Book Review: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

Everyone’s talking about this book, and it has to be said that I’m not the sort of person who reads the books that everyone is talking about (case in point, ’50 Shades of Nonsense’). However, I saw the author in person a few months ago and, you know, he was kinda hot, so I gave in to the hype and decided to see what all the fuss was about. I was not disappointed.

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This is the US edition that I picked up on holiday.

I cannot remember the last time that I was so absorbed in a book that I actually switched off my Netflix. I was so desperate to see how the book ended that I stayed up until 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday night/Monday morning (knowing full well I would suffer at work the next day) just inhaling the book. That I am a slow reader is a fact. That I finished this 640 page novel in one busy weekend is another fact. This is such an effortless read, the pages simply turn themselves.

If you’re not one of those people talking about this book, then let me give you a bit of background information. The book was first published in France in 2012 and has since sold over 2 million copies, been translated into over 30 languages and has also won some literary prizes in France. Plus, the writer is only now 28 years old and looks like this:

I have come across uglier writers.

I have come across uglier writers. (c) Jeremy Spierer

Anyhow, back to the book. Marcus Goldman is our lazy but likeable protagonist who has achieved continuous success throughout his life, due to the very simple fact that he only competes in situations where he’s guaranteed to win, against people who he knows to be weaker than he is (and the one time he saw that he was not going to win a race, he chose to deliberately break his leg rather than allow the illusion of “Marcus the Magnificent” to be tarnished):

In order to be magnificent, all that was needed was to distort the way others perceived me; in the end, everything was a question of appearances.’

The book opens in New York in the spring of 2008 where Marcus is experiencing severe writer’s block. His publishers are on his case and are threatening to sue if he doesn’t deliver the follow up to his wildly successful debut. In search of inspiration, Marcus goes to New Hampshire to visit his old college professor and mentor, Harry Quebert, a novelist still famous for a single book he wrote in the 70s. This trip doesn’t work for Marcus’s creativity so he goes back to New York, resigned to the fact that his career is now over.

Except, a few weeks later,  he receives an urgent call from his agent urging him to switch on the TV. Harry’s in trouble and is all over the news: The body of a 15 year old girl who went missing 33 years ago has been found buried in his back yard. Buried with her is the original manuscript of Harry’s famous novel, The Origin of Evil. Maybe, now, Marcus has something to write about. Harry is quickly arrested and admits to having had an affair with the young girl. The national media hang him out to dry – not only is he a murderer, but a paedophile to boot. There is one thing though: Harry swears to Marcus that he did not kill Nola Kellergan, in fact, she was the love of his life. Marcus, eager to clear his friend’s name, heads back to New Hampshire to start his own investigation into what really happened on August 30, 1975, the day Nola went missing, the day the little town of Somerset, New Hampshire lost its innocence.

SAM_3959On the surface, Somerset is a quaint little New England town, but as the investigation progresses, one has to wonder if, perhaps, Somerset hadn’t lost its innocence long before Nola went missing. Marcus stays in Harry’s house receiving threatening mail as he continues to uncover the truth about the affair, writing his surefire bestseller as he goes along. This novel is as much about publishing and the writing process as it is about the Kellergan murder (very self-reflexive, metafictional stuff). There’s an interesting cast of characters here, a couple of which were slightly exaggerated and caricaturish, but that didn’t stop me laughing out loud at the (often dark) humour exhibited in their conversations. There’s the chauffeur with a distorted face, the pastor with the Harley motorbike and, of course, the seemingly unknowable Nola Kellergen herself, the object of Harry’s obsession. I was often struck by how young Nola came across. She would accuse Harry of being ‘mean’ to her and once said of God, “If you believe in Him, I will too.” On these occasions I found it difficult to understand why Harry was so consumed by her, why ‘once she had entered [his] life, the world could no longer turn properly without her.’ How could an academic have a relationship with someone so naive and childlike? But then we are told by a Somerset local:

 ‘That girl was madly in love with Harry. What she felt for him was something I had never felt myself, or I couldn’t remember ever having felt, for my own wife. And it was at that moment that I realised, thanks to a fifteen-year-old girl, that I had probably never been in love. That lots of people have never been in love. That they make do with good intentions; that they hide away in the comfort of a crummy existence and shy away from that amazing feeling that is probably the only thing that justifies being alive.’

