Feed on

“[Ultimately,] the river would flow on…long after the earth had closed in around the bones of the past, and the land would become what it always had been: a palimpsest, waiting for a new story to be told, which was always the old story, of love and loss and joy and grief.”

cover river withinStories both new and old surround the often wild river which flows through North Yorkshire, exerting an almost incalculable force on the lives of the residents of the village of Starome.  Good and evil, happiness and sadness, all begin and end with the unnamed river, which becomes almost a character in The River Within by Karen Power.  In the novel’s own opening quotation, Danny Masters drifts in the water, undisturbed, “his feet nudging the river bank, his arms lifted above his head as though relishing the summer warmth after the silt and gloom of the bone-cold cavern where he’d been lodged these past days.” The reader quickly realizes, with horror, that Danny’s return home is both real and symbolic – he is physically back in the village where he grew up and worked, but he has left the earth, spiritually, forever.  Three friends – Thomas Fairweather, his sister Lenny (Helena), and Alexander Richmond – walking along the river bank, discover Danny’s decaying body.  All have known Danny well, their lives and activities overlapping since childhood.

Wild river in Rivver Moors National Park, N. Yorkshire.

Wild river in River Moors National Park, N. Yorkshire.

Danny, who was not able to go to college, has recently returned home for a visit after undergoing training for the army, and he has spent some time with his vacationing friends after his return.  All are stunned by the discovery of his body, as all have shared special, private relationships within the group and with Danny. A classic dark melodrama evolves, with intense, emotional scenes, as these late teens try to figure out who they are, what they believe, who and why they love, and how they deal with frustration.  Both Danny and Alexander are or have been in love with sweet Lenny, who, at the time of the action, is hoping to marry Alexander.  At the same time, life is changing for their parents, people like Venetia and her husband Angus, who have found that owning Richmond Hall, a large agricultural estate, does not provide enough income to keep the manor house updated.  The trickle-down economic effect also makes its mark on Peter Fairweather, father of Lenny and Thomas, who manages the day-to-day finances of the estate.

In one room in Richmond Hall is a wood garland framing a panel with a “tangle of carved birds” by Grinling Gibbons

In one room in Richmond Hall is a wood garland framing a panel with a “tangle of carved birds” by Grinling Gibbons

The stories of all these intersecting relationships evolve within short chapters told by Danny and Lenny,  primarily in August, 1955, up until Danny’s death, with Lady Venetia Richmond, Alexander’s mother, also contributing stories throughout, providing background from the mid-1930s and through 1955.  Alexander, as the son and heir of Richmond Hall, is a significant main character and drives much of the action, but he has no chapters in which he is the speaker.  Instead, he is shown through the eyes of others, a complex character whose sometimes erratic behavior affects all of them, and whose own psychology is a constant mystery.   Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that Lady Richmond, his mother, is a cold, undemonstrative  woman whose relationship with Alexander, has always been more formal – even distant – than what he needs for understanding his world.

Ophelia singing in the river, a painting by John Everett Millais, 1851-1852

Ophelia singing in the river, a painting by John Everett Millais, 1851-1852

While all the characters are are trying to live and understand their lives, death plays a big role, from the death of Danny Masters at the beginning of the novel, to the deaths of several other characters in the course of the action – through illness, accident, possible murder, and suicide.  At no point does author Karen Powell or any other character draw obvious parallels with the action in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a comparison which appears in early reviews of this novel.  The author herself does use a quotation from Hamlet, Act IV, as the single-sentence epigraph beginning the novel – “Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia” – referring to Ophelia’s drowning in the play – but she does not make any additional direct references to Shakespeare or Ophelia after that.  Hamlet’s love story with Ophelia does find a few obvious parallels with that of Alexander and Lenny, but the novel is significantly different beyond that in terms of who dies, when, why, and even by whom.  In addition, the scale of the deaths and what the reader/viewer learns from them are dissimilar. The novel is the world “writ small,” far from the more universal real world as Shakespeare portrays it, perhaps a deliberate irony.  Two quotations featured on the back jacket of the book are what seem to confirm the author’s and/or publisher’s intent to draw parallels between this book and Hamlet, a comparison which draws the reader away from the author’s story and its implications, without adding depth or grandeur to it.

