Book Review: Beautiful Place

“Luck didn’t make you feel lucky. Being saved didn’t make you feel safe.”

This book just didn’t do it for me. It happens. No reader is going to enjoy every title they pick up. Beautiful Place is big – well over five hundred pages – so it was disappointing that my personal reading experience was largely one of frustration. I will try to explain.

The story opens by introducing the protagonist, Padma, a young woman who has returned to the luxurious villa she grew up in with her adoptive father, Gerhardt. In many ways Padma’s upbringing has been typical of the children of wealthy Sri Lankans. She is well educated, although repeatedly failed her university exams. Where Padma differs from her peers is her beginnings. Her birth father, Sunny, sold her to Gerhardt when she was nine years old, fully expecting him to use her in heinous ways. Instead, Gerhardt legally adopted the frightened young girl and treated her as a good father should. He bribed Sunny to stay away.

Gerhardt is an Austrian architect who has built a solid and respected international reputation for his work over many years. He designed the villa in rural Sri Lanka that became Padma’s haven. When she returned from Columbo – where she had been living with Ruth, a long time friend of Gerhardt’s, while attending university – she asked Gerhardt, now living in a nearby property, if she could open rooms within their villa to up-market paying guests. Ever eager to support his beloved daughter, Gerhardt arranged for two small bungalows to be built in the grounds of the villa and offered them to Padma as the basis for her fledgling hospitality business.

Padma’s first guest is a young man named Rohan who is escaping the fallout from a distressing court case. He arrives with a heavy suitcase and an air of guilt and suspicion. From this inauspicious start the pair are drawn together. The villa’s chef, Soma, is unimpressed by Rohan but remains loyal to Gerhardt’s wish that Padma be protected and supported in her venture.

Sunny remains a local hoodlum. His success and influence appear to have increased over the years. He wishes to continue to profit from Padma. Despite her knowledge of his twisted hatred and ingrained greed, she believes herself strong and clever enough to resist his machinations. She agrees to visit her birth parents when told her mother, Leela, is ill.

The setting, Sri Lanka, is key. There are many rich descriptions of its natural beauty. The people, however, are largely grasping and resentful. Parents remain determined to control their offspring and arrange marriages that will not just be socially acceptable but also lucrative for the family. Small business owners take every opportunity to fleece tourists and damage competitors. The lane leading from Padma’s villa is lined by bars and brothels – and the pay by the hour guest houses their clientele frequent. All residents must buy protection in cash or favours. Connections to powerful leaders bring with them impunity.

“Sri Lankans had always fought each other, she argued; peace was not in the Sri Lankan’s nature and the social inclusion he strove for was a Western liberal fantasy.”

Padma brings down trouble on herself by acting foolishly. She is described as attractive in looks and demeanour. Her behaviour too often made little sense. The device of her guest house allows for a rolling cast of characters whose actions and reactions demonstrate the malignancy of control – the desire for power over others – both within families and throughout the country. Parents sow seeds of mistrust and hatred in the younger generation who have been raised to cede to demands made of them – thus secrecy is endemic. The parents, even loving ones, are wary of any signs of independent thinking.

This beautiful country is populated by natives who are riven by their history but joined in their desire to make money from the visiting foreigners whose habits they service yet bitterly resent. Women in particular are depicted as powerless – although they find ways to exert influence amongst family and friends. Each of the characters desires what they regard as others’ freedoms. Love is portrayed as restricting.

I struggled through the first half of the book before momentum finally picked up and the story became more compelling. The final hundred or so pages again lost my interest. For supposedly clever people, the main characters appear to court obvious and avoidable dangers. The denouement was tidy and without schmaltz but felt a long time getting there.

The narrative is lecturing in style as opinions are dissected. Plot threads felt thin and lacking depth – there to enable discourse rather than provide entertainment. As well as frustrating I found the story depressing and will now add Sri Lanka to the list of countries I have no wish to ever visit.

