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Roddy Doyle–SMILE

Note: Author Roddy Doyle is WINNER of the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award for The Guts (2013), WINNER of the Irish PEN Award for his contributions to Irish Literature (2009), and WINNER of the Man Booker Prize for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

“I can never resist your smile,” [Brother Murphy] had said. He’d seen me when I’d walked in the front gate on the first day. The Brothers’ house was beside the school. All the Brothers lived in there. Murphy must have been looking out the window of his bedroom, at all the new first-years as they arrived. And he’d decided I was the one….I had no big brothers; [so] no one had warned me about him.”

cover smile_1Author of eleven novels for adults, several collections of short stories, many novels for children, and numerous screenplays, including the BAFTA Award-winning screenplay for the film of The Commitments, Irish author Roddy Doyle writes what is arguably his most serious novel, the ironically titled Smile. His characteristic light touch and his humor, even during times of financial difficulties for his working-class Dublin characters, are almost totally missing from this novel, a first-person story of Victor Forde, a man who once wrote radio and newspaper stories about entertainment but gradually found himself unable to write anymore. Like his other novels, this one maintains a conversational tone, but here Victor is talking to himself most of the time, as he tries to figure out how he came to be in the circumstances in which he now finds himself – separated from his wife, living in a flat new to him, not far from where he grew up, essentially unemployed and lacking the ability to see his writing projects through to completion. Were it not for the fact that he has deliberately chosen Donnelly’s pub for his evening entertainment each night, he would have few, if any daily contacts with the outside world.

doyle (2)By alternating Victor’s thoughts as he deals with his current lifestyle changes in one set of chapters, and flashbacks to his childhood and earlier years in others, Doyle is able to create a broad picture of Victor’s background and how he became the man he is at present. When a stranger named Edward Fitzpatrick approaches him at the bar and claims to remember him from his childhood, Victor has no idea who he is or was, and it is only through strong hints from Fitzpatrick that he begins to think he might actually have known him. Before long, Victor is sorry that that he didn’t just walk out and keep walking, but even that would not have protected him from Fitzpatrick, who already knows where he lives. What’s more – he says he remembers him from his days at the Christian Brothers School which they both attended. Fitzpatrick’s references to Brother Murphy and his attraction to Victor and his smile upends Victor’s life, reminding him of some of the details of childhood he’d been happy to forget – along with the teasing he had to endure while dealing with his abuse.

Victor becomes obsessed with werewolves, vampires and zombies, whom he believes are real

Victor becomes obsessed with werewolves, vampires and zombies, whom he believes are real, resembling the Brothers.

Slowly, Victor’s story begins to develop, and some answers to questions about his life begin to appear. It is at this point in which Doyle reveals some of his genius at characterization through effective dialogue. The reader learns that Victor was married for years to Rachel Carey, a woman with whom he fell totally in love, and who loved him with the same enthusiasm. We do not know why or how they separated, but Victor’s reminiscences are lively and realistic, so much so that I was stunned by their effectiveness. I am not a male, not Catholic, and not Irish, but I was drawn completely into Victor’s Irish working class world, and I began to feel as if I were inside his head, sharing his thoughts with him while hoping that he would reveal more information. His vulnerability and his obvious suffering from his abuse by a priest make him a person with whom many readers will empathize. His psychological horrors come alive through Doyle’s choice of details. Chosen to be in a choir learning to sing a mass, he later discovers that this will be sung at a funeral which he and the rest of the choir will attend. His own father is dying, at this point, and his abuse coincides with that. To try to gain some power over his situation, young Victor becomes obsessed with films about werewolves, vampires, and zombies, whom he decides were real and about whom he constantly talks at school. “What the zombies reminded him of, he says, “dragging themselves, never giving up – was the Brothers.”

Victor sees Pierce Brosnan and Remington Steele as idols - he himself would like to go to America and become known there.

Victor sees Pierce Brosnan and Remington Steele as idols – he himself would like to go to America and become known there.

