This is the first Tessa Hadley novel I’ve read in some time. It’s not that I don’t enjoy her writing but she sets her books in a world that can feel a little too small for me. It was clear from its premise that the same would be true of Late in the Day but I found it an appealing idea. It’s about a group of late middle-aged friends whose lives are blown apart and put back together in a very different way after one of them dies suddenly.
Alex and Christine are listening to music one summer’s evening – he deeply immersed, she not entirely sure what she’s listening to but reluctant to give him the upper hand by asking what it is – when their peace is disturbed by the sound of the phone. It’s Lydia calling from the hospital to say that Zachery has dropped dead at his gallery. Christine rushes to help her, inviting her home to stay with them. These two have been friends since school just as Alex and Zachery have. Lydia had conceived a passion for Alex who taught French to both her and Christine at university but it was Zachery who she married after Christine and Alex got together. Christine and Zachery had also briefly been lovers. The two couples have remained close friends: their daughters becoming confidantes, Zachery showing Christine’s paintings at his gallery, sharing holidays, dinners and conversation over decades. Now the warm, open and loving centre around which they had arranged themselves has been removed stripping away the compromise and comfort of their lives and relationships. What ensues is not entirely surprising, yet it results in both the upending of what seemed immutable and the building of new lives.
Late in the Day tackles themes of ageing and marriage through four friends whose lives are intricately and closely interwoven, exploring gender roles within two apparently very different relationships. Both Lydia and Christine think of themselves as feminists and yet Lydia seems incapable of functioning without a man while Christine kicks against Alex’s innate need to be the superior partner. As ever, Hadley’s writing is quietly accomplished, intelligent and perceptive. The scenes immediately after Zachery’s death expertly convey the feeling of aching grief, shock and dislocation of sudden loss but there’s something a little old-fashioned about her work. It reminds me of Margaret Drabble’s Hampstead novels which is perhaps why I’m often in two minds as to whether to read one or not. That said, I enjoyed this latest offering with its hope of change and new beginnings emerging from the pain of grief and loss.
Regular readers may have noticed I’ve a weakness for Irish writing. It was that and the premise of Billy O’Callaghan’s My Coney Island Baby that attracted me to it. Two lovers, engaged in a long affair, meet for an afternoon once a month, a welcome interval in their humdrum marriages. Now each is faced with a crisis that threatens this relationship which has become so precious to them both.
On a bleak November afternoon, Michael and Caitlin battle their way against the wind to a Coney Island hotel. They’ve snatched afternoons like this for twenty-five years since Michael met Caitlin in a bar, escaping the awful grief at the loss of his baby son. Caitlin was already married, still cherishing dreams of becoming a writer and publishing the occasional short story. These two clicked and have continued to do so, telling each other their stories as lust dwindles a little, although never completely, and love grows. Now they’re in their late forties and age is overtaking them. Shortly after they meet, Michael tells Caitlin that his wife has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Later in the afternoon she tells him her husband is in line for a promotion that will take him to Illinois. They both know these monthly meetings may be about to end unless they make an irrevocable decision.
For those seconds of a summer’s afternoon, easy in one another’s arms, they were entirely who they wanted and needed to be.
O’Callaghan’s novel takes place during a single afternoon, switching perspective from Michael to Caitlin. Their stories unfold in such a way that we come to know these two intimately: Michael thinks of the Irish island he left when he was sixteen, and his son whose death indelibly marked his marriage; Caitlin remembers her ambitions to become a writer, and the stepfather whose sudden departure left her and her mother alone again. There’s an elegiac tone to O’Callaghan’s prose coupled with a timelessness which suits his subject beautifully. It’s a novel that quietly draws you in, engaging sympathy for these two lovers who face the end of the only relationship in which they’ve truly felt themselves.
You may already know that Bill Clegg’s debut has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize. It’s only the second novel from the list I’ve read – the other’s A Spool of Blue Thread. I know that many readers are in the grip of A Little Life mania but Did You Ever Have a Family is so extraordinarily good it’s going to be hard to beat. It unfolds the aftermath of a tragedy in a beautifully nuanced, multi-layered narrative, skilfully interweaving the many stories of those affected by it.
The night before her daughter’s wedding June’s house burns to the ground with her daughter and her fiancé, her ex-husband and her boyfriend inside. In a state of shock and grief, unable to bear the endless stream of condolence, she flees the small Connecticut town where she’s been living for three years in the holiday home she once rarely visited. She leaves behind a fifteen-year-old-boy who can’t escape the events of that night, her boyfriend’s mother and a morass of gossip and speculation. Black and twenty years June’s junior, Luke had a jail sentence for drug trafficking behind him. His mother married into a well-respected family, only to find herself mistreated then thrown out when she gave birth to Luke. A string of bad choices culminated in the man who framed her son, triggering an estrangement recently repaired with the help of June whose own fractured relationship with her daughter has only just begun to heal. After the funerals, June heads west across the country, holing up in Room 6 of the Moonstone motel for months until a rapprochement is made and some sort of peace found. The bare bones of what happens in Clegg’s carefully assembled novel hardly do it justice: at its heart is the human condition and what that means to us all.