Author Karen Powell

Author Karen Powell

Those who love romances, dark melodrama, and/or psychological stories will enjoy reading this one, which celebrates the emotions, feelings, and self-focused behavior of many of its characters. Stories long buried in the past emerge near the end, involving the background and death of Lennie’s mother, and the imminent deaths of both fathers – Angus Richmond and Peter Fairweather – creating a scenario in which the focus is clearly on their children and their actions.  The concluding paragraphs feel compressed and omit details related to the growth of some characters’ feelings and motivations, and it is the Epilogue in which Venetia leaves the manor house for a cottage on the property below hers which provides some of the resolutions readers will be looking for.  “Was that all a family amounted to? [she wonders].  A jumble of furniture heaped up on the Great Lawn like abandoned props on a stage, the curtainless windows of her sitting room an empty backdrop? Soon developers would come to scrape the house from the landscape, making way for other lives.  The river would flow on, though, long after the earth had closed in around the bones of the past, and the land would become what it always had been….the old story, of love and loss and joy and grief.”

At one point Danny finds Lennie picking black roses along the Stride.

At one point Danny finds Lennie picking black roses along the Stride.

Photos. The River at River Moors National Park in N. Yorkshire, where this novel takes place.  https://www.dreamstime.com

In one room in Richmond Hall is a wood garland framing a panel with a “tangle of carved birds” by Grinling Gibbons.  https://www.grinlinggibbonsphotos.com

Ophelia singing in the river, a painting by John Everett Millais, 1851-1852.  https://www.etsy.com

The author photo appears on http://blakefriedmann.co.uk

At one point Danny finds Lennie picking black roses along the Stride.  https://www.amazon.com

REVIEW. Photos. England, Melodrama, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Karen Powell
Published by: Europa
Date Published: 12/01/2020
ISBN: 978-1609456153
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“It’s difficult to know what you remember, is it what actually happened? Or is it the story that you’ve told and re-told and polished like a gemstone over the course of years, like something that has lustre but is as lifeless as a stone?  If it weren’t for my dreams…if it weren’t for the thump I feel here in my chest, the tightness in my throat…and the trembling of my body, I wouldn’t know that what I’m telling you is true.” – China, aka Josephine Star Iron

cover adv. of china ironIn a remote, almost unpopulated area adjacent to Argentina’s pampas, China Iron, the main character and speaker in this small epic, grew up believing that she was “born an orphan,” never having known her mother.  A light-haired baby girl, “obviously someone’s bastard child,” China was brought up as a virtual slave by a woman known as Las Negra, then married off to Martín Fierro, a gaucho-singer who won her in a card game and by whom she had two sons before reaching the age of fourteen.  Now, in 1872, her husband has been conscripted by the army, along with all the other young men of the outpost, and China has decided to take off, not in search of her sometimes violent husband, but in search of a life.  Leaving her babies with an elderly couple, she joins with Liz, a red-haired Scottish woman whose husband Oscar was conscripted before he could take possession of land he had planned to purchase and develop.  Liz, with an oxcart, supplies, and clothing from her previous life abroad, is about to set off across the pampas in her cart to find and rescue Oscar, and she is happy to have some company.

pampas cats

Wild pampas cats

The trip for China, an abused 14-year-old who has never left her community, offers visions of a natural world which she has never before seen or imagined – and the author recreates this in such glorious, precise detail that many readers will be stunned. The contrast between China’s reactions and those of the relatively sophisticated Liz, with her wardrobe of silk, are enhanced here by “the brightness of the light” on the pampa.  As China explains it, “In [the] pampa, life is in the air.  Even celestial, sometimes; far from the shack that had been my home, the world was paradise.” During their early travels across the dry land, Liz becomes a teacher for China, providing words and names for birds and animals, explaining the basics of geography, and creating some sense of security. “It was like we were secreting fine threads to make a shell or carapace,” China observes, “woven together like a kind of house made not from spider’s silk, straw, mud, or the leathery shell of a crab, but gradually formed from the loops of words and gestures.”

