A novel of the troubles: Louise Kennedy, Trespasses

Louise Kennedy, Trespasses (Bloomsbury paperback, 2003; 20221)

Mrs TD urged me to read this novel when she’d finished it – especially as its protagonist shares my family name. Louise Kennedy writes about the region she grew up in: the Belfast area of N. Ireland. Trespasses is a powerful novel set there early (late 1960s-early 70s) in what became known as ‘the troubles’.

Her central character is Cushla Lavery. Her first name is Irish Gaelic for ‘beat of my heart’ or ‘darling’. One of the features of this divided community is that people are usually identifiable as either Protestant or Catholic by their names (‘Cushla’, being a Gaelic name, would immediately indicate that she was Catholic), the schools they attended, or the towns or areas they live in.

Cushla’s family pub is in a relatively quiet and peaceful area, in that theirs is a Catholic-run business, but the clientele are largely local Protestants (some of them associated with the paramilitaries), or British soldiers who don’t interact with the locals, including Cushla, very sensitively. They were supposed to be peacekeepers and restorers of order, but their behaviour (in Kennedy’s fictional scenario) is hardly likely to make the volatile atmosphere any calmer.

Cushla is a young primary school teacher, and takes under her wing a seven-year-old Catholic boy whose family are in a dangerously exposed position, as they live in a predominantly Protestant part of town. There’s a touching love story. Not surprisingly, given this tinder-box environment, not everything turns out well.

This might all sound a bit grim, and it is. Some of Kennedy’s characters are intended to show how intolerance and prejudice fuelled the flames of the troubles (a fiery priest, a rather creepy headteacher, those boorish soldiers). But there are others portrayed with such warmth and sympathy that the humanity and potential for love and kindness are shown as not entirely destroyed in the midst of all the terrorist atrocities, bombs and killings.

I can’t say much more about the plot without spoilers, so I’ll restrict myself to that very sketchy outline. As a person whose family has its roots in this region, I found Trespasses particularly moving: despite all the pain and suffering, the hatred and bigotry that form the background to the novel, Kennedy succeeds, while avoiding sentimentality or over-simplification, in making us care for her central characters, and believe that the forces of decency, humanity and kindness can still just about survive in such dreadful circumstances.

Isabel Allende again

Isabel Allende, Violeta. Bloomsbury, 2023. First published in Spanish 2022. Translated by Frances Riddle.

I just looked back at the last time I posted on this Chilean-American novelist: I wrote briefly about her previous novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, back in March 2020. National lockdown in England had just started, so much of the post was about the effects of this.

My reservations about that novel were similar to those I felt with this one – although it’s a more engaging read. They both suffer from an excess of heavily imposed socio-political commentary. This would arise more naturally if the reader was able to deduce what’s going on without being lectured.

It’s another powerful family saga, once again spanning decades of the lives of a Chilean family. There’s a rather unconvincing narrative device: centenarian Violeta is supposedly telling her life story to her beloved grandson. For me, the narrative would have been less clunky if it was just a conventional account.

Some readers might find one of this novel’s central features – the misogynistic, macho culture of Chile in which domestic abuse of women was rife – hard to stomach. But it’s a brave and unflinching aspect of this woman’s story. She learns to face up to the reality of her philandering partner’s cruel treatment of her, and to find the energy and courage to face him down.

That last novel was set during and after the Spanish Civil War, and told of the flight of defeated Republicans to safe haven in Chile. Violeta tells the story of a family’s turbulent life through Chile’s financial crisis following WW1 and the flu epidemic, and that country’s fluctuating political history as it passes from democracy to military dictatorship then back to a kind of democracy again. Violeta’s family is ruined financially, goes into self-imposed exile in the far south (exile is not surprisingly a key theme for Allende), and her struggles to restore their fortunes. Along the way she learns to open her eyes to the realities of the political, social and economic systems in Chile.

The characters are more rounded and convincing this time, and I found reading their story a pleasant way to pass two long train journeys.

Isabel Colegate, Orlando King

Isabel Colegate, Orlando King. Bloomsbury, 2020. (First published in three volumes, 1968, 1971, 1973.

