An Officer and a Spy

by Robert Harris

A gripping novel based (closely, as far as I can determine) on the story of Colonel Georges Picquart’s quest for justice in the ‘Dreyfus affair’.  The story is narrated in the present tense by Picquart, and brings to life not only the well-documented facts of the original Dreyfus court martial and subsequent court cases, but also the personalities involved and the range of emotional states the Picquart goes through as the story unfolds.

I have only read one other book by Harris, Lustrum, which was proposed by one of our book group members and which I also found an enthralling read.  Harris appears to research his subjects thoroughly and has a very good feel for the eternal truths of politics and the power struggle.  Whether writing about Ancient Rome or late nineteenth century France, he is able to get under the skin of his characters and show what makes them tick – whether the character is one for whom we are expected to feel sympathy, or not.

Hangover Square

by Patrick Hamilton

“He makes his characters’ psychology so vivid and potent that it’s enough to read about them taking out the trash or scrubbing their toilets.”

What ever you do, DON’T read the introduction (to the Penguin edition) which gives the plot away and therefore really spoils the book (witnessed by those members of our book group who did do this, although they still loved the book – it just lost the tension).

A great read, though from choice I would not read it over Christmas another time.  It rather dulled the Christmas spirit.

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Read in December 2012

Life Class

by Pat Barker

The start of this story mystifies me. Paul Tarrant leaves the life class at the Slade, where he is failing to achieve his ambition as an artist. He observes a drunk young girl in the park, and an older, more smartly dressed man who is apparently pursuing her. He accosts the man and manages to put him off the scent.

There is no obvious connection between this incident and the rest of the story. Perhaps it serves to tell us something about Paul’s character: upholding what he believes is right, asserting himself, physically agile.

The remainder of the book is in two parts. The first part shows us the characters of Paul, Kit Neville, Elinor and Teresa, living in London. They suffer few restrictions on their movements (the women in particular are quite independent compared to many young women of the time). They hang out at the Café Royal, go to the fair, visit each other’s homes. Paul and Teresa’s relationship is sexual from the start.

Paul comes across as emotionally detached. He is not sure whether to believe Teresa’s story about her estranged, violent husband who is stalking her. Even when Paul himself is abused by Harrison, he seems disengaged. Teresa’s departure upsets him for a while, but he quickly transfers his attention to Elinor.

In Paul’s relationship with Elinor, in both parts of the novel, his rivalry with Neville seems more tangible than any real love for Elinor. He isn’t sure that he loves her – and this becomes a theme throughout part two, when the two of them do get together.

Part two is set in Belgium in the early months of the First World War. We learn towards the end of the book that the nearby town, where Paul rents a room to paint in and where he spends his free time, is in fact Ypres. The wartime action, because it is not attached to a specific location in the narrative, is less predictable. There is never a sense that this is a story about the war. It is about people and relationships. Another character who appears as abruptly as Teresa leaves is Lewis, a Quaker orderly who joins the hospital about a month after Paul, and whom Paul is expected to mentor.

The few scenes of the wartime hospital and the road to the front are vividly drawn, and the reader is pulled in to Paul’s response to the horror and physical deprivation. This response is, on the whole, to detach himself. We already know Paul to be capable of detaching himself from intense emotional experience. We surmise that this may be attributable to his having lost his mother, who was taken to an asylum and then committed suicide while Paul was still a child.

Elinor is an independent-minded young woman, who seems wholly devoted to art and perhaps misses the point about the war. But the author manages to cleverly juxtapose her dismissal of the war with Paul’s (typically male) attitude to the war as something significant, not to be