Feed on

“Every [Sunday], the morning of my one day off plays out the same way. ‘There’s milk, sliced bread, whatever you want, just help yourself,’ I tell her, not opening my eyes.  The lull that follows allows me to drop trustingly off again until my daughter breaks into more tears.  I spilled the milk.  I wet my pants.  The glass broke…Reluctantly I sit up. [It is almost noon.]…There is a pool of milk, glints of broken glass, a scattering of toys on the floor.  Her finger is bleeding….”

cover territory of lightIn her first novel to be translated into English, Yuko Tsushima (1947 – 2016), an author who has won every prize imaginable in her native Japan, shows the spirit which has made her work so honored in her own country.  A divorced, single mother whose own father, a writer, died when she was a year old, author Tsushima grew up with her mother, was educated, married, had a child, divorced, and then learned, first-hand, what it was like to be the sole bread-winner in a society which rewarded men far more often than women.  Independent and determined, Tsushima challenged the social norms and achieved great renown for her writing, often using her own experiences as starting points for her stories and novels.  This novel, published originally in 1978 – 1979, focuses on a married mother seeking a divorce.  The unnamed main character and her daughter, only two years old as the novel opens, face very real problems with day-to-day life, in addition to agonizing emotional problems which the woman ignorantly creates for herself and her child.  Focused on her own emotional needs, she has shared so little one-on-one time with her child that she does not recognize that the child, who, at age two, is not much older than a baby, has very real and important needs, too.  Seeming to believe that if she herself gets what she wants and finds some happiness that her attitude will also spill over and make her two-year-old happy, she is, throughout the novel, closed off from her child, whose whole life is spent with her grandmother (the speaker’s mother), in daycare, or with her own mother on Sundays, her mother’s one day of “time off” from her full-time job.

Author Yuko Tsushima

Author Yuko Tsushima

The novel begins when the mother and child have found an “ideal” place to live, the fourth floor of a commercial building with shops and offices on the first two floors, an empty third floor, and their apartment on the top floor, which also has access to the roof.  Big windows supply the place with plenty of light, a feature which the mother sees as symbolic of her new life, and which explains the novel’s title.  Living close to the edge financially and personally, the mother simply closes herself off when anything unpleasant threatens to interfere with her life, and when a tenant from a downstairs office complains about the sound of running water which may be leaking from her apartment, she makes a cursory check, sees no water in her own place, and ignores it – until the next day when her floor is wet, the roof has a huge puddle, and the tenant below has a disaster.  Her daughter, however, loves their new “rooftop sea,” and her mother soon joins her there in one of the few experiences which they share with each other – for fun.

Japanese zelkova tree, a variety of elm.

Japanese zelkova tree, a variety of elm.

Shortly afterwards, on a Sunday, she and her daughter go to a local park, and the mother becomes totally obsessed by the zelkova trees, while her child, who has been virtually alone and untended all morning, is impatient for a new activity and anxious to explore.  Insensitive, the mother cannot pull herself away from the trees, and the daughter finally gets beyond frustrated.  A tantrum ensues, and the mother, frustrated that her daughter seems to think everything is all her mother’s fault, resorts to violence, inspiring the child to take off on her own, and leaving the mother to wonder, “Why were children the only ones who ever got to melt down?”  She dillydallies before seriously looking for her child, wondering, instead, about why she cannot make herself get up before noon on Sundays, about a woman at the park whose son attends the same nursery school and is having problems, all while she could be looking for her child. When she finally finds the child, some time later, they return home, the mother seeming to take the experience of her lost child as just another day.

Nyasa lovebirds appear in a dream to the young mother, who is being harrassed by her husband.

Nyasa lovebirds appear in a dream to the young mother, who is being harassed by her husband.

