Tag Archives: Novel

Geoff Dyer – The Search

Knowing Geoff Dyer as a writer of brilliantly titled, slippery works of non-fiction (Out of Sheer Rage, Working the Room, Zona), I almost didn’t bother with this blandly titled, early novel of his. But I’m glad I did.

Image credit: Canongate

Well, I was glad by the end. Among the laudatory quotes on the back of my Abacus edition, one reviewer intriguingly describes The Search (1993) as a mashup of Raymond Chandler and Italo Calvino; yet there is not a whiff of my beloved Calvino until at least page seventy – more than a third of the way through. Before that, it is the most cod noir you ever read: a woman, Rachel, approaches a man, Walker, and asks him to find her missing husband. That’s it. The only jot of invention is that Walker isn’t a detective; he’s a Tracker, someone who – you guessed it – tracks people down.

Now, I’m all for genre, but genre isn’t an excuse for cliché, and I’m afraid to say there are some real clunkers in The Search. “Wind and rain howled through the window”; “Rain hammered on the roof of his dreams”; “[the train] rattled past”: these all come within a few pages of each other. An unfortunate corollary of this is that when Dyer does reach for an interesting word, it feels forced: “the sun flinching in and out of clouds”; “[he] squelched up a narrow lane.” As does his habit of dropping pronouns at the start of sentences: “He parked opposite the only place that was open, the Monroe Diner. Killed the engine and listened to the rain, the wind creaking through signs.” It’s almost as if Dyer’s trying to draw attention to the clichés…

I wouldn’t put it past him. Lured into a false sense of security (and boredom) by its oh-so-familiar surface, it took me some time to notice what was happening beneath: the world was getting stranger. I’d assumed the novel was set in America – where else do you get diners? – yet the names of the places Walker visits become increasingly transnational (Durban, Kingston, Queensland), even allegorical (Ascension, Despond), as his journey progresses. Not that it progresses very much. However far Walker travels, he never seems to get any closer to finding the husband: “whoever he was looking for was really just an excuse to propel him on his adventures.”

Readers of Calvino will be starting to note the parallels now; his genre-hopping detective novel If on a winter’s night a traveller (1979) also resists closure. The Calvino that The Search most closely resembles, though, is Invisible Cities (1972). In that book, Calvino dreams up fifty-five cities of the most staggering originality: like Argia, which has “earth instead of air,” so that its “streets are completely filled with dirt”; or Armilla, whose only proof of existence are “the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be.” Dyer proves no less inventive. In the city of Independence, everything is suspended in time: birds in the air; cars on the road; even, eerily, a suicide falling to his death. Horizon, by contrast, is not really a city at all, more a city-sized building, where “corridors and hallways served as thoroughfares, vast ballrooms as parks, rooms as houses.”

I just wish the novel showed this level of imagination earlier. I understand that Dyer is invoking genre conventions only to break them, but conventions don’t have to be as hackneyed and tiresome as they are at the start of The Search. So, to call on some clichés of my own now (I am writing this on the day of the Euros final): The Search is very much a novel of two halves; a late winner saves it.

by George Cochrane

The Search is published by Canongate and is available here.

Jessie Greengrass – The High House

Critics among you: kindly refrain from using the term “climate fiction”. (And don’t abbreviate it to “cli-fi”, either – that’s even worse.) For one thing, climate change is not a fiction, and for the sake of the deniers out there I think we have a duty to keep the two words as far apart as possible. Secondly, it does a great disservice to a novel like The High House, whose scarily convincing account of climate catastrophe suggests that author Jessie Greengrass may have a future in climatology if the fiction doesn’t work out. On the strength of this book, however, I suspect the fiction will work out.

Image credit: Holly Ovenden

The novel’s prologue, titled “Sally”, begins after the disaster, with the titular narrator living a hand-to-mouth existence in a house just above the new waterline:

From here I can see what is left of Grandy’s cottage, and below the half-gone pub, the village green. The rusting arc of the swing frame rises like a monument. Each year, between water and neglect, less and less of the village remains.

Sally is not alone, we learn – half-siblings “Pauly and Caro are upstairs” – and although things are hard for them at “the high house,” Greengrass’ ritualistic present tense implies that they are adjusting: “In the morning, I wake earlier than the others. I climb out of bed in my jumper and my socks and I pull on my dressing gown, and after it my leggings and my boots.” There is clearly comfort in routine – and danger. In the next chapter, titled “Caro” and told from that character’s perspective, Caro reflects on life before the floods, and it becomes clear that routine was how this all came about in the first place: the notion that “[t]he unexalted, tedious familiarity of our daily lives would keep us safe” meaning people kept on polluting.

This back-and-forth structure is nascent in the prologue’s punctuation. Observe the commas in this sentence from paragraph one; how they focus attention on the adverb and stall our reading: “My boots are beginning to go at the heels, now, but I am trying to get this last winter out of them.” Now, in the next paragraph, observe the comma at the end of these two sentences; how it sidelines the adverb: “I pour the last of yesterday’s well water into the kettle and set it to boil, put dried mint leaves in a mug, make tea. I would have had coffee, once.” This is how past and present are experienced by the occupants of the high house: the grimness of their current circumstances intruding on their every thought; the memory of their pre-flood lives growing more distant and fairy tale. It’s an ingenious use of punctuation, and Greengrass knows it: she will encase an adverb at the slightest opportunity. Yet the device never fails to have the desired effect, and I have to say it is thrilling to see our smallest units of ink being put to such original use.      

