Tag Archives: Maile Meloy

Stranger by David Bergen: Crossing the North/South divide

Cover imageI was attracted to David Bergen’s Stranger for two reasons: firstly, its premise and secondly by the author’s previous winning of the Scotiabank Giller Prize which I’ve found to be a very reliable indicator, much more so than the Man Booker. Bergen’s novel explores themes of entitlement and deprivation through a young Guatemalan woman left pregnant by her American lover who returns to the States after a devastating accident.

İso works as a ‘keeper’ at a fertility clinic, tending rich but desperate women who come to take the waters credited with helping the founder’s wife conceive. She listens to their confidences, their hopes and fears, often forming an intimate bond with them which dissolves once they leave. She’s in love with Eric, one of the clinic’s wealthy but apparently liberal doctors, who cuts a glamorous figure astride his motorbike. When Eric’s wife arrives for treatment, the carefully cultivated ambiguity of his marital status falls into question. Their affair resumes after Susan leaves, coming to an abrupt end when Eric returns to the States after an accident leaving İso alone with her pregnancy. Shortly after İso gives birth, her daughter is abducted and taken to the States. What ensues is the story of İso’s determined journey to retrieve her stolen child, a quest fraught with danger and difficulty.

In less capable hands İso’s story might have become a little trite, perhaps over sentimentalised, but Bergen deftly avoids that. It’s a novel with a sharp political sensibility, an exploration of Northern entitlement and Southern deprivation delivered simply, never with a heavy hand. İso’s character is sharply drawn and believable. Bergen unfolds her story in clear, direct language, heightening the tension and constant danger of her journey with short, unadorned sentences. The kindness of strangers balances the malevolence she faces both north and south of the US border but her wariness is rarely put to rest. Stranger is an easy, absorbing read – I finished it in an afternoon – but it has some serious points to make about entitlement, wealth and poverty, and makes them well. It put me in mind of Maile Meloy’s Do Not Become Alarmed which explored similar North/South territory but of the two, Bergen’s is much the better book.

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy: A literary thriller with a social conscience

Cover imageI was delighted when I spotted Maile Meloy’s name in the publishing schedules. I’d enjoyed her previous novels, even going so far as to read her short stories – this was long before my conversion. Her writing is quite subtle, nuanced explorations of relationships and their dynamics. On closer inspection, it turned out her new novel might be a thriller, quite a few steps away from my usual literary territory but worth a try given how long it’s been since Meloy published anything for adults. The premise is reminiscent of those yuppie nightmare novels published back in the ‘80s: two families take themselves off on a cruise at Christmas, seduced by the idea of free time together while their kids are entertained but things go horribly wrong.

Nora and Liv are more like sisters than cousins. Liv even introduced Nora to her husband, recognisable to many from his movie performance as an astronaut. Nora has been hit hard by the death of her mother prompting Liv to suggest the cruise. At first all goes well. The kids take to life aboard ship, soon developing crushes on the teenage children of a glamorous Argentinean couple. All three families have avoided excursions until ‘the Switzerland of Latin America’ hoves into view, a country not only regarded as safe but comparatively liberal, satisfying the sensibilities of the Americans. Gunther invites the American husbands to a swanky golf club he knows while their wives take the children off on an excursion. When their guide’s car suffers a blow-out he proposes waiting for a replacement at a nearby beach. Liv and Camilla fall asleep, lulled by the soporific heat, while Nora disappears with the guide leaving the children busy building a raft. Soon they’re caught by a tide that washes them up quite some distance from the beach. Hector decides to swim back, telling the younger children and his sister to wait for him but when a jeep turns up driven by a woman they decide to take their chances and ask for a lift.