The narrative flicks back and forth between 1975 and 2008, slowly piecing the facts together. Or at least what we believe to be facts. There are so many twists and turns in this novel so be warned that as soon as you’re convinced of one thing, several chapters later you will learn something new that weakens your conviction. This is your classic whodunnit at its best. There are 31 chapters in this book, and Dicker has very cleverly started off with chapter 31, making the reader work their way down to chapter 1 where we finally find out:

The million dollar question

The million dollar question

The last chapter is filled with pleasing revelations that allow everything to finally lock into place. It is only then that you’re able to let out the breath that you didn’t even realise you were holding.

I, personally, didn’t understand why everyone made such a big deal about ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘. I’ll admit that I haven’t read it, but I did recently watch the film on a rainy Netflix weekend and was left perplexed as the end credits rolled: the big twist in this blockbuster thriller is that the girl who everyone thought was dead had actually escaped in the boot of a car? Really?! That was Larsson’s great achievement? If critics have time to commend Larsson, then the same (actually, more) credit is due to Dicker. His story is much more layered, more intriguing and a hell of a lot more clever. Fact.

The British critics haven’t been very nice about this book (pretty brutal, actually), and I don’t think they’re being fair to Dicker. I do imagine that some of the elegance of the prose was lost in translation so, yes, there were one or two occasions when I felt the writing felt a bit basic (descriptive passages in particular), where the dialogue didn’t ring quite true, but did this detract from my overall enjoyment of the book? Not at all. I was, honestly, gripped. I sighed through my weekend engagements, my eyes lingering longingly on the book nestled in my bag, made my excuses to leave early and kept reading as I changed lines on the tube, unapologetically bumping into people as I walked. I just HAD to to know what would happen next, I had to finish it. And was then sad when I did. In the words of Harry Quebert:

The ending of a good book

The ending of a good book

The bottom line is that this is a brilliantly plotted murder mystery, cleverly constructed. Though it might not be as literary as the French claimed it was, it ultimately does not matter because it’s a bloody good read.

Book Review: The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei

By his own admission Eric Nye is an asshole, ‘and not loyal to anyone, not even [him]self.’ He’s what you’d get if American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman and Mad Men‘s Don Draper gave birth to a man-child. “Chief Idea Officer” at Tate, a New York City ad agency, the bonus on top of Eric’s already six figure salary is dependent on him firing 50% of his staff – a task that he carries out with “HR Lady”, relishes and draws out for his own entertainment.

‘We pretend with each other in big, long sighs that it was difficult work, very hard, we would go out afterwards and have a nice meal and get shitfaced and take limos home and expense it because of how difficult it was.’

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SO; all appears to have been going as well as could be expected in the life of Eric Nye until “Intern” entered his life. After an almost one night stand, Eric finds that despite the fact he can’t remember her name, she’s now interning at his agency. Intern soon begins to stalk him, turning up wherever he may be to the point where Eric starts to question who’s stalking whom. For no logical reason, he can’t seem to get her out of his head, leading to his slow unravelling… Another chance encounter leads to a complaint against him being filed with HR, but there’s something about Eric that makes it very difficult to believe everything he’s telling you.  Is the intern to have a cathartic effect on him?

Eric is a darkly fascinating character. A guy who says things like ‘For no reason I consider hitting on birch-like juice girl but I fear there is too high a chance she will say yes‘, and ‘I sit in a deck chair and face away from the beach; something about the ceaseless idiocy of one wave after another strikes me as profoundly imaginative‘, and who dismisses a beautiful view of the New York skyline as it’s ‘trying too hard.’ That he’s a jackass is no question, but he’s a hilarious jackass. Or at least I thought so. Even when he’s making certain staff members jump hoops, knowing full well he’s about to fire them, you can’t help but laugh because his cruel indifference knows no bounds (especially because at the office, when he’s not firing people, he does absolutely nothing).

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Living in a false world devoid of any real interactions, Eric struggles with his ‘unalterable inability to deal with [his] unreality.’ It doesn’t appear like he’s able to stay still; restless, deeply jaded and dissatisfied with what life has to offer:

‘Waiting, I realise, isn’t the time between things, it’s the thing itself.’

