Tag Archives: The Crossing

Conrad and Eleanor by Jane Rogers: Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Cover imageThis is the second novel I’ve read in a year in which traditional gender roles are reversed within a marriage – Andrew Miller’s The Crossing saw Tim decide to stay at home and look after their child while Maud continues her work in clinical research – and I’ve since read a third, Sarah Moss’ superb The Tidal Zone (review to follow soon). Three in a year might seem a high score but you’d think over a decade and a half into the 21st century it would be a more ubiquitous and therefore unremarkable theme. Coincidentally, Jane Rogers’ Eleanor – like Maud – is engaged in medical research as is Conrad. The difference between them is that while Eleanor is a star in her particular sphere, Conrad’s work has stalled.

When Eleanor returns from spending the weekend with her lover she‘s expecting to find Conrad at home, back from his conference in Munich. At first she’s almost relieved, setting about making the house looked lived in despite the fact that Conrad is all too well aware of Louis. As the hours pass, anxiety slips in. Eleanor speculates about Conrad’s absence – perhaps he met someone at the conference, maybe he has his own affair to distract him upsetting as that may seem. The truth is very different: Conrad has fled Munich, convinced he’s seen the young animal rights activist who’s been stalking him, and headed for Rome. Spooked and anxious, he gets off the train in Bologna, worried that Maddy has seen him boarding it. With no suitcase and very little money, he books into a hotel, roaming the Bologna streets aimlessly for several days. One evening lost, feverish and hallucinating he is saved by the kindness of a stranger who takes him in. Eleanor and Conrad spend their time apart revisiting memories of parenthood, thinking about the role each has played in the other’s life and how they have arrived at a point in their relationship where they are so far apart.

Through Eleanor and Conrad’s alternating narratives, Rogers presents a nuanced portrait of a marriage in which traditional male/female roles are upended. Eleanor is intensely involved in her work while Conrad much preferred taking care of their four children when they were young, pushed into his organ transplant research by Eleanor and increasingly unhappy in it. Eleanor’s relationship with her children is distant, Conrad’s close. Neither of them talk to each other. Conrad’s abrupt absence and the crisis it precipitates forces Eleanor to reassess their relationship but Rogers resists any fairy tale ending, instead offering her readers an entirely plausible resolution. The novel’s secondary theme of animal experimentation is neatly stitched in, with arguments deftly rehearsed on both sides. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing read. Not the first novel by Rogers I’ve read but it’s prompted me to think I should seek out more.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in July 2016

Cover imageI’ll start July’s paperback selection with my favourite of the three I’ve already read. Set in Morocco, Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty takes us on a nail-biting journey wondering what our resourceful protagonist will come up with next. Exhausted after her long sleepless flight and preoccupied by problems at home, she finds herself in a Kafkaesque nightmare with no ID, credit cards cancelled and no cash after her backpack is snatched. When, after a fretful night, the chief of police hands her a black backpack she accepts it knowing that it’s not hers, nor is the passport or the credit cards she finds in it, but seeing a way out of her predicament. What follows is a somewhat improbable but thoroughly entertaining sequence of events as our nameless protagonist slides deeper and deeper into a quagmire of lies.

Vida’s writing was new to me but I’ve been reading Andrew Miller’s novels since the publication of his excellent debut, Ingenious Pain. He’s never quite matched that for me but it hasn’t stopped me looking forward to whatever he comes up with next. The Crossing opens with a young man and woman repairing a boat, both members of their university sailing club. They’re not a couple but Tim has it in the back of his mind that he’ll sleep with Maud before too long. Suddenly, Maud flips off the boat and lands on her head – for one long moment it seems she’s dead – then she gets up and walks away. Tim somehow feels responsible following her home and later conceiving a passion for her. Written in short, crisp sentences from which the occasional startlingly sharp image leaps out, The Crossing feels very different from any of Miller’s previous novels. It had me gripped throughout but left me puzzled.Cover image

Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, is also about a marriage but not just any old run-of-the-mill, everyday sort of marriage: Lotto and Mathilde are a shiny beacon of the perfect relationship but as we all know that can’t be true. The novel’s two-part structure – first the Fates then the Furies – sets us up for dramatic revelations, presenting an apparently idyllic relationship seen through both parties’ very different eyes. It’s stuffed full of little side stories, some of which go nowhere, some of which are picked up again and sewn neatly in. Groff’s baggy, extravagant, almost baroque writing is the antithesis of the spare elegance I so admire in the likes of Colm Tóibin, Kent Haruf and John McGahern yet there’s something about it that sucks me in. Not an unalloyed joy – it’s far too long – but it’s an absorbing, intriguing novel.