Meloy puts to good use the skills I found so appealing in her previous fiction, deftly exploring the tensions between her adult characters pulled tight by the disappearance of their children. The narrative’s perspective shifts smoothly from the parents to the children and back again, effectively cranking up the suspense. It’s as page-turning as a thriller should be but there’s an undercurrent of social conscience running through the novel. Meloy draws sharp contrasts between rich and poor – the North American children are horrified at what Central Americans take for granted. She uses the fallout from the children’s disappearance to demonstrate that no matter how much their wealth may cushion their families, fear cannot be escaped. It’s not a match for Meloy’s previous work for me but then I’m much more of an Anne Tyler kind of gal which is where I’d rank Liars and Saints, and Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it. That said, if you’re looking for an intelligent but easy read, this one’s well worth considering.

Books to Look Out for in July 2017

Cover imageJuly sees publishing well into its summer reading season with far fewer books than usual to tempt me although Nickolas Butler’s The Hearts of Men more than makes up for that. His debut, Shotgun Lovesongs, was a wonderful, heart-tugging piece of writing. As ever, there’s that nagging worry about second novel syndrome but this new one sounds set in similar thematic territory. Nelson and Jonathan are very different – one diffident the other popular – but they become friends in 1962, the same summer Nelson’s family is rocked by his father’s betrayal. Butler’s novel follows these two into adulthood with all its many challenges and setbacks. ‘The Hearts of Men is a lyrical, wise and deeply affecting novel about the slippery definitions of right and wrong, family and fidelity, and the redemptive power of friendship’ say the publishers. Fingers firmly crossed for this one.

Continuing the friendship theme Victoria Redel’s Before Everything is about five girls who dub themselves the Old Friends, aged eleven. They see each other through the multitude of ups and downs that adult life throws at them until one of them is diagnosed with a recurring cancer and decides enough is enough. Each of the five reacts differently to their friend’s decision. It sounds like quintessential summer reading but I can never resist that old evolving friendship theme.

It’s also the theme of Elizabeth Day’s The Party although perhaps this time with more of a bite to it. Scholarship boy Martin Gilmour meets Ben Fitzmaurice at Burtonbury School, becoming firm friends with him despite their wildly differing backgrounds. Over the next twenty-five years, these two are bound together both by friendship and by a secret about Ben that Martin is determined to keep. However, as the blurb hints, things may be about to change when ‘at Ben’s 40th birthday party, the great and the good of British society are gathering to celebrate in a haze of champagne, drugs and glamour’. Sebastian Faulks is quoted as finding it ‘witty, dark and compelling’.Cover image

I’m not entirely sure about Maile Meloy’s Do Not Be Alarmed  which doesn’t sound up my usual alley. Two families are enjoying a cruise together. Both adults and children go ashore in Central America where things go horribly awry: ‘What follows is a heart-racing story told from the perspectives of the adults and the children, as the distraught parents – now turning on one another and blaming themselves – try to recover their children and their shattered lives’ say the publishers. This sounds so different from the three previous novels I’ve read by Meloy that I had to check it was the same author but I enjoyed them so much that I’ll be giving this one a try.

I’m also a somewhat doubtful about Yuki Means Happiness but Alison Jean Lester’s Lillian on Life was a treat. A young woman leaves America for Japan, keen for adventure. She takes a job as a nanny to a two-year-old, immersing herself in the routine of the household and becoming increasingly attached to her charge until she becomes aware that the Yoshimura family isn’t quite what it seems. ‘Yuki Means Happiness is a rich and powerfully illuminating portrait of the intense relationship between a young woman and her small charge, as well as one woman’s journey to discover her true self’ according to the publishers which sounds very different from the worldly Lillian’s tale.

Cover imageI’m ending with Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY, which from the title alone, seems certain to be a Marmite book. The publisher’s blurb is a little opaque although I suspect they’re not to blame for that given Barker’s idiosyncratic approach to fiction. Best to quote it at length, I think: ‘H(A)PPY is a post-post apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland, a story which tells itself and then consumes itself. It’s a place where language glows, where words buzz and sparkle and finally implode. It’s a novel which twists and writhes with all the terrifying precision of a tiny fish in an Escher lithograph – a book where the mere telling of a story is the end of certainty’. I loved The Cauliflower with all its wackiness although there’s no guarantee I’ll feel the same about this one.

That’s it for July’s new books. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. Paperbacks to follow…