Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Illustration by Pieter van Eenoge for the
NY Times review of '
The Bone Clocks'
I adore David Mitchell. Each of his novels has left me flabbergasted, and I'm wondering what ailed the Man Booker Prize committee this year when they left The Bone Clocks off the short list.  (Mind you, I haven't yet read any of the novels that did make it onto the short list, so this is unadulterated, uninformed favouritism on my part.)  If they are as or more stunning than this book, I'd better get to reading them.

As with most of his previous novels, The Bone Clocks is a stunning example of literary architecture. In an interview on the radio show, To the Best of Our Knowledge, Mr. Mitchell says he is basically a writer of novellas. By breaking his novels into short pieces that span centuries and continents, he's able to indulge this need to write shorter, very diverse bits of fiction, which he then links together with overlapping themes or characters.  The link in The Bone Clocks is Holly Sykes, who appears as a teen-aged runaway when the book opens in 1984 and as an elderly grandmother in a very grim 2043 when it ends.  Various characters -- some human, others supernatural and "atemporal" -- come into and leave Holly's life in the book's seven chapters.

All of David Mitchell's architectural wizardry would seem contrived and pedantic if he didn't people his stories with characters who reel us in. The voice of Holly, who's run away from her working-class family in Gravesend, is so real that it makes me wonder where the persona of David Mitchell went when he was channeling her. Holly, after finding her older boyfriend in bed with her best friend, takes off on foot and ends up finding work on a strawberry farm.
Blue sky, fresh air, aching back but three pounds richer than I was when I picked my first strawberry. At eight-fifty, we start picking again. At school right now, Miss Swann our form teacher'll be taking the register, and when she reads out my name, there'll be no reply. "She's not here, miss," someone'll say, and Stella Yearwood should start to sweat, if she's got half a brain, which she has. If she's bragged about nicking my boyfriend, people'll guess why I'm not at school, and sooner or later the teachers'll hear and Stella's going to get summoned to Mr. Nixon's office. Maybe a copper'll be there too. If she's kept schtum about nicking Vinny, she'll be acting all cool like she knows nothing but she'll be panicking inside. So'll Vinny. Sex with a bit of young fluff's all well and good, I s'pose, as long as nothing goes wrong, but things'll look pretty different pretty quickly if I stay at Black Elm Farm for a couple more days. Suddenly I'm an underage schoolgirl whom Vincent Costello seduced with presents and alcohol for four weeks before she vanished without a trace; and Vincent Costello, twenty-five-year-old car salesman of Peacock Street, Gravesend, becomes a chief suspect. I'm not an evil person or anything, and I don't want Jacko or Dad or Sharon to lose sleep over me, specially Jacko, but putting Vinny and Stella through the mangle at least a bit is very, very tempting."

In the second section, we make an abrupt shift to Cambridge, and the narrator is a sociopathic student named Hugo Lamb. He's brilliant and amoral, a hedonist and womaniser. Perhaps it's his lack of empathy that makes him completely oblivious to the fact that the gorgeous woman who materialises in a pew across the aisle is not quite... normal. In any sense. They will meet again, but not under the sort of circumstances Hugo might have wished for.

Benjamin Britten's 'Hymn to the Virgin' launches, chasing its echoey tail around the sumptuous ceiling before dive-bombing the scattering of winter tourists and students sitting there in the chancel in our damp coats. For me, Britten's a hit-and-miss composer; prolix on occasion but, when pumped and primed, the old queen binds your quivering soul to the mast and lashes it with fiery sublimity...
The hairs on my neck prickle, as if blown on. By her, for example, sitting across the aisle. She wasn't there when I last looked. Her eyes are closed to drink in the music so I drink her in. Late thirties --vanilla hair, creamy-skinned, beaujolais lips, cheekbones you'd slice your thumb on.
Hugo jets off for a ski holiday at the Swiss chateau of one of his wealthier classmates. The four young Cambridge men haunt the posh clubs and bars at night, which is where Hugo meets a bar maid named Holly (with whom he's inexplicably smitten) and scores some first-class cocaine from the club owner.
I deposit the last of my coke in a swirl on the mirror and -- kids, don't try this at home, don't try it anywhere, Drugs Are Bad -- toke it up my left nostril in a powerful snort. For five seconds it stings like a nettle being threaded down my throat via my nose, until -- We have liftoff. The bass is reverberating in my bones and godalmightythat'sgood ...
Tiny lights I can't quite see pinprick the hedges of my field of vision. I emerge from the cubicle like the Son of God rolling away the stone, and inspect myself in the mirror -- all good, even if my pupils are more Varanus komodoensis than Homo sapiens.
(Yes, that is a reference to a Komodo dragon. Hold that thought.)  Meanwhile, Hugo returns to his group's table to find that his three companions have found some lovely African women to keep them company. They deride him for declining the company of a fourth one, but he, for once, steers clear. The following morning, his intuition proves to have been keen as the women demand enormous sums of cash in payment. When the three lads get stroppy about it, the women ring up their pimps.  Hugo pockets the cash he'd won from them in poker games (ignoring their calls up the stairs to him to give the money back to pay off the knife-wielding goons) and jumps out the window.  Back in the village, he buys a paper, orders a coffee and watches the scene at the ATM machine across the street from his seat at the cafe where Holly works.
Here Quinn makes three withdrawals with three different cards, before being frog-marched back. I hide behind a conveniently to-hand newspaper. A Normal would feel guilt or vindication; I feel as if I just watched a middle-of-the-road episode of Inspector Morse. "Morning, Poshboy," says Holly,
What did you do to your ankle? You're limping."
"I left my old accommodation a la Spiderman."
"And landed a la sack-of-Spudsman."
"My Scout pack did the Leaping from Buildings to Escape Violent Pimps badge the week I was away."
Holly, although she sees through Hugo's flirtations, somewhat grudgingly offers him shelter during the approaching blizzard. What she does not see at first is that, for once, Hugo's interest is genuine.
I watch her fingers, her loopable black hair, how her face hides and shows her inner weather. This isn't lust. Lust wants, does the obvious, and pads back into the forest. Love is greedier. Love wants round-the-clock care; protection; rings, vows, joint accounts; scented candles on birthdays; life insurance. Babies. Love's a dictator. I know this, yet the blast furnace in my ribcage roars You You You You You You just the same, and there's bugger-all I can do about it. The wind attacks the window.
Unfortunately, the associates of the beautiful woman in the Cambridge chapel are also genuinely interested in Hugo, and he disappears before he can pursue any rings or joint accounts with Holly.

