Book Review: The Narrow Land

The Narrow Land, by Christine Dwyer Hickey, is set in Cape Cod in the summer of 1950. It is a study of people, how they regard themselves and how they are judged by those they meet. There is an undercurrent of sadness, of privilege failing to offer fulfilment. The ebbs and flows of both adult and child relationships are evoked with skill.

The story opens by introducing ten year old Michael who was brought to America from Germany after the Second World War as part of a government programme offering a new way of life to orphaned children. Michael was adopted by the Novak’s whose infant son died. Now Mrs Novak is pregnant again and Michael is concerned that he is being dismissed from their home in New York as he is no longer required. Mrs Novak views the opportunity to send him to Cape Cod for the summer as potentially beneficial for all involved.

The Kaplans have taken a summer rental on Cape Cod for their family and friends. Mrs Kaplan suggested to Mrs Novak that Michael join them as a playmate for her grandson, Richie, who is still grieving for his father, killed in the Second World War. It is assumed by the adults that the boys will get on despite their backgrounds and upbringing being so different. Their summer by the beach is regarded as a treat for which they are expected to be grateful.

Not far from the Kaplan’s holiday home is the summer residence of the artist, Edward Hopper, and his volatile wife, Josephine. Unlike the local adults, who fawn over the famous artist in their midst, the young boys are unaware of the couple’s celebrity status. Michael and then Richie strike up a friendship with the pair that then draws the Kaplans and Hoppers together. Josephine grows jealous of her husband’s perceived interest in this household of women.

The points of view shift as the story progresses offering a window into each of the key characters’ thoughts, disappointments and aspirations. Josephine is a particularly complex character, not likeable but evoking a degree of sympathy. Her feelings towards her husband and his work are proprietorial and demanding:

“deafened by the clash of envy and pride, admiration and resentment”

Loneliness and self-pity are explored as is the disconnect that occurs when expectation leads to misunderstanding. The Hoppers are shown to connect with both boys better than the Kaplans, who demand a standard of behaviour that suits their societal standing. They project their own thoughts and interpretations onto these young people, rarely concerning themselves with reactions.

Katherine Kaplan, who is ill and declining, offers friendship to a besotted Michael but not loyalty when it matters. Edward is also drawn to her fading beauty, a risky preoccupation given his wife’s temper.

Josephine regards herself as a talented artist whose work deserved some of the attention her husband achieved. She blames him for not being a sufficiently loyal advocate over the years of their marriage. When she attends a party at the Kaplans’ she tries to raise her cachet amongst the guests by putting others down.

“She feels sorry then and slightly ashamed of herself for trying to demean them by demeaning their lives.”

When she overhears how this behaviour was regarded, something she has heard said of her before, she is mortified and blames Edward for not doing more to ensure her talents are revered by the people they meet. We are shown that Edward has been doing the best he can.

The writing flows gently throughout yet offers a depth of insight as the summer progresses towards fall and festering frustrations bubble to the surface. Each of the characters is flawed with the denouement offering an alternative view of their behaviours when another couple arrives on the scene.

The narrative is haunting as reader empathy is sparked and then repeatedly challenged. A deceptively straightforward story that provides a lingering, satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Atlantic Books. 

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Book Review: Vanish in an Instant

Vanish in an Instant, by Margaret Millar, is an old time crime thriller set in small town America’s mid west. First published in 1952 it needs to be read with an awareness of attitudes at the time. The women all appear to be looking for a husband, the men for a woman who takes care of her appearance. A new romance that blossoms was the one aspect I couldn’t make sense of in what is otherwise a carefully crafted tale.

The story opens with a concerned mother, Mrs Hamilton, flying into town to help her married daughter, Virginia, who is being held at the county jail following a murder. Virginia, was picked up by local police, seriously drunk and covered in the blood of the victim. They had been out together the night before. Virginia cannot remember anything about what happened at the cottage where the body of the married man was found.

A local lawyer, Eric Meecham, has been called in by Virginia’s husband, Paul. Mrs Hamilton takes an instant dislike to Eric. The mother is resentful that her son-in-law hasn’t managed to prevent the possibility of such a situation occurring. She appears overbearing but not entirely surprised at developments.

Before Eric can make progress with uncovering what happened, a witness appears whose evidence allows Virginia to walk free. Late night meetings and a series of unhappy marriages bring with them the whiff of dodgy deals. A further death takes Eric out of town where he becomes embroiled in the well being of an elderly alcoholic who the second victim was trying to help.