For the most part, I feel the same way about the novel’s structure. Greengrass’ realist approach to climate crisis does not lend itself to drama – the setting is England, so there are no hurricanes or tsunamis – yet by shifting perspective, jumping between past and present and breaking up her chapters into very small sections, Greengrass manages to wring a surprising amount of tension out of what are essentially “incremental alteration[s]” in weather. This fragmented architecture serves her characters well too, withholding Sally’s first proper encounter with Pauly and Caro until the midpoint so that we get to watch them grow up independently of one another. This is important. The children of absent parents, Pauly and Caro have a very strong, almost symbiotic bond (“The world with just the two of us in it was very small but it was easy”); Pauly is often to be found “curled” up in his big sister’s lap, his body perfectly tessellated with hers. Sally’s intrusion, then, inevitably causes ructions.  

The intensity of this Pauly-Caro relationship reminded me a lot of the sisters in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, another novel in which water plays a starring role. Where Housekeeping turns increasingly metaphysical, however, The High House moves the other way, towards realism – and not always for the better. The mystery of the house itself, for instance – of how it has managed to keep its occupants safe where so many have perished – is punctured when we learn that it was simply well stocked with food. Nor am I convinced by the overlapping viewpoints in these latter chapters, whereby we see the same events from each character’s perspective. That said, I like how short these chapters become, as if our survivors cannot even afford to waste words anymore. For me, and other readers I imagine, this is The High House’s most persuasive argument for environmentalism: the idea that if climate change reduces us to survival mode, then art will be the first thing to go.

by George Cochrane

The High House is published by Swift Press and is available here.

Penelope Fitzgerald – Innocence

Penelope Fitzgerald’s sixth novel Innocence (1986) concerns the Ridolfi, a family of quietly dignified, denuded Florentine aristos who trace their lineage back to the sixteenth century. It opens with the story behind “the Dwarfs”, a group of statues that crown the family residence, Villa Ricordanza. “Strictly speaking they are not dwarfs, but midgets…pathologically small, but quite in proportion”, and they bear witness to the grotesque, heartbreaking tale of the Ridolfi’s midget forebears who decided that their daughter Gemma should remain ignorant of her own smallness. Thus these early Ridolfi modified the villa’s architecture, employed only little people, and erected the statues. Eventually, the Count reasons that Gemma “would be better off if she were blind…And since there seemed no other way to stop her going up and down the wrong staircases, it would be better for her, surely, in the long run, if her legs were cut off at the knee.”

Image credit: HarperCollins

Most readers would prefer not to believe it, and Fitzgerald lets us turn aside if we so choose: “This story is not the one given out nowadays in the leaflet provided by the Azienda di Turismo”. But though the novel settles into a stiller, sadder key, this nauseous moment is not the last. One of the few non-Ridolfi characters is the angry young southern doctor Salvatore Rossi, who has left his native hole, Mazzata, to practise his trade in Florence. An early chapter flashes back to his ten-year-old self, accompanying his father on a pilgrimage to Antonio Gramsci, Comrade Nino, effectively a prisoner in Mussolini’s Rome. Gramsci’s body is decaying, his ideals are decayed: the former repels Salvatore, and the latter destroys his father. “On that afternoon he [Salvatore] decided that as soon as possible he would be emotionally dependent on no one.”

Thus Innocence arrives at the classic rom-com setup, the gamophobic bachelor whose non-marriage vows are upended by a singular woman. Yet the reader is hard-pressed to find much singular about Chiara Ridolfi, the half-American daughter of the wearily splendid Count Giancarlo Ridolfi – not really a count, “although the leaflet calls him that, because all titles were abolished in Italy after the Second World War”. It is 1955 and Giancarlo is wondering how to take his daughter’s news, namely that she is to wed Dr Rossi. Then we rewind to the moment when the couple met, a musical evening at the Teatro della Pergola:

   Chiara gave the doctor her hand.
   ‘You enjoyed the Brahms?’ he asked.
   She looked at him politely, but in wonder.
   ‘Of course not.’
   Perhaps we might agree about everything, Salvatore thought. No-one ever agrees with me, but she might…a young girl wearing a diamond necklace…as if she didn’t know how she had it on, and quite without the elegant gesture, the Grace Kelly gesture, of lightly touching the jewels with one hand. Perhaps this young woman didn’t know how to be elegant, or perhaps Grace Kelly didn’t. He felt deeply irritated. He had an intimation that he was lost.

Chiara’s candour gets through to Salvatore, who has no idea what to do with his furtive new emotions. When she tries to catch him after work, he bawls and screams her out of his practice; he takes a mistress and tries to shag his feelings away. Chiara, meanwhile, enlists her bulldozing English friend Lavinia ‘Barney’ Barnes to run as a go-between, and Barney pretty soon comes to the same conclusion as us. “I’m not at all sure that Cha ought to marry this man”, she tells Chiara’s silent farmhand cousin, Cesare.

When part 2 opens, however, Chiara and Salvatore are married. Fitzgerald cannily spares us the thaw, showing her magisterial instinct for scene-shifting. Innocence is a cinematic novel: some chapters run to ten pages, some to two paragraphs, never longer than they need to be. And it gets the Florentine detail absolutely right, without ever laying it on thick. ‘Why doesn’t Florence have a proper airport?’ Barney demands, still a valid question in 2021. Yet somehow Fitzgerald’s Florence feels older than 1955, almost Edwardian. The book strikes a similar note to Lampedusa’s The Leopard – they’re both wry, painful, gorgeous novels of fading glories, of old orders crumbling to modernity. Count Giancarlo Ridolfi shares some of Don Fabrizio’s magnificence; he just wears it much more lightly.

