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Note:  Jon McGregor was WINNER of the IMPAC Dublin award for Even the Dogs in 2012, and is WINNER of the Costa Award, the Somerset Maugham Prize, and the Betty Track Award for Reservoir 13 in 2017.

“It’s actually rather misleading, isn’t it, the walk up to Black Bull Rocks?  The path isn’t as direct as it looks from the bottom of the hill.  There are several narrow gorges or valleys on the way.  The path drops down steeply and climbs up and out of each of these… And the streams through each of these are running high at this time of year so it’s not always a simple matter getting across them….”—interview of Charlotte, mother of the missing Becky Shaw.

reservoir tapesThe story of Becky Shaw, daughter of Charlotte and Joe Shaw, a thirteen-year-old girl who disappeared while vacationing in a rural English village during the holiday season, was introduced and developed in British/Bermudian author Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 in 2017, a novel which won three major prizes in the UK.  In that novel, McGregor focuses not on the search for Becky but on how her disappearance affects everyday life in the community. Everyone in town is looking for her, but as the search bears no fruit and few clues evolve from all the investigation, the residents are gradually drawn back into their more immediate personal issues of earning a living.  Time has passed – lambing season is now underway, and the cattle are ready for pasture.  Life has continued, and Becky’s unknown fate has receded from the public consciousness as people busy themselves once again with their daily lives.

Falling somewhere between a novel and a story collection, McGregor’s new book, The Reservoir Tapes, continues this narrative.  Though it revolves around the same subject matter and includes most of the same characters as Reservoir 13, McGregor’s new work is quite different in tone and Jon-McGregorstructure.  Here the author takes the reader inside the lives and thoughts of fifteen of the original characters, all of whom are featured in their own chapters which reveal their inner thinking and their memories, along with their fears, vulnerabilities, quirks, and even suggestions of past violence.  Individualized in this way, these chapters “speak” to the reader in new ways, creating a sense of hidden danger and violence, raising new questions about what happened to Becky Shaw, and forcing the reader to consider the possibility that someone in the community may have hidden knowledge of what happened to her.  Time is flexible, moving back and forth, and as the characters overlap within each other’s stories and memories, as they do in real life, the reader slowly begins to see that this seemingly quiet rural community, dependent on the vagaries of nature, may be far more violent than what was seen in the previous novel.

Heather in bloom on the moorland, drawing many species of butterflies for village "butterfly safaris."

Heather in bloom on the village moorland, drawing many species of butterflies.

Presented originally as a series on BBC Radio, the stories open with a monologue by an unnamed person who is interviewing Charlotte Shaw, Becky’s mother, in the months after Becky’s disappearance.  In a wonderful tour-de-force, Charlotte never speaks – at least to the reader.  All information about Becky – and her mother’s reaction to her disappearance – is revealed through the interviewer’s responses.  The interviewer asks, for example: “What would Becky have had [for breakfast] if she was eating breakfast alone?”  The only response:  “I know….But these details. They help to build a picture….If you could….Okay,” clearly indicating that Charlotte is refusing to answer. The mother’s tears, her pauses, her reluctance to respond to questions about a possible boyfriend, and their mother/daughter tensions, lead to what is apparently Charlotte’s decision to stop the interview.  To this, the interviewer then suggests that the interview would be “a chance to [tell] your side of the story,” implying that the mother may have come under scrutiny by the community – the same kind of scrutiny which the reader is about to apply here to the rest of the characters who follow.

Essex Skipper butterfly, a rare sight on one of the village's "butterfly safaris."

Essex Skipper butterfly, a rare sight on one of the village’s “butterfly safaris.”

An ominous tone begins early with the introduction of Deepak, a young boy, somewhat overprotected by his mother, who delivers papers on his bike.  When the bike’s chain jams and Deepak cannot fix it, a man suddenly appears and insists on helping him.  Afterward, the man also persuades Deepak to come inside his house to wash up.  A gun lies in plain sight on the table, terrifying Deepak.  Later the reader realizes that this same man is seen frequently around other local children, also armed with his gun, though there have been no known incidents.  The author continues his mood of menace and threat in the next, much more subtle, chapter.  The Visitor Center for the community, well known for its serenity, its nature walks, and its beautiful “butterfly safaris” through the hills, also serves, when necessary, as the center for Mountain Rescue for missing persons. Just recently, while on a hike with Girl Guides, one Guide vanishes, initiating a search.  Rescuers find her in a sinkhole and eventually haul her up on a stretcher.  The irony of this dire episode in immediate juxtaposition with images of the butterfly safari’s identification of a rare “Essex Skipper” butterfly is inescapable.

