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Once again, I read a review of Littlemore’s second book, Harry Curry: the Murder Book (2012) and decided to read the first one, Harry Curry: Counsel of Choice (2011) first. It does set the scene, but by all means read the second one if you come across it first – I’m assuming it’s as much fun as this one.

The five chapters of the book cover five legal cases Harry Curry (presumably a pun on Hari Kari) is involved in. Other than that, there’s not much story. But there doesn’t need to be. At the beginning of the book, Harry’s licence to practise as a barrister is suspended by the Bar Association’s disciplinary committee on the grounds of alleged rudeness to a judge. He is approached by a young barrister, Arabella Engineer, who isn’t doing too well – we see her lose her case – with the suggestion that Harry act as legal strategist for her. The first three cases operate on this basis. Harry gets his licence back and the next two cases are joint operations between them. Of course there is the issue of their relationship, but for me, the interest is in what happens in the court room.

Littlemore is a senior barrister – a QC – who works in the area of criminal law. The cases in the book are almost certainly versions of the real thing taken from his experience, though perhaps what he wished had happened, rather than what did. They cover allegations of drug smuggling, murder, assault occasioning grievous bodily harm and rape, there is an appeal against an extradition and a coroner’s hearing into deaths that occurred in a bush fire. The old Perry Mason tradition of court room drama involves the defence team getting their client off by doing the detective work of finding who really did it. These stories are not like that; they depend on the defence finding reasons in law that can be argued in favour of their client. Here, it’s rarely an issue of finding that someone else has committed the crime; ‘Harry’s rule has always been that you win cases by keeping evidence of guilt away from the jury, not be attempting to call alibis, or some other assertion of innocence.’ Littlemore pays meticulous attention to the court setting, details of procedure like choosing the jury, and the cross examination of witnesses; the court ‘feels like a workplace’. The setting and the cases feel real, not just because they presumably are, or could be, but also because of Littlemore’s skill in making his points simply and clearly. I find it easy to believe he is a very good barrister.

A major theme of the book is justice, for the innocent and the guilty alike. What do barristers do when they are certain that their client is guilty? They defend them by all available means. In real life, Littlemore responds to the question of defending ‘someone who you yourself believe not to be innocent’ by saying: ‘Well, they’re the best cases. I mean, you really feel you’ve done something when you get the guilty off. Anyone can get an innocent person off. I mean, they shouldn’t be on trial. But the guilty – that’s the challenge.’ Harry says in defence of his criminal law practice: ‘There is a point to what I do: I’m the only thing standing between those poor bastards and the might of the state.’ He’s also committed to the defence of the under-dog against the vested interests of big business like insurance companies. At one point, another lawyer says to him: ‘Get off the white horse, Harry. It doesn’t suit you.’ Harry ignores him. But one of my reservations about the book is whether Harry is a bit too good to be true.

Another slight reservation is whether Harry is a bit too much the stereotypical Establishment black sheep. His father is an eminent QC, now suffering from dementia. Harry, product of a public school and good university, knows everyone in the legal world; he just chooses not to share their lifestyle aspirations. He drives a Jag, but it belongs to a client doing ten years for importing drugs. ‘Harry’s minding it for him, but the client doesn’t exactly know that.’ Hmm. A little too insouciant? But maybe Littlemore knew of such a circumstance. Harry’s Establishment background enables him to indulge in some pointed legal snobbery; in a Queensland solicitor’s office a law degree from Bond University ‘hangs in pride of place, and Harry wonders at the wisdom of that. Would you want that to be generally known?’ This is insider humour, having a go at a relatively new, private university. His description of a ‘fascinator’ as something ‘shop girls wear to the races’ is plain ordinary social snobbery.

But these are trivial reservations. Overall, it’s a fascinating inside look at the workings of the law in ordinary Australian courts, where the cases have their own drama. I probably should have said more about Arabella – for that, you’ll have to read the book.