June reading part 2.

Isabel Colegate’s trilogy published as Orlando King is an odd one. I liked it, with some reservations.

A boy with disfigured feet, raised in near isolation on a remote island in Britanny by a reclusive scholar, accidentally kills his biological father (not knowing his identity) and goes on to marry that man’s wife – technically his mother. Later, bereaved and half blinded in a WWII blitz bombing in London, he goes to Tuscany in lonely exile, joined by his daughter Agatha.

It’s the Oedipus story, of course, as dramatized in Sophocles’ Theban plays. Agatha is Antigone.

In vol. 2 Orlando and Agatha become very close in Italy. She persuades him to return to the UK. The business he’d built up there in vol.1 – and become rich, as well as a celebrated MP – is to be taken over by one of the arriviste post-war tycoons. This is the sociopolitical element in the trilogy: the decadence and decline of Britain and its former empire, and its transition into a second-string power.

The third volume shows the aftermath of Orlando’s death (surely not a spoiler, given the clearly stated parallels in the first pages of vol. 1 to the source material). There are numerous swanky parties, and serial adulteries continue (Orlando and his late wife were both culprits). Agatha-Antigone’s story involves her criminal act in trying to help her brother Paul out of a serious scrape with the law (let’s face it, he was a traitor). As a consequence she herself is arrested, and Paul doesn’t come out well from his attempted escape.

That very sketchy outline of some of the basic plot details, updated cleverly from the Greek source, doesn’t do justice to what’s more than just an interesting experiment in adapting a classical, seminal story. It’s very well written, and keeps the interest in what is after all a familiar story from flagging through stylistic innovation and nuanced characterisation.

There are numerous abrupt shifts in time and place, similar to cinematic jump-cuts. There are lyrical and evocative descriptions of settings, with socially insightful accounts of the upper echelons of society pre- and post-war. Some of the scenes involving the Evelyn Waugh-type ‘smart set’ get a little tiresome – most of these people are loathsome drones, or self-consciously, superficially clever.

Isabel Colegate was writing about a social class with which she was familiar. Her father was a Tory MP, she was brought up in a lavish country estate, and was a cousin of the Duchess of Kent. It’s no surprise that Julian Fellowes has acknowledged a debt to her work in his scripts for the film Gosford Park and the popular TV series Downton Abbey  – both of which portray the privileged life of the landed gentry (and the less privileged fates of those who serve them).

Many of Anthony Trollope’s novels also deal with this world half a century or so earlier. He too exposes the strengths (such as they are) and weaknesses of the upper classes in Britain, their hypocrisy, snobbishness and sense of entitlement, as well as corruption and self-interest in the related worlds of politics and high commerce.

I daresay these three novels won’t appeal to everyone, but they’re well worth a look, if you can stomach some of the awful people you’ll meet in them. Even physically beautiful Orlando is a deeply flawed protagonist: selfish, vain and unethical. He’s a sort of innocent Candide figure, as a result of his unusual upbringing in his island retreat, but he rapidly learns to become as effortlessly amoral and lacking in conscience as his fellow businessmen and politicians once he’s returned to Britain.

Colum McCann, TransAtlantic

Colum McCann, TransAtlantic. Bloomsbury (2013). 295 pp.

Fragments of narrative from different periods of history with different characters gradually coalesce and cohere into a story about endurance, conflict, love and loss – and lots more in between.

Colum McCann TransAtlantic coverTransAtlantic opens in Newfoundland in 1919. Alcock and Brown make the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic to Ireland. That Canadian-Irish connection is one of the elements that binds the fragments together. A local reporter of Irish descent, Emily Ehrlich, and her photographer daughter Lottie, cover the story. Lottie gives a letter to Brown and asks him to deliver it to the recipient in Ireland. The fate of that letter, what happens to Lottie and others around her, form the basis of the novel.

One of the other elements is the slightly incongruous story of a fund-raising/lecture tour of Ireland made by the former slave Frederick Douglass, who was campaigning to raise support for the abolitionist cause. The people he meets are part of the mosaic of narrative fragments that form the final finished picture of the novel.