A series of dreams adds additional insights into the mother’s psyche and high drama to the action.  The mother has no problem leaving her sleeping child alone at home at night while she goes out, not an unusual event.  She gets drunk and becomes the victim of physical abuse, all while her young daughter is asleep at home.  Soon she begins to notice that her daughter, who has just turned three, is throwing toys and possessions out the window of their apartment, colorfully decorating the roof below and creating both a personal and, eventually, a neighborhood crisis.  Other disasters also occur. The mother has frightening dreams about her child, her husband unexpectedly takes the child from daycare one afternoon, and one of the children at daycare dies at home.  Two people die in a fire, and the three-year-old reportedly threatens an infant at daycare with scissors.  The action is non-stop domestic activity, including potential disasters complicating the life of the little girl, now three years old.  The mother sees changes in the child but believes that it is because the child has finally become “keenly alive.”

The mother and child enjoy the idesea tree, with its red berries and its leaves not long after the train hits a suicide.

The mother and child enjoy the idesia tree, with its red berries and its leaves, not long after a suicide by train.

The novel consists of twelve chapters, published in Japan in monthly installments between April, 1978, and March, 1979, and the reader is able to see changes in both the mother and child over the course of the year.  One issue which a contemporary female reader may have with this book, despite its sensitive writing and thoughtful psychological study of a mother who is not part of the Japanese mainstream, is the question of the mother’s treatment of the young three-year-old and the stated behavior of this child, which often feels more characteristic of a child closer to seven or eight years old than two or three years old.  In addition, a reader cannot help but wonder how much of the behavior of this mother and child is characteristic of Japanese society in general in the late 1970s and how much is aberrant.  The life of the mother as a child herself is a mystery here, so her lack of identification with her child is never really explained, leaving the reasons for her emotional coldness a mystery.  Beautifully translated by Geraldine Harcourt, with some stunning passages related to nature – the one subject about which the mother seems to feel strongly –  the novel is filled with thoughtful symbolism which does not intrude, and intense, emotional scenes which will wring the hearts of the many mothers and fathers who read it.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on http://www.desfemmes.fr/

The Japanese zelkova tree, a variety of elm, completely obsesses the mother when she first arrives at the park she will share with her daughter.  https://www.alamy.com

Nyasa lovebirds appear in a dream to the young mother, who is being harrassed by her husband.  https://www.hbw.com/

The mother and child enjoy the idesia tree, with its red berries and its leaves, not long after a train hits a suicide. http://auckland-west.co.nz

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Japan, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Yuko Tsushima
Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Date Published: 02/12/2019
ISBN: 978-0374273217
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“Francis broke into their circle with his plate of food.  They were talking about the Tampa [a container ship which has picked up 433 refugees].  Suddenly everyone is an expert on boat people.  Everyone.  Pass the plate.  Of course we came by boats, too.  Can I have one of those toothpicks? But it was a different kind of boat.  A serviette?…We shouldn’t let any more in….  Can you go get me a beer, son?” – Bob, from across the road, in 2001.

51E0ahdzwrL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Australian author Felicity Castagna focuses here on general immigration issues facing Australia, much like immigration issues here in the US.  Without taking sides, the author depicts two successive generations of the Martone family which itself came to Australia from “outside” – in their case, from Calabria in the toe of Italy.  In the Preface, the author sets the time in 1967, and the Australian Prime Minister has recently disappeared while swimming.  No trace of him has ever been found, the author implying later that the many rescued refugees on the Tampa in 2001 would have met that same fate if they had not been rescued from their sinking ship.  In this somewhat awkward introduction to the novel,  Antonio Martone, a recent immigrant, is further described as standing in his new home in 1967, outside of Sydney, thinking about how his future has materialized.  Looking from 1967 into Antonio’s future in 2001, the author then informs the reader, that Antonio “is not yet the Antonio Martone who becomes so famous for a brief moment in [future] history when his own existential crisis coincides with that of a nation that can not decide whether to admit a Norwegian container ship named the MV Tampa and its cargo of four hundred thirty-three refugees who had escaped a sinking ship.”

The MV Tampa, a container ship, rescued 433 refugees from their sinking ship. Photo by Remi Jouan

The MV Tampa, a container ship, rescued 433 refugees from their sinking ship. Photo by Remi Jouan

In another brief flash forward, the author also reminds the reader of the September 11, 2001, crash of two planes into the Twin Towers in New York City, a terrorist event seemingly unconnected to the immigration problem here, and tells us that Australian photos of Antonio holding a gun and staring blankly from Australian newscasts occurred between the Tampa event on August 26, 2001, and the Twin Towers event on September 11, 2001. By this time Martone is an old man, in the news for the first time.  After this confusing introduction set in two time periods, the real “action,” begins in Chapter 1 on August 31, 2001, in Sydney, about a week after the Tampa crisis began.  Francis, Antonio’s bricklayer son, is fending off questions from everyone about his father’s bizarre behavior at a very recent but undescribed event.

