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“Desperation comes…there must be a hundred tourists right now who have filed police reports in Casablanca about stolen goods. You are just another one of them. Not distinguishable in any way…You hear the lie coming out of your mouth before you have time to think it through: “I’m a writer for the New York Times,’ you say. ‘I’m doing a travel story on Casablanca. I really don’t want to have to include this.’ ”

coverLight-hearted, full of fun, and set in exotic Casablanca, this novel by Vendela Vida may be just the thing to provide smiles and delighted “ah-ha” moments for anyone looking for a break. At the same time, it is a book which develops many variations on the theme of identity, all of which, while not exactly realistic, are still plausible and easy to envision in one’s own life under especially stressful conditions. With a smile in her voice, the author introduces an unnamed main character whose imaginative ruminations, spur-of-the-moment decisions, and panicked thoughts as she sees her life falling apart become those of the reader. Using the often unpopular second person point of view in which every thought and action which takes place is described as belonging to “you,” thereby drawing in the reader, the author introduces her main character in a time of great stress. The reader does not know, at first, why the main character has decided to come to Casablanca or what she plans to do there, but once she arrives at her hotel and signs in, she discovers that someone has stolen her backpack while she has been pre-occupied. Missing are her laptop, wallet, credit cards, all her cash, her camera, and toiletries.

Author Vendela Vida

Author Vendela Vida

A video camera has pictures of the theft taking place, though the speaker herself has to instruct the hotel employees how to retrieve the images from it.  The head of security recognizes the thief, supposedly a doctor there for a medical conference, but at the same time, he has not even asked her her name.  When she gets to a distant police station to report the theft, it is after 5:00, and she will have to wait until the following day. Not surprisingly, she begins to wonder if the hotel staff is in on the theft and how high up the conspiracy might go. Fearing that she might be in danger, she decides to change hotels but will need ID and a credit card. She is in luck. The police chief calls her to his office and tells her that they have found a backpack with a wallet and credit cards. Though the backpack does not belong to her, the police imply that this is the best they’ll be able to do, so she takes what they have found and discovers that the credit cards have not been canceled. They will enable her to change to a different hotel immediately – with a completely new identity.

Check-in desk at the hotel.

Check-in desk at the hotel in Casablanca.

As she is walking toward the hotel, she sees a film being made there.  The American actress who is the star greatly resembles the main character, at least from a distance.  This main character has always had a less than perfect complexion, which she tries to hide with makeup, but she is hired to be a stand-in for the lead actress.  The fact that she will be able to use stage makeup and a wig enables even more outrageous experimentation with who she is. When she meets the star, the main character drops hints about her past in the US, about her family, her relationships, and about her failed marriage. Several very funny scenes here beg to be made into a film, and when the speaker is invited to see a Patti Smith concert, she gets to experience what it is like to be trailed by paparazzi.

Patti Smith performing at a concert which the main character attends.

Patti Smith performing at a concert which the main character attends.

Photography, with its ability to capture images of life, becomes a subplot here, adding to the video, movie film, stories and names (real and invented), past history, and the manipulation of personal appearance, as the author examines every possible aspect of personal identity in this one woman’s life. During her appearance as a stand-in for the star of the film, the main character has an important moment of revelation and begins to feel “something that approximates joy.” She recognizes that “the film will come out, and though no one will know that you were in the backseat of this car, that you are the one whose scarfed profile appears in the distance, you will know. You will have existed. You will have proof that you were here.”

Rumi, a 13th century Turkish poet, whose poem made a difference in the main character's life.

Rumi, a 13th century Turkish poet, whose poem made a difference in the main character’s life.

Other symbolic images also appear, one of which leads to the title. The main character always loved swimming, but she became a competitive diver instead, explaining, “There’s a reason why you finally arrived at diving as your competitive sport. With diving your face was virtually unseen. It was all about the shape your body made in the distance as you dropped from a high board and disappeared deep into the water. By the time you came up for air, the judges had determined their score. It had nothing to do with your face.” Later, the speaker picks up a book of poems by Rumi, in English translation, and chooses a poem at random, “The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty,” the first stanza of which reads, “You’re sitting here with us, but you’re also out walking/ in a field at dawn. You are yourself/ the animal we hunt when you come with us on the hunt./ You’re in your body like a plant is solid in the ground,/ yet you’re wind. You’re the diver’s clothes/lying empty on the beach. You’re the fish,” an apt description.