The following chapter is narrated by Ed Brubeck, a childhood friend of Holly's, now the father of their young daughter, Aoife. Ed is a war reporter, and he and Holly are at odds -- he's addicted to his work, and she wants him to spend more time at home. Aoife, not surprisingly, is precocious and articulate. Much like David Mitchell, who blithely tosses a Komodo dragon into another chapter.
"Mummy wants to be a dolphin," says Aoife,"because they swim, talk a lot, smile, and they're loyal. Uncle Brendan wants to be a Komodo dragon, 'cause there're people on Gravesend Council he'd like to bite and shake to pieces, which is how Komodo dragons make their food smaller. Aunty Sharon wants to be an owl because owls are wise, and Aunt Ruth wants to be a sea otter so she can spend all day floating on her back in California and meet David Attenborough."
While attending a family wedding in the UK, Ed's thoughts continually flash back to the war in Iraq, which he describes with a clarity that was notably lacking in the politicians who organised it. Lacking, in fact, in some of the "soldiers"who fought it remotely.
A drone circled above us. It would be armed. I thought of its operator, picturing a crewcut nineteen-year-old called Ryan at a base in Dallas, sucking an ice-cold Frappuccino through a straw. He could open fire on the clinic, kill everyone in and near it, and never smell the cooked meat. To Ryan, we'd be pixellated thermal images on a screen, writhing about a bit, turning from yellow to red to blue.
Making his way back to Baghdad after a trip to Fallujah with his Iraqi photographer and fixer, Ed detours to see an American helicopter that's just been shot down. Arriving just after them, a group of Marines orders all the onlookers flat onto the ground, and Ed fears for his Iraqi colleagues' lives. He announces himself as a British journalist, and the commanding officer gives him a dressing-down that's a pointed warning against black & white sympathies.
Major Hackensack looked at the black marine and shook his head, then turned a malevolent gaze my way. "You just see a sewer-mouthed military man, don't you? You just see a cartoon character and a platoon of grunts. You think we deserve this" -- he nods at the wreckage -- "just for being here. But the dead, they had children, they had family, same as you. They wanted to make something of their lives, same as you. Hell, they were lied to about this war, same as you. But unlike you, British journalist, they paid for other peoples' bullshit with their lives. They were braver than you. They were better than you. They deserve more than you. So you and Batman and Robin there, get the fuck out of my sight."
Now we jump to a literary festival at which irascible "bad boy of English letters" Crispin Hershey is at war with reviewer Richard Cheeseman who has just flamed his latest novel.  Hershey is a bitter, angry egomaniac who can rarely be bothered to learn anyone's name, but at the signing he learns -- and will never forget -- the name of the fellow author at the next table.
The place is pullulant with punters, cordoned by festival heavies into a snaking queue of Crispin Hershey faithful. Look on my works, Richard Cheeseman, and despair! They'll be reprinting Echo Must Die by the weekend and a V2 of money is headed straight for the House of Hershey! Victoriously, I gain my table, sit down, knock back the glass of white wine served by the Festival Elf, unsheathe the Sharpie -- and realize that all these people are here not for me, God sod it, but for a woman sitting at a table ten feet away. My own queue numbers fifteen. Or ten. More frumpet than crumpet. Editor Oliver has turned the colour of elderly chicken slices, so I scowl at Publicity Girl for an explanation. "That's, um, Holly Sykes." Oliver's color returns. "That's Holly Sykes? Jesus."
I growl, "Who in the name of buggery is Holey Spikes?"
"Holly Sykes,"says Publicity Girl, falling down the sar-chasm.
Over the years, Crispin develops an odd friendship with Holly, who seems to fill his own sar-chasm with a heightened sense of humanity. He accepts a position at a college in upstate New York, teaching creative writing. Suddenly, I wondered, is David Mitchell channeling the voice of Crispin, or vice versa?
For most digital-age writers, writing is rewriting. We grope, cut, block, paste, and twitch, panning for gold onscreen by deleting bucketloads of crap. Our analog ancestors had to polish every line mentally before hammering it out mechanically. Rewrites cost them months, meters of ink ribbon, and pints of Tippex. Poor sods. ...
"A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synesthesia, and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul, and, yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardize your relationships, and distend your life. You have been warned." My ten postgrads look sober. So they should. "Art feasts upon its maker," I tell them.
The sixth chapter is narrated by one of the Horologists, the small group of atemporals who find themselves reincarnated repeatedly throughout time. It's always a bit shocking to them to run into each other again in later incarnations. The narrator, Dr. Marinus, is a middle-aged female psychiatrist. Another character remembers having met her in 16th century Japan, which is, coincidentally, where a Dr. Marinus appeared in very different form in one of David Mitchell's earlier novels, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
"God's blood! Marinus -- the doctor, on Dejima. Big man, red face, white hair, Dutch, an irascible know-it-all. You were there when HMS Phoebus blasted the place to matchwood."
I experienced a feeling akin to vertigo. "You were there?"
"I watched it happen. From the magistrate's pavilion."
"But -- who were you?"
Although this sort of play is great fun, The Bone Clocks is not pure whimsy. The interviewer on To the Best of Our Knowledge asked David Mitchell why he chose to mix genres in this novel (and most of his others), and why he elected to introduce supernatural aspects. This proved to be a question that Mitchell has heard all too often and is weary of. I don't care about sticking to one genre or another, he replied. I just want to write the best novel I can. If it crosses genre lines, so be it.

By introducing atemporals -- beings who are either immortal or reincarnated repeatedly -- he was able to consider how we might treat the world if we knew we were going to be in it for longer than one human lifetime. We would certainly not, he suggested, treat it with such callous disregard. His vision of the 'Endarkenment' makes the 14th century look like a picnic, and worse, it feels all too plausible.

An elderly Holly narrates this final chapter, set in 2043.
Five years later, I take a deep, shuddery breath to stop myself crying. It's not just that I can't hold Aoife again, it's everything: It's grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office -- all so we didn't have to change our cozy lifestyles. People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it's an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth's Riches knowing -- while denying -- that we'd be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Not My Daughter, by Barbara Delinsky

The premise of this novel caught my attention, but it promised more than it delivered.  Four girls, seniors in high school in a Maine town and close friends, make a pact to become pregnant, and three of them succeed. Their decision shocks their parents and, in fact nearly everyone in town -- these girls are at the top of their class, on a track for top-rated colleges, not teen motherhood. To complicate matters, the mother of one of the girls is the principal of the high school, and she comes under attack from the school board, whose conservative members are displeased with her handling of the media storm inspired by the pregnancy pact and find her (a single mother herself) a less than upstanding role model.

The three girls, despite their ostensible intelligence, didn't seem to consider that their behaviour would disrupt their social lives at school, cause a firestorm in the community and put their parents in tenuous positions, both socially and professionally.These girls are from upper middle-class, but more important, loving and grounded families. They are not having babies to fill emotional voids. When asked why on earth they've willfully decided to get pregnant at 17, the only answer any of them can proffer is that they all like babies. None of it is believable. Their parents, friends and neighbours can't get their heads around it, and neither can we readers.

It all ends happily -- the principal keeps her job and marries the father of her daughter (and the grandfather of their new grandson).  The three girls deliver three lovely, healthy babies, although one of them has a scare during the pregnancy, wailing that it had never occurred to her that she could have anything but a perfect baby. Again, I could only shake my head and resist the urge to throttle my Kindle in lieu of the naive, irresponsible, clueless girl.

I know that pact behaviour amongst adolescents is an alarming thing, whether they're suicide pacts, pregnancy pacts, drinking & drugging pacts, or whatever. This novel brought me no closer to understanding the dynamics of teen pacts, and the happily-ever-after ending certainly whitewashed any negative effects in this case. All's well that ends well? So it would seem. What can I say? I'm just happy that none of Ms. Delinsky's feckless teenagers is my daughter.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Songbird, by AJ Adams

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you well know that erotic organised crime thrillers aren't the genre that I reach for first.

