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[590] Instructions For A Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell

heatwave

” As for Robert, Gretta cannot begin to think. His absence is beyond understanding. She is so used to him being there, being around, that she can’t quite accept he has disappeared. She finds herself almost on the verge of speaking to him: this morning, she got two teacups down from the shelf. ” (Part II, 159)

What is a family without secrets? Maggie O’Farrell seems to be fascinated by the notion that the outwardly visible, superficial connection of kinship or marriage are often not the entire story. Often time what is left unsaid and concealed defines these intimate relationships. Secrets and lies pervade Instructions For A Heatwave, which begins with the mysterious disappearance of the patriarch, Robert Riordan, a bank retiree who clears out his savings and vanishes.

Aoife sits back on her heels and regards her mother and sister with naked hostility. She doesn’t know what it is about evenings with her family that make her like this—unbearable restless, that cooped-up, pent-up feeling, the sensation that she must escape, no matter what. (Part II, 272)

London is in the grip of a heatwave in summer 1976. The Riordan family is thrown into crisis by Robert’s inexplicable disappearance. As his wife, Gretta, reaches out to her children for help finding him, it becomes clear that each one of them, with their own secrets (shame?), may need as much help finding themselves. The meat of the novel is not so much the missing father as the troubles and troubled interconnections of the Riordan siblings, all of whom are holding certain secrets close to their chests.

The book is intriguing despite its quiet disposition. The patriarch’s disappearance is alarming but the family doesn’t show a sense of urgency. In fact, they are thrown together, under the confinement of a heatwave, in a way that allows them to behave unguardedly. Michael Francis, the oldest and only son, has an affair that has upended his heart and his already-troubled marriage. Monica, married and beleaguered stepmother to two young girls, has hidden a conflicted attitude toward parenthood. Roiled in her is another secret that drove a wedge between her and her younger sister, Aoife, who has been hiding her dyslexia since she was a child. But the biggest surprise revolves around the mother, Gretta, and her marriage, which reaches out to history and expounds on the meaning of brotherly love.

Given the premise and station in which the family finds itself, Instructions For A Heatwave is by no means depressing. Despite all the time the characters think about their shortcomings and brood about not being the people they are supposed to be, there is an omnipresnt sense of hope and redemption. O’Farrell’s writing is intense and crafted, drawing on complex dynamics of inter-sibling relationships. There’s a strange sense of lack of urgency over the father’s disappearance—and that he is also missing from the novel adds to the mystery. The book spans only three days but that the narrative proceeds through juxtaposition instead of linear plotting allows one to peek into the claustrophobic emotional closeness of the characters.

304 pp. Knopf. Hardcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[538] The Room of Lost Things – Stella Duffy

room

” Alice made friends with a dozen customers in as many years of business. Robert continued some of her friendships when he took over, and made perhaps another ten of his own. Always he stayed and they moved . . . The ones that remain he will pass on to Akeel . . . These customers are part of the shop’s legacy, Robert has meant something to them and they to him. ” (Ch.34, p.223)

Set in contemporary London, The Room of Lost Things portrays a surprising but moving friendship. Robert Sutton has run his dry-cleaning shop in Loughborough Junction for over forty years. His mother purchased the business after working there for several years. Robert has grown up in the shop which is located at the heart of a bustling community. After his mother died, he continues running the business and knows his customers well.

He takes the stains and the tears and the messy secrets and makes them go away. But Robert remembers who brings them in, the soiled articles, the broken zips, ripped dresses, old suits, he checks the pockets for lost lists and letters, and he knows what his customers are trying to hide, cover up, make good, make do and mend. (Ch.2, p.12)

At retiring age, Robert makes the first step by putting the business up on the market. The only prospective buyer is a 26-year-old young British Muslim from East London, Akeel. Born and raised in England, he feels disconnected from his Pakistani family and culture. He strives to establish manhood by launching his own business. When the old man decides to sell the business to Akeel, he does not think they have much in common. Neither of them wears his heart on the sleeves, let alone the most guarded emotions. But as the young man learns his new trade, they begin to reveal their hidden lives.