I am perplexed as to why those with the means to leave would choose to stay in such a place. Of course, controlling families who try to guilt trip their offspring exist the world over – while their wishes are tolerated this will not change. Beautiful Place is not a novel that engenders feelings of hope in human attitude or behaviour. My hope is that other readers glean more from this book than I managed.

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

Book Review: The Faculty of Indifference

The Faculty of Indifference, by Guy Ware, drew me in from the start but couldn’t always hold my full attention. The story has various strands, as stories do, and some were more compelling than others. I persevered and was glad I did despite particular sections failing to engage.

The protagonist of the story, Robert Exley, does not work for an insurance company, although this is what his employer instructs him to say if asked by outsiders. Instead he jokes that if he answered the question he would have to kill the inquirer. He has also been known to say this to his seventeen year old son, Stephen, who asks him each evening, “How was it today?” This started as a joke because Stephen felt he had taken on the role of wife in their household of two, cooking dinner and deciding what shopping would be needed. Robert’s wife – Stephen’s mother – died when the boy was a toddler. Robert has never sought to replace her.

People die, this is inevitable. When Robert was twenty his father killed himself, although by then the older man had been living away from his wife and son for many years. Like Robert, his father worked for the Faculty – Robert’s wife, Mary, had worked there as well. Robert had recruited her and she had become a rising star despite her frowned upon choice to have children.

Mary had spoken to Robert about the importance of cultivating indifference. On a bad day at work – as a result, perhaps, of failing to instigate action – many people could be killed. Such incidents must be lived with.

Robert’s role is to ensure that nothing happens. He is given files on suspects and may order surveillance and intervention. In a city the size of London it is not possible to watch every potential terrorist. Those working for the Faculty must make choices based on disparate facts and occasional observation. They must never talk about what they do.

The story covers the years just before and after Stephen attends university. Like his mother, he is interested in philosophy. He keeps a journal that he writes in code and that his father takes to work to be deciphered. They never mention this strange form of communication. They rarely talk about anything of import.

As well as the events that make up Robert’s days, chapters detail the contents of Stephen’s journal. Working for the government intelligence services brings with it suspicion and a need for secrecy. The interlinked webs of truth and fiction can be a challenge to differentiate.

Stephen is interested in his paternal grandfather and writes about the man’s life, even though the details he has been told are limited. I found these sections of the story slow to read although they prove notable later.

Robert’s days are of more interest until he is assigned a task dealing with a prisoner and a game of Go commences. The convoluted threads then slowly come together. The reader must decide which moves have been feints.

Key elements in the story are the importance of past and future to the present. Death hovers in the background and Robert appears to almost look forward to his. Stephen has also shown an interest yet Robert refuses to confront how his son is feeling.

“His argument concerned only the prolongation of an intolerable present for fear of – in the certainty of – an even more intolerable future. When you reduced life to that dilemma, was it possible to remain indifferent? Was one forced to live as if life might not be intolerable, forced to hope that it might even be improved?”

The denouement is something of a monkey puzzle with plenty to chew over but an undercurrent of melancholy. Stephen and Robert’s story may finish but the work of the intelligence services remains.

A story of grief and its many facets, of abandonment and strategies for self-preservation. This was a complex and not always comfortable read.

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

Book Review: The Lighthouse

“He turns, gazing back at the path of trampled grass along which he has come. Considering retracing his steps, he wonders about all the points along the way at which he might have made a mistake, missed a turning, lost in thought.”

The protagonist of The Lighthouse is a middle aged man named Futh who has recently separated from his wife, Angela. It is set over the course of a week during which he is taking what he hopes will be a restorative walking holiday in Germany. Opening on the ferry in which he travels from his home in England, the reader is quickly appraised of events that have shaped Futh’s life to date. His mother left him and his father when he was a child and he has not heard from her since. His father has always been bad tempered and Futh learned to tread carefully or keep his distance. After his mother left, Futh turned for comfort to a neighbour, Gloria, whose marriage had also broken down. Gloria’s son, Kenny, did not appreciate the attention his mother offered his classmate. The boys had little in common other than proximity and age.