Australian readers who think they know the name Littlemore in another context are right. Stuart Littlemore was a journalist and broadcaster for some years, most notable for his creation and hosting of the ABC’s Media Watch, a forum for media analysis and comment, specialising in ‘conflicts of interest, bank backflips, deceit, misrepresentation, manipulation, plagiarism, abuse of power, technical lies and straight out fraud.’ Right up Harry Curry’s alley. These days Littlemore’s name might be familiar from his role as counsel for Eddie Obeid at the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. Now there’s a challenge for a defence lawyer.

You can read a short account of Littlemore’s life here, and a rather more interesting interview with him after the publication of this book here. Asked if he is Harry, his response is ‘I would like to be that brave.’

I was amused to see that a writer for the online law students’ site, Survive Law, thought highly of the book. The reviewer writes: ‘The cases are gritty and the descriptions of the clients and proceedings so realistic that you could almost justify reading this book as study!’

 

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I read a review of At Last (2011) by St Aubyn, thought it sounded interesting, and finding it was the last of five books about Patrick Melrose, decided to start at the beginning – and if you’re going to read any of them, I suggest you do the same. The edition of Some Hope that I read is actually a collection of the first three books – which are all quite short, almost novellas – the trilogy consisting of Never Mind (1992), Bad News (1992) and Some Hope (1994). After a gap in which he wrote two non-Patrick Melrose books, the fourth, Mother’s Milk, was published in 2005 and short-listed for the Booker Prize. Lost for Words, satirising literary prizes, was published in 2014.

Never Mind takes place over one day when Patrick is five. He lives with his mother Eleanor and father David in a rather grand old house in Lacoste in the south of France. His father’s family can trace its roots back to the Norman conquest – the winning side, of course – and his mother is a rich American. Both are totally dysfunctional as parents, his father being alcoholic and cruel, his mother being alcoholic and ineffectual. ‘At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.’  We also meet Victor Eisen, a retired philosopher, and his wife Anne who live nearby, and Nicholas Pratt, baronet and man about town, and his girlfriend Bridget, who have flown over from London for a short stay. Amidst all the malicious comments, the snobbery, the misery – and to the reader, the cringe worthy embarrassment of it all – one comment by Nicholas stands out: ‘in my opinion, nothing that happens to you as a child really matters.’ Could he be more wrong? What are the consequences for Patrick?

We find out in Bad News. Patrick is twenty two. He’s just received the ‘bad news’ that his father has died in New York and is on his way from London to collect his ashes. He hates his father. ‘What instrument could he use to set himself free? Disdain? Aggression? Hatred? They were all contaminated by the influence of his father, the very thing he needed to free himself from.’ What follows from this paralysis is a drug taking binge, described in detail. Patrick is an addict; he is himself ‘bad news’. I read somewhere that this is one of the best descriptions of addiction ever written, not least because it can be funny. I guess there is a kind of black humour, as for example when Patrick has bought heroine, he parts from the dealer ‘with the genuine warmth of people who had exploited each other successfully.’ I found it excruciatingly difficult to read; I don’t really want to know just how it’s done. It raises for me the issue of rejecting writing because the subject is unpleasant versus reading something that is unpleasant because it is so well written. Or is the reader exploited along with everyone else? A couple of the characters from the earlier book make an appearance.