There are deep echoes of American Psycho here, but if you find the endless listing of material possessions to be boring, you’re missing the point entirely. That listing is what makes American Psycho a classic. The essential difference between Nye and Bateman is that Nye is mocking himself when he reels off his material possessions, aware of some of the absurdities, whereas Bateman loved himself (interestingly, Nye experiences self-loathing) and his possessions; full stop. What struck me as being quite amusing is that Eric neither desires or needs any of these ridiculously expensive items he owns, but he buys them because he can, and often bespoke so he can prove a point.

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For all that Eric lacks in character, he makes up for with the precision of his societal observations. He mocks the Brooklyn hipsters in a way that is so scathing, so sharp; I could not have articulated it better myself:

‘Never before have I seen so many people in one place who are exactly the same: the same age, the same race, the same wardrobe, the same facial hair, the same taste in music, socioeconomic background, college experience, shoes, political beliefs, and hair; but I suppose what really unites them is the shared fantasy that they are rebels.’

He goes to an art show called “Show Us Your Tits!” which features ‘lots of photos (taken, it seems, by anyone who can push the button on a camera) of girls flashing their breasts…I can’t decide if I like this show because it’s not really art at all, it’s just stupid, or if maybe I hate this shit because it’s trying so hard not to be art and there’s nothing more arty than that.’ Haha. Every major city has these hubs; in London the equivalent is Shoreditch/ Hackney.

Underneath the layers of dark wit and narcissism is an intelligent commentary on corporate America where we are told that ‘Advertising is how corporations outsource their lies.’

‘You see, what I think is interesting about what I do is that I personally don’t believe in what I do, or should I say that I believe very strongly that technology is actually destroying us as human beings, it’s taking away the fundamental truths about our humanity and making us pay to get them back: it’s called Creating Value.’

Without spoiling too much, the example he uses was quite an eye opener for me, showing how we have learned to buy back what was fundamentally ours to begin with.

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This is a highly entertaining read that is, in parts, hilarious, and although Eric is indeed an asshole of the highest degree (as it says on the spine of the novel, he’s ‘a character you’ll either love or hate. Probably hate.’) I couldn’t help but be taken in by his unashamed self-centredness.  And what, exactly, is the Deep Whatsis? Well, you’ll just have to read to find out.

I received my copy of The Deep Whatsis from the publisher (Other Press) via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Every Contact Leaves a Trace by Elanor Dymott

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‘If you were to ask me to tell you about my wife, I would have to warn you at the outset that I don’t know a great deal about her…I went into a dark room with my camera for a time, and I came out with a photograph of a woman I had never seen before.’

Meet Alex Peterson – loner, Oxford graduate, successful lawyer, and married to Rachel, a vivacious English graduate from the same college. Alex is that person ‘looking on groups from the outside….that is how [he] felt for most of [his] life…On the edge of things, apart from people, not wanting to be among them.’ One summer night, after a dinner at their old college, Rachel is found on the grounds, brutally murdered. At first, with ‘stories circulating in the room which were not [his] own’, the police suspect Alex, but he is soon cleared by a witness – Harry, Rachel’s old tutor at Oxford – and so the mystery of Rachel’s death remains a gaping hole.

What was Rachel doing out by the lake where she was killed? Why has Harry provided him with an alibi? Who is that mysterious shadowed figure seen fleeing the scene?

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Alex is trapped in his grief and that winter, with an invitation from Harry, he returns to Oxford to try and find out what happened to Rachel. Harry sits Alex down and over the course of the novel he slowly reveals an interconnected chain of actions and decisions made years before, back in Alex and Rachel’s undergraduate years, that may have led to the murder at the centre of the narrative. And so we are transported back to 1990s Oxford where piece by piece, Rachel’s identity is put together. Moving back and forth to various times and places, and pierced with flashbacks, this is a layered text where, in a classic case of unreliable narrator, we can never really be sure if we can trust what Alex is telling us, or if what Harry is telling Alex is the whole truth.