Jonathan Galassi’s Muse looks irresistible: its setting, subject and jacket tick all the boxes for me. Paul Dukach is in line to take over one of the last independent publishing houses in New York and is being shown the ropes, from navigating the choppy waters of the Frankfurt book fair to the wooing of authors renowned for their delicate egos. Paul has become obsessed with Ida Perkins, a star of literary New York, whose lover and longtime publisher is Paul’s boss’s biggest rival. ‘Enriched by juicy details only a quintessential insider could know, written with both satiric sharpness and sensitivity, Muse is a love letter to the people who write, sell – and, above all, read – the books that shape our lives’ says the publisher. See what I mean by irresistible…

Cover imageEnding on a very different note, Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing takes us to rural East Prussia in January 1945 where the wealthy von Globigs have hidden themselves away from the horrors taking place on their doorstep. When they take in a stranger it seems that they will finally have to face the consequences of the war. ‘Profoundly evocative of the period, sympathetic yet painfully honest about the motivations of its characters, All for Nothing is a devastating portrait of the complicities and denials of the German people as the Third Reich comes to an end’ says the publisher. The novel is translated by Anthea Bell which makes it well worth a look for me.

That’s it for July. As ever, if you’d like to know more a click on a title will take you to my review for the novels I’ve read and to a more detailed synopsis for the ones I haven’t. if you’d like to catch up with the hardback selections they’re here and here.

The Crossing by Andrew Miller: Something of an enigma

Cover image I’ve had a somewhat chequered relationship with Andrew Miller’s writing: his debut, Ingenious Pain, left me eager for his second novel but that left me cold. The next few were enjoyable enough but not nearly as strikingly original as the first. The only one of his novels that’s come close to matching the brilliance of that debut for me is Pure which won the Costa Book of the Year back in 2012. That hasn’t stopped me from looking forward to and reading whatever Miller comes up with next. The Crossing is his latest and it’s left me puzzling over quite what to make of it.

A young man and woman are repairing a boat. They’re both members of their university sailing club. They’re not a couple but Tim has it in the back of his mind that he’ll sleep with Maud before too long. Suddenly, Maud flips off the boat and lands on her head – for one long moment it seems she’s dead – then she gets up and walks away. Somehow feeling responsible for her, Tim takes her to hospital, then home seeing her through her convalescence. They pass from acquaintances to lovers almost without thought on Maud’s part, somewhat obsessively on Tim’s. Their relationship follows an apparently conventional path – a career in clinical research for Maud, living together, friends, a child – but it’s far from that. Tim and Maud are entirely different. He is open, warm and passionate while she is self-contained and unknowable, opening herself up to no one and surprised when others look askance at her tattoo which translates as ‘every man for himself’.  When Zoe is born it’s Tim, whose wealthy parents support his easy pottering life, playing at musical composition, who looks after her while Maud continues to work long hours, consumed by her work. A tragic turn of events throws everything into question. As you might expect, Maud and Tim react in very different ways. The rest of the novel follows Maud’s journey towards a kind of reconciliation with what has happened.

The Crossing feels very different from anything that Miller has written before. Short, clean and plain sentences in which the occasional startlingly sharp image leaps out, unfold this story of a disparate couple who have reversed conventional gender roles. Maud is powerfully drawn – the antithesis of what is so often expected from a woman and a mother, playing with Zoe ‘on her hands and knees, a kitten that seems to have learnt its kitten nature out of a book’. The first half of the novel is gripping, almost hypnotic in its simplicity, but towards the end of the second half when the story has become just Maud’s, I began to feel I might be venturing off into an episode of Lost, a guilty pleasure from a few years back. Maud emerges still the same yet somehow slightly softer, more human. There’s a transformative moment in Miller’s first novel when his main protagonist, who is unable to feel pain, is made human. It seemed to me that Maud underwent a similar transformation but it takes very much more than a moment. Whether you consider the novel a success may depend on your reading of this part of the book. It had me gripped throughout but left me puzzled.