Refugees sit on deck of the Tampa,surrounded by shipping containers.

Refugees sit on deck of the Tampa, surrounded by shipping containers.

Antonio is, at this time, about sixty and unemployed, the result of a construction accident which has left him on crutches, with one leg and one arm almost useless.  His close friend Nico died in the accident, an event which has dominated Antonio’s life because Nico’s death involved two immigrants who may not have done their jobs properly at the construction site. Rose, Antonio’s wife, is keeping an eye on Antonio, who seems to be losing his grip on reality.  Antonio, however, has no clue that Rose is a real, thinking person with her own ideas, despite the fact that she has lived apart from him for two years.  Son Francis and his pals, Jesus and Charbel, all in their early twenties, are, as usual, out on the town getting drunk, trying to escape their daily lives, which gradually unfold, and Claire, Antonio and Rose’s daughter, is working in a bookshop while pretending to be teaching.  The Tampa connection is frail to non-existent, thematically, in the early parts of the novel as author Castagna establishes the identities of the key characters.

Nissen huts where the first generation of refugees lived in the 1960s.

Nissen huts where the first generation of Australian refugees, like Antonio, lived in the 1960s.

As the reader learns the background and history of all the main characters over the past thirty years, s/he sees how they have become the people they are.  Most of the older generation here in 2001 are immigrants who have adapted to their new lives in Australia through hard work, while the second generation has known no other home and has grown up with much more freedom of choice.  When the cultural differences between the generations are added to the usual mix of problems between parents and children, the divide between the generations becomes exceptionally large.  Antonio does not understand either of his children, nor does he realize that their lives are governed by the society in which they now live, different from his own background and culture.  He explains, “You grieve for your children from the moment they are born. Not so much because you have lost them but because they are always changing and you can’t get back all those different versions of what they once were.”  In addition, his old friends, are still working, while he can no longer work, and he does not see them very often.  He feel alone, rejected.

Protests for and against the admission of the 433 Tampa refugees into Australia occurred in many cities.

Protests for and against the admission of the 433 Tampa refugees into Australia occurred in many cities.

A man who obviously reacts to events emotionally, rather than one who thinks out his choices, his decision to act publicly in response to what he sees as the current immigration crisis is not surprising, nor is the reaction from his family.  Rose is aware that “he was beginning to crack some time ago, but now he was splitting wide open.”  He believes he has lost his two children, in addition to  friend Nico, his coterie of other friends, and his wife, and he becomes obsessed with the news he sees on television about the Tampa refugees wanting to land, an eventuality with which he can no longer cope.  A failed attempt to reconnect with his son adds to Antonio’s misery, just as Rose’s inability to reconnect with daughter Clare adds a sad note.

Author Felicity Castagna was a finalist for the Miles Franklin Award, Australia's most prestigious, for NO MORE BOATS.

Author Felicity Castagna was a finalist for the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s most prestigious, for NO MORE BOATS.

Those looking for a detailed story about immigration and/or the Norwegian container ship, the MV Tampa, with its four hundred thirty-three refugees will find little information about that in this novel.  No More Boats focuses firmly on the views and lives of those refugees and their families already in Australia as Australia deals with the social emergency caused by this ship’s recent arrival in Australian waters.  The long saga of the Tampa (see link)  is so complicated and involves so many other governments and territories that it is easy to see why the author has avoided delving into it to any degree, while the references to 9/11 and the Twin Towers disaster feel gratuitous.  The novel has much to recommend it, in terms of its sensitivity to successive generations of immigrants and the changes which make their lives so different from the lives of their parents.  The characterizations feel real and honest.  If  the thematic emphasis, time line, and publicity had focused more on the idea of change within the immigrant community as they consider the issues of the Tampa refugees, omitting references to the 9/11 horrors, the novel would have felt more coherent, thematically.