Futh has booked into a different hotel each night along his planned walking route, arranging for his luggage to be transported ahead of him during each day. The first hotel is in the town of Hellhaus, run by a married couple, Ester and Bernard. Ester is a faded beauty who seeks attention through infidelity with guests. She accepts the punishments Bernard metes out for this behaviour.

As Futh travels he recalls the days just prior to his mother’s departure. He remembers the evenings spent with Gloria and his failed friendship with Kenny. Futh had a schoolboy crush on Angela but only later managed to attract her attention. She would grow irritated when he mentioned any aspect of her behaviour that reminded him of his mother. She berated Futh for what she regarded as his failings, wanting him to be more practical, like Kenny.

Futh works for a company that produces the chemical scents added to products to make them smell of the more natural essence they claim to contain – coffee bean scent added to instant coffee or flower scent added to perfume. He is attuned to smells and the memories they evoke, the people he has wanted to matter to. His mother smelled of violets, her clothes of camphor. Baked goods remind him of food she would make – of the time when she paid him attention.

The story winds itself around Futh as he stoically walks from hotel to hotel, the journey not always progressing as planned and anticipated. There are also threads exploring Ester’s background and her behaviour back at Hellhaus, where Futh will spend his final night. The reader knows that a crisis is brewing.

The author writes in taut, understated prose that is impressive in how much it conveys through brief scenes and fragmented memory. There are cracks in Futh’s life through which glimpses are offered of events he suppresses. There is a yearning for something lost that may never have existed.

I am impressed that such depth of plot and character development can be achieved in a novel of less than two hundred pages. This is a fantastic read and one that lingers well beyond the final page.

The Lighthouse is published by Salt.

Book Review: Mud

Mud, by Chris McCabe, is billed as a re-imagining of the Ancient Greek myth of Orpheus & Eurydice, set in contemporary London. Its protagonists are Borak, a failed wizard, and his girlfriend Karissa. When the tale opens they are breaking up having tried living together. To mark their separation Borak asks Karissa to go down with him into the mud, of which he tells her there are twenty-four kinds. They must seek a cube of air and let it out, then they may leave each other forever.

Obviously this is a weird request. To add to the strangeness, Borak wishes to make a film of their journey and has funding for the small crew needed. Karissa agrees to take part and tells her friend Brisa, who may have been more concerned had she not been worrying about a potential date. Watching Borak and Karissa’s love fall apart has made Brisa feel lonely.

The team set out to find the different types of mud. They film on Hampstead Heath and in Wales. They follow tracks that sink into the earth with mud rising to either side. Eventually they go underground and disappear within caves and tunnels that exist beneath tree roots and collapsing graves.

Brisa grows worried about her missing friend. She starts digging for clues, seeking her whereabouts, following voices she hears. She is pleased when her new boyfriend offers to help.

The story plays out in various forms: dialogue, emails, cutouts, and narrative sections. There are descriptions of mud in its various guises. There are strange similes.

“Leaves blew back down the heath like live-fried fish.”

“Brisa’s mind filled up on anxiety like a cat carrier thrown out to sea.”

Recurring items and characters appear in disparate scenes. The Postlude (The Head of Orpheus, Still Singing) is a quick fire rap type dialogue filled with pop culture references.

This playing around with sense and composition can be disorientating to read. The language and flow are not difficult and the story remains somehow compelling but the threads wander at will in directions it can be a challenge to comprehend. For example, a mole appears dressed in a suit and acts as compère for one of Borak’s magic tricks. I remain unclear how this should be interpreted.

As long time followers will know, I enjoy reading literature that pushes boundaries. Mud feels playful and is undoubtedly witty but I wonder if it is perhaps a tad esoteric.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Henningham Family Press.