For Innocence has that quality of lightness that Italo Calvino thought a writer’s greatest possible virtue. It’s something to do with the prose, which punctures any character – usually Salvatore – who takes themselves too seriously. Of Salvatore’s pre-marital mistress:

This hair of Marta’s was somewhere between blonde and brown, a colour which, Marta’s sister continued, rapidly drove men mad. Franca claimed the right to say these things, presumably, by right of seniority and of possessing the experience of marriage, although it was pretty clear that Dr Rossi was not being driven mad in the least and that Franca’s experiences in the Empire style matrimonial bed were not very different from Marta’s in the top room.

The funniest line is never the punchline; it’s always tucked in somewhere before. It’s not “Franca’s experiences”, it’s the clause just prior to that. This is what I mean by the prose’s lightness: Fitzgerald never pauses in expectation of a laugh. The same is true of Salvatore’s walk along the river Arno with the even-tempered Dr Gentilini, also a non-native:

He glared at the umber-coloured river, sunk to its lowest point. ‘Note that it’s not much more than a gutter, this Arno of yours, a gutter between the hills.’ Gentilini, to whom this was addressed, replied that it wasn’t his Arno, and that in the Po valley they found it much cheaper and more practical to put up with the floods and give up prevention altogether. He himself would never have been able to start out on a medical career if it hadn’t been for the flood compensation his family received in 1924.

Salvatore is usually snarling like this, and few readers will root for him. Instead, it’s the tenderness between Chiara and Barney that glues the novel together, especially when the latter, who seems invulnerable, opens herself up to Cesare. She has met him twice before, most recently at Chiara’s wedding, where she helped him carry the overcome Signora Gentilini out back.

    ‘I’ll tell you what it is,’ said Barney. ‘It won’t take long, because I know exactly what I want to say. I’ve been thinking it over for some time. As far as I can see, all Italian men get married, unless they’re… Right, well, as far as you’re concerned, I’m prepared to marry you right away…Now I’m getting to the real point. I want you to listen to me carefully. I’m in love with you. I love you.’ 
    ‘Yes,’ said Cesare.

by Harry Cochrane

Innocence is published by HarperCollins and is available here.

John le Carré – Call for the Dead

George Smiley: a character I’ve encountered many times on screen and radio, but never actually on the page. Yes, Call for the Dead is my first John le Carré novel, and at the risk of giving “the game” (as Smiley would call it) away too soon, all I will say for the moment is that it won’t be my last.

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Image credit: Matt Taylor/Penguin

My impetus for reading le Carré now, of course, is his recent death, or rather the glut of tributes that followed his death about how great a novelist he really was. I don’t know why I ever doubted this – probably because of some ingrained snobbery about spy novels, I suspect – but when I saw the eulogies of John Banville and the like (“As a writer [le Carré] transcended mere genre, showing that works of art could be made out of the tired trappings of the espionage novel”), then I knew I had to give him a go. And what better place to start than where it all started? Published in 1961 while its author was still in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Call for the Dead was le Carré’s first novel and Smiley’s introduction to the world.

I’d be interested to know how the world responded. This reader, for one, was rather surprised by the book’s opening paragraph:

When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary. When she left him two years later in favour of a Cuban motor racing driver, she announced enigmatically that if she hadn’t left him then, she never could have done; and Viscount Sawley made a special journey to his club to observe that the cat was out of the bag.

When I read this, I thought maybe I’d picked up a Muriel Spark novel by accident: the antique adverbs, the gentle satire. This was not the hard-boiled prose I’d been anticipating. I never got that. When le Carré’s tough, it’s rarely down to an austerity of style: “The witnessing of death in war brings a sophistication of its own; but beyond that, far beyond, is the conviction of supremacy in the heart of the professional killer.”

The effect of this floridness is a kind of detachment, a key word in Call for the Dead and a defining characteristic of Smiley. Here is chapter one’s account of his years in Germany as an MI6 recruiter:

It intrigued him to evaluate from a detached position what he had learnt to describe as ‘the agent potential’ of a human being; to devise miniscule tests of character and behaviour which could inform him of the quality of a candidate. This part of him was bloodless and inhuman – Smiley in this role was the international mercenary of his trade, amoral and without motive beyond that of personal gratification.

He has softened since then – the marriage to Ann – but not much. Now in his fifties and a bachelor once again, he is just as disinterested as ever, so that even when he is implicated in the suicide of a suspected commie spy, he is able to separate his personal connection with the case from his professional responsibilities and give it his full, dispassionate attention. In another life, he’d have been a great killer.

But this is not Bond. Emphatically not. In fact, there is a moment just before the final confrontation – when Smiley considers bringing his gun, then decides against it – that can only have been a nod to Fleming: “Besides, he reflected grimly, there’d be the most frightful row if he used it.” A frightful row, and a whole lot of paperwork, no doubt. Spying is not glamorous and, as it transpires, the case is rather small fry. This is all to the good. At barely 150 pages, Call for the Dead is taut and tight and had me heading straight to Amazon for the next Smiley. The game is only just beginning.

by George Cochrane

Call for the Dead is published by Penguin and is available here.

