05. A Station On the Path to Somewhere Better, by Benjamin Wood

a-station-on-the-path-to-somewhere-better-9781471126741_hrThe back cover of my proof of this doesn’t give much away: merely the names and relationship of our two protagonists, Francis and Daniel Hardesty, father and son, and the promise of a road trip that ends in an explosion of violence, which continues to haunt Daniel twenty years after the fact. Given the road trip element of the book, I was expecting a darker version of Let Go My Hand. What I got was, indeed, dark, but there is no question of redemption or forgiveness in A Station On the Path… In Francis Hardesty, a man whose temper, capacity for manipulation, and sense of entitlement drive him ever further towards acts of intimidation and murder, Benjamin Wood has created the scariest literary father since Daddy, of Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, or Martin Alveston of My Absolute Darling.

It’s not particularly easy to talk about this book in a critical way without some significant plot spoilers, so if you intend to read it and you don’t want to know specifically what happens, look away! If you don’t think you’ll read it but you want my opinions on it anyway, for some reason, or if you don’t mind knowing some details of the promised violence before opening the book, read on.

Wood effectively creates a manipulative, shitty ex-husband and self-centered absentee father in Francis Hardesty; the opening pages, where he arrives to collect Daniel for a road trip whose purpose is, for a while, unclear, cement his unreliability in our minds. The fact that Daniel’s mother doesn’t trust him to enter the house speaks volumes. There’s a bit of heavy-handed retrospection as they drive away: “That was the last time I saw her,” Daniel tells us, narrating from the future. Several more of these ominous sentences are scattered through the book; it’s not the gravest of authorial sins, but it’s never been a strategy I particularly like. If you’re going to foreshadow, do it implicitly. Otherwise, build an atmosphere of menace and let that do the talking.

The atmosphere of menace is, in itself, top-notch. Daniel and Francis are driving towards Leeds, where Francis is a carpenter on a television show called The Artifex, about the friendship between a young boy and a strange woman who says she’s an alien, but who may just be mad. (More of this parallel wouldn’t have gone amiss: the point is that the show is about not just the line between reality and fantasy, but that between fantasy and insanity. That line is one that Francis Hardesty tightrope-walks for the first half of the book, then falls off of spectacularly in the second half. If we take the metaphor at face value, though, it pushes us towards the interpretation that Francis is deceiving himself as much as he deceives his son and everyone who comes into his orbit. That would make him a pitiful figure, but he is instead terrifying, capable of inventing a complicated lie within seconds and always poised to verbally or physically attack the skeptical. He is not insane; he is abusive.) As inconsistencies mount up – Francis keeps them in a pub waiting for a contact instead of taking them straight to the studio; the contact is very late; the initial approach to the studio is furtive and, ultimately, unsuccessful – Daniel becomes aware that his father is not just unreliable, but teetering on the brink of something that cannot be walked back from. Because the reader lacks Daniel’s need for love and acceptance from Francis (and is also an adult, not a child), we’ve come to this realisation earlier, but watching Daniel get there is nail-biting.

If I have a major issue with A Station On the Path, it’s that it seems to be reaching for a moral weight with which to invest its horrors that doesn’t appear warranted. Francis Hardesty murders four people and himself. Whether he does it because of deep-seated psychotic rage, a sense of entitlement, a combination of the two, or something else entirely isn’t ever made clear, and doesn’t really need to be. There’s a final section where we see Daniel as an adult, with a beloved partner, and realise that the book has been driving, all along, towards the question of whether he can bear to be a father, whether it is irresponsible for him to taint a child with the bloodline of a mass murderer. That is a weighty moral issue, and had Wood spent longer in that place, narratively, it would have made more sense. But as it is, the bulk of the book is spent describing the horrible events of the past, and there can be no particular reason to treat those events as though they’re special. Angry men kill people all the time. If Wood had let Daniel acknowledge the sheer banality of his father’s evil, it would have made for a stronger book.

Advertisements

Reading Diary: Apr. 15-Apr. 21

814ysf3sdjlI’m going to go ahead and call it now: The Secret Barrister is probably the best non-fiction book I’ll read all year. (It’s actually called Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, but that seems more like a subtitle to me, and the author’s name is the big sell on this one, since the Secret Barrister is a massive blog that’s twice won Independent Blogger of the Year at the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. So I’m referring to it as The Secret Barrister and that’s that.)

Readers of the blog will be familiar with the impetus behind the book: to reveal the myriad ways in which the English justice system – which, schoolchildren are taught, is the best in the world – is desperately broken. The anonymous author, a junior barrister practicing in London, ultimately agrees that the adversarial system in the UK is the best one that there is, but the persistent under-funding of the Crown Prosecution Service, the absurdly arbitrary nature of sentencing guidelines, and the frankly alarming power wielded in magistrates’ courts (presided over by magistrates, who, unlike Crown Court judges, have no legal training or qualifications whatsoever, and whose presence is a hangover from medieval times, when it was less important that justice be fully served than that it be quickly served) are crippling the justice system. Though the Secret Barrister never explicitly allies themselves with a particular political party, it is quite clear that the budget cuts and benchmarks set by successive Tory governments are in large part responsible for the absolute chaos in which most criminal cases are prosecuted and/or defended.

