen apocalypse are only a few of the smorgasbord of ingredients that spice up everyday life at the old age home.

How will this all end? In a deliciously unexpected way in what is a highly original story in the first place, reveling in taking the reader down surprising paths right from the very beginning.

There are so many facets to The Hearing Trumpet that makes it such a captivating read, the first and foremost being the characters. Marian Leatherby is a terrific creation; she may be hard of hearing but has lost none of her zest for life.

Here I must say that all my senses are by no means impaired by age. My sight is still excellent although I use spectacles for reading, when I read, which I practically never do. True, rheumatics have bent my skeleton somewhat. This does not prevent me taking a walk in clement weather and sweeping my room once a week, on Thursday, a form of exercise which is both useful and edifying. Here I may add that I consider that I am still a useful member of society and I believe still capable of being pleasant and amusing when the occasion seems fit.

She is, of course, distressed at the prospect of spending the rest of her days in an old age home, uprooted from the life she had grown used to, separated from her pets and her friend Carmella, but she takes it in her stride, and keeps her mind open to new experiences at the institution, even to new adventures of which there are plenty. Then there’s Georgina Sykes, an elegantly dressed woman (at least to Marian), irreverent and opinionated who has caught Mr Gambit’s fancy much to the chagrin of Mrs Gambit and is often involved in a hilarious slinging match with the grating, phony and self-righteous Natacha Gonzalez.

“Georgina Sykes is an obscene old woman,” said Natacha with unction. “She is a sex maniac and ought not to be allowed to mix with the other members of the community. She warps their minds.”

“I shall have to talk to her at once,” said Gambit in extreme agitation. “This might ruin the reputation of the whole Institution!”

“That is not all,” added Natacha. “She insulted me outrageously. Naturally I hurried to her bungalow to transmit the Message, with all the purity of mind I have cultivated for my Mission. Georgina,’ I said gently, ‘I have a message for you.’ She replied very rudely, saying: ‘If it’s a message from Heaven stuff it up your something or other.’ 

Mrs Gambit leads a self-improvement cult at the institution, bizarre as hell, with its emphasis on dodgy principles of Christianity and goodness. Other characters include the meek Maude Wilkins who unwittingly finds herself at the centre of a sinister plot, the imposing Vera Van Tocht, the overburdened Anna Wertz with her propensity to chatter away, the painter Veronica Adams who practices her art on reams of toilet paper and the Marquise with her tales of war and the battlefield. Last but not the least is the fiery Abbess whose tale wonderfully leaps off the pages for both Marian and the reader.

Yet despite its leanings towards fantasy, humour and banter, there are a variety of timeless themes that form the nucleus of the book. Growing old is, of course, one of them, and the way Marian is considered a burden to her son and daughter-in-law reflected in the cold manner in which she is treated is a grim reminder of the heartaches of old age. The Abbess is a symbol of feminism – her leadership skills and daring exploits, however dubious, is a breath of fresh air in a world and time largely dominated by men. The book also explores politics – the powerplay, hierarchy, scheming and favouritism rampant in the old age home is akin to the deceptively simple environment children experience in school (they say old age is like second childhood, don’t say?) and palpable even in the complex world of adults.

The Hearing Trumpet could be considered an extension of Carrington’s identity as Surrealist artist; the novel is a unique montage of styles and genres that resist the laws of conventional narration to brilliant effect. Indeed, Carrington’s creative vision is laced with its own interior logic – daydreams blend with reality in a sort of homage to Surrealism; historical fiction, comedy, fantasy and an embedded narrative (the literary equivalent of a Russian doll) effortlessly co-exist within the seemingly limitless boundaries of the author’s vivid imagination. A hearing trumpet, a painting of a derisive winking nun, a magic elixir that facilitates levitation to name a few are the hallmarks of Carrington’s delightful flights of fancy; much of the humour comes from Marian’s keen observations on her surroundings and its people as well as the interaction between the oddball residents of the institution; we have a book within a book that transports the reader to the 17th century replete with a maverick, cross-dressing Abbess, plots and intrigues that involve the cultish Knights Templar, Goddess Venus and the Holy Grail.

