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“When Claude was in full flow, it was hard to disagree with her. “Masculine, feminine,” she said. “I can do all that. But neuter – that’s where I feel comfortable. I’m not going to be typecast or put in a box. Not ever. I’m always going to have a choice.” – Suzanne Malherbe.

cover never anyone but youIn a novel about the French intellectual elite who live confidently and proudly on the fringes of society in the early twentieth century, author Rupert Thomson explores the lives and loves of two such women who live on their own terms close to the margin of social acceptance. Avant-garde in their personal beliefs throughout their lives, they become close friends upon their first meeting  in 1909 when Lucie Schwob is fourteen and Suzanne Malherbe is seventeen. They come to be almost inseparable, and quickly develop very strong feelings, even sexual feelings, for each other. Of the two, Suzanne is more stable, with Lucie dealing with anorexia and other issues, and it is Suzanne, who, at Lucie’s father’s request, accompanies Lucie when she needs to go to a convalescent home for several weeks in an effort to recover from a suicide attempt.

rupert thomsonIronically, Suzanne and Lucie are actually aided in the development of their relationship when Lucie’s father and her institutionalized mother divorce, and he marries Suzanne’s widowed mother. Now stepsisters, the two can to be together all the time, without causing gossip. Traveling frequently between Nantes, Paris, and the island of Jersey, off the coast of France, for summer vacations, they explore their new lives “as sisters.” As they grow older, writer Lucie attends the Sorbonne, and artist Suzanne attends the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where they come into contact with the leaders of France’s many avant-garde movements, such as the surrealists and the Dadaists, becoming friends with writers Andre Breton and Robert Desnos, and exploring political philosophies of all varieties. Lucie eventually shaves her head and dresses as a man, full-time, announcing that henceforth she will be known as Claude Cahun, and Suzanne will be Marcel Moore. They experiment with Marxism, even as, inspired by Freud, they also practice automatic writing.  They become friends with Joan Miro, who compliments Marcel for his/her work, and both enjoy Salvador Dali. Soon they know many of the most important people involved in the avant-garde movements in Paris, while celebrating their lives and love for each other.  Claude has several more psychotic episodes during this time when life becomes too challenging.

Writer Robert Desnos, a surrealist whom Claude and Marcel see throughout three decades.

Writer Robert Desnos, a surrealist whom Claude and Marcel see throughout three decades.

All this biographical and historical information in the first part of the book, while necessary to set the stage for the rest of the book, feels somewhat academic – less personally involving than the rest of the novel – though it is exciting intellectually as it includes dozens of references to famous artists and writers, such at Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, and Salvador Dali, who add interest to the story. The chronology of the book parallels the lives of its real subjects, of course, and as the action develops and many famous and not-so-famous characters appear, I sometimes found myself waiting for the next famous person to make an appearance to provide some excitement. Additionally, Claude, throughout, is self-absorbed and psychologically damaged, and Marcel is so busy playing nursemaid, and in a sense, mother, that the true, deep characters of Lucie and Suzanne are not really clear until the midpoint of the book. This occurs when Claude and Marcel think about moving to the island of Jersey, off the coast of France, in 1937, a place they have known since they were teenagers. At this point, the book begins to catch fire and move forward powerfully and at great speed.

CahunAndMooreInMirrorsForWeb

Claude Cahun (top) and Marcel Moore (bottom)

Part Three, “Self Portrait in Nazi Uniform,” takes place largely on the island of Jersey, and when it is bombed, Claude and Marcel really hit their stride, with Claude, surprisingly, taking the lead in an effort to defeat the Nazis. Both are completely aware of what will happen if they are caught, but Claude, who has always seemed to embrace death, has no fear of it. S/he is willing to take great chances, hoping to make great differences in the waning war effort, however naïve she may be. Creating their own personas, fabricated, in part, from their experiences in the theatre, Claude and Marcel get close to some officers in the Nazi leadership, especially when part of their house is requisitioned. Their interactions with Nazis and with local residents on the island show them both to be heroic and clever for three full years. The Germans have twenty thousand men on an island of forty-thousand people, and they have the access to the food, leaving most of the people there are close to starving during that occupation. In addition, captured Russians, who raise the sympathies of Claude and Marcel have also been brought in as slaves, most of them regarding this sentence, rightly, as their death sentences.