Lisa Harding – Bright Burning Things

This is the third time I am writing about contemporary Irish fiction on this blog, and if I didn’t quite have the confidence to say it in those reviews, then reading Lisa Harding’s Bright Burning Things has given me the confidence to say it in this one: Irish literature is in a very good place right now.

Image credit: Evgenij Yulkin/ Stocksy United/Bloomsbury

This is more than can be said for the novel’s protagonist, Sonya. As if being a single mother to a boisterous four-year-old wasn’t hard enough, Sonya is also an alcoholic, and when we first meet her on a Dublin beach, the two are mixing dangerously:

The fever builds and I find I’m stepping out of my trousers and pulling my T-shirt over my head, dropping them in a puddle at my feet before I sprint towards my boys [son Tommy, dog Herbie]. My imp is waving, beckoning me into the shimmering water. Hello, Elation, you spangly bitch.

“[L]ethal and irresistible,” this imp functions as a kind of shoulder devil throughout the novel, urging Sonya to drink and lash out at the worst possible moments. In the same scene, for instance, she confronts an old lady who has quite rightly pulled her up for leaving Tommy alone on the beach:

‘Is there someone I can call?’ Her voice a hag’s voice. I knock the phone out of her hand and grab my son from her arms, which are stick-thin with loose swathes of skin. Feel repulsed by this old woman: her proximity, her bossy intrusion into our happy, happy world.

Harding will often drop her pronouns like this, so that her first-person verbs almost read as imperatives – as if Sonya is telling us to “[f]eel repulsed by this old woman.” It is very confrontational writing.

Maybe too confrontational at times. The first fifty pages or so are less a stream, more a torrent of consciousness, and Harding’s relentless present tense means there is little by way of backstory to soften this. Something that does emerge in these pages, though, is the fact that Sonya was once an actor. Quite a successful one too, and although she is under no illusion that her career is over (“failed actress, failed mother”), what she hasn’t quite let go of is the sense of an audience watching. It’s there in the beach scene, this feeling that she is constantly under scrutiny, is always having to perform, so that, later, when her father stages an intervention and tells her “you have a problem with alcohol,” Sonya takes it more like a bad review than a hard fact:

How dare he waltz, jive, shimmy, slink – no, shove – his way in here after all this time, with his disdain and his arrogance, telling me what I am, who I am, what kind of a mother I am.

Thankfully, she does listen in the end and, faced with the prospect of losing Tommy to social services, she agrees to go to rehab. Thus begins Act Two and a whole new kind of performance, as Sonya learns to cope without alcohol and live without Tommy.

For all the flashiness of Act One, it was this second section that really impressed me. As Sonya detoxes, so the prose detoxes too, both becoming a little more grounded:

I’m back in my body, heavy and exhausted, shins sore. No sign of Lady Madcap now. I walk, slightly limping, heart thumping. Try to gather the disparate parts of me. I draw on everything I’ve learned in here. Feel the ground beneath my feet, look around me, try to see, to really see, what is really here: the shedding trees, the leaves underfoot, the murky sky above.

Maybe it’s the short sentences, the repeated sounds, but there is definitely more weight to these words. As there should be. After years of light-headedness, Sonya is finally returning to earth, is finally grasping the gravity of her situation. She really could lose Tommy and, if sobriety is the way to avoid that, then she knows it’s a price worth paying.

For this, we forgive Sonya anything. For all her faults – and she has many – her love for Tommy is undeniable, and her hotheadedness is largely just protectiveness. Even at Sonya’s worst, they are a tight little unit, with their own private language they communicate in. As far as Tommy is concerned, for instance, Sonya is “Yaya”, “a name he concocted in response to me calling myself Sonya at times, then other times Mama, and his little head got confused.” The dog, too, gets all sorts of names – “Herbie”, “Hewbie”, “Woofter” – in a way that dog owners will undoubtedly recognise. I was less convinced by Sonya’s relationship with her father and stepmother, which did need more backstory I felt. But I’m nitpicking. Bright Burning Things moved and thrilled me immensely, and what more can you ask of a novel than that?

by George Cochrane

Bright Burning Things is published by Bloomsbury and is available here.

Walker Percy – The Moviegoer

I’m always wary when new editions of old books trumpet their trophy cabinets. The really great ones don’t need to. Take my Penguin Modern Classics Invisible Man, for instance: you have to look very closely in its front matter to find any mention of its National Book Award. Whereas my Methuen edition of The Moviegoer emblazons its National Book Award across its front cover. Happily for readers, this is not a reflection on the novel’s quality; only on its impact. For while The Moviegoer may have come top in ’62, it is the novels that didn’t win that year, Franny and Zooey, Catch-22 and Revolutionary Road, that have had the last laugh, all going on to achieve classic status and platinum sales figures (much later in the case of Yates’ book) in a way I don’t think The Moviegoer has ever quite managed. Which is a shame, because it really is a terrific novel. 

Image credit: Brill/Darren Peterson

Evoking The Great Gatsby and not suffering by the comparison is just one of its achievements. Take its narrator, Binx Bolling. He bears a strong resemblance to Nick Carraway. Both do the same job; both are on the cusp of thirty. He even sounds like Nick:

I am a stock and bond broker. It is true that my family was somewhat disappointed in my choice of a profession. Once I thought of going into law or medicine or even pure science. I even dreamed of doing something great. But there is much to be said for giving up such grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable, a life without the old longing […] It is not a bad life at all.