As Victor describes his growing up years and his life seems to become more normal, it is his overwhelming love for Rachel which helps to create his transformation. They love watching the TV series of Remington Steele: “We were kind of proud of Pierce [Brosnan], an Irishman holding his own in the middle of all that Americanness. That was where we were headed, I thought. America, or at least a bigger place.” As Rachel’s career takes off as a celebrity chef and radio personality, they decide to move into an apartment which they will build above Dublin’s Temple Bar, where Rachel has her kitchen, a place quite different from what it is now, with real people, a local population, and working class values, including “puking and shouting.” Victor becomes convinced, as he comes to know some of the people working on Rachel’s show, that “I had a book in me,” and he realizes, too, that “I’d fallen in love with an adult. I wasn’t a fraud; I was a slow starter.”

the-temple-bar #2

An early photo of the Temple Bar, from about the time of Victor and Rachel. Their apartment would have been on an upper floor above the bar.

The novel to this point feels like a well designed and well developed novel of character, especially the Irish character, and I would advise anyone who likes the sound of the book to this point and has plans to read it to avoid reading professional criticism of this book. A major surprise occurs at the conclusion, and it was spoiled for me by a professional critic who revealed the surprise in a review published by a major review venue. While I hold the critic and the journal’s publisher responsible for that sad eventuality, some of the fault may be Doyle’s. The surprise at the end comes abruptly – and even awkwardly – with no obvious preparation for the reader – and while others may be able to accept it wholeheartedly, there is an aura of trickery – for me at least – as the author resolves all the aspects of the novel very suddenly. This is not to say that the tour de force ending comes completely out of the blue, but it appears at a point at which the reader has already lived through many traumas with Victor, who is coming to some recognitions of his own. Ultimately, the ending feels contrived and artificial, and I think Doyle’s long-time fans deserved better.

ALSO by Doyle, reviewed here:  THE DEAD REPUBLIC,      THE GUTS,      A STAR CALLED HENRY

Photos:  The author’s photo is appears on https://www.independent.ie/

The 1968 poster of the Night of the Living Dead is from https://unfspinnaker.com/

The Remington Steele poster may be found on http://img.moviepostershop.com/

An early photo of the Temple Bar, from about the time of Victor and Rachel, appears on https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Roddy Doyle
Published by: Viking
Date Published: 10/17/2017
ISBN: 978-0735224445
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“If someone were to ask me what love is, I would say, The knowledge that, in a world of lies there is one person who is totally honest with you and with whom you are totally honest, and there is truth between you, even if it isn’t always spoken.” – Judge Devora Edelman

cover three floors upSet in an upscale apartment building on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, Three Floors Up might well have been called “Three Stories Up,” as each of the three floors in this building features a resident who has a story to tell in novella form. Dramatic and intensely personal, these stories have few overlaps among them, but as the author focuses on how each person manages his/her life within an Israeli society which is still growing and evolving, the reader becomes involved in the action, especially the psychological action, in ways quite different from most other fiction. Here the apartment building itself becomes overtly symbolic, a microcosm of the human psyche in general, which author Eshkol Nevo will describe in detail later in the book to tie together his themes. Whether this symbolism allows the author to depict a unique Israeli society and its turmoil more effectively, as some critics claim, or whether it simply provides a vehicle through which the author can emphasize how much these often damaged characters reflect human nature in general, will be up to the reader to decide. Powerful and absorbing, both in literary and emotional terms, these stories offer plenty of excitement, entertainment, and, ultimately, food for thought.

Author photo by Dan Porges

Author photo by Dan Porges

The first story, taking place on the first floor, focuses on Arnon, an aggressive, self-serving head of the household, a designer of successful restaurants, husband of Ayelet, and father of two young daughters, Ofri and Yaeli. Always looking for an advantage, Arnon has enlisted the couple across the hall, elderly German Jews, to act as babysitters for Ofri when he or his wife wants to go out. He reveals his character on the first page when he says, “A couple of pensioners like them have no idea what the going price for a babysitter is in the free market…which means that you can tell them any price you want. So we did. Twenty shekels an hour…The average price in our area climbed to forty, but we stayed at twenty.” Their daughter loves her caregivers, Herman and Ruth Wolf, and though Herman is getting old and a bit forgetful, they continue babysitting, as their pension is not enough to support them. Arnon’s true character, if any reader needs more examples, comes to the fore when Herman and Ofri go out for a walk and get lost one day. Arnon’s accusations against Herman when he eventually finds them – and later against a schoolchild who has bullied Ofri at school – lead to a major loss of control by Arnon.