A sinkhole on the moors, like the one that swallowed the Girl Guide.

A sinkhole on the moors, like the one that swallowed the Girl Guide.

Carefully controlling the sinister hints and episodes, McGregor continues to add information which shows nature – especially human nature – to be much more menacing than what it appeared to be in Reservoir 13.  Becky, the reader learns here, had run away once before her recent disappearance, and her friendships with other youths have not been innocent.  She has participated in the bullying and humiliation of another child.  In other disquieting chapters, the brother of a character makes threatening gestures toward a young woman who is attracted to him; a butcher looking for a new puppy runs afoul of a man who may be involved in a crime syndicate; a mother whose daughter ran away and never came back is still mourning;  and a fearsome man regarded as a “kind of bogeyman figure” in the community adds to the complications and the prevailing sense of doom which permeates The Reservoir Tapes.

A man looking for a puppy was obliged to accept a very sick alternative by the crook who sold it.

A man looking for a puppy was obliged to accept a very sick alternative by the crook who sold it.

People who have read and liked the prize-winning Reservoir 13 will have an advantage in reading this experimental novel/collection because of their familiarity with the community and many of its characters, but others may find this work so effectively written from a character and suspense standpoint that they like it as much as McGregor’s earlier Reservoir novel (especially if they keep a character list).  Dramatic, insightful, and effective, The Reservoir Tapes makes one wonder if another entry in a Reservoir series might be on its way.

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on https://bathfestivals.org.uk/

The heather moorlands are shown on https://en.wikipedia.org/

The Essex Skipper butterfly, a rarity seen on the moors here, is from https://butterfly-conservation.org/

A sinkhole on the moors may be seen on https://www.independentcottages.co.uk

The very sick puppy alternative that a man was forced to accept and pay for is found here:  https://www.florencecashmereyarn.com

THE RESERVOIR TAPES
REVIEW. PHOTOS. England, Experimental, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Jon McGregor
Published by: Catapult
Date Published: 08/07/2018
ISBN: 978-1936787913
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note: The noir novels in the Commissario Ricciardi series have sold over a million copies throughout Europe.

“When he sees the mandolin, the young man feels a sort of whiplash. His muscles tighten, his skin ready even before his mind to greedily absorb every chord, every magical variation of those deformed fingers, still capable of drawing exquisite sounds from the strings. That’s why he’s there in the first place, the young man. To learn that unique sound…[from] the arthritic hands of an old man who doesn’t want to share it with anyone.” – from the Prologue.

Maurcover namelsss serenadeizio de Giovanni’s Commissario Ricciardi mysteries, hugely popular in Italy and Europe, are now attracting large numbers of readers from the US and UK through Antony Shugaar’s translations. Intriguing, sometimes wryly humorous characters living everyday lives in 1930s Naples, the time of Benito Mussolini, provide insights into the period and its fraught atmosphere.  For two characters, Commissario Ricciardi and his partner Brigadier Rafaele Maione, “every day life” consists of police work, often dangerous, as they investigate murders and try to stay on the good side of some of their politically connected superiors. Ricciardi, who works in the Public Safety Division of the Royal Police Headquarters in Naples, believes in true and equal justice, regardless of class, though in his private life, he is Baron Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi di Malomonte, a nobleman in his early thirties. Reticent and uncertain about his inner identity, Ricciardi, an orphan from early childhood, has been brought up by Rosa, the family’s elderly housekeeper, who has recently been trying to groom him for eventual marriage. Ricciardi, however, has inherited a talent which is both his blessing and his curse. Like his deceased mother, he possesses the ability to “hear” the last words of the dead if he communicates with their souls at the places of their deaths, and he is devoted to helping these victims put their souls to rest.

author photoOne characteristic of de Giovanni’s novels which has made them especially popular is that a group of appealing characters repeats throughout the series, and their personal stories and personalities continue to develop in succeeding narratives. For this reason, many readers will want to read the series in order. In this ninth novel, for example, many readers will be hoping that the long attraction which the shy Ricciardi has for the equally shy Enrica, will finally bear fruit. Though she lives just across the alleyway and is as interested in him as he is in her, they have barely spoken and still not had a relationship. Instead, Ricciardi has been actively pursued for several novels by Livia, the cunning widow of the world’s greatest tenor, whom Ricciardi and Maione met in the first novel in the series, I Will Have Vengeance. Her recent betrayal of Ricciardi has left them enemies, though she plays a role here. Bianca, a woman who helped Ricciardi in the previous novel, when he had a very difficult legal situation, adds to the feminine cast.

