“Violeta” by Isabel Allende: a testament of age

Inveterate storyteller Isabel Allende’s “Violeta” resembles her previous novel “A Long Petal of the Sea” in recounting the main character’s long life against a background of turbulent social and political change in Chile.

Violeta writes towards the end, “I was born in 1920, during the influenza pandemic, and I’m going to die in 2020, during the outbreak of coronavirus”. A spoilt child in a prosperous family, Violeta is “sorted out” by her governess Miss Taylor, a young Catholic woman from Ireland, one of the first in a series of insufficiently developed and not always totally convincing characters. When her father’s rash approach to financing his businesses reduces him to bankruptcy and suicide, his family has to decamp to a remote rural area to avoid the shame, and make ends meet. The impoverished lives of the local people fail to awaken Violeta’s social conscience at this stage. Instead, she grows up to demonstrate a shrewder business sense than her father, and forsakes a decent but dull husband to run off with Julian Bravo, a charismatic pilot, who proves to be a rogue. And so she is caught up in a personal family drama while Chile moves from a Socialist experiment dubbed Communist, to a vicious fascist dictatorship designed to repress it.

Although written in conventional chapters, the novel purports to be in the form of a letter which Violeta writes to a younger man called Camilo, whose identity is not revealed until near the end. This device proves the novel’s main flaw, in that the meandering recollections lead to “telling” rather than “showing”, and past events are stripped of their dramatic tensions. Writing in the first person limits Violeta’s ability to portray scenes where she was not present, so descriptions of scenes, emotions, or reported conversations do not ring true and fail to grip or move us as they could.

I am not sure whether it is Isabel Allende’s intention, but for much of the novel, Violeta reveals herself to be a self-centred character, who continually exploits others for her own ends. There always seems to be some obliging woman around to perform the chores she dislikes. Although she grows to despise him, Violeta relies on Julian Bravo’s dubious connections to get their son out of the clutches of the dictatorship, but goes on to engineer his downfall, trading on the knowledge that he will never suspect her of this. Describing her business success to Camilo, she casually mentions profiteering from those forced to flee the regime, by purchasing their properties cheaply in order to sell them for much more later. It takes the proof of the regime’s murder of someone she loves to convert her, late in life, to spending her wealth on good causes.

Many readers will probably accept the novel’s rambling structure, and it may serve to raise awareness of Chile, a beautiful yet troubled land. Although the subject matter is potentially interesting, a tighter focus on fewer strands and characters would have made for a more satisfying read.

La promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn) by Romain Gary: when fact needs no fiction

Romain Gary was a popular and prolific author, the only writer to win Le prix Goncourt a second time, by dint of assuming the pen name Émile Ajar, an imaginary person whom he persuaded a young relative to impersonate. The deception was not revealed until after his death.

This autobiography proves to be a version of his childhood and wartime experience as an airman in which it is impossible to distinguish embellished fact from fiction. Its central theme is the intense relationship with his mother, a volatile, overemotional former actress of Russian-Jewish descent. Abandoned by her husband between the two World Wars, she was obliged to slave away at a variety of jobs, from flogging fake jewellery at one extreme to running a successful upmarket dressmaking salon and later managing a hotel at the other.

As her son came to realise, all her frustrated ambition was channelled into him. From an early age, she parroted her unfailing belief that he would become famous, the only question being in what field. A fortune was spent equipping him with skills as a musician or singer, until his lack of talent became undeniable. Instruction in riding, fencing and shooting came into play. Painting was discouraged since she viewed artists as generally penniless and often syphilitic. She condoned her son’s desire to become a writer, but predicted the only remaining areas of achievement she could conceive: to become a great soldier, or a diplomat. In due course, Romain was decorated for his wartime service, and gained employment as an ambassador, thus providing evidence for the importance of having unfailing belief in one’s children and encouraging them to aspire to great things – but in this case, at what cost?

There was a further self-serving aspect of his mother’s love. Struck by his resemblance to a former lover (his real father?), she constantly urged him to look upwards in a certain manner. Even as a small boy, dressed in the silk shirts and velvet suits from a previous age to accompany her to the opera, he was instructed in all the etiquette required to be her future escort, in the absence of a husband.

It is astonishing that he did not become the laughing stock of his peers and emotionally damaged by all this. Yet perhaps he was. Apart from the many occasions when he was embarrassed by his mother’s effusive love, or furious over being obliged to depend on her financially while he was trying to write his masterpiece, when she became seriously ill, he was clearly stressed by the need to succeed while she was still alive, all the more difficult since World War ll had broken out. His emotional ties to his mother ran so deep that he even described her as if physically present, by turns approving and admonishing, during his wartime spell with the Free French in Africa.