American novelist Paul Bowles (1910 - 1999), who lived in Casablanca and elsewhere in Morocco for much of his life.

American novelist Paul Bowles (1910 – 1999), who lived in Casablanca and elsewhere in Morocco for much of his life.

The novel speeds along on the strength of the comic scenes, combined with enough thought-provoking thematic material to keep the reader engaged. Though this is not a highly literary novel like those of Paul Bowles, an American who lived and wrote in and around Casablanca for most of his life, it is great fun, and it does bring together many iconic scenes which lead the reader to question the multitude of issues involved in our daily lives which test who we are and where we are going. The conclusion, which will disappoint some readers, leaves much to the imagination, refusing to provide the reader with easy answers to questions which the main character has not yet faced. Some readers may also wonder about the author’s own name, whether it is a pen name, and whether it has any possible connections to the content. “Vendela” means “sell it” in Spanish. “Vida” means “life.” Author Vendela Vida has certainly sold this reader on the lives and identities lived and imagined throughout this very funny novel, despite her reliance on the dreaded second person point of view, which ultimately adds yet another level of identity to her story – that of the reader.

Hassan II Mosque

The Hassan II Mosque on the Mediterranean led to new insights for the main character.

Photos.  The author’s photo is from https://www.kcrw.com/

The check-in desk at a Casablanca hotel:  http://agazaclick.com/

The main character sees Patti Smith in concert, and learns first-hand about the problems of the paparazzi.  https://en.wikipedia.org

Rumi, a 13th century Turkish poet, wrote a poem called “The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty,” a poem which offers lessons to the main character.  https://mavloiman.files.wordpress.com/

American novelist Paul Bowles, who lived much of his adult life in Casablanca and other places in Morocco.  https://en.wikipedia.org/

The Hassan II Mosque led the main character to some new insights into her own family life.  https://www.pinterest.com/

THE DIVER'S CLOTHES LIE EMPTY
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Humor, Satire, Absurdity, Literary, Morocco, Psychological study
Written by: Vendela Vida
Published by: Ecco, HarperCollins
Date Published: 03/15/2016
Edition: Ecco
ISBN: 978-0062110947
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“Even the very worst memories are forgotten in the end, if you pile other ones on top of them, lots of other memories. Even the ones that have been etched on your heart, the ones that have left scars on your brain, even the most private ones. Particularly the most private ones. Because no one else cares about those.” – a policeman to Clotilde after the accident.

cover bussiIn this big, entertaining can’t-put-it-downer set in Corsica, best-selling French author Michel Bussi tells the story surrounding a terrible car accident which claimed the lives of three people in 1989 – the mother, father, and adored older brother of fifteen-year-old Clotilde Idrissi. Though she was injured, Clotilde survived the accident when the car her father was driving careened off a cliff, but she was so traumatized in the accident’s aftermath that she has never set foot on Corsica since then. Now, twenty-seven years have passed, and Clotilde has finally returned to the island from France with her husband Franck and her teenage daughter Valentine (Valou), hoping to resolve her residual fears and her questions about the accident. With impeccable pacing, author Bussi alternates the two time periods in successive chapters, creating in the odd-numbered chapters a vibrant narrative told by Clotilde as a fifteen-year-old vacationing on Corsica, and in the even-numbered chapters, creating a parallel narrative told by the now forty-two-year-old Clotilde as she returns to the island. Older, more sophisticated, but still curious, she is anxious to put to rest the questions she still has about the accident. An additional narrator provides a ghost-like third voice here, asking questions and providing commentary on the contents of a personal journal, believed lost, that Clotilde was writing on the day of the accident.

michel bussiBussi carefully delineates the personalities and backgrounds of the characters living on Corsica, and, in the case of Clotilde and her family, those who have come to visit and reconnect with family and people they knew from the time of the accident. The characters here are not easily confused, but this is a long novel, and the author is dealing with two different generations by the time of Clotilde’s return. Some readers will find it helpful to keep a character list to prevent confusion between the fathers and sons, with the same last names, and to distinguish among the former boyfriends and girlfriends from 1989, now married, but not always to the people they loved in 1989. Part of the novel’s length results from the author’s commitment to giving the histories and backgrounds of many characters as they appear here, as well as some of the history of Corsica itself and its traditions and attitudes. The novel is “full,” ripe with elements which author Bussi uses to increase the suspense and add depth to the mysteries throughout.