All these other people he knows too much about, he understands, keeps their secrets, and no one left to listen to his. Robert has never been lonely before, no chance to be, he went from son to husband to father with no time between, he has always lived with other people . . . (Ch.35, p.224)

As this most unusual friendship grows, the intonation decoded, the the underlying context cleared, the uncomfortable silence dissolved, Robert finds in Akeel a loyal listener to whom he will confide in and reveal his secrets. The delineation of a friendship with a surprising magnitude gives way to Robert’s unspoken past. Like the many lost things that were properly labeled and stowed away in the shop, Robert has meticulously sealed up his past: a doom marriage, a demanding, terminally ill mother, an estranged daughter, and a late affair. A book of great passion and sensitivity, The Room of Lost Things shows nuances of one’s solitude, a solitude that is measured by the vicissitude of a south London community. The quiet novel is redolent of atmospheric evocation of the place over time, and of the inconsequential lives that come and go the fixture that is a dry-cleaner shop.

312 pp. Virago UK. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[470] Excellent Women – Barbara Pym

” My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink. I felt resentful and bitter towards Helena and Rocky and even towards Julian, though I had to admit that nobody had compelled me to wash these dishes or to tidy the kitchen. It was the fussy spinster in me, the Martha, who could not comfortably sit and make conversation when she knew that yesterday’s unwashed dishes were still in the sink. ” (Ch.17, p.161)

Excellent Women shrewdly captures the world of elderly churchgoers, the parish, and the relations between the sexes in postwar England. When Mildred Lathbury’s parents died, within two years of each other, she was left with a small income of her own, an assortment of furniture, but no home. In a lodging house she finds a home with a sitting room and an attic, with the vicar and his sister being her neighbors. In her early thirties she is an unmarried do-gooding gentle woman who devotes her time serving the poor and the needy.

I haven’t been married, so perhaps that’s one source of happiness or unhappiness removed straight away. (Ch.14, p.125)

Pym lays out this well-defined world with characters that are drawn very sharply. The comic genius of Excellent Women is not that Mildred Lathbury, the respectable and shabby-genteel spinster, is unwanted by her society. Rather, she is too much in demand. Her quiet life becomes ruffled and complicated when a confused married couple moves in below, and she becomes the go-between of the quarreling pair. The few bachelors she knows–an anthropologist, a society snob, and even the vicar—subtly feel her out for her interest in marrying them. Beneath these overtures that she always curtails is an underlying loneliness that makes the book more grim and pungent than comic.

Clergymen did not go holding people’s hands in public places unless their intentions were honourable, I told myself, hoping that I might perhaps be wrong, for clergymen were, as Dora had pointed out, human beings, and might be supposed to share the weaknesses of normal men. (Ch.11, p.107-108)

Pym delivers very sharp observations about men and women, together and apart, and society’s expectations for them. Privy to all these is Mildred, single, independent, and having modest opinion of herself, who is too scrupulous to ever commit to a married life. Her constant self-deprecation is often offset by her unspoken but sound understanding that her life is too rich in its observations of others for her to subsume her ego to others’ needs. The novel beautifully depicts the negotiations everyone makes to connect to others and examines the subtlety of these relations.

256 pp. Plume Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[432] Put Out More Flags – Evelyn Waugh

” You know exactly what I mean. Basil’s needed a war. He’s not meant for peace. ” (12)

Put Out More Flags is so typically Waugh: he has developed a wickedly hilarious and yet spot-on assault (if you’re familiar with British history) on traditional values. The book is set in the week that precedes the outbreak of World War II, the days of “surmise and apprehension which cannot, without irony, be called the last days of peace.” (3) As the Prime Minister declares England at war on the radio, three rich women are all mindful of Basil Seal, the anti-hero of the book. They are his sister, his mother, and his mistress. Through them we learn how Basil makes the most out of the war.

… and if you had gone into the Army when you left Oxford you would be a major by now. Promotion is very quick in war-time because so many people get killed. (182)

Right when war is breaking out, Basil accepts his sister Barbara’s suggestion to billet—to place urban children with rural families to protect them from incipient bombings. Soon Bail turns billeting into a lucrative business as country house residents are more than happy to pay him for not hosting three monstrous children. “What’s it worth to you to have those children moved from you?” (124)

There’s a lot to be said for a uniform. For one thing you’ll have to call me ‘sir’ and if there’s any funny stuff with the female staff I can take disciplinary action. For another thing it’s the best possible disguise for a man of intelligence. (190)

Meanwhile, Basil mother’s mother sets her heart o enlisting her son into a decent regiment. Lady Seal believes that a patriotic commission will save him from his unaccountable taste for low company that had led him into many vexatious scrapes. But the unemployable Basil is able to insinuate into a peculiar role during mobilization. He finds a job with the Ministry of Intelligence where he discovers that the secret to success is to level charges of Communism and Nazism against his friends and inform on them. Those who fell under Basil’s recondite pretexts of patriotism include a Jewish atheist who launches a fascist magazine. Waugh also makes fun of pampered aristocrats’ amateurish attempt of patriotism and fighting. An upper-class man enlists as a soldier because he believes that “he would make as good a target as anyone else for the King’s enemies to shoot at.”