You can be sure that anyone who says that at the start of a novel is not going to feel that way for long. Though it is hard to pinpoint exactly what throws Binx off course. As you can see, he lives a fairly hermetic life. A bachelor and a business owner, his only real vice is his womanizing, with each of his secretaries – Marcia, Linda and the one we meet, Sharon – falling foul of his charms. These are also hard to pinpoint. Like Nick, Binx is really quite feckless – “sure” is his response to just about any question – and his snobbish Aunt Emily is allowed to completely engineer his life.

With this in mind, you might expect Binx’s voracious moviegoing to be his way of escape, of living by proxy, but it is not quite that. This extract illuminates it, I think:

it was here in the Tivoli [theater] that I first discovered place and time, tasted it like okra. It was during a re-release of Red River a couple of years ago that I became aware of the first faint stirrings of curiosity about that particular seat I sat in […] I made a mark on my seat arm with my thumbnail. Where, I wondered, will this particular piece of wood be twenty years from now, 543 years from now?

Place and time are key. Binx’s nightmare is that he should “be seeing one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time.” He craves specificity, what I’ll call “here and now-ness.” That, as I understand it, is the object of “the search” he talks so much about, and when he does not have it, he feels untethered. That’s when “the malaise” sets in; the malaise that suddenly “settles […] like a fall-out” during an otherwise-happy day out with Sharon. There are a few more of these Don DeLillo-esque abstractions throughout the novel, none clearly defined, suggesting to me a depressive who doesn’t have the language – or want the language – to understand that’s what he is. And he’s not the only one. Ever since her fiancé died in a car crash the day before their wedding, cousin Kate has also suffered bouts of blackness and has been a constant source of worry to her family. With Kate now due to marry again, her mental state is once more under the microscope and Aunt Emily enjoins Binx, the only one in whose company Kate feels comfortable, to keep an eye on her.

Given the place and time of the novel – New Orleans circa 1960 – Aunt Emily’s concerns are perfectly plausible. This is a society held together with spit and glue; an old world not yet touched by civil rights, but about to be, and an erratic element like Kate is a threat to that. In Aunt Emily’s African American manservant, Mercer, for instance, Uncle Tom is still very much in evidence: “My aunt truly loves him and sees him as a faithful retainer, a living connection with a bygone age.” But there is change in the air. Watching a Mardi Gras parade file past, Binx and Kate bear witness to “a vanguard of half a dozen extraordinary Negroes dressed in dirty Ku Klux Klan robes” who seem to presage this change. The result is a New Orleans of semi-mythic power, like Fitzgerald’s Long Island; it’s no coincidence that Binx lives in a suburb called “Elysian Fields.”

There is also literal change in the air; storms are forever brewing and venting, with direct consequences on those below: “[Kate] will not feel wonderful long. […] I know very well that when the night falls away into gray distances, she will sink into herself.” Now, I am usually allergic to descriptions of sky and weather – and advise all writers to avoid them – but Percy’s really are wonderful:

The squall line has passed over. Elysian Fields is dripping and still, but there is a commotion of winds high in the air where the cool heavy front has shouldered up the last of the fretful ocean air. The wind veers around to the north and blows away the storm until the moon swims high, moored like a kite and darting against the fleeing shreds and ragtags of cloud.

In a novel of ideas and alienation like this one, such lyricism really leavens it. That doubling up of adjectives in “cool heavy front” I particularly like. Percy will often do this: ask two opposing adjectives to get along without the help of a comma. Others include “furious affectionate,” “rapturous rebellious,” “peevish-pleasant.” In these, we get a microcosm of the whole novel, which depicts a place in barely functioning harmony.

Sometimes it doesn’t function at all. There is an awkward episode late on when Kate and Binx sit on a mezzanine and look down on one of Aunt Emily’s society dinner parties that really doesn’t work; seriously, I have no grasp on the geography of this scene. The humour we get at the expense of Mercer also sits uneasily. Apart from that, though, I struggle to think of a reason why The Moviegoer is not in the first rank of novels. It did for me what DeLillo (to come back to him) fails to do for me: discuss big ideas with wit and warmth.

by George Cochrane

The Moviegoer is published by Methuen and is available here.

Sally Rooney – Conversations with Friends

With a third Sally Rooney novel on the way and a TV adaptation of this, her first, in the works, Conversations with Friends is surely about to re-enter the conversation. So let’s talk about it.

Image credit: Elliana Esquivel/Faber

The title tells you two important things about the novel: its dialogue-heaviness and its simplicity of prose. What it fails to give you a sense of is the novel’s narrative. There are arguments, yes, soliloquies, certainly, flirtations, most definitely, but I’m hard pressed to remember anything so mundane as a conversation ever happening. Part of the problem, though I accept this may just be my problem, are these so-called ‘Friends’. There is nothing that annoys me more, in life and in art, than a precocious teenager who has the entire history of Western philosophy at their fingertips, and in Conversations with Friends we get just such a character in Bobbi (okay, she is just out of teenagehood, but she is still preternaturally brainy). Mercifully, Bobbi is not our narrator – that would be her friend (and ex-girlfriend) Frances – and she is somewhat redeemed by the suggestion that maybe her brilliance is all in Frances’ head. That idea I like.