Clegg is well-known in the States as a literary agent. As I read this elegantly crafted novel I wondered if those skills had honed his work in the way that William Maxwell’s – much-lauded for his editorial light touch and the author of some of the finest novels I’ve read – did for his writing. Narrated from many different perspectives, each chapter unfolds another aspect of what has happened, subtlety shading in the back stories of the character in question and their view of this small disaster – from the unpaid caterer who cannot bring himself to pursue his fee, to Luke’s mother, the butt of gossip since she was a schoolgirl now so desperately lonely she tells her story to a telephone scammer knowing full well what he’s up to. Characters are expertly drawn, pernicious smalltown gossip quietly conveyed, the line between weekender and local beautifully delineated: ‘We live in a pricey museum, one that’s only open on weekends, and we are its janitors’ says Edith, the florist, neatly encapsulating the weekenders’ expectations and their well-meaning but somewhat patronising attitudes to the locals. It’s not simply a gorgeously told story: it has something to say to us all about the inter-connectedness of humanity, its terrifying fragility and above all, about hope. As Cissy says ‘All we can do is play our parts and keep each other company’. I’ve read many fine novels this year but this is one of the finest. I do hope there’s a second one in the works.
I like a nice bit of gothic now and again. Diane Setterfield’s beautifully polished Bellman & Black was the last gothic novel I read, a subtle tale of fulfilled ambition that comes at a terrible price. The Quick is firmly in vampire territory which seems to have been done to death (sorry) over the past few years but when a book comes lauded by the likes of Kate Atkinson who calls it ‘a suspenseful, gloriously, atmospheric novel’ and Hilary Mantel for whom it’s ‘a sly and glittering addition to the literature of the macabre’, it’s time to cast off the world-weary cynicism and get reading.
It begins with James and Charlotte Norbury, orphaned and living in nineteenth century Yorkshire – a nice little literary nod to Bram Stoker. The rather dull James studies at Oxford then sets up home in London intending to become a writer where he meets Christopher Paige, the rakish friend of some college acquaintances. This unlikely pair become lovers, forced to flee the country when they are recognised as such by Christopher’s brother. First, James must finish his play which Christopher insists he delivers to that fine young playwright Oscar Wilde. In what turns out to be a case of mistaken identity, Christopher is gruesomely murdered by the Temple Church Horror, already the talk of London, while James is transformed into a vampire. The culprit is Michael Bier, the renegade brother of Edmund, head of the Aegolius Club whose membership is in urgent need of replenishment. Edmund and his assistant Augustus Mould are researching ‘exchanging’ the ‘quick’ without consent; before James’s forcible conversion the un-dead were only made so with their own permission. Much to Edmund’s annoyance, James is the first unwilling – and unplanned – victim. When Charlotte visits her brother and finds him missing she becomes caught up in an increasingly desperate bid to rescue him from his horrible fate.
The Quick gets off to something of a slow start but when you have Kate Atkinson and Hilary Mantel urging you on, you can’t give up and after around 50-odd pages I began to see their point. It takes you from the glittering environs of London’s gentry to the grimy slums of Salmon Street in an increasingly page-turning chase. It’s peopled by vivid characters, pleasing drawn: Augustus Mould’s careful note-taking and scientific interest in the un-dead are worthy of a nineteenth century Mengele while the valiant Angeline Swift, daughter of a tightrope walker, and Shadwell, father of her undead fiancé, brave terrible danger in their attempts to protect the quick. Lauren Owen resists the temptation to make all her un-dead monstrous, giving Edmund a benign motive in his scheme to alleviate the quick’s suffering which goes horribly wrong. There are some wonderful set pieces, excitingly told, and the contrast between the snobbish Club members and the ‘undid’ of Salmon Street is nicely handled – even the un-dead have a class system so it seems. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, and a first one to boot: riveting, inventive, imaginative, with an ending as chilling as you could possibly hope for.
A gloomy weather weekend, a suddenly free Sunday and no Scandi-crime distractions on TV resulted in more reading this weekend than I’d expected. We did manage to meet a friend for lunch at the Pythouse but the lovely gardens were a bit too soggy for any prolonged wandering. A slice of their Ginger Beer and Lime cake provided a bit of compensation.