Salvador Dali, a surrealist who likes some of the work of Suzanne/Marcel.

Salvador Dali, a surrealist who likes some of the work of Suzanne/Marcel.

Two short sections at the end bring the postwar years to a powerful conclusion and bring the time frame to 1970, showing the changes which time has wrought since the main chronology of the novel started in 1920. Here Thompson shows his control of his themes and his characters, veering in and out of reality and ghost worlds, mirrors and truth, and exploring the psychic worlds of both Claude and Marcel.   Marcel, a carer and “mother” figure, something which Claude has never otherwise experienced positively in his lifetime, continues to offer succor when it is needed and to follow up when Claude disappears, whereabouts unknown. Many readers may become frustrated with the behavior of Claude as s/he continues to act spontaneously, selfishly, often dangerously, despite the devotion of someone like Marcel. At times, when Claude attacks Marcel viciously, the reader yearns for Marcel to take a stand. Ultimately, however, no reader will ever doubt the depth of their love for each other or their willingness to sacrifice to maintain it.

Map-of-Channel-Islands

Channel Islands. Click to enlarge, Jersey is the island nearest St. Malo.

In a poignant moment late in her life, Marcel/Suzanne shares her thoughts with a young friend, “When you are old, no one can ever imagine what you were like when you were young. It’s as if you’ve always been old – or as though you’ve lived in two different lives, one of which seems made up and overblown, hard to believe. It will happen to you as well, of course, in time. But you probably don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”  Something for all of us to learn on several levels.

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

Robert Desnos, a surrealist author, is a friend of Claude and Marcel over three decades.  http://www.lelivrealamer.fr/?p=495

Claude Cahill (Lucie Schwob) and Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe) are shown here as they appeared during most of their lives together:  http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/

Salvador Dali enjoyed some of the work of Suzanne Malherbe.  https://www.biography.com

The map of Jersey in the Channel Islands shows Jersey as the island closest to France, and the largest one.  http://collarcitybrownstone.com

Gael Faye–SMALL COUNTRY

NOTE: This debut novel by Gael Faye was WINNER of the Prix Goncourt des Lyceens for 2016, one of France’s highest literary awards.

“I am haunted by the idea of returning. Not a day goes by without the country calling to me. A secret sound, a scent on the breeze, a gesture, sometimes silence is enough to stir my childhood memories. ‘You won’t find anything there, apart from ghosts and a pile of ruins,’ Ana keeps telling me… I listen and I believe her….So I put it out of my mind. I decide, once and for all, that I’m never going back. My life is here. In France.”

cover small country

Set in Burundi from 1992 – 1995, in the lead-up to that nation’s genocidal civil war, Small Country, for all its sad events, is far more a story of a child’s coming of age than it is a war story. The Prologue sets the tone, as a father tries to explain to his son the complex cultural differences among the people in his family and throughout the country. The Hutu, he explains, are the biggest of the three groups of residents; the Tutsis, their own family group, are a much smaller group; and the Twa pygmies, a third group, are the smallest number of all. He also explains that these people often have recognizable physical differences in height and facial structure, so their racial connections are sometimes physically obvious – and sometimes not, due to intermarriage. It is far more difficult for Papa to make son Gabriel understand why these groups often do not get along, since they all live in the same country, speak the same language, and have the same God. Making life even more complicated, the country is small and borders are “friendly.” People frequently marry and move into or out of neighboring countries at will.

author photoA further introduction, in italics, which the reader comes to identify with the adult Gabriel, comments on life twenty years later, as he muses about wanting to return to his country from Paris, where he has lived since he and his sister were sent into exile as civil war broke out in 1995, when he was thirteen. Though he is fluent in French and lives and works successfully in France, Gaby sees his life as “one long meandering…Nothing ignites my passion. There’s no fire in my belly.” On this day, however, he has received a mysterious phone call which he needs to discuss with his sister Ana, as he believes it to be a sign that he must return to Burundi – “to bring this obsessive story to an end, once and for all…to close the door.”