PHOTOS.  The MV Tampa, a container ship, rescued 433 refugees from their sinking ship. Photo by Remi Jouan.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/

The refugees on the Tampa spent most of their time sitting on the deck of the container ship, awaiting admission to a new country. https://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/

Nissen huts provided housing for the first generation of Australian refugees, like Antonio, in the 1960s.  http://www.abc.net.au/

Antonio gets caught up in the emotionalism of the controversy surrounding the possible admission of the 433 refugees on the Tampa.  https://www.greenleft.org.au/

Author Felicity Castagna was a finalist for the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s most prestigious, for No More Boatshttp://bellingenwritersfestival.com.au/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Australia, Historical, Social and Political Issues, Tampa
Written by: Felicity Campagna
Published by: Europa
Date Published: 02/26/2019
ISBN: 978-1609455095
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Tanguy Viel–ARTICLE 353

“Nobody wants to fall overboard fully clothed into the ocean anywhere in the world, even close to shore – it’s such a surprise for the body to find itself in this new element.  One moment, the man is on a bench in a boat, chatting at the stern rail while rigging his lines and the next he’s in another world, with gallons of salt water, numbing cold, and the weight of wet clothes making it hard to swim.”

cover article 353With this opening paragraph, author Tanguy Viel is off and running with a propulsive story which never lets down and never quits until the last possible moment, when its ending comes as a relief or an irony to the involved reader.  Set in Finistere, a depressed waterfront community in Brittany in the late 1990s, a man stands before a judge, trying to explain how and why he has killed another man aboard that man’s own Merry Fisher boat, and then returned home to await the inevitable arrival of the local police a few hours later.  When he sees them arriving, he cannot help but admit that he “wouldn’t have done anything different…I would have done the same thing, heaved Antoine Lazenec overboard the same way and brought the boat back in the same way, following the channel to the yacht harbor while respecting the green and red buoys like railroad signals…”  The killer, Martial Kermeur, is anxious to set the record straight, and he is impressed that this judge is “thirty, at most” and really seems to want to hear him out.  In descriptive and involving prose, Kermeur describes his thoughts – “no they weren’t thoughts, images maybe…still whirling around…as if I were a cormorant aloft on a shifting breeze, scanning the sea for a tiny shadow or glint that would justify my diving to catch something, anything, so long as it was a place to begin….” And then suddenly, he sees the whole picture and begins:  “It’s about a run-of-the-mill swindle, Your Honor, that’s all.”

Author Tanguy Viel.

Author Tanguy Viel.

Establishing the background of his isolated community for the reader (since the judge would, of course, already know it), Martial Kermeur states his belief that if the town had been bigger and more connected to the real world, that they would have recognized the victim, Antoine Lazenec, for what he truly was, a swindler.  Lazenec’s arrival in his cream-colored Porsche 911 was “like a hand reaching out to pull us from the waves,” and his big plans to buy the local chateau and the land around it and develop it are an exciting possibility for the five thousand “somewhat tired” people living on the peninsula where “heaven’s been hard on us for a long time.”  More than eighty percent of the workers at the large Arsenal shipyard have, in fact, been laid off in the past three years, and no new businesses have taken its place.  With good layoff bonuses for the former workers, many “guys who look too young to be retired” have become fishermen with their own boats.  Kermeur has become a caretaker for the estate of the chateau, living there in his own cottage, but he dreams of having his own Merry Fisher boat some day.  Lazenec’s arrival with his big plans comes at a time when some of the former shipyard workers still have layoff bonuses to spend, perhaps participating in the action of the new “seaside resort.”

The 1990 Polestar 911 Porsche, the car which Lazenec used upon his arrival at Finistere.

The 1990 Polestar 911 Porsche, the car which Lazenec used upon his arrival at Finistere.