There are the requisite twists and blind alleys as the affected families and those associated with them reveal their links to both victims. Eric appears content to work without payment, despite it being offered on numerous occasions, as he follows leads and tries to uncover the truth of a sorry situation.

The writing flows and the plot is well structured. The denouement provides answers to the puzzle with the scattered clues now making sense. The era evoked brings to the fore the dissatisfaction and frustrations of, particularly, the female characters. This may be old time crime – lacking forensic analysis and effective, dogged police work –  but it offers a window into sociological aspects that are still not as distant as many of us desire.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.

Book Review: The Incendiaries

The Incendiaries, by R. O. Kwon, is a doomed love story between two troubled students who attend an elite American university. It opens with an explosion. The voice switches between Will, Phoebe and the snake oil salesman John Leal. Will is looking back, trying to understand why his Phoebe would get involved in a violent protest during which people died.

Will was at a bible college until he lost faith in the existence of God. He is now at university on a scholarship but has to supplement this with a job at an upmarket restaurant. He meets Phoebe at a party when she spills her drink down his trousers. Phoebe seeks distraction in the form of attention and alcohol to drown her grief following the death of her mother. Both these young people have an aching hole in their lives. John Leal has observed how humanity craves something to believe in. He is seeking power by creating a religious cult.

Will is drawn to Phoebe from the first night they meet, fantasising about how they would be together. When this happens for real he regards her as an amalgam of what she shares of her background and the ideal of his desires. Both had childhoods cloaked by intense faith, followed by loss, guilt and disappointment. They look to each other for hope, a chance of redemption, but instead find flawed individuals. When John Leal’s bait is accepted and he starts to wind Phoebe in, Will grows jealous. He wishes to save her, but for himself.

Phoebe is fond of Will and does not want to let him down as she understands others he loved have done. She also desires John Leal’s promises of deeper meaning and higher rewards. Observing her inculturation Will tries to force her hand. He behaves abominably.

In spare and powerful prose the author adds layer upon layer of reason and action fleshed out by numerous twists and shocks. The supporting characters evoke campus life and how little even close friends know of each other’s inner turmoils. Throughout the story being narrated Will is trying to understand. Yet the Phoebe he desires is an imagined one who puts him at the centre of their universe.

The varied roles of religion and the manipulations this allows are well portrayed. Little in the story is black or white. The denouement leaves much to ponder, not least that love may be as much a human construct as other beliefs.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Virago. 

Book Review: The Dominant Animal

The Dominant Animal, by Kathryn Scanlan, is a collection of thirty-six short stories portraying ordinary if atypical aspects of the lives of fictional Americans. There is a detached and disturbing undercurrent as individuals’ private moments are observed. The raw imagery appears somewhat shocking in our carefully curated and sanitised social world.

A Deformity Story is set during a lunch where friends are gathered in a restaurant and the narrator wishes to share an anecdote. How often in social situations are participants performing to the crowd?

“I had a story I wanted to tell. I had half an ear on the conversation but mostly was thinking of how I would enter it.”

People and the things they interact with are presented as grotesques, as, to conclude, is the behaviour of the friends.

Colonial Revival condenses a life into three pages. A man returns from a war, builds a business and home, marries, has children. The hollowness and futility of what many would aspire to and be admired for is brought to the fore by the lack of emotion. There is kindness and there is death – and time moves inexorably on.

Surroundings are described and, at times, enjoyed but many of the lives are lived without apparent beauty. Humans encountered are disturbing, their distasteful aspects presented unadorned and without obvious recourse. There are moments of horror – one story includes the sexual abuse of a baby – but even the more mundane lack hope of uplifting. And yet, the characters mostly accept their lot. It is, perhaps, this reader who looked for succour.

To give an example, descriptions of foodstuffs are of bagged, wet, congealed, oily concoctions. Taste is rarely mentioned. There appears little desire to create pleasure. The characters are mostly insular and focused on self.

Small Pink Female describes what its narrator considers a typical date.

“I’ve courted in the traditional fashion, of course – coming together on evenings arranged in advance, in the dark, on padded seats, facing the huge brash rectangle, or else in simulated candlelight, knees tucked beneath a drooping white cloth, enduring protracted sessions of mastication and, later, abbreviated fornication.”