When Vincenzo returns, he arranges a traditional serenade outside Cettina's residence.

When Vincenzo returns, he arranges a traditional serenade outside Cettina’s residence.

Other repeating characters include Brigadier Maione, Ricciardi’s partner, a huge man – hot-tempered but totally devoted to his family, job, and Ricciardi; Dr. Modo, the medical examiner, a great lover of women, an alcoholic who “lives large” and will say and do almost anything; and De Giovanni’s most irrepressible and uncontrollable character, Bambinella, a transvestite prostitute who trusts Ricciardi’s partner Maione completely and sometimes helps Maione obtain private information. This cast of continually developing characters is joined here by over fifty additional characters, some of them with two names, as the author sets up the action and establishes personalities and relationships.

Cettina and her husband live just outside the Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, an elite residential area. Photo by Diego de Miranda.

Cettina and her husband live just outside the Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, an elite residential area. Photo by Diego de Miranda.

The action starts with a love story in which fifteen-year-old Cettina and seventeen-year-old Vincenzo Sannino fall desperately in love, though World War II is looming and Vincenzo is not able to support Cettina adequately. His only hope is to take his chances in America, hoping that he can find a job and earn enough money to return to Naples as a success. Though he wants Cettina to promise to wait for him, she wants him to stay in Naples and work things out there. When he leaves, he believes she will be waiting. Sixteen years later, when he eventually returns as a retired boxer, he is suffering from guilt for having killed a man in the ring in New York, and she has been married for years to a very wealthy older man and has no intention of renewing their former relationship. Though Vincenzo does everything possible to reconnect with her, he fails. Soon afterward, her husband is found dead, and Vincenzo is believed to be the killer, a belief promoted by the fascist government in Rome. Police higher-ups are not inclined to challenge Il Duce’s men. For the remainder of the novel, Ricciardi and Maione investigate Cettina’s husband’s business dealings, while Maione tries also to help Bambinella with a life-or-death challenge involving the love of her life.

One of the best boxers in the world, Vincenzo stays in the Hotel Vesuvio, wanting privacy.

One of the best known boxers in the world, Vincenzo stays in the Hotel Vesuvio upon his return, wanting privacy.

One of the charms of the Ricciardi series (as opposed to the Lojacono series) is that there has always been a feeling that the author is quietly smiling in the background during many scenes involving his very human characters.  I missed that feeling here.  The writing is not as tight as it was in Glass Souls: Moths for Commissario Ricciardi, perhaps de Giovanni’s best novel to date, and it feels loose, lacking a sense of unity and direction. The dialogue is sometimes stilted and simplistic, as in an early scene between Enrica and her devoted father, whom she is asking for advice regarding love and marriage. Instead, she gets earnest platitudes and his remembrances of her own past. Occasionally, a mystifying bit of description appears: “He’d tossed and turned like a pork chop for at least an hour.” At one point, Maione begs Dr. Modo not to depart, pleading, “If you leave now…we’ll turn into stewed purpetielli – drenched little baby octopuses.” Throughout the novel, Maione appears more aggressive – not just impatient – and less grounded than the warm person who has shared his family with us in the past. Ricciardi seems less empathetic, more self-absorbed. With a cast of approximately sixty characters, some of them minor characters with unnecessarily detailed backgrounds, the novel may discourage new readers.

Cettina's husband's body is found just outside a warehouse in the Rettifilo district.

Cettina’s husband’s body is found just outside a warehouse in the Rettifilo district.

The acknowledgements at the end of the novel, in which de Giovanni thanks ten different assistants for their participation, may partially explain some of these problems, which range from their work “imagining” the story and choosing details about Naples and its life, to describing boxing and its training, and working on the character of Ricciardi himself. The intensity, feeling, and sense of direction which de Giovanni’s other novels have had in abundance were sadly missed here , and I greatly hope that de Giovanni’s narrative “smile” returns soon.