Renault Fuego, the four-seat sports car in which Clotilde's family was killed.

Renault Fuego, the four-seat sports car in which Clotilde’s family was killed.

The novel begins on August 23, 1989, as Clotilde Idrissi, her parents, and her eighteen-year-old brother get ready to drive from Arcanu Farm, the grandparents’ home in Corsica, to attend a concert in Prezzuna. Clotilde has been listening to her own music on headphones while she writes in her journal and has no interest in attending this concert. Her father, however, drags her away and insists that she join the family in the car, a beautiful red Renault Fuego, four-seat sports model. She leaves her journal behind, hoping that her grandmother will notice it and save it for her. Inside the car, Clotilde resents her father’s “silent rage” and seethes to herself about “this island that nobody cares about, their culture, their name, and the respect that was due to it.” As her father speeds along, Clotilde sees a tight curve ahead and is suddenly aware of their car continuing “on a straight line, like a cartoon, the hero running out into the void, then stopping, looking down at his feet in astonishment…then panic as he plummets like a stone” as the real world disappears beneath her. Both her parents and her brother have been killed instantly, though she has had only minor injuries.

Clotilde's favorite place to read and to escape the family is the Sea Calves Grotto

Clotilde’s favorite place to read and to escape the family is the Sea-Calves Grotto

From this horror, on August 23,1989, the author then turns the clock ahead to August 12, 2016, as Clotilde, now forty-two, leaves a small memorial beside the barrier on the road where her accident took place twenty-seven years ago. This section is then followed by her journal entry from August 7, 1989, two weeks before the accident, as Clotilde and her family drove ten hours from their home in Tourny, France, outside of Paris, to Genoa, Italy, for the ferry to Corsica. The first suspense of the novel begins when, at the end of this section, an unknown narrator comments that “she” had come back after twenty-seven years “to stir up the past,” and wonders “How far down would she want to dig? To which level of the sewers would she want to descend? How far along the foul tunnels of the Idrissi family secrets would she want to venture?” No clue is given as to identity.

Calvi's Citadel, where Clotilde wants to go to Tao, a restaurant at the top, which features cute, rich "arseholes on holiday."

Calvi’s Citadel, where Clotilde wants to go to Tao, a restaurant at the top, which features cute, rich “arseholes on holiday.”

This narrative pattern follows throughout the novel’s more than five hundred pages, with the 1989 sections gradually leading up to the crash on August 23, and the 2016 sections providing complications by revealing what has happened to people in Corsica and to the society itself since the accident. Many mysteries evolve as the narrative unfolds: Clotilde receives a letter in her mother’s handwriting; has her wallet and papers stolen; and meets a dog named Pacha, the name of her dog back in France. Evidence suggests that the steering column of the Fuego in the accident was tampered with, but by whom and why? And who has sabotaged a safety harness, worn by someone rapeling down a rock face? A cache of photographs from the 1989 accident disappears, a murder takes place, and relationships from the past change dramatically. Ghosts appear and disappear, the supernatural comes to life, and genealogies become confused. In short, the author keeps the pace of the action at warp speed while not neglecting characterizations.

A giant Moor's head, the symbol of Corsica.

A giant Moor’s head, the symbol of Corsica.

This novel is pure entertainment, fun to read in the summer, and exciting enough to keep a reader occupied during even the longest plane ride. The exotic setting on Corsica, one of the eighteen regions of France, adds to the excitement, revealing a society more like that of Sicily and or Sardinia than to Paris, its people honoring family traditions and histories that go back many generations. Though the novel is engaging and enjoyable, it is also a bit  “loose.” Some repetitions, unnecessary detail, and irrelevant information could have been eliminated to tighten up the narrative and make the suspense even more intense. Several summaries list questions which Clotilde has been trying to answer, but these take the narrative out of the moment and feel like unnecessary “reminders” to the reader in a novel which is already a bit too long.