I can completely understand why this book has been compared to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ as it’s also a story of secret cliques and magnetically alluring ringleaders. It’s a highly atmospheric novel, giving you a true sense of what Oxford is. The prose is so precise, the language so luscious, and there’s something about the way the words just trip off your tongue (I had to read it our loud at times because it was so beautiful) that make this book a remarkably accomplished debut.

The ending, however, was wanting – I was waiting for a twist that never came and it ended rather speculatively. It would have been a more satisfying read if we were given something more, but perhaps this has more to do with the fact that the book was built up to be a thriller when in actual fact it’s a contemplation on grief and uncertainty. The ending doesn’t detract from the fact that the novel is immersive, is truly a pleasure to read and is one of those rare achievements that is a literary mystery.

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Book Review: The Shelter Cycle by Peter Rock

I’ve always been fascinated by the practices and the thinking behind religious cults. By how their (often flawed) logic frequently leads to broken families and disillusionment, which is why I picked up Peter Rock’s new book, ‘The Shelter Cycle’.

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The story centres around The Church Universal and Triumphant (TCUT), a religious group based in the Montana area that prepared for the End of the World in the late 80s. They believed the world would end in the spring of 1990 and so built underground shelters to house the members of their community. The group disbanded when the world (obviously) did not end, its members losing their faith when they had to go back to the same problems (and large debts incurred through the building of these bunkers) they had thought they’d be leaving behind.

The novel opens with the reader being told that a 9 year old girl has gone missing from her backyard – her little sister, also out in the backyard, was not taken. Their neighbour, Wells, along with the rest of the neighbourhood, is out searching for the missing girl. Also out searching is Francine, Wells’s heavily pregnant wife who used to belong to TCUT when she was a child. Colville, Francine’s childhood friend mysteriously shows up on their doorstep, claiming he is there to help find the girl and that a newspaper article detailing her disappearance is one of the many ‘signs’ that lead him to Francine. Reconnecting with Colville allows many of Francine’s childhood memories to come to the surface so she feels compelled to write them down – sections of which are interspersed through the novel –  and also to secretly revisit the site of the bunkers.

Colville’s secret surveillance of Francine’s house, his subsequent journey to the Montana site of the shelters (laced with touches of magical realism, or indeed hallucinations), along with other sneaky behaviour leads us to believe that he has a plan – though what this plan is remains mysterious right up until the end – and to be honest, even then I wasn’t really sure what his intent was.

The beginning of this novel is highly enjoyable – the sinister mysteriousness of a stranger appearing on the doorstep made it very atmospheric (has a feeling of eerie unease throughout), and the desire to understand Colville’s motives will keep you going.

And so comes my very big BUT: this book feels unfinished and not properly thought out. I didn’t feel that I necessarily understood what this cult was fully about after having read this story. This is partly because no explanations are given when using cult-specific terminology so it can be quite confusing at times, and whether it’s a case that I completely did not understand it, but I felt that the novel was building up to a twist/climax that never came. It’s as if it almost got there and then receded. A very unsatisfactory ending that made me feel all that reading was for nothing.

Peculiar Love: Anthropology by Dan Rhodes

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101 short ‘stories’ (or paragraphs, really) each 101 words long, each one more bizarre than the last. I’ve had this book for years and find myself dipping into it whenever I feel like laughing. Each story is narrated by an unnamed man who is experiencing one difficulty or another with a girlfriend. The stories are disturbingly hilarious and undeniably dark with a common thread of absurdity running through them. Here’s a little taster; enjoy!

TRICK

My girlfriend told me she had been the victim
of nature’s cruellest trick, that although born
male she had always felt female. She said she
had started dressing in women’s clothes at
the age of seventeen, and three years later
had undergone the necessary surgery. I was
stunned, but told her that I loved her first and
foremost as a person, and that I would give her
all the emotional support she needed. She
looked horrified. She had only been joking.
She left me. She said she was going to find a
real man, not some queer little gayboy like me.

BINDING

I found my girlfriend smashing our two-year-
old’s toes with a rock. I told her to stop. ‘What
are you doing?’ I cried, above the baby’s
agonised wails.
‘You wouldn’t understand,’ she said,
winding a bandage tightly around the crushed
digits. ‘It’s a woman thing. It’ll help her get a
boyfriend.’
‘But darling, don’t you remember what the
doctor told us? It’s a boy baby.’
‘Really?’ She looked surprised. ‘Oh well.
Men look nice with small feet too. I expect
he’ll be gay, anyway. He’s got that look about
him. See?’ I had to agree that she had a point.

