Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Road Between Us by Nigel Farndale

It can be an unsettling experience to read a novel thinking it is about one thing, only to discover it is really about something quite different. This happened to me with The Road Between Us, a beguiling title that really could mean anything. The cover shows two men, one in the distance, the other wearing army uniform with a letter in his pocket.
    The men turn out to be Charles and Anselm, caught out by the authorities for 'conduct unbecoming' in a Piccadilly hotel room just before World War Two begins. They are both artists who met at the Slade, and they are devoted to each other.
    Charles loses his RAF commission and struggles to find something meaningful to do during the war, until he gets involved with a sailing friend rescuing troops from Dunkirk. This inspires him to do some drawings that are good enough to be published, and Sir Kenneth Clark arranges for him to be an official war artist. But all the while he's wondering what has become of Anselm, who has returned to Germany.
    Here, homosexuals are sent for 're-education' in work camps and this is how Anselm ends up in one of the smaller concentration camps in Alsace. There are some particularly grim chapters describing the horrors of the treatment of prisoners, who are mainly from the French resistance. The only thing that keeps Anselm going is the certainty that one day Charles will rescue him.
    Interwoven with this story is that of Edward, a career diplomat, newly released after being held captive in an Afghan cave for eleven years. His only hold on sanity has been the thought that one day he will be reunited with his beautiful wife, Frejya. His great friend Niall, who is there when he wakes up, has to tell Edward that his wife is dead, while his daughter, Hannah, has grown up to be the very image of her mother.
    Niall is there, a shadowy figure in the background, obviously concerned for Edward and Hannah, and the readjustments each has to make. But troubling questions hover: Did Frejya kill herself? Who paid the ransom that led to Edward's release? For the reader of course there is the question of what links the two stories.
    It's not long before it is obvious that Charles is in fact Edward's father, now in his nineties and suffering from dementia. It is a shame that they cannot talk to each other because both have suffered greatly in different wars and been redeemed by love. The mysteries of Edward's birth and upbringing, his connection with a wealthy German banker are not revealed until the end, giving the reader plenty to be curious about.
    I'd been looking forward to reading The Road Between Us because I had found Nigel Farndale's first novel, The Blasphemer, a truly powerful story, compelling, assured and thrillingly plotted. This novel is similarly well paced and immensely thought-provoking. There are many important stories to be told about the damage war can do. Tackling the subject of love without sentimentality, while going into the darker corners where love can take people, makes this a more daring and original story.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Debut novels can sometimes be such a breath of fresh air, a new voice with a different story to tell. The Rosie Project is just such a book, at times very funny, but also poignant and certainly romantic in a screwball comedy kind of way.
    The story is told entirely from the point of view of Don Tillman, a genetics professor. He is tall, fit, and looks a bit like Gregory Peck, but at almost forty he is still seeking a woman to share his life with. The problem is he has Asperger Syndrome - this reveals itself in his excessively ordered life, timetabled to the minute, a difficulty with small-talk, and an overactive brain that can turn out complex mathematical calculations at the drop of a hat.
    He has only two friends, Gene, head of the Psychology Department at Don's university, who happens to be a serial womaniser in spite of being married to Don's other friend, Claudia, who coaches Don with relationships and introduces him to her female friends.
    When it occurs to Don he can solve the wife problem with a questionnaire as a way to save time and factor out any unsuitable punters (smokers, women who can't do maths, vegetarians, the list goes on), he launches himself into the Wife Project with zeal. Then he meets Rosie. Suddenly hormones intrude and the Wife Project is put on hold. Rosie is very attractive, in spite of being a barmaid, a smoker and a vegetarian.
   Rosie wants help with tracing her biological father, a daunting problem as her late mother had something of a reputation. They narrow down a list of candidates to around fifty fellow med students who were all at the same graduation ball. This becomes The Father Project.
   What transpires is a series of hilarious scenes as the pair secretly gather samples from each candidate for gene testing. At one point, the two sign up to be bar staff at a conveniently timed med school reunion. Don exceeds all expectations as a newbie cocktail maker and becomes the life and soul of the party. At the faculty ball, Don arrives with a new candidate from the Wife Project who is perfect in every way except for a passion for ballroom dancing with more comic results.
    Simsion cleverly choreographs his scenes so that they have enough sensitivity that Don isn't simply the butt of every joke. This is in large part due to Rosie, who has her own demons and is refreshingly honest. She blatantly enjoys their exploits together for with Don there's never a dull moment - when he isn't being infuriatingly difficult. Which is quite often.
    And it is much the same for the reader. Don is so interesting, and the characters of Rosie and Gene such a contrast, they make his unusual way of looking at life seem even more unique. Yet he still engages our sympathy by being at times introspective enough to examine the aspects of his character that are challenging to others. When he finally embarks on The Rosie Project, he does so with all the energy of his previous endeavours, and becomes a true hero.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Mrs McGinty's Dead by Agatha Christie