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

The Renault Fuego, a four-seat sports car, was designed in a wind tunnel by Robert Opron, who also designed the various Citroen models in the 1970s.  https://www.cargurus.com

The Sea-Calves Grotto was Clo’s favorite place to read and to escape her family.  https://www.pinterest.com

The medieval Citadel in the town of Calvi overlooks the beach and harbor in the northwest of Corsica.  Fifteen-year-old Clo wanted to go there to a restaurant at the top, which features cute, rich “arseholes on holiday.”  http://cycling-passion.com/

The symbol of Corsica is this Moor’s head, which appeared on the ferry which Clotilde and her family took to Corsica from Genoa.  https://en.wikipedia.org/

TIME IS A KILLER
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Mystery, Thriller, Noir, France, Corsica
Written by: Michel Bussi
Published by: World Noir, Europa
Date Published: 04/10/2018
ISBN: 978-1609454425
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note: When William Trevor died in November, 2016, at age eighty-eight, the Guardian described him, a three-time WINNER of the Whitbread (Costa) Prize, as a writer who was “at his best, the equal of Chekhov.”

cover cheating canasta

“There was a pretense that Julia could still play cards, and in a way she could. On his visits they would sit together on the sofa in the drawing room of her confinement and challenge one another in another game of Canasta….Not that there was order in their games at all; but still her face lit up when she found a joker or a two among her cards, was pleased that she could do what her visitor was doing, even though she couldn’t quite, even though once in a while she didn’t know who he was…He cheated at Canasta and she won.” – from “Cheating at Canasta.”

 

author photo trevorWritten in 2007, this collection of twelve short stories by Irish author William Trevor, whom Michael Dirda in the Washington Post once described as “the best short story writer alive,” will restore a reader’s belief in the supreme ability of some writers to capture reality at a very specific moment, allowing all the subtle complications and emotional connotations to evolve for the reader. Trevor sees his characters for the ordinary, flawed people they are as they face seemingly ordinary problems sometimes made more complex by their own decisions made hurriedly, without concern for the possible complications. In the title story, Mallory is sitting alone at Harry’s Bar in Venice, a place made famous by Ernest Hemingway, where Mallory and his wife Julia had enjoyed their vacations not long ago. As the “fringe of the greyness that was to claim her so early in her life” became more pressing and she was no longer able to live at home, Julia had extracted from her husband a promise that he revisit the places they had enjoyed together and had loved so much. Having finally arrived on a hot day, however, “He felt foolish for being where he was, among people who were here for pleasure or reasons more sensible than his.”

Harry's Bar, Venice, made famous by Ernest Hemingway.

Harry’s Bar, Venice, made famous by Ernest Hemingway.

Suddenly, Mallory becomes aware that the young couple sitting behind him in the restaurant, is quarreling quietly, the wife looking like a child, and her older husband seemingly ignorant of her feelings, leaving Mallory to wonder “if they were what he’d heard called Scott Fitzgerald people.” The conversation which eventually follows between Mallory and this couple epitomizes Trevor’s ability to see the world from many different points of view, and, especially, to draw many different conclusions about what makes life worth living. His perfect details – the young bride pushing peas around on her plate, for example, and the couple’s subtle punishing of each other by references to other couples they know, add depth to the characterizations and the themes which Trevor continues to develop throughout this and the other twelve stories here.

sacred virginThe characters vary widely in these stories. In “The Dressmaker’s Child,” Cahal, a garage worker is working on a car when a young couple from Spain enters the almost empty town where he works, wanting to know how to find the statue of the Sacred Virgin of Puldearg, which is said to “weep.” For a fee, he is willing interrupt his work to take them to the site, now-deserted, thanks to declarations by the bishop and local priests that had “put an end to the cult” of this Virgin. An accident on the trip raises questions about godliness, as opposed to expediency, and the long-term effects of wrong choices. Similar issues about honesty and risk as they pertain to love arise in “The Room,” as an unfaithful wife is leaving a married lover who thinks he loves her. She, however, has begun to think she loves her husband more because she pities him for an event which took place some time ago. She is not sure what real love is, however, and how much risk and luck might play into her feelings of love and pity.

