Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes – “If it’s crude, it must be good!”



This is my review of  Vernon Subutex Tome or Volume 1  by Virginie Despentes – read in French, but also available translated into English.

Vernon’s odd surname Subutex is also a medication used for treatment of drug addiction, which indicates the tone of this novel. The former manager of a popular Parisian record store in the heyday of punk, forty-something Vernon has fallen on hard times in the face of competition from digital streaming. On hearing of the suicide of singer Alex Bleach, who has paid his rent for the last couple of years, Vernon’s first reaction is to wonder how he will manage when the bailiffs arrive. His only solution is to sponge off a succession of former friends and lovers, sinking rapidly into life on the street. Self-centred and weak-willed, he retains much of his old charm and power of attraction, appears quite perceptive and resourceful when sober and drug-free, but seems to be going through a kind of mid-life crisis. What may save him in the end is that news has spread of his possession of recorded monologues produced by Alex Bleach, which have gained extra commercial value from his recent death.

The first in a trilogy, this book has won many awards in France, been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and made into a television series. It has been praised in glowing terms by critics as a “formidable” portrayal of “contemporary French society”. I cannot agree, since it seems to be mired in a narrow, sordid urban world of foul-mouthed promiscuity, cocaine-addiction, drunkenness, materialism, fascism and violence. A strong thread of prostitution and topical transgender sex runs through it, hardly surprising in view of the author’s previous life as a sex-worker and the themes of her early writing triggered by the experience of rape.

The flimsy plot serves as a vehicle for a series of disjointed portraits of mainly dysfunctional or unorthodox individuals, some of whom seem to play only a passing role, although they may reappear in Parts 2 or 3. Perhaps because the end was in sight, I found some of the later characters more authentic and well-drawn, even to the extent of evoking sympathy: Patrice, the wife-beater who can neither control his emotions nor express true remorse for the violence which has driven away the woman and two children he loves; Sophie, who has been driven a little mad by the death through an overdose of her elder son, a long-term addict for reasons she cannot comprehend.

There is a good deal of stereotyping and cliché in this novel, and I often found the female characters less fully developed and convincing, not counting their ludicrous names (La Hyène, Lydia Bazooka, Vodka Satana, and so on). I found it hard to credit that ex-porn star Deborah would decide, it would seem on a whim, to transition into Daniel, with so little effort or distress, and then be so successful in “mixing with the boys” and having heterosexual girlfriends.

I struggled through this for my French book group, by turns depressed, irritated and bored. The characters have a tendency to indulge in quite entertaining, exaggerated rants, there are some useful idioms buried in all the oppressive obscenity, but having reached the rushed and unresolved ending, clearly intended to make one read Part 2, I do not feel inclined to find out what happens to Vernon.

Privileged with their musical, poetical language, the French seem to delight in “slumming it” with over-rated imitations of the truly great, boundary-crossing, no holds barred novels which somehow “work” much better in English. I happen to be reading Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain” at the same time, which really is “magistral et fulgurant, Une œuvre d’art. Une formidable cartographie de la société américaine” des 1990

“Rupture” by Ragnar Jónasson: Icelandic Christie


This is my review of Rupture by Ragnar Jónasson.

This is the fourth novel to be published in the “Dark Iceland” series featuring young detective Ari Thor, newcomer to the somewhat remote town of Siglufjörður in northern Iceland. Chronologically, it should be read after the first novel, “Snowblind” in which the hero Ari is introduced as a novice detective, but before the fourth one, “Nightblind”, in which he has become a father.

I was drawn to the series because a recent visit to Iceland had given me some first-hand knowledge of the country, and the author Ragnar Jónasson captures its atmosphere and character. The long, dark winters, brief bright summers, bleak beauty of the wild landscape, isolation of rural communities, the fact that, however modern and sophisticated on the surface, many Icelanders are separated by only a generation or so from a hard life of self-sufficiency and folklore spun from living so close to the elements, all combine to provide an intriguing backdrop for at times pedestrian but generally well-plotted crime stories.