Riding with a friend into the Goral Hills, Devora learns that as desolate as this area may appear, people can live in the crevices of the hills. There are even nine wells for the people and their sheep.

Riding with a friend into the Goral Hills, Devora learns that as desolate as this area may appear, people live in the crevices of the hills. There are even nine wells for the people and their sheep.

The second story, taking place on the second floor, involves Hani, who is writing to an old friend, Netta, now living in the US. Netta helped Hani survive a breakdown eighteen years ago, and as Hani worries about her current state of mind, she is hoping to hear from her friend again so that she can regain some control of her life. She had previously tried to contact her former psychologist, only to learn that the woman had died two years previously. “Something is happening, Netta, and I can’t tell anybody. But I have to.   I just have to tell someone…I’m scared now that if I don’t tell someone, I’ll just go crazy.” Married to Assaf, whose job takes him away from home for much of the year, she has two children, and she confesses to being jealous of Netta’s wonderful relationship with her children and with her husband. Suddenly, she is surprised by the arrival of Eviatar, her husband’s brother, at her door, a desperate man escaping his creditors, loan sharks, and soon, he knows, the police. His one night in Hani’s apartment becomes longer, as she hides him from the police and promises to find some money so he can escape the country.

As Devora and her friend continue to drive, Devora remembers spending time with her husband at remote Sde Boker, where they also saw an ibex and talked about having children.

As Devora and her friend continue to drive, Devora remembers spending time with her husband at remote Sde Boker, where they also saw an ibex and talked about having children, the son who no longer speaks to her.

The last and best developed story, tells the story of Devora Edelman, a widow and retired judge who writes messages to her deceased husband telling him the local news, including an experience she has had with Hani from the second floor, and some new information about the residents on the first floor. When she decides to go to a public demonstration to escape the apartment house, she passes out, waking up in a tent staffed by psychologists. Resting there, she overhears many conversations and is astonished that “not even once did any of those professional psychologists offer a moral opinion about the aberrant behavior being described to them,” even when one girl admits that she is on the verge of committing incest. The judge believes that the girl needed “to be told what’s good and what’s bad.” Ultimately, Devora helps the psychologists draft a bill, two administrative decisions, and an organized list for improving their working conditions. Other tents follow the lead of the psychologists in asking for Devora’s volunteered legal services. Gradually, she decides she needs to live her own life, instead of recording it for her husband, traveling instead to see new parts of Israel and expanding her view of the world and its choices. Her biggest challenge is the fate of her estranged son, with whom she has had no contact for over three years.

The Million Person March, a rally in Tel Aviv on March 3, 2011, a rally which marked a change in Devora's life.

The Million Person March, a rally in Tel Aviv on March 3, 2011,  which marked a change in Devora’s life.

By now, many who read this will be aware that the three floors of the apartment house represent the three aspects of Freud’s vision of man – the id (Arnon, on the first floor), the ego (Hani, on the second floor), and the superego (Devora, on the third floor) – a point that author Nevo also emphasizes about two-thirds of the way through the book, as he addresses the reader about what he is doing with the book, structurally. Devora questions whether this emphasis on Freud is valid and necessary, a question which I, too, have: For me, imposing this structure and floor-by-floor symbolism on a book which really does not need it, makes it feel artificial, its characters developed for the express purpose of illustrating a point, instead of letting the reader see them as somehow “real.” When, in the final three pages of the book, Devora has an epiphany, she throws the whole organization of the book into irrelevance.  “Alone, a person has no idea which of the three floors he is on and he is doomed to grope in the dark for the light switch” –  an  odd conclusion after the author’s active promotion of the symbolism of the floors throughout the novel.


Photos:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.ithl.org.    Photo by Dan Porges.