Frances, you see, is comparatively unremarkable. Early on, she admits to having no “real personality” of her own and, by way of disguising this, will change her spots on cue:

Bobbi and I often performed [Frances’] poetry at spoken word events and open mic nights that summer. When we were outside smoking and male performers tried to talk to us, Bobbi would always pointedly exhale and say nothing, so I had to act as our representative. This meant a lot of smiling and remembering details about their work. I enjoyed playing this kind of character, the smiling girl who remembered things.

Given this talent for acting, Frances’ involvement with an actual actor seems a match made in heaven. Nick is in his early thirties and, though his career may be on the wane, his looks are not. He is “exceptionally handsome” – to the point of absurdity, I have to say – and genuinely quite nice too, if a little withdrawn. There is just one problem: he’s married. Worse, his wife, Melissa, is a friend of Bobbi and Frances’ and is writing a hagiographic magazine piece on their poetry act. These are our players, then, these our complications, and the rest of the novel is about how these rub up against each other – literally rub, in the case of Nick and Frances.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is the setting. Frances and Bobbi are students at Trinity College Dublin, and apart from a brief sojourn in France, the whole novel takes place in Ireland. But you would hardly know it. Not a single mention of the Troubles, nor an ounce of self-consciousness about same-sex relationships. It’s refreshing, and Rooney is surely at the vanguard of a new Irish literature here. She is particularly good on technology, something many contemporary writers are still afraid of, and quotes emails and texts with a reverence usually reserved for letters. She is aware that we communicate differently online, is alive to how ambiguous and easily-misconstrued these messages can be, and gets those registers just right. She’s not completely damning of technology, either. Trying to work out Bobbi’s true feelings for her, Frances “decide[s] to start reading over [their] old instant message conversations” one night:

It comforted me to know that my friendship with Bobbi wasn’t confined to memory alone, and that textual evidence of her past fondness for me would survive her actual fondness if necessary.

How is this different from Bendrix poring over Sarah’s diary in The End of the Affair? One of the most common criticisms of the internet is its permanence, but have we not always been recording our innermost feelings on things that will outlast us?  

Published in 2017, Conversations with Friends must also mark the first appearance in fiction of the Netflix generation. Bobbi and Frances have a very casual relationship with film and TV, putting things on to zone out in a way that seems completely true to how we live in 2021. That said, they have good taste (of course they have), and the novel is deliciously cineliterate. All the way through, its frank, almost screwbally depiction of female friendship smacks of Greta Gerwig and, sure enough, the novel does not leave us without a reference to Frances Ha. However, where a ninety-minute film can get away with a threadbare plot, a three-hundred-page novel can’t, and perhaps my biggest issue with Conversations with Friends is how it meanders. Frances and Nick break up and get back together one too many times; the alcoholic father thread seems to be coming from a whole other kind of Irish novel; and the late-in-the-day illness of our main character is such a clichéd way of injecting energy into a flagging text. I wish Rooney had had the courage of her convictions and stuck to her conversations, rather than falling back on these false notes of melodrama, because as a chronicler of how we communicate in the twenty-first century, she is peerless.

by George Cochrane

Conversations with Friends is published by Faber & Faber and is available here.

Austin Duffy – Ten Days

I can’t imagine a career in medicine leaves much time for writing novels, so the fact that practising oncologist Austin Duffy has just released his second is impressive enough. What’s more impressive still is the quality of that novel. Low-key, but with a cumulative power that sneaks up on you, Ten Days is a deft and affecting meditation on grief and memory.

Image Credit: Brian Podolsky/EyeEm/Getty Images

The rather nondescript title refers to the Ten High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar. The novel begins on the eve of these, with sixteen-year-old Ruth and her goy father, Wolf, on the plane from London to New York. In the baggage rack above them are the ashes of Wolf’s recently deceased wife, Miriam, whose dying wish to have her remains scattered on the Hudson they are on their way to honour. At least, that is the official reason for their visit. Wolf, however, has a few more things on his agenda, including selling his London property and arranging for Ruth, who has only packed for ten days, to stay on in New York and live full time with Miriam’s Jewish family. It is unclear, initially, where he will be going.

The day after their arrival, the pair join Miriam’s family at their home in Queens for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is a tense occasion. Cremation is all but forbidden in Judaism and so the very fact of Miriam’s ashes is an uncomfortable one for her devout relatives. Doubly so that Wolf is carrying them. Irreligious and a serial philanderer, Wolf has only recently re-entered Ruth and Miriam’s lives after a long estrangement and has never been popular with his wife’s side of the family. Nor his own. Under no illusions about how he treated her mother, Ruth is outwardly hostile to Wolf and the pair are constantly bickering. Fortunately, Duffy knows what a teenager sounds like:

‘So what do you want to do today then?’
She ignored him, so he had to repeat the question.
‘Nothing’ Ruth said, not looking up from her phone.
‘Well we have to do something.’ […]
‘I told you already,’ she said. ‘I’ve got plans.’

Now doesn’t that ring true?

Of course, Ruth’s uncommunicativeness is intensely painful for her father. Even more so when he does occasionally get through to her. For instance, during one of their exchanges, he cracks a joke that makes her laugh and “for just a minute there was no tension between them and they sat like any other father daughter.” But only for a minute. Duffy is excellent at these glimpsed moments. A photographer by trade, Wolf is alive to them too. The following sentence comes from the dialogue above, where I have put the ellipsis:

When she did look up for a split second it was Miriam’s face staring back at him. The reddish tint to Ruth’s hair, it was all Mir, her complexion darker than normal in the light they were sitting in. He didn’t want to move an inch in case she disappeared.