But that’s not all! The icing on the cake and a lovely surprise are the illustrations peppered throughout the book (her son Pablo Weisz Carrington is the artist) – quirky and playful that perfectly capture the mood and eccentricity of this heady, surreal concoction.

The Hearing Trumpet, then, is a triumph; a novel that radiates charm, joie de vivre and a forceful personality of its own that makes it utterly singular. Highly recommended!

Source: NYRB

Mrs Caliban – Rachel Ingalls

Mrs Caliban was one of the books I had carried with me to a much needed holiday in Goa; the beach, the waves and the leisurely pace of the hours stretching before me only enhanced the joy of reading this terrific book.

About twenty pages into Mrs Caliban, Dorothy Caliban is busy in the kitchen making preparations for dinner. Fred, her husband, has invited a colleague over and the two are in the living room discussing work. This dinner having been sprung on her last minute, Dorothy makes it clear that the party will have to make do with spaghetti and salad and Fred relents. It’s a very ordinary scene – a housewife bustling about in the kitchen, cooking and assembling dishes, but suddenly this very ordinary moment is transformed into something extraordinary. Dorothy whirls around and sees an amphibian creature, a frogman, barging into the kitchen.

She was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.

This is the very same frogman who has escaped from the research institute he was imprisoned in with repeated warnings given over the radio on how violent he is since he had killed two scientists while breaking free. After the initial flash of shock and fright, Dorothy regains her composure and offers the frogman some celery since he is ravenous and later installs him in a room downstairs, a place that Fred barely visits, and thus a secret Dorothy can keep till she figures out what to do next.

On the strength of such a wonderfully novel idea, Mrs Caliban, then, is a tale of the disintegration of a marriage, love and sexual freedom, grief and loss, friendship and betrayal, and the re-invention of a woman having hit rock bottom.

Our protagonist is Dorothy, a housewife residing in the suburbs of California stuck in a stagnant, loveless marriage. With the unexpected death of their son, Scotty, during a routine operation as well as a miscarriage thereafter, Dorothy is tormented by grief and despair. Her relationship with Fred has reached breaking point. Resentment brews between the two as they silently blame each other for these twin tragedies. The sense of hopelessness has reached a stage where both are too tired to even divorce. And so they stumble along…staring into an uncertain future.

During those days there were times when Dorothy would lean her head against the wall and seem to herself to be no longer living because she was no longer a part of any world in which love was possible.

Dorothy’s days are filled with household chores, frequent shopping trips, cooking meals; tasks that lack variety and signify mind-numbing tedium. The demarcation between days seems blurred pushing her into a state of apathy. A part of her is even aware that Fred is sleeping with other women, but she is now indifferent. She does derive some joy from her friendship with Estelle, a divorced woman with two grown-up children, and the two women often spending time together chatting about themselves and their lives, discussing their problems and providing each other emotional support.

Whenever she was with Estelle, Dorothy became louder, more childish and happier than when she was with anyone else.

But when one day, Larry, the frogman, lands in Dorothy’s kitchen, her life alters unexpectedly and in ways she has not imagined.

Dorothy is aware of Larry’s history from bits she has gleaned from the radio news. Having been captured from the Gulf of Mexico, Larry had been installed at the Jefferson Institute of Oceanographic Research as a specimen for scientific analysis and study. Rebelling against the continuous ill-treatment meted out to him, Larry manages to escape but not before he kills two scientists on his path to freedom.  The institute brands the incident as murder, for Larry it’s an act of self-preservation.

The reader immediately senses the perceptible shift in Dorothy’s circumstances;  a chance for excitement, love and adventure…a development that pushes her head above water, breathing new life into her, just when she was slowly and steadily sinking.  As Larry and Dorothy embark on a passionate affair, her world begins to light up, the days are suffused with colour and there’s a sharp clarity to the way she views the people and situations around her.