ALSO by Maurizio de Giovanni: THE BASTARDS OF PIZZOFALCONE,     THE BOTTOM OF YOUR HEART (#7) ,    BLOOD CURSE (#2),     BY MY HAND (#5),     THE CROCODILE,     DARKNESS FOR THE BASTARDS OF PIZZOFALCONE ,    THE DAY OF THE DEAD (#4),     EVERYONE IN THEIR PLACE (#3),     GLASS SOULS: MOTHS FOR COMMISSARIO RICCIARDI (#8),     I WILL HAVE VENGEANCE (#1),     VIPER (#6)

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on http://www.napolitoday.it/

The Mandolin Player, by Judith Leyster, a Dutch artist from 1628, may be found here:  https://en.wikipedia.org

The area around the Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, near where Cettina and her husband lived, is one of the elite residential areas of Naples.  Photo by Diego de Miranda on http://www.naporama.it

Wanting to avoid pressure from Il Duce’s men who want him to return to boxing in Italy, Vincenzo, then one of the most famous boxers in the world, stays in the Hotel Vesuvio.  https://www.vesuvio.it

The Rettifilo area of Naples, also known as Corso Umberto I, is where Cettina’s husband is found outside a warehouse.  https://www.tripadvisor.com

NAMELESS SERENADE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Italy, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Maurizio de Giovanni
Published by: Europa
Date Published: 08/07/2018
ISBN: 978-1609454609

Note: This novel was SHORTLISTED for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017.

“Folke places his hand over hers. Sonja can now feel both the gearstick and Folke’s hand. Then he begins to move their stacked hands: the gearstick is activated. ‘You have to imagine an H with two segments poking out of the middle, and then we do like this…You cannot make diagonal movements with the stick,’ Folke explains. ‘You can not go from second to third by taking a shortcut…Now we’ll try it in real life.’ Mirror Shoulder, Signal: Sonja tries to use her body, but the car’s too big.”

coverIn this surprising, unusual, and often wickedly ironic novel by Danish author Dorthe Nors, the main character’s struggle to master driving a car with a stick shift, becomes a symbol of her life, or as much of a life as she has managed to create for herself. Forty-one-year-old Sonja gets most of her excitement second-hand from her work translating into Danish the novels of Gosta Svensson, one of the most popular thriller writers throughout Scandinavia – novels of crime, criminals, rapists, murderers, and evil doers.  Sonja, who grew up in Jutland, became the first person in her family to graduate from college and leave the farm, but in many ways she has never really left. Gone from Jutland for almost two decades and now out of touch with many people from her past, including her sister, she is a woman in Copenhagen now, still single, still unable to drive, still working in a job in which she has almost no contact with other professionals, and still too reserved and withdrawn to make many friends, though she sometimes tries.

author

Author photo by Henning Bagger.

During one of her early driving lessons, for example, the road passes Copenhagen’s Western Cemetery, a place she knows well, and she reaches out to the driving instructor, commenting, “You know I really like Western Cemetery. Down in the bottom part is a chapel with plywood over the window. I think they’ve stopped using it. There’s this avenue of gnarled old poplars there, too. And a pond. I love to take a blanket and lie there and read.”  The aggressive female instructor reacts to this overture by ignoring it and getting into a shouting match with other drivers at a traffic light, complete with middle finger gestures which create chaos. In the midst of all this, Sonja, however, continues to muse about how “lovely” it is to go the cemetery and think about the dead prime ministers there, listen to the ducks, see the sun gleam off the roof of the big chapel and experience “the scent of yew and boxwood; almost the middle of nowhere. A stag might drift past, and she’s bought a cookie for her coffee…The dead make no noise and if she’s lucky a bird of prey might soar overhead. Then she’ll lie there, and escape.”

Whooper Swans, living on the heath, despite changes in Jutland. Photo by Niels Peter Brogger

Whooper Swans, living on the heath, despite changes in Jutland. Photo by Niels Peter Brogger

This contrast between real life in the outside world and Sonja’s life, most of which is her inner life of imagination (or her lack of it) persists throughout the novel, allowing author Dorthe Nors to entice the reader into drawing his/her own conclusions about all the characters as they respond to what is happening and to draw conclusions about Sonja, who never really sees herself as others see her. As Sonja imagines herself reaching out, as much out of boredom as timidity, the reader also comes to conclusions about how she behaves, whether she is succeeding, whether she is forming any long-term goals, and if she is connecting with others. Author Nors is clever with the way she compresses her writing and stays out of the picture here. She makes no clichéd commentary, pruning her details and observations into scenes which force the reader to fill in blanks. Some readers may become frustrated at the time it takes Sonja, a basically boring main character, to become more interesting, but as blanks get filled in and the novel develops, a reader cannot help but become intrigued by some of the subtle ironies and clever touches which make the novel fun and often very funny.

jaegersborg

Jaegersborg Deer Park.