Bedouins and their sheep at a well in the Goral Hills:  http://c8.alamy.com

A vacation cottage at Sde Boker, where Devora and her husband talked, years ago, of having children, the son who no longer speaks to her.  https://www.tripadvisor.com/

March 3, 2011, the Million Person March in Tel Aviv, an event with great meaning for Devora.  https://www.haaretz.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Israel, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues.
Written by: Eshkol Nevo
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 10/10/2017
ISBN: 978-1590518786
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note: This book was WINNER of the Irish Book Award for Novel of the Year when it was published in Ireland in 2016. It was also WINNER of the Goldsmiths Prize.

“Oblivion…that fissure in creation where everything is consumed in the raging tides and swells of non-being, the physical world gone down in flames…and pulling with it also all those human rhythms that bind us together and draw the world into a community, those daily rites, rhythms and rituals upholding the world like solar bones, that rarefied amalgam of time and light…visible from the moment I get up in the morning…”

cover solar bonesMarcus Conway, a sensitive man in his early fifties, hears the Angelus bell, a call to prayer, upon returning to his house in the Mayo village of Louisburgh, where his family has lived for unnumbered generations. He is “pale and breathless” – confused, even – and notes that “There is something strange about all this, some twitchy energy in the ether which has affected me from the moment those bells began to toll, something flitting through me, a giddiness drawing me.” He has had a busy morning, with meetings and his job as a civil engineer, but he is home alone at last, his wife at work as a teacher, his artist daughter Agnes happy with her first art show, controversial as it was, and his son Darragh in Australia, exploring new worlds. Standing in his kitchen, he feels as if “there are thresholds to cross, things to be settled, checks to be run,” and as he picks up and reads the local newspaper left for him by his wife, he sees front-page stories telling that “the world is going about its relentless business of rising up in splendour and falling down in ruins with wars still ongoing in foreign parts… while closer to home, the drama is in a lower key but real nonetheless…you can feel the flesh and blood element twitching in them.”

Author Mike McCormack

Author Mike McCormack

As Marcus Conway muses about his life and family, and his village “blistered with shrines and grottoes and prayer houses and hermitages,” he sees the whole of County Mayo as a “bordered realm of penance and atonement,” with three young men starving themselves to death as a political statement, while a young hermit living in the hills, with the blessing of the Vatican, has just come forth with her message to the world: “Hell is real and it’s not empty.” She offers no message of a Redeemer. As Marcus continues reading the paper, he comments that “This is how you get carried away, sitting here in this kitchen carried away on an old theme swept up on a rush of words and associations strewn out across the length and breadth of this county, a hail of images surging through me while at the bottom of the page another story….” That story tells of a construction site which may become part of a massive toxic dump to process industrial and medical waste, and he ruminates on his own job as a civil engineer and his father’s work in construction on the original building on that site which has been shut down now for years because of its pollution – the walls, roofs and ceilings sheathed in asbestos.

Marcus Conway, like Mike McCormack, lives in Louisburgh, County Mayo, on picturesque Clew Bay.

Marcus Conway, like Mike McCormack, lives in Louisburgh, County Mayo, on picturesque Clew Bay.

With his mind in high gear, Marcus Conway continues his free-associating and his revisiting of memories, letting them flow, revealing himself to be an ordinary man with a big heart, some failings, and visions of the future to accompany his vibrant memories of the past. Here author Mike McCormack involves the reader directly in the action, creating an “experimental” novel which some have compared to Proust, Flann O’Brien, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce. Personally, I think those comparisons are unfair to McCormack. The main character’s free associations here have real structure, and the sense of place and time are vibrant and inclusive of the reader. The reader comes to know Marcus Conway and becomes involved in his life in ways that I, at least, have never experienced with Joyce and other experimental novelists, some of whom seem more interested in the experiments than in creating living characters.

Author McCormack creates a real, thinking man, and he does it through Marcus Conway’s memories. Early in the novel, for example, Marcus reminisces about his engineer father, who loved his Massey Ferguson 35 tractor. One day Marcus comes home from school to discover that his father has removed the engine, has broken it down into all its components, and laid it out on the floor – everything – because “it was burning oil.” Even at this young age, Marcus recognizes that “my father had succumbed to the temptation to take something apart just to see how it was put together, to know intimately what it was he had put his faith in…” For Marcus, however, “this may have been my first moment of anxious worry about the world, the first instance of my mind spiraling beyond the immediate environs of hearth, home and parish, toward the wider world beyond…my imagination took fright and soared to some wider, cataclysmic conclusion about how the universe itself was bolted and screwed together, believing I saw here how heaven and earth could come unhinged…” Forever looking for answers, if any, for the chaos in the world, Marcus Conway continues to reconstruct the details of his life, comments on any resolutions he has made, and goes on to the next issue, drawing in the reader who accompanies him on his “journey.”