On a trip to Zaire, the famly sees an old kapok tree, which lead the father to talk about the business of kapok. The tree here is 800 years old.

On a trip to Zaire, the family sees an old kapok tree, which leads the father to talk about the business of kapok. The tree here is 800 years old.

The information in the two preceding paragraphs all appears in the first six pages of this remarkably astute and intense novel. Chapter One begins the actual narrative, Gabriel’s story, told in his own words, as a child in Burundi from ages ten to thirteen – a vibrant, positive story of growing up surrounded by friends and family from all ethnic groups during the key years which changed not only his life but the lives of everyone he knew. It is so full of personal detail and comes alive so fully that it is difficult to remember that this is fiction and not a memoir. The confusion is understandable. The author himself lived a life which paralleled Gaby’s in key elements during a happy childhood in Burundi in the years leading up to one of the bloodiest, most violent ethnic wars in history, before his eventual arrival in Paris, a city vastly different from Bujumbura.

The Livingstonr Stanley monument in Zaire, which the family sees on a weekend trip there.

The Livingstone Stanley monument in Zaire, which the family sees on a weekend trip there.

A key time in Gaby’s life, though he does not recognize it at the time, begins when he and his family take a trip to visit Jacques, a long-time friend, in Zaire in 1992. Mother and father have not spoken much for the past several weeks, and the border crossing, on its own, is difficult, with unruly crowds and hyperinflation causing unexpected problems. “In Mobutu’s Zaire, hyperinflation meant paying for a glass of water with banknotes of five million zaires.” People carrying wheelbarrows full of cash “pleaded for a few million zaires to help them survive the unfortunate consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall.” Papa ends up paying the bribes that all the border checks have really been about, arriving, finally, at Jacques’s house. The dinner meal is filled with tension. Jacques himself has been urged by his sister to join her in Belgium, which he has rejected, and he likewise rejects Papa’s suggestion that he come with them and settle in Bujumbura. Maman, who grew up in Rwanda, which is already dealing with a genocidal war between Tutsi and Hutu, likewise rejects his coming to Bujumbura.

The carcass of a VW Combi in the wasteland is the site of meetings between Gaby and four friends who regularly talk about their lives and their futures.

The carcass of a VW Combi in the wasteland is the site of meetings between Gaby and four friends who regularly talk about their lives and their futures.

When his mother leaves home, Gaby lives with the aftereffects, going to school and forming deep friendships with four other boys, sharing their ideas at a club they have established, which meets in the carcass of an abandoned VW Combi in a nearby wasteland. As time passes, he and the four other boys who have been his best friends for years begin to think differently – not about girls and sex – but in terms of politics and the obligations they have regarding the future of their country. A major event, the election of a new president, pits the Hutus against the Tutsis. Gaby and his family are Tutsis, and they are on the winning side, the first time that the Burundian president has not been a member of the military. As Gaby tells his female pen pal in France, “I don’t think this job will be as much of a headache for him as it was for his predecessors….They never knew whether to make peace or wage war.”

Map of Burundi and its neighbors. Zaire, as lthe country was known in the earl 1990s,. is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Map of Burundi and its neighbors. Zaire, as the country was known in the early 1990s, is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Gradually, reality becomes ever more violent.  Hutu extremists are trying to take over, and people fear widespread slaughter. The shooting down of the plane carrying both the president of Burundi and the president of Rwanda, and the blaming of the Tutsis lead to roadblocks, murders of families, and the inability of Tutsis like Gaby and family to leave their homes. Problems come to a head as thousands of people die, and when two of Gaby’s friends call a meeting of their group to discuss a murder, Gaby decides that he no longer has any choice about taking a stand. Twenty years later, he fills in the details of what has happened between 1995, when he left for France, and 2015, when he looks back on his life trying decide whether to return to Burundi in response to the summons he has received in the opening paragraphs.