All this information is revealed in the first thirty pages of this novella, and it is from this point on that many readers will become so involved with the characters and the predicament of Kermeur and others in the community that they will read the entire book nonstop.  I have quoted more here than I usually do in reviews to give a sense of the author’s intensely involving use of detail, especially in making Kermeur feel real and likable despite his obvious crime.  Kermeur, of course, in addition to being caught up in some action beyond his control, is also a weak man, often convincing himself to give in when that seems to be the easiest choice.  When he is flattered by Lazenec, who builds him up when talking about the future of the building project “at maturity,” Kermeur admits “something in me was swelling with pride or, I don’t know, sovereignty,” as Lazenec continues to plant seeds in his brain about the future.  Ultimately, Kermeur admits, “It was as if the captain who was supposed to be living with me in my brain had abandoned the ship even before the wreck began.   Maybe he was on some distant rock, his eyes wild….”  Still, Kermeur remains a sympathetic character because he is so vulnerable, so hopeful, and so desperate for respect within his family and his community, a combination rife with potential disaster.

The Merry Fisher, the boat which all the former workers at the Arsenal Shipyard wanted to buy with their layoff bonuses.

The Merry Fisher, the boat which all the former workers at the Arsenal Shipyard wanted to buy with their layoff bonuses.

Kermeur’s late awareness of both Lazenec’s manipulations combined with his own feelings of powerlessness in the face of Lazenec’s effects on the community at large, stimulate empathy in the reader, despite the fact that the story line itself verges on sentimentality and sometimes feels over-written.  The fast pacing and the careful use of flashbacks to release background material, which effectively increase the drama as the novel progresses, keep the reader totally involved and focused on the progression of the inevitable disaster. The dramatic tension increases as the reader becomes aware of the book’s almost allegorical parallels with some current, well-known scams and scammers.  And as the fallout from Lazenec’s “business plan” affects more and more citizens, the situation begins to sound like contemporary TV news with all its headlines.  Viel cleverly keeps the story and its characters paramount, however, and leaves it to the reader to draw the obvious, wider conclusions, as individuals whom the readers comes to know become – naively – more and more entangled in the horrors which ultimately affect their lives.  As the killer, Kermeur, and the judge confront each other from different points of view, the reader cannot help but think of some of these parallels and “what-ifs” on a larger scale than the limited setting of this book.

The spectre of jail dominates much of the action and the lives of some of the characters here.

The specter of jail dominates much of the action and the lives of some of the characters here.

The conclusion will be celebrated by some readers and reviled by others.  Author Viel has created an absorbing and honest look at a situation with, perhaps, no “right” answer, at least not one which will satisfy all readers.  The best aspect of Viel’s writing is that he ends the book at exactly the right time, keeping it short and pertinent, and not expanding into all the what-ifs which some authors insist on.  His descriptive style and ability to create memorable images should make this one of the favorites of international fiction fans and a huge hit with book clubs throughout the country.

Photos.  The author photo appears on https://www.lairedu.fr

The 1990 Polestar 911 Porsche, the car which Lazenec used upon his arrival at Finistere, was a sign that Lazenec was not like all the people in Finistere which he was trying to impress.  https://www.automobilesreview.com/

Many of the laid off workers from the Arsenal worked to purchase a Merry Widow boat for use as a fishing boat as a way to support their families.  https://www.sea-ventures.co.uk/

The specter of jail dominates much of the action and the lives of some of the characters here.  http://clipart-library.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, France, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Tanguy Viel
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 03/12/2019
ISBN: 978-1590519332
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note:  Peter Carey is a two-time WINNER of the Booker Prize, three-time WINNER of Australia’s Miles Franklin Award for Best Novel of the Year, and two-time WINNER of the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

“The police…hated us.  They knew what the [racing] rule book would not admit, that the drivers were all maniacs, gathered to race, to burn each other off, to ‘do the ton,’ to get ahead, to make up time, to sometimes create breathing space for adjustments and repairs, but always, no matter what they said in interviews, to make the other fellow ‘eat my dust.’ ” – Willie Bachhuber, “navigator” for Titch Bobs in Australia’s Redex Trial, 1954.