We also see Senator George Mitchell as he commutes between his American home and family and the peace negotiations he chairs in Northern Ireland.

These various narratives are told with verve and plenty of local colour. There are weak characters and strong, sad and happy. Just as in real life. Many of them have their lives destroyed by war, terrorist acts and humankind’s general capacity for cruelty.

Somehow for me it didn’t entirely work: the parts are better than the whole. Partly I think the complex structure is over-contrived. Also the prose style has some irritating features. I’ve complained about this kind of thing before, I know, and I should maybe be less picky. But McCann loves making paragraphs and sentences out of tiny fragments, perhaps because he thinks this reflects the novel’s larger structure. Here’s a random example; a middle-aged woman stands and watches Douglass across a crowded room – she hasn’t seen him for years, and recalls the last time, when she was just seventeen and a housemaid:

Standing outside Webb’s house. Bidding him goodbye. The early Dublin light. The shaking of hands. So unusual. The creak of the carriage. Later the butler, Charles, rebuked the staff. How dare you. The smallest moments: they return, dwell, endure.

The prose here is perhaps a reflection of the fragmentary nature of the woman’s fleeting thoughts and memories, those ‘smallest moments’. But almost every page has at least one paragraph in that similar staccato style. Where we’re not privy to a person’s stream of consciousness/thoughts. It’s just the narrative style. Too many minor sentences. Like these.

McCann is also capable of some beautifully lyrical descriptive passages. I’ll end with a couple of examples, to redress the balance of this post. Here a group of people is driving in a car towards Wales:

They pulled up to the edge of a field and watched a falconer ply his art: the bird being trained on the end of a string, the long curl of his flight slowly learning its limits. It hovered a moment, then landed superbly on the falconer’s glove.

I’m not sure I fully grasp the significance of how ‘his’ and ‘its’ combine in that sentence, but that adds somehow to the almost mystical nature of this apparently inconsequential scene. Except the novel started with two aviators’ long ‘curl of flight’ across the ocean, learning their limits and those of their warplane converted into a transatlantic migrant – a raptor trained to land peaceably, superbly, in an Irish bog.

And again, a scene that becomes of central significance – an Irish lough:

The lake was tidal. It seemed to stretch for ever to the east, rising and falling like a breathing thing. A pair of geese went across the sky, their long necks craned. They soared in over the cottage and away.  They looked as if they were pulling the colour out of the sky. The movement of clouds shaped out the wind. The waves came in and applauded against the shore. The languid kelp rose and fell with the swells.

There are some lovely images, rhythms and sounds there – it’s prose poetry. Once more it’s more than just decorative scene-setting. Birds in flight remind us of that transatlantic flight. The image of the waves ‘applauding’ shouldn’t work, but does. Same with the awkward aptness of the clouds’ movement that ‘shaped out the wind’. Why ‘out’? It’s the wrongness of the word that’s right for this aerial event.

Not an entirely successful novel, then, but it has some fine moments and stirring scenes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Norway and Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius

Oslo opera house

Oslo opera house with the almost finished new Edvard Munch museum to its right

This is my first post since returning from a break in Norway. Three days in Oslo, a lovely city, with floating saunas in the harbour opposite the dramatic sloping roof of the Opera House – designed to look like a glacier. You can walk to the top and get a great view from the top.

Long train trip to Bergen, which at first we found a letdown after Oslo, but it grew on us. Then the Hurtigruten ferry (the name means ‘rapid route’) up the coast, over the northernmost tip of the country and back down yet another fjord into Kirkenes (‘church on a promontory’) just a few kilometres from the Russian and Finnish borders to the south and east. It was one of the most bombed cities in WWII, and has suffered greatly over the years from invasions and occupations by hostile forces.

Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius coverI read the two books I took with me. First was Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius. Picador paperback, 2015, 339pp. 19651. This was the first in a bundle I bought for a ridiculously low price from the Book People, a budget UK online bookseller. Jacqui Wine recommended this at her blog as the best one to start with.