Beautifully organized and developed; sensitively depicted in terms of the human costs, both physical and psychological; vibrantly alive in its historical setting and atmosphere; enlightening in its insights into the lives the children affected; and grand in its scope and emotional impact, Small Country is now at the top of my Favorites List for the year.  It is a gem.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on http://www.lezardes-et-murmures.com

On a trip to Zaire, the family sees an old kapok tree, which leads the father to talk about the business of kapok. The tree here is 800 years old.  https://www.pinterest.com

On the same trip to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), the family sees the monument to Livingstone and Stanley:  http://www.flickriver.com/

Gaby and his friends form a club which meets in the carcass of an old VW Combi in the wasteland on a regular basis.  https://www.pinterest.com/

Map of Burundi and is neighbors, including, on the west, the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire.  http://legacy.lib.utexas.edu

SMALL COUNTRY
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Coming-of-age, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Gael Faye
Published by: Hogarth
Date Published: 06/05/2018
ISBN: 978-1524759872
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note: This novel was WINNER of the Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger Award for 2017, WINNER of the Glass Key Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel, WINNER of the Danish Academy of Crime Writers’ Palle Rosenkrantz Prize, and NAMED Best Crime Novel of the Year by both the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers and the Finnish Academy of Crime Writers.

“In his prime, Lars Martin Johansson was known among his colleagues as ‘the man who could see around corners,’ as well as a walking encyclopaedia when it came to violent crime….He also had an uncanny ability to remember numbers and was often able to recall the case numbers of the investigation a colleague in need was looking for. Now something had happened inside his head…and he was unable to remember the murder of Yasmine, apparently only nine years old when she was raped and strangled….”

cover dying detectiveFew other recent mystery thrillers have accumulated anything like the number of prizes and awards as The Dying Detective by Swedish author Leif GW Persson, a former adviser to the Swedish Ministry of Justice, a renowned psychological profiler, and currently a professor at the Swedish National Police Board. This novel, recently released in English, attests not only to Persson’s knowledge of criminal behavior and criminal justice, but also to his ability to create intriguing but decidedly “normal” characters and show them in situations which challenge all their abilities. By using characters who are not exotic, however clever and talented they may be in their knowledge of police procedure, Persson allows the reader to identify with them in a series of conundrums which continue without letup for the entire novel as the main character and his associates try to catch a terrible killer. The author obviously recognizes that many horrific, bloody crimes do occur and that many good people are hurt or killed, but he does not describe events likely to horrify the reader with their violence or to ratchet up the fear and suspense for its own sake. His plots and his characters are tough. They make mistakes, and the reader will often become angry with them for their flawed decisions and their easy reliance on bureaucracy to delay or justify decisions they may not want to make, but even the worst of the worst characters here feel more human than many of the characters in over-the-top thrillers by Jo Nesbo and Henning Mankell.

Author Leif GW Persson

As the novel opens, Persson’s main character, Lars Martin Johansson, recently retired, has just ordered a high-fat, high-calorie meal at a favorite local hot-dog kiosk, when suddenly he feels that “someone must have driven an ice-pick into the back of his neck. No rumbling forewarning of an ordinary headache, but a sharp, searing pain that tore through the back of his head…Then nothing but darkness and silence.” When he regains consciousness in the hospital, two days later, he finds that his right hand and arm are numb, and that he has had a stroke. His young neurologist, Dr. Ulrika Stenholm, tells him that though his stroke may be one health problem, his real problem is his heart, and that he will need medications and a complete change of lifestyle to survive – he must lose weight, eat less, avoid stress, and start exercising, all behaviors alien to Johansson.

Police Headquarters, Stockholm

Police Headquarters, Stockholm

While Stenholm and Johansson are talking, she asks him some questions about the past – twenty-five years ago – revealing in conversation that her father was a vicar and her older sister a prosecutor who always considered Johansson her idol. Her father has died recently, and near the end of his life, he revealed something that had tormented him for over twenty years. One of his elderly parishioners had confessed back then that she knew the identity of the person who had raped and murdered a little neighbor girl, age nine, named Yasmine Ermegan.  As a clergyman, her father was unable to reveal any of this to the police or anyone else. The murder, in 1985, now twenty-five years later, has just reached the end of the statute of limitations, and though the law has been changed for later cases, the murderer of Yasmine will always be beyond trial, even if he can be identified. Ulrika has been suffering on her father’s behalf, hoping that somehow the murderer can be found and the death of the little girl can be vindicated.