Many moons ago, I worked in the publishing industry. In possession of a BA in Linguistics from an elite women's college in the eastern US, I went to work for a small publisher in Boston, editing gay men's porn, predominantly S&M. (This item never featured in my college's alumnae news, rest assured.) I learned a great many things in that job, most of which one doesn't mention in polite company. Here, though, was the central lesson: Good writers write good books, regardless of the subject. A talented writer will take you into a genre you'd not otherwise consider and make you glad you went there.

Now, many decades later, I'm living in Phnom Penh. I mentioned to a friend that I'd love some part-time work. She recommended that I set up a gig on Fiverr, a web site that allows all manner of freelancers to offer their services in $5 increments. As my friend writes erotic fiction, she suggested that I offer editing services specifically for erotica. She's found it challenging, she said, to find editors who will take on sexually explicit manuscripts.  I have no shame.  I set up one gig to edit general text and another for editing erotica.

The amount of work that has streamed in via this site has amazed and delighted me. Between the two gigs, I've drafted and edited web site copy for a Mallorca construction company, promo copy for a boudoir photography studio, a non-fiction book on women's orgasm, marketing materials for a new app to connect fitness nuts with gyms and trainers, and an application essay for a seminary in California. I relish the contact with the customers around the world and the diversity of the things they write and care about.  A few manuscripts have left me cold or put me off altogether, but thankfully, it's been only a handful.

The manuscript for Songbird was the longest submission  I've received since resuming my editing career, and it was an absolute treat.

Solitaire is the plucky and far-from-angelic heroine who falls in with the Princeton-educated boss of a Mexican cartel. There's plenty of sex, violence and a collection of Spanish epithets you're unlikely to pick up anywhere apart from a Guadalajara fish market. The key, though, is the two edgy, intelligent protagonists drawn by a very savvy author.

AJ Adams deftly mixes black humour and verbal quips with the darkness and intensity of her subject matter. Arturo, the cartel boss, says of a dirty London cop, "I now owned Davis from dandruff to bunions, but I still didn’t trust him a fucking inch." This novel is escapism with brains. It's gruesome in places, and it's funny. The sex is torrid. It's a really well-crafted novel that stands far above most of the others in its genre.  (And, I'm chuffed to tell you, it now has nary a comma nor an apostrophe out of place!)

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt

I didn't finish this novel. I frequently glanced at the title and thought of setting it on fire, but that, I suppose, is one more selling point for paper books. I'm not prepared to throw my Kindle on the flames just to incinerate one book.

Some time ago, I made a vow that I would stop reading a book at a certain point if I grew too frustrated. I've really struggled with this. I feel that quitting a book shows a lack of endurance, and I also worry that the fault lies with me and not with the book.  By the time I decided to quit The Blazing World, I'd grown angry about having spent so much time on it. I wanted it to live up to what I thought it had promised. I wanted to like this book, but one evening, I noticed that I was staring vacantly at the Kindle screen and pressing it intermittently to advance the pages.  My eyes weren't even moving over the lines of text -- my mind was worlds away.  I just wanted to reach the end of the book, no longer caring what happened in the meantime.

One of the reasons I selected this book was that it was on the Man Booker Prize long list this year. I've heard readers say that they pay no attention whatever to book awards, usually with their noses slightly elevated. I do pay attention to the awards, their long lists, short lists and winners, simply because someone thought these particular books worthwhile. There aren't any proper bookshops in Phnom Penh, certainly no libraries. Browsing is not an option, so I look to on-line reviews and lists to get ideas of what to read. Of course the Man Booker panel is comprised of human beings, each with his or her own prejudices, preferences and axes to grind.  If they pick 10 or 15 books for the long list, they necessarily exclude thousands.  Generally, though, I think the books that make the award lists are noteworthy. The Blazing World didn't make it onto the short list, and it certainly got bumped off any list of mine, but making an effort to read a novel and failing is perhaps educational in its own way.

Harriet (Harry) Burden is a frustrated, embittered, widowed  New York artist. Although she'd been married to a prominent NY art dealer, Harriet's work had achieved little or no renown. After her husband's death, she concocts a plan to show her own work under the names of three different male artists.

I liked the premise. I could see some interesting plot twists had the male artists' shows been wildly more successful than Harriet's own efforts.  But they weren't.  Harriet Burden is an erudite woman, and she appears to manipulate the younger, less intellectual male artists with whom she's ostensibly collaborating. If she felt victimised by a sexist arts scene, I felt that she victimised these young men no less.

As I gave up on this book, I also thought about all the reviews I've read (and ranted about), in which the reviewer says, "None of the characters in this book is likeable!"  Likeable? Who says that characters need to be likeable to be captivating?  I certainly didn't like Harriet Burden (or any other character in this book), so had I fallen into a category of reviewers that I scorned?

No. I can think of many books whose characters I disliked, and yet I respected the books themselves. Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road pops into my head.  I didn't like either of the main characters, but I could empathise with both of them in one way or another. I wanted to see what they would do next, fearing that they'd disappoint me (and they did!). Harriet "Harry" Burden was simply burdensome.  She annoyed me. I didn't care whether she came to a bad end or redeemed herself.  For several hundred pages, she had proved nothing more than tendentious, tedious and self-absorbed. Are women slighted in the New York arts scene? I'm not even sure of that. Did Harriet have any notable talent? That's not clear, either.  Harriet, like so many other New Yorkers, spent far too much time for my liking thinking solely about herself and finding herself far more interesting and relevant than I could find her.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Patrick Melrose novels, by Edward St. Aubyn

Edward St. Aubyn is the antidote to the BBC depiction of the British aristocracy. Still sighing and swooning after watching your Brideshead Revisited DVDs for the tenth time? The Patrick Melrose novels will snap you out of it.

I first heard of Edward St. Aubyn when Guardian writer Mariella Frostrup interviewed him for her 'Books and Authors' podcast. If his accent hadn't convinced me of his place in the English social hierarchy, his remark about his family owning its estate in Cornwall since the Norman Conquest did the trick. As he talked about his highly autobiographical fiction, riddled with incest, psychological violence and substance abuse, though, he began to sound more like a contemporary Edward Gibbon, documenting the decline and fall of the British Empire. When he read an excerpt, it struck me that he shared Gibbon's droll sense of humour that made the psychological carnage so much more bearable.

Recording family and childhood tragedy with humour is fraught with risk -- get it wrong, and you sound bitterly sarcastic or frivolous and superficial.  Edward St. Aubyn got it right: his wit never trivialises his characters' suffering -- it adds some levity to a tale that might well otherwise be relentlessly black.