I’d pulled a Wayne Johnston’s A World Elsewhere of the TBR shelves on Friday but without much enthusiasm. I remembered The Colony of Unrequited Dreams as a bit of a plod but given that both Howard Norman and Annie Proulx rate Johnston highly I thought I’d try again and it paid off. The author’s note prefacing the novel tells us that it was inspired by the Vanderbilts’ fantastical mansion, Biltmore, but that the fictional Vanderluydens bear no resemblance to the Vanderbilts who would no doubt be suing for libel otherwise. Set in the nineteenth century, it’s the story of Landish Druken, determined not to enter the family sealing firm, and Van Vanderluyden, son of the wealthiest man in America, who he meets at Princeton. The two form an odd and somewhat dysfunctional friendship. Landish is sent home to Newfoundland in disgrace when Van betrays him after he refuses to move to Van’s North Carolina estate and there adopts a little boy, Deacon, orphaned as a consequence of his own father’s bravery and Landish’s father’s mercenary negligence. Reduced to penury, Landish resorts to contacting Van who eventually and grudgingly offers him work tutoring his daughter at the grandiose Vanderland where delusions run riot.
The biggest surprise about this novel was that it had me sniggering and chortling from the start. Wordplay is Landish’s speciality and the novel is stuffed full of it. He uses it to explain the world to Deacon instructing him in the ‘star-bored bow’ on the voyage from Newfoundland to New York which lets other passengers know that you’re bored with looking at the stars. ‘Make fun’ is to make love for which men need ‘Dick and the happy couple’. Even Landish’s name is an anagram. There’s tragedy as well as comedy and things come a little unstuck at the end but it’s a hugely entertaining novel which at times put me in mind of a mix of John Irving and T C Boyle at his best. Coincidentally the aforementioned Pythouse is close to Fonthill Gifford the site of William Beckford’s mansion, Fonthill Abbey, easily a worthy rival to Vanderland. So ridiculously ambitious was it that it fell down. Twice.
Both Landish’s father and Van would have been good candidates for the Ten Worst Dads in Books list except that …. well, you’ll have to read the book. The list ranges from King Lear to Kevin’s dad in Lionel Shriver’s novel but Humbert Humbert tops it, having inveigled himself into the position of Lolita’s stepdad. At last – a counterbalance to that tired old wicked stepmother cliché.
The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced tonight. I’m hoping for a Kate Atkinson victory but still reeling a little from the thought that I’ll soon have to refer to it as the Baileys Prize. Perhaps I’m being snobby. Let’s be honest – I am being snobby. But it’s hard to equate a thick, sweet liqueur with the very best fiction by women, even if I have enjoyed the odd tipple of it myself many years ago.
It’s been a pretty sobering week’s reading so far with the excellent Meet Me in Gaza on Monday followed by Gabriel Weston’s powerful first novel, Dirty Work. Direct Red was Weston’s remarkably honest and compassionate account of her training in a large London teaching hospital written in elegant clear-eyed yet sometimes poetically beautiful prose. Dirty Work is written in the same quietly striking style. It follows Nancy Mullion, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, as she awaits a tribunal’s verdict on whether she is fit to continue practising surgery after her patient suffers a catastrophic haemorrhage. Nancy’s work is her life. Not much room for anything else when you’ve spent seven years studying intensively, then working all hours and must not only continue to maintain your knowledge but publish new research if you’re to get on. Her suspension gives her the time to reflect that she does not otherwise have. Weston interweaves Nancy’s thoughts about her childhood, her relationships and her career with her fears about the tribunal’s investigation and her part in its procedures. In vivid vignettes we learn that Nancy was a studious little girl whose happiest time was the years she spent in the States. She is a little obsessive, harbouring a yearning for Tom with whom she shared a night of adolescent kissing until her disappointing encounter with him in adulthood. She has a loving and supportive sister. She lives on her own and has few friends. Gradually we learn that Nancy performs abortions.
In the book’s press release, Lionel Shriver is quoted as describing Dirty Work as a ‘brave book’. Indeed it is, and a very necessary one. Readers will no doubt have strong views about abortion but whatever your standpoint Dirty Work will make you think about it again, perhaps in ways you don’t expect. By taking us through Nancy’s thought processes, Weston forces her readers to think not just about the women who undergo abortion, or about the foetuses aborted, but also about the effects upon the doctors who perform the procedure and how the issue is talked about, or perhaps not talked about, by the profession. After giving her readers the opportunity to skip ahead, Weston refuses to spare those who continue the physical details of an abortion, both the actual process and what has to be done to ensure that it has been entirely successful. And we really shouldn’t look away. Those of us who are pro-choice should understand what we expect of those who carry out our wishes and the toll it takes on them. Dirty Work is not a polemical book for either the pro-choice or anti-choice sides of the debate but it is one that brings you face to face with harsh realities.
Somehow it’s hard to envision the Bailey’s tag attached to a book like Dirty Work even though it’s just the sort of novel that would qualify for the prize. Still, as H said to me this morning – rather tartly, I thought – I should be glad that anyone has stepped into the Orange breach given our current straitened times.