J. M. W. Turner, "Rain, Steam, and Speed, the Great Western Railway"

J. M. W. Turner, “Rain, Steam, and Speed, the Great Western Railway”

As she begins to gain confidence in a future she has never imagined, including a new sexual freedom she has never expected, she also starts to consider Liz to be more than just a mentor, and when Liz suggests that she cut off her hair to look like a young boy, for safety, she does so without a qualm.  When Rosario, a young gaucho, appears on the pampa a bit later, accompanied by a thousand head of cattle, he seems almost as naive as China, and he joins China, her dog, and Liz on the trip to Indian country, wanting only to escape the action at the fort they have to pass before arriving at their destination.  They soon learn that Rosario himself has a violent past history, the result of a terrible upbringing.  As they ride, Liz’s stories of Frankenstein and Oliver Twist soon become part of China’s travels, and as Liz is an artist whose father copied the work of J. M. W. Turner, she exposes China to some of his paintings and visions of the “modern” world in works like “Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,” and “Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway.”

jose hernandez

José  Hernández, the Colonel

Their first hint of the future takes place when Estreya, the dog, begins barking very early in the morning, and they discover six bodies ahead – four men, a woman, and a child, murdered and left for the carrion birds. Now close to the fort, Liz gets out the clothing she has brought for the staff she expects to have at the estancia she and Oscar had planned to build, and China quickly becomes a young English “gentleman,” and Rosario becomes a proper “servant.”  Before long they are at the entrance to the fort, meeting the Colonel, José Hernández.

Martin_fierro_1894It is in this section that the label of “miniature epic” starts to take hold for foreign readers.  Names which would be recognizable to Argentinians, suddenly come to life as characters here, even for those from other cultures reading this in another language.  Col. Hernández, depicted as an intolerant and violent drunk, is shown to be a parody of the José Hernández who wrote the poetic epic “Martín Fierro,” which, coincidentally, also happens to be the name of China’s cruel husband.  Her “Martín Fierro” has spent much of his life reviling Hernández, whom he claims stole that epic from him and continues to take undeserved credit for it.  According to Hernández, “[Fierro] never appreciated what I did for him by taking some of his songs and putting them in my book.  I took his voice, the voice of the voiceless…to the whole country, to the big smoke of Buenos Aires, which is always ripping us off.”  China recognizes the several verses he recites, and realizes that in stealing from her husband, he also stole from her.  “I decided then and there that I wouldn’t leave the fort empty-handed: justice would be done.”

Author Gabriela Cabezon Camara

Author Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

Author Gabriela Cabezón Cámara continues the quests of her various characters in this miniature “epic” through to their conclusions and new lives.  The iteration of the Martín Fierro story is however, a dark satire, in part.  The “heroes” here, while they do have goals, feel smaller-than-life, and while they do embody the values of their cultures, those cultures – of poverty, repression of women (like China, the main character here), and the growth of a nation through violence, rather than through strong cultural values – are not examples one would hold up as worthy of imitation by a nation.  The line is a fine one in many places here, as this “epic” unfolds, recreating people fighting the very real problems of a very real life rather than embodying the myths and legends of the past, and the conclusion in which China and some of her companions finally find their goals fully realized is far from the glorious triumph of Odysseus and Achilles.  The novel is gorgeously written in its depiction of nature and the countryside, the characters are lively, the cultural history is fascinating, and the use of the Martín Fierro “epic” history puts the lives of these characters into a far more universal perspective than a straight adventure story could come close to emulating.  As China concludes from her little piece of heaven, “I wish you could see us; but no one will.  We know how to leave as if vanishing into thin air….”

The beautiful black and white Carancho and the reddish chimango were often seen on the pampa.

The beautiful black and white Carancho and the reddish Chimango were often seen on the pampa.

Photos.  The wild pampas cats appear on  https://www.zooborns.com    Photo Credit:  Bioparque M’Bopicua

J. M. W. Turner’s painting, “Rain, Steam, and Speed,” is in the National Gallery.  https://en.wikipedia.org

The José Hernández portrait appears on https://en.wikipedia.org

The Martín Fierro epic, published in 1872, is shown in https://en.wikipedia.org

The author’s photo may be found on https://www.pagina12.com.ar

The photo of the carancho and the chimango may be found on https://www.pinterest.es

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Epic Novel, Exploration, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, Argentina
Written by: Gabriela Cabezon Camara
Published by: Charco Press
Date Published: 10/13/2020
ISBN: 978-1916465664
Available in: Ebook Paperback

NOTE:  Regarded as “one of the greatest European writers and intellectuals of the twentieth century,” Ismail Kadare was also WINNER of the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005, WINNER of the Jerusalem Prize (2015), and WINNER of the Newstadt International Prize for Literature (2020).

