Hiver à Sokcho or Winter in Sokcho by Elsa Shua Dusapin – “When the rain-hammered sea rises like spikes on the spine of a sea urchin”

I did not expect to be so gripped by this choice for a French book group, which has also been highly praised in its English translation.

A twenty-five-year-old narrator whose name we never learn, so I shall call her “N”, returns from studies in Seoul to her home town of Sokcho, a seaside resort more dead than alive in the winter snows near the grimly surreal border zone with North Korea. N seems to feel a perpetual “outsider”, through being only half Korean, her father a French engineer “passing through” of whom she has no memories. Since the author is also half-Korean and half-French, one has to hope that this is not too autobiographical.

Into the rundown hotel where she skivvies for the grumpy Park, there appears Kerrand, a successful creator of graphic novels, with the added attraction of being French, who immediately uses N to help him buy art materials and guide him around. From the outset they are drawn to each other: both introverted, troubled and unfulfilled, which drives Kerrand to drift round the world seeking a purpose for the cartoon hero who may be his “alter ego”, while N tries to avoid facing up to her feelings by burying herself in routine tasks and clinging to the mantra that “her mother needs her”. Although on the same wavelength when discussing Kerrand’s art, they find it impossible to express, perhaps even acknowledge their emotions, as they keep making tentative advances and then withdrawing, always out of phase.

I admire the deceptive simplicity with which the author subtly conveys so much in such a short novel, with chapters rarely more than two pages, written in a clear style, switching between minute description and a kind of poetry to create vivid pictures. It is necessary to read every word to avoid missing some vital point.
Unable to predict the ending, I was not surprised that it proved ambiguous and in some respects sad, yet still somehow the right outcome of this skilfully crafted novel.

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Reading between the lines, N’s incongruous engagement to the self-absorbed male model Jun-Oh, seems most likely to be a failed attempt to ward off her mother’s continual badgering for her to get married. Repressing her frustration, N’s at times almost bulimic stuffing of food to please her mother indicates her mental distress. Portrayed as a robust character less in need of help than her daughter, her mother runs a fish stall and takes pride in her cuisine, including her licence to remove the poison-filled liver from the puffer-fish, a Korean delicacy. Food, particularly of a fishy nature, plays an important role in this book as it does in Korean life.

We are given an intriguing insight into Korean life outside the westernised bubble of Seoul: the celebration of Seollal, the Korean New Year; the social life round the jjjmjilbang, or segregated Korean bathhouse; the “haenyeo”, hardy female divers with the unfamiliar (to us) range of edible creatures they cull from the sea.
Since Kerrand is keen to be driven to the border with North Korea, N visits it for the first time, because “only the tourists come here”. “Forbidden to leave the marked track, forbidden to raise one’s voice, forbidden to laugh” they pass through no man’s land “beige and grey as far as the eye can see”, where N can only tell that the grey-uniformed figure behind the souvenir counter is alive from the blink of her eyelids. The threat from the North even extends to the beach where a summer tourist who strays over the border risks being shot by an enemy machine gun.

N guides Kerrand round the Buddhist temple at Naksan, prompted by the stone statues to relate the folktale of the serpent which the dragon, guardian of the spring, must find to make the tortoise, guardian of the winter, cede his place.

Many phrases stick in the mind: “Pavane of dead leaves in the wind” or a striking description of fishermen preparing to catch squid: the slow rhythm of their boats on the swell, the switching on of bulbs attached to cables stretched from poop to prow to attract the molluscs, the pagoda at the end of the jetty from which N can watch their “light traps part towards the open waters, a slow and proud procession, the Milky Way of the sea” – all much more beautiful in the original French.

The Plague (La Peste) by Albert Camus: Winning knowledge and memories in the conflict between life and the plague

Published in 1947, this French classic is often taken as a metaphor for the French resistance in its courageous but futile fight against the Nazi occupation. Those who have rushed to buy it in 2020, cannot fail to be taken aback by the similarities to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Set in the Algerian town of Oran, the central character is Doctor Rieux who galvanises the authorities into action through his insistence that, however unlikely a rat-born bubonic plague may seem, there is no time for reflection and waiting for official confirmation. Unless one acts immediately as if it were the plague, there is a risk that half the town’s population will die.