There, up in the sky, she noticed for the first time a gigantic mounded cloud, as large and elaborately moulded as a baroque opera house and lit from below and at the sides by pink and creamy hues. It sailed beyond her, improbable and romantic, following in the blue sky the course she was taking down below. It seemed to her that it must be a good omen.

What makes Mrs Caliban unique is not just its unusual premise but also how rich the novel is in terms of themes explored. We learn about the gradual disintegration of Fred and Dorothy’s marriage, and decline in Dorothy’s mental health exacerbated by the death of her son and the miscarriage. It’s a loss she is left to grieve alone; their marriage left in tatters leaves no room for the couple to help each other through this difficult time.

Another theme touched upon is the beauty of new ways of seeing and perceiving things. Being an aquatic creature, his new surroundings are a novelty to Larry. But as Dorothy begins to view the world through Larry’s eyes fuelled by his questions on basic human behaviour and traits, she is forced to think a lot and even question many of the things that she otherwise took for granted or about which she didn’t much care previously.

The novel is also radical in the way it questions gender roles. The Calibans find themselves ensconced in traditional gender stereotypes – Fred earns the income, while Dorothy’s role is reduced to that of a housewife following the same unvarying routine day in and day out. But that changes with the arrival of Larry. With no qualms or knowledge about the pigeonholing of roles, Larry is more than willing to chip in and learn to perform a slew of chores, easing some of the burden off Dorothy. Mrs Caliban is an exploration of love and sexual freedom; Dorothy’s affair with Larry is a revelation to her, and makes her feel alive after years of being trapped in an airless marriage. At a time, when women were expected to put up with their husbands having affairs, Dorothy refuses to follow what’s expected of her by society, choosing instead to seek some modicum of happiness in the manner she deems fit.

Furthermore, the novel is a statement on how society perceives outsiders with contempt and suspicion rather than compassion, inclusiveness and understanding. We are shown how narrowly defined and restrictive the definition of “normal” is, how anything outside that constricted space is immediately looked upon with venom, violence and hate. Being an amphibian man, Larry is branded  an outcast by the scientific community as well as the general population, a creature to be captured and tortured, rather than accepting him for who he is and treating him with more respect. Thus, despite being a tender, caring man, often Larry finds himself pushed into the corner by aggressive behaviour of the people around him and compelled to use violence as the only form of self-defense.

Above all else though, Mrs Caliban is a tale of the re-invention of a woman, her journey from a state of abject depression to that of rejuvenation and self-discovery – an evergreen theme which also forms the essence of another novel I read and loved recently – Tessa Hadley’s wonderful novel Free Love.

Within the broader strange outline of its plot, the novel has an interior logic all its own. In fact, Mrs Caliban is a testament to Ingalls’ excellent storytelling ability that she is able to blend the fantastical with the mundane to greater effect and on the strength of her assured writing the reader is willing to be led along in whichever direction she takes us. The foreword by Irenosen Okojie in my edition highlights how the book has influenced several people in the fields of art and culture – Guillermo del Toro’s award-winning The Shape of Water, particularly, is a prime example. In a nutshell, Mrs Caliban is an excellent novella, a magical, subversive fairytale and its themes of gender stereotypes and the isolation of people who don’t fit in remain relevant even today.

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.

A View of the Harbour – Elizabeth Taylor

I am steadily making my way through Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, such a terrific writer she is. All the novels I’ve read so far – A Game of Hide and Seek, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, The Soul of Kindness, A Wreath of Roses – are superb. A View from the Harbour is another addition to this stellar list.

A View of the Harbour is a beautifully written, nuanced story of love, aching loneliness, stifled desires, and the claustrophobia of a dead-end seaside town.

The main plotline revolves around Beth Cazabon, a writer; her husband Robert, the town’s doctor; and Beth’s friend Tory Foyle who lives next door and is divorced. However, like the wonderful The Soul of Kindness, this is a book with an ensemble cast where the lives of the other members of the community are interwoven into that of the Cazabons. This is a drab, dreary seaside town where for desperate want of drama and excitement, the lives of its residents become fodder for speculation and gossip.