“From an early age I felt that my mother was less like the mothers in [traditional] poems and more a kind of draft mother or an outline sketch which she could not step beyond.  Even her white face had the frozen and inscrutable quality of a mask.….The maternal things mentioned in [traditional] poems and songs – milk, breasts, fragrance and warmth – were hard to relate to my own mother.”

In this cover the dollautobiographical novel of his early life and family in Gjirokastra, Albania, author Ismail Kadare focuses primarily on his mother, “the center of his universe” for his early years.  Though she was not a warm, demonstrative person, her son stresses that she did have a caring nature and that it was “her self-restraint, her inability to cross a certain barrier,” that gave her a “doll-like mystery, but without the terror.”  Her tears, he says, sometimes “flowed like those in cartoon films,” but when he asked her once about the reason for them, her answer “[made] my skin creep to recall it: ‘The house is eating me up!’ ” she claimed.  Only seventeen at the time of her marriage to a man who was an only son, his mother was clearly lonely in the big old house to which she moved as a bride.  The lack of other sons in her husband’s family eliminated the possibility of other young women eventually moving in and providing company for her.  Her mother-in-law, famed for her “tight-lipped severity and for wisdom” also lived in the same house, and “an inescapable frostiness set in between the two,” almost from the beginning.  Part of this coldness was connected to the traditions of the country regarding brides, their weddings, and the traditional roles of older women, but part, the author suggests, was almost certainly related to the nature of the house in which his mother found herself living after her wedding.

Three-hundred-year-old home of Ismail Kadare in Gjirokastra, Albania

The three-hundred-year-old home of Ismail Kadare in Gjirokastra, Albania

Totally different from the newer, warmer house in which his mother had lived with her own family before her marriage, the Kadare residence was a grim, three-hundred-year-old building almost devoid of people, and for Kadare, it is as much of a character here as the family itself.  Its deep cellars, a cistern, fancy wooden stairs, uninhabited rooms, and secret subterranean passages, created an air of mystery, if not outright fear, for the new bride. Useless corridors and vestibules, rooms that they were not allowed to enter,  and mysterious closets, added to the cold, impersonal atmosphere, and the house’s very real dungeon presented a constant threat, however oblique, to a bride accustomed to a house with “trees and birds, violins and Roma.”  The marriage between his parents “was a mistake from the start…nobody ever understood the reason for [it].”

Ismail Kadare

Ismail Kadare

The style in which the author tells this story of his early life is different from what one may expect from reading his other novels.  Here he affects an almost casual attitude as he shares his life and personal feelings, quite different from the the formal, often highly complex novels of ideas and poetry for which he has become famous.  This more relaxed style and occasional humor bring him closer to the reader from the outset, making it possible to imagine a life in Albania quite different from what most readers have ever imagined, in a part of the world most of us have never seen. “Houses like ours seemed constructed with the specific purpose of preserving coldness and misunderstanding for as long as possible,” he says, as he documents the activities within the house with an almost offhanded attitude.  And when he comments, soon after the narrative begins, that the frigidity and hostility between his mother and grandmother gradually increase over the years, it becomes completely believable when, a few pages later, he indicates that a very real and very secret legal trial began and continued for years between his mother and his grandmother, a trial overseen by his father.

The Gorky Institute f world Literature, where Kadare studied as a young man.

The Gorky Institute of world Literature, where Kadare studied as a young man.

Kadare himself, as he was growing up, expressed an early interest in writing, and when, at age twelve, he responded to an article in The Young Penman, he was mocked by his own uncles for his “touch of vanity,” that of inserting a middle initial in his signature  A few years later, after his first book of poetry was published, he began to write novels, and he admits he became increasingly “big-headed,” during his studies in Tirana, and later Moscow. Time becomes compressed as his studies expose him to the work of the “Joyce-Kafka-Proust trio,” which is scorned in Moscow in favor of socialist realism, and though he and his friends were taught not to write like them,“we could hardly resist the temptation of writing precisely in their manner,” he comments. At home, he shares a “yellow bulletin” about banned books and about Freud with his father, and changes his father’s life, as a result.  He continues to share stories of the family and the Doll, and he talks of the writers he admires, especially Shakespeare, and the classical stories which have influenced his ideas and his writing, especially that of Oedipus.

Albanian fustanella, the traditional costume, worn by singers who celebrated his visit to the old house.

Albanian fustanella, the traditional costume, worn by singers who celebrated the visit of Ismail and Helena to the old house.