In Some Hope, we are back in the world of satire, snobbery and malice, this time in London and at a lavish birthday party at a mansion in the Cotswolds; ‘a world in which the word ‘charity’… was invariably qualified by the words ‘lunch’, ‘committee’ or ‘ball’. ‘Compassion’ nobody had any time for, whereas ‘leniency’ made frequent appearances in the form of complaints about short prison sentences.’  It is eight years later, and Patrick is off the drugs, but little happier. He cannot rid himself of the legacy left to him by his father – ‘sarcasm, snobbery, cruelty and betrayal ’ – and he fears turning out like him. A number of characters from the first book and one from the second, are, like Patrick, invited to the party, along with some other mostly pretentious and unpleasant new ones. Few have any redeeming features; only Anne, from the first book, and Patrick’s friend Johnny, stand out. Before leaving for the party, Johnny attends a Narcotics Anonymous meeting to strengthen his resolve not to take any drugs. St Aubyn’s description of the meeting is revealing; he can’t help poking fun at the ‘obscure and fatuous slang’ used by participants talking about their ‘recovery’, but Johnny nevertheless finds that however ‘ridiculous and boring’ the meetings are, they help him stay clean. He is also the one that gets to tell a simpering Princess Margaret at the party that he doesn’t ‘rely on an accident of birth’ for distinction, to which she replies ‘there is no accident of birth’. But the question at the heart of the book is whether there can be ‘some hope’ for Patrick – or anyone else caught up in this world.

Readers will probably not be surprised – though possibly horrified – to learn that under the satire, much in these books is autobiographical. Patrick’s childhood experiences were St Aubyn’s experiences, followed by years of drug addiction and mental illness. In an interview in The Telegraph, it is explained that at the age of 25 he underwent psychoanalysis, which took him, he says, ‘from suicide to creativity’. ‘By that point in my life I was completely ashamed of everything I’d been and done, and the contract I made was to write a book that gets published or commit suicide. It was not at all melodramatic in the state that I was in at the time. I thought about committing suicide every day.’ After the first book was published, he felt he had to keep going. ‘If I don’t write I’ll go mad, and if I go mad I’ll have to kill myself, so I must keep writing,’ he said. Just as well he turns out to be rather good at it.

You can read more about Edward St Aubyn here. There’s a long piece about him and his ‘inheritance’ in The New Yorker here. And you can read a review of his latest book here. It’s definitely on my Christmas list.

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Some time ago I wrote about Sue Grafton’s alphabet crime stories featuring Kinsey Millhone – A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar and so on up to U is for Undertow. Now we have V is for Vengeance (2011) and W is for Wasted (2013). I have no doubt X,Y and Z will follow.

The earlier stories were all written in the first person from Kinsey’s perspective. In S is for Silence, T is for Trespass and U is for Undertow, Grafton introduced the stories of other characters, told in the third person. V is for Vengeance follows this pattern. The book starts with a prologue in which a young man is setting off for a gambling session in Las Vegas. The story proper starts two years later with Kinsey witnessing two women shoplifting. Grafton then introduces Nora, a socialite who discovers her husband is having an affair with his secretary, and Lorenzo Dante, rich and outwardly respectable, but deeply involved in crime. What have all these to do with each other? Who is wreaking vengeance on whom? I like Kinsey’s take on it: ‘I’m a big fan of forgiveness,’ she says, ‘as long as I’m given the opportunity to get even first.’ Most of the story still belongs to Kinsey, but in the other sections, Grafton introduces quite different social settings and mind sets, allowing her to probe relationships and feelings quite foreign to Kinsey. This is an interesting experiment; is Grafton perhaps practising for a writing life after the alphabet series?  But I can’t help feeling she is still more at home with Kinsey. On the bonus side, we get a rare, brief glimpse of how someone else sees her.

W is for Wasted also follows one other character besides Kinsey, but much more briefly than in the previous book. The story begins with Kinsey’s statement ‘Two dead men changed the course of my life that fall’. She pursues the circumstances of the death of one, a homeless man named Terrence Dace, who had her name and phone number on a slip of paper in his pocket when he died. The other is Pete Wolinsky, a private detective she knew slightly, who was apparently shot in a robbery. His story is told through the somewhat clunky device of a third person narration starting several months before his death. What, if anything, have these stories to do with each other? ‘I don’t know how I get caught up in shit like this,’ says Kinsey.