Where is the excitement? the potential for fun?

Salad Days describes a relationship, its beginnings where everything, however ordinary, feels like a prize. Inevitably this cannot last. Dissatisfaction leads to violence.

Within these pages parents dislike their children and children their parents. Couples tolerate derided behaviour and take part in activities they do not enjoy. Those who manage to escape rarely find anything better. In Bait-And-Switch a couple carelessly destroy the comfort they have unexpectedly been granted.

The subjects may appear hollow and dark but there is a breathtaking honesty in the layers of meaning, however challenging this is to absorb. I was left feeling bereft at the humanity presented, yet in awe of the skills apparent in the author’s writing.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Island Press.   

Book Review: Layover

“people’s identities are constructed like birds’ nests. That frantic and fragile. So what? Most of the time, they manage to hold together.”

Layover, by Lisa Zeidner, is the story of a woman going through a breakdown. Claire Newbold is a competent and successful salesperson travelling throughout America to meet with customers who buy medical equipment. She is married to Ken, a cardiathoracic surgeon in Ohio. Their much wanted and tried for young son died following a car accident. Claire is struggling to come to terms with this loss and the impact subsequent events have had on her marriage.

Claire is well used to moving from hotel to hotel via flights and rental cars. She likes to swim in hotel pools when they are quiet. On a business trip she swims for too long and misses her connection. With nothing urgent to return home for, such as collecting a child from daycare, she simply lies down to rest.

Thus begins a period when Claire steps outside of her routine. Something in her has shifted granting her permission to exist groundless and answerable only to herself. She sleeps, she swims, she eats from room service. Not wishing to be traceable by her concerned husband she starts to stay in hotels she has regularly frequented without paying, gaining illicit entry to unused rooms. She continues to keep appointments until this is thwarted by others’ apparent concern for her behaviour.

At one hotel she meets a young man at the small swimming pool and considers why she has remained faithful to Ken.

The reader sees the world through Claire’s eyes as she moves through her days. She has detached herself from expectations, become an unknown travelling through who will not be met again. Thus she can claim to be whatever she chooses at that moment and can say what she thinks. Her honesty appears shocking at times demonstrating how censored everyday actions and conversation can be.

Claire wishes to better understand relationships, to find out more about the husbands of women she encounters, the lovers of the men. There is a voyeuristic element to her stepping inside the lives of almost strangers. However disconnected she feels there is a need to be perceived.

Whilst relishing the anonymity and freedom it grants her, Claire recognises that this period is a coda from which she must eventually extricate herself. When the time comes to return to her life she encounters more difficulties than she had foreseen, not least because Ken has become frustrated by his errant wife’s avoidance and left it to her to contact him. Claire is worrying about potential health issues she has self-diagnosed and believes could be serious.

There is an honest fragility to the sometimes sharp but always authentic prose with its undercurrent of grief and subtle need. Through each of the characters the reader observes how precarious even the most outwardly comfortable of lives can be, each individual’s need for validation. This is a well structured and engaging read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, One, and imprint of Pushkin Press. 

Book Review: Things We Nearly Knew

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Things We Nearly Knew explores the lives of the regular clientele at a bar in a small town in America. The narrator and his wife own and run the establishment. Over time the regulars come and go, people move on, circumstances change. The story told here is set over a nine month period which saw the arrival and departure of one such drinker.

Arlene first showed up in February. She ordered a vodka Martini and asked after a local man named Jack. With no surname to offer it wasn’t much to go on. She demonstrated a marked reluctance to share much about her history saying that she came from many places.

All the customers start out as strangers. The more often they visit the more facts can be gleaned. Still though, the narrator only knows whatever customers are willing to tell, or what others might say about them. How well can anyone know another person anyway?

Davy, for example, may or may not have been married. He has pictures of kids in his wallet but they might not be his, he has never said. More is known about Nelson who has lived in the town for many years, as have the bar owner and his wife, Marcie. They went to school with Mike, another regular but one they would describe as a friend. Later Franky will arrive, much to Marcie’s displeasure. He left under a cloud and she would have preferred if he had stayed away.

The men are drawn to Arlene with her red lips, dark hair and slinky dresses. Davy will become involved with her, as will Franky eventually. And then, after nine months she will leave for good, her tenure at the place a much mulled over memory.