The novel is packed with amusing, if far-fetched anecdotes. As a small boy seeking to impress eight-year-old Valentine, did he actually consume snails in their shells, and chunks of his own rubber sandals, which landed him in hospital? Did he and the rival for her affections really take turns to push each other onto a fourth floor window with just sufficient pressure to swing their legs over the edge, without falling to a certain death? Meeting by chance years later, both by then diplomats, was he really on the point of repeating this mad exploit, just before he was fortunately called away?

There is a brilliant description of his mother, in her role of hotel manager in Nice, terrorising the stallholders on her daily visit to the marché de la Buffa, a she passes judgement on their produce: elle “tâtait une escalope, méditait sur l’âme d’un melon, rejetait avec mépris une pièce de bœuf dont flop mou sur le marbre prenait un accent d’humiliation” and so on.

Yet this account of a life sufficiently interesting not to require any spicing up soon began to pall owing to the repetition, the verbosity, the odd mixture of exaggerated self-denigration and conceit, the frequent digression into an issue like his need to achieve, expounded in a paragraph of two pages or more of overblown prose. All this made for an exhausting read.

If it is to your taste, and you can stomach Gary’s somewhat sexist behaviour, which is what some reviewers may mean when describing the book as “dated”, you can read this to be entertained by the succession of implausible and at times unsavoury vignettes and exploits. I am most intrigued by the psychology behind all this. He wrote, to quote the English translation, “I do not often indulge in lying, because, for me, a lie has a sickly flavour of impotence: it leaves me too far away from the mark.” Yet the account is full of lies and deceptions, which he may have slipped into as a way of dealing with his mother’s overpowering love and belief that France was the model land where he would succeed.

It is hard to know how much he was traumatised by the shocking death rate amongst his fellow wartime pilots. Despite observing more than once how, no matter how bad things are, he keeps smiling, this is the man who, at the age of sixty-eight, decided to shoot himself fatally.

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier: “a tale of petit point”

My mother used to speak of her “maiden aunts” who were never able to marry because of the dearth of single men after the First World War. Violet Speedwell is such a “surplus woman”, her loneliness compounded by poverty. To gain independence from her widowed mother, embittered by the loss of her elder son, and constantly carping, Violet moves to nearby Salisbury, where after paying rent, her wages are insufficient to buy a hot meal every day and replace outworn clothes. She finds distraction in the unlikely company of broderers, women who have volunteered to decorate colourful kneelers and cushions for the Cathedral, and in the friendship of Arthur, a man old enough to be her father, with a passion for bell ringing, but also a wife who is yet another woman traumatised by her son’s death on a French battlefield.

Plots are often padded out with some specialism which readers are likely to know little about, but find interesting. In this case, the themes are embroidery and bell ringing, both of which the author has thoroughly researched. The former has the ring of truth, being based on the actual project undertaken in the 1930s, under the direction of the real-life Louise Pesel, who appears in the novel, using her striking designs for scenes from English history.

With painstaking attention to detail, Tracy Chevalier recreates the staid, dull, conventional world of the 1930s, as it appears to us now, bringing it alive with moments of poignancy and wry humour. It is a world where women are not supposed to have careers, nor hike round the countryside on their own, and their mere presence, if alone, seems to make others uncomfortable. If they fail to marry, they are expected to be carers when the need arises. Some may say that this state of affairs has far from disappeared.

This is an easy read which could promote discussion in a book group, but I found it rather dull, with the research too often shoehorned clunkily into wooden descriptions and stilted dialogues, stereotyped characters, and a somewhat thin plot relying on too many coincidences and contrived situations. I was also unconvinced that a woman like Violet would in the past have gone to bars to meet “sherry men” with whom to have brief sexual encounters, although I could understand why the tedium of living with her mother might drive her to drink.

My reservations may be unfair, since this novel seems to have been generally well-received.

“Le Nœud de Vipères” by François Mauriac – cutting the knot of vipers.

An ageing and embittered miser, Louis is obsessed with his determination to ensure that not a single member of his family inherits a penny of his considerable wealth.  Why does he hate his wife and offspring so much? Is he right to believe that he is loathed in return? To what extent is this situation his fault? Has his miserly, domineering behaviour brought out the worst in his  children.  As his tortuous plans begin to unravel combined with a sense of his mortality, Louis begins to see life a little differently.  Questions arise as to whether people can really change, or is it a case of merely wishing to do so, or even self-delusion?