CHARGING

My girlfriend started charging me for sex. She
said she had to think of her future, and
anyway her friends did it so why shouldn’t
she? I didn’t mind too much because her basic
rates were very reasonable, although she
always expected tips for extras. Once, as she
was holding the banknotes I’d given her up to
the light to make sure they were real, I asked
her if she ever went with anyone else for
money. She was furious, and asked what kind
of girl I thought she was. I said one with
laughing eyes, and lovely long dark hair.

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Book Review: The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison

It starts with a simple phone call – Ian and his wife, Em, are invited to come up to the country to spend a long weekend with Ollie (Ian’s best friend from university) and his wife, Daisy. What do you need to know about these two couples?  Well, according to Ian:

‘The various ways in which we’re not like Ollie and Daisy is a conversation we often have. Indeed, we’ve spent far more time talking about them than in their presence. The essential contrasts, all to our disadvantage, go: large Georgian house in west London vs small modern semi in Ilkestone; Range Rover and BMW vs Ford Fiesta; Mauritius (Florence, Antigua etc.) vs Lanzarote (if we’re lucky); The Ivy vs Pizza Express; […] golden couple vs pair of ugly toads. I exaggerate but not much.’

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Meet Ian, the narrator of this quietly chilling novel who wants to tell you what happened over the course of this long bank holiday weekend up at Badingley (the farm house).

‘As to the events of August, I don’t suppose I’ll ever get over them. I’m the kind of guy who feels guilty even when he’s innocent – expects to be stopped going through customs even when he has nothing to declare. But what happened that weekend would surely have happened anyway. It’s not like I’m a rapist or a murderer. Even if I were, I would be honest with you. I’m trying to tell the story, that’s all – not to unburden myself or extenuate some offence but to set things straight.’

And so we begin to hear what transpired over the last weekend of August. Sandwiched between tales of Ollie, Ian and Daisy’s time together at university (Ollie ‘stole’ Daisy from Ian), we are offered glimpses into the mechanics of friendship and rivalry, love and lust, money and class. A weekend meant to be fun and relaxing, is fused with a palpable tension when old rivalries resurface and pulse along to build up to a startling conclusion.

What needs to be made clear is that this is very much Ian’s version of events and as he’s so very honest about wanting to be honest and perhaps not remembering certain things as they happened, he very skilfully lures the reader over to his side.

‘My memory’s pretty good on the whole…And yet Badingley, which ought to be etched on my soul, slips away at times – or refuses to come into focus, like something wrapped in tissue and shut away in a drawer. Did Ollie really say this or Daisy that? I remember a mass of things but nothing distinctly.’

What works in Ian’s favour is that through his recounting of the events that shaped his and Ollie’s friendship back in university, the reader finds it very easy to dislike Ollie. But as the narrative progresses, we slowly begin to realise that things aren’t quite what they seem. Ian slowly emerges into your classic unreliable narrator, leaving the reader constantly weary and on edge. There is a chilling sense of foreboding throughout the novel, and it’s ultimately the desire to know what exactly it is that happened over this specific weekend that keeps you going. This is a highly atmospheric and compelling novel that deserves to be read in all its uncomfortable glory. And watch the miniseries if you can (featured on ITV last year, starring Rupert Penry-Jones) – although good, it’s not as subtle as the book.

 

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Book Review

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Who on earth is Bernadette, and where the hell did she go? Good question; this is how the novel opens:

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This is Bee, a precocious young teenager who is the daughter of Elgin Branch, Microsoft guru; and Bernadette Fox, neurotic architectural genius. After getting top marks on her report card, Bee reminds her parents that they had said she could have anything she wants. This anything turns out to be a trip to Antarctica. And so kick off a chain of events, charted through a mixture of emails, letters, notes, instant messages and reports; that lead to the disappearance of Bernadette.