Mentioned several times in the novel, Croagh Patrick is the site of pilgrimages. See more information in photo credits.

Mentioned several times in the novel, Croagh Patrick is the site of pilgrimages in County Mayo. See more information in photo credits.

I have not mentioned the book’s “elephant in the room” until now because it may be off-putting for some readers – as it was for me, at first: The entire novel is written as one, single sentence. What becomes obvious, once a reader gets started in this book, however, is that this is the perfect form for Marcus Conway’s story, as he starts reading the newspaper in his kitchen and then moves into aspects of his life, changing subjects and time periods, and revisiting scenes which have left their marks on him. These are, legitimately, the streams of Conway’s consciousness, and author McCormack makes sure that they connect into a whole as the reader continues reading. “Paragraphs,” break up the look of the novel and allow the reader some breathing space as the subjects and Marcus’s observations change, and I found myself becoming so involved in Marcus Conway’s life and comments about chaos vs. order in his and the world’s universe that I actually forgot that this whole book was only one sentence, so carefully does McCormack move from one subject to another and control the pacing of the story. Some anxious critics have given away the ending in their reviews, and that is sad. The author has carefully controlled the novel and that early revelation is unnecessary. Ultimately, this unique novel stands on its own, every aspect of it – including the one-sentence format – working to make author Mike McCormack’s novel a perfect amalgam of form and substance and a thrill to read.

home (1)

Achill Island, the largest island off the west coast of Ireland, near Croagh Patrick.

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

Louisburgh, County Mayo, is where narrator Marcus Conway and author Mike McCormack both live, on Clew Bay.  The small islands here are “sunken drumlins” from an early geological period.  https://i.pinimg.com/

Marcus’s father was obsessed with his Massey Ferguson 35 tractor, and when he took it apart to fix its “burning oil,” he inspired Marcus’s first exposure to what Marcus thought of as chaos in a universe which he had previously imagined as permanently bolted and screwed together.  https://img0.etsystatic.com

Croagh Patrick, 764 meters tall, gets over a million visitors a year.  According to Wiki:  “On the last Sunday in July, thousands of pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick in honour of Saint Patrick who, according to tradition, fasted and prayed on the summit for forty days in the year 441. Masses are held at the summit, where there is a small chapel. Some climb the mountain barefoot, as an act of penance, and carry out ’rounding rituals’, in which they pray while walking sunwise around features on the mountain.”  https://www.geocaching.com

Achill Island is the largest of the islands off the west coast of Ireland, in Clew Bay: http://www.achillproperty.com/

REVIEW. Experimental, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, unique format
Written by: Mike McCormack
Published by: Soho
Date Published: 09/12/2017
ISBN: 978-1616958534
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Jon McGregor–RESERVOIR 13

Note: Jon McGregor was WINNER of the IMPAC Dublin Award for EVEN THE DOGS (2012), at age thirty-six. He is also WINNER also of both the Somerset Maugham Prize and Betty Trask Awards.

“The missing girl’s name was Rebecca Shaw. When last seen she’d been wearing a white hooded top. A mist hung low across the moor and the ground was frozen hard. [Searchers] were given instructions and then they moved off, their boots crunching on the stiffened ground and their tracks fading behind them as the heather sprang back into shape. She was five feet tall, with dark blond hair. She had been missing for hours.”

cover reservoir On a New Year’s Eve in rural England, one would expect the cold to keep most people inside doing their celebrating, but Becky Shaw, a thirteen-year-old whose family has come to town for the holiday, has decided to go out. Leaving one of the “barn conversions” in the village, where she is staying, she suddenly vanishes. At dusk, her family comes running into town, shouting for help, and by the time the New Year is ushered in, a helicopter has been out searching for hours. The mountain-rescue teams, the cave teams, much of the village, and the police have found nothing, and a “thick band of rain [i]s coming in.” No one stands outside to watch the fireworks going up from nearby towns, and on the moor “there are flags [already] marking where the parents said they’d walked.” Divers are already searching the nearby reservoirs, and journalists and television crews have arrived. Within a week “the first snowdrops emerged along the verges past the cricket ground, though it seemed winter yet had a way to go.” No trace of Becky Shaw has been found.