After a slow start to set the scene and explain Louis’ upbringing and early love for his wife Isa after a childhood and youth of loneliness and isolation, this becomes an intense and gripping psychological study in the context of the snobbish, self-satisfied, devoutly Catholic bourgeois families of the Bordeaux region whom Mauriac does not seem to have tired of dissecting.  His flowing prose is a pleasure to read, his sharp irony contrasting with almost poetical descriptions of the countryside – the smell of burning pines on the air and mists over the vines, trees and wine forming the basis of the economy.

There is a double tragedy at the heart of this novel. Although it may be hard to credit, Louis’ love for his wife is destroyed by his devastation over the discovery that she had a previous lover, even though it was probably only the passing infatuation of a very young girl. His inflexible nature combined with a lack of experience prevent him from adopting a sense of proportion.  His inability to “forgive” his wife drives a wedge between them, probably causing her a degree of unhappiness of which he is unaware, and blinding Louis to a love for him she may have had to suppress. Mauriac contrives to make us feel some sympathy for both these characters in due course, if the not for their son and their daughter’s husband.

Mauriac was content to be called “a Catholic writer” and the essence of this novel is that Louis, a freethinking atheist, is repelled by the smug hypocrisy of the Catholic family into which he has married. He is further infuriated by what he sees as his wife’s indoctrination of their children against his wishes, poignantly perceiving this as a way of alienating them from him.  Yet Mauriac would have us believe that, despite his flaws, Louis may be more truly spiritual than the rest of them, and if he really is the sinner they make him out to be, he is all the more deserving of “God’s grace”.

Even if the reader is also an atheist, it is possible to find the story moving and thought-provoking. Although most of the characters are unappealing, with a tendency to create their own unhappiness, this novel is not depressing by reason of its psychological insight and the quality of the prose. I prefer this novel to the other two famous works of Mauriac, his favourite “Thérèse Desqueyroux” and “Le Mystère Frontenac” which I believe he wrote as an antidote to the intensely emotional “Knot of vipers” but which seems somewhat bland in comparison.

“A Long Petal of the Sea”: telling history by Isabel Allende

A lesser known aspect of the complicated Spanish Civil War is that, as half a million dissidents streamed over the Pyrenees into France to escape Franco’s fascist regime, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda arranged for “The Winnipeg”, an old cargo ship, to carry two thousand of them to Chile where they docked on the day the Second World War was declared in Europe.

A subsequent friendship with Victor Per, one of the passengers, inspired Isabel Allende to write this novel, based on his memories. Although described as a fictional account, it is unclear exactly what has been invented, particularly since the author has her hero Victor Dalmau form friendships with real people like Neruda himself, and her own relative, one-time President Allende.

Like “Victor Dalmau”, did the “real” Victor actually save a severely wounded soldier by gently massaging his heart with his fingers? Did he agree to marry his brother’s pregnant girlfriend after he was killed in battle, to enable her to escape to a new life in Chile?

Although this novel is quite readable, and I learned some interesting history in the process, I never felt fully engaged. The characters appear somewhat two-dimensional, revealing no more than what the narrator tells us about them. The plot seems fragmented and unfocused, no doubt through the need to cover several decades of a lifetime. Victor and his wife Roser are clearly very successful, possibly like the author and those she is accustomed to mixing with, and they rub along together quite well. Victor becomes a respected doctor, and his wife a successful musician, but we never really learn the process by which this occurred. They both have affairs in their open marriage, without the friction or tension one might expect. When Chile swings to the right under Pinochet’s harsh regime, Dalmau is denounced by a neighbour and spends time in a concentration camp. Even such a dramatic situation as this is covered briefly in a fairly matter of fact way.

As others have observed, the slices of history based on research sit alongside the fictionalised relationships. I would have preferred a shorter novel showing more about how the couple achieved success in a new country, with more emotional involvement between the characters, and scenes on which I could reflect, and draw my own conclusions about their relationships.

This may be a minority view, since the novel has been very well received.

“Small Things Like These” by Claire Keegan – Taking the consequences

Set in the Irish town of New Ross on the River Barrow in County Wexford, this novella is set in the run up to Christmas 1985, when the economy was drifting into recession, and “the times were raw”.  The viewpoint is that of Bill Furlong, a moderately successful coal merchant and a hardworking, decent man who treats his employees well, and devotes his little free time to his possibly even more industrious wife and five daughters.  He lives in a hidebound community, where conformity is maintained by the desire to avoid being the subject of the rampant grapevine of gossip, but even more by the fear of falling foul of the Catholic hierarchy of the local convent and church.

