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The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd: A satisfying snack

Always a delight to open a new William Boyd and find it dedicated ‘To Susan’. Nothing to do with me, obviously, but still… Short stories are almost as welcome as a novel for me these days particularly when two of them are pleasingly lengthy. Boyd’s collection also includes seven much shorter stories but, perhaps inevitably for a reader who still prefers longer fiction, these two were the ones I enjoyed best. Several are linked by the theme of art – those who would like to make it and those who do.

At just under 100 pages, you could almost call the eponymous story a novella. In her early twenties, Bethany flits from job to job, cursing her habit of immediately adding the last name of every attractive man she meets to her own and assessing the result. She’s the child of well-connected, acrimoniously divorced parents – father in Los Angeles, mother in London with whom she lives when she’s between men. When we first meet her, she’s working in a niche stationers’, spending her lunch hours working on her somewhat autobiographical novel, but before long she’s taken a bit-part in an indie film then she’s working in a gallery, calling herself a photographer. The story ends with the beginning of another year which sees Bethany wondering what she’s going to do next.

The Vanishing Game: An Adventure… is somewhat shorter but long enough for Boyd to have a lot of fun with Alec Dunbar, an actor down on his luck who accepts a job delivering a flask of water, supposedly from the River Jordan, to a remote Scottish church. Alec’s many roles in low-rent thrillers come in handy when he finds himself caught up in a real life version.

Of the seven shorter pieces, three stood out for me. In Humiliation a novelist fleeing eviscerating reviews bumps into one of his worst maulers and spots an opportunity for revenge. The Things I Stole tells the story of a man’s life through a trail of stolen goods – from a tin of cherry pie filling to his daughters’ happiness – ending pleasingly back where he began. The Man Who Loved Kissing sees a philandering gallery-owner get his comeuppance when his sure-fire way of avoiding another financially ruinous adultery backfires.

There’s much to enjoy in this collection, not least it’s humour. Bethany had me laughing out loud several times, reminding me of the comedy in Boyd’s earlier work. Most of the stories explore worlds which Boyd knows well enough to ridicule effectively. Both writing and film feature but it’s the art barbs that are the most satisfying reminding me of the Nat Tate trick he and David Bowie pulled off back in the ’90s. One of my favourites is Fernando Benn – Neville to his friends – who declares in Bethany:I’m not a photographer… …I’m an artist who chooses to work in lens-based media’. Benn’s show consists of photographs of war photographs clipped out of books, surely a law suit waiting to happen if the gallery were not so obscure that no one will notice. He pops up again in The Diarists peddling ‘faux-faux naif’ art to the rich, so bad it’s good. A few of the shorter pieces felt a little dashed-off to me but on the whole this is a very enjoyable collection, enough to keep Boyd fans happy until the next novel.

If you’d like to read another (possible) short story convert’s review, you might like to pop over to Cleopatra Loves Books  who was thoroughly won over.

Cousins by Salley Vickers: A welcome and absorbing distraction

Cover imageI started Salley Vickers’ Cousins a few days before the American Presidential election. It’s a bit of a doorstep, a literary family saga if you will, and I was in dire need of something to distract me from constantly looking at the polls. I finished it the day after the election but this is a book blog not a political one so that’s enough of that. Vickers’ novel tells the story of three generations of the Tyes through the voices of three women as one of them tries to reconstruct what happened to the young man each of them loves dearly: grandson to one, brother and nephew to the others.

Hetta Tye is looking back to 1994, the year that her brother Will fell while attempting to climb the spire of Kings College, Cambridge, damaging himself horribly. She wants to try to understand exactly what happened, calling upon her grandmother and her aunt Bell to help her fill in the many gaps in her knowledge. Hetta remembers the phone call that summoned the family to Will’s bedside where he lay in a coma, her grandparents Betsy and Fred arriving from Ely before she and her parents could get there, and the distress of her cousin Cele, clasping his hand in hers. Theirs is a convoluted family: Betsy and Fred are cousins whose love story looked set to repeat itself in Will and Cele. As Hetta, Betsy and Bell tell their versions of the family story, they also tell their own. Hetta has always been in the shadow of her rebellious, fiercely intelligent brother set, it seems, on going off the rails. Bell has spent her life caught up in her own beauty, neglecting her daughter Cele who finds comfort with Betsy and  Will. Fiercely protective of her grandchildren, Betsy’s life with the idealistic Fred has not been quite the idyll it seemed. Stretching back to the Second World War, Vickers’ novel flashes back and forth leading us to the tragic events of 1994 and its consequences.