The novel is a myopic look at England in her last fateful moment of history. Beneath the humor and jokes is grim reality that the upper-class people, deprived of values except pleasure-seeking, fail to grasp. The book itself is not without flaws. It’s worth skimming, but not Waugh’s best. A coherent narrative thread is absent in Put Out More Flags, rendering it a potpourri of barely disguised concepts and clippings from previous novels loosely thrown together.

286 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[404] Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

” He was in a gallery of ghosts. The souls of all who had died, his friends and their companions; the spirits of the men they had killed, the German bodies that had been hurled upward in the exploding soil above the great mines they had laid: all the needless dead of the long war were grasping at his face with their cold hands. They reproached him for killing them; they mocked him for still being alive. ” (435)

At 482 pages, Birdsong is too long for the story it tells. In 1910, 20-year-old Stephen Wraysford comes to stay at Rene Azaire’s house on a business trip to visit the Frenchman’s textile factory in northern France. While Stephen soaks up the comfort of the upper-middle class home, Azaire’s workers foment unrest and threaten a strike. The gothic atmosphere of the opening chapters—in which Azaire’s wife plays the secret benefactor to a dyer and strange sobbing noise issues from her room at night—draws me right in. Despite Madame Azaire’s formality toward him and her punctilious ease of manner, Stephen senses in her a feeling toward him that is more than just politeness. Can this be a consequence of an unhappy marriage that is full of unease and tension?

She was an affectionate and dutiful wife to her husband, and he required no more from her; she did not love him, but he would have been frightened to have aroused such an unnecessary emotion . . . Madame Azaire grew into her new name. She was content with the role she had accepted and thought that her ambitious desires could be safely and permanently forgotten. (36)

The knowledge that Isabelle married out of convenience seems to have fueled Stephen’s desire and courage, who can no longer allow himself to be passively beguiled. As they consummate the affair, Isabelle feels enlivened and real. The more she imagines the degradation of her false modesty the more she feels excited. But the affair ends abruptly and is never reintroduced. Nor is Isabelle’s character. In later part of the novel it’s known that she was pregnant with Stephen’s child. But unfortunately Faulks never expounds on her motivations and discretion.

He had obliterated himself in her; he had purged his longing and desire; he had longed and invested himself in her body. In her trust ad love for him, he had deposited the unresolved conflicts of his life. Perhaps his self was still in her—betrayed and unhealed. (197)

War breaks out. Stephen transpires his suppressed frustrations and unexpressed violence of his life into hatred of his enemy: the Germans. The descriptions of war is both vivid and terrific. Stephen belongs to a regiment responsible for digging tunnels beneath France out into no-man’s-land. The farthest point of the network of rabbit warren provides an entrance to a useful if dangerous listening post close to the German lines. Birdsong is more about the harrowing stories and battles in the tunnels than the love story it claims. Through Stephen’s career, the book explores how warfare becomes rhythm of a normal life, the new reality, the world in which these men are now condemned to live in. While Stephen allows his mind to conjure up the Azaire house and memories of Isabelle, the details are lost. The portrayal of a make-believe world in which these soldiers choose to live is where the author really reaches his stride.

The most lackluster and disappointing part of the book is when Faulks introduces Elizabeth Benson in the 1970s. Intrigued by the anniversary of Armistice of 1918, she decides to unearth her grandfather’s history and learn about WWI. The plot device is so artificial and contrived that it destroys any credibility the novel has to the point of her entr’acte. What follows about her relationship drama and how that which Faulks ties in with the war is even more unbelievable. The war alone would make Birdsong a great novel, as it focuses on Stephen’s mindful and emotional journey. His fear of birds should make great material for driving the story forward, instead of tying up the bundle with a character for whom readers don’t care. The novel needs some editing to tighten up the different elements that elaborate on the relationships between characters. I’m glad I have read it but it is obviously not a favorite.