A character from Folie a Deux runs into an old acquaintance in Paris many years after this story. Photo by Dmitry Kostyukov.

A character from “Folie a Deux,” a collector of stamps. runs into an old acquaintance in Paris many years after this story begins. Photo by Dmitry Kostyukov.

Trevor does not limit his story lines to domestic issues, sometimes dealing with issues of life and death themselves. “Bravado” tells the story of two teenage boys who bully another teen with horrifying results, and the long-term issues faced by the one witness to the crime. In “Folie a Deux” the lack of effort by two children to prevent a death has a long-term psychological effect on one of them. In both these stories, Trevor’s examination of the thinking of the person who suffers guilt for inaction brings the characters to life, and their agonies involve the reader even when that reader is appalled by the original behavior and what it means for the future of these characters. “An Afternoon,” by contrast is an almost delicate story of two desperate people seeking romance and acting in what they assume to be their best interests as they search for some much needed happiness. Here a teenage girl makes overtures at a bus stop toward a man in his late twenties whom she has previously “met” on a chat line. The denouement shows that bigger issues are at stake than what either of the participants in this pickup may have known, and most readers will feel empathy for the young girl.

Bartholomew hopes to enjoy preaching when Iscarey, Clonbur, and Nead, rural town, combine under one church.

In “Faith,” Bartholomew hopes to enjoy preaching when Iscarey, Clonbur, and Nead, rural towns, combine under one church.

Major themes of love and loss, guilt and innocence, and good and evil, join with issues of sin and repentance, and selfishness and unselfishness to provide some serious insights within stories which are perfect in their style and structure. Trevor’s characters, their place, and their times come to life, regardless of their ages and their social positions, and the complications in their lives are ones which readers will understand and appreciate. This reader agrees completely with the New York Times Book Review (for an earlier collection, A Bit on the Side) that Trevor’s story collections are “treasures of gorgeous writing, brilliant dialogue, and unforgettable lives.” Reading this collection will restore one’s belief that truly great writing still exists, even in these days of the tweet and the sound bite.

ALSO by Trevor:  LAST STORIES

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

Harry’s Bar is shown on https://twoupriders.com/

The madonna photo may be found here:  https://catholicsay.com/

A character from “Folie a Deux” runs into an old acquaintance in Paris many years after this story. Photo by Dmitry Kostyukov.  https://www.nytimes.com

When Iscarey, Nead, and Clonbuy combine, Barthomew is hopeful that he will become a priest with a congregation.  http://www.hotelroomsearch.net/

CHEATING AT CANASTA
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Ireland, Literary, Psychological, Social Issues, Short Stories
Written by: William Trevor
Published by: Viking
ISBN: 978-0670018376
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Gene Kerrigan–THE RAGE

Note: This novel,  released to accolades in the U.S. in 2013,  won the Crime Writers Association Golden Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel of 2012.  Today, May 1, 2018, publisher Europa Editions has re-released it with a new cover.  The Wall St. Journal named it one of the Ten Best Mysteries of 2013.  This is the review I posted on Feb. 15, 2013.

“Cozy cartels, golden circles – whatever you call them, they’re as much a part of this country as the mountains and the bogs.  They watch out for each other…There’s no percentage in fighting a battle you can’t win.”

31689172_10155504829525905_9019789427383205888_nWhen Rose Cheney, a partner of Det. Sgt. Bob Tidey of the Dublin Police, offers these comments to Tidey, he is frantic to see that justice is done regarding some cases he has been working on, and not because he believes in some pristine concept of justice – he’d “long let go of the illusion that he was making the world a better place.  It was the effort that mattered.  To quietly accept the hopelessness, to fail to struggle, was to live without meaning.”  Tidey, a law officer for twenty-five years, is desperate to protect some of the people he knows as good, but he believes that the deck is stacked against them, possibly exposing them to death at the hands of criminals.  “Seeing in his head a sketched map of the world around him, how things were and what he had to do,” he has come up with a plan of attack against those who endanger the people and moral values he respects, and “He had to do it and he didn’t dare.  It had to work and it couldn’t possibly.  The consequences if he failed were dreadful, the consequences if he succeeded were hardly less so.”