Official reactions are all too familiar, such as the “Prefet” who is terrified of using the word “plague” even in a meeting behind closed doors, but fears even more accusations of failure to deal with the crisis. Rieux notes wrily how the first warning posters are rather small, pasted in “discreet” corners” in an attempt to “keep the lid” on public anxiety. “Specially equipped” wards for plague victims are created by giving other sick patients lower priority. The “serum” flown is in short supply and gets less effective over time, and the attempts to develop a vaccine take months to succeed. Eventually there’s even a lack of coffins, but with commerce killed by the plague, there are plenty of unemployed men to dig the graves.

As the spring arrives with the usual baskets of scented roses for sale, the plague subsides, only to surge back, forcing official declaration of the epidemic and sealing of the town. Individual reactions merge into a common sense of fear and separation from the outside world, with everyone bound by the same restrictions, such as the prohibition of sending letters, as possible sources of infection. A restaurant crowded with customers since this is a convenient way of obtaining food gives a false sense of normality -panic breaks out when someone abruptly flees from the scene, vomiting. The isolation camps eventually set up are like “different planets” from which distant sounds of the town compound the sense of rejection.

Camus pulls no punches when it comes to describing the night train transporting bodies for mass burial, or characters fighting for their lives. Nothing is omitted: the attacks on locked gates by those frantic to escape, the looting of houses set ablaze, imposition of curfews, fear of prison sentences because of the high death rates there, the rapid burials with minimal funeral rites.

Initially masking their fear with jokes, the inhabitants develop over time the mind-set of prisoners who dare not speculate on their release date, reduced to dwelling on their past. Outsiders clumsily express their “solidarity” but are powerless to share in a suffering they cannot really envisage.

Rather like Isaac Newton who apparently recommended powdered toad mixed with toad vomit to avert the plague, people turn in desperation to quack remedies and superstition, clearing pharmacies of menthol pastilles rumoured to protect again contagion, and more consoled by wearing charms than going to mass. This is hardly surprising since the grim Father Paneloux preaches that the plague is a punishment for sin, until the sight of an innocent young child dying in agony triggers a crisis of doubt in his own faith.

“One gets tired of pity when pity is useless”: the pragmatic Rieux finds relief in hardening his heart against emotion. Voicing the author’s existentialist views on the essential absurdity of the world, “it is unimportant whether events have a meaning or not”. What matters is how people react to them. His fight against the plague has proved to him that in mankind there is generally more to admire than to despise.

Events play out against the backdrop of a strong sense of place, and striking images, often involving the sun, wind, dust and the sea: at the peak of the crisis, the deserted Algerian town is “a silent assemblage of massive, inert cubes” that “white with dust… sonorous with the cries of the wind, groaned like an island of misery……The inhabitants blamed the wind for transporting the plague”.

This is not a chronicle that ends in definitive victory. The plague is portrayed as a kind of living beast, or malign being, only subsiding when it has for the time being exhausted itself or achieved what it set out to do. In the aftermath, all most people want is to behave as if nothing has changed, but the plague cannot be forgotten, even when the disrupted services have been restored. The wise Rieux knows what the crowds coming to celebrate the end of the plague do not: the bacillus carrying the plague never dies, but waits patiently, for the day when “for the misery and instruction of man” it awakes the rats and sends them to bring death to a carefree city.

I agree with a reviewer who found the style so analytical and objective that it was hard to develop strong empathy for any of the characters as “flesh and blood individuals” apart from Rieux.

Yet perhaps because I read it during the “coronavirus lockdown”, this novel made a huge impression on me. So well written in the original French, lending itself to translation without a loss of its power, wide-ranging in its insight, it repays reading more than once to absorb it fully.

 

“Cheri” by Colette: a question of age.