Bernadette is highly opinionated, highly antisocial (completely disconnected from the real world to the extent that she has a virtual assistant based in India who does everything for her, short of breathing), hates everything about Seattle (‘Sometimes these cars have Idaho plates. And I think, What the hell is a car from Idaho doing here? Then I remember, That’s right, we neighbour Idaho. I’ve moved to a state that neighbours Idaho. And any life that might still be left in me kind of goes poof.’), and doesn’t care that she’s disliked by all the parents from Bee’s school – a pretentious school of ‘Subaru Parents’ (trying very hard to become ‘Mercedes Parents) where the worst grade you can get is a ‘W’ – working towards excellence. Yeah, that kinda nonsense.

Everybody in this book is so incredibly self-involved it is positively hilarious. Their ability to over exaggerate every little small detail and turn it into a 3-page rant creates a novel that is pure, unapologetic satire. An example of this hilarious exaggeration is when Bernadette is telling Manjula, her virtual assistant, about the difficulties of trying to park her car downtown when forced to pick up a dodgy prescription:

‘It was the first time I’d been downtown in a year. I immediately remembered why: the pay-to-park meters. Parking in Seattle is an eight-step process…Step eight, pray to the God you don’t believe in that you have the mental wherewithal to remember what the hell it was you came downtown for in the first place. Already I wished a Chechen rebel would shoot me in the back.’

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Maria Semple has written quite a bit of comedy for TV – this is obvious when you start getting into this book. The dialogue is sharp and witty if a little forced at times in that sitcom kinda way. And though Semple does it well, I have to say that there has already been a book written in this format, that I think pushes the humour button a little more naturally than ‘Bernadette’. This book is ‘E: A Novel’ by Matt Beaumont – a brilliantly funny book if you ever have the time.

So, together with Bee, the reader pieces together fragments of information from all these random bits of correspondence, to see if we can find out where on earth Bernadette has got to. Underneath the razor-sharp wit, this book has a lot of heart and is one of those unusual ones where you genuinely don’t know what’s coming next. The twists and turns seem so random yet they work really well together. The only thing I’ll say is that the final third or so didn’t quite match up to the humour of the first two sections and so was a bit of a let down. And I won’t say anymore than that, because part of the pleasure of reading (most of) this is the unexpected way in which the story unfolds.

Another thing that’s surprising is that this book has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year (formerly known as the Orange Prize). Though entertaining I didn’t think it was of that calibre….but then again, something shouldn’t have to be ‘serious’ in order to be considered prize worthy. Perhaps it’s the pure originality (minus the format) that has made the judges think twice.

Book Review: This Is Where I Leave You – Jonathan Tropper

You think you have all the time in the world, and then your father dies. You think you’re happily married, and then your wife fucks your boss. You think your brother is an asshole, and then you discover that it’s been you all along. If nothing else, it’s been educational.’

Life’s not going too great for Judd Foxman. He’s just walked in on his wife having sex with another man in their marital bed. This other man is his boss. To top it off his dad has just died and he, along with his hilariously dysfunctional family, has to go back to his family home and sit shiva for seven days.

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Is this not one of the funniest opening paragraphs to a book?

This is, hands down, a major contender for my favourite book of 2012 (read it last month, don’t know what took me forever to write this review). Jonathan Tropper is a casually brilliant author and this is a book that I simply did not want to end. The humour is of a dark black variety and I just could not get enough. The dialogue and comic timing are just perfect; I don’t think there’s anyone else who can do it like him. I know that’s a pretty big claim to make, but I’d like someone to prove me wrong and introduce me to a writer who’s funnier than he is.

So the Foxmans are a funny bunch, with ‘a patented inability to express emotion during watershed events.’ From the very first ‘ass-numbing day of greeting visitors at crotch level’ we quickly learn that they simply do not get along, and perhaps ‘should all just face reality and stop taking [their] meals together’.

We have the oldest brother, Paul, who Judd gets along fine with ‘as long as we don’t spend any time together’; sister Wendy: incredibly cynical and jaded mother of three with a husband who’s too busy bothering about hedge funds and himself to actively participate in the mourning of his father-in-law, and Paul, the youngest of the bunch, who has cemented his place as the family fuck up (‘you’d have to wake up pretty early in the morning to find a drug he hasn’t done or a model he hasn’t fucked.) They are ’emotionally inarticulate’ with major communication issues (‘In my family, we don’t so much as air our grievances as wallow in them. Anger and resentment are cumulative.’), which is funny because their mother is an (inappropriately dressed – read slutty) incredibly liberal and outspoken celebrity psychologist.