In Rupture, Ari is still living apart from his former girlfriend, although the two are clearly making progress in patching up their recent rift. When fear of a potentially deadly virus keeps the locals indoors and unlikely to commit fresh crimes for a while, Ari has time to focus on an old case which has resurfaced from the 1950s . Hedinn, a middle-aged man who spent his childhood in Héðinsfjörður, a beautiful but inaccessible valley, has begun to suspect that his young aunt Jorunn did not commit suicide when he was a baby, but may have been the victim of foul play, perhaps connected with a young man, a stranger who appears in some old family photographs. One senses the oppression in the idea of two sisters living with their husbands in this remote spot, trying to make a living out of farming in harsh conditions, with no road link to the outside world. Having come from the capital of Reykjavik in the south, Ari can still feel this, despite the recent construction of the main road which links the now abandoned fjord with civilisation.
Ari is assisted in his investigation by a Reykjavik journalist, herself involved in a parallel case involving Robert, a man with a troubled past who imagines his family is being stalked for reasons which he may know, but be reluctant to admit. How, if at all, does this link with the possible “hit and run” murder of a victim, former friend to the ambitious young Prime Minster who does not need this kind of negative publicity?

The denouement of the Héðinsfjörður case raises some interesting social issues, and could have made a powerful novella. The Reykjavik-based storyline, which does not directly involve Ari at all, has the ingredients for a separate novel altogether, rather than prove somewhat rushed and underdeveloped, almost like a “makeweight” to pad out the whole.

Although page-turners on a first reading, Jónasson’s plots soon fade in one’s mind. I like his exploration of psychology and motivation, but sometimes find the style too simplistic, perhaps because the translation is a bit wooden. Jónasson has devised a formula on the lines of “person found dead usually in remote spot and killer motivated by some psychological trauma”. This will keep some readers hooked ad infinitum but it has started to wear thin for me.

Year of the Drought: rural cataclysm


This is my review of Year of the Drought  by Ronald Buti.

During the intense summer drought of 1976, which all who lived through it can never forget, thirteen-year-old Gus is growing up on the family farm in French-speaking Switzerland. In what seems at first like a slow-burning, even somewhat bland “coming of age” novel, narrated years later by Gus himself, what really held my attention was the expressive clarity of the writing: the vivid descriptions of the merciless, monotonous heat, the parching of the countryside; the close observations of the working of a farm, the unrelenting hard labour, and vulnerability of the business, in particular the chicken shed in which Gus’s father has borrowed heavily to invest; the gradual revelation of relationships within what initially seems a stable family, seen through the eyes of an unusually thoughtful and perceptive boy, still too young to understand fully what is going on.

For Gus, his father Jean is a rock, unflagging in his physical and mental strength. A peasant at heart, there is a certain rigidity in his attitudes, yet also signs of his essential decency in, for instance, his decision to employ a simple-minded relative Rudy, who would otherwise have been consigned to an asylum which would have driven him totally mad, whereas on the farm he can at least be useful. Jean clearly loves his graceful, child-like wife, yet fails to see her needs, as, married too young, she slaves away at household tasks, too busy to show Gus the love and attention he craves, and with tell-tale sign of stress in the perpetual respiratory problems which may well be psychosomatic.

Apart from helping on the farm, Gus spends his summer caring for the stray dove which has lost its wings in a mishap, exercising Bagatelle, his grandfather’s semi-catatonic, incontinent old draught horse (whose droppings he has to collect), sparring with his disdainful elder sister Léa, half-playing, half-fumbling with the quirky adolescent Mado who pursues him with persistence, all the while slipping into a cartoon-like fantasy world. There is a good deal of irony and humour in all this, as when Gus imagines that the giant, windowless chicken incubator is a mysterious distant planet whose toxic atmosphere contains mutant bacteria with the power to penetrate his tissues in the cunning intention of assuming his appearance.

In reality, it is his stable world that is penetrated by the arrival of his mother’s new friend Cécile, the provocative, opinionated sun-tanned hippy, supposedly needing a place to stay after splitting up with her husband. The story then gathers pace and builds inexorably to a crisis worthy of Thomas Hardy in his darkest mood, or a Greek tragedy. I found the final chapter something of an anti-climax, but perhaps as “the calm after the storm” it was effective. If it struck a note of resignation, a sense of our insignificance in the scale of things, that is maybe what the author intended.

The Woman on the Stairs: never too late to learn

This is my review of  The Woman on the Stairs  by Bernard Schlink.

A lawyer by training, most famous for his novel “The Reader”, Bernard Schlink has a direct, analytical approach to fiction which sometimes seems dry, but can be moving and insightful in its precise, pared style. This novel is apparently inspired by Gerhard Richter’s blurred painting, “Ema” (Nude on a Staircase), based on a photograph of his wife.

A successful German lawyer in late middle-age, the anonymous narrator describes how he came across a familiar painting in a Sydney art gallery: “Woman on Staircase” is the nude portrait made years ago by the now famous Karl Schwind of Irene, when married to the wealthy entrepreneur, Peter Gundlach. The lawyer recalls how, years before, he became embroiled in a bizarre legal dispute, in which the manipulative Gundlach ensnares Schwind in a kind of groundhog day situation, in which he damages the painting in order to summon Schwind to repair it. This is part of a tortuous plan to persuade Schwind to exchange the painting he is desperate to regain for Irene who has left her husband for him.