This isn't perhaps one of Agatha Christie's most well-known novels featuring expat-Belgian Hercule Poirot - and after all there were so many - but to me it is well worth a look. It has many features that make it eminently readable.
    Poirot is investigating the death of a cleaning woman in the little town of Broadhinney. She has been robbed of a hidden stash of savings and her bedroom thrown into disarray.
    Because the town is so small, the only lodgings to be found are at Long Meadows, home of the Summerhayes - a genteel couple recently from India, trying to save their inherited stately home but with scarcely a bean and no understanding of housekeeping. There are dogs bounding in and out of the draughty living-room, the food is terrible and Poirot's mattress sags woefully.
    While Poirot shudders with each slam of a door or grimly contemplates his lunch, time ticks on. He is trying to save the life of the convicted murderer - the unappealing James Bentley, Mrs M's lodger, who has no social skills and despondently accepts his fate as he waits in prison for his day of execution. But Superintendent Spence has his doubts and has asked Poirot to intervene so he can retire with a clear conscience.
    Rather than hunting for suspects among any old tramp or dodgy passer-by,  Poirot's investigation turns to the more upmarket customers who Mrs M used to clean for. She was a nosy person and seems to have connected one of her clients to a potential scandal. An article in a tawdry Sunday newspaper had caught her eye, which, complete with hazy photographs, asked what had happened to four women involved in murder decades ago.
   Poirot is just in the middle of interviewing potential suspects, when who should turn up, but his novelist friend, Ariadne Oliver, biffing him on the head with a carelessly flung apple core. Ariadne is staying with the Upwards - Mrs Upward is an invalid, while her son, Robin, is the playwright adapting one of Ariadne's books for the stage.
    Ariadne is hugely uncomfortable with the ebullient young man's arty ideas and would rather go home and hide away with her typewriter and a bag of apples. I always enjoy her outbursts of misery regarding her Finnish detective character, in which some biographers see an echo of Christie's own views on Poirot.
   The comedy of both protagonists' accommodation and the good-humoured chaffing between Ariadne and Poirot offer plenty of light relief from the nastiness of murder and the image of a young man on death row. Not that there's ever any doubt that the real criminal will be brought to justice before the hangman begins to ready his noose.
    As usual there is a dramatic living room scene in the penultimate chapter where all the suspects wait patiently for Poirot to unmask the real villain. Somehow, in spite of this very familiar narrative structure, Christie throws in enough red herrings and twists of plot to bring plenty of surprises the reader's way before the end.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Adoption by Anne Berry