Jon McGregor celebrates his IMPAC Dublin Award for EVEN THE DOGS in 2012.

With this dramatic opening, British/Bermudian author Jon McGregor paves the way for his primary story – the more internal, domestic activity which accompanies the search for Becky Shaw. The whole town is involved in trying to find her, but as time passes without any clues, her disappearance gradually becomes a backstory to the life which continues within the community, a story which features many characters each of whom is trying to make a living and find happiness, despite sometimes ominous odds. The vicar asks the police to keep the media away from the special service that she plans to hold for Becky and the community, reminding parishioners that there is really no comfort for anyone directly affected by the disappearance, that the goal of the service is instead to allow them to be uplifted by faith and enabled to help Becky’s family. The longer Becky is missing, the more involved the community becomes in their own lives. The local school children, Becky’s age, react as thirteen-year-olds might be expected to act, thinking first about their own needs and regarding Becky’s disappearance as a sad “story,” not quite real.

A buzzard builds a nest and draws the attention of the narrator. Note how different it is from an American buzzard.

A buzzard builds a nest and draws the attention of the narrator. Note how different it is from an American buzzard.

Month by month, the investigation proceeds, including reconstructions with actors, a search for a red LDV Pilot van, and continued general searches, to no avail. Gradually, the townspeople return to their own problems. The owner of the van, once discovered, has a shady background, leading some to fear that he might be connected with big crime, and that any statements they make regarding the van’s owner might leave them subject to serious reprisals. Several people see Becky in dreams. Her father is constantly searching for her, and her mother is out walking the moors regularly, until the father decides to return to London, while the mother remains in the village. Some of the teenagers themselves decide one night to do their own search inside a mine, only to get lost on the way out and arrive home very late, to the fury of their frightened parents.

The pretty little fieldfare appears regularly in the imagery of the moors and woods here.

The pretty little fieldfare appears regularly in the imagery of the moors and woods here.

Nature and the life of a farm community become the major focus of the novel, as the lambing season gets underway and the cattle is taken out to pasture. Everyday life has its demands and responsibilities, and everyday observations are included in paragraphs which casually juxtapose ominous notes about characters against the ordinary: “Dawn was a way off yet, and wet when it arrived. Jackson had a stroke and was taken to the hospital and for weeks it was assumed he wouldn’t be coming home.” Strokes, of course, are also part of life, not even deserving a separate paragraph here. Still, each year on New Year’s Eve, Becky’s plight surges back into the community’s consciousness, as everyone speculates about what she would look like, where she may have been, whether or not she is still alive, and even whether anyone in town might be holding secrets.

A badger in his sett, an animal which lives a communal life, featured here in several scenes.

A badger in his sett, an animal which lives a communal life, is featured here in several scenes.

Love stories blossom: Sally Fletcher, married to Brian Fletcher, finds herself drawn to National Park Ranger Graham Thorpe after a “butterfly safari” on which she is the only participant. A couple, long barren, suddenly find themselves pregnant with twins, their care eventually creating personal problems regarding the mother’s work at the BBC. A local man, long absent from the community, returns to spend some time with his mother and wants to reconnect with his girlfriend from high school, now a widow. One couple separates, moves, then reconnects. Another woman returns to live with her brother, hiding from the world, for unknown reasons. A new resident arrives with mysteries accompanying her, vague about where she is from and why she is moving in during the winter. One boy confesses to his parents that he knew Becky Shaw much better than anyone suspected. In the midst of events like these, a white top with hood, identical to what Becky was wearing when she disappeared, is found “in a clough on the top of the moor.”

A syrup made from rosehips is supposed to keep people from getting colds during the winter.

One character makes this elixir from rosehips to protect her family.  Because of its huge proportion of Vitamin C, it is supposed to keep people from getting colds during the winter.