The narrator did not always run a bar. Once he was a teacher. He and Marcie keep no secrets from each other, but no one shares everything about themselves.

There are glimpses of personal histories, teased out by the casual interest of the curious alongside a reluctance to fully engage. The middle aged are survivors of their past – there will always be elements they would prefer not to have to share. This is made harder when others talk freely of events, when they were also there.

The voice of the narrator is anecdotal with an undercurrent of regret. He is recounting the months at his bar which revolved around Arlene but with widening ripples. He and Marcie have been through a great deal together and will be affected by the fallout from these events. Some things may be better left unsaid.

The writing is concise with an almost abrasive view of human interactions. There is a distancing from emotion, a numbing of the senses. The mysteries are solved with an outlook of stoicism for the pain life brings, and leaves in its wake.

Any Cop?: This is a compelling read but a somewhat bleak perspective.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: UnAmerican Activities

UnAmerican Activities, by James Miller, is a collection of ten interlinked short stories set in contemporary America. They tell of drug users and porn stars, college kids and religious fanatics, vampires and republicans. The dark, beating heart of the book explores the ingrained beliefs that drive so many to behave irrationally. Despite the perversions depicted the stories are somehow highly entertaining. It was an unexpected delight to find this such a captivating read.

The book opens with an ‘UnPrologue’ which explains the origins of the stories that follow. It sets the tone and is a story in itself. The reader is then introduced to the first of a cast of characters who will appear intermittently throughout the collection. Each story stands alone but it is the wider plot arc that kept me so engaged.

The first, Eat My Face, is a tale of drug users and gun toting criminals. Their backstories may garner a degree of sympathy but they do little to help themselves with the choices they make. High on meth, crack and alcohol they stoke their paranoias, sharing stories of vampires invading the higher echelons of influence, decrying those they blame for the sorry state of the world as they perceive it to be.

“Usurping the white man’s power. Taking our place. Overturning the order.”

Hope’s End takes an ex-pat Professor of Ancient American Cultures at Cornell on a road trip alongside a young student with whom he is having an affair. In Iowa they are arrested for indecency, thus preventing the academic from reaching his destination, an archaeological discovery in Dakota where a strange sickness is afflicting those involved in the dig. There are strange goings on at both locations, a pastiche of Midwestern American values and beliefs.

Exploding Zombie Cock completes the trio of introductory stories. It is set among wealthy students in New York playing host to a marine due to leave for a tour of Afghanistan and looking for a good time before he faces life threatening combat. When the protagonist’s ex-girlfriend shows interest in the personable young soldier jealousy rears its head. A potion from a witchdoctor in Haiti that has been gathering dust in a cupboard is deployed, with unexpected effects.

Pour Out The Vials introduces a family of religious extremists who believe the goings on in Dakota signify the coming of Armageddon. This is not the first time they have seen such signs and their teenage daughter has grown inured to the prophecies her mother makes through an alcoholic haze. With her father at church and her mother in a stupor she watches videos posted on a cultish blog, of strange happenings that are not explained.

The Kiss Of The Nephilim brings a vampire into the cast of characters. After everything that has gone before this makes sense, bringing to the fore the dark humour of these tales. The fantastical beings and events appear no more ridiculous than the recognisable actions and prejudices of the more everyday population. Behaviours are disturbingly familiar.

With five stories remaining there are still plenty of characters to get to know: a bounty hunter with a sideline in vampire slaying; an internet porn star convinced she can retain ownership of her body; a hellfire preacher decrying the wider population’s fake churches, determined to drive these false Christians back to what he considers righteous ways, by whatever means.

The final story offers a humorous dig at the author’s own circle and neatly rounds up what has been a clever, incendiary, ludicrous in places but always entertaining wider tale. There is an UnEpilogue which confirms that this was never meant to be of a work of fiction in the style taught in creative writing workshops.

“there’s no clear trajectory from beginning through middle to crisis and then on to acute crisis – you know, the moment in the story when all seems lost and from where things go on to climax and resolution, the five acts”

It is undoubtedly stronger for its originality, clever without being clever for its own sake.

This is a rollicking ride through the hinterlands of America – I suspect the author loves the country whilst recognising its many hypocrisies and failures. As a work of literature it is impressive in its lightly presented depth. A subversive, deliciously indecorous, gratifying read.

UnAmerican Activities is published by Dodo Ink.