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The chapters are split into the seven days of shiva and are laced with flashback scenes from significant moments in Judd’s life. The depiction of a marriage in decline is painfully accurate where at first, Judd and his wife Jen ‘knew marriage could be difficult in the same way that [they] knew there were starving children in Africa. It was a tragic fact but worlds away from [their] reality’, but before they know it, standard and perfunctory ‘his-and-hers orgasms [are being] distributed like party favours.’

And now I have no wife, no child, no job, no home, or anything else that would point to a life being lived with any success. I may not be old, but I’m too old to have this much nothing.’

When speaking of his boss that’s sleeping with his wife, Judd says ”Wade could not get enough pancreatic cancer to satisfy me.” Whilst you’re sniggering away at the deadpan darkness of this comment, it’s followed by the heart-breaking, ‘It’s a sad moment when you come to understand how truly replaceable you are.’ So despite the wisecracks and often relentless sarcasm, Tropper punches you with these heartfelt moments:

You never know when it will be the last time you’ll see your father, or kiss your wife, or play with your little brother, but there’s always a last time. If you could remember every last time, you’d never stop grieving.’

The honesty of that statement just pierces you for an instant. In the midst of this confused collection of troubled people (‘You need GPS to follow the sex lives of this family’) and all the hilarity, Jonathan Tropper makes some really insightful observations about humanity, about life in general and about the hard hitting nature of truth. Looking at his sister, Wendy, Judd says:

Now she’s a mother and wife who tries to get her screaming baby to sleep through the night, tries to stop her boys from learning curse words, and calls romantic love useless. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking to see your siblings as the people they’ve become. Maybe that’s why we all stay away from each other as a matter of course.’

Despite, and maybe even because of the Foxman’s buried resentments and permanent scars, there is a twisted love that peaks it’s head after eight tequila shots. An honesty that can bring together the drifting parts and start to mend the fragments of this broken family. Though they’ll probably never be the Bradys in terms of sincerity, you can’t help but think that their version, which is ‘awkward and vague’ at best, is actually better, because ‘even under the best of circumstances, there’s just something so damn tragic about growing up.’

I can honestly say that the humour in this book is effortless, it just flies off the page and I’m in no way surprised that it’s being made into a film (Jason Bateman to be Judd, apparently). Despite his success, I think Jonathan Tropper is underrated. People need to be obsessing with his work more. I can’t recommend this highly enough. And when you’re done, try ‘How To Talk To A Widower’, cuz that’s also effing brilliant. And this is where I leave you….(sorry, had to).

SAM_1980

 

 

Book Review: The Grief of Others – Leah Hager Cohen

I first started reading this whilst lying on South Beach in Miami. Strange, I know. A book titled The Grief of Others isn’t the most holiday-friendly book, and reading it in my light-hearted surroundings did feel a little wrong, so I stopped. And then I lost my David Sedaris book (still mad about that), so was stuck with the crap that I seem to have accumulated on my kindle.

The Grief of Others – a beach read??

Once I was back in London, it took me a while to pick it up again, and there’s something about coming back to a book after you’ve abandoned it for a while that makes it even harder to start reading the second time, but I soon got into it.

I have to admit that it’s the cover of this book that drew me in: a little house with lit windows placed inside a glass jar. Very striking, absolutely love it.

This book charts the life of a family, one year after the sad death of their baby who died only 57 hours after he was born. The Ryries appear to be falling apart at the seams, each member of the family trapped inside the glass jar of their own sadness, unable to share their loss with one another. They never mention the child’s name or even acknowledge that they need to mourn him.

Parents John and Ricky struggle to keep things going, and though the routine of everyday life brings a certain normalcy to their lives, (‘Daily business, if not a balm, was at least a broth in which they’d been swept up and eddied along’), ‘their marriage was a broken body laid out on the bed between them’. Their struggle centres on a secret that Ricky has been harbouring, and once revealed, their entire relationship is brought into question. In this mess are their two older children, Paul and Elizabeth (nicknamed Biscuit), each neglected and acting out in their own way.