Glorious descriptions of nature provide both irony and context for the lives of the characters here, as McGregor refuses to elevate humans and their lives above animals and their instincts. All animal life, he shows, is subject to unpredictable forces of nature, and no real symbolism is seen in his choice of animal imagery. American readers of this review will note that the buzzards mentioned several times here are quite different from those death-seekers with which we are familiar, resembling the red-tailed hawk more than the vulture-like creatures of the American west, and McGregor does not single them out as symbols any more than he does the pretty, little fieldfare, a bird resembling a more colorful sparrow. The badger has its own community, its sett, which may not be very different on the surface from any other small community including the town in which this action takes place. We are all connected, McGregor asserts. Some of us are just luckier than others. Sensitive and filled with the magnificence of nature, Reservoir 13 puts humans in their place within the animal kingdom while also showing how love can make our lives more bearable.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo is from https://alchetron.com/

A pair of nesting buzzards is an image of renewal during one spring.  http://www.davidchapman.org.uk/

The little fieldfare plays its own role in the imagery here.  http://www.discoverwildlife.com

The badger in its sett lives a communal life and is featured in several scenes here.  http://www.davidchapman.org.uk/

An elixir made from rosehips is supposed to protect from colds during the winter due to its richness in Vitamin C. http://www.whatdadcooked.com

REVIEW. Bermuda, England, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Jon McGregor
Published by: Catapult
Date Published: 10/03/2017
ISBN: 978-1936787708
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“It was very hot that summer, and we were sure no one would find us there. In the afternoons we would walk along the embankment to the most crowded part of the beach. Then we would walk down the sand looking for a tiny place free where we could lie on our beach towels….We were like everyone else, there was nothing to set us apart from the others, those Sundays in August.”

cover sundays augustMost of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano’s novels echo with memories of his own early life and his efforts to come to terms with his parents’ abandonment of him before he was even in his teens. This novel is different, however, unique, a stand-alone. Main character Jean is sensitive, observant, and emotionally free to love, as the main characters appear to be in most of Modiano’s other novels, but in this novel, the main character does not feel like a substitute for the author. Instead, Jean is a young, rather naïve young man, caught in circumstances that he regards as more of a mystery than the serious crime that readers may conclude it to be, a conundrum which he does not fully grasp. Jean is almost certainly a pawn in the hands of clever criminals, rather than the victim of childhood traumas which typify Modiano’s main characters in his other novels. The mystery here, which may even include murder, begins after the novel’s action has concluded offstage, as the opening lines of the novel set the scene seven years after the action has taken place. Flashbacks, reminiscences, and overlaps between the events from the past and events in the present take place as Jean and the reader are forced to consider what really happened, especially when some of the earlier characters suddenly reappear in the present.

Patrick Modiano at his Nobel Prize ceremony.

Patrick Modiano at his Nobel Prize ceremony.

As the novel opens, Jean is alone on the Riviera in Nice, a different environment from Paris, which becomes almost a character in most of Modiano’s other novels. Living in a furnished single room in a residential complex which was once the beautiful Hotel Majestic in Nice, Jean, a photographer, leads a relatively simple life, far different from the Riviera’s glitzy, often superficial activities designed to suit every desire and offer quick solutions for every impulse. The largely transient population creates an oddly shifting morality which makes absolute rules irrelevant in the party scene. Although seven years have passed, Jean remains haunted by events from his past, unable to reconcile his conflicting feelings about them. Then, suddenly, Jean sees a former acquaintance from seven years ago, Frederic Villecourt, on the street, selling elegant leather jackets and fur coats from the back of a van at “American [bargain] prices.” Within a few moments of connecting with Villecourt, Jean and the reader learn that a woman named Sylvia and Villecourt “weren’t actually married. My mother opposed the marriage….She would have cut me off if I had married Sylvia.” Though the background related to this declaration is not clear, at this point, the reader quickly learns that Jean had lived with and shared what he believed to be true love with Sylvia for many months after her time with Villecourt. He cannot understand why she lied to him about her marriage, even continuing to wear her “wedding” ring, insisting that she and Villecourt were married, nor can he believe Villecourt’s insistence that he himself was the only man that Sylvia ever really loved.