One of the interesting things about the series is the way that Grafton always finds a new story to tell. I think she is able to do this in part by using the stratagem mentioned above of introducing the third person narratives of major new characters into books. She also reveals piecemeal the circumstances of Kinsey’s life. Grafton was either very far sighted at the beginning of the series in making Kinsey an orphan, or very clever at spotting an angle later on, for this has had the undoubted benefit of allowing her to find out more about her family as the books progress. Previous books have introduced her mother’s family; in W, we find out more about her father’s family. This is interesting because we care about Kinsey, but also has major relevance to the plot. We also learn a lot about Kinsey’s life; for example she isn’t sure she likes having family, and wonders if she was better off without one. ‘Aunt Gin hadn’t fostered feelings of connectedness and I hadn’t had occasion to develop them on my own.’

Grafton also fills the pages with an extremely detailed account of Kinsey’s activities. To take a random example from V: ‘I arrived at my office at 9.00 the next morning, unlocked the door, and gathered up the pile of mail the postman had shoved through the slot the day before. I tossed the stack on my desk, and went down the hall to the kitchenette, where I put on a pot of coffee. When the machine had gurgled to a finish, I filled my mug.’  These 65 words could easily be replaced with 15 words, as in: ‘When I got to the office I picked up the mail and made a coffee’. It’s as if Grafton were actually seeing life through Kinsey’s eyes – and for me, the detail is one of the pleasures of the series. As she says, ‘it’s better if you experience it just as I did, one step at a time.’ I can see the detail might annoy some readers, though.

Of all the other things that could be said about these books, I’d like to mention the attention Grafton pays to Kinsey’s craft as a private detective. ‘What I lack in brute force,’ she says, ‘I make up for in persistence and sheer cunning.’ She solves mysteries by following things up and talking to people, and then seeing connections others haven’t. ‘I could arrange the facts in any order I liked, but the bits and pieces would only come together when I perceived their true relationships,’ she says. She knows her limits, and is specific about one of the issues common to all private detectives stories. Once you know who the baddies are, what can you do about them? As she says, ‘The problem was I had no authority to act. At best I could make a citizen’s arrest … If I managed to collar a crook, what would prevent him simply laughing it off and walking away?’ What indeed? Grafton finds ingenious ways to deal with this too.

You can read more about Sue Grafton here. I think she should run a competition for the naming of the last three books. X is for X-Ray, or maybe Xenophobia, is the best I can do. Y is for Yellow (as in cowardly) perhaps? And Z is for Zapped. But I’m sure Sue Grafton will do better than that.

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This memoir, published is 1995, is subtitled ‘A Black Man’s Tribute To His White Mother’. The edition I read has an Afterword marking the 10th anniversary of the first publication which brings the reader up to date with the family. McBride has also published three novels, of which Miracle at St Anna (2002) and Song Yet Sung (2008) have been made into films. His third novel, The Good Lord Bird (2013) won the American National Book Award. The memoir is considered a classic.

The story is told in two voices which alternate throughout the book – those of McBride, and of his mother, Ruth. The sections in which his mother recalls her life – italicized in this edition – are told in her voice. Perhaps McBride recorded interviews with her, or perhaps his ear is perfectly attuned to her cadences, or both. However he did it, the result is masterful. You can almost hear her speaking.

She tells the story of how she was born to Jewish immigrants from Poland. Her father seems only to have married her mother in order to get sponsorship from other members of her family to allow him entry into the United States. A Jewish Rabbi, he set up a grocery store in Suffolk, Virginia, exploiting his black customers, whom he despised. She presents him as a cruel and unpleasant man, who ill-treated and abused his wife and children. Ruth left home as soon as she could and moved to New York. There she met and later married Andrew McBride, a kind and loving African American man. Her family completely rejected her. Ruth converted to Christianity when Andrew felt called to establish a Baptist church. They had eight children before he died at the age of 46 of lung cancer. Ruth later married again, this time to Hunter Jordan, also an African American, and had another four children, some of whom were still very young when her second husband died.