The crystal clear, plain prose leavened with a lyrical, quirky Irish turn of phrase (a puchaun being a male goat) reveals a remarkable amount in little more than a hundred pages.  In the course of describing Furlong’s somewhat dull routine, we learn not only about the situation and values of his society, but also, through flashbacks, the details of a childhood which has invisibly set him apart and marked him for life. His mother was an unmarried domestic servant whose widowed Protestant employer, Mrs Wilson, kept retained her despite her pregnancy, ensuring that Furlong was supported sufficiently to have a chance of succeeding in life.

So when in the course of delivering coals to the convent he is confronted with positive evidence of the abuse suffered by the unmarried mothers employed at the laundry there, the moral dilemma he faces is harder for him to accept than for his pragmatic wife. At one point, she justifies the widespread philosophy of not looking after those in trouble who are “not one of ours”, by stating that Mrs Wilson was only able to choose to help his mother because she was  “one of the few women on this earth who could (afford to) do as she pleased”.

Most novels involve dramas of pain, suffering, danger, and so on, which are generally resolved with an at least partly happy ending.  Here, the build-up of tension, the sense of menace and risk is subtle, leading to Furlong’s final moral choice which forms the novella’s climax.  Yet at first, I felt a little cheated by the abrupt, inconclusive ending, even thinking that the author had evaded the challenging task of writing about what happens next. On reflection, I decided that being left to speculate was effective, giving space to consider whether Furlong was right to take his decisive, unplanned action, what its implications both immediate and long-term might be, and how much he and others might suffer from his good intentions.

So, a novel attempt to explore an issue which has shamed both the Catholic church and the Irish government subtly both inspire us to take a stand against injustice and helps us to understand why so many of us decide not to do so.

The Spider’s House by Paul Bowles: “A Novel Approach”

In 1955, former composer turned writer Paul Bowles published “The Spider’s House”, intended to be a record of daily life in the Moroccan city of Fez, a medieval throwback operating in the C20 world. The extreme unrest which broke out at the time, as French colonial rule was attacked by Istiqlal, the independence movement, whose leaders in fact wanted to modernise the country themselves, transformed the book into what he regarded as the political novel he had not meant to write. It struck me as more of an exploration of contrasting, clashing cultures, observed through the eyes of two very different individuals whose paths eventually cross by chance.

Stenham is a cynical, sophisticated, rootless American expat author, apparently modelled on Bowles himself, who has mastered Arabic and acquired a deep knowledge of traditional Moroccan life. He realises that, whoever wins, Fez will be destroyed beyond recognition, but has the further telling insight that “It did not really matter whether they worshipped Allah or carburettors… He would have liked to preserve the status quo because the décor that went with it suited his personal taste”.

On the other hand, the Arab viewpoint is conveyed through Amar, an intelligent and resourceful young Moroccan, the illiterate son of a healer who has allowed him to skip school and indoctrinated him with the traditional teaching of Allah, so that he accepts Fate, and is easily shocked and perplexed by western social habits. So he would have understood at once the quotation from the Koran which gave the book its title:

“The likeness of those who choose other patrons than Allah is as the likeness of the spider when she taketh unto herself a house, and lo! the frailest of all houses is the spider’s house, if they but knew.”

This novel is remarkable for its vivid descriptions of Fez, enabling one to experience walking through the ancient city, and to visualise the surrounding landscape: “…wandering through the Medina at night was very much like being blindfolded…. He knew just how each section of a familiar way sounded when he walked it alone at night….. The footsteps had an infinite variety of sound.…..the water was the same, following its countless courses behind the partitions of earth and stone….”.

Streets of Fez or Fes Medina - Souks Stock Photo - Image of prayer,  lantern: 135258934

Bowles also has the ability to capture the fleeting thoughts of his main characters, a particular achievement in the case of Amar. However, the tourist Polly Burroughs, who trots out the simplistic view of Moroccans as being entitled to rebel in order to live like westerners, is portrayed in a stereotyped, even sexist way, perhaps reflecting attitudes to women when the novel was written.Despite moments of high tension, the meandering plot has probably driven away many readers. Digressions into apparently minor scenes last for pages, major incidents may only be implied. It is too frequently unclear who some characters are and exactly what is happening – rather like real life. Yet the hypnotic power of the prose, the continual insights, kept me reading and thinking. I doubt whether I have ever taken so long to read a 400 page novel, because Bowles forces one to focus on his words and reflect on them. So if the book had been edited more ruthlessly, would a vital quality have been sapped in the process?