The former Majestic Hotel, converted to apartments and rooms, where Jean is living as the novel opens.

The former Majestic Hotel, converted to apartments and rooms, where Jean is living as the novel opens.

Soon another flashback describes the arrival of Sylvia by train in Nice, where Jean has finally found a quiet place for the two of them to live in a small pension. Her arrival is discreet – though discreet, perhaps, only by Riviera standards. Around her neck she is wearing the Southern Cross, a large and magnificent diamond with a storied past. First mentioned in histories as having been stolen from the countess du Barry in 1791, the Southern Cross was later sold in 1795, stolen again in 1917, again in 1943, and once more in 1944. Its owners had been guillotined, murdered, shot, and two had disappeared. The reader soon knows more about the history of this mysterious diamond, in fact, than about the main characters. It is this lack of specific knowledge and the emotional distance among these characters which dramatically increase the suspense, keeping the reader unclear about references and wanting to know more. How did Sylvia get the diamond, where did it come from, who is behind the financing, and what role will Jean play in its potential sale, are among many questions which are never answered directly. Gradually, as the flashbacks delve deeper and deeper into the events which have led to these mysteries, the reader begins to draw his/her own conclusions about characters and their possible motives.

To avoid crowds, Jean and Sylvia often spent time at the Jardin d'Alsace-Lorraine watching the children play at the playground.

To avoid crowds, Jean and Sylvia often spent time at the playground of the Jardin d’Alsace-Lorraine, watching the children play.

Halfway through the novel, as Jean and Sylvia are exploring their lives together in Nice, following a separation from the rest of the group, Jean declares that “I feel at ease [now] in this city of ghosts where time has stopped,” though he admits “that I have lost a certain resilience…I float like the other inhabitants of Nice.” Looking back at this time from seven years forward, he also sees that “we lurched this way and that to try to fight off the torpor overwhelming us. The only solid, consistent thing in our lives, the sole inalterable point of reference, was the diamond. Had it brought us bad luck?” Slowly, the outside world becomes more persistent in invading the lives that Jean and Sylvia have been guarding, and the need to sell the Southern Cross, becomes more immediate. A potential buyer has been located.

The iconic Negresco Hotel, where Jean meets some characters at the bar, looms over the Promenade des Anglais.

The iconic Negresco Hotel, where Jean meets some characters at the bar, looms over the Promenade des Anglais.

Though the reader knows from the opening of the book, seven years after the events, that Jean is not a winner, nor is Villecourt, who is selling jackets and coats, mysteries still remain, even at the end of the novel, and it is up to the reader to draw conclusions. The atmosphere throughout is “blurry,” as one critic described it, filled with a sense of loss and big questions about life and the immediate past, present, and future. As the novel swirls, incorporating a broad sense of time, rather than a clear beginning, middle, and end, its “conclusion” feels tentative, reflecting the mysteries not only of the novel’s action but of Jean himself and his relationships. Anxiety rules here, and as Jean says, near the end, “our anxiety didn’t come from our contact with that cold stone with glints of blue – it came from life itself,” a conclusion fitting for a novel in which the mysteries outweigh conclusions and life has no easy answers, if any answers at all. One of Modiano’s most unusual novels, Sundays in August is darkly fun to read without being “light,” and thoughtful without being “heavy,” always intriguing in its views of a young main character trying to figure out his confusing world.  Sensitively translated by Damion Searles.


NOTE:    Readers new to Modiano who are looking for a book which will provide the greatest information about his background and a good introduction to his style may want to begin with SUSPENDED SENTENCES.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo at his Nobel Prize ceremony appears on https://www.nobelprize.org/

The postcard from the Hotel Majestic, now converted into apartments and rooms, where Jean lives at the time the novel opens, is from http://cartepostale-ancienne.fr

The children’s park at the Jardin d’Alsace-Lorraine may be found at https://www.bienici.com

The iconic Hotel Negresco, where Jean meets some characters at the bar, is shown on https://www.pinterest.com/

REVIEW. France, Literary, Mystery, Noir
Written by: Patrick Modiano
Published by: Yale University Press
Date Published: 08/29/2017
Edition: Margellos Collection
ISBN: 978-0300223330
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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