VW Golf, like the one that features in Yasmine's murder.

VW Golf, like the one that features in Yasmine’s murder.

As Johannson recuperates and investigates this cold case, it is put into context in time and place, noting the reasons that it was not investigated seriously or for long.  When he asks Ulrika Stenholm if her father left any papers behind, she offers to bring them to him, and he gets started on the case. He soon learns that his best friend, Bo Jarnebring, worked on that investigation, and that the officer in charge of the case, Evert Backstrom, was, according to Jarnebring, a “cretinous moron” who messed it up. Gradually, officials from all the different police departments and boards which investigated the death of Yasmine twenty-five years ago connect with Johansson, some on their own and on their own time, at the same time that Yasmine’s family and her neighbors are also re-investigated. Details of the crime and the evidence, both existing and new, slowly emerge. A red VW Golf was seen in the area where Yasmine lived, but its owner was never identified. The exact place of the murder was unknown, and the relationships, many of them overlapping, among Yasmine’s family, neighbors, friends, and employees quickly expand the reader’s interest in the case and dramatically increase its complexity. New evidence is uncovered, even as overlaps also occur among Johansson, his family and friends, and their relationships.

One physical clue which appears is a Monchichi hair clip, like this one.

One physical clue which appears is a hair clip featuring Monchichi.

This is the best organized and developed mystery novel I have read in years. It is complex enough that I found it helpful to create a character list, but each character has a clear place in the action, which develops in meticulous order. Persson is careful to include identification clues for the reader, as these characters reappear, and he is particularly good at distributing character sketches and summaries which reveal additional information about some of these characters throughout the novel. The image of an intricate puzzle, though trite, is unavoidable, as Persson adds little piece to little piece, developing and filling in the story of Yasmine and her murder, along with the people in her life who have survived her. No detail is too small to be important here, and all are tied up and connected, eventually. The conclusion is a classic, resolving some of the questions still left with only three pages to go, while also, importantly, leaving some questions without direct answers. Persson trusts that his readers have paid attention. The final scene is not open to question if that is the case.

Skokloster Castle, near where Yasmine's body was found.

Skokloster Castle, near where Yasmine’s body was found.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://sv.stories.newsner.com

The police headquarters in Stockholm, now replaced, are from:  http://www.gpsmycity.com/

A VW Golf was seen in the neighborhood where Yasmine was killed, and it was never identified at the time of the killing.  http://www.autocarbase.com/

A Monchichi hair grip, discovered in the modern investigation, offered some clues about the killing.  https://www.pinterest.co.uk/crazymariamlr/fuzzy-wuzzy-monchichi/

THE DYING DETECTIVE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Nordic Noir, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, Sweden
Written by: Leif GW Persson
Published by: Vintage Crime, Black Lizard
Date Published: 04/17/2018
ISBN: 978-0307950369
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note: William Trevor, the “elder statesman of Irish literature,” received the highest honor possible from Aosdana, an elite Irish association of creative artists, in 2014. He is also a Knight of the British Empire for his contributions to literature. In 2016 he died at his home in England at the age of eighty-eight, leaving this collection of stories behind.

“Camona Street is not in my parish,” [the priest] said, “but even so it was my church [Emily Vance] came to – perhaps because it is out of the way and ill-attended. I went to see [her landlords], I felt I had to. In the four years she had been their lodger, they told me she’d had no visitors, had not once used the telephone, received no letters, and I realized that this [girl] had found some kind of sanctuary in the corner of a shadowy pew in a church.” – from “The Unknown Girl.”