In Never Mind, we experience one day in the life of five year-old Patrick.  This is our first introduction to his mother, Eleanor.  (Patrick had been conceived when her husband, David, raped her on a staircase.)
Eleanor Melrose stormed her way up the shallow steps from the kitchen to the drive. Had she walked more slowly, she might have tottered, stopped, and sat down in despair on the low wall that ran along the side of the steps. She felt defiantly sick in a way she dared not challenge with food and had already aggravated with a cigarette. She had brushed her teeth after vomiting but the bilious taste was still in her mouth. She had brushed her teeth before vomiting as well, never able to utterly crush the optimistic streak in her nature...
She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath. All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth. 
Eleanor is the daughter of a wealthy American industrialist; she tries to recall what attracted her to her dreadful husband and concludes that it was a quality that sets British aristocrats apart from the rest of the world.
When she had first met David twelve years ago, she had been fascinated by his looks. The expression that men feel entitled to wear when they stare out of a cold English drawing room onto their own land had grown stubborn over five centuries and perfected itself in David’s face. It was never quite clear to Eleanor why the English thought it was so distinguished to have done nothing for a long time in the same place, but David left her in no doubt that they did...  He was also descended from Charles II through a prostitute.
Eleanor concedes that David was not born a sadist -- he'd been moulded into one by his father.
There had been a time when she admired the way that David became a doctor. When he had told his father of his intention, General Melrose had immediately cut off his annuity, preferring to use the money to rear pheasants. Shooting men and animals were the occupations of a gentleman, tending their wounds the business of middle-class quacks. That was the General’s view, and he was able to enjoy more shooting as a consequence of holding it. General Melrose did not find it difficult to treat his son coldly. The first time he had taken an interest in him was when David left Eton, and his father asked him what he wanted to do. David stammered, ‘I’m afraid I don’t know, sir,’ not daring to admit that he wanted to compose music. It had not escaped the General’s attention that his son fooled about on the piano, and he rightly judged that a career in the army would put a curb on this effeminate impulse. ‘Better join the army,’ he said, offering his son a cigar with awkward camaraderie. 
David, however, had given up his career when he married a wealthy wife, choosing to devote all his energy to making her life a living hell.
He had stopped his medical practice soon after their marriage. At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded. 
David Melrose is an angry, cruel man, always on the lookout for victims. Unfortunately for them, Eleanor and Patrick are the most highly available ones. Just before lunch, David feels a rush of rage overcoming him, and he bellows for Patrick to report to his bedroom, to be punished for some unknown (at least to Patrick) wrong.  St. Aubyn treats the sexual molestation of five year-old Patrick with tremendous skill -- the child essentially has an out-of-body experience, transporting himself into a gecko he watches on the wall as his father abuses him. As for David, he feels perhaps a small pang of guilt, but it doesn't interfere with his hearty lunch, and he justifies his actions as a routine part of his approach to child-rearing.
David’s methods of education rested on the claim that childhood was a romantic myth which he was too clear-sighted to encourage. Children were weak and ignorant miniature adults who should be given every incentive to correct their weakness and their ignorance. Like King Chaka, the great Zulu warrior, who made his troops stamp thorn bushes into the ground in order to harden their feet, a training some of them may well have resented at the time, he was determined to harden the calluses of disappointment and develop the skill of detachment in his son. After all, what else did he have to offer him? 
In the late afternoon, guests begin to arrive at the estate for dinner, retiring to guest rooms to rest, bathe and dress. David's friend Nicholas is one of the few who can keep up with his acerbic wit, having shared the same privileged upbringing and education. Nicholas' latest squeeze is a bit of a rough girl, but Bridget is shrewd in her own way.  The two of them wander in and out of the subsequent novels, but not together. After spending a few minutes on a page with David and Nicholas, Bridget feels like a breath of fresh air, just a wee bit cloudy with pot smoke.
Bridget looked critically at Nicholas’s body as he clambered to his feet. He had got a lot fatter in the past year. Maybe older men were not the answer. Twenty-three years was a big difference and at twenty, Bridget had not yet caught the marriage fever that tormented the older Watson-Scott sisters as they galloped towards the thirtieth year of their scatterbrained lives. All Nicholas’s friends were such wrinklies and some of them were a real yawn. You couldn’t exactly drop acid with Nicholas. Well, you could; in fact, she had, but it wasn’t the same as with Barry. Nicholas didn’t have the right music, the right clothes, the right attitude. She felt quite bad about Barry, but a girl had to keep her options open. The thing about Nicholas was that he really was rich and beautiful and he was a baronet, which was nice and sort of Jane Austeny.

At the beginning of the second novel, Bad News, the adult Patrick receives word of his father's death. That's the good news. The bad news becomes evident as he packs for the trip to New York to collect his father's ashes, checking to be sure he's remembered all the right stuff -- Qaaludes, cocaine, sleeping pills -- all the while thinking if or when he might score some good heroin.  As  often as he tells himself that he won't do it, won't touch the heroin this time, it becomes clear that it's taken ownership of him.
No, he mustn't think about it, or indeed about anything, and especially not about heroin, because heroin was the only thing that really worked, the only thing that stopped him scampering around in a hamster's wheel of unanswerable questions. Heroin was the cavalry. Heroin was the missing chair leg, made with such precision that it matched every splinter of the break. Heroin landed purring at the base of his skull, and wrapped itself darkly around his nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favourite cushion. It was as soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon, or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm. The way other people felt about love, he felt about heroin, and he felt about love the way other people felt about heroin: that it was a dangerous and incomprehensible waste of time. What could he say to Debbie? "Although you know that my hatred for my father, and my love for drugs, are the most important relationships in my life, I want you to know that you come in third."
Patrick rings up his trusted NY dealer, a French man named Pierre. No answer. He goes out and scores from his street dealer, Chilly Willy, who, alas, cannot also provide a clean syringe. Chilly's girlfriend grudgingly hands over a used one, warning that the needle is really too big, but it's all she's got. The scene in which Patrick tries to get the drug into his vein -- and misses -- is both a stomach-churning image and a testament to his incredible need. At last he reaches Pierre and sets an appointment to buy some better stuff.
"You score off the street!" barked Pierre disapprovingly."You fucking crazy!"
"But you were asleep."
"You shoot with tap water?"
"Yes," admitted Patrick guiltily.
"You crazy," glared Pierre."Come in here, I show you." He walked through to his grimy and narrow kitchen. Opening the door of the big old-fashioned fridge, he took out a large jar of water. "This is tap water," said Pierre ominously, holding up the jar. "I leave it one month and look!" He pointed to a diffuse brown sediment at the bottom of the jar."Rust," he said, "it's a fucking killer! I have one friend who shoot with tap water and the rust get in his bloodstream and his heart -- " Pierre chopped the air with his hand and said, "Tak: it stop."
"That's appalling," murmured Patrick, wondering when they were going to do business.
Pierre also sells cocaine, which Patrick likes to inject before the heroin.
Unlike Pierre he preferred to take coke on its own until the tension and fear were unbearable, then he would send in the Praetorian Guard of heroin to save the day from insanity and defeat.
I have never used either heroin or cocaine and have no intention of doing so, but I've long felt that "Just say NO to drugs" is a simplistic and ineffectual approach. Many people I talked to in Malaysia viewed drug abuse and addiction as a moral failure, blind to the reasons people turn to narcotics and stimulants.  I would like to assign all these folks to read Bad News.  I've yet to find anyone who can relate the wonders and the horrors of heroin better than Edward St. Aubyn.
Taking no risks, he stuck the spike into a thick vein in the back of his hand. The smell of cocaine assailed him and he felt his nerves stretching like piano wires. The heroin followed in a soft rain of felt hammers playing up his spine and rumbling into his skull. He groaned contentedly and scratched his nose. It was so pleasurable, so fucking pleasurable. How could he ever give up? It was love. It was coming home. It was Ithaca, the end of all his storm-tossed wanderings. He dropped the syringe into the top drawer, staggered across the room, and sprawled on the bed. Peace at last. The mingling lashes of half-closed eyes, the slow reluctant flutter of folding wings; his body pounded by felt hammers, pulses dancing like sand on a drum; love and poison evacuating his breath in a long slow exhalation, fading into a privacy he could never quite remember, nor for a moment forget. His thoughts shimmered like a hesitating stream, gathering into pools of discrete and vivid imagery. He pictured his feet walking through a damp London square, his shoes sealing wet leaves darkly to the pavement. In the square, the heat from a heap of smouldering leaves syruped the air, and billows of yellow smoke skewed the sunlight like a broken wheel, its spokes scattered among the balding plane trees. The lawn was littered with dead branches, and from the railings he watched the sad and acrid ceremony, his eyes irritated by the smoke.