This intriguing scenario gradually shifts into the serious themes Schlink is perpetually drawn to exploring. It seems he cannot relinquish the troubling question of how, having inherited the moral burden of collective guilt, suffered the pressures of a divided country, Germans should now live. Has the narrator followed false values in pursuing a well-paid career and material comforts? Irene’s desire to break away from being a trophy wife or an ambitious painter’s muse, limited to exploiting her sexual attractiveness, has led her to spend years caring for troubled children, but has she also at one time been caught up in a Baader-Meinhof type terrorist movement? This aspect of the book seems somewhat unsatisfactory because it is underdeveloped.

Schlink also explores at length how with age, we reflect on the past, imagining what might have been, regretting past actions or gaps in our recollection, with belated understanding or self-delusion in distorted memories. The narrator appears to have fallen in love with the idea of Irene rather than the woman himself, whom he does not really know, yet when he at last meets up with her in later years their relationship becomes a vehicle to reveal the price he has paid for his highly controlled and repressed emotions, the product of his upbringing.

I read this novel in a single day, initially finding it a page-turner, but was disappointed that it seems to lose dramatic drive, with the final “Part Three” rather tedious in its lengthy portrayal of the narrator in the, for him, unfamiliar role of caring for Irene in her illness, although I can see that it is probably very realistic. The book builds up to a satisfactory conclusion, but I was left with the sense that a potentially unusual and thought-provoking story has somehow misfired, either through a weakness in the translation, which seemed good at first, or through an uneven development of the wide range of ideas touched upon.

Himself by Jess Kidd: if Dylan Thomas had written detective fiction.

This is my review of Himself  by Jess Kidd

In the late spring of 1976, roguish Dublin charmer Mahony saunters into off-the-beaten track Irish coastal town of Mulderrig, “a benign little speck of a place…pretending to be harmless”, “his trousers…ridiculous…wide enough at the bottom to mop the main road”. After years spent in a bleak orphanage, he has discovered his true name and identity, and comes in search of his mother, or at least to find out more about her, the bewitching, wayward teenager Orla Sweeney. So begins a tale of detection with a difference.

Since Mahony has inherited Orla’s powers of clairvoyance, and sees ghosts at every turn, he is likely to glean more information from them than the sly locals with much to hide. Yet it seems that having the second sight does not enable Mahony to see straight away the truth which is partly revealed to us in the brutal hook of the prologue, in which a young girl is savagely murdered by an assailant, but her baby son is mysteriously spirited away while his back is turned.

Usually, I would avoid like the plague a book run through with so much ghostly magic realism. Yet in this first novel, Jess Kidd proves to be a kind of female, Irish Dylan Thomas, sustaining such a vivid imagination, and spinning her blarney with such easy skill, mixing humour with poignancy, that I was won over. This novel is not merely a page-turner to see how it will all end, but a joy to read for the sheer language: when the unpleasant local priest is punished for his worldly cynicism by the appearance of a spring in his library, he tries to look “rigidly unperturbed” as “near the fireplace…a thick layer of frogs seethe in heathen ecstasy where the hearthrug used to be”.

Since the story is “off the wall” from the outset, although managing to convey a good deal about tight-knit, isolated rural communities given to superstition, I found the build-up to the denouement a tad too ludicrous. References to some of the ghosts, like the eccentric ageing actress Mrs Cauley’s long-dead lover Johnnie become a bit repetitive, and phrases including “arse” too tediously frequent, but overall it is a surprisingly good read.

Although somewhat flawed in certain respects, this is a remarkably talented work, more entertaining, humorous and moving by turns, and in fact better written than many a more hyped and “literary” novel.

“The House on Vesper Sands” by Paraic O’Donnell – melodramatic, supernatural late Victorian detective fiction

This is my review of The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell.

Naïve Cambridge undergraduate Gideon Bliss is intrigued and quite pleased to receive a request for help from his normally cold and distant uncle and guardian, the do-gooding clergymen Herbert Neuilly who devotes himself to assisting vulnerable young women fallen on hard times in London. These include Angela Tatton, to whom Gideon has clearly become attached. Arrived in London, Gideon is puzzled to find that his uncle is not at his lodgings: instead, he comes across Angela in strange circumstances which imply she has been the victim of a bizarre attack, before she too disappears. Meanwhile, the feisty would-be journalist Octavia Hillingdon cycles round London trying to find out more about the enigmatic Lord Strythe, who has aroused her suspicions.