McBride tells his own story alongside that of his mother. For many years he felt uncertain of his identity. As a child, he wondered why she looked so different from him, and from the parents of all his friends. He talks about how his mother slaved to keep her children clothed and fed. He tells how she valued education above all else except Jesus, and how she struggled to get them into good schools – where, inevitably the majority of children where white, and often Jewish. She took them to every free concert, museum or community event she could find in New York, determined that they should acquire cultural capital (not that she used that phrase) to make up for their decided lack of material goods. ‘We thrived on thought, books, music and art, which she fed us instead of food.’ Ruth was intensely private; she thought that never accepting government assistance was a badge of honour – though the family lived in what I take to be public housing for a time. But accepting private philanthropy was OK. Although inevitably there were some bumps in the road – for example, one daughter ran away and James got hooked on booze and drugs for a time – all twelve of the children graduated from university and took up professional careers. Persuading his mother to talk about her past helped McBride come to terms with his own life.

Successfully raising twelve children is clearly an amazing achievement, even if there wasn’t the question of racism mixed in – and the strength of racism in America in the 1950s, 60s and even into the 70s still has the power to shock. McBride makes it clear how unusual his parents’ marriage was in 1940s America; in the South, it would have been illegal. Ruth and her family experienced prejudice and discrimination as Jews; at school, Ruth was called ‘Christ killer’ and ‘Jew baby’, and rejected by most of the other students. Being white, with a black husband and black children, caused comment and often abuse –such as being called ‘white trash’ – where ever they went. The only people who didn’t reject her were African Americans; ‘That’s why I never veered from the black side,’ she says. The main reason that she was able to ignore racism and insults was the strength of her belief in God. ‘It’s not about black and white,’ she says. ‘It’s about God, and don’t let anyone tell you different.’ When James asks her whether God is black or white, she explains that God is a spirit, and that like water, doesn’t have a color. ‘God is the color of water.’

So what is it about this remarkable story that makes me slightly uneasy? I guess it’s the way it can be assimilated into the ‘log cabin to Whitehouse’ myth – that in America, if you work hard enough, you will succeed. This was not true then and is even less true now. Ruth McBride Jordan’s struggle was exceptional. Millions of other Americans, particularly African American ones, could work hard, be thrifty and honest and honourable in their relationships, and still fail to rise out of poverty. Children shouldn’t need their parents to have remarkable drive and persistence for them to have the chance of a good education and the motivation to succeed. This is not something that McBride questions in the book, and why should he? I just would have felt more comfortable if he had acknowledged somewhere that systemic failures are overwhelmingly what keep people poor, not personal ones.

You can read more about James McBride here. Make sure you have the sound on – I forgot to say that he is an accomplished musician. I think I owe it to him to read The Good Lord Bird.

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When I was at the movies to see Gone Girl – which I recently reviewed – I saw the shorts of a film that looked dark and violent; I later found it described as an example of the neo noir. A New York detective who had quit the force after a child died as ‘collateral damage’ in a shootout with criminals – an accident, but one the detective believed had come about partly because he had been drinking…  A detective that now worked as an unlicensed private eye just inside, or sometimes outside the law. It was the title that brought it all back to me. A Walk Among the Tombstones, published in 1992, is one of a series of books by Lawrence Block featuring Matthew Scudder, private detective and recovering alcoholic. So I thought I’d write about the book before seeing the film – or maybe not seeing the film, if the story turned out to be more violent than I remembered from reading it twenty years ago.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is the tenth in the Matthew Scudder series, so the death of the child is not part of the story (as it appears to be in the film). But it continues to haunt Scudder, and he goes to a lot of AA meetings to help stay sober. Then Pete Khoury, who he has met at AA, asks him to undertake some work for his brother Kenan. Kenan’s wife has been kidnapped. (This is where the film starts.) He pays a ransom, but his wife is brutally murdered anyway. He can’t go to the police because his money comes from drug trafficking, and they would ask awkward questions. So he wants Scudder to find the men who did it. And then he wants to kill them.