In the aptly titled third novel, Some Hope, Patrick seems to have kicked his drug habit, and as he did in the first two books, St. Aubyn focuses on one episode. This time it's a lavish birthday party, which is gathering the nobility, the aristocracy, and the affluent from all over England.  While en route to the country estate with his friend, Johnny, Patrick discloses for the first time the abuse his father meted out during his childhood. Johnny listens and responds sympathetically, but when he starts to mingle with the party guests, Patrick realises that he cannot demonise his father entirely. At least not in these social circles.
"Do you know, it's a funny thing," he went on in a more serious tone, "hardly a day passes without my thinking of your father."
"Same here," said Patrick,"but I've got a good excuse."
"So have I," said Bunny."He helped me at a time when I was in an extremely wobbly state."
"He helped to put me into an extremely wobbly state," said Patrick.
"I know a lot of people found him difficult," admitted Bunny, "and he may have been at his most difficult with his children -- people usually are -- but I saw another side of his personality. After Lucy died, at a time when I really couldn't cope at all, he took care of me and stopped me drinking myself to death, listened with enormous intelligence to hours of black despair, and never used what I told him against me."
"The fact that you mention his not using anything you said against you is sinister enough."
"You can say what you like," said Bunny bluntly, "but your father probably saved my life." He made an inaudible excuse and moved away abruptly...
Even when he had gone to New York to collect his ashes, Patrick had not been completely convinced by the simple solution of loathing his father. Bunny's loyalty to David made Patrick realize that his real difficulty might be in acknowledging the same feelings in himself. What had there been to admire about his father? ... All of David's virtues and talents had been double-edged, but however vile he had been he had not been deluded, most of the time, and had accepted with some stoicism his well-deserved suffering. It was not admiration that would reconcile him to his father, or even the famously stubborn love of children for their parents, able to survive far worse fates than Patrick's...
Simplification was dangerous and would later take its revenge. Only when he could hold in balance his hatred and his stunted love, looking on his father with neither pity nor terror but as another human being who had not handled his personality especially well; only when he could live with the ambivalence of never forgiving his father for his crimes but allowing himself to be touched by the unhappiness that had produced them as well as the unhappiness they had produced, could he be released, perhaps, into a new life that would enable him to live instead of merely surviving. He might even enjoy himself. Patrick grunted nervously. Enjoy himself?
In the same reflective mood, Patrick considers his mother, Eleanor, who was completely unequipped to deal with her husband's cruelty, never mind protecting their son from his depradations.
It would probably be better if women arrested in their own childhood didn't have children with tormented misogynist homosexual paedophiles, but nothing was perfect in this sublunary world, thought Patrick, glancing up devoutly at the moon which was of course hidden, like the rest of the sky during an English winter, by a low swab of dirty cloud. His mother was really a good person, but like almost everybody she had found her compass spinning in the magnetic field of intimacy.
Some Hope, however, is not consumed with Patrick's contemplation of his hellish childhood. St. Aubyn has gathered all the great and the good to this one over-the-top party so that he, like Waugh and Wilde before him, can poke fun at them.  In a bold bit of lèse-majesté, he even brings Princess Margaret to the table and mocks both her hauteur and the toadying of the other guests. Patrick's friend Johnny is unruffled, which in turn irks "PM".
"And who are you?" she asked Johnny in the most gracious possible manner. "Johnny Hall," said Johnny, extending a hand. The republican omission of ma'am, and the thrusting and unacceptable invitation to a handshake, were enough to convince the Princess that Johnny was a man of no importance. "It must be funny having the same name as so many other people," she speculated. "I suppose there are hundreds of John Halls up and down the country."
"It teaches one to look for distinction elsewhere and not to rely on an accident of birth," said Johnny casually.
"That's where people go wrong," said the Princess, compressing her lips, "there is no accident in birth." She swept on before Johnny had a chance to reply...
"Jesus," sighed Anne, surveying the room, "what a grim bunch. Do you think they keep them in the deep freeze at Central Casting and thaw them out for big occasions?"
"If only," said Patrick. "Unfortunately I think they own most of the country."

As the evening wears down, however, Patrick realises that the storied stiff upper lip of the British aristocracy is not simply a testament to great inner strength but also to a developed callousness that is passed on to subsequent generations.  Patrick's father, David, had suffered and survived, and so, Patrick tells a friend, he simply continued in the traditional belief that a brutal upbringing would only improve his son.
"What impresses me more than the repulsive superstition that I should turn the other cheek, is the intense unhappiness my father lived with. I ran across a diary his mother wrote during the First World War. After pages of gossip and a long passage about how marvellously they'd managed to keep up the standards at some large country house, defying the Kaiser with the perfection of their cucumber sandwiches, there are two short sentences: 'Geoffrey wounded again', about her husband in the trenches, and 'David has rickets', about her son at his prep school. Presumably he was not just suffering from malnutrition, but being assaulted by paedophiliac schoolmasters and beaten by older boys. This very traditional combination of maternal coldness and official perversion helped to make him the splendid man he turned into, but to forgive someone, one would have to be convinced that they'd made some effort to change the disastrous course that genetics, class, or upbringing proposed for them."