These misrecognitions become more frequent as the novel goes on, so much so that we start to question Wolf’s mental state. Clearly he is grieving, but is there also something else?

All the while, the world around our characters is carrying on as usual. That’s the cruel thing about grief, the indifference of others, and there is surely nowhere more indifferent than New York City. Duffy evokes the place well. During their stay, Wolf takes Ruth on a tour of her mother’s old haunts and shows her the exact bit of pavement where he said goodbye to Miriam after their first date:

Ruth was silent and they both stared and at the same time moved towards the totally nondescript patch of sidewalk that he was pointing at, absorbed for a few moments by its imaginative stimulus and – for the pair of them if for nobody else on the planet – its historical resonance.

The way we invest places with memories – place attachment – is one of the novel’s central concerns. Later on, Wolf visits Miriam’s old flat. Though it has been renovated beyond almost all recognition, “as if the past was an infectious disease that had been stamped out,” Wolf recognises it instantly. But when he is dead and gone, and his memory gone with him, what will remain of Miriam then? Especially in a city like New York, where the landscape is always changing, where life is moving at a million miles per hour, memory will always be losing ground to modernity.

In this context, religion does still seem to have a place in the modern world. For all Wolf’s sneering, it is a fact that Miriam’s Jewish family are better at remembering than he is; the pictures of long-dead ancestors on their walls, their rituals and litanies are all ways of keeping the past alive. Duffy makes a compelling case for this but doesn’t overstate it. Rather, Ten Days is a novel of character and connection, a story of memory that has continued to live in mine.

by George Cochrane

Ten Days is published by Granta and is available here.

Elizabeth Taylor – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

It is a rare book that can make me laugh out loud, but Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont managed it – many, many times. A testament to Elizabeth Taylor’s skill as a humourist: her novel turns fifty this year and yet nearly all of its jokes still land. Just as well, too, because the book is also desperately sad and would have been quite unbearable had it not been so funny.

Image credit: Virago/Sarah Maycock

The title sums up the plot nicely. It’s about an elderly widow, Mrs Laura Palfrey, who goes to live at a faded hotel in Kensington, the Claremont. Within a few pages of her arrival, it becomes clear that Mrs Palfrey’s status is not unique among the hotel’s clientele: they are all elderly widows. For these people, the most valuable currency is company, and they cling to those few occasions when dutiful family members pay them a visit or take them out for the day – as much for the social cachet these confer as for the company itself. Mrs Palfrey, however, is a little short on family; her only relation in London is her grandson Desmond, with whom she is not particularly close. All the same, she expects Desmond will at least be decent enough to pay her a visit and, when pressed by the other guests at the Claremont, tells them as much. Desmond is not decent enough, however, and when he doesn’t show, Mrs Palfrey’s loneliness becomes highly conspicuous.

An opportunity to save face arises, though, when Mrs Palfrey falls down on the street and is helped up by a young man called Ludovic Myers. Ludo is a young, out of work writer in desperate need of a hot meal and, to thank him for helping her, Mrs Palfrey invites him to dine at the Claremont. Boasting to her fellow residents that she is expecting company that evening, one of them asks if it is Desmond she is expecting and, for whatever reason, she doesn’t deny it. Thus begins an elaborate deception whereby Ludo pretends to be Desmond, out of which a genuine friendship develops between the young man and the old lady.

At least, the friendship seems genuine; yet there is always that transactional element to it. Both, after all, are gaining something from each other’s company: Ludo is getting money, meals and material for his novel; Mrs Palfrey is gaining social esteem. At other times, though, their friendship seems a little too genuine: during one of their meals, Ludo coyly pops a biscuit into Mrs Palfrey’s mouth and the pair lean towards each other “like lovers.” Interestingly, this book came out in the same year as that great film Harold & Maude (1971), also about a relationship between a very young man and a very old woman. Taylor does not take things quite as far as that film does, however, and Mrs Palfrey wisely retreats from any latent sexual feelings she may have for Ludo:

He was almost beautiful, she thought, and the idea so alarmed her that her glance flew away from his face and fastened on one of his shoes, as it swung back and forth, the thin sole flapping.

You could say that Taylor’s glance flies from such thoughts, too, though that is not a criticism. By avoiding the characters’ true feelings for one another, she cleverly keeps this central relationship murky and ambiguous, and stops it straying into the saccharine territory it could so easily have entered.

I love the fact that Ludo is “almost beautiful” as well, as if Taylor can’t quite bring herself to fully beautify any of her creations. She is far more interested in ugliness; like Ludo’s shoes, nearly everything in the book is broken or disfigured in some way, including the people. Therein lies much of the novel’s humour. For instance: “[Mrs Burton’s] face had really gone to pieces – with pouches and dewlaps and deep ravines, as if a landslide had happened.” Or Mrs Palfrey herself:

She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man and, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.

The environment, too, is consistently grey and depressed, the novel’s young characters permanently poor and hungry. It’s a pretty bleak portrait of late sixties/early seventies Britain, and were it not for a few very passing mentions of long-haired youths and the Beatles, you would be forgiven for thinking the sexual revolution had never happened at all.