book coverIt is not an overstatement to say that in his Last Stories, published posthumously, Irish author William Trevor has presented a collection of stories so powerful and so memorable that many readers will consider this to be his life’s masterpiece. Here he illustrates the observations he has made during his lifetime regarding how people face and adapt to three of life’s biggest challenges – love, memories of the past, and death, with all the emotional involvements that those subjects embrace. Love, as we see it here, can be pure passion, but it can also include friendship, simple acquaintance, admiration from afar, and hope for the future. Our memories, Trevor shows, are often affected by our conscience, sense of guilt, regret, secrets, dreams, and the amazing ability of humans to “edit” their memories to make them more palatable. Death, of course, can be sudden, long-awaited, accidental, or intentional. Frequently, these themes overlap.

author photo

Author William Trevor

Despite the complex themes, Trevor’s stories remain firmly grounded in earthy narratives connecting very real characters, most of whom create their own worlds to help them deal with personal issues. In the opening story, for example, “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil,” Miss Elizabeth Nightingale, in her early fifties, meets a new pupil, a boy whose first notes on the piano tell her that she is in the presence of genius. Miss Nightingale, independent, is single but knows well about love, and she is secure in the memories of her happiness with her lover. She quickly discovers that each time the boy genius comes for a lesson that one of the pieces of art that she has collected – a porcelain swan, a snuff box, an earring – disappears, but she knows that if she says anything to the boy that he will stop coming for lessons. She must create for herself a universe in which his thefts will become irrelevant or she will lose the memories of “paradise” that his playing evokes for her.

The Piano Teacher's Pupil plays like a genius but steals items from the art collection of his teacher during each lesson.

The Piano Teacher’s Pupil plays like a genius but steals items from the art collection of his teacher during each lesson.

The stories here appear to have been arranged in order from least to most complex and from short to long. In the second story, “The Crippled Man,” Martine, a young woman who has survived an abusive marriage, is working and living with a disagreeable old man, crippled since birth, who craves companionship and stories from her. A pair of Polish immigrants has arranged to paint the old man’s house, and after negotiating payment in cash, they begin work, stopping for over a week when a long stretch of rainy weather makes painting impossible. When they return to work, Martine is “different,” and the old man is not around. Without saying a word about the actual events that might have taken place in their absence, they and Martine negotiate the completion of the painting job and its payment, each party comfortable in the thought that the other party will remain silent about secrets which have become clear to the reader. Questions of guilt and innocence and the ability of people to manipulate outcomes add depth to this story.

Little Venice at Regent's Park, where Etheridge spent time escaping from his troubles. Mario Ricca, Photography.

Little Venice at Regent’s Park, where Etheridge spent time escaping from his troubles. Mario Ricca, Photography.

“Mrs. Crasthorpe,” contains three story lines. In one, Mrs. Crasthorpe is a woman with secrets. She has just buried the husband she married for his money and has followed his instructions regarding his funeral. She is the only mourner present. A second story line concerns a man named Etheridge and Janet, his wife, who is dying. The third line introduces Derek, Mrs. Crasthorpe’s mentally ill son Devon, who lives in an institution. Eventually, after the death of Etheridge’s wife, Mrs. Crasthorpe sees him and sets her sights on him. Trevor’s story includes some of the ironic humor here that he has been famous for in his earlier work, as Mrs. Crasthorpe’s hopes for a relationship differ dramatically from his, due in large part to her inability to see the truth and to understand herself.  Fate ties her, her son Derek, and Etheridge together and highlights their different views of reality, their memories, and their ability to adapt to life’s vicissitudes.

Giotto's "Lamentation," from which the artist is studying and painting the angels.

Giotto’s “Lamentation,” from which the amnesiac artist in “Giotto’s Angels” is studying and painting the angels.

An unusual shift in focus comes with “Giotto’s Angels,” the story of a man who has suffered “an amnesiac episode.” He is not sure of his name, has no wallet or identification, and does not know where the key in his pocket goes. Eventually, the reader learns that he is Constantine Naylor, an art restorer by profession, who works in a warehouse he has managed to stumble his way into. There he works on a copy of the angels in Giotto’s “Lamentation,” fascinated by the angels in action. A prostitute tries to pick him up, follows him to the warehouse, and, “seeing money here,” spends a quiet, sexless night in the warehouse with him. Later she commits a crime for which she is instantly regretful. Her own fate as a human lies in the balance as she tries to reconcile what she has done with what she feels, one of Trevor’s main topics.