The fourth novel in the series, Mother's Milk, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2006. In it, we return to the child's point of view, but this time it's Patrick's first son, Robert.  Patrick's wife, Mary, has devoted herself entirely to motherhood, giving all her attention to their sons, Robert and the younger Thomas, leaving Patrick feeling neglected. Patrick, however, has his own maternal concerns: His own mother has decided to will the lovely French house in which Patrick grew up to a new-age foundation that will be run by a shifty Irish conman named Seamus. While Patrick rages, Robert finds the whole affair bewildering.
He loved it down here at his grandmother's house. His family only came once a year, but they had been every year since he was born. Her house was a Transpersonal Foundation. He didn't really know what that was, and nobody else seemed to know either, even Seamus Dourke, who ran it. "Your grandmother is a wonderful woman," he had told Robert, looking at him with his dim twinkly eyes. "She's helped a lot of people to connect."
"With what?" asked Robert.
"With the other reality."
Sometimes he didn't ask grown-ups what they meant because he thought it would make him seem stupid; sometimes it was because he knew they were being stupid. This time it was both.
Eleanor, Patrick's mother, is increasingly susceptible to Seamus' schemes as her mind slips away and her speech fails her (as it always had).  Patrick, Mary and the boys come to visit her in the nursing home, and as they drive home, Robert is the silent witness in the back seat to his father's tumultuous feelings.
"I thought Eleanor did very well," said his mother. "I was very moved when she said that she was brave."
"What can drive a man mad is being forced to have the emotion which he is forbidden to have at the same time," said his father. "My mother's treachery forced me to be angry, but then her illness forced me to feel pity instead. Now her recklessness makes me angry again but her bravery is supposed to smother my anger with admiration. Well, I'm a simple sort of a fellow, and the fact is that I remain fucking angry," he shouted, banging the steering wheel.
On a family trip to visit Eleanor's wealthy relatives in the United States, Patrick's anger at his mother bubbles through at every turn. Unlike his own father, Patrick doesn't take out his rage directly on his sons, but his bitterness still splatters them.
"I liked the Park," said Robert.
"The Park's nice," his father conceded,"but the rest of the country is just people in huge cars wondering what to eat next. When we hire a car you'll see that it's really a mobile dining room, with little tables all over the place and cup holders. It's a nation of hungry children with real guns. If you're not blown up by a bomb, you're blown up by a Vesuvio pizza. It's absolutely terrifying."
"Please stop,"   said Robert.
As he sees the wealth enjoyed and stewarded by his mother's family in America while Eleanor is passing her own inheritance to a dodgy charity is more than Patrick can bear.
Beyond the wood they passed a hangar where huge fans, consuming enough electricity to run a small village, kept agapanthus warm in the winter. Next to the hangar was a hen house somewhat larger than Patrick's London flat, and so strangely undefiled that he couldn't help wondering if these were genetically modified hens which had been crossed with cucumbers to stop them from defecating. Beth walked over the fresh sawdust, under the red heat lamps, and discovered three speckled brown eggs in the laying boxes. Every plate of scrambled eggs must cost her several thousand dollars. The truth was that he hated the very rich, especially since he was never going to be one of them.
Of course the wealthy in the United States have their own woes -- perhaps slightly different than those stinging their British counterparts. Patrick's wife, Mary, tries to locate his cousin Sally at one of her many residences.
When she rang Sally there was no answer in Long Island. Eventually she found her in New York. "We had to come back to the city because our water tank burst and flooded the apartment downstairs. Our neighbours are suing us, so we're suing the plumbers who only put the tank in last year. The plumbers are suing the tank company for defective design. And the residents are suing the building, even though they're all on vacation, because the water was cut off for two days instead of two hours, which caused them a lot of mental stress in Tuscany and Nantucket."
"Gosh," said Mary. "What's wrong with mopping up and getting a new water tank?"
"That is so English," said Sally, delighted by Mary's quaint stoicism.

And then, At Last -- the fifth and final novel, in which Eleanor has died, and the usual suspects gather for her funeral.  Nicholas, the snide family friend whom we first met in Bad News, turns up.  He reminisces with Nancy, Eleanor's sister, as she recalls her own mother's property acquisition skills.

"But you can't pretend that your mother was a fan of the common man. Didn't she buy the entire village street that ran along the boundary wall of the Pavillon Colombe, in order to demolish it and expand the garden? How many houses was that?"
"Twenty-seven," said Nancy, cheering up. "They weren't all demolished. Some of them were turned into exactly the right kind of ruin to go with the house. There were follies and grottos, and Mummy had a replica made of the main house, only fifty times smaller. We used to have tea there, it was like something out of Alice in Wonderland." Nancy's face clouded over. "There was a horrible old man who refused to sell, although Mummy offered him far too much for his poky little house, and so there was an inward bulge following the line of the old wall, if you see what I'm saying."
"Every paradise demands a serpent," said Nicholas.

Nancy herself married well and carried on in the lifestyle to which she'd become accustomed.  To which, in fact, she couldn't seem to do without.
When the Crash came, lawyers flew in from America to ask the Craigs to rack their brains for something they could do without. They thought and thought. They obviously couldn't sell Sunninghill Park. They had to go on entertaining their friends. It would be too cruel and too inconvenient to sack any of the servants. They couldn't do without the house in Bruton Street for overnight stays in London. They needed two Rolls-Royces and two chauffeurs because Daddy was incorrigibly punctual and Mummy was incorrigibly late. In the end they sacrificed one of the six newspapers that each guest received with their breakfast. The lawyers relented. The pools of Jonson money were too deep to pretend there was a crisis; they were not stock-market speculators, they were industrialists and owners of great blocks of urban America. People would always need hardened fats and dry-cleaning fluids and somewhere to live.
Because Patrick seems too muddled and conflicted to manage it, Mary arranges Eleanor's funeral, doing her keep it in line with what Eleanor might have wished. Alas, the result is not what most of the mourners would have liked.  Nancy, for one, is abjectly unimpressed with the whole affair.
All these readings from the Bible were getting on Nancy's nerves. She didn't want to think about death -- it was depressing. At a proper funeral there were amazing choirs that didn't usually sing at private events, and tenors who were practically impossible to get hold of, and readings by famous actors or distinguished public figures. It made the whole thing fun and meant that one hardly ever thought about death, even when the readings were exactly the same, because one was struggling to remember when some tired-looking person had been chancellor of the exchequer, or what the name of their last movie was. That was the miracle of glamour. The more she thought about it, the more furious she felt about Eleanor's dreary funeral. Why, for instance, had she decided to be cremated? Fire was something one dreaded. Fire was something one insured against. The Egyptians had got it right with the pyramids. What could be cosier than something huge and permanent with all one's things tucked away inside (and other people's things as well! Lots and lots of things!) built by thousands of slaves who took the secret of the construction with them to unmarked graves. Nowadays one would have to make prohibitive social-security payments to teams of unionized construction workers. That was modern life for you. Nevertheless, some sort of big monument was infinitely preferable to an urn and a handful of dust.
Read as fiction, the Patrick Melrose novels are a marvel. Reading them as slightly fictionalised autobiography, I marvel that Edward St. Aubyn survived the effects of his childhood, and what's more, seems to have broken out of the family mould. I suppose writing these books was both catharsis and revenge, and I hold him in equal parts brilliant and heroic.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sloth and torpor

The internet is conspiring to scold me today. Over the past few months, I haven't been reading as much as I normally do. Sure, studying Khmer for several hours each week takes some time away from my Kindle, but I could still read more than I do.

I feel guilty about this, because I have mountains of excellent books at hand.  I'm not wasting my time reading rubbish.

I am just spending too much time sitting at the computer.  Too much time, in fact, looking at cute cat pictures which in turn chastise me for not reading good books.