The best thing about this book – apart from the statistics, and the clear, quantitative analysis of just how many things can go wrong in a court case, and the outstanding job the book does of impressing upon the reader that anyone can end up in court, anyone can be burgled or assaulted or even falsely accused, and that therefore it is in everyone’s interests, even us smug middle-class wankers, to make sure that criminal justice works properly, which is to say that it is properly funded and less subject to dog-whistle knee-jerk bullshit from politicians and the Daily Mail than it currently is – is that the Secret Barrister can really write. The book opens with a cross-examination of a man named Mr. Tuttle, accused of punching his neighbour, who happens to be both blind and on crutches, rendering Mr. Tuttle’s defense (“he punched me first”) somewhat incredible. The scene feels immediate, funny, even absurd – I laughed within seconds – and it works because the prose is flawless: well-oiled, conversational, competent in the little things, like exactly where a comma or a hyphen makes a sentence more effective. It’s a joy to read, as well as deeply informative, and scary as hell. I am sending it to everyone.

51my9o-wxml-_sx327_bo1204203200_In 1622, Diego Velazquez traveled to Madrid from Seville. In December of that year, he was appointed painter to Felipe IV of Spain and invited to bring his wife and daughter to court. He would retain that position – painter to the king – until his death in 1660. Amy Sackville, in her third novel, zooms all the way in on Velazquez’s life and work at court.

While it might be described as a fictional biography, what Painter to the King does most consistently and remarkably is convey what it feels like to be someone who sees the world as a painter – as this particular painter – does. Velazquez’s naturalistic style, his insistence on using live models, his relatively limited colour palette, all attract mockery, even scorn, from other painters, but it is the quality of his vision that makes Felipe value him. He sees people, and what he sees is, not unkindly but nevertheless with great fidelity, what he paints. Sackville’s prose style here is tactile, interested in texture and colour, lights and darks, the encrusted paint on Diego’s fingers, the heft and bulk of a water jug. It also constantly interrupts itself; we feel we are inside the head of the artist, particularly in scenes like the one in which he tries, again and again, to capture exactly the musculature of a horse’s leg, the swell of its belly, the flick of its tail. The sentences are breathless, fragmented, em-dash-heavy:

…dip, swipe, dip, swipe: The leg of the horse curves up into the belly here, like –– Here, the top of the leg rounding into the socket like –– The curve of the belly barrel-like –

–– No

It’s maybe the most effective technique for describing the process of artistic creation that I’ve ever seen.

There is another intruding narrative voice: that of someone who might be the author, and is certainly an observer; someone who knows Velazquez’s paintings well, through long acquaintance with them in galleries and museums. That voice lifts you out of seventeenth-century Spain, but not, I would contend, in a distracting way: on the contrary, it provides necessary breathing room, amongst all that painterly detail. All together, Painter to the King is a little like the bastard child of How To Be Both and Wolf Hall, but to compare it is to diminish it: it is its own thing, and that thing is very good.

cover1The title of Diana Evans’s new novel, Ordinary People, comes from a John Legend song. “This ain’t the honeymoon, past the infatuation phase,” he sings. “Right in the thick of love, at times we get sick of love…” And then: “We’re just ordinary people/we don’t know which way to go.” This, in a nutshell, is the problem for Evans’s protagonists: two couples, Michael and Melissa, Damian and Stephanie, trying to keep their relationships alive after marriage and/or children, moving to the suburbs, losing a parent, discovering that they will very soon no longer be young.

Evans would be most easy to compare to Zadie Smith, although the hyperactivity, focus on working-class second-generation immigrants, and high intellectualism of Smith’s work is less evident here; instead, Evans has written a literary novel about the domestic lives of black people in London who—though some of them are second-generation immigrant stock—have entered the middle class. There is, of course, a political aspect to the book: Damian’s father was a Jamaican intellectual obsessed with the black struggle; Michael’s increasing comfort in a suit is a quiet metaphor for his assimilation into a professional world that is overwhelmingly white; Melissa finds herself thinking of de Beauvoir and Kristeva when her children whine, feeling that she’s sold out feminism but unable to turn back now. Evans’s writing decisions, especially her plotting, is brave: not everyone gets a happy ending, and we’re forced to question what happiness can look like, the possibility that finishing things amicably with your partner can actually be the right choice, and no one’s fault. Ordinary People is an extraordinary book for posing those possibilities while also telling an apparently familiar story about domestic strife; it’s very impressive.