In one early scene, for example, Sonja has an appointment with Ellen, her masseuse, who “is working on her butt” to persuade Sonja’s body to let the anger come out her mouth. While Ellen is working, Sonja herself is looking around, noticing that Ellen has left knitting on her kitchen counter. “Your buttocks are hard,” Ellen observes. “That’s because, if you’ll pardon a vulgar phrase, you’re a tight-ass with your feelings.” As she works, Ellen  recommends confrontation for solving Sonja’s problems, especially with Jytte, the aggressive woman at the driving school. “As a massage therapist, Ellen sees it as her job to decode Sonja, and Sonja’s only countermove is to decode Ellen,” something that does not happen in this scene in which Sonja, during the massage, is thinking about her sister and brother-in-law and her friend Molly, whose interest lies in the supernatural; about a former boyfriend; and about going to the Jaegersborg Deer Park on Sunday. Relaxation techniques and putting herself into the hands of Ellen are clearly not working as Ellen hopes they will, though Sonja enjoys the experience as much as she can enjoy anything over which she has little control. Cosmic forces, a fortune teller, and ghosts also catch Sonja’s attention at other moments in the novel as she tries to understand her world.

http://en.hjejlen.com/p/sejlplan/silkeborg/aftensejlads

When she was a child, Sonja took a school trip to Lake Jul, where she and her class rode in the Hjejlen paddleboat. She later bought a snowglobe of this as a souvenir.

Throughout the novel, Nors maintains the contrasts between life in Copenhagen and life in Jutland, primarily by showing Sonja and her relationship with her sister Kate, who is not only in a very different part of the country, and in a different relationship with her world, but is also very different in personality. Occasionally, Sonja will write a card or a letter to Kate, but she never mails it, and the two have little contact, increasing the sense of anticipation within the novel and adding to its effect as details unfold. Sonja’s reminiscences about Jutland, which she knows has changed dramatically, especially for farmers, also act as a visual foil for the settings in Copenhagen, helping the reader to see why Sonja is so conflicted – and sometimes bored. Both geographical areas – Jutland and Copenhagen – are described in ways which will make the reader long to visit the country for its natural beauty, a tribute to Nors’s descriptive skills and her obvious interest in nature. An unsuitable man who may be contemplating a flirtation with Sonja appears as the novel winds down, and a close reading of that relationship leads the reader to understand Sonja in a new way. The satisfying conclusion brings together all the loose ends and images which repeat throughout the novel, even including one unusual image of a brown sugar sandwich. In this short novel about people, relationships, and what we regard as home, author Dorthe Nors accomplishes wonders.

ALSO by Dorthe Nors:  KARATE CHOP   (Stories)

Photos.  The author’s photo, by Henning Bagger, appears on https://www.kristeligt-dagblad.dk/

The whooper swans are one of Sonja’s memories of childhood, and she is pleased that they are still living on the heath, despite the changes in Jutland since she left. Photo by Niels Peter Brogger.  https://www.dof.dk

Sonja and Ellen decide to go to the Jaegersborg Deer Park on the weekend after her massage.  https://www.pinterest.com/

Sonja recalls a trip she took with her school class at the age of twelve to Lake Jul, where the rode on the paddleboat.  Later she bought a snow globe of it to remember the trip.  http://en.hjejlen.com/

MIRROR, SHOULDER, SIGNAL
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Denmark, Experimental, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: DORTHE NORS
Published by: Graywolf
Date Published: 06/05/2018
ISBN: 978-1555978082
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note:  Tim Winton is four times WINNER of the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s highest literary prize, and was twice SHORTLISTED for the Man Booker Prize.