coverAs soon as I saw the announcement that Australian author Peter Carey had published a new novel, his fourteenth in thirty-six years, I knew I would read it, just as I have read and enjoyed six other Carey novels.  I have just finished reading it, and I did, eventually, enjoy and even admire much of it, but I read the first twenty-five pages three times before I was able to get a sense of who the initial speakers are, how they are connected, what the setting is, and where this book will be going.  Even now I see the plot as consisting of several loosely connected parts, instead of reflecting several different aspects of the same themes and a strong sense of direction and interconnection.  When I finally read some of the professional reviews today, I saw a similar dichotomy among professional reviewers.  Alex Preston in the Guardian, states that this is Carey’s “best novel in years, maybe decades.”  Ron Charles in the Washington Post, however, refers to the “more than a hundred pages of fairly aimless preparations” and suggests that while some “prescient readers” might pick up hints of the drama to come, that others “will probably jump out of this slow-moving plot before it reaches the main event.”  He especially regrets this because “Carey eventually arrives at a profound and poignant story.”

author photoThe novel opens with Irene Bobs talking about her family, her husband, her two small children, his family, and her sister.  She has just found a decrepit house with spacious property for rent in Bacchus Marsh, outside Melbourne, where they can live while her husband Titch develops a used car business at the back of the property.  Her new next-door neighbor is a fair-haired bachelor who likes kids, but she decides not to be too kind to him because  “Everything complicated in life begins with kindness.” The bachelor, Willie Bachhuber, of German heritage, is a “chalk-and-talker,” a teacher who grew up in a parsonage and who is now being sought by bailiffs for suspending a rowdy student from a school window.  Willie is a student of maps and geography and makes some money by participating regularly in a popular radio quiz show.  Eventually, he reveals his past, including his marriage to Adelina, which ended dramatically after the birth of “his” son, a boy who is clearly black, while he is blonde.

The Curta Calculator, purchased by Bachhuger, will help him figure the statistics regarding their trip and its timing.

The Curta Calculator, purchased by Bachhuber, will help him figure the statistics regarding their trip and its timing.

The first plot line, lasting for almost half the novel, begins when Titch decides to gain publicity for his incipient car dealership by participating in the Redex Trial in 1954, not a race, but a competition involving almost three hundred participants who plan to circumnavigate the whole Australian continent – all sixty-five-hundred miles around it.  The winner is the team with the highest number of points gained and the fewest penalties.  There are no big prizes, except for the immeasurable positive publicity for the winner.  Titch and Irene will be the two drivers for their team, and their new neighbor, Willie Bachhuber, will, with his map-making expertise, become the navigator as they prepare their Holden sedan for the long trip and the hazards they will face, not least of which are the deliberate hazards for which their competition is directly responsible.  Titch’s father Dan Bobs, the biggest trickster of all, uses gelignite to scare his competition, including his own family.

The model Holden sedan which the Bobs family and Willie drive in the Redex Trials in 1954.

This is the model Holden sedan which the Bobs family and Willie drive in the Redex Trials in 1954.

At about the halfway point, Carey introduces what becomes the most absorbing and important aspect of this novel.  For the first time in his writing career, Carey confronts the subject of the treatment of Australia’s aboriginal people, the theft of their lands, and the attempts to destroy all remnants of their culture.  Introduced when Irene finds the tiny skull of a baby boy with a bullet hole in what appears to have been an open graveyard, this discovery is clearly on the site of a massacre of some sort.  The baby’s bones become a symbol throughout the remainder of the book, and when Irene tries to leave the delicate skull with the police, no one will take it – they have “no room to store it.” Within a few chapters, “Doctor Battery,” an aborigine, volunteers to help the team by fixing their problem battery, and it becomes increasingly clear that Willie Bachhuber’s background as an adoptee does not match the German background suggested by his pastor father.  Other non-white characters become part of the action, and Willie, the unemployed and “wanted man,” is eventually persuaded to run a school in a cave in a secluded community of aborigines.  He is reluctant to stay there long because the place feels to him like a kind of prison, the residents being “exiles in the land….denied the meaning of their lives.”

Car participating in the Redex Trial in 1953.

Car participating in the Redex Trial in 1953.