Writing a complex novel which is the epitome of Irish noir, author Gene Kerrigan explores the gray areas separating clearly right from clearly wrong, and blurring the lines between good and evil so completely that it is impossible to find anyone in the novel who is not, at some level, a blend of both good and evil.  Standing on the O’Connell Bridge over the River Liffey, contemplating his future actions, Tidey believes that he has no safe options: a banker has been murdered, a nun’s life is in danger, and his own career is in jeopardy, regardless of whether or not he carries out the only plan of action he can think of.  There was “No moral thing to do.  But something had to be done.”

Ireland in the second decade of the twenty-first century is in the midst of an economic disaster.  The apparently plentiful money supply has dried up, leaving mortgaged houses worth less than they’d been purchased for and their owners owing millions.  Thousands of houses remain empty or unfinished.  Jobs have vanished, and factories and businesses have closed, an environment ripe for skirting the law in order to make enough money to live.  Tidey himself has taken a pay cut, but he knows that he, at least, will have a job.  Others whom he sees every day live on the edge, while a criminal underworld flourishes and expands into new areas as living conditions deteriorate.

The new Dublin Criminal Courts Building

Now, for the first time, Tidey himself is to appear in the new Criminal Courts Building as a witness, prepared to commit perjury in a case in which two “gobshites” in their late teens or early twenties decided to mock and then take on two young “uniforms” inside a pub. The Garda beat them dizzy and put them in jail overnight.  Though Tidey was present at the time, his philosophy is “When fools – in uniform or out – start a stupid fight, leave them to it.” The “gobshites,” however, turn out to have government connections, one of them the son of the Minister for Commerce and Justice, and their parents have hired legal heavyweights to fight the charges.

Kerrigan expands the picture of the criminal environment by including several other narratives within the novel.  Vincent Naylor, only ten days out of “The Joy” for beating up a clerk in a video store while he was looking for the complete “Columbo” series for his sick grandmother, is now available for post-prison “work.”  He has already committed murder for the crime bosses, though he has not been on the police radar for it.  He knows that “there are two kinds of work.  The routine stuff – that’s good for walking-around money…jobs that are safe and easy.  Then there’s the real thing – maybe not more than a couple of jobs like that in a year.”

“The Joy,” Mountjoy Prison

Vincent has the connections and the ideas to pull a significant robbery.  Unfortunately, he is also pathologically short-tempered, and this causes him continual problems – his extreme rage could even lead to loss of life, which would bring him to the attention of the Garda.  While setting up the robbery, Vincent is observed from the window of a street where he has left a getaway car.  Maura Coady, who has spent her entire adult life as a nun, becomes suspicious of two men leaving a car because they are both wearing plastic gloves.  She calls Tidey.  Her story further develops the theme of morality as a gray area.  However evil one may think of Victor (who yet loves his brother and his grandmother), one thinks of Maura as the epitome of good, but she, too, has a side darker than one would expect.

The honest employees of a security company who must follow orders from a criminal; Trixie, an ex-con who saves two lives in a fire, though it means that he may be arrested; various criminals with low profiles; and members of the police hierarchy who do not want to make waves, all play roles in the ensuing action and further develop the themes.  As the economic downturn gets worse, the willingness of seemingly honest people to perform acts they might not otherwise have considered increases, and the number of murders grows exponentially.

St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Maura Coady’s church of choice

Kerrigan’s talent at revealing the backstories of his characters, especially that of Det. Sgt. Bob Tidey, whose own marriage has collapsed, makes all these characters more realistic than one would expect of a novel which appears at first to be primarily a story of gratuitous murder within a seemingly civilized society.  Their moral quandaries, emphasized, are understandable, and are the main focus of the novel, despite the bloody violence. Harry Synnott, a former colleague of Tidey (and main detective in The Midnight Choir) makes a couple of brief appearances, and Tidey is often working with Rose Cheney, who also appeared in that earlier novel.  Kerrigan elevates what might have been a traditional police procedural to a new level here.  Despite the seemingly excessive number of characters and the violence, necessitating a running list of “who’s who” (for me), this novel, written in clear and unambiguous prose, achieves a higher level for the mystery story genre, one in which the emphasis on theme and character becomes at least as important for the author as the grim outcomes so common to this genre.

