Book Review: The Squeeze

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

I have long been a fan of Lesley Glaister’s work. Her stories are perceptive, engaging and memorable with just the right degree of humour and originality to lift the difficult subjects she explores. Thus I eagerly awaited this, her latest publication. It is perhaps unwise to approach a book with such high expectations.

The Squeeze revolves around two characters who must each find a way to survive the choices they have made. Neither can become the person they long to be and, whatever befalls, life will only ever move forwards.

Marta grew up in Romania under Ceaușescu. Her father had high hopes for his daughter but was killed just before the regime was overthrown. Instead of preparing for university, Marta works in a chemical factory and helps to care for her little sister. When a well groomed stranger starts to woo the tired and yearning teenager, she ignores the warnings and accepts his attentions. Within weeks Marta has been abducted, trafficked, and forced into prostitution in the UK.

Mats is a businessman in Oslo with a pragmatic wife, Nina, who refuses to have the child he so desires. Mats is offered a transfer to Edinburgh and Nina tells him to accept, but that she will stay where she is. Mats considers himself steady and loyal, always eager to do what is right. If those he loves do not respond in kind he feels let down.

On a drunken night out with a work colleague in Edinburgh, Marta and Mats have sex. To Marta he is just another punter but Mats is wracked by guilt. When their paths cross again Mats is seeking absolution. It will cost him dear.

From this point on I found the development of the story somewhat preposterous. The day to day life and future prospects of the sex workers are achingly evoked but Mats’ reaction to his indiscretion seemed overblown.

Although wishing to be generous and giving, Mats is weak and needy. The women in his life, drawn by his looks and gentle demeanour, become frustrated by his lack of empathy, his expectation of gratitude for unasked for efforts. He wants his new wife to fit an image he has created, becoming disappointed when she strays from this construct. He thinks longingly of Nina, unaware of how she regards him.

The reader views Mats through his wife’s eyes as she records her thoughts – therapy for post-natal depression. There is little communication in their relationship.

Marta’s friendships with the other sex workers are touched on but never fully developed. The woman she travels with, Alis, is given a voice in the narrative but remains elusive. Despite living in the brothel for years little interaction is detailed.

The denouement may be regarded as auspicious, or perhaps just another chance for Mats to set himself up for further disappointment. He appears to have learned little over the years.

A great many social attitudes and issues are packed into this story, all insightfully portrayed yet somehow lacking coherence. It is written as a novel but at times reads as a series of vignettes. Each is effectively crafted and interlinked yet missing a degree of fluidity.

Any Cop?: The tale is easy enough to read and offers layers to unpick but is not as strong as I had expected. The characters are well drawn in their aloneness but action too often felt cumbersome. I am left dissatisfied.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Little Egypt

littleegypt

Little Egypt, by Lesley Glaister, tells the story of nonagenarian twins, Isis and Osiris, who are living in their ancestral and now derelict home hemmed in by a railway line, a dual carriageway and a modern superstore. They haven’t seen nor spoken to each other in ten years. Isis takes her trolley across the bridge that connects their land with the store to collect supplies, then places food in a bucket for her brother to pull upstairs where he resides while she lives below. When the food is not collected she becomes concerned but fears to climb the rotting stairway, both for her own safety and for what she may find.

Isis likes the superstore for its warmth, facilities and her contact with the people she has come to know there. Having it close by makes shopping so much easier, an important consideration now she is old. The meadow on which it was built once belonged to her family. She sold it to developers ten years ago in order to stay solvent, causing the rift with her brother. Her grandfather started this family trend when he sold land to the railway company in the previous century. Her uncle sold another portion for the road between the wars.

Some of the food Isis brings home comes from dumpsters behind the store, fished out by her young friend, a self declared anarchist named Spike. When Spike mentions that developers will allow nothing to stand in the way of profit it plants a seed of hope in Isis that she may finally be able to leave the prison her home became when she was a teenager. The need to guard a dark secret has kept her and her brother trapped but now she ponders the possibility of escape.

The reader is taken back to when the twins had just turned thirteen. Their parents, obsessed with Ancient Egypt, had left the children in the care of a servant in order to fulfil their dream of discovering the tomb of Herihor. They sold almost everything of value to pay for their quest and set out full of enthusiasm, never to return.

With no money to pay for a tutor and an aversion to allowing their children to be educated with those they considered social inferiors, Isis must fill the long days amusing herself. Osiris spends his days reading of Egypt and teaching himself to write in hierolglyphs. He is fascinated by the Ancient Egyptian’s rituals for the dead.

Jumping between time periods the reason for the twins’ incarceration is gradually revealed. It is a story of loneliness, fortitude and the consequences of injudicious choices made by abandoned children which will haunt their lives. The unloved Isis remained loyal to her atypical brother. She did not believe that, should they admit to what they had done, he could survive the rancour of the wider world.

Beautifully written and with fully rounded characters there is much humour alongside the poignancy of the unfolding tale. I loved the idea that this old lady, born to privilege, should derive pleasure from all she is able to see of modern life, this superstore, and dream of selling up and moving on. With so much emphasis these days on preservation it is refreshing to consider change as good. The old days and ways recounted here offer little to remember of past times which should ever be considered fondly.

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