After this fairly dramatic start, the book moves into a much calmer phase with Scudder looking for the killers. Though he doesn’t have much to go on, he patiently puts together evidence and clever guess work. ‘When I start something I have a hell of a time letting go of it,’ he says. ‘I don’t do it by being brilliant. I just hang on like a bulldog until something shakes loose.’ He calls in favours from old police colleagues, and gets some help from computer hackers. The story is set in the early 1990s, so there are no mobile phones, little by way of police data bases, and fairly basic computers. The New York phone system still works by people putting quarters into public phones. Goodness knows what the film will make of that. He finds out some very nasty things, but initially these are in the past and written down or verbally reported. Violence is described, but not with the immediacy that it might gain by being shown in a film. Things do, however, move to a violent climax.

Yet I don’t feel that this is a particularly violent book. This is partly because of Block’s understated prose style, and his ability to undercut the horror with a sort of wry humour. For example, someone is garrotted. ‘I had seen a garrotte before so I knew right away what I was looking at, but nothing really prepares you for it. It was as awful a sight as I had ever seen in my life,’ says Scudder. But then he goes on ‘But it did lower the odds.’ If the film shows such things, it will indeed be noir, and I won’t want to see it. If it can retain Block’s lightness of touch, with the violence implied rather than revelled in, then I might find it worth seeing.

Part of the tone of the story – and presumably the film – is set by Scudder himself, played in the film by Liam Neeson. He is clearly a damaged man; after seeing a play with ‘a lot of brooding intensity’ he comments that ‘It took me through dark passages in the self without troubling to turn the lights on.’ He is self-contained and tries to remain unemotional; he follows the AA principle of taking one day at a time. His drinking destroyed his family life, but in this story he is in an ongoing relationship with a character from a previous book. He lives simply, but in a way that is willingly self-imposed, rather than forced on him. He is an honourable man, in the tradition of Philip Marlowe; he will do dodgy things for good ends. The story is made less confronting by the fact that the drug trafficker, Kenan Khoury, isn’t shown as evil, despite the way he makes his money. In fact he is quite a sympathetic character.

I am assuming, of course, that the plot of the film follows that of the book. This is probably an unwise assumption, as I know from this review that the end of the film is different from the end of the book, though I don’t know how. Somehow I fear the softer edges of the book will have been knocked off in the film.

Given that this book was published in 1992, I wonder why it is only now that it has attracted the attention of the movie moguls. Perhaps it is the title; Block does a good line in titles, with, for example, the two before this one being A Ticket to the Boneyard (1990) and A Dance at the Slaughterhouse (1991). He is an amazingly prolific writer; there are 17 Matthew Scudder novels stretching from 1976 to 2011. In addition he has a series about a bookseller and part-time burglar, which is fun, if a little formulaic, one about a man who never needs to sleep and a whole lot of others, most written under other names. But from what I’ve read, the Matthew Scudder series is the best of them. And no, I probably won’t go and see the film.

You can read more about Lawrence Block and his books here. And here’s another review of the film.

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Here I am again breaking into a series. A Murder Unmentioned (2014) is the sixth in a series set mostly in New South Wales in the 1930s and featuring Rowland Sinclair. Although of course the story is self-contained, a number of the characters and their relationships have obviously been developed in earlier books, and I can’t help thinking that knowing that development might make them seem a bit more real.

Rowland Sinclair is the black sheep of a wealthy family of graziers. He lives an unconventional lifestyle in a mansion in Sydney where he dabbles in painting and takes up left wing causes with three bohemian friends who all seem to be members of the Communist Party. But a visit from the police sends him hurrying back to the family property, Oaklea, near Yass. It seems that his father’s death fourteen years ago, believed to be at the hands of a burglar, isn’t that simple. The reader already knows from the prologue that the burglar story is untrue. But now the gun which killed his father has been found in a dam on the property, along with some items which were believed to have been stolen at the time. So if not a burglar, then who? What motive has a former employee for casting suspicion on Rowland? And why is Rowland so unwilling to talk about it?