Back in Tirana with his bride Helena, also a writer, Kadare experiences success, while creating sometimes controversial pieces.  In 1990, however, he is declared a traitor, and he and Helena flee to Europe, semipermanently.  On a later return visit to Tirana to spend time with the Doll, she asks him a question he is never able to answer, a question he remembers again at her funeral ceremonies a few years later.  Much later, he and his wife make what feels like a final trip to the ancient house in Gjirocastra, where he visits the house, surveys fire damage, and inspects some of the perennial repair work on it, reliving his earliest memories there as a child, while traditionally dressed singers serenade his wife and celebrate a newly found secret door.  This is not a warm “return home,” and resolution, however.  Despite the restoration work, Kadare finds the house and everything around it to be “grim, threatening,” not full of fond memories and love.  For him, the resolution he hoped for turns out to be just “a continuation of the perplexity of long ago,” an echoing of life with the Doll.


The damaged walls of the old house following a fire.

The damaged walls of the old house following a fire.

Photos.  The 300-year-old house where Kadare grew up appears on https://www.visit-gjirokastra.com

The author photo is from https://commons.wikimedia.org

The Gorky Institute of World Literature, where Kadare studied from 1958 – 1960.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

Albanian fustanellas, who sang for Ismail and Helena on their visit to the old house.  https://en.wikipedia.org

The damaged old house as it is being repaired after a fire: https://commons.wikimedia.org

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Albania, Autobiography/Memoir, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Ismail Kadare
Published by: Counterpoint
Date Published: 11/17/2020
ISBN: 978-1640094222
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Daisy Johnson–SISTERS

Note:  In  2018, when Daisy Johnson was SHORTLISTED for the Man Booker Prize for Everything Under, her first novel, she became, at age twenty-eight, the youngest author ever to be shortlisted for this prize.  This novel, her second, was NAMED one of the TOP TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR by Publishers Weekly.

“My sister is a forest on fire.

My sister is a sinking ship.

My sister is the last house on the street.” – July, speaking of September.

If Jeremcover sistersy Olson’s arresting cover art does not inspire new readers to investigate this book, the descriptions in the novel’s epigraph certainly will.  In addition to the quoted metaphors, above, July, the sister of September, also describes her as a black hole, a falling tree, the last packet of crisps, and a bricked up window.  It takes little imagination to appreciate that this book is about to become a dark, perhaps horrific, psychological novel involving two sisters and, at a distance, their mother.  Quickly involving her readers in the narrative, author Daisy Johnson depicts the disturbed family arriving at a decrepit house in the North York Moors.  The sisters and their mother have moved there from Oxford, where the girls have lived all their lives to date, and none of them have any real expectation that they will be leaving this remote location anytime soon.  Sheela, the mother, promptly disappears into a neglected but unoccupied room which will be hers for the expected duration, while the girls will be on their own in their own area of the house.  Hints about the past and references to something the girls have done in Oxford may have been responsible for the mother’s silence and isolation, and July suspects that their real crime is having been born at all.

The old house on the moors may have resembled this one.

The old house on the moors may have resembled this one.

Age fifteen as the novel opens, July, most often the speaker, and her sister September, ten months older, share the drama, which shifts in time and in the sisters’ recollections of events in Oxford before their arrival on the moors – their friendlessness, their bullying, and their discovery that they are “haunted,” to the point that they sometimes “become” each other.  “When one of us speaks, we both feel the words moving on our tongues.  When one of us eats, we both feel the food slipping down our gullets.”  They suspect that one’s lungs breathe for both and that “a single heart beats a doubling, feverish pulse.”  Now about to live in a house which belongs to the sister of their deceased father, a house called Settle House, they discover it with little furniture, a scummy bathroom, an empty refrigerator, and someone else’s food in the pantry.  Though their mother is, ironically, the author of children’s books, she is “mostly just a mother to us and she is in rooms the way tables and chairs are.”  The mother tells them she will always love them and that they can come get her if they need her, but for now, she says,  “I need some time.”

David Attenboroough, whose nature programs the girls loved.

David Attenborough, whose nature programs the girls loved.