Cheri (Vintage Classics) by [Colette]

Although I read this in French, I bought the English version featured here to help me cope with some of the more obscure passages in the original French, and as a translation it captures the spirit of the classic novel.

With her wry wit, strong sense of place, concise, vivid descriptions and minute dissection of her characters’ shifting emotions, Colette was a talented writer, even if her novels now seem dated, perhaps in particular this novel set in the Paris of the idle rich around 1900. Too handsome for his own good, both neglected and indulged from birth by his ghastly mother Charlotte, a courtesan who has done well for herself, Chéri (aka Fred!) has for six years been the lover of her rival and friend of a sort, the beautiful, high class “tart with a heart”, Léa, twenty-four years his senior. So what will happen when Charlotte marries him off to a “suitable” young girl? Does Chérie love Léa mainly as the caring mother he never had? Does Léa love Chérie as a means of keeping at bay the physical decline into old age which she does not want to face? Is this the tragedy of two people who, beneath all the banter and bickering, have a genuine love for each other, more than just intensely physical, yet the great difference in their ages makes it impossible for them to make a permanent life together?

I found this quite hard to read in the original French, because of the old-fashioned vocabulary relating to the past culture and fashions of the day, so had to resort to an English translation to check on a few points. For instance, “pneumatiques” turned out to be the “petits bleus” telegrams sent round Paris in metal tubes (via the sewers!).

Apart from Léa and the unfortunate young wife Edmée, the characters are fairly unappealing, not least the petulant, capricious Chéri, clearly unfulfilled, bored and desperately in need of some useful occupation. The dialogues are often quite funny, and the emotionally charged climax in which Léa and Chéri finally express themselves honestly is powerful and revealing, but there is a shallowness to their lives which is rather depressing. Since Colette’s own life was clearly often driven by strong physical passions, I have probably not interpreted the book in the way she had in mind.

An intriguing footnote is that Colette herself had an affair in her late forties with a teenage step-son, I believe after having written this book which perhaps enacts a long-held personal fantasy. This relationship apparently inspired “Le Blé en Herbe, which I would recommend more. The work by Colette which I most admire is the semi-autobiographical, “La Naissance du Jour”.

“Un brillant avenir” by Catherine Cusset: “bitter sweet”

Un brillant avenir (Folio t. 5023) (French Edition) by [Cusset, Catherine]

As an opening hook, the portrayal of Helen, an elderly woman frustrated by her husband’s dementia but traumatised by his sudden death and apparent suicide, may not seem at all compelling. It turns out to be a family saga, with the focus on Helen, née Elena in post-war Communist Romania and destined to marry Jacob, a handsome young Jewish man, in the teeth of the ingrained anti-semitism of Ceaușescu’s bigoted, inward-looking regime, which drives her to seek emigration first to Israel and then the United States to obtain a better future for her adored only son, Alexandru.

Written in a clear and simple style, with a strong focus on the minutiae of daily life, this novel feels very authentic, but too often also banal, even boring. This contrasts with the complexity resulting from the decision to alternate chapters back and forth in time, which proves a little disjointed and confusing at times, giving the reader the benefit of additional insight into events, but at the cost of destroying some of the potential for dramatic tension.

Although Helen is not a particularly likeable character, given to emotional, hysterical, manipulative behaviour, the author develops a detailed character study which enables one to empathise with her at many points in the story and to understand the forces which have shaped her. The same applies to her French daughter-in-law Marie, much more laid back and unconsciously thoughtless with a sense of entitlement born of a more relaxed and free upbringing. The tension between the two women and the relationship which they eventually achieve weaves a strong thread through the narrative.