Also by Gene Kerrigan:  THE MIDNIGHT CHOIR ,     LITTLE CRIMINALS,     and     DARK TIMES IN THE CITY

The O’Connell Bridge

Photos, in order: The author’s photo by Derek Speirs, is from

http://www.crimethrillerawards.com

The new Dublin Criminal Courts Building appears on http://www.allspecglass.com

Mountjoy Prison, “The Joy,” and a description of life inside is from http://philipconnolly.wordpress.com

The Pro-Cathedral, where Maura Coady chose to worship, is depicted on http://www.schuttersgilden.nl

The O’Connell Bridge is seen on http://www.thesun.co.uk

THE RAGE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Ireland and Northern Ireland, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Gene Kerrigan
Published by: Europa
Date Published: 02/05/2013
Edition: Reissued, 5/1/18 under new World Noir imprint
ISBN: 978-1609450922
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note: Jane Gardam has twice been awarded the Costa (Whitbread) Award, and has been honored with the Phoenix Award for Children’s Literature and the Heywood Hill Literature Prize for her lifetime contribution toward the enjoyment of literature.

“All Hetty could think of was ink. There happened to be a bottle of blue-black Quink upon the table….It brought back to Hetty, and perhaps to her father in times past, examination rooms, the joy of easy questions, the knowledge that all the work had paid off. ‘I can do this!’ No joy like it. Page after page of wet, salt ink, blotted, legible, confident. It was ink that had freed her. Blessed ink. Ink for immortality. Stronger than history itself.”

cover flightEach new book by Jane Gardam is an homage to her own love of ink. Though a small number of other fine authors may come close to her in terms of prizes, awards, and even titles bestowed by Queen Elizabeth, Jane Gardam stands out among them for the sheer joy of writing which is so obvious in her novels. In The Flight of the Maidens, Jane Gardam is clearly having fun, and no matter how beautifully crafted her characters, how clever her use of irony, how accurate and often unique her descriptions, and how much empathy she may show for those who are having problems coping with the uncertainties of life, it is the “smile” which appears in her work which many of us love and celebrate. The Flight of the Maidens, written originally in 2000 and recently republished by Europa Editions, begins in 1946, as Britain begins its recovery after World War II, a time in which women’s issues began to become better recognized.

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Author Jane Gardam

Here, Gardam tells the stories of three seventeen-year-old girls from Yorkshire who are just finishing their school work. Much of the action surrounds Hetty Fallowes, who is “poor because her father, who had been four years in the trenches in the First World War, had returned miraculously unscathed in body but shattered to bits in mind.” He now works as a grave-digger. She and her gossipy mother do not always get along, and Hetty is not sure that she will be able to get the financial aid she needs for college, but she would like to study literature if she has a choice. Una Vane, “an owl of a child with sober manners who always had clean finger-nails,” lived a typical life until she was nine, when her father, a physician, walked out of his house and never came back. A victim of “the Somme,” her father had later been found dead below the rocks of Boulby Head.  She is anxious to study physics at university. Though Hetty Fallowes and Una Vane are friends, the third girl, Liselotte Klein, whom they know but are not close to, has always been an outsider to them, one of the many Jewish children who were smuggled out of Germany in 1939 and “adopted” by people in England who were committed to their schooling. Liselotte has had no confirmation about the fate of her family in Germany, but she looks forward to college and plans to study foreign languages.

Wright's Coal Tar Soap, the best description Hetty has for Eustace's scent.

Wright’s Coal Tar Soap, the best description Hetty has for Eustace’s scent.