The unexpected arrival of John’s older daughter Jess reminds the family of a summer camping holiday they took eight years ago when they had first met her. Having not seen her since, Jess serves as a reminder of happier times and of what they once were.

The Grief of Others – Leah Hager Cohen

The book is certainly slow in places, and at about three quarters of the way through, I did get a little bit bored. We spend so much time in the heads of these characters, understanding how they feel, and as a result the narrative pace suffers because there is too much thought and not enough action. Having said this, Cohen really gets into the minds of these characters and she does build a truly realistic psychological portrait of a grieving family, and allows us to understand how our own personal tragedies can help us to fully comprehend the loss and heartbreak of others: ‘as if by possessing a fuller understanding of the complexities of loss, she could not help experiencing more particularly the losses of others.’

Despite its flaws I would still recommend this book, because at its best it’s really fragile and beautiful. And if you’re not convinced, I would suggest reading just the three and a half pages of the prologue because that is an example of truly exceptional writing.

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: An Ambiguous Review

If it hadn’t been for the child then none of this might have happened.

She saw me kissing her father.

She saw her father kissing me.

The fact that a child got mixed up in it all made us feel that it mattered, that there was no going back.

I’m not sure how I feel about Anne Enright. This is the second of her books that I’ve read (technically 1.5 as I couldn’t quite finish the first) and although this book is miles better than her Booker prize winning The Gathering and has given me a glimpse into the reason why she’s rated so highly, there is still something that’s holding me back a little.

The Forgotten Waltz

The Forgotten Waltz is about adultery; about an affair between two married people, Gina and Sean. Set in Ireland, the entire story is told with hindsight and from Gina’s perspective, so we know from the beginning how this ends. But the story is still charged with us wanting to know how they got there, how this affair started, and how it developed.

Anne Enright writes well, there’s no doubt about that. Some of the passages in here really did take my breath away. She says things that are completely unexpected, but upon reflection, are things so true:

‘…I think how kissing is such an extravagance of nature. Like bird-song; heartfelt and lovely beyond any possible usefulness.’

How beautiful is that? Her depiction of the middle classes is also infuriatingly accurate and brought a smile to my face several times. For example, ‘The room where they slept was white…it was done in horribly similar, crucially different shades of f*cking white.’, and also ‘it was the kind of party where no one ate the chicken skin.’ I laughed at the obscurity of such a remark, but then instantly understood what she meant. These are self-consciously middle class people with middle class concerns, and in truly capturing the nuances of this world, Enright has succeeded.

Gina is very matter of fact, almost dispassionate when speaking of Sean and of the affair, an affair confined to the space of a hotel room, ‘we were only normal for the twelve foot by fourteen of a hotel room. Outside, in the open air, we would evaporate.’ She speaks as though Sean and the affair were these giant forces that were beyond her control:

But once we begun, how were we supposed to stop? This sounds like a simple question, but I still don’t know the answer to it. I mean that we had started something that could not be ended, except by happening. It could not be stopped, but only finished.

But it was hard for me to believe that someone so seemingly indifferent about something would sacrifice so much in order to attain it. She’s a walking contradiction; one minute repulsed by Sean and the next minute almost stalking him in true bunny-boiler fashion. She ultimately finds that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side: It’s pretty much the same colour, just a different type of blade. But I couldn’t reconcile this supposedly epiphanic realisation with someone as smart and cynical as Gina – surely a previously married woman would know that the romance and excitement of a new relationship soon slips into the ordinary?! All the more so if the other adulterer in question has a child. Come on. This is Adultery and Deciding to Leave Your Spouse 101.

A common thread in Enright’s work is the way in which her stories start off in a fascinating way and then they slowly begin to falter and stagnate. The momentum is not kept up, but the beauty of the actual writing (in this book anyway) keeps you going. And Gina is a very interesting narrator. You might call her unreliable, but she goes out of her way to remind you that what she’s telling you may not be what actually occurred, and that her recollections are doused in a self-interested subjectivity. And you can’t help but be grateful for the extent she goes to to prevent the oversimplification of the motivations behind this affair.