I enjoyed the crisp, intelligent writing style, and the observations of characters were astute. In this respect EJH reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor: both writers are good at depicting lonely, unfulfilled, thwarted women. Esme is particularly well drawn: at 58 she’s spent the past twenty years as a widow, her eponymous husband Julius having sacrificed his life by sailing single-handed to assist at the Dunkirk evacuation, with no previous maritime experience. It’s an act of suicide, for he’d discovered Esme was having an affair.

Esme’s lover Felix is fourteen years her junior, the love of her life, and she’d hoped when her husband died that they’d at last be able to be together. She’s disappointed. Now, twenty years on, he’s invited himself to a weekend at her country house in Sussex. Her two daughters are there, both also unhappy in love.

The narrative is structured with poise and skill: the three parts deal with the three days of the weekend, with frequent glimpses into the past lives of the main characters that gradually explain how they’ve become the people they are. Five of the chapters in each part take the restricted viewpoint in turn of each of these main characters, with the sixth being a culminating set group piece, usually ending in disaster or farce. Events become complicated, enlightening or humiliating for all of these five characters, as revelations are made that transform their views of themselves and each other. There’s some dark humour to leaven the rather melodramatic plot, and a particularly poignant section in which, in flashback, the fate of Julius is recounted.

It’s a novel of set pieces, such as country house meals and rural walks. Descriptions of interiors and the outdoors are delicately done, integral to the unfolding of character and relationships. The housekeeper’s cat is a fine feline portrait.

Like Jacqui, however (link to her post here) I had grave reservations about some of the sexual relations. Howard is astute about the dawning sexual liberation of the early sixties, with some frank and touching insights into its consequences. It wasn’t the outspokenness that disturbed me; it was her portrayal of abusive and controlling treatment of women by some of the male characters without any apparent sense that this was reprehensible. Unfortunately this ruined for me what had otherwise been an entertaining and well written novel.

The men are weakly done, too. Esme’s anxious and vulnerable younger daughter Emma has brought home an uncouth, working-class boor called Dan Brick (apt name) who we are intended to believe is a poet. She works at the family publishing firm, and he’s supposed to be a literary genius. Yet he shows no sensitivity to or interest in language, culture or people. He’s an inverted snob, scorning the privileged lives of these wealthy people from a world so different from his. He’s a character who doesn’t ring true at all, and this seriously weakens the novel. I found it impossible to believe that a young woman like Emma would be attracted to such a brute.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by Esme’s former lover, Felix, either. Like some of the other characters he attempts to reconcile conflicting moral impulses (Dan wouldn’t even begin to understand such a concept), but ultimately he too behaves like a cad.

I was left at the end thinking that Howard wanted in some way to punish these lonely, desperate women. She shares some of the acerbic wit of Elizabeth Taylor’s narrators, but little of their generosity.

There’s another review of After Julius by Caroline here

I enjoyed the second book much more: Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know will be the subject of another post. There may be more on Norway, too.

 

Patricia Highsmith, Carol

Patricia Highsmith, Carol. Bloomsbury pb, 2014. First published in the USA as The Price of Salt in 1952

Squeezing this last post in this month before I go on my travels, so there’ll be a hiatus here at TD for a while.

I’ve not read Patricia Highsmith before, but had read some very positive reviews of her psychological thrillers, and have seen films like Strangers on a Train (directed by Hitchcock in 1951) and The Talented Mr Ripley. Carol is very different.

The author explains in an Afterword that the inspiration for the novel came in 1948, soon after she’d finished Strangers, and was living in New York. Being short of cash she took a temporary job in a department store as a sales assistant in the toy department. Like Therese in the novel, she was assigned to the doll section:

One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat.

Patricia Highsmith, CarolShe went home and wrote up an 8-page story outline in her notebook. This was one of those germs of an idea that Henry James has written about; they simmer in the author’s mind for a while and then emerge as works of fiction.

Here’s how the scene plays out in the novel:

Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were grey, colourless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by them, Therese could not look away.