35654063Salt Lane is the newest novel from William Shaw, the beginning of a series featuring DI Alex Cupidi, who made an appearance in the book Shaw released last year, The Birdwatcher. Salt Lane too is set in rural Kent, that strange flat marshy part of England where the sea and the sky and the land flow into one another. This time, Shaw sets his sights on immigrant labour: the illegal fruit picking and farm work that goes on under the noses of police. Two murders in quick succession—a local woman who has been living under an assumed name for twenty years, found in a ditch, and a migrant labourer who has been drowned in a farm’s slurry pit—assume sinister proportions when it turns out that they’re related. Cupidi must find who’s responsible while also developing her relationship with her teenage daughter Zoe, acting as a mentor to the insouciant and pretty DS Ferriter, and protecting her own reputation on a squad to which she is new, and which knows all about the scandal that drove her away from London.

There is slightly too much going on in Salt Lane; some of the supporting characters confuse the arc of the investigation, rather than adding to it, as does the fact that the dead woman is connected to a cold case from 1995. (We learn about this in the prologue, a flashback which misleads us into thinking that the old crime is going to be more significant in the present-day storyline than it actually is.) I’m also not certain about Shaw’s portrayal of immigrant workers; he’s not offensive about them or about the hell in their countries of origin that drives them to the UK, but I wasn’t convinced that he’d ever spoken to a refugee. Najiba, a migrant worker who acts as a police informant, is fairly well-rounded, but the others seem like ciphers; Marina Lewycka’s Strawberry Fields is a more moving and humanising portrait of this world. As ever, though, Shaw’s grasp of pacing and procedure makes it hard to put Salt Lane down.

macbethThere are, plainly, as many ways to fuck up adapting Shakespeare as there are Shakespeare plays. Jo Nesbo has chosen the path of poor judgment: he tends to make the wrong choice about where to diverge from Shakespeare and where to follow him. His Macbeth is set in an unnamed, rainy, context-less Scottish port town ravaged by drug wars and the death of industry; Macbeth is a corrupt policeman. It’s an excellent idea, but in execution, it feels like reading Grand Theft Auto for 500 pages: not so much because of the action sequences (though there are many, and they’re generally the best bits) but because of the odd sense of complete inconsequentiality. The town never feels like a real town; even its architecture and geography lacks substance. Why is there an enormous disused train in the middle of a public square flanked by a James Bond-esque casino and a railway station populated only by junkies? None of it is how anything—urban planning, police procedure, drug-empire-enforcing—actually works.

Nesbo makes another unfortunate decision, which is to follow the beats of the major monologues and some of the better-known dialogue. While he occasionally manages this well (the “Out, out, brief candle” speech feels contemporary and convincing, mostly because it’s not spoken but thought), it also results in hardmen calling each other things like “good Duff”, which jars. When Macbeth or his scheming partner Lady breaks out into an expository paragraph that’s completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the scene, it feels awkward and noticeable. One particularly odd choice involves Nesbo’s failure to update Lady’s reproductive history: he keeps the part about her plucking a child from her breast and dashing its brains against the wall, but makes that an actual recollection, not a hypothetical about promise-keeping that she throws at Macbeth, as it is in the play. Wouldn’t it make more sense—and be more emotionally resonant—in a contemporary updating, to give Lady a history of multiple abortions about which to feel guilty? To unthinkingly plug in Shakespeare’s words plunges the scene, and Lady’s characterisation, into a grand guignol that feels cheap and tone-deaf.

All of this said, there are lots of reasons why someone might want to read a video game, particularly this video game. The action sequences are generally excellent, high-octane and well choreographed. A level of artifice—one might say, of theatricality—is inherent to much genre writing, and Macbeth is a genre novel; Nesbo writes noir thrillers and has never claimed otherwise. For my taste, though, his version of Shakespeare lacks sufficient thought, fun and pacy though it may be.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A lot of crime, which will carry over into Monday as I’m currently reading another Scottish-set thriller, In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide. Overall an excellent week, with three great books, one decent one, and one that was at least fun to dislike.

#6Degrees of Separation: It, by Stephen King

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

tumblr_n9snzsrmtv1qkl5tno8_1280

We start with It, Stephen King’s creepy clown horror novel, which I read in May and (to my great surprise) thoroughly enjoyed. I had avoided King for a long time, assuming that he was probably not all that good a writer, and was completely surprised by the fact that, actually, he writes very well. (review)

Virtually the opposite happened when I read my first John Grisham novel, Camino Island; having been proved wrong with King, I had hopes that Grisham would turn out to be a pretty good writer, but these were dashed by page five. Fortunately, it’s a quick read.

My copy of Camino Island was purchased at New Dominion Bookstore in Charlottesville, where I used to work and where John Grisham would often come in to sign (he lives nearby). My current favourite author-signed copy is the paperback of White Teeth that my brother got Zadie Smith to sign and dedicate to me. (It says, “To Eleanor – the joy is in the writing!”, and it makes me teary with happiness every time I even think about it.)