Book Review: American Midnight

American Midnight: Tales of the Dark is a collection of nine short stories selected and introduced by Laird Hunt. They are described as classics of supernatural suspense from authors who have inspired generations of writers to explore the dark heart of the land of the free (America). I found the collection decidedly mixed in terms of chill factor or even engagement.

I had heard of a fair proportion of the authors whose work was selected although am familiar with the writing of only one, whose story turned out to be my favourite. The style of a couple of the tales was too dated for my tastes. Another adopted a local vernacular that was apposite but still grated.

The opening two stories offer dread tales with moral undertones. The settings were interesting, featuring darkly imaginative touches, but plot development failed to inject any spine tingles or even, really, sense.

The first is set in a castle where a wealthy prince has shut himself away with a large number of his friends and those who can serve them, in order to avoid a virulent plague.

“The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure.”

After several months a masked ball is held, in rooms that seem designed to bring trouble down on those who use them.

The second story is set in and around Salem which piqued my interest. I ended up feeling sympathy only for the protagonist’s wife.

The Eyes, by Edith Wharton, is excellent. A group of friends gather around a fireplace and start to tell each other ghost stories. Their host is reluctant to join in but eventually shares a tale of time spent abroad where he ended up supporting a young writer of questionable talent. Alongside the spooky elements is the horror of feedback on mediocre writing.

“At first I used to wonder what had put into that radiant head the detestable delusion that it held a brain. […] The stuff he turned out was deplorable”

“I had sent his stuff to various people – editors and critics – and they had always sent it back with the same chilling lack of comment. Really there was nothing on earth to say about it”

“At first it didn’t matter – he thought he was ‘misunderstood’. He took the attitudes of genius, and whenever an opus came home he wrote another to keep it company.”

This story is followed by The Mask, by Robert W. Chambers, which is set amongst wealthy artist friends. A sculptor has discovered a chemical mix that turns living things to stone in an instant. The reader is asked to consider: if a thing is preserved is its life taken – is its essence destroyed? The sculptor compares the potential for producing perfect sculptures in this way to the challenge photography presents to painters. Between the friends there is a hint of ménage à trois along with the dubious morality of killing creatures for art. Despite these interesting threads I was less than taken by the tale, especially its denouement.

Home, by Shirley Jackson, is skilfully written and nicely developed but with a somewhat vanilla ending. A couple move into their new home on the outskirts of a remote village and the woman sets out to become an important part of the local community. Unbeknown to her the property has a tragic history. Even her strong personality cannot control its consequences.

There follow some fairly uninspiring entries – the only other story in the collection that I would rate is The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This is quite a slow burner – not ideal in a short story – but vividly portrays a wife whose agency has been taken by her husband – for her own good of course – and the damage this causes. The tension builds gradually and there is an excellent denouement that suggests a more subtly layered tale beneath the repetitive descriptions.

The final story, An Itinerant House by Emma Frances Dawson, did not appeal particularly except for the idea that places continue to harbour the more shocking experiences of those who have passed through.

“Houses seem to remember,” he said. “Some rooms oppress us with a sense of lives that have been lived in them.”

When a group of men take extreme measures to save the life of a woman, they do not expect to be cursed by her. Neither do they believe at that point that curses have power.

Whatever one may think of the contents, this is a gorgeously produced little book with a wonderful cover by artist, Joe McLaren. It is smaller than most paperbacks making it pleasing to hold and read. The French flaps and quality paper add to the aesthetic appeal.

Perhaps my disappointment with too many of these stories stems from my expectations of dark, supernatural writing born from the work of writers such as Michelle Paver. None of the tales in this collection is shoddily written. They simply failed to provide sufficient disturbance.

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

Book Review: Glitch

L-J is an engineer living in company owned accommodation in Hoboken, USA. For six years he worked on the national grid’s New Jersey Transmission Project until a hand injury led to him being struck off sick. He had enjoyed dangling from pylons at great heights, aspiring to be one of the linesmen who work six inches from live wires – the entire voltage running through and around them. L-J has always wanted to be a part of things, connected to the grid. Despite this, life and those he encounters wash over him. The only connection he has ever truly felt is the bond with his mother back home in England. Now she is dying.