482 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[125] Kansas in August – Patrick Gale

kansasaugust.jpg“Rufus Barbour was a fully-qualified shit. Not only was he selfish and pig-headed, he was greedy, obstinate, morose, anti-social, parasitic, and promiscuous. He delighted, as much as well-meaning friends, in dropping veiled references to his impulsive one-night-stands. What kind of mind is it that can’t cope with steady affection, love indeed, but has to glean thrills from a succession of puny conquests? … Frankly, who wants to share their lover with half trash and social misfits of Charing Cross?” (16)

At least two of his number are not socially erratic or trashy. Hilary is a charismatic high school teacher who has a passion in acting and dancing. He views life as his beloved musicals. However he enjoys discussing Lady Macbeth with his students, the job is no more than an interim one with which he ekes a living while he paves his way to the theater. Hilary’s older sister Henry (see how the names breathe a hint of the theme of misrepresented identities that is to follow) is a psychiatrist who maintains crisp control in the face of her patients’ insanity and a crumbling health service. She too is at an emotional juncture and her motivation runs dry. After the call-off of engagement, her only non-professional encounters with men, who so rarely measure up to her intellectual or emotional stimulus, let alone rival to her time, have been brief and uninvolved.

Until Rufus Barbour comes along. Brother and sister, without each other’s knowing, find themselves involved with the same man who is a cheesy bisexual in dire financial straits. After months of groundless romantic occupation it dawns on Hilary that he wants a spouse and Rufus a lover. It would be unfair of him to make Rufus even try. His intentionally but mocking remark, “The trouble with you, is your pathological inability to separate sex from domesticity,“, which he later regrets blurting, makes the split easier and painless.

While Hilary turns his attention to the baby boy he finds abandoned in a subway station, Henry (it’s really Henrietta) is half hopeful of the flourish of love and half skeptical of this unexpected romance thrown in her path. The cross-cutting between plots may have been more artificial at times in his earlier works, but here Gale has fully mastered the cuts, juxtapositions and simultaneities. The romantic nemesis in Rufus, the abandoned baby, and the surreal mystic devotion of a downtrodden school girl come to brother and sister’s salvation and demolish that barrier of cowardly silence between them. Through their checkered journey to self-discovery, Gale exploits the mistaken and misrepresented identities and coincidences that are in play. Hilary aspires to take up a role that is traditionally reserved for women–parenthood, which Henry dreads. That he nourishes a sacrificial love surpassing his any of his other passion for the baby, who merely enters his life by pure chance, makes him see that Rufus, and even teaching English, are no more than things he allows to clog up the path to freedom out of sheer force of habit. And for Henry, she cannot cope with the baby, let alone adopting him and battling against biased bureaucrats that pigeon-hole the gays, but she exerts invincible strength to keep her patients at bay. As befit to Gale’s light-hearted and quirky style, Kansas in August goes awry in bizarre imagination but is kept within the realm of reason by the grace of social relevance.

[124] The Aerodynamics of Pork – Patrick Gale

pork.jpgFeature author of The Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival 2008.

I have trouble nailing down a single passage that encompasses the gist of this novel, Patrick Gale’s debut, whose entwining storylines and the quick actions ensued keep my plate full. A lot is going on but all the loose ends eventually communicate at the end. The Aerodynamics of Pork follows a series of events that unfold during one summer simmering week—the week before Seth Felix Peake, whom the novel revolves around, turns sixteen. In the opinion of academic he is lost and in the eyes of the church misdemeanment, Seth holds a most special place in his mother’s heart. The young music prodigy seems uncannily to comprehend sufferings of maturity and torments transmuted to a score. On the eve of the Peake’s departure to Cornwall where Evelyn Peake conducts the annual music festival, WPC Maude Faithe is investigating a series of violent attacks on newspaper in London.

At Cornwall, Seth scrapes a friendship with the good-looking, somewhat conceited Roly MacGuire, who is commissioned to renovate statures and sculptures in the nave to embrace gala spirit. That Roly talks about his homosexuality to the teenager in an unbridled manner encourages Seth’s self-discovery. Meanwhile, Seth’s sister, Venetia, an aspiring literature scholar, lapses in a rare state of hysteria in which pent-up sexual neurosis is manifest in the classic pregnancy symptoms. As occurrence and consequence of the “Astro-Burglar” multiply and cumulate in an arson that burns nothing but fortune-telling books at a warehouse, Hwu Peake, Seth’s father disappears.

As Seth sets out in hot pursuit of the unconventional romance with the sculptor, who feels a qualm of the boy’s being incapable to cope with his feelings, every bit of details and hints begin to fall into place. Lying in the middle of all these but remaining rather understated is a permeating social relevance, which concerns an amendment to the law suggesting that sixteen, not twenty-one, should be the fair age of homosexual consent. The smooth writing and intriguing plot put me into a state of lolling and contented absorption. The ending is tugged away in a rather abrupt manner but the scrupulous reader will catch the allusive meaning.