Large house similar to the description of Old Grange on the moors, where "An Idyll in Winter" takes place.

Large house similar to the description of Old Grange on the moors, where “An Idyll in Winter” takes place.

“An Idyll in Winter,” one of the last, longest, and most fully developed, tells the story of a twelve-year-old girl tutored for a summer by a twenty-two-year-old man, who, ten years later, reconnects with her. Memory is the big story here, and the ways in which each deals with the past – and eventually the future – are intriguing in their differences. One of the best stories in a collection which has no weak stories, this story, like the others, captures the reader’s attention because it is beautifully paced, provides new insights into old themes, and develops them in new ways. As Mary Bella, in “Idyll in Winter” says to her former tutor, “How slightly we know ourselves until something happens…How blurred the edges are: what we can do, what in the end we can’t. What nags, what doesn’t.” This extraordinary collection feels like a gift from William Trevor to his readers, ranking with the best of the best. If you like carefully wrought stories, do not miss these.

ALSO by Trevor:  CHEATING AT CANASTA

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

The Piano Teacher’s student steals a porcelain swan during one of his lessons.  https://www.chairish.com/

Little Venice at Regent’s Park, where Etheridge spent time escaping from his troubles. Mario Ricca, Photography.  https://www.slideshare.net

Giotto’s Lamentation, from which the angels captivate the amnesiac man in “Giotto’s Angels.”  https://www.pinterest.com/

A large house similar to the descriptuon of the Old Grange where “An Idyll in Winter Takes Place.” http://www.yorkshire-cottages.info/

LAST STORIES
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, England, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Literary, Short Stories.
Written by: William Trevor
Published by: Viking
Date Published: 05/15/2018
ISBN: 978-0525558101

“Who would he be in [his] new city?  His experience would be of little use here. When the bus slowed in traffic, he had scanned ahead for an ambush, a useless precaution now. The sun was rising over the city. People were already amove, dashing across the expressways in their office clothes, hurdling over cement barriers and dashing to safety again. Women in bright overalls sprouted like fluorescent lichen along the highway sweeping dust into piles blown away by rushing traffic.” – comments by Chike.

cover welcome to lagosIn a novel of Nigeria which defies the usual stereotypes for that country, author Chibundu Onuzo tells a story of five individuals who form a surprising “family” in Lagos, and two others from the outside who affect the very lives of this group. Not a mystery filled with exotic scenes of violence, a polemic against the oil companies for despoiling the environment and profiteering, or a study of a police state so sadistic that the country was expelled from the Commonwealth of Nations in the 1990s, author Chibundu Onuzo’s offering introduces Nigeria as a place in which the people themselves feel familiar to the reader – at least at first. Two former soldiers, a wife escaping her abusive husband, a young rebel dreaming of a life as a radio star, and a teenage runaway who intends to fight if she is in danger, resemble those one might find in books from many other countries. As the action begins, however, the author, while still writing with a smile on her face, places her characters within the context of their lives in Lagos, Nigeria, considerably more challenging than the typical life of a young person in London or Paris, especially since these characters in Lagos are new to that complex and mysterious city.

onuzo author photoEmploying the use of local dialect, accents, and individual eccentricities, the author creates likable characters who are aware of human failings, often because they have been the victims of those failings, conditions which automatically evoke the reader’s sympathies. The two soldiers – Chike, an experienced officer, and Yemi, the lowest-ranked member of his platoon – have been fighting in the Delta against rebel militants and have been horrified by their superior’s wanton disregard for the rules of engagement, killing young people in villages on suspicion of crimes and burning down entire communities. Since participating in crimes against humanity is as bad as ordering those crimes, Chike and Yemi have only pretended to shoot, deciding to flee from the platoon at night to Yenagoa, heading for Lagos. Along the way they meet Fineboy, a hungry teenage militant who has been kidnapping oil workers in an effort to bring services to the poverty-stricken villagers who must work for the oil companies. Chasing him and anxious for vengeance against him is Isoken, a jeans-clad young girl from Lagos who had run into Fineboy the previous day when the group he was with found her and tried to rape her – her tight jeans being her only protection. These four, discovering they have a common enemy, decide to travel together to Lagos. Along the way, Oma, wealthy but married to an abusive husband, also joins them.