As July relives her earlier life in Oxford, she also describes ways that September protects her, and as the details of their teen lives there emerge, readers will immediately realize that July’s sister September has problems with violence and that July is as much a victim of her sister as are some of their bullying classmates.  July has problems sleeping and sometimes sees things that are not there, but the sisters have made a pact, at September’s insistence, that they will “weather whatever as going to come.”  Further details of this pact are revealed as the action develops, and as flashbacks to their family life in the past include remembrances of their father and their aunt, of their first trip to Settle House, and of their mother’s bizarre relationship with them.  Their preoccupation with nature, including ants and birds, and the TV programs of David Attenborough, do not translate into peaceful reveries.  Neither do the games they play of “September Says,” which require July to do whatever September demands, including, at one point, eating an entire jar of mayonnaise, and later, more dangerous and sometimes bloody activities.

On Halloween, one year, the girls dressed as the sisters from The Shining.

On Halloween, one year, the girls dressed as the sisters from The Shining.

Author Daisy Johnson keeps the suspense at fever pitch – in much the way July lives her life, at this point – yet still the action feels surprisingly real and the characters almost normal.  As teenagers the girls think about boys and about being friends with others their age, but ultimately they rely on each other, and with a mother who is not actively involved in their lives, the girls, especially July,  become victims as much as protagonists. Reality and imagination, sometimes devolve into nightmare and hallucination, and readers will not be sure, much of the time which is which.  For the girls, sex here is a pervading and looming pre-occupation, one which, when combined with alcohol, becomes even more difficult to interpret, the damage done in its name very real but not always understood, by July or the reader.  For the reader, “living” with the main characters in two worlds – a real world and their uncertain nether world – keeps the excitement high, but it also makes the thematic and necessary dramatic resolutions more difficult.

author daisy johnsonAuthor Daisy Johnson comes through, however.  Details from the girls’ final days in school in Oxford become clarified, and ultimately, when the climax occurs in the conclusion, and September and July make a final pact, the ending is inevitable – but with a surprising twist.   As the novel flashes forward many years into the future, the reader explores the possibilities outlined in all July’s dreams and nightmares and within all the experiences she has had with her family and her mother.  Time and love and fear and hope all combine to grab hold of reality, at least for a brief time, and a true resolution does, inevitably, arrive.  As July says, “It was always supposed to be this way.  It could never have been any way but this.”  And the reader does understand.

Photos:  The old house in the countryside appears on https://www.lancs.live

David Attenborough, with snake, had a TV program that both girls particularly enjoyed.  https://www.pinterest.co.uk

The sisters from the movie “The Shining,” may be found here:  https://www.pinterest.com   Uploaded by Chris Speed.

The author photo is from https://www.publishersweekly.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. England, Literary, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Psychological study
Written by: Daisy Johnson
Published by: Riverhead Books
Date Published: 08/25/2020
ISBN: 978-0593188958
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note:  RECIPIENT  of eight honorary doctorates, and in the Top Ten of the Fifty Greatest British Writers Since 1945, Dame Muriel Spark was also SHORTLISTED for the Lost Man Booker Prize for 1970 for this novel.

“Lise’s eyes are widely spaced, blue-grey and dull.  Her lips are a straight line.  She is neither good-looking nor bad-looking.  Her nose is short and wider than it will look in the likeness constructed partly by the method of identikit, partly by actual photography, soon to be published in the newspapers of four languages.” – from The Driver’s Seat, 1970.

cover muriel spark driver's seatTen pages into this novella, which Muriel Spark claimed was her favorite among all her novels, the fate of main character Lise is not in doubt. Lise will be dead before the book ends.  Since the reader will suspect who the murderer is well before the murder happens, the author has always preferred to refer to this book not as a “whodunnit,” but as a “whydunnit,” a term she uses within the book.  From the outset the reader observes surreal, alarming, and clinically insane behavior from Lise, the victim.  At the same time the person who seems to be her murderer appears to be a just bit wacky.  Unexpected ironies throughout turn the novel on its head, creating a mood in which dark humor and bizarre surprises keep a smile on the face of the reader almost all the way through the novel – until the reader discovers the truth, that the person in “the driver’s seat” throughout the novel’s action is actually neither of the two main characters.  Instead, the reader has been controlled, managed, and manipulated until  this “whydunnit” of a novel turns into an unparalleled tour de force.