Smith published her first book at twenty-four. Another young publishing phenomenon was Catherine Webb, who now writes as Claire North. I didn’t love her most recent book, The End of the Day (review), although her earlier book The Fifteen Lives of Harry August got a lot of attention and might be worth checking out.

The End of the Day is easily compared to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, but I really got whiplash from reading it so soon after finishing China Miéville’s novel Kraken. Set in London, Kraken starts with the theft of the Natural History Museum’s giant squid, and quickly delves into apocalypse cults, Londonmancers, and the unionisation of magical familiars. It’s also Gaiman-inflected, but with some tongue-in-cheek homage to Lovecraft.

A favourite magical London is the one from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. An enormous tome set during an alt-history version of the Napoleonic Wars, it focuses on the attempts of the two titular men to revive English magic. It is rich and deep and creepy and wonderful, and you’ll never look at a mirror the same way again.

Finally, another excellent alt-Napoleonic Wars novel (yes, there’s more than one of them!) is K.J. Whittaker’s recent False Lights. Whittaker’s book contains no magic, but in her world, Napoleon wins at Waterloo and installs his brother Jerome on the English throne. Our heroine is the mixed-race daughter of a black British sea captain. It’s got romance and swashbuckling and wit, and is perfect for fans of Daphne Du Maurier, Rafael Sabatini, or indeed Susanna Clarke.

From small-town American horror to sumptuous historical fancy, via blockbusting crime and literary prodigies; where will your #6Degrees take you? Next month we start with Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, a firm favourite from adolescence which is now a franchise that probably reached its natural end several years ago…

Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf

“Are you entirely sure that you don’t know who you are?”

91hjwnwu4ul-_ac_ul320_sr200320_

Let’s start with what I put on Goodreads, five minutes after finishing Sand:

Excellent and horrible. Parts of it are reminiscent of what James Bond might have been like if Fleming had been a decent writer; parts of it are like desert Le Carré; quite a bit of it is like surreal, blackly-comic Greene. You have no idea what’s happening for the first hundred pages and then it all clicks, the characters’ relations to each other make sense, and you’re off. Gloriously, there are no good guys, except perhaps for our amnesiac protagonist, who takes his name (Carl) from the designer’s label inside his suit. The ending laughs majestically in the face of narrative justice. It’s incredible.”

Now let’s back up. Sand does not start with amnesiac Carl. It starts with Polidorio and Canisades, two post-colonial policemen in Morocco circa 1972. The Olympic Games at Munich have just been defiled by the abduction and murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. The world is hot and nervous. Polidorio and Canisades are called upon to investigate the murder of four people at a hippie commune, apparently by a Moroccan national of seemingly boundless stupidity by the name of Amadou Amadou. Something about the case feels not quite right, but the evidence all adds up and Amadou is on his way to be hanged—until his prison truck is involved in a traffic accident and he is sprung free. The police seem incapable of finding him again; Polidorio is summoned to his chief inspector’s office and informed that, due to the wishes of important people, Amadou will not be found at all, full stop, end of story.

Interspersed with this are chapters following American Helen Gliese, who supposedly works for a cosmetic company but whose sample case was mysteriously and conveniently lost on the docks as she disembarked in Morocco. Helen, who has what the back cover describes as “a talent for being underestimated”, picks up Carl at a desert petrol station; he is wandering aimlessly, covered in blood, having just extricated himself from a scene of distressing violence at a barn in the middle of nowhere with no memory of who he is or what he was doing there. Helen is also acquainted with one of the residents of the commune, a dippy woman called Michelle who reads tarot cards but tends to cheat the deck by removing the Hanged Man.

Once Helen and Carl come together with Michelle, it’s clear that there are wheels within wheels. Up to this point, it hasn’t been at all clear; because Herrndorf starts us off at a point so peripheral to the main action (and, perhaps not coincidentally, to the description on the back of the book), we’re left completely disoriented for quite a long time. Being thrown off balance at the start doesn’t always impress me, but it does here because Herrndorf so obviously knows what he’s doing, even though we don’t. On he marches through the setup of his plot, unspooling authorial confidence behind him, and we follow. By the time Carl meets Helen, you’re in it for the long haul.

Carl is an innocent, and not only by virtue of being unable to remember anything. His actions and reactions (and inactions) are often inexplicably odd. Briefly captured by a white-haired crime lord named Adil Bassir, he has his hand nailed to the table by a letter-opener but does not take the opportunity to explain that he has lost his memory. Helen is baffled: “If I’d been nailed to a desk with a letter-opener I’d have told him a thing or two.” “I had the feeling,” Carl says helplessly, “that I didn’t know what he didn’t know. He just didn’t know that I didn’t know. If I had told him, what would he have done with me?” He panics at the wrong times, is calm at the wrong times. He cries a lot. He is simply, undeniably goofy. And yet we can also feel terrible pity for him, because we can project onto his blank exterior: is there anyone more deserving of kindness than someone lost and vulnerable who doesn’t understand what’s happening to them?