If you like the sound of late Victorian detective fiction served up with dollops of melodrama, farce, implausible coincidences and supernatural happenings, this novel may appeal to you. It is an intertwined imitation of Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, but a pale one. I was encouraged to read it by a glowing review in The Guardian, but was disappointed from the outset by the very mannered style and some laboured descriptions, although I accept this may be an attempt to recapture a Victorian approach to writing. For the mainly exaggerated and two-dimensional characters there can be no excuse.

I accept that Gideon and Octavia are quite likeable, there are some amusing exchanges, as between the long-winded Gideon and the gruff Inspector Cutter, and the author’s poetry sometimes creeps in to good effect: “rippled with lazing dust”; “a soundless bend of wind”. Even the title, “The House at Vesper Sands”, has an alluring ring. However, I sympathise with the reader who could not believe that Octavia would ride to an evening ball on her bicycle, presumably in what would pass for evening dress. I could not believe that, desperate for shelter, the penniless Gideon would crash into an unfamiliar church where Angela Tatton just happened to be lying in a strange state by the altar. I could not credit that, while Octavia was attending a séance in the dark she could either take notes or conduct a detailed “information dump” conversation with her friend “Elf”, Lord Hartington, who had arrived late, having located her whereabouts. I persevered to Chapter XXII, by which time the undeniable presence of the supernatural became too much, causing me to fast-forward to the end of a book which failed to engage either my interest fully or my emotions at all.

“Ghost Wall” – warped time


This is my review of  Ghost Wall  by Sarah Moss

This novella packs a more powerful punch than many a longer novel, with never a word wasted as it grips us with the sense of menace building beneath its wry humour, the strong sense of place on the moors and beach below Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, the characters and situations revealed through the observation of the narrator Sylvie, named by her father Bill after Sulevia, the Ancient British goddess of springs and pools.

A bus driver to earn a living, Bill is a self-taught expert on Iron Age life and survival skills. He is also a working-class racist, male chauvinist bigot, a control freak who dominates his downtrodden wife and teenage daughter with verbal sarcasm which tips into physical abuse, often as a means of releasing his own frustration when he feels criticised or undervalued by other people. “He didn’t always like it when people laughed”.

This and more becomes slowly apparent as Sylvie describes their family “holiday” taking part in an exercise to re-enact Iron Age life, alongside three students of the ebullient Professor Slade who drops by each day to see how they are getting on as self-sufficient hunter-gatherers, spending hours foraging for bilberries, burdock root, garlic “greens” and mussels at low tide, skinning rabbits for “mum” to stew in a cauldron over an open fire, when not washing a student’s filthy smock after he has slipped into a bog.

Dressed in a coarse, shapeless tunic and thin skin moccasins rather than what would seem like essential hiking boots, Sylvie can “feel the texture, the warmth, of different kinds of reed and grass in your muscles and your skin. The edges of the wooden steps over the stile touch your bones, an unseen pebble catches your breath. You can imagine how a person might learn a landscape with her feet”.

Having delegated the drudgery, the Professor and Bill have time to turn their minds from mundane to mystical matters, and get carried away planning the Iron Age-style “ghost wall” of the title, a palisade of willow lattice and skins, decorated with animals’ skulls in the absence of human ones. When dusk falls, the desire to drum on the skins and chant proves irresistible, and from this it may be only a short step to the “play-acting” of some darker ritual.
Silvie is shrewd enough to recognise that her father is “a show-off given to brutality” and has not had too much spirit beaten out of her to argue. Yet she seems tied to him in their appreciation of a natural world free from the false pressures and values of modern commercialisation. She appears trapped in childhood, frightened of venturing out into independence – even her attraction to the student Molly seems like a kind of adolescent crush, perhaps the dawning of an awareness of how she might become a liberated young woman, perhaps a rejection of the maleness which has so far crushed her, rather than an indication of lesbianism.

Apart from the sheer enjoyment of reading this book for the quality of the writing and the tight, entertaining plot, many issues arise for consideration: prevailing class differences, the north-south divide, male versus female relationships, how we have lost touch with nature, how values have changed over time in some ways, and in others perhaps essentially remarkably little.
My only slight reservations are over the formulaic, over-used device of a prologue with a dramatic, violent hook to catch the reader and the very abrupt, anti-climactic ending. Yet I can see that there is strength in leaving matters open for the reader to decide what happens next.