For me, this reads like a series of short stories based on the same characters, which gradually caught my interest through a few striking incidents. For instance, there is the irony in how, having battled and plotted to get married, Helen and Jacob commit the same error as her parents in trying to prevent their son Alexandru’s marriage to Marie, because she is French, so it is assumed will take their son away to a distant land where he will find it harder to realise his “brilliant career”. Then there is the poignant moment when Helen, in the violent grip of labour, waits in a taxi en route for the hospital while her mother takes an inordinate time to appear: it as this point that Helen decides that her adopted mother cannot, as rumour has it, be her birth mother, since the latter would never let her suffer in this way. Another striking scene is when, having taken advantage of Jacob’s Jewishness to escape to Israel, Helen realises that her precious son is destined for a spell in the Israeli army, where her overactive imagination leaves him in no doubt that he will either be killed or maimed. There is also a convincing and moving portrayal of widowhood.

The novel seems to contain “jewels” of insight and observation, together with some realistic experiences, set in a somewhat tedious paste.

“Silver Sparrow” by Tayari Jone: “Only lying to people we love”.

Silver Sparrow by [Jones, Tayari]

“My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist”. So does narrator Dana hook us into this drama set in African American Atlanta. From early childhood, Dana knows that James has another wife called Laverne, and a daughter Chaurisse, but what lasting damage is done to a five-year-old when told not only that she must not tell other people this, but that she, Dana, is “the one that’s the secret”? Wanting the best for her daughter, resentful that she always comes second as regards receiving her father’s attention and the material benefits he can provide, Dana’s mother Gwendolin seems blind to the additional damage caued by taking Dana on stalking expeditions, to spy on the favoured “first” family. The pair may draw some satisfaction from seeing that Laverne and Chaurisse seem less beautiful and intelligent than their counterparts, but cannot know that, despite their apparent blissful ignorance of James’ deception, they too have their own sorrows.

Rising above the underlying sadness, there are many amusing situations and a humorous tone to the writing, which gets away with the risky device of introducing past conversations involvng third parties into the first person narrative. With a gift for storytelling and strong dialogues, Tayari Jones enables us to empathise with all the characters to some degree. Somewhat belittled by Dana and Gwendolin in the first part, Chaurisse and Laverne come into their own as much more rounded and positive, generous, competent characters in the second half, when Charisse takes over the narrative. Although James rarely appears more than weak, wanting to have his cake and eat it, and exploiting the love of those close to him, the complex tie which binds him to Charisse is also gradually revealed. The psychological drama of the relationship between his two families is further compounded by the strongest bond of all, his friendship from childhood with dependable “Uncle Raleigh”, always on hand to help him maintain his double life, while managing to be the man that both Charisse and Gwendolin sometimes think they probably should have married. The question is, what will happen if the precarious equilibrium which James and Raleigh have managed to construct is ever upset by Laverne and Charisse discovering the truth?

This novel also rings true in its vivid insight into life for black Americans only a step or two on from segregation and inequality, yet also with their own internal social pecking order. One of Charisse’s main regrets over having to leave school early is the loss of her books – second-hand, battered copies handed down by white kids, filled with their notes which her mother painstakingly erases where possible. Raleigh’s light skin, the result of his mother being raped whilst working nights for a white family, mean that he is not quite accepted by either community. James has chosen the role of self-employed chauffeur for its sense of freedom, in control at the wheel. Dana’s seemingly independent-minded friend Ronalda asks her at one point if she really wants to go to the sought-after mixed Holyoke College, where she will know for the first time “what it feels like to be black” and so on.

In this society, boys are definitely more highly prized than girls, one reason why Gwendolin prays fervently that her rival Charisse will not give birth to a son. Generally, boys are shown as more indulged, less responsible than the girls who seem to end up doing the hard graft to provide for their children. The preoccupation with hair, the grim straightening with chemicals versus the easier option of weaves and wigs is also a recurring theme in black female writing, such as Adichie’s “Americana”.

Having also read An American Marriage, I find Tayari Jones an excellent writer, who makes some powerful points without falling into the traps of melodrama or sentimental happy endings. You can read this on two levels: an absorbing exploration of the effects of bigamy or a deeper portrayal of what it means to be a black American.

Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky: “When hell is the suffering of being unable to love”

Crime and Punishment: Penguin Classics (Penguin Translated Texts) by [Dostoevsky, Fyodor]

As is too widely known to be a spoiler, Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student living in the teeming squalor of 1860s St Petersburg, convinces himself that, as men like Napoleon are revered despite the large amount of bloodshed they have caused, he would be morally justified in murdering an unpleasant old money-lender and stealing from her to pay for his education, to relieve his mother and sister of the burden of supporting him and to spend on deserving needy people and good causes. Needless to say, he botches both the murder and the theft, only to be haunted by violent flashbacks and delusions together with the fear of being caught, compounded by his compulsion to confess his crime to others, not out of remorse, but in disgust over his failure as a self-defined “superior” being to carry out the plan effectively. Immature and arrogant, his mind addled by reading too many theories, Raskolnikov is not easy to like.

Apart from being an in-depth “psychological record of a crime” which must have been ground-breaking when first published in instalments in 1868 , this novel is also an indictment of appalling social conditions, more hard-hitting even than Dickens. It continually slips into farcical parodies of the social attitudes and beliefs of the day, including the dissent to which Dostoevsky himself was drawn as a youth. Raskolnikov’s very name means “dissenter” – from the “normal” way of seeing the world.

A recurring theme is the arbitrary, contradictory nature of morality itself. For instance, Raskolnikov is appalled by the debauched behaviour of Arkady Svidrigailov, who has designs on his sister, but this rogue uses the money obtained from the wife he himself may have murdered, to provide substantial help for a number of needy people, something which Raskolnikov has failed to achieve. Raskolnikov’s “dead soul” is ultimately brought to life by the love of the almost saintly Sonya, who nevertheless consented to work as a prostitute to support her penniless family.

I was initially disappointed by the novel’s style which seems quite stilted and artificial. Yet lengthy monologues to provide an “information dump” or develop an argument were a feature of C19 novels. I could understand that Raskolnikov’s “stream of consciousness rants” might be justified as conveying a sense of his mental confusion and agitation. Yet other characters indulge in them as well, perhaps because the male characters are often drunk and the women hysterical and overwrought.

Finding it hard to decide how much my dissatisfaction was due to the shortcomings of the translation, I tried four, ending with the widely praised Penguin translation by Oliver Ready, and thought that Constant Garnett’s early version also looks good , yet all of them jarred or seemed unnatural at times. This made me wonder whether the challenge of translating into another language, even the vastly flexible and nuanced English, from Russian without losing too much of its essence is just too great.

It’s quite interesting to compare translations. For instance, Oliver Ready has the thirty-five year old Investigator Porfiry Petrovich frequently call twenty-three year old Raskolnikov “father” which is explained somewhere in the notes, but sounds odd. In Pevear’s translation, this becomes “old boy” which is marginally easier for an English-speaking reader to accept. If we could ever agree, an amalgam of translations could be superb!

It’s a matter of taste, but despite grasping the ideas Dostoevsky was seeking to develop, I find the work over-emotional, and too filled with jumbled thoughts of the type one might have in reality, but seek a writer who can unravel them. Bleaker and edgier, less sentimental than Dickens, it is on a higher plane of complexity.

I agree with a reviewer who liked the beginning and end the best. The opening part leading to the dreadful crime is focused, the writing in the epilogue has been described as “delicate” and is marked by a clarity and lucidity like the calm after a storm. In-between is a morass of digressions and ramblings punctuated by a few strong scenes of high drama or tension such as when the cunning Chief Investigator Porfiry Petrovich is playing a cat-and-mouse psychological game with the overwrought Raskolnikov, which would not be amiss in a modern detective yarn, or the confrontation near the end between Raskolnikov’s sister Avdotya, who shows a lot more sense than he does, and the manipulative villain Svidrigailov whose one true emotion is his love for her.

What interests me most about the novel is the extent to which it reflects the life of the author himself and the history of the period. I am sure that the more one knows about this, the greater one’s appreciation of the book. Dostoevsky must have been influenced through being sentenced to death by firing squad as a young man for some, to our minds, relatively minor revolt against the censorship of the day, only to be reprieved literally at the last minute, subsequently serving five years hard labour in a Siberian prison.