L-J needs an operation on his hand and is offered the chance to have the procedure done in the UK where he was born and raised. He decides to return to Dunwich on the Suffolf Coast, a place he left abruptly to travel to the USA. His flight home makes headlines when it suffers a malfunction, a glitch that causes it to plummet back down to earth. As chaos erupts around him, L-J calmly reflects on his job and the people he is returning to.

“everything is already broken, everything is prone to malfunction. We spend our entire lives trying to fix things when there’s no point.”

When L-J eventually reaches London he is met by his sister, Ellen, who appears to blame him for the inconvenience of his delayed arrival. Their relationship is fractured, with a history of resentments. Ellen is married to Paul and they are worried about the financial impact of the current recession – its threat to their livelihoods. She is angry that L-J left the UK in the way he did. L-J is put out that she does not show adequate interest in and concern about the flight on which he could have died. He recalls an incident when she attacked him as a baby. Although he only knows of this through hearsay, he still harbours anger that she does not voice regret for her childish actions.

“Nobody wants to spend time examining the blips in our lives, we just hope they’ll go away, but they don’t. They remain with us, like a scar that never fades.”

L-J stays in the family home, walks along the shore, relishes the memories evoked. He sits at his mother’s hospital bedside trying to comfort her and himself. The two have always shared a closeness born of outings, art and poetry. He is her beautiful boy, reading the books she suggested as a means to retain and strengthen their connection.

“that’s the beauty of poetry, there’s nothing to understand, only something to grasp.”

“by his early teens he’d already decided that he wanted to be an engineer. Poetry, apart from serving as the living umbilical cord between him and Mother, had no other use.”

Ellen wishes to discuss practical matters and rails against her brother’s attitude and behaviour. Her priority, as she considers their mother’s imminent death, is attaining monetary security – something L-J has no interest in. He values their childhood home for visceral reasons.

This is a strangely told tale. The writing has a detached feel. The protagonist, from whose point of view it is written, is there in each moment but also in imaginings triggered by conversation or events. His musings are distracted which can be somewhat disconcerting to read.

“Everything remains just under the surface of things”

L-J’s seemingly more practical sister is living in a different reality to his. She cannot comprehend his actions, past or present, and shows her irritation. He resents her material outlook and aspects of their shared history.

In the hospital, Mother’s health continues to deteriorate. Tied to their home for this period of time, L-J looks through cupboards and drawers finding photographs and letters that fill in gaps of knowledge from the family’s past. He considers these new facts a ‘rip in the fabric of our reality’.

The glitches in L-J’s life have proved pivotal even if they did not provide what he was hoping for. It is these that he holds on to, the harness that prevents him falling from height to his demise. Whatever Ellen demands, he must find a way to cope in his own way with their mother’s death.

A story of grief and the detachment needed to survive it – the free fall suffered when connections are severed. Although not always straightforward, the reflections evoked – the understanding of human nature – linger long after the last page is turned. A poignant and original read.

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

Book Review: This Way to Departures

This Way to Departures, by Linda Mannheim, is a collection of eleven short stories by an author capable of using the form to impressive effect. Each tale is expertly crafted, evoking a passionate response in the reader. That this is achieved by harnessing everyday language and action – nothing feels overdone – makes for an immersive reading experience.

The collection opens with Noir, a tale set in Miami. Laura and Sam are enjoying their fledgling relationship when Laura, a journalist growing bored with her mundane assignments, is approached by a handsome but sad eyed stranger, Miguel from El Salvador. He is trying to track down missing friends.

“I remembered the instructions Inez and I had been handed when, as children, we went out to play in the street: strangers should be left as you found them, sob stories promptly returned to their owners. Somewhere along the way, Inez had decided to dismiss this as cynicism rather than wisdom; no one we knew had ever stayed safe by avoiding risk.”

Laura agrees to help Miguel. To do so she must involve one of Sam’s good friends.