I think this novel is best seen as a family saga-cum-historical novel, rather than a crime story. Who killed Father is at the centre of it, but there are lots of family happenings that have only a general relevance to the main game – for example the machinations of Lucy Bennett, the fire at the homestead or Rowland’s sister-in-law Kate’s pregnancy. There is also a lot of material that is included because it is interesting, and of the period. The first chapter sees Rowland taking a flying lesson from Charles Kingsford Smith, with a young Nancy Bird looking on. Everyone’s heard of Kingsford Smith, but some may not know that Nancy Bird was in fact the youngest Australian woman to gain a pilot’s licence. These characters play no further part in the story – though Rowland’s flying does – so why introduce them, other than for historical interest? Rowland goes to a meeting of the NSW Centre Party, and has a run-in with Eric Campbell, who is trying to turn his fascist New Guard movement into a political party – without success, as it happens. Apparently Rowland has crossed swords with Campbell and his New Guard in earlier books, but it has only the most oblique relevance here. Edna Walling is redesigning the gardens at Oaklea, and Jock Garden of the Communist Party, Bob Menzies of the United Australia Party and Frank Green, Sydney gangster, all make an appearance.  Each chapter begins with what purports to be an excerpt from a newspaper of the time – though I’m not sure if all of them are genuine. All this historical detail is quite fun, but not really necessary in solving the crime. To put it another way, someone has to find the gun in the dam, but it doesn’t have to be Edna Walling.

Gentill has a fairly formal style of writing. I think this is a deliberate strategy when used in relation to conversations between the characters, where she tries, with some success, to catch the tone of relationships in the 1930’s between men and women, bosses and workers, family members and friends. Thus Rowland says of his painting: ‘My father would not have approved of my work … He would not have tolerated it.’ Or his brother Wilfred: ‘Kate was under the impression you admired her.’ Or Lucy’s father: ‘I knew your father, you know … fine man. I expect you’re cut from the same cloth.’ The 1930s feel is heightened by the similarly of the prose style to the newspaper excerpts. I don’t remember seeing the word ‘chums’ used in ordinary prose since I last read a Girl’s Own Annual. But there are too many clichés, such as ‘his jaw tightened’, ‘his eyes flashed fury’, or ‘his voice was thick with contempt’. Just because run-of-the-mill writers may have used such commonplaces in the 1930s doesn’t mean they should be used now in a book about the 1930s. By all means ensure that Rowland raises his hat to ladies, but don’t let it become a platitude.

I like history, so I found the story fun. There is always something of interest happening. Furthermore, the plot so far as it related to the death of Rowland’s father works well, though I thought the final resolution a bit contrived. If, however, I put on my historian’s hat, I’d have to wonder about the relationship between Rowland and his three friends – two male, one female. Apart from occasionally saying something about capitalist domination, the two men seem to lack the passion and conviction it would have taken to be a Communist. Their relationship seems more like Bunter to Wimsey than comrade to comrade (though Rowland is a fellow-traveller, not a paid up Communist). Putting in a lot of historical detail doesn’t of itself make a book genuinely reflect the history of the times. This is a nice try, rather than the creative reimagining at the heart of the best historical novels.

You can read more about Sulari Gentill and her work here. I love the book’s cover.

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I’m eternally grateful to my book club. As I think I’ve explained before, we have a fairly random way of choosing what we’re going to read. Sometimes it’s a disaster, and sometimes it comes up trumps. This is one of the latter times, and I’m very pleased that more of less by chance I’ve been introduced to this author and read this book. The Gingerbread Woman was published in 2000, and Johnston has written a number of novels before this, and several after it. But I found it a perfect introduction to her work.