The wild Redex Trial and its outcome, the marital difficulties of Titch and Irene, the mysterious background of Willie, the incipient love stories throughout, the criminal social element which enters the plot with Titch’s father and his friends, the misunderstandings, and the whole setting provide some simple excitement and interest, though some readers will be hoping for much more.  The setting and Carey’s own feelings about the country’s history regarding the indigenous population, displaced and consigned to the equivalent of exile in their own country, are clearly very real, however, and very important to the author.  In addition, Carey himself grew up in the same town, Bacchus Marsh, where Titch and Irene are living and building a car dealership.  His own father was a car dealer, and Carey’s familiarity with that community makes that setting feel vibrant.  Irene’s discovery of the baby’s skull with the bullet hole is a moving scene and brings the novel’s focus into a new, more complex arena at about the halfway point, giving real life to the conclusion.  Ultimately, some readers may feel that the main characters are not as well developed as some of Carey’s characters in other novels, and that this novel lacks the coherence and depth of those novels. Still, this new work does come alive in several areas, and Carey is so talented, overall, that many readers will forgive the possible missteps along the way.


The Kororoit Bridge entering Melbourne marks the beginning of the end for the Redex Trials.

The Kororoit Bridge entering Melbourne marks the beginning of the end at the Redex Trials.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://quotesgram.com

The Curta Calculator, purchased by Bachhuber, will help him figure the statistics regarding their trip and its timing.  https://www.jaapsch.net/

Titch and Irene, and occasionally Willie, drive this model of the GMC Holden sedan for the Redex Trials.  https://www.autoevolution.com/

Authentic photo from the Redex Trials of 1953.  http://www.clubvw.org.au/ 

The old brick Kororoit Bridge entering Melbourne marks the beginning of the end for the Redex Trials. https://www.flickr.com/    Photo by Dave.

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Australia, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Peter Carey
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Date Published: 02/27/2019
ISBN: 978-0525520177
Available in: Ebook Hardcover


Note:  This novel will be released on March 5, and may be ordered on-line now for automatic delivery upon its release.

“While the director of the sanitarium was performing [a] demonstration, my eyes had fallen once more upon that ponderous book…Witchcraft and Medicine.  The title had given me an idea, an idea which, like the key piece in a jig-saw puzzle, suddenly made clear in my mind the pattern behind the whole bewildering series of events.  It had been a puzzle for fools, and I saw now that it was its very foolishness which had saved it from being absurdly obvious.” – Peter Duluth, main character.

cover quentin puzzle for foolsWritten in 1936 and out of print for thirty years, A Puzzle for Fools has now been resurrected as part of Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics series – and what a classic it is!  The novel, hugely successful when it was initially published, established “Patrick Quentin” as a popular writer, quite different from some of his contemporaries in that he was more interested in the psychology of his characters than many of his contemporaries, who were still following a predictable formula for their plots.  For Quentin, a pseudonym for Hugh Callingham Wheeler, in collaboration with Richard Wilson Webb, this is the first of nine novels featuring Peter Duluth, a main character who is not a genius and is not perfect.  Duluth is a man who has had a Broadway career, and he is still mourning the horrific death of his wife in a fire at the theatre two years ago.  For two years he has attempted to escape his memories of her death through alcohol, ultimately admitting himself to a psychiatric institution where he is attempting to get his life back under control.  Relatively normal when he is not drinking, he gets to know everyone at the institution, from the male patients in his wing and the women who gather with them for activities on weekends, to the employees and officials who make the institution successful.  He is about to get a workout on all levels as mysterious events begin to take a more ominous turn.

author photo wheelerg

Hugh Callingham Wheeler, the primary writer for the Peter Duluth book series, was also the playwright for A Little Night Music, Candide, and Sweeney Todd.