The Britain that Taylor presents instead is one that is clearly feeling the loss of its empire. Thus Mrs Palfrey’s comparison to a general is no accident; the book is replete with old military men, on the verge of extinction now there are no colonies to govern. Mrs Palfrey herself, we learn, was the husband of a British governor to Burma and she still reminisces fondly about those days when “nearly all the world was pink on her school atlas – ‘ours’, in fact.” As well as being a fantastically entertaining novel, then, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is also a fascinating historical document: of Britain’s wilderness years after empire and why, in 1975, the country tried to anchor itself again by joining the European Union. For my money, it also offers one of the most astute explanations as to why that anchor never really took and why, in 2016, it came loose altogether:

When she was young, [Mrs Palfrey] had had an image of herself to present to her new husband, whom she admired; then to herself, thirdly to the natives (I am an Englishwoman). Now, no one reflected the image of herself, and it seemed diminished: it had lost two-thirds of its erstwhile value (no husband, no natives).

The British obviously never got over that last devaluation, did they?

by George Cochrane

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is published by Virago and is available here.

Kazuo Ishiguro – A Pale View of Hills

A new Kazuo Ishiguro novel is always something of an event and his latest, Klara and the Sun, looks to be no different. I’m just sorry I can’t get more excited about it. Despite their regular appearances on best-novels-of-all-time lists, I never warmed to The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go and thought, after the second disappointment, that that was it for me and Ish. But now with this new book coming out, and not much else to look forward to at the moment, I thought I would at least try to muster some enthusiasm for Klara and would give the man another chance. Well, having now read A Pale View of Hills (1982), I am afraid to say that Ishiguro’s blown it again.

Image credit: Faber & Faber/Getty Images

Like those other two books, Pale View is a memory novel. In this case, the memories belong to Etsuko, a Japanese widower whose daughter, Keiko, has recently committed suicide. Holed up in an English manor house with only her younger daughter, Niki, for company, Etsuko spends most of her days reminiscing about Japan. Specifically, she keeps returning to those few months before Keiko was born, when she was living on the outskirts of Nagasaki and becoming friendly with a neighbour called Sachiko. This is shortly after the War and the dropping of the atomic bomb, and Sachiko and her young daughter, Mariko, are among the many people displaced by those events. Though clearly of good stock, the pair’s straitened circumstances lead them to take up residence in the tumble-down cottage opposite Etsuko’s high-rise, and Etsuko can’t resist making their acquaintance. It’s not like she has much else to do. Still under American occupation at this point, Japan’s post-war economic miracle is yet to take hold and, though there is the sense of things changing, the country remains in the grip of old, patriarchal family values. Hence Etsuko stays at home while her husband, Jiro, goes to work.

The relationship that develops between the neighbours is a curious one. Etsuko, young and pregnant, is deferential towards Sachiko, who is older and already a parent. Yet Etsuko is far more of a mother to Mariko in these months; Sachiko is positively negligent, not seeming to mind if her daughter runs off or gets hurt and regularly leaving her to fend for herself. Sachiko is rather irritated, in fact, when Etsuko suggests they look for Mariko or offers to mind her. Still, the two women spend an increasing amount of time with each other, to such an extent that one cannot help but wonder why these memories are so preoccupying the older Etsuko. There is no great falling-out between the friends, no major drama. Why is she not thinking about Keiko, whom we never learn very much about?

By Ishiguro’s own admission, his answer to this question is not a very satisfactory one and the way in which Pale View’s final pages try to draw past and present together is far too hasty and abstruse. But that was the least of the book’s problems for me. What annoyed me most was what annoyed me about the other Ishiguros I’ve read: its self-possession. Ishiguro’s famously simple language, I don’t mind in and of itself. In fact, it works terrifically well at points, when the simplicity is concealing complexity. Like here: “Jiro looked up and threw me a glance. I put down my sewing and got to my feet.” There is so much going on between these two sentences – years of marital discord, for one thing – and yet the elision of this emotional history and the prose’s bare statement of facts suppresses all that, performing the novel’s theme of convenient forgetfulness. But when Ishiguro literally repeats the same plain sentences over and over again, it does become tiresome. This is at its worst in the dialogue, where characters will often alight on a phrase and then reiterate it several times over the course of a conversation. I see the desired effect – to amplify the sense of amnesia – but it just doesn’t work for me.

I feel the same way about the book’s structure. You can almost hear Ishiguro at times, his stage-management is so apparent. This passage comes from near the beginning:

I have no great wish to dwell on Keiko now, it brings me little comfort. I only mention her here because those were the circumstances around Niki’s visit this April, and because it was during this visit I remembered Sachiko again after all this time.

Where’s “here”? “This point in the book”, you mean? Now, I am under no illusion that I am reading a book, but for a novel trying to replicate the function of memory, this withholding of information – this wish not to dwell – simply does not ring true. That is not how memory works: we can’t choose not to think about something because it is painful. No, this is the author speaking here, not wanting to spill the novel’s secrets too soon. It smacks of the creative writing class to me.

In fairness, this was Ishiguro’s first novel, and he had just completed a creative writing course when he wrote it, but truthfully I don’t think he writes memory any better in his later books. The way in which one memory seamlessly leads to another, and often chronologically: those things don’t ring true either. At least in The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro doesn’t write anything as on the nose as this:

Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here.

 Yes, I had got the message.

by George Cochrane

A Pale View of Hills is published by Faber & Faber and is available here.

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