This should probably be read at least twice: the first time on a wave of momentum to see what happens, the second time more slowly, checking on, say, the copious notes accompanying the Oliver Ready translation.

“The Juliet Stories” by Carrie Snyder – torn between viewpoints

The Juliet Stories

Although described by reviewers as a series of short stories, the first part of this book, set in Nicaragua, reads to me like a novel in its vivid portrayal of an observant, imaginative girl, perhaps destined to be a writer, trying to make sense of an alien world, her perceptions inevitably limited through being only ten years old.

Her idealistic perhaps unconsciously selfish father has uprooted his family from Indiana to Managua in the 1980s, to enable him to work as a peace activist for “Roots of Justice”, dedicated to campaign against the Contra terrorists, supported by President Reagan, who are attacking the recently established left-wing government. Juliet’s beautiful mother Gloria, her continual smoking no doubt a symbol of her stress, apparently only really happy when lost in singing to her own guitar accompaniment, generally seems sharp-tongued and burdened by childcare, most of her limited store of love and attention being being devoted to her infant son Emmanuel.

Meanwhile tomboy Juliet roams with increasing confidence, scrapping and bickering with her brother Keith who seems to adapt more easily to the situation, picking up Spanish quickly and performing better when the pair eventually get sent to school. Although they do not seem close, they share a bond based on their unusual common experience. With the typical irresponsibility of childhood, the two manage to leave Emmanuel behind at a neighbouring house where they have been offered drinks, but he is brought back to them by a group of local girls who handle him much better than Juliet – unlike her, they are only a few years off falling pregnant and becoming mothers.

A good deal of humour stems from Juliet’s perspective as a child: communism is “bad” back home but the Nicaraguan brand is “good” because it involves “sharing”. She learns about poverty and inequality without understanding it: observing how their maid Bianca steals “diapers” and Gloria’s red blouse when she whisks them away to be washed, but how she lives in a slum partly destroyed by recent fighting, and also makes them chicken soup when they fall ill in their father’s absence, admittedly pocketing some of the money taken to buy them food.

Juliet also notices without understanding how her father may be flirting with a young volunteer, overtly infatuated with him while, probably depressed, Gloria falls easy prey to the attentions of a charming married expatriate with a wandering eye.

This evocative and original section of the book, which completely engrossed me, comes to an end when a combination of Keith’s severe illness and the dangerous escalation of Contra activity drive Gloria to insist on returning to the States. The second part appears to be Juliet’s own diary, written with changing points of view and styles as she witnesses her parents’ marriage fall apart and has her own offspring and infidelities. I have struggled to understand why I so quickly lost interest and failed to engage with this change of tack. Perhaps it is because it is too disjointed, characters are introduced abruptly without being developed, points are either too unclear, or explained rather than being left for us to sense.

Oddly, a book reminiscent of “The Poisonwood Bible” has the same flaw to a stronger degree for “western” readers, namely a brilliant, absorbing first part set in a strikingly “different” developing country, with a less successful second part dealing with the more familiar developed world.

“Silver” by Chris Hammer: a twist too many in the swamps and potions of greed, guilt and revenge?

Silver: Sunday Times Crime Book of the Month by [Hammer, Chris]

Having immersed himself in a book on the complex crimes he helped to solve in the outback town of Riversend, covered in the freestanding bestseller “Scrublands”, hard-bitten former foreign correspondent Martin Scarsden returns after an absence of more than twenty years to his home town of Silver on the east coast of Australia, where his new partner has inherited a dilapidated house in one of the many coincidences on which the novel’s convoluted plot tends to rely.

Gradually, details emerge of the family tragedy which drove Martin to leave Silver at the earliest opportunity, although some missing pieces of the puzzle are not even revealed to him until the final pages. He barely sets foot in town before being diverted from reflecting on the past by the shocking discovery of the body of his close friend from childhood, Jaspar Speight, a local estate agent, found lying in the house Martin’s partner has been renting, making her a prime suspect. In his determination to prove her innocence, Martin becomes involved in the local conflict between speculators out to make money and the native people and visitors to a spiritual retreat wishing to be left free to enjoy the natural beauty of the surf-washed shore where kangaroos graze. In the mesh of sub-plots, there are also recurring themes of revenge and guilt.