Clara Barry has returned to Dublin from a stint in New York as a guest lecturer on Modern Irish Literature. ‘Not Synge, Yeats or Joyce. That’s a mug’s game; that’s big business these days, something I’ve got no head for.’ She specialises in writers such as Elizabeth Bowen, Edna O’Brien and John Banville. (I mention this here because these are the very writers Johnston can be compared with, though she self-deprecatingly claims that the Irish literary establishment considers her a second-rate writer.) Clara is recuperating from an initially unspecified operation – though the hurt seems as much psychological as physical – and finding it hard going. One day out walking she meets Lars, a young man exercising his dog; he too is miserable. Against both their expectations they become friends, and manage to get on with their lives the better for having met. I’m not giving anything away here. You can read that much on the back cover.

The story is deceptively simple. What matters is the relationships between the characters. Both Clara and Lars are unhappy and can be difficult; Johnston makes their interactions are wonderfully real. The other main characters are Clara’s doctor, her mother, and Lars’s wife Caitlin, now dead but still very much alive to him; they too have substance and authenticity. The book starts with Clara’s assessment of her mother as someone who ‘makes jam’. She also makes ‘shortbread biscuits, sponge cakes, rich fruit cake, brandy snaps … I’m sure you get the point.’ But Lars has quite another reaction to her when he meets her, and I was left with the feeling that Johnston is cleverly suggesting that Mrs Barry is subtly different from the impressions both have of her. It is she who articulates what is to me the key message of the book; that recovery from tragedy is a willed process. ‘We have obligations, you know, to the people who love us, if not to society,’ she says. Clara’s view of her relationship with the doctor is clearly not the same as his view of it, though this is never something Clara articulates – it’s just delicately indicated.

The structure of the story is also wonderfully subtle. Most of it is told in the first person by Clara; those sections that are from Lars’s perspective are in the third person. But as well as telling her story in the present, Clara is writing ‘notes’ for a novel to be called ‘The Gingerbread Woman’ that explain her recent history in New York, gradually bringing the reader up to date on the reasons for her return to Dublin. And Lars also spends a lot of time thinking about the past – in particular the death of his wife and child. When Clara learns his story, she thinks like the author she is that ‘maybe one day I may use his story; steal it from him,’ which is of course what Johnston in a sense has already done. So the story is operating on a number of levels at once in a very satisfying way.

Though I guess you could call the plot ‘domestic’, it has wider resonance with recent Irish history. Lars is from Northern Ireland, and the tragedy he experienced happened there. Several of Johnston’s earlier books deal with ‘the fading of the Protestant Anglo-Irish ascendancy in the 20th century’. That’s not really the case here, but Clara nevertheless doesn’t want know about events in Northern Ireland: ‘I just don’t want to hear about the North … None of the gutted-by-history-crap’. But she also admits ‘We’re no great shakes here either’, and though history provides the occasion for her meeting with Lars, it is the quality of the relationship between them that is important.

The book also raises the question of what it is in the style of a writer that lifts a book above the level of competent writing – because Johnston’s writing seems to me to be brilliant. Every word seems to be exactly right – though this in itself isn’t an explanation. Why is it right? How much is it that I like what she is saying, that it resonates with me? Consider, for example, this passage: ‘Why do I have … facetious thoughts clogging up my mind? Perhaps this is the reason why I have never become a highly regarded novelist or a major academic.’ But then she goes on the question whether ‘humorous self-deprecation’ is a symptom of ‘that middle class malaise called complacency’. It’s pure genius.

This is another book where Schubert is important – this time it’s Shepherd on a Rock. In a recent post on the crime story Death and the Maiden, I suggested that the cultural details seemed added to make it sound real, rather than somehow being integral to the story. That’s not the case here – or at least I didn’t find it so. You can listen to the song here. There’s not a lot about Johnston on the internet, but you can read a little about her and some of her books here.

PS Some of my book club friends thought Clara was over-dramatizing her operation. I bow to their greater knowledge, but didn’t let it spoil the story.

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