But it’s precisely Carl’s amnesia that also complicates his character. Late on in the book, he is captured and tortured for information that he doesn’t (of course) have. In the course of this unpleasantness, one of his tormentors pinpoints the problem with creating sympathy for the unknown:

“You have something that belongs to us. That we discovered. Our scientists. And that’s why we are the good guys: we built the bomb and wreaked havoc with it. But we learned from that. We’re the adaptive system. Hiroshima shortened the war, and you can argue about Nagasaki—but it’s not going to happen a third time. We will stop it from happening a third time. In our hands the bomb is nothing more than an ethical principle. Put the same bomb in your hands and we’d be heading toward a catastrophe that would make everything else look like nothing more than a minor headache by comparison.”

Whether this rosy picture of American military morality is legitimate or not isn’t the point of this passage; the point of the passage is to awaken uncertainty in the reader. Who, after all, is Carl? We know nothing about him. He knows nothing about himself. Can we be so certain that he isn’t—or wasn’t—involved in hideous plans? We only know what we’ve seen of him, in a very particular, impotent context. What is the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? One’s point of view. And the difference between an innocent man and a guilty one, Herrndorf seems to be saying, is sometimes just the same.

Readerly investment in Carl increases as the book goes on. He is made to suffer a great deal, and by the end of the book our perspective is confined almost entirely to his experiences, so that we can’t help but identify with him. Whether he was or is a terrorist or not, Herrndorf clearly shows us a human: one who fears and tries and clings tenaciously to whatever scrap of a chance is held out to him, one who wants more than anything else to live. So when I say that the ending laughs in the face of narrative justice, what I mean is that it leaves the reader with a sense of wall-pounding noooooooo-ness that you might recognise if you’ve read Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions or watched the film There Will Be Blood. It’s an ending that looks sideways at your high school lit class and everything you learned there about the blueprints for fiction, then smiles wryly, puts out its cigarette on its tongue, and kicks the shit out of teleology. It is, in other words, an ending as true to true life as anything I’ve ever read, and it makes the point that Friedrich Durrenmatt is trying to make in The Pledge about falseness in genre narrative with significantly greater raw grace than Durrenmatt manages. (Sorry, Durrenmatt.)

Wolfgang Herrndorf died of a brain tumour in 2013, at the age of forty-eight. He wrote an earlier book, translated in English as Why We Took the Car, but Sand will be his last. It alone ought to assure him a place in twenty-first century literary history: it’s bold, anarchic, blackly funny, and completely unafraid.

Many thanks as always to the publicity folks at Pushkin for a review copy. Sand is published in the UK on 30 March.

6 Degrees of Separation: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

e2ff4901-5224-4ba4-b1cb-b27cb7395084

  1. We start this month with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson’s thriller featuring cult favourite heroine, hacker Lisbeth Salander. The book was made into a movie—well, two, one of them starring Noomi Rapace.
  2. Rapace’s been in another thriller film based on a book, “The Drop”. It was originally a short story by Dennis Lehane called “Animal Rescue”, but he turned it into a novel after the film came out. The film features Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini, and is really pretty good.
  3. Lehane is the patron of a US publishing imprint, Dennis Lehane Books, which first published Attica Locke. Her novel The Cutting Season, about a contemporary murder on a meticulously preserved Louisisana plantation, delves deep into racism, power, and self-interest in America.
  4. I lent The Cutting Season to the Chaos’s mum, who’d read Locke’s earlier book Black Water Rising and enjoyed it. She, in return, lent me Sense and Sensibility, the Joanna Trollope version: a reboot of Austen’s original that is possibly the most successful entry so far in the contemporary-versions-of-Austen enterprise.
  5. Trollope is a descendant of THE Trollope, Anthony, who is most famous for his Barchester and Palliser Chronicles: two six-book series that map out English political and social life in the nineteenth century. One of my favourites, however, is the stand-alone The Way We Live Now, an alarmingly relevant novel in the 21st century, about unscrupulous financier Melmotte and the dangers of blind trust.
  6. The incomparable David Suchet played Melmotte in the BBC’s adaptation of Trollope’s novel; Suchet is most famous, however, for playing Hercule Poirot in the seemingly trillions of Agatha Christie adaptations. My favourite is Evil Under the Sun, set on Burgh Island in Devon, which can only be reached at low tide in a contraption called a Sea Tractor.

We didn’t move around much in terms of genre—nearly all crime thrillers— and we mostly stayed in England. I think the connections were pretty good this time, though!