I agree that some aspects of the plot are implausible, and I understand why even admirers of the novel find the end an unsatisfactory anticlimax. At first, I assumed that plot was unimportant to Bowles, but it could be argued that he drifted between events, with occasional bursts of action, to provide the flavour of what the experiences of life felt like to the characters. Also, the carefully constructed final scene, although superficially inconclusive, can be viewed as a very powerful final comment on the attitudes and relationships between the main players.

This deserves to be regarded as a classic, and to be read slowly, possibly more than once – if one has the time.

On Java Road by Lawrence Osborne – knowing where to draw the line

“If you want to know how you’ve done in life, tell your eighteen-year-old self in the mirror whether you have disappointed him or lived up to his expectations”.

For much of this novel, narrator Adrian Gyle clearly falls into the former category. After years spent in Hong Kong chasing trivial news stories, he appears cynical, unattached, often too hungover to pursue a lead as he drifts towards the inevitable point when his editor’s patience finally snaps.

It was not always so. In his youth, feeling socially out of place at Cambridge, he made an unlikely friendship with another outsider from a very different background: Jimmy Tang, son of a vastly wealthy Hong Kong business family, who inspired him to share the challenge of translating classical Chinese poetry into English.

Following the British handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese, life has changed abruptly, as the new authoritarian regime sets about dismantling democracy, sparking increasingly violent street battles as the police crack down on student demonstrators. One of these is Rebecca To, Jimmy Tang’s latest extra-marital lover, whose activities create the threat of reprisals from those in power against both her own wealthy family and his.

So this forms the basis for a topical thriller with a strong sense of place, Lawrence Osborne being a travel writer as well as a novelist. Yet it may disappoint those expecting suspense and action, since the most dramatic incidents tend to occur offstage, fail to materialise or leave the reader uncertain as to whether a particular crime has actually been committed at all. The author seems more interested in the dynamics of a long friendship between two very different men linked by a few common interests and shared memories. His aim is to explore the varied moral positions that individuals or groups take to particular issues and situations.

Having been very impressed by a recent reading of “The Forgiven”, I did not find the descriptions of Hong Kong as striking as those of Morocco, but maybe the latter simply lends itself to this. Perhaps years spent as a “nomad” observing people in different countries accounts for the distance which the author creates between us and his characters, so that one does not care too much about them. This mattered for me in the case of Jimmy Tang and Rebecca To who seem quite thinly developed. The “inverted” nature of this novel results in, for instance, Jimmy’s long-suffering wife and Rebecca’s father appearing more authentic despite being minor characters. The focus on a few exceptionally wealthy, good-looking people, with no opportunity missed to display a knowledge of fine wine gave the serious theme a shallow quality. Admittedly, the dilemma facing influential Hong Kong Chinese who have a lot to lose if they risk dissent needs to be understood.

Displaying the bones of an excellent novel, I was left disappointed when the plot slips away to a bland conclusion.

Les Possibles by Virginie Grimaldi: French hen lit

When a carelessly discarded cigarette end sets fire to his home, Jean takes it for granted that his daughter Juliane will take him in indefinitely. Her stolid husband Gaëtan tolerates the situation, five-year-old Charlie is delighted by his grandfather’s childlike antics, but Juliane is exasperated by the often implausibly eccentric and inconsiderate behaviour which in the past drove her mother to divorce Jean.

It is only when he begins to show signs of dementia, likely to advance rapidly, that Juliane begins to appreciate Jean’s zest for life, and freedom from the constraints of caring what other people think. With her own lack of self esteem, she could benefit by learning from this. So she can laugh nostalgically with her sister of the time when, to slay a child’s nightmares, he vanquished an imaginary dragon in the downstairs loo with the aid of the garden hose.

Largely “rave reviews” from readers extol this novel’s humour and “feel good” factor, while the darker aspects are airbrushed. So the last chapter (in the original French), «Stairway to Heaven» – Led Zeppelin, is a clear reference to the inevitable outcome, but Jean’s last days are completely glossed over. This milking of a potentially moving situation, with its focus on sentimentality and denial of painful reality seems superficial, even dishonest.