[123] Hotel Du Lac – Anita Brookner

“And now, paradoxically, in the blessed silence and dimness of her room, Editch felt her own fatigue dissolve, and the underlying unease, of which she had been intermittently aware during the writing of her letter, began to stir, to increase, to take over… The careful pretence of her days here, the almost successful tenor of this artificial and meaningless life which had been decreed for her own good by others who had no real understanding of what her own good was, suddenly appeared to her in all their futility.” (116)

dulac.jpgThe harrowing circumstances that lead Edith Hope to the sequestered Hotel Du Lac, somewhat of a sanctuary that has conquered human mishap and accidents, are not clear at the beginning. Suspense as to her reason for being there mounts as the prose gracefully details the air of discretion and tranquility of this lakeside resort, whose sparse amenities attract few visitors. Edith is a writer whose life begins to resemble the plots of her romance novels–she is plagued by relationship drama. After an outright embarrassing incident that subverts her friends’ opinion of her, condemned out of hand, she is inevitably subjected to a brief exile until she comes to her senses and makes decent repair to society for the outrage she has perpetrated.

Hoping to bask in the engulfing silence and working on a new book, she instead meets an assortment of love’s casualties and exiles. They are aggrieved women at strange juncture in their life who put up a tranquil confidence and polite aloofness so not to betray their anguish. Bits of their life are slowly revealed as they outstay their welcome toward the end of season and have no choice but to mingle with one another for company. Mrs. Pusey is an old widow who has a whim for shopping anything of the finest quality. She has a sense of assurance that occludes any attempt to introduce an opinion to her. No wonder her daughter Jennifer, who accompanies her, has yet to be married. Monica (the svelte lady with a dog), who is on an ultimatum with her husband that she has to bear a child or he will seek other arrangement. Edith notes a breakdown in her behind those giant dark glasses–bereavement. Mme. de Bonneuil is left alone in the hotel because her son considers her manner too rustic to be allowed to live under the same roof as his wife. Edith herself ruefully reflects upon her affair with David Simmonds, a married man who is the root of her emotional turbulence.

Fed up with all the emotional investment and unrequited love that torture herself and the souls gathering at the hotel, at the solicitous pursuit of a worldly man who coaxes her to unleash the capacity of mischief and pleasure, she entertains the possibility of a partnership based on esteem and not love. Snagged by her conscience, she searches her heart through the undiagnosed feelings, and asks if a liaison free of any romantic expectations and feelings would bring her happiness. The journey coming to terms with her spiritual depth really glorifies the theme of hope in time of despair. I’m not in a position to judge the form of partnership (open relationship, no-strings-attached relationship) but am glad that Edith makes the decision she does, after a twist.

I love the sheer beauty of the prose and its grace of style. Much of the prose focuses on creating that sulking atmosphere that hovers over these characters. The seriousness of their respective predicaments in life has not only been material for satire, ridicule, and amusement among themselves, but also makes me aware that love does come with a price–courage and conviction.

Somnambulism

I wish to share a passage from Hotel Du Lac that rings some truth at least for me as a fiction lover. I ponder at it this morning over coffee, against the boisterous symphony of the rain, which came down hard in sheets like a squall and impinged upon the window of the cafe.

“Embroiled in her fictional plot, the main purpose of which was to distance those all too real circumstances over which she could exert on control, she felt a weariness that seemed to preclude any enthusiasm, any initiative, any relaxation. Fiction, the time-honoured resource of the ill-at-ease, would have to come to her aid, but the choice of a book presented some difficulties, since when she was writing she could only read something she had read before, and in her exhausted state, a febrile agitation, invisible to the naked eye, tended to distance even the very familiar.” (66)

I read for comfort, letting the book extract me from reality of my world to the author’s realm, which is a temporary refuge of all the daily circumstances that demand of me. Reading world/translated literature is like traveling, in which I can choose the desirable destinations. Drowning in unfamiliar settings of books delivers the same kind of curious sensation of traveling to a new country. The more unfamiliar the better–as if knowing the place the book describes too well might give me presence some reality and validity. That is the reason for digging books that set in Tibet (Seven Years in Tibet and Lost Horizon), Egypt (The Egyptian), and off-the-beaten-path places like the Sahara. These foreign terrains and landscape possess that power to snap me out of my element, and that is, when I look straight ahead at some distant focal point without actually seeing things. Because I’m off to a somnambulent journey. What is your comfort read? How is it comforting you?