A White Night, by Charlotte Mew – in Daughters of Decadence

417iyjlx9pl

~~caution: here be a spoiler for a single story~~

In 1993, Virago published a collection of short stories by women writers of the 1880s and 1890s, edited by Elaine Showalter, a prominent feminist scholar. Now, twenty-three years later, they’ve reissued the collection. It’s not a time period that speaks to me much; when I learned about the tail end of the 19th century in high school history classes, I got the Gilded Age of American industry, monopolies, philanthropists, presidents with eccentric facial hair, and prolonged but indecisive military excursions in Latin America. Photographs of the period look somehow older than photographs from thirty years previously. The women wear hats of ludicrous width and all appear to be sucking on lemons; the men are frequently top-hatted titans of capitalism, and almost never looking directly at the camera. It is not a period that represents itself with the lush brightness of the mid-19th century, or the filthy vivacity of the 18th, or the political intrigue of the 17th.

And yet, as Showalter’s introduction to the collection points out, there was a lot going on in this fin de siecle as regards women, both in terms of their writing and in terms of their more general social position. We think of decadent writers and artists as men–Wilde, Beardsley–and the same is true of this era’s serious literary authors: think of Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Yet at the same time, there was an explosion of writing, mostly in the form of short stories, from women. They were published in periodicals like Vogue and Lippincott’s and The Yellow Book, most of which don’t exist any more. They were by and about “New Women”, creatures of sometimes ambiguous sexuality, authors of unrecognized genius, complex thinkers. They terrified critics, who referred to them dismissively as vain “erotomaniacs”. One of them was Charlotte Mew, whose short story A White Night I was asked to review by the Virago publicity folks.

A White Night is brief and deeply disturbing. Our narrator, Cameron, is on holiday in Spain with his sister Ella (we can’t really call her our heroine, though Showalter, heroically, refers to her as such in the collection’s introduction) and Ella’s new husband King. They visit a rural hill town and, at Ella’s insistence, go exploring in the twilight. The action doesn’t really start until they enter a large parish church attached to a convent and get locked in by accident. It’s much too late for anyone to hear them banging on the door and shouting, so they’re eventually resigned to spending the night there, until, around midnight, their uneasy rest is disturbed by a parade of monks, followed by a woman and two priests. A long ritual ensues which is completed by the live burial of the woman under a flagstone before the altar. Cameron does not intervene, and actively prevents King from doing so, although when the monks leave the church, they attempt to find the gravestone in the darkness. Day eventually dawns, they realize their labours are hopeless (they’ve managed to find the stone but can’t pry it up again), and they leave the church with Ella, speechless and horrified, in tow. Telling the story to the British Consul produces only a kind of bureaucratic shrug, and they leave Spain within twenty-four hours. Cameron notes, as a final aside, that this episode still haunts Ella’s dreams, and that she has “never forgiven him” for his objectivity and detachment about it.

What are we to make of that same detachment? Cameron’s refusal to intervene to save the woman is the most inexplicable part of this story: he is moved and horrified by the scene unfolding before him and yet there is something about the woman’s demeanour that makes him feel as though saving her would be wrong. “She had, one understood, her part to play,” he tells us, and goes on to describe with a sort of relish her face’s inscrutable expression:

It was of striking beauty, but its age? One couldn’t say. It had the tints, the purity of youth…but for a veil of fine repression which only years, it seemed, could possibly have woven. And it was itself–this face–a mask, one of the loveliest that spirit ever wore. It kept the spirit’s counsel… Only, as she stood there, erect and motionless, it showed the faintest flicker of distaste, disgust…She was at last in full possession of herself. The flicker of distaste had passed and left her face to its inflexible, inscrutable repose.

So for Cameron, at least, this is a face that possesses a certain power, a face that has agency. He uses other words in conjunction with her (“proud surrender”, “magnificent disdain”) that give us similar impressions. We are not meant to see her as a victim. She has entered the church screaming, but Cameron keenly notes (with what authority, it’s unclear) that the screams are mere “physical responses”, in other words instinctive reflexes; her face looks unmoved.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. My initial instinct was to trust it. Cameron later writes that “she lies, one must remember, in the very centre of the sanctuary… It was this honour, satisfying, as it did, some pride of spirit or of race, which bore her honourably through.” The woman’s value is high in his estimation because of her honourable conduct, her perfect performance of acquiescence. She acquits herself, in other words, like a man, but not so much like a man that she ceases to be passive and therefore womanly. Threatened women gain male approval by being thoroughly aware of their own impending doom, and accepting it stoically. (Do you see what I mean about this being a disturbing story?)

The monks, likewise, are dealt with not as individuals but as one blurred indistinct entity. There’s a superficial distinction between them, but their actual personhoods fade into insignificance because they are all together, all a crowd:

Some of the faces touched upon divinity; some fell below humanity; some were, of course, merely a blotch of book and bell, and all were set impassively toward the woman standing there. And then one lost the sense of their diversity in their resemblance; the similarity persisted and persisted till the row of faces seemed to merge into one face – the face of nothing human – of a system, of a rule. It framed the woman’s and one felt the force of it: she wasn’t in the hands of men.