In some very obvious foreshadowing, Duluth tells the reader that he “had no idea then of the fantastic and horrible things which were so soon to happen in Doctor Lenz’s sanitarium…I did have a distinct impression that something was vitally wrong.  Even then I felt that behind all this madness there was method, [but it was] a problem far too intricate for my post-alcoholic brain.” As he establishes the atmosphere of the institution and its patients, he is obviously describing a place far different from the “insane asylums” that have deservedly achieved reputations for being more like prisons and penitentiaries at the time of this novel’s writing.  As Duluth puts it, “It wasn’t a sanitarium really.  It was just an expensive nuthouse for people like me who had lost control.”  Here, the patients involved in the story are people who are not insane but have difficulties with one or more aspects of their personalities.  One man is “one of the greatest conductors of our age,” but  has been frightened so badly by something that he cannot function.  Still another has narcolepsy, falling asleep without warning.  One hears spirit voices and even sees spirits.  A young woman suffers from melancholia, and another woman from kleptomania, able to pick someone’s pocket without their feeling anything.  In an interesting twist, the male and female patients socialize on Saturday nights, under the direction of the medical staff, their interactions affecting their perceptions and those of the staff. 

man in strait jacket

The body found at the institution was in a strait jacket like this one but was turned over to lie on its arms in pain for many hours. A rope around the neck was pulled tight by the legs.

The action begins when Duluth, trying to sleep one night without “sleeping powders,” hears a voice.  Three times it tells him “You’ve got to get away, Peter Duluth,” and it sounds like his own voice coming from the window.  When it then tells him that there is going to be a murder, Duluth panics and runs, finding his way to a nurse’s room where help is summoned.  It is Doctor Lenz, owner of the sanitarium, who decides to trust him with the fact that “there may be at this moment someone in the sanitarium who ought not to be here….[and] I do not doubt that there was something definite and actual behind your experience…This is not the first disturbing thing which has been reported to me recently….one of the patients [may be] deliberately causing this trouble for some crazy reason of his own.”  His best (terse) advice to Duluth is “Do not let anyone or anything persuade you that you are suffering under a delusion.  Good night.”  Duluth’s spirits are soon improved, of course, when he meets Iris Pattison, a beautiful young woman whose father lost all his money and then threw himself off the penthouse roof garden in front of her.  She’s been at the sanitarium ever since.  As Duluth suddenly finds himself feeling sorry for her, he also realizes that it is the first time in two years that he has felt sorry for anyone but himself, and he is determined to help Iris regain her spirits.

The mental institution which Duluth lived in may have resembled this one, at Worcester State (MA), formerly the Kirkbride Ruins.

The mental institution which Duluth lived in may have resembled this one, at Worcester State (MA), formerly the Kirkbride Ruins.

The night-time voices warning of murder become more frequent, and before long, a particularly grisly murder does take place.  A patient skilled in martial arts is found tied up in a strait-jacket, with a cord running from his neck to his ankles – forced to lie face down on his arms for hours before finally expiring on the premises.  Other threats, accompanied by significant and obvious foreshadowing, occur, as Duluth and the sanitarium owner team up and try to find the killer before he strikes again.  What results is one of the cleverest plots I’ve read in ages.  The reader does not know anything about the murderer’s motivations, and the only real clues are what the author has provided and what appears in the night-time messages given by the mysterious voices. While this novel does use psychology more ingeniously than was common for the period of its writing, the characterizations are relatively simple compared to what one normally sees in contemporary writing, and the reader has little to go on, even if one has kept a character list (highly recommended here).  I did find the detailed lead-up to the conclusion a bit too long, and perhaps that feeling distracted me.  As a result, I was totally blind-sided by the clever conclusion when it occurred, one of the best I’ve read in a long time!  The book may be a bit clumsy with its obvious foreshadowing and limited by what was known about psychology at that time, but it is a gem of plot design, one that lovers of traditional mysteries will not want to miss!  As the author tells us in the quotation at the beginning of this review, “it had been a puzzle for fools,” and I was certainly one of them.

The interior of the mental institution may have resembled this one at Danvers State Hospital in MA, which operated until 1992.

The interior of the mental institution may have resembled this one at Danvers State Hospital in MA, which operated until 1992.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on http://www.junglekey.co.uk

The man found dead in the straitjacket in the novel was forced to lie on his arms in pain for hours before he died. In this photo, the man in the straitjacket is Houdini.   https://www.ripleys.com

The mental institution which Duluth lived in may have resembled this one, at Worcester State (MA), formerly the Kirkbride Ruins.  https://www.danverslibrary.org

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Classic, United States, US Regional
Written by: Patrick Quentin
Published by: Penzler Publishers
Date Published: 03/05/2019
ISBN: 978-1613161258
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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