“I know they’re only stones. And the moon is only the moon. But they’re not empty things you know. The past is still in them. The force of events long gone, it lingers. These heavenly bodies and earthly forms, what are they but expressions of matters unfinished? Perhaps it’s not childish nonsense to see stones as men walking, to behold the moon and feel a tinge of dread. A stone is a fact, a consequence. And the moon, it marks a man’s days…a reminder every cycle that your moment is waning.” – Fintan MacGillis

cover shepherd's hutIn a novel widely regarded as the high point of his work to date, Australian author Tim Winton expands his view of the world and his ability to create fascinating, even symbolic, characters, placing them in circumstances in which they must take actions for which they may not be prepared. Set in the remote wilds of western Australia, where life is often raw and behavior sometimes lacks the constraints which “civilization,” by definition, requires, Winton creates two characters on their own – a young man, and a former priest living as a hermit, each one abused, and both trying to escape events which have marked them for life. Jaxie Clackton, a seventeen-year-old whose family life has been significant primarily for his beatings, has lived through the lingering death of his mother. His father, a man who seemingly obeys no laws and feels no sense of love for anyone, takes his own frustrations out on Jaxie, beating him mercilessly, sometimes for no apparent reason. Since the family has been totally occupied by their rural life, the butcher shop his father runs, his mother’s illness, and Jaxie’s own tendency to respond to school problems with his fists, Jaxie no longer attends school, and there are no adults who can step in and help him.

authorOne day after a particularly terrible beating which has left him with one eye so swollen that he cannot see out of it, Jaxie ponders a future without his father: “I spose it’s wrong to pray that someone dies… But I’ve thought about all the prayers. If that’s what I was doing them years…Asking something, someone, anything, for a big black anvil to fall from the sky like in the cartoons. Kerang! On Wankbag’s head. Because nothing else was gunna save [me]…” And then one afternoon, he gets his wish. He returns home to find his father dead, the victim of an accident while he was working underneath his truck. This is not a religious moment for Jaxie, however. “Praying to get someone killed? Not much philosophy in that.” Instead it is his signal to take off, fearing that someone from the police might think him responsible. Taking only a gun, his phone, and binoculars to help him survive in the wild, he heads north on foot, avoiding cars, trucks, and people, hoping to reach a town three hundred kilometers – almost two hundred miles – away, a place where he had a warm relationship with his female cousin Lee, the only person who has shared loving feelings with him in a long time.

Man with a bungarra lizard, a type of goanna, which Jaxie catches and roasts for a meal.

Man with a bungarra lizard, a type of goanna, which Jaxie catches and roasts for a meal.

Though Jaxie is soon thirsty and out of water, he still keeps his phone with him, as it has pictures of Lee, his cousin on it, but the images on the phone, too, soon run out. Eventually, he finds an abandoned shack with an old water tank, breaks down the door, and gulps water straight from the tap until he can hold no more. As he looks around the cottage, “That’s when I really saw how lucky I’d got. Because along the shelf was a bone-handle butterknife…[and] it had an edge on it. A gun’ll get you meat, no question, but with no knife you can’t hardly get to it.” In the next days he hunts, but he has little success, at one point succeeding in killing a bungarra, a goanna lizard, which he cooks and eats, but he has no way to preserve leftovers. When he eventually kills a “roo,” he strings it up into a tree and continues exploring the area, eventually finding a salt lake which might provide him with a way to preserve his meat. As he walks, he dreams of Lee and, despite his difficult situation, appreciates the sights and sounds of life around him, the vibrant descriptions of which are one of Winton’s trademarks.

A salt lake where Jaxie saves from salt to help him preserve meat.

A salt lake where Jaxie saves some salt to help him preserve meat.

Eventually, he sees footprints and wheel tracks, and desperate for more water, he investigates, finding a corrugated iron hut, not much better than the place he had found abandoned, but better built. A goat grazes outside, and inside he hears a man singing. Not able to escape because he needs enough water to get back to his own hut, he hides and observes the old man, who is singing “Wild Colonial Boy,” a song his mother used to sing. Suddenly, the man, who has given no sign that he is aware of being watched, says, quietly, “I’m a civilized fella. I’m not a fool. And I hope you’re no more fool than I. So let’s be civilized fellas together. There’s food here and you’re welcome to it.” Though Jaxie does not trust the man and does not respond, both are aware of each other, and the next morning Jaxie accepts water and food.  As the two size each other up, the old man is surprised that Jaxie has found him by accident. His name is Fintan MacGillis, and he is a former priest, now “marooned.” He thinks he has been living in “the shepherd’s hut,” for eight years, being visited only on Easter and Christmas by someone who brings supplies. He does not say why he is there alone.

A Euro, one of several mentioned in the book, a marsupial halfway in size between a wallaby and a kangaroo.