Discipline! What I need is discipline. It wouldn't hurt to have a sad-eyed black cat like the Bear (above) instead of my resident voluptuary, Crumpet, who considers napping the highest form of self-improvement.

No more excuses -- I will finish the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn by the end of this week. I love reading, and these books are superb. It's pure laziness on my part. Switching off the computer now.  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Change of Climate, by Hilary Mantel

I am still waiting to encounter the book by Hilary Mantel that leaves me anything less than awestruck.

One of the countless subjects she handles very astutely is the expatriate experience. In Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, she brought me as close as I ever wish to get to living as a foreigner in Saudi Arabia.  In A Change of Climate, the story shifts back and forth between Norfolk, England and Africa -- specifically South Africa, where apartheid was still new in the early 1950s, and then Bechuanaland (now Botswana).

Mostly, though, this is a book about family chemistry, in which secrets are powerful catalysts, having indirect effects on those who don't know them and often corrosive effects on those who keep them.

Ralph Eldred wants to attend university to pursue his passion for geology -- specifically fossils -- but his father, a Bible literalist, forbids it, insisting that Darwinism is atheism by another name. Making scant headway with his determined son, the patriarch delivers a threat:  Persist in this endeavour, and I shall pull your sister, Emma, out of her studies at medical school. Ralph capitulates, though few (and certainly not his beloved sister) understand the reason why.

The story jumps ahead to Ralph's middle years; he and his wife, Anna, have returned from their missionary postings in Africa to Norfolk, where they're living in a rambling, ramshackle house with their four children. Ralph manages a charitable trust, and the young, old, addled and addicted clients of the trust frequently land in the Eldreds' home for a period of time. Eldest daughter Kit, aged 10, upon finding one of them ineffectually slicing her wrists over the kitchen sink, simply goes for the first-aid kit, and disinfects and bandages the woman's shallow knife cuts. Although the woman clearly has psychological problems, Ralph places her into his category of "Good Souls".  It's small wonder that Ralph's children frequently commented that they lived with a saint.
And this was how the world was divided, when Kit was growing up—into Good Souls and Sad Cases. There was no wickedness in it.
Meanwhile, Ralph's wife, Anna, attends the funeral of the local estate agent, Felix Palmer. Nearly everyone in the area knew that Felix had been carrying on for years with Ralph's sister, Emma. Felix's wife, Ginny, knew it. Anna and the children knew it. Only Ralph was in the dark. But it's a funeral, and everyone maintains a semblance of propriety, as Anna makes clear to her older son, Julian, when she returns home.
Anna went into the kitchen. Julian had heard her come in, and was setting out cups for tea.
 “How did it go?”
 “It went well, I suppose,” Anna said. “We buried him. The main object was achieved. How do funerals ever go?"
 “How was Mrs. Palmer?”
 “Ginny was very much herself. A party of them were going back to the house, for vol-au-vents provided by Mrs. Gleave.” Anna made a face. “And whiskey. She seemed very insistent on the whiskey. If you’d have asked for gin—well, I don’t know what!”
Julian reached for the teapot. “Nobody would have gin, would they, at a funeral?”
“No, it would be unseemly,” Anna said. Mother’s ruin, she thought. The abortionist’s drink. A mistress’s tipple. Flushed complexions and unbuttoned afternoons. 
Then Mantel takes us back to the beginning of Ralph and Anna's marriage, when they accept a missionary posting in South Africa. They seem neither giddy and idealistic nor pious. They seem more than anything to want to be away from Norfolk. Upon arriving in Cape Town, they have an audience with the weary and elderly archbishop.
“Do you also not feel equal to it?” the archbishop inquired.
“I am not sure anyone could be.” This was a good answer.
“Well, I know I am not,” the archbishop said. “There are two things—no, three things—I ask of you, particularly. Try not to despise your opponents; try not to hate them. It will probably be quite difficult for you, but for a Christian the effort is necessary. And try not to break the law. You have not been sent here to get yourselves into the newspapers or the magistrate’s court. I hope you can remember that.”
“The third thing?” Ralph said.
“Oh yes. When you write home to England, ask your people not to make hasty judgments. It is a complicated country, this. I comfort myself that there is little real wickedness in it. But there is so much fear, fear on all sides. Fear paralyzes the sympathies, and the power of reasoning. So it becomes a kind of wickedness, in the end.” The archbishop looked up, nodded. The interview was over.
There it is again. "...ask your people not to make hasty judgments... there is little real wickedness in it." Withhold judgment.  Anna and Ralph will hear this again from the Boer police who arrest and deport them -- You don't understand; this is a very complicated situation. It's true that they are foreigners, new to the country, but it's also patently obvious that the ruling white South Africans are using power oppressively and corruptly. By taking a stand, Ralph and Anna find themselves arrested, disgraced and deported to the backwater known as Bechuanaland.  And that is where the real tragedy strikes them.