Lagos in action.

Lagos in action.

Two other men also play major roles in the novel: Ahmed Bakare, son of a wealthy financier, has left a good job in England, where he went to school, and returned to Lagos, where he has founded a newspaper, the Nigerian Journal: “Nigerian news, by Nigerian people, for Nigerian people. Telling our own stories, creating our own narratives, emphasizing our truths.” Unfortunately the paper is dying. Reporters will not go where the news is, if the location sounds dangerous.  Because the paper has repeatedly called for a revote on new President Hassan, who has apparently won the election by stuffing ballot boxes, no one will advertise in the paper.  Readers are at risk if seen reading an editorial in a paper unpopular with the First Family.  Ahmed, however, has decided he will “run the Journal into the ground before he gives in and lets it become popular reading in government circles.”

Sandayo decides he will not wait to be fired. He returns home to see his favourite (Yousuf) Grillo, an indigo long-necked woman, which reminds him of is wife.

Sandayo decides he will not wait to be fired. He returns home to see his favourite (Yousuf) Grillo painting, an indigo long-necked woman, which reminds him of his wife.

The most “important” character is Chief Remi Sandayo, who has recently become the Honorable Minister of Education for the Federal Republic of Nigeria, a post of little interest to most citizens, and burdened with a small budget. “Education was of importance only when university staff went on strike, demanding higher pay for their worsening services.” Sandayo has found himself “at the head of a body paralyzed with bureaucracy…almost laughably so, his orders reaching their destination months after being issued, replies reaching him after a year.” His life is complicated by the rumor that he may be fired soon, just as his department is about to get ten million dollars for the Basic Education Fund.

For formal occasions, the men usually wear the agbada, with its layer sleeves and long lines, as seen with this father and son.

For formal occasions, the men usually wear the agbada, with its layered sleeves and long lines, as seen with this father and son.

The five “escapees” have difficulty finding a place to stay in Lagos, since they have no connections and no money, and they end up living in a homeless encampment under a bridge, their past lives irrelevant in their housing emergency. Eventually, Fineboy discovers a hidden apartment in an abandoned building, a real residence in extraordinary condition and well furnished, though it has obviously not been used for years. With no fanfare, they all move in. A month later, however, someone enters the place late at night, accompanied by the “rasp of something heavy being dragged down the steps.” It is the owner of the house, carrying ten million dollars in a duffel bag – Minister Sandayo with his “budget.”

Map of Nigeria with

Map of Nigeria with Abuja in the center of the country and Lagos on the coast near the border with Benin. Click to enlarge.

What follows from this is sometimes akin to farce, as Sandayo cannot reveal himself publicly without instant arrest by the police, while the “family,” which wants to live good lives, also wants some of the money to live on. They cannot afford to break up as a group without endangering themselves, and they would like to return some of the money to the country as payment for the graft and financial abuses which they and others like them have paid for. No one is quite sure what to do with Sandayo, who cannot be released but who also cannot be allowed to “talk.” It is Bakare, the newspaper man, and a group of BBC reporters who become the biggest threats to the “family.” In a narrative tone much like that of the late nineteenth century novels of Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling who let the action play out without interfering, Chibundu Ozuno creates a novel which lives and breathes on its own, while also generating excitement and complications guaranteed to keep a reader involved, despite the exotic setting and complex political ramifications.

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

The picture of busy Lagos is from https://www.economist.com

Sandayo decides he will not wait to be fired. He returns home to see his favourite (Yousuf) Grillo painting, an indigo long-necked woman, which reminds him of his wife.  https://blog.jiji.ng/

For formal occasions, the men often wear the agbada, with its layered sleeves and long lines, as seen with this father and son.  https://mamatrendy.wordpress.com

The map of Nigeria is from https://www.lonelyplanet.com

WELCOME TO LAGOS
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Nigeria, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Chibundu Ozuno
Published by: Catapult
Date Published: 05/01/2018
ISBN: 978-1936787807
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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