A euro, one of several mentioned in the book, a marsupial halfway in size between a wallaby and a kangaroo. Photo by John Milbank.

From this point, almost the midpoint, the novel becomes the story of two people, one young, one old, both of whom are trying to come to terms with their lives, the old man reconciled to his place physically, enjoying whatever beauties he can find in nature and the changing light, and the young man wanting, impatiently, to move on. Without changing the persona of either character, author Tim Winton subtly explores the ideas of heaven and hell, guilt and innocence, love and death, and the relationship between man and nature. The former priest used to think the hut “was Hell itself, a place filled with mirages,” a place that he says now serves as “protection for the guilty” instead, and he admits he is not ready to accept the “sacrament of Reconciliation” from the man who brings him supplies. Jaxie has no idea what he is “going on about,” and he stays on alert, fearful that the priest is a pedophile. Fintan says he has seen people pushed into pits with bulldozers, bodies stacked and burnt – and he understands death, even questioning if there is such a thing as a good death, but he does not say where he has seen these things.

old mine

One of many abandoned gold mines in the outback of western Australia.

As Jaxie becomes more aware of his own place in the world through his connections with Fintan and nature, he also becomes more impatient to see Lee. His desire to leave “the shepherd’s hut” and head north toward Lee and her family precipitates a climax and astounding conclusion which cements, for both men, the views they have developed about life over time. The symbolism is not religious in the traditional sense. Rather, it combines all the themes and ideas of the novel into a grand episode in which each man will have his own epiphany. Perhaps some readers, caught up in the intensity of this story, will join them.

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

The man with the bungarra, a kind of goanna lizard, is seen on http://au.geoview.info   Jaxie caught and ate one of these while desperate for food.

A salt lake in western Australia:  www.australiangeographic.com.au

A euro, mentioned several times in the book, is actually a marsupial, halfway in size between a wallaby and a kangaroo.  http://members.optusnet.com.au/  Photo by John Milbank.

Walking in the outback can be dangerous in areas where there are abandoned gold mines like these.  Jaxie steers clear of any area that looks as if people have touched them.  http://spiritland.net

THE SHEPHERD'S HUT
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Allegory, Australia, Book Club Suggestions, Exploration, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Tim Winton
Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Date Published: 06/19/2018
ISBN: 978-0374262327
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

It was one of the most notorious murders of its age. Galvanizing early twentieth-century Britain and before long the world, it involved a patrician victim, stolen diamonds, a transatlantic manhunt, and a cunning maidservant who knew far more than she could ever be persuaded to tell. It was…“as brutal and callous a crime as has ever been recorded in those black annals in which the criminologist finds the materials for his study.” – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1912.

coverThough the name of the victim, the circumstances of her murder, the trial of a suspect, and his conviction have long faded from public memory in England and Scotland – and have had almost no publicity at all in the US – the “dark drama” of this case takes on new meaning for a reader as soon as Conan Doyle’s name appears in the title of this book. Here Conan Doyle does not appear as an author inventing a story, however clever and astute his Sherlock Holmes novels may be. In this beautifully structured work by New York Times author Margalit Fox, Conan Doyle becomes instead a participant in the real life events.  He, like Sherlock Holmes, must carefully examine all aspects of a confusing case, the motivations behind the actions of all the people involved in it, and the end results, even when those differ from what he believes they should have been. Conan Doyle becomes human here, a man involved in trying to help an immigrant he believes has been used as a pawn by the police and public officials, one who has been the victim of false testimony by “witnesses,” and one who will eventually serve eighteen years of a life sentence before he is released from Peterhead Prison where he has spent his life at hard labor, mining granite.

Author Margalit Fox

Author Margalit Fox

Though Conan Doyle is mentioned in a few places early in the book, he is not an active part of the story until the second half of the book, which actually benefits from his delayed involvement in the narrative.  This provides author Margalit Fox with the opportunity to recreate the broad panorama of contemporary social and judicial issues which affected the outcome of this case, and she leaves nothing to chance. Even the selection of typeface for the book, one called Caslon, reflects the period in which the original case would have been printed and adds immeasurably to the visual effect of the book. Throughout, she refers to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by the name “Conan Doyle,” which is how he would have been addressed in his own time. She provides a three-page cast of characters at the end of the book for reference, along with a helpful glossary of legalese and local terminology (“identity parade” in place of “lineup,” and “production” in place of “exhibit,” for example). Twenty-four pages of photographs, including a small (and still readable) message carried in the mouth of a fellow prisoner, make the people, places, and details of the case come vitally alive for the reader.