Author Muriel Spark (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

Author Muriel Spark
(Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

Spark, a master of the “telling detail,” introduces Lise as she is shopping for a dress in an unknown European city.  She is about to take a vacation from her work at an accounting office, where she has seven employees working for her.  Single and in her early thirties, she has had periods of illness in the past, ever since she was eighteen, and the search for her dress does not get off to a good start.  Lise becomes outraged that the material of the first dress she has tried on is made of a new, stainless fabric.  Ignoring the advantages the salesperson points out regarding having such a dress while on a busy vacation trip, Lise tears off the dress, and, infuriated and yelling, runs out of the store.  Even Lise recognizes that this behavior is not normal, at this point, and she notes that she has not had a spell like this for five years – the reason her bosses have given her the unexpected vacation.  She continues looking for a travel dress, which she eventually finds,  “a lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright V’s of orange, mauve and blue,”  which she will wear with a new summer coat that has narrow red and white stripes.  When a salesperson starts to question the color combination, Lise mocks her  – and the store. The following day, dressed for the trip in her wild, new dress and coat, she ignores the insult about her colors by the woman in the porter’s office at her residence, and with a sense of superiority, departs in a cab for the airport.

plane 3 seatsThe remainder of the book is as full of perfectly chosen, revelatory details as the opening scenes are, and the novella devolves into several locales and scenes within scenes which will keep the reader smiling at the absurdity, even as sinister signs arise regarding Lise and her world. The first such scenes which every person who has ever traveled through an airport will recognize – going through customs, getting a boarding pass, having the passport checked – feel fairly normal. At the bookstore, however, Lise meets a talkative woman whose goal is to find a book with a cover in the right colors for the guest room of her house. This woman will remember her conversation with Lise and report it to the police the following day.  On the plane, the seats are unassigned, and Lise ends up sitting between two young men whom she has noticed in the waiting room with great pleasure and taken care to follow onto the plane.  One, a “shiny” business man sits to her right, and the other, a young man “who seems anxious to be close to her,” sits to her left.  The conversation she has with the young man to her left so alarms the man on the right, however, that he changes his seat just before the plane departs, leaving the other man, who has been flirting with Lise very obviously, now sitting beside her without any others in the row.  This man introduces himself to Lise as “Bill,” telling her that the man who changed seats was “frightened by your psychedelic clothes…but I’m not.”

This Hotel Metropole is in Brussels, though the author does not indicate where the action takes place in this novel.

This Hotel Metropole is in Brussels, though the author does not indicate where the action takes place in this novel.

Bill goes on to share his life with her as an Enlightenment Leader who is going to start a health center in Naples, with special diets featuring macrobiotic foods which balance Yin and Yang. Indicating that he is her type, Bill invites her for a short drink after the flight at the Metropole, where he is staying, and though she pretends that she is supposed to meet someone else, she finally agrees.  From here the action speeds up – and so does Lise, who becomes more and more unhinged but appears more and more in charge.  When she arrives at her small hotel, she argues with the housekeeping staff, repacks her bags, leaves in a taxi she shares with an elderly woman, and “loses” her passport but ignores the fact.  She buys some men’s clothing for her “boyfriend,” gets caught in the chaos of a “stampede” on the streets, and steals a car which she uses to escape some problems.  Eventually, she decides she will meet Bill at the Metropole for a drink and maybe dinner.

Fiat 125, which Lise steals from its owner.

Fiat 125, which Lise steals from its owner.

As Lise’s life becomes more and more crazed, and the expected conclusion gets closer, the reader cannot help but admire the talents of Muriel Spark as she manipulates all her characters through the demands of Lise and keeps the suspense high.  The death of Lise, which has been promised since the opening pages, occurs within some grotesque actions which seem to have been completely engineered and controlled  by Lise.  There are several huge surprises, however, twists in the action which show well and truly who has been in the driver’s seat for the entire novel.  The publisher’s choice of cover should put to rest any questions about this.  A short novella with big ideas and an author in peak form.

ALSO by Spark, reviewed here:  NOT TO DISTURB


Muriel Spark, a photo obviously used for the cover art.

Photos. The author photo appears on https://www.gettyimages.ca   Photo by Uf Andersen.

The plane interior is from https://www.airlinereporter.com

The author does not say where the action takes place.  This Hotel Metropole happens to be located in Brussels. https://www.alamy.com

During the action, Lise steals a Fiat 125 from an attacker and escapes in it.   http://www.kucarfa.nl

This author photo is from:  https://fivedials.com  and was obviously used in designing the cover.

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Classic Novel, England, Humor, Absurdity, Literary, Mystery, Noir, Psychological study
Written by: Muriel Spark
Published by: New Directions
Date Published: 05/27/2014
ISBN: 978-0811223010
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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