Books to Look Out For in August 2015

Cover imageYes, it’s that time already, and you might think that the publishing industry expects us all to slip our brains gently out of gear given that it’s summer, but there are a few stimulating novels sprinkled through my August choices, the most enticing of which for me is the weighty A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s a bit of a doorstop – just over 730 pages – but that’s what holidays are for. It comes with a great deal of pre-publication brouhaha but nevertheless looks mighty tempting. The novel follows four graduates from a small New England college to New York where they plan to make their fortune: JB is a sharp-tongued artist, Willem an aspiring actor, Malcolm a frustrated architect and Jude – their ‘centre of gravity’ – a supremely talented lawyer. It charts the course of their friendship into middle age, visiting some very dark territory on the way. Irresistible, at least for me, anyway.

Still in New York, Julia Pierpont’s debut Among the Ten Thousand Things sees an anonymously sent box of printed explicit emails, meant for artist Jack Shanley’s wife, opened by their children, precipitating a crisis. In an attempt to repair their marriage, Jack and Deb decide to move, thrusting fifteen-year-old Simon and eleven-year-old Kay into different worlds. The synopsis reminds me a little of Jane Hamilton’s Disobedience published back in the days when email wasn’t far from being a novelty rather than the time-consuming annoyance it’s come to be for so many.

One more American novel, and the reference to Olen Steinhauer as the new heir apparent to John le Carré at the end of the synopsis made me dither as to whether to include it – not really my territory – but I like the sound of its premise. All the Old Knives explores the idea of trust through the relationship of Celia, once a CIA operative, and Henry, still in the game, whose relationship was destroyed when the rescue of a hijacked plane went horribly wrong. Neither can forget what happened and both are determined to get to the bottom of it but can they trust each other? It sounds like a thriller worth reading, but perhaps that’s my old Cover imageSpooks obsession talking

There was a time when a new Andrew Miller novel would have been top of my list but I’ve had several disappointments after the magnificent Ingenious Pain. Pure saw him back on form and although The Crossing is set in the present I’m hoping that he’s stayed there. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the blurb but it appears to be a love story about Tim who conceives a passion for Maud ‘who fell past him, lay seemingly dead on the ground, then stood and walked’ but Maud is a loner whose passion seems to lie in the direction of the sea rather than Tim. I think it will be well worth a look, despite its rather perplexing synopsis.

I have to confess that this one’s only here because of my own obsession with the perfect pillow which would, of course, deliver the perfect night’s sleep. Lucy seems to have the same conviction which is why she fetches up in the bed linen department where William works. So far, so possibly clichéd boy meets girl but this is the bit of the blurb which clinched the inclusion of Nick Coleman’s Pillow Man here: ‘William and Lucy are not connected. Yet the pair of them share a terrible memory from the past, the sort of joint recollection that changes with the light, depending on who you were and where you were standing at the time. The question is: what to do with it?It goes on to talk about the ‘difficult metaphysics of bedtime’ – pretentious nonsense or intriguing, either could be true, but I think I’ll give it a try.

Cover imageAnd finally, Haruki Murakami’s first two novels Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 are to be published in the UK for the first time. Both follow the fortunes of their narrator and his friend, the Rat, and it sounds as if many of those familiar Murakami hallmarks were already in place when the novels were written. The first sees the narrator in college drinking and listening to music in J’s bar with Rat, and pursuing a relationship with a nine-fingered girl while the second moves our narrator on three years leaving Rat behind for life in Tokyo working as a translator, living with twin girls and searching for a replica of the pinball machine at J’s. Both novels will appear in the same volume under the title Wind/Pinball which will no doubt be bought by all of us committed Murakami fans, and maybe a few more.

That’s it for August. As ever a click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with my July choices, you can find the first hardback selection here, the second here and the paperbacks here.