The dining room where Miss Gilchrist was found murdered.

The dining room where Miss Gilchrist was found murdered.

The case itself involves Marion Gilchrist, a woman almost eighty-three years old, daughter of a prosperous engineer in Glasgow, for whom she acted as caretaker in his old age. While she was doing this, she also appears to have convinced him to change his will, leaving most of his estate to her, and omitting her siblings and their children. Then, a month before her own death, she changed her will, leaving everything to a former maid and her daughter – not the maid who had been working at her house for the past three years. The current maid, Helen “Nellie” Lambie, had left the house for ten minutes on December 21, 1908, to pick up a newspaper, and it was during this tiny window of time that Miss Gilchrist was murdered at home. When Nellie returned to the house after her errand, she passed a man leaving the house and indicated to someone that she recognized the man, the probable murderer, and that it was someone Miss Gilchrist knew well – otherwise, Miss Gilchrist would never have admitted him to the house. Nellie was also thoroughly familiar with the secret places in the house where Miss Gilchrist’s jewelry was hidden, and she would have been able to identify a key piece, a crescent-shaped brooch, the only piece of jewelry which was stolen during the murder.

Miss Gilchrist, Oscar Slater

Miss Marion Gilchrist, victim, and Oscar Slater, a German immigrant, also a victim of the times.

Using alternating narratives dealing with Miss Gilchrist and Oscar Slater, who was arrested and tried for the murder, Fox slowly reveals details, keeping the interest high, even though many of the facts of the case are known from the beginning. Slater, a Jewish immigrant, arrived in Scotland from Europe in the autumn of 1908. He had lived in Glasgow before, and briefly also in New York, London, Paris, and Brussels. Much of his wandering was with his mistress, some say a prostitute, while he was also working as a pimp, card sharp, and shady operator. He often used the alias A. Anderson, and he lived only five minutes from Miss Gilchrist at the time of her death. After the crime, however, the police found him gone, on his way to New York on the Lusitania. They arranged to have him arrested in New York and returned to Scotland, where he eventually faced trial, conviction, and a life sentence at hard labor. Though Slater had never been violent, he was an immigrant and Jewish at a time when anti-Semitism was strong, and the police, anxious to get the case off their hands, consistently ignored inconvenient facts and promoted new stories by witnesses whose changing memories kept Slater as the main suspect and eventually guilty party.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and real-life investigator of this mystery.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and real-life investigator of this mystery.

Conan Doyle was one of several writers and journalists who became interested in this case early on, but it was not until fifteen years after Slater had started serving his sentence that his case attracted enough interest for it to be reconsidered by the courts. Conan Doyle, a physician, applied some of the same kinds of diagnostics and emphasis on small details to raise questions about Slater’s case, just as he did with Sherlock Holmes. He also raised public questions regarding why the police pursued Slater so ardently when the evidence of his involvement was completely disproved in the first week of the investigation. Bigotry and his class identity obviously played strong roles in his conviction. This is not to say that Slater was in any way a diamond in the rough, but he was legally innocent, and Conan Doyle was instrumental in getting him released. Immediately following the release, however, his behavior so outraged Conan Doyle that any relationship they might have had disappeared forever. After withdrawing his own angry lawsuit against Slater, Conan Doyle eventually put the case to rest on a high note: “At the time, the man’s ingratitude hurt me deeply,” he wrote in 1930, “but I have reflected since that one could hardly go through eighteen years of unjust imprisonment and yet emerge unscathed.” A superb record of a real case involving Conan Doyle and a real murder in pre-World War I Scotland.

The old Peterhead Penitentiary, where Oscar Slater served eighteen years at hard labor.

The old Peterhead Penitentiary, where Oscar Slater served eighteen years at hard labor.

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

The dining room of Miss Gilchrist’s house, where her body was discovered:  https://commons.wikimedia.org

The combined photo of Miss Marion Gilchrist and Oscar Slater may be found on http://oldglasgowmurders.blogspot.com/

The portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is from https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com

The Peterhead Penitentiary, where Oscar Slater spent eighteen years, is shown on https://theukdatabase.com/

CONAN DOYLE FOR THE DEFENSE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Non-fiction, Mystery, Scotland, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Margalit Fox
Published by: Random House
Date Published: 06/26/2018
ISBN: 978-0399589454
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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