The opening of A View of the Harbour unfurls like the brushstrokes of a painting. A vivid panorama of the harbour is captured – the cry of the seagulls, the trawlers heading out to the open sea and the subtle transformation of the harbour landscape from a place dotted with derelict buildings to that of a picture postcard town once you are further away at sea; the distance blurring the drab contours of the harbour front.

No gulls escorted the trawlers going out of the harbour, at tea-time, as they would on the return journey; they sat upon the rocking waters without excitement, perching along the sides of little boats, slapped up and down by one wake after another. When they rose and stretched their wings they were brilliantly white against the green sea, as white as the lighthouse.

To the men on the boats the harbour was at first dingy and familiar, a row of buildings, shops, café, pub, with peeling plaster of apricot and sky-blue; then as the boats steered purposefully from the harbour-mouth to sea, houses rose up in tiers the church tower extricated itself from the roofs, the lettering on the shops faded and the sordid became picturesque.

This view is something aspiring painter Bertram Hemingway is keen to capture but is continuously defeated in his efforts. Bertram is now retired and wants to spend his leisure days dabbling in his hobbies – painting and seeing more of the world. He resides in a room above the town pub called Anchor and has promised the owner to deliver a painting of his own at the end of his stay. Bertram is an outsider in this seaside town, an object of curiosity and while he takes an interest in the lives of its residents, enjoying the prospect of helping them whenever he can, he makes sure he is not deeply involved. He prefers to remain on the town’s fringes, happy with his role of an observer.

And what he and the reader observe are the lives of the residents playing out, their daily struggles and how they are beset by a sense of chronic unhappiness. Tory Foyle lives alone, her husband of many years has abandoned her for a younger woman and she is trying to come to terms with the fact that she must fend for herself. Her son, studying in a university, is a constant source of worry to her. But despite this setback, Tory is a strong-willed woman and has not let herself slide into apathy. She remains stylish and poised, maybe even a little cold and aloof.

Her best friend Beth is the complete opposite, absent-minded and living in her own world. Beth is an author of dramatic novels and so engrossed in her craft of plot construction and character development that she does not much care for appearance, and domestic duties seem like such a burden. Beth and Robert have two children (20-year old Prudence and 5-year old Stevie), and she is sometimes anguished about not being a good mother. Her marriage to Robert has settled into a comfortable space driven by routines with not much room for passion and intimacy. But Robert feels trapped by the sameness of his job and married life, and looking for a spark he begins an affair with Tory.

Then there’s Lily Wilson, a young war widow, who is frequently overcome by utter desolation.

When she saw the light swinging over the water she felt terror and desolation, the approach of the long evening through which she must coax herself with cups of tea, a letter to her brother in Canada or this piece of knitting she had dropped to the floor as she leant to the pane to watch Bertram, the harsh lace curtain against her cheek, the cottony, dusty smell of it setting her teeth on edge.

Her life centers around running the waxworks exhibition during the tourist season and making trips to the library for books she can lose herself into, activities that further accentuate her sheer loneliness and her craving for human contact. Her desultory conversations with the charming Bertram give her a new lease of life and she starts frequenting the pub more often to have a chat with him and be escorted home.

And then there’s the ghastly Mrs Bracey, a bitter, gossipy, crude woman confined forever to bed because she is paralysed from the waist down. Mrs Bracey takes advantage of her hopeless physical condition to boss her daughters around, to the point that they are both resigned and filled with hate for her at the same time.  Iris works in the pub and has lofty dreams of a glamorous life although she is also aware of the futility of this ever happening. She refuses to regale Mrs Bracey with stories and scraps of gossip for which the latter is so hungry.

Maisie secretly wishes that her mother dies soon. Maisie’s expectations from life are prosaic compared to those of Iris, but her onerous duties of a caregiver bog her down and dash her hopes. Given that Mrs Bracey can no longer rely on her body which has given up on her, she lets her imagination run freely, even occasionally displaying a sharp, perceptive mind, however unwelcome.