As Gardam tells the stories of the three young women – still girls, really – she fills the action with vivid period detail, some of which conveys attitudes and subtle commentary. This is obvious when Hetty is introduced. She first met Eustace, the man in her life, at the vicarage the previous year. She was sixteen, and he was twenty-one, a lance-corporal in the Army, stationed locally. He declared his love after their second meeting, admiring her mind. Their frequent walks during the summer of the action here always involve discussions of books, and when they begin to kiss, at last, Gardam notes that Hetty “had been kissed before, at sweaty school dances and was becoming good at it. Eustace was not adept.” The lively Hetty continues to regard him as a boyfriend, somehow managing to “subdue the recent regret that he never laughed,” and when she picks up his watch band for him at a local watchmakers, she notes that “the leather smelled male. Somehow Eustace had not smelled male. He’d smelled of Wright’s Coal Tar soap.” He does help Hetty study for her entrance exams, however, and when she passes them, the whole world is surprised. As the summer and the pre-college activity involving Una and Liselotte also develops, Hetty’s attachment to Eustace is thrown into sharp relief.

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The view from the hostel where Una and Ray stay may be like this one from the Ghyll Mill Hostel in North Yorkshire, within biking distance of where these girls live.

Una Vane has been friendly with Ray, “a sharp-faced boy from the fish shop who belongs to a cycle club, and also with a gigantic girl called Brenda Flange, who has Amazonian shoulders and thighs.” The three of them go out regularly on their racing bikes, and gradually Una, a late bloomer, and Ray become a couple. Their chaste relationship continues, and though Ray eventually becomes a clerk on the London and North Eastern Railway, Una’s mother cannot help feeling that Una “could do a bit better.” Una eventually agrees to go away with Ray for a cycling weekend, where they will stay at a youth hostel in the high hills, where the “brick cottages out of which the youth hostel had evolved possessed one of the most spectacular views in England.” Their trip takes on new meaning when they are surprised to meet another couple there.

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Liselotte meets Carl outside King’s College in London.

Liselotte Stein, whose role is the smallest in the novel, is removed from the Quaker home where she has been living for several years and placed with a Jewish couple which has been rescuing stolen antiques and artifacts, storing them in their house, so crowded with “stuff” that all the inhabitants must sleep on couches. Eventually, Liselotte decides to find out the truth about her family and travels alone to find them.

The Notting Hill area of London, where Liselott lived with the Feldmans.

The Notting Hill area of London, where Liselotte lived with the Feldmans.

The novel reaches its climax at the end of summer as all three girls, now more mature, take off for their colleges in London. All have had “flights” from someone or something, and all have grown dramatically during their summer vacations. Gardam has told their stories with sympathy, drama, and plenty of action, making 1946 come alive for the reader. The social and class differences in England play a role in the plots, the reluctance to confront the Nazi terror and its aftermath is evident in the fate of Liselotte, and the importance of an education as an entrée to social acceptance is stressed. The resolutions to the stories of the three girls, however, are heavily dependent upon coincidence, and while Gardam does make the reader care about her characters, they are not as fully developed as they have been in other, less “crowded” Gardam novels. Delightful to read and revelatory of the period, The Flight of the Maidens will keep a reader fully occupied on a long plane ride or at the beach.

ALSO, by Gardam:  CRUSOE’S DAUGHTER,      GOD ON THE ROCKS,      LAST FRIENDS,     A LONG WAY FROM VERONA,     THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT,     OLD FILTH,     THE PEOPLE OF PRIVILEGE HILL,     THE QUEEN OF THE TAMBOURINE.

Photos. The author’s photo is from https://www.barnesandnoble.com/

Wright’s Coal Tar Soap, in business since the 1800s, is Hetty’s best description for Eustace’s scent.  https://www.youtube.com/

The view from the hostel where Una and Ray stay may be like this one from the Ghyll Mill Hostel in North Yorkshire, within biking distance of where these girls live in Yorkshire.  https://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/

Liselotte meets Carl outside King’s College in London.  https://www.studyacrossthepond.com/

Liselotte lived with the Feldmans in Notting Hill, an area like this one:  https://www.booking.com/

THE FLIGHT OF THE MAIDENS
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Coming-of-age, England, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Jane Gardam
Published by: Europa Editions
Date Published: 08/01/2017
ISBN: 978-1609454050
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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