I really enjoyed Anne Berry's first two books, The Hungry Ghosts and The Water Children, so was really delighted to get hold of her third novel. She is a brilliant writer, her language is powerful and imaginative, but she is not easy on the reader, which would suggest her books make an impact. The Adoption is no exception.
    The Adoption - now there's a title that doesn't beat about the bush - tells the story of three women, beginning with Bethan, who makes the mistake of falling in love with the German POW who helps out on her parents' farm in Wales at the tail-end of the war. It is the beginning of 1948 when she gives birth to Lucilla, a single parent under the watchful eye of her mother, her lovely Thorston banished and her daughter set for adoption. She is a sympathetic character, even if she is unable to stand up to her parents. Blighted by guilt and misery, she allows them to determine the course of her life.
    Then there's Harriet, unlovely and full of stern self-righteousness. She marries Merfyn, a fellow member of the temperance league and in spite of her fine housekeeping skills - though she's more of an incinerator than a cook - their union produces no children. Somehow they adopt Lucilla, aware of her doubtful parentage, but hopeful that careful upbringing will nip any unpleasant characteristics in the bud.
    Poor Lucilla can't help it but she's doomed to be her natural parents' child and never really fits in. She has her mother's love of the great outdoors, her passionate temperament and her father's artistic talent. These traits are not appreciated by her adoptive parents in their grim London house, and the story is a description of their incompatibility and constant battles.
    The plot weaves in present events, as Lucilla decides to trace her birth mother, with those of the past, her childhood and growing up. It is not a happy story, but thank goodness, Lucilla is a wonderful creation - rather wicked and roguish. The story of her visit to the cinema with her cousins (ghastly Frank and more convivial Rachel) along with stuffy Barbara, a potential sister for Lucilla, is hilarious.
It's a mercy that she meets Henry, and although they struggle to make ends meet, they are truly happy and create a warm and loving home for their family - complete with dogs and lots of fresh air.
   Anne Berry doesn't shirk from showing her characters warts and all. Lucilla never holds back letting everyone know how she feels and as such can be hard to handle. Bethan loses her ability to love again and Harriet, well it's difficult to imagine how anyone can be quite so nasty. Like Berry's previous books, this is a story about the terrible things people can do to each other. It is also about what it means to belong and it left me with a lump in my throat when I got to the last page. This is definitely a writer that makes an impact.

Monday, 5 August 2013

The Things We Never Said by Susan Elliot Wright

So many novels seem to be written using two alternating perspectives from different periods of time - like this one - and I always wonder if this makes them easier or more difficult to write. It certainly makes for a compelling plotting device.
    Susan Elliot Wright's debut novel uses just such a structure - one moment we're with Maggie, who wakes up in a mental asylum not knowing why she's there - the next it's Jonathan whose wife is expecting their first child, and their relationship is at times a little tense.
    Maggie's story starts off in 1962, as she begins her career as assistant stage manager with a theatre in Sheffield. Theatre is something she's always wanted to do, though her roots are in Brighton, in the kitchen of a hotel restaurant. Her brother's still there, and her parents are dead, so up in Sheffield, she's definitely on her own. Her digs are cheap and not so cheerful, but the landlady, Dot, has a heart of gold, so things could be worse.
    It's a wild and wintry night, when handsome Jack invites Maggie to a party. And so begins the terrible chain of events that lead to her mental breakdown.
    Wind the tape forward to the present day, and Jonathan and wife, Fiona, are exited at the prospect of being parents, only sleep deprivation and other little irritations find them snapping at each other and Fiona sleeping in the other room. They're both teachers, and Jonathan's job teaching English at a challenging comprehensive school in London puts him under additional strain.
    Furthermore he can't think how to tell his parents about the baby - his father will make snide remarks that will make Jono feel like a failure yet again. Fiona is impatient to tell her friends, but can't while the in-laws remain in the dark.
    Suddenly, events take a dramatic turn for Jonathan - his father dies, and a difficult student accuses him of assault. With Maggie, we surface from the mental ward to her slowly recovering memories of the events that put her there. Eventually both stories will collide and the reader can probably guess what is in store. In spite of this, the novel is hugely engaging, the characters vital and their situations at times heart-rending. The support cast of minor characters are fantastic as well - particularly Vanda, Maggie's friend and flatmate who does a performance on stage with a live python.
   I found this a brilliant debut novel, that doesn't necessarily tread any uncharted territory, but tells its story with such compassion and a sound sense of the drama that makes a story work. I do hope Susan Elliot Wright has another book up her sleeve - I shall certainly be keen to try it.