Missing Girl, 5, Gone Fifteen Months explores the world of youngsters placed under the care of the Department of Children and Families. Every year hundreds disappear. Foster parents take on their role as it is a chance for them to earn a little extra income in areas where jobs are hard to find. Overburdened caseworkers struggle to deal with every query and reported incident. When the papers or television pick up on an individual missing child, the Secretary of the Department must offer a response.

“Every time, the panels have come to the same conclusions – that we must invest more in the programs. And every time, the state has said it cannot provide that funding.”

The story offers a concise indictment of the fickle nature of public outrage and then insouciant acceptance.

Butterfly McQueen on Broadway provides a glimpse of the problems faced by a successful actress of colour when she refuses to take stereotypical roles in films. The titular actress appeared in Gone With the Wind yet ended up accepting any available casual work in Harlem. Her career is compared to another actress of colour who went on to win an Oscar, yet whose story remained peppered with shocking racism.

The Place That He Can Never Return To recalls the narrator’s childhood visits, with their father, to a restaurant frequented by fellow exiles. Here they would be served German food and encouraged to speak the language while being told tales of a homeland, recalled with nostalgia.

The lasting impact of the immigrant experience is a theme that runs through each of these tales.

This Way to Departures is one of several stories set in or around an American campus. Danny was born in Poland but his parents were determined to start afresh somewhere they regarded as better.

“He would know Evanston, Illinois, where his parents tried and tried to become middle class and American. And if they failed, well, they were not the only ones failing to become happy Americans after the war.”

Danny becomes a successful economist but, as a committed socialist, needs to follow his ideals. His wife, who compromises her career for him, must make further difficult choices. Danny thinks he knows what she wants but can only see this through the prism of his own needs.

“He leapt up when he saw me, took me in his arms, gave me more of a clinch than an embrace. At first I half-believed he knew what I was going to tell him, sensed it. But he hadn’t of course. His anticipation – the way he held his breath, watched me carefully, and could barely sit – all that was because he had something to tell me.”

Facsimiles is set in New York City, mid September 2001. The narrator and her girlfriend survive the attacks but, like so many who had worked at the World Trade Centre, were deeply affected. The story is heartbreaking yet beautifully rendered.

The World’s Fair tells of a young couple eager to escape the confines of their neighbourhood – built on what was once landfill – and their stifling upbringing.

“‘All of this,’ she says, looking out at the garden apartments broken up by big brick buildings, ‘it used to be garbage.’
‘When did it stop being garbage?’ I want to ask her.
‘Before you were born,’ she offers, ‘this neighbourhood was beautiful.’
As if my being born ruined it.”

The author captures the hemmed in frustrations teenagers suffer yet never overplays them.

Waiting for Daylight is another campus story exploring the abuse of power. Like the following story, The Young Woman Sleeps While the Artist Paints Her, the protagonists are not depicted in the way most books, films or TV shows paint American college kids. There are drugs and sex but these students are more universally real, more nuanced in their wider trials and experiences. Studies may be neglected but their importance feels understood. The difficulty of funding them remains an issue.

The Christmas Story offers a glimpse of the festive season through the eyes of those living with poverty and illness in a capitalist society. The narrator is now grown and living in comfort but the time she recalls is seared in her memory. As a child she lived in an apartment with broken heating. Her Jewish mother would not bow to the conventions of Christmas. The young girl’s furtive prayers to the Jesus she finds in a ‘comic book’ represent just another of life’s empty promises.

Dangers of the Sun covers a court case in which a widow is suing her late husband’s doctor for negligence. Told from the point of view of an old friend, the reader is shown the machinations of the legal system. It is a painful portrayal of distancing.

What these stories have in common is the feeling of disconnection as people grow and change. Many of the characters have roots in different countries. Past experiences haunt what their present can be. The author pierces each topic with intrepid yet empathetic succinctness – I couldn’t be more impressed with the quality and style of her writing.

This is a gratifying and recommended read.

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