The 19-year-old Therese, an aspiring stage set designer, has had a coup de foudre. What follows is a compelling account of a passion that turns out to be mutual, but beset by the hostility and prejudice against lesbian relationships that were prevalent at the time – and still are, sadly, in some places.

Carol is a wealthy housewife in her thirties, married but soon to be divorced. Her husband uses the situation to ensure he is awarded custody of their little girl.

Therese and Carol go on a road trip out west. They are being followed by a detective hired by the husband. He’s as cynical and unsympathetic as the man who hired him, and the society that spawned them both. The cat and mouse pursuit and suspense that follows is heart-stopping and makes for a compelling read.

Carol was played beautifully by Cate Blanchett in the 2015 film (directed by Todd Haynes).

Not surprisingly, Highsmith published the novel in 1952 under an assumed name; her usual publisher wouldn’t touch it because of its lesbian theme. Big mistake: it sold over a million copies when it came out in paperback.

There’s an excellent introduction in this Bloomsbury edition, by Val McDermid. As she says, it’s ‘a polished and accomplished work’. I recommend it.

 

Husband as new daddy: Patrick McGrath, Constance

‘I have a husband now, I thought, a new daddy’.

This is Constance Schuyler (Dutch for ‘scholar’), now Klein (German for ‘small’ – an ominously symbolic start), on the first page of Patrick McGrath’s 2013 novel Constance. At no point is there any doubt that this is going to be a Freud-heavy account of a turbulent marriage of mismatched, needy people.

Both central characters, who take turns to narrate the story in their first-person voices, bring more baggage to the relationship than Antler. Constance (the ‘klein’ one, and not very constant in most respects) is haunted by the mysterious death of her beloved mother when she was a child, and the troubled (she sees it as cruel) upbringing by her controlling, unloving father – about as close to Big Daddy as a New England doctor can get.

So what should a young woman just turned 20 with ‘inner fragility’ and sense of self esteem do? Why, marry a man 20 years older who’s just like daddy, Sidney Klein (he’s the scholar; the reversal of the expected names serves no purpose, and if anything is just an ill-judged trick). This English expat literature professor is controlling, constrained. His patronising view of Constance from the outset is as ‘a work in progress’ which he’s confident he can complete, she’s ‘unformed and indistinct’, like his tedious academic study of the Romantics. It’s hardly surprising he’s blocked: he appears to be trying to analyse their poetry with the literary approach of a vivisectionist. It’s the only one he knows.

This novel is pretty good for about half its length. There are some well narrated set pieces, like the party at which Constance’s younger sister Iris meets Sidney for the first time, revealing herself to be wild, sexy and uninhibited – qualities Constance may well possess, but which she’s learned to suppress (along with most of her other impulses and memories). Descriptions of a decaying, dangerous New York City in 1963 are often vivid, especially the recurring scenes in Penn Station as it’s demolished and rebuilt, but soon become a tiresome metaphor for something, I’m not quite sure what: Constance’s marriage, maybe, or her psyche.

The alternating narrative voices overlap and repeat scenes with differently skewed perspectives. This technique is interesting at first, but then becomes another slightly irritating aspect of this ultimately disappointing novel.

Characters (and ghosts) come and go, but they fail to cohere with the events and lurid developments in the narrative. It all ended too pat for me, and too much resembled an early, minor Hitchcock film. The plot twists are melodramatic or soapy, the characterisation too contrived and clunky – though the Casaubon-like Sidney is oddly endearing (he drives a big Jag, like Inspector Morse, but with none of that detective’s gloomy charisma). The Schuylers’ ‘gothic horror house’ (yes, that’s what it’s described as at one point; there’s too much of that kind of narrative heavy-handedness) and Klein’s equally gloomy book-filled Manhattan apartment are too stagey, and the dialogue is largely stilted.

McGrath, ConstanceA pity – the only other McGrath novel I’ve read so far was Asylum (I wrote about it here last August), a much more satisfying gothic psychological thriller.

The edition I read was the Bloomsbury paperback. Not keen on that cover.