Published in 2015, French author Virginie Grimaldi’s first novel was an instant bestseller and by 2022 she had produced eight more, heading up the list of “the most read” novelists in France. Reading “Les Possibles” for a French book group, I gained some useful vocabulary, but the novel seems quite formulaic: eighty-two short chapters, often barely three pages in length; a string of incidents padded out with “tick box” modern issues to which readers can relate – narrator’s eating disorder, dysphasic son (who displays little evidence of this) lesbian sister and so on. The final chapters which focus on a US road trip along Route 66 are each titled with the gimmick of the name of a pop song in English, linked to the story line, such as «Little Girl Blue» – Janis Joplin, a cue for the sisters’ shared recollections of Jean from their childhood.

The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne: “La Bess” – “No evil” in the land of the outraged jinns

Drunk and bickering with his wife Jo,  English doctor David Henniger drives too fast on an unfamiliar road through the Moroccan desert, already late for an obscenely extravagant weekend house party thrown by a gay couple, Richard and Dally,  who have created an exotic paradise in an isolated oasis. This tense, engrossing tale reveals the aftermath of the fatal accident for which David appears to be responsible.  It  grips us with the remarkably vivid and original descriptions of  the landscape and “sense of place”, since the novelist is also  a  nomadic travel writer, which may account for the  acute, dispassionate observer’s eye which he casts on a group of generally quite unlikeable characters, although he tends to supply extenuating circumstances or redeeming features for the most flawed.

He also portrays the cultural gap between the local people and the wealthy,  hedonistic expats and visitors from Europe and the States. The former scrape a harsh living, extracting fossils from the rich supplies for which the country is famous. They  still use child labour, since, suspended on ropes, only small bodies can squeeze into the small caves in the cliffs where some of the best fossils can be found for sale at exorbitant prices. The native Moroccans are appalled by the infidels’  godless ways,  their drinking, “distasteful sexual habits” and “profligate” expenditure, but admire their wealth and rely on them to provide employment and purchase their trilobites at inflated prices.

In turn, the Westerners may admire the beauty of the young servant boys, but generally  ignore the Moroccans, despising their  apparent ignorance and  abject poverty. They are more interested in the country as a place to indulge in hedonistic pleasure, free from censure and  constraint: to become stoned on kif every night, while served “stemmed glasses with a pricked peach in each one submerged in champagne”. If their excessive consumption becomes repetitive to the point of tedium, that would appear to be the author’s intention.

Almost everyone, either side of the cultural divide, is distanced from the reader by a marked lack of natural, spontaneous emotion.  This may be explained by past misfortune or disappointment, harsh treatment,  or  the insulating effect of  an inflated sense of entitlement.

An intriguing character is Hamid, the indispensable factotum who has “insinuated” himself into the lives of the gay couple “with a subtle intuition of the ways of rich foreigners…an awareness of how to deal with men who have known little hardship”. He rises to the occasion in a major crisis, giving practical help  (“It is the police. I will put away the drinks”), but enjoying their helplessness and evident fear of Moroccans, despite not fully realising “how little liked they were by the indigènes”.  Filled with “disengaged fatalism” Hamid draws on his vast store of quirky native proverbs: “Piece by piece the camel enters the couscous”.

Minor characters often prove more insightful than the Hennigers who seem passive victims of circumstance. Take the American guest Day:  the glamorous young giraffe-like girls from his own country “made him remember that he was almost old, in that phase of pre-oldness that was curiously more alive than the preceding stages, but alive because it was ending”.

Lawrence Osborne has been called “A Modern Graham Greene”, compared to Paul Bowles of “The Sheltering Sky” fame, as well as  Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith  since he does not flinch from menace and defeat, although they are leavened by wry humour and irony. The ambition and complexity of this novel makes it more than a psychological thriller. The author is deeply concerned with issues of morality: guilt, acceptance of responsibility, retribution, making amends,  and forgiveness.  As he enters into the minds of a  wide range of characters, it is sometimes hard to know whether he is imagining their reactions, or expressing his own opinions on the state of the world.

The novel sometimes seems overlong, while the occasional  lapses in the quality of the style, a few typos and continuity errors ( the ice found at the bottom of a glass which had contained a drink served without it)  suggest a lack of editing. Too little effort was made to give an important plot development plausibility,  while  the ending left me dissatisfied, yet feeling it could not have concluded any other way. Yet over all, this is the work of a talented writer: many of the descriptions and observations repay reading more than once, and the story lingers in the mind, giving pause for reflection. I shall certainly read more of Lawrence Osborne’s work.