As in “Scrublands”, author Chris Hammer is strong on sense of place: “the spotted gums and cabbage tree ferns, the palm trees and staghorns and the cedars trailing vines, bellbirds chiming” in the lingering summer of the subtropical north coast of New South Wales; “the tugging dryness of a drought-ravaged inland left the far side of the coastal plain” –all quite evocative in view of the recent devastating Australian wildfires. He also captures the ambience of a somewhat run-down town with the potential for development, but at the risk of destroying local communities and damaging the environment.

Although the style can be slick and corny at times, Hammer is good at developing Martin’s character to show his changing moods, with his understandable introspection, flashbacks of nostalgia for the past mixed with bitterness, but also his compulsive drive to “get a scoop” even at the cost of appearing ruthless and insensitive (“Seven people dead. And you’re smiling!”), pursuing sometimes dubious means without hesitation in order to achieve an end which is justified if the guilty are caught.

The author puts his long experience as a journalist to good use to show how reporters vie, even within a paper, to be the first get an article published, how they live with the constant fear that a story will turn out to be false, and the risk of losing the trust of colleagues on whom they rely, may even be fired, if they fail to reveal a juicy fact in an attempt to shield someone they love.

Despite moments of high drama, there is too much repetition of banal detail apart from the denouement which ironically seems overly abrupt. The numerous plot twists are often unconvincing or rather confused. The upshot is a novel that alternates oddly between being a page turner and a bit tedious. It did not grip me as much as “Scrublands” which I would recommend reading first (although on reflection this has the same strengths and flaws, so perhaps it was the novelty that hooked me), nor in quite the same league as Jane Harper’s novels also set in Australia.

“Good Morning Midnight” by Jean Rhys – looking for love

It’s the 1930s, and the narrator who calls herself Sasha, no longer young, has been lent money by a woman friend to leave London and attempt a fresh start in Paris. Since it is clear from the outset that she is depressed, lonely and alcoholic, only feeling lucky “ when I have had a couple of extra drinks and am quite sane”, it seems inevitable that this will not end well.

Gradually, through fragmented memories, we learn of the past love affair which broke her heart, but not of underlying explanations for her inability to copy with life and to “be like other people”, her fear and sense of rejection and ultimate lack of desire to go on living. This novel seems to be to some extent autobiographical, most particularly in describing Sasha’s perceptions and emotions, in various stages of drunkenness, rarely sober. Despite my alternating feelings of depression and irritation over Sasha’s passivity and destructive self-absorption, the writing exerted a remarkable power enabling me to relate to a state of mind I rarely share to such a degree, and conveying the poignancy of Sasha’s situation.

Jean Rhys seems to have been preoccupied with the idea of a woman adrift in an uncaring Paris, despite its romantic reputation, continually subjecting herself to casual misuse and abuse by men. This novel is the last of four on this subject, with the oldest variation on the theme in the form of Sasha.

I enjoyed the early flashback in which Sasha describes her brief stint working for a “dress-house”, a job gained as a favour. “Drugged” with boredom, she reflects on how successful the life-size dolls in the window would have been if real women: “satin skin, silk hair, velvet eyes, sawdust heart- all complete”, a sad comment on her experience of being casually objectified by men, a novel thought in the 1930s. This is followed by her growing sense of panic, induced by fear that the visiting English boss will see through her lack of qualifications for the job, her poor French. Ironically, she proceeds to make the very embarrassing error she fears through misunderstanding an instruction because of his dire accent.