Last but not the least is Robert and Beth’s daughter Prudence, a blossoming young woman stuck in a dead-end town. Robert worries about Prudence’s prospects, she does not have the talent to carve out an independent life for herself and the possibility of marriage also seems remote. But Tory knows that Prudence is perceptive; she has gauged correctly that her father is having an affair, a development that torments her greatly.

Virago 40th Anniversary edition

A View of the Harbour, then, is a bleak but beautiful novel that explores the themes of loneliness, solitude, betrayal, dashed hopes and of feeling constricted in a small, dismal town. Lily’s loneliness is devastating. Ravaged by fear because of an uncertain future, she yearns for company, someone to talk to and at one time even contemplates spending time with the coarse Mrs Bracey if only to dispel the emptiness gnawing inside her. Tory is more self-possessed than Lily but also very lonely. She ponders over the future of her relationship with Robert which appears to be doomed. Can she afford to deeply hurt her best friend, the one anchor that possibly keeps Tory rooted in that town?

And what about Bertram? Bertram so far, considers himself lucky for not having formed any romantic attachments. But he is also beginning to feel the weight of his years and the idea of marriage and settling down sounds comforting in a way that it never did before, maybe something of the isolation of this seaside community begins to get mirrored in him too.

Elizabeth Taylor displays wonderful sensitivity towards her characters who are such lost souls, they are flawed but she does not judge them. She is great at depicting the small dramas playing out in the lives of these ordinary people with her characteristic flair for astute insights into human nature. This is a community struggling to feel important, where an annual innocuous, humdrum festival becomes an event to talk about given the lack of entertainment otherwise, and where the inhabitants’ lives never go unobserved.

She is also superb at showcasing a vivid sense of place – the vastness of the sea conjuring up infinite possibilities is juxtaposed against a small harbour town devoid of excitement, burdened by limits which induce a notion of being stalled and going nowhere. The light over the sea keeps changing, in sharp contrast to community life which essentially remains unaltered.

The view of the harbour (giving the novel its name), including the lighthouse, is a permanent fixture in the book and is symbolic of different perspectives to each individual. To Mrs Bracey, the view from the window is an opportunity to observe what’s happening outside and satisfy her need to be in the thick of things.

Up at her window, and in some discomfort, Mrs Bracey sat in judgment. Guilt she saw, treachery and deceit and self-indulgence. She did not see, as God might be expected to, their sensations of shame and horror, their compulsion towards one another, for which they dearly paid, nor in what danger they so helplessly stood, now, in middle-age, not in any safe harbour, but thrust out to sea with none of the brave equipment of youth to buoy them up, no romance, no delight.

To Prudence, the view from the window possibly signals danger, she did inadvertently chance upon her father and Tory together and its implications make her wonder whether their family life is in peril.

Female friendship also forms one of the core themes of the novel explored through the relationship between Beth and Tory. Beth and Tory’s personalities could not have been more different but they complement each other. But this bond could be derailed by Tory’s affair with Robert of which Beth is unaware and is unwittingly the cause.

“You and I…” Tory said. “We are so different. But nothing with men is so good as our friendship. If women love one another there is peace and delight, fun without effort. None of that wondering if the better side of one’s face is turned to the light…”

Strangely, for what it’s worth, Beth seems the happiest of the town residents, her books and writing keep her occupied and maybe protected from the harsh realities of life around her. We even scent a whiff of feminism in her when she secretly laments at how men can plunge headlong into their careers, a kind of freedom denied to women because of domestic responsibilities.

In a nutshell, A View of the Harbour is Taylor once again at her finest. Her stunning, gorgeous prose and evocative use of language effectively conveys the quiet, desperate dramas of a community dulled by the smallness of its existence, the bleakness made bearable by great compassion and depth in the portrayal of her characters who must navigate their private lives on their own. Highly recommended!