Such a sweet, poignant book that really got inside my head and my heart. This is the tale of a year in the life of Tassie Keltjin, whose father grows potatoes and who hopes she can escape her provincial childhood when she heads to college in nearby Troy. It’s also the tale of a young woman losing her innocence but finding something more. Funny and awkward, Tassie gets a job working as a nanny for a local couple, only to find that her first duties involve helping them through the process of adopting the child who will become her responsibility. Tassie really loves caring for the toddler, Mary Emma, who enters their lives, and there’s some beautifully observed scenes that explore the tension of being the one who the child turns to in distress, even when a parent is in the room. There’s also some wickedly observed and very funny commentary on the social dilemmas facing the adoptive white parents of Mary Emma as an African American child – and the middle class angst, support groups and attempts at political correctness in which the adults and their friends indulge. In one of her classes, Tassie meets and falls in love what she thinks is a Brazilian boyfriend but who, in post 9-11 America, turns out not to be. His sudden departure and a totally out of the blue implosion that blows apart Mary Emma’s family, send Tassie back to her parent’s farm in search of security. Yet rather than finding comfort there, she encounters more pain and loss. Ultimately, though, home allows her to start the process of healing her hurt and to realise that moving on doesn’t have to mean leaving everything about your old life behind. The book ends with Tassie coming back to Troy, a phone call from Mary Emma’s adoptive father, and one of the best ever final lines I have read in a long time. It really made me laugh out loud and perfectly captures the dry wit and simplicity that is the very essence of this novel, as well as its protagonist. Lorrie Moore writes like a dream and it’s all to easy to get lost in almost her every sentence. It’s also a real pleasure to find a book in which almost everything that happens is so unexpected and which avoids so many potential cliches. Quirky and bittersweet, A GATE AT THE STAIRS, is treasure.
Monthly Archives: October 2013
This book opens with a road rage incident, involving two cars and various bystanders, queuing for an Edinburgh fringe performance. One of the car drivers is the brutish sidekick of a dodgy housing developer, the other is a mysterious man who remains unidentified right up until the closing pages of the novel. Timid crime fiction writer, Martin Canning, averts a potential murder by using his lap top as a weapon to save the mysterious man’s life. This one good turn draws Martin into a dark criminal world that connects many of the others on the scene and sees him being drugged, revisiting a guilty past, finding his obnoxious housemate murdered and once again stepping in to save someone’s life. Retired police officer Jackson Brodie witnesses Martin’s act of courage at the scene and it’s his persistence that ultimately unravels the link between all the characters that feature in our opening scene. Peppered with credible cameos, including many staples of the crime genre that are taken to new heights by Atkinson, this is a wonderful book. It also happens to have been exactly what I needed to read over the last week or so. The Observer’s calls it “that rarest of things – a good literary novel and cracking read” – they are spot on.
Set during the summer of 1981, with Charles and Diana’s royal wedding as the backdrop, this is the story of Lara, a young woman who is on her first ever holiday with a father she barely knows; historian and philanderer Lambert who has enjoyed a privileged life that’s very different to that of Lara and her hippy mother’s. The pair travel by train to Tuscany and to the home of a close and very ill friend of his, Caroline. The journey is a chance for father and daughter to get to know one another and whilst they do form a bond it can only be described as gentle affection that never gets much beyond a sense of duty towards the other. Nor does Lara find much warmth in Caroline, an impeccable hostess whose coolness and emotional distance are in stark contrast to the intense sun-baked climate of Southern Italy that better reflects Lara’s internal life. So when the older woman introduces the teenager to a nearby household of friends, their interchangeable partners and overly assertive offspring, it’s inevitable that Lara will be seduced by the atmosphere of sensuality and secrets.
This coming of age novel that culminates in the annual Palio horse race sees Lara fall in love with the “carelessly beautiful” Kip and also attract the unwanted attention of the older men in the party. She’s gauche and sweet, occasionally wracked by guilt and frequently wracked by feelings of inadequacy, but Lara never really develops as a character. Her companions are equally two dimensional but quite different – immoral, spoiled and thoroughly unpleasant, they revel in self gratification and appear to feel no remorse for their wrong doings, even a rape that goes undetected and unpunished. Flashbacks to Lara’s upbringing, especially a trip by bus from London to India, serve to emphasise the differences between her and the rest of the English gathered in Tuscany, Freud seemingly commenting on the links between wealth and the kind of person you become – Ginny, the cook at Caroline’s house, is the only other half decent character in the book. Yet we never get beyond the surface of the idea and the same problem pervades the rest of LOVE FALLS – enjoyable, sultry and at times quite dark and threatening, there’s nevertheless a lack of depth that ultimately makes this a rather disappointing read.
I often find McEwan’s books quite cold and clinical – I struggle to connect with the characters and don’t care very much what happens to them. I felt the same on reading this, although interestingly it seemed deliberate here just because being dispassionate, rational, scientific is so much a part of the lead character, Joe Rose. A frustrated scientist turned journalist he’s involved in a hot air balloon accident that causes his path to cross with that of Jed Parry. At the time Joe thinks nothing of it, but Jed develops an obsession with Joe that’s fuelled by a religious fervour and in the long run prompts him to physically threaten both Joe and Joe’s girlfriend Clarissa. Jed ends up being detained in a secure mental hospital (something we find out via medical case notes at the end of the novel, a stylistic feature that acts as a continuation of the novel’s main themes and which the reader could very easily miss!), whilst Clarissa and Joe try to repair the strain he’s put their relationship under. From the opening chapter, which is pacy and almost unbearable to read for the way it sets you on edge and sets you up for the rest of the story, McEwan pitches religion against science, the rational against the irrational.
The description of four men clinging on to the ropes of the hot air balloon in an attempt to prevent it from taking off with a lone child inside encompasses physics, geography, gravity and finally the internal skeletal collapse of a body that falls more than three hundred feet. The facts are all lined up, police statements given and memories shaped to fit the known. And yet there’s an undercurrent of so much more – of why the men at first co-operated to save a child’s life, and why all but one’s self preservation instincts then kicked in. Of the inexplicable aftermath. Of the clash between human nature and what logic dictates should have happened. These undercurrents roll on as Joe tries to respond rationally to Jed’s door step confrontations, intimate letters and deluded theories. The scientist in him dismisses Jed’s religious passion and searches for a logical explanation, unearthing a phenomenon called de Clearambault’s theory that convinces him Jed will ultimately turn violent. Joe’s correct but as his own behaviour becomes increasingly fatalistic and irrational in the face of not being believed, there are more parallels between the two men than Joe would even begin to countenance. And in the letter Clarissa writes her boyfriend as their relationship seems to be over, she blames his response to Jed for the events that unfold, putting emotions rather than facts at the heart of the crisis.
The title of the book, of course, tells us most – love of all kinds endures despite the facts, not because of them. It can be triggered by one event – McEwan is the master of stories that hinge on one disruptive occurrence – and more often than not logic, science or rationality don’t get a look in. Joe ends up realising this, I think, or at least hoping it’s true and yet I cannot help but go back to my starting point – clever, thrilling and startling though this novel is, I just didn’t care for him or it very much at all.