There are no literary fireworks in Vickers’ novel, just straightforward prose, presented in a straightforward style which feels a little old-fashioned at times but suits the complexity of this novel which explores politics, morality and the nature of family through the tangled history of the Tyes. As with any backward looking narrative, those telling the story are unreliable, given to the ‘prophet hindsight’ as Bell’s lover nicely puts it, or subject to the vagaries of an ageing memory as Betsy reminds us. There’s a welcome undercurrent of humour: ‘I didn’t quite spill wine down my front because I was wearing my cream cashmere’ gives you an idea of Bell’s character when faced with a startling revelation by Cele and Fred’s use of a nappy change – enforced by his wife – to lecture his colleagues on gender equality is priceless. As Vickers draws the novel towards its conclusion, she neatly ties in any loose ends, referring back to points made long ago. With its secrets, coincidences, overlapping connections and inter-marriage, the Tye family history is somewhat more convoluted than the average – you’ll need your wits about you to keep up at times – but their story repays attention. Not the escapism I might have been looking for but it took my mind somewhere other than the news for a while and for that I’m grateful.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey: leavened with some much needed humour

Cover imageThere’s been a great deal of buzz about this book, stretching as far back as the beginning of the year I seem to remember. I always think about the author when that happens. Such a whipping up of anticipation must feel like a great deal of pressure, particularly when you’re a young writer and it’s your first novel as this one is – a mixture of delight and trepidation, I imagine. All seems to be going well for Emma Healey, I’m glad to report, highly starred ratings in all the places that matter. Narrated by Maud, an 82-year-old sliding into dementia, Elizabeth is Missing has two strands – one set in the present in which Maud anxiously tries to find her dear friend Elizabeth, the other in 1946 in which her sister, married to the local spiv, has disappeared.

Maud has been forgetful for a little while. Her house is festooned with notes telling her not to cook, not to eat any more bread and not to go shopping. Carers attend to her basic needs, one seemingly convinced that the world’s going to hell in a handcart taking all old people with it first, and her daughter Helen visits every day. Maud frets about Elizabeth: visiting her house and finding it emptied; digging up her garden; reporting her missing to the police and placing an advertisement in the local paper. No one takes her seriously but she can’t stop worrying and remembering the events of 1946 when Sukey disappeared without trace, events clearer to her than what happened this morning. It was an odd time when women who contracted hasty war marriages frequently walked away from them, so frequently that the local paper ran a feature headlined ‘Women Come Home’. Frank, Sukey’s husband, had his finger in a number of dodgy pies. Some of his neighbours thought him a fine man, others were a little less forthcoming and three months in prison for coupon fraud didn’t improve Maud’s dad’s opinion. Then there’s Douglas, the young lodger whose house had been bombed and to whom Sukey has been kind arousing Frank’s jealousy. A woman driven mad by the death of her daughter looms particularly large in Maud’s memory. As dementia takes hold, events from the past blur into the present leaving Maud horribly confused yet determined to find Elizabeth.

It’s a brave move to write a first novel from the point of view of a demented narrator. Maud’s War Crimes for the Homenarrative is often heartrending – her cupboards are overflowing with cans of peach slices, a childhood treat,  she collects rubbish in the hope of finding clues and eventually fails to recognise her daughter – yet Healey neatly avoids sentimentality, injecting some much needed black humour into her writing. As Maud declines there are more gaps in the narrative, gaps which are some times a little confusing echoing her own bewilderment. Against this, the second strand stands out vividly – its resolution, when it comes, is nicely ambiguous. It’s an impressive first novel but, for me, not quite a match for Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest which was published earlier in the year, or Liz Jensen’s War Crimes in the Home which features the magnificent Gloria, railing against the world.

If you want to read about how Emma Healey came to write Elizabeth is Missing JacquiWine’s Journal has an excellent account of an evening with her at Waterstones Piccadilly.