Years later, Anna and Ralph are re-settled in Norfolk, Ralph running the trust that his uncle founded, and Anna trying to hold the house and their four teen-aged children together. Two of them, Kit and Robin, reflect on sharing a home with "saints".
“But do you know what I mean? Mum works so hard to keep the house going, with that furnace to be fed, and that demented twin-tub, and that antique Hoover. All Dad does is bring home hulking great hallstands from Yarmouth, and then beam on us like Jehovah and think he’s done his duty by us. Don’t you ever wonder why we have to be good all the time, why we have to have such tender consciences, why we have to have these Visitors every summer?”
“We’ll be getting some new Visitors soon,” Robin said. “Morlocks, Yahoos, slags, and tarts.”
“Why can’t we be normal, and self-absorbed, and acquisitive?” 
Anna and Ralph, however, are not saints. They coped (or failed to cope) in very different ways with the horrifying incident in Africa. It becomes clear to the reader (if not always to the characters)  that the residue of that experience will colour the rest of their lives. Anna, especially, stores a great reservoir of bitterness. In a rare outburst, she airs her unsaintly thoughts on what they sacrificed on that mission.
"I wish we had never left England. I do not believe that any good we have done here can compensate for a hundredth part of what we have suffered, and for what we will suffer as our lives go on. It seems to me impossible that we will ever lead lives like other people, or that anything ordinary and normal and safe will ever be within our reach again."
Not long after their return, Ralph and Anna sit down with Uncle James, the founder of the trust which Ralph will manage. Anna's twin senses of rage and isolation are palpable, and I can't think of many writers who could express them as deftly as Hilary Mantel.
When Ralph and Anna returned to England they began at once upon the business of finding a house. Practical considerations would not go away; there were decisions to make. Anna had talked only briefly, grudgingly, about her missing child. What was the point of talking? she asked. No one could share her feelings. No one could enter into them.
“Anna, don’t injure yourself more,” James said. “There is a thing people do—when they have been hurt, they hurt themselves again, they compound the damage. Don’t become bitter. That’s all I ask.”
“It’s a great deal to ask,” Ralph said.
“Next, James,” Anna said, “you’ll be asking me to forgive.” A kind of hard jauntiness had entered her voice; it was her usual tone now.
“No, I wouldn’t ask that. Not yet.”
“Good,” Anna said. “I am not up to the effort.”
“If you could think,” James said, “that there are some things that God does not control or will, then you could ask God for comfort … but it’s very difficult, Anna.”
“It’s impossible,” she said. “I asked God for comfort when I came home to Elim [South Africa] every night, and saw these beaten people waiting for me on the stoep—but God kept very quiet, James. God did nothing. It was up to me to do something, but I acted within constraints—I tried to be good, you see, I felt the love of God biting into my wrists like a pair of handcuffs. So what did I offer these people? Bandages and platitudes. Suppose my training had been different? I might have stepped on the train to Cape Town with a revolver in my bag, I might have shot Dr. Verwoerd—then I might have done some good in the world. Now, James—when I had in the room with me the man who was going to kill my child—when I had in my hand a broken bottle, suppose I had drawn the edges across his eyes? Suppose I had sliced his eyes to ribbons, suppose I had severed his veins and made him bleed to death? Then I would have done some good in the world.”
“Anna—” he said. She saw the fear in his face.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You leave me alone, James, and I’ll leave you alone. You don’t come at me with your theology, and I won’t stop Ralph doing his job. It was planned that he should take over the Trust, yes? So there’s no reason to change the plan. It doesn’t matter what I think, inside myself. Nobody could imagine or know what I think, inside myself. But I promise you I won’t stand up in church and bawl out that it’s all a sham. We’re professional Christians, aren’t we, Ralph and me? That’s how we make our living. Why should we be poor, when every hypocrite is rich?” No one had seen her cry, not once; not from the beginning. Emma knew right away, when she met them at the airport: “Anna is too angry to cry. She is almost too angry to breathe.”
People who have never lived abroad will tell expatriates that they can't fathom the culture shock of living in a culture vastly different than their own. Few stop to consider, though, that the reverse culture shock can be nearly as profound if and when the expatriate comes back home.
It’s not so easy to return from Africa, even when circumstances are favorable and the return is planned. Hostilities against the cockroach and the ant cease only gradually. A mark on the wall converts itself into a crawling tick, and there is effort and vigilance all the time—it is hard to sit in the fitful English sunshine, in the heat without threat, harmless insects brushing your bare arms. It was more than a year before Anna could bring herself to leave a plate or a cup on a table; after it had been used, she would snatch it away and wash it, to thwart the advancing carpet of crawling greed. “Poor Anna,” people said. “She’s always on the go. She’ll wear herself out, that girl.” The words used about her, the trite kindnesses, had a sting of their own. There had been a tragedy in her life, and no one here had the terms for it. In winter the weight of her clothes oppressed her; wool and shoe leather chafed and cramped and squeezed.
I know other expatriates will empathise with the following passage, knowing all too well the polite and uncomprehending silence of those for whom living in a foreign country is simply unfathomable. A friend of mine announced to her friends in Michigan, US, that she would be volunteering for an NGO in Phnom Penh for two months. Their response:  Collective mute stares followed by a change of topic. She told me today that they never asked her about the experience once she'd returned to Michigan. For Anna and Ralph, their African tragedy makes the conversation even more awkward.
Anna’s parents knew the facts—knew the probabilities, that is— but they settled for not talking about them. They pretended that they were sparing their daughter’s feelings, but really they were sparing their own. Nothing in their lives had prepared them for catastrophe. They worshipped routine; events were dubious matters, and often in bad taste. It was a form of showing off, to have things happen to you. “Of course, it’s terrible, a horrible thing, dreadful,” Mrs. Martin said, “but although I don’t say so, of course, I blame him for taking her there in the first place. He could have had a nice job with his father, there was no need to trail halfway across the globe.” The Martins had spent much of their lives beating the drum for the Christian faith, getting up jumble sales and flower shows so that the dark races could have the benefit of the company of brisk young Englishmen who were familiar with the Psalms and (among other Books) the Book of Job. But they did not expect to have one of these young Englishmen in their back parlor behind the shop, frozen and speechless with misery. They did not expect the Book of Job to have any practical application...

Ralph had feared intrusive questions, but instead there was an indifference that he felt as an insult. He made a discovery, common to those who expatriate themselves and then return: that when he and Anna went abroad they had ceased to be regarded as real people. Out of sight, out of mind. Nobody, even the most generous donor to mission appeals, wanted to hear anything about Africa.
Although Mantel's characters seem to reach an accord to put the horror into storage and get on with life, like so many other dark secrets, it takes on a sinister life of its own, creeping out in dreams, in cringing expressions, in diverted conversations.
After a while they ceased to flinch when a picture of a lost child appeared in the newspapers. Finally the dimensions of the tragedy shrunk; there was a little barbed area in which no one trod, in which the secret was sequestered and locked away. Was it less potent, confined? No: it was more potent, Ralph felt. He dreamt of scrubbing blood away, scrubbing his own blood off a cement floor; but the stain always returned, like the blood in Bluebeard’s room. He understood, then, what the fairy tale means; blood is never wiped out. No bad action goes away. Evil is energy, and perpetuates itself; only its form changes.
Hilary Mantel crafts characters like no one else, but one of the finer ones in this book is the house itself, which becomes an architectural reflection of the family that lives in it -- somewhat disjointed, operating on laissez-faire laws, harboring secrets.
She remembered how she had tried to sell the place, only a couple of years ago. It was a house with no center, she had always felt, no room from which you could command other rooms. Sound traveled in its own way; from one of the attics, you could hear the downstairs telephone quite distinctly, but from nearer rooms it couldn’t be heard at all. The house had its own conduits, sight lines. Sometimes one of the children’s friends had stayed overnight, without her knowing. She didn’t make a practice of searching the rooms, scouring the cupboards and landings for fugitives or stowaways; the house would have its private life, whether she agreed or not. In the morning a parent would telephone, furious or distraught. She would say, “Your child is here to be collected. I make no charge for bed and breakfast.” And then, oblivious to the babble on the line, she would put down the phone. She had not lived her life in a way that attracted sympathy. She had made sure of that. 
Although she gives us moving and profound insights into the lives of these characters, Mantel weaves the same cautionary message throughout the book:  You can't really understand. The South African authorities repeatedly tell Ralph and Anna that no matter how long they stay in the country, the situation is too complex for them to grasp, and so they should neither judge nor meddle in it. Ralph's conservative Christian father, when arguing with his son about why he will not fund a geology degree, says the same thing:  You're young; you're arrogant, and you think you have (or can find through scientific means) all the answers. You can't. The Norfolk residents neither claim nor want any understanding of Africa, nor of what Anna and Ralph experienced there. As the family reaches their crisis point at the book's climax, teen-aged daughter Kit tries to reason with her mother in an attempt to salvage her parents' marriage. And Anna's response?  You know nothing of these matters. You can't possibly understand.

It's true, none of us will ever fully understand what another experiences. That statement, however -- "You don't understand!" -- is a defense mechanism, a barrier.  "...And don't even try" is often the unspoken tag line, leaving the speaker isolated. If we listen and read carefully, though, we can at least gain some insight into the matter. Hilary Mantel has made potential friends and confidantes of her readers, if only her characters could reach out and accept them.

The photo above is by Rebecca Brittain; prints are available for sale here.