Even in the bleakest moments of this sad novel, Jean Rhys creates a strong sense of place in Paris, and lightens the scene with acute observations, acerbic comments and a keen sense of tragi-comedy. Apparently, when the book was published, critics praised its style but felt it was too depressing to succeed. This drove the author into an absence from the writing scene for years, until the request to turn the book into a play restored her confidence and triggered her best-known and highly regarded novel, “Wide Sargasso Sea”, drawing on her own experience of being brought up in the West Indies, the daughter of a white Creole mother.

The impressionistic style and structure of “Good Morning Midnight” must have seemed quite original when first written. I wished it could have been applied to a more engaging plot, although I can see that it is an achievement to capture a state of mind so well. I was also struck by some striking, poetic expressions of everyday observations.

“There is a wind and the flowers on the window-sill, and their shadows on the (drawn) curtains are waving. Like swans dipping their beaks in water. Like the incalculable raising its head, uselessly and wildly, for one moment before it sinks down, into the darkness. Like skulls on long, thin necks. Plunging wildly when the wind blows, to the end of the curtain, which is their nothingness”.

The book’s title is culled from a poem by Emily Dickinson included below, which also seems to encapsulate Sasha’s position.

“Good Morning—Midnight—
I’m coming Home—
Day—got tired of Me—
How could I—of Him?

Sunshine was a sweet place—
I liked to stay—
But Morn—didn’t want me—now—
So—Goodnight—Day!

I can look—can’t I—
When the East is Red?
The Hills—have a way—then—
That puts the Heart—abroad—

You—are not so fair—Midnight—
I chose—Day—
But—please take a little Girl—
He turned away!”

“Reservoir 13” by Jon McGregor: all in one’s nature

When thirteen-year-old “Rebecca, or Becky or Bex” goes missing from the National Park (probably Peak District) village where her family has been staying, police, helicopters and volunteers are deployed to comb the area, with frogmen searching the nearby numbered reservoirs, all to no avail. Ordinary life goes on, but even more than a decade later people continue to speculate as to what may have befallen her, and the story of her disappearance is sufficiently well known for the young friends who knew her in the village to be quizzed, much to their discomfort, when they go off to university.

As I believe has been the case in his early novels, Jon McGregor seems less concerned with the conventional plot-line of revealing how and why a crime occurred, and more interested in the relationships between his characters, in this case so numerous that it repays the effort of making a note of them from the outset, since they will all reappear at some stage.

In a kind of low key but subtly gripping soap opera, laced with insights, inferences and flashes of humour, he portrays couples getting together, splitting up, sometimes reconciling, people gaining and losing their jobs, dealing with the problems life brings, struggling to communicate, finding themselves, or not. The village customs, farming and surroundings are described in minute detail, on one hand the man-made activities of quarrying and reservoir maintenance which change continually, but also the closely observed world of nature with its seasonal rhythms, as indicated by the continual repetition in the book, and the “red in tooth and claw” violence involving foxes and badgers which goes unpunished, in contrast to the human world where people can only escape justice by concealing it.

I’m not sure whether Jon McGregor spends a long time experiencing the natural world or has done a great deal of research, but there are many beautiful, poetic passages. “The sun didn’t set so much as drift into the distance, leaving a trail of midsummer light that seemed to linger until morning”. “A heron hoisted into the air, hauling up its heavy wings, and letting its feet trail out as it flew” and so on.

Some readers may find the repetition of activities and phrases unendurable, and on occasion I was irked by yet more springtails (insect-like organisms) burrowing into yet another piece of rotten wood, and the reference to yet another “well-dressing”, clearly a tradition that could not be allowed to lapse. But I could see that all this was deliberate and necessary to convey the reality of life as time passed, just as each short section had to be written without paragraphs or speech marks, to avoid disrupting the flow of one’s concentration.

Jon Mcgregor is also very skilful in sustaining the tension, and sense of anticipation. Every walk in the woods with Nelson the dog, or drop in the level of the reservoir, could reveal some vital piece of evidence about Becky, which could of course be tantalisingly missed, or even lead to discovery of a body. His insistence on ambiguity may be hard to accept, but is again an aspect of real life. It also allows the reader who “wants to know what happened” to speculate on the clues gleaned.