Monday, March 30, 2015


Recently our Book Club read “Stoner”, a wonderful 1965 novel by John Williams which had gone out of print until its success in France led to its reissue in the United States. It reminded me that one of the books on my 'Hope to Get To' list had a similar history. I had read an article in the New Yorker about Australian writer Elizabeth Harrower, whose works had been out of print for many years until, in 2012, the Australian publishing house Text reissued them and persuaded her to publish her last novel, which she had withdrawn just before it was to be released in 1971. The article declared The Watch Tower to be her greatest novel, so I decided it was time to read another forgotten work.

Although the story is set in the Australia of the 1940's, I kept being reminded of novels from earlier times. Laura and Clare Vaizey are not orphans like Jane Eyre, but they might as well be. Their heartless mother yanks Laura out of her academic high school so that she can support the family, then abandons the girls completely to return to England. Laura sacrifices her own dreams and attempts to save her sister's future by marrying Felix Shaw, her boss at the factory where she works. Harrower describes him as “a swarthy nuggety man of forty-four who looked closer to fifty”. All I could think of was poor Dorothea stuck with boring, insensitive Casaubon in "Middlemarch".

But Felix turns out to be much worse than the pompous Casaubon; in fact, he proudly compares himself to Bluebeard. What follows is a harrowing psychological tale, as Clare attempts to escape the toxic household that Felix has created around Laura and herself. If you've ever wondered why a woman stays in an abusive marriage, this novel provides a vivid case study.

Harrower's language is precise and controlled, sometimes witty, always honest. The story was terrifying, but I couldn't look away.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Story Time

It's always nice to have someone read to you, especially when it's a writer you admire. The special treat of The New Yorker:Fiction podcast is that the reader, a New Yorker fiction writer, chooses a story that was published in the magazine and that he or she particularly admires. After the reading, the writer and fiction editor Deborah Treisman discuss the story and its author. Sometimes I know the author well; I may even remember having read the story. But at other times it's a revelation.

That's what happened in January when Joseph O'Neill, who wrote the wonderful novel Netherland, read Muriel Spark's short story “The Ormolu Clock”, originally published in the New Yorker in 1960. The story was terrific and O'Neill's admiration for her technique and her 'nastiness' made me enjoy it even more. Spark is best known for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, but I wanted to try one of her less known works, so I settled on The Girls of Slender Means.

The 'girls' are living in London in the spring of 1945 in an Edwardian mansion called the May of Teck Club, which “exists for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means”. Somehow Spark manages to make this large cast of women of different ages, experience and ambitions into fully realized characters, as they were in 1945 and as they are when she revisits them many years later. In the early chapters the tone is light and droll, as when she describes one resident: “she lolled in the distinct attitude of being the only woman present who could afford to loll”. But she subtly weaves a darker thread into the story, and a tragedy ultimately colors many of their lives.

I'm not sure I liked this book as much as I liked the short story on the podcast, but may that's because I like being read to by an Irishman.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Household Help

At first it seems to be a story revealing the changes in society in post World War I London of 1922. Frances Wray and her mother, once part of a genteel family living in an elegant Edwardian home, are forced to dismiss their servants, do their own cooking and housework (actually Frances does it all – her mother can't even boil water), and rent out their upper floor to married couple Leonard and Lilian Barber, The Paying Guests of Sarah Waters's novel. The Barbers are roughly the same age as Frances, but from a lower social class. Lilian's flapperish style - kimonos, paper flowers, feathers, beads and tambourines – is a striking contrast to Frances's staid and sober demeanor, although it is gradually revealed that she too led a more bohemian life before her family's reversals forced her back home to her mother.

So would this book be a nuanced examination of the clash of social classes? Decidely not. What starts as character study turns into an action-filled, high tension page-turner which is at once dark, shocking and occasionally comic. I hate spoilers so I'll say no more. Sarah Waters tells a tale that feels totally authentic to its time period but bracingly contemporary.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

An Irish Portrait

It seems appropriate that I start the new year with an old favorite. I've always had a soft spot for Irish writers, and Colm Tóibín, whose Brooklyn was one of my favorites of 2009, has written another powerful book. Set in Enniscorthy, a town in southeastern Ireland, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nora Webster tells the story of a middle-aged woman whose husband, a much beloved schoolteacher, has died of heart disease. Nora is struggling to deal with her loss, and to help her four children, especially her two young sons, come to terms with this new reality.

And honestly, not a whole lot happens. The book is the story of Nora's everday life. She sells a vacation cottage she can no longer afford, she goes back to work, she worries about her older son's stutter and his withdrawn attitude, she discovers a love for classical music and an interest in singing. There are no fireworks, no dramatic upheavals (although the events of Bloody Sunday are referenced), no shocking revelations. But that's what I love about Tóibín. His understated prose and matter-of-fact narrative carry a force that I can't explain. He revealed in an interview that he lost his own father at a young age, and that the stammering, angry son Donal is a version of himself. Maybe that's why his plain language seems to carry so much emotion.

Nora is no saint – at times she's not even very likable. Her evolution is gradual, but by the end of the novel she has squared her shoulders, faced her grief and moved forward into life. Tóibín has painted a subtle, honest portrait of a ordinary but complicated woman.