Except, of course, that she both is, and isn’t: Mew creates in this scene a brilliant representation of patriarchy, a system or rule composed of the faces of ordinary people who are in themselves neither saints nor devils. No monk or priest puts the woman in the grave that opens before her: she walks into it and lies down on her own. But she has been brought by those faces before her to a state where she can do that to herself. Perhaps it is not only a picture of an oppressive system, but a picture of what would later become known as “internalized misogyny”, the scorn and devaluing of women by other women, the self-hatred that a woman pours into herself.

King, the husband, is moved to try and help (perhaps he is trying to be the punning “white knight” of the title), but Cameron stops him; Cameron himself sees only the theoretical and the symbolic sides of the experience, considering it “a rather splendid crime”. It’s only Ella who remains troubled by the episode, and this, Cameron suggests, is because of her damned silly woman’s irrationality:

She refuses to admit that, after all, what one is pleased to call reality is merely the intensity of one’s illusion.

Men of Cameron’s time and class can afford to believe that reality is an illusion, because in many ways, for them, it is. Women – of almost any time, any class – have never been able to indulge in this kind of sophistry, because reality touches them too forcefully. Can you say to a woman of the late Victorian era who was never taught anything of biology or anatomy that her experience – maybe involving terror, force, pain – on her wedding night was “the intensity of her illusion”? Can you tell a woman who has been buried alive that her suffocation is not real? Maybe Ella is the heroine of this story, after all: she understands the significance of what she has seen, even if no one else does.

Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. Daughters of Decadence was published in the UK on 4 August.

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne DuMaurier

“There are some women, Philip, good women very possibly, who through no fault of their own impel disaster.”

9781844080403

~~here be not-really-spoilers, but I do tell you my opinion of the novel’s central “crime”~~

The excellent Daphne DuMaurier suffered, during her lifetime, from critics not knowing where to put her. They tended to settle for dismissing her work as feminine pot-boiling; Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, probably her two most famous novels, are deeply melodramatic and romantic, so you can see the justification in a way. My Cousin Rachel, as Sally Beauman points out in the introduction to this edition, is a different kettle of fish, because there is so obviously some serious social commentary going on under the surface. Quite apart from that, the plotting is so good, the tension wound so tight, that even crusty old 1950s newspaper reviewers had to admit that it showed incredible story-telling ability. (Dubious though “story-telling” was considered to be in the literary world of the 1950s, it has always been a quality that people admire, willingly or not. It’s harder than you think to just tell a story well. Look at how people try, at dinner parties or in the pub, and how often they don’t quite manage it.)

Sally Beauman’s introduction is invaluable for another reason, which is that it makes the reader aware at once that Philip Ashley, our narrator, is not to be trusted—or is to be trusted only contingently. Philip, and his older cousin and guardian Ambrose, are inveterate woman-haters; Ambrose can’t stand the “chatter” and “vulgarity” of feminine company, to the extent that he refuses to have any woman servants in his house, and dismisses Philip’s nurse when he catches her paddling the little boy with a hairbrush. (Not because he finds the corporal punishment distasteful, though; just because she has “great coarse hands” and is “too unintelligent to comprehend” how to properly discipline a young gentleman.) When Ambrose is advised by his doctors to winter on the Continent for the sake of his health, then, he goes alone. It’s a huge shock when he writes back to England to say, firstly, that he’s met a distant female cousin by chance who turns out to be a bearable companion, and then, secondly, that he has married her.

This woman is, of course, cousin Rachel, or rather, my cousin Rachel, of the title. The possessive is important. Philip is a deeply insecure young man (he’s twenty-three when we first meet him, twenty-five when the novel ends) whose sheltered, privileged and eccentric upbringing has equipped him astoundingly badly for the realities of adult life and emotion. Ambrose is his father figure, his brother figure, the only male authority he has ever known—the only authority of any kind he has ever known—and the love he feels towards him is both fiercely familial and vaguely Oedipal. Upon being notified of Ambrose’s marriage, he is sick with jealousy and frustration at the thought of having to share his beloved cousin with anyone else, especially (God forbid) a woman. He spends a good deal of time inventing identities, none of them flattering, for cousin Rachel:

One moment monstrous, like poor Molly Bate at the West Lodge, obliging one to avert the eyes from sheer delicacy, and the next pale and drawn, shawl-covered in a chair, with an invalidish petulance about her, while a nurse hovered in the background, mixing medicines with a spoon. On emoment middle-aged and forceful, the next simpering and younger than Louise, my cousin Rachel had a dozen personalities or more and each one more hateful than the last.

Such imaginings are, of course, poisonous, and poison is the book’s central metaphor (more on that shortly). Ambrose dies in Italy quite suddenly, of symptoms much like those that preceded the death of his father from a brain tumour. Philip, who has received panicked, fearful letters from Ambrose, suspects that all is not as it seems, but when he arrives in Florence, he can find no answers, and his cousin Rachel has left the city. Once he returns to England, however, he receives a letter from her: she is in Plymouth. More out of a sense of duty than anything else, he invites her down to stay, and it becomes immediately evident that Rachel is nothing like his ridiculous fantasies.

What’s immediately evident to the reader is that Rachel is, at least to some extent, playing him. She makes a great point of not minding whether he smokes indoors or puts his feet on the chairs; she sets about beautifying the house, but in a subtle, charming way, asking the opinions of the servants and getting Philip interested too. As I read I thought of her as a proto-Cool Girl (thanks, Gillian Flynn, for that concept): the woman all the men like because she challenges none of their existing prejudices. Of course, Rachel challenges Philip’s prejudices about her, but that’s as far as it goes. She does not require him to change anything about his way of thinking, his mode of living. Cleverly, this results in some actual changes in Philip’s thinking and living, but only because she does not insist on them. It’s a classic use of soft power, and it’s the reason people think of emotional manipulation and passive aggression both as feminine and as inferior ways of fighting. For a very long time, these were the only social and emotional weapons that women had.

Another classically female weapon is poison, which I mentioned above as the book’s central metaphor. DuMaurier barely mentions it by name in most of the 300+ pages: one of Ambrose’s letters wonders, amongst other ravings, “Could they be trying to poison me?” No more is heard of it until the discovery of laburnum seeds amongst Rachel’s possessions, at the very end of the novel. (Even that discovery is inconclusive, as Philip’s childhood friend Louise points out. Rachel is a keen gardener and orders plants from all over Europe; that she possesses the seeds of a plant poisonous to cattle and humans but used extensively in ornamental horticulture is hardly a smoking gun.) But venom—the slow, insidious drip of it—is present throughout the book. It’s there when Ambrose takes little Philip to see a hanged man when he is only seven or eight, a man who killed his wife. It’s there when fear and paranoia start to percolate through Ambrose’s mind. It’s there when Philip grows envious of anyone sharing Ambrose, and again when he falls in love with Rachel and seeks to control and limit his neighbours’ access to her. It’s there when he makes reckless withdrawals of jewels and rewrites wills for her (again, without her ever mentioning the inheritance or money.) This naive, romantic, stunted, immature man-child’s entire life is poison, all the way down to the root.

And Rachel might very well be poison too, although the great glory of the novel is that it’s impossible for us to know for sure. That exercise of soft power, if she’s doing it intentionally, is peerless; she never asks Philip for anything. Indeed, she seems genuinely embarrassed when he tries to give her a very valuable necklace, and she immediately returns it to his lawyer. And yet… Ambrose’s death is suspicious, and Philip begins to experience similar symptoms. Is this just what happens to hopelessly under-socialized men when they encounter worldly women—they begin to lose their minds? Do Philip and Ambrose simply share a genetic inheritance that dooms them to early deaths? Or is Rachel a calculating gold-digger and a killer? She is certainly more sexually sophisticated than poor Philip (possibly the only time I felt sorry for him is when he loses his virginity to her, then believes that this means they will be married. She is really horrified when she realizes this, and points out that he has never actually asked her to marry him, much less received a positive verbal response. Rachel is modern when it comes to sex—she thinks of the seduction as a thank-you present for the jewelry Philip eventually suceeds in giving her—and Philip is behind the times even for his own, unspecified but probably mid-Victorian, era.)

If she is a killer—and personally, I think she is—I can’t say I blame her too much. We are told that, like Becky Sharp, she grew up abroad, only half-English (and therefore, unspokenly, only half worth protecting), and without parental guidance. DuMaurier delicately omits to discuss the details of her former life, but from the conversations Rachel has with her financial adviser Rainaldi, we can guess that it involved a form of high-class prostitution: born of a good family, attending the best parties in Florence and Venice, but trading sex for financial stability nonetheless. If her behaviour has a pattern (find a wealthy, inexperienced man; become indispensable to him; marry, kill, inherit), it’s a logical one. And perhaps she never meant to kill, at first. Perhaps she married and realized that Ambrose was intolerable, and only then decided she couldn’t wait another thirty years.

Rachel suffers the sort of fate that most sexually liberated, autonomous, frightening women had to suffer in novels up until very recently. (You’ll have to read it to find out exactly what happens, though; I shan’t give it away.) DuMaurier’s brilliance is to keep us asking questions—did she really kill anyone? Is Philip merely a fool or is he actually abusive?—until we begin to wonder whether such women deserve their fates at all, no matter what we think they did. To suggest that a woman doesn’t deserve punishment for something, anything, is a slyly radical move even now; DuMaurier made it in 1951.

Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. My Cousin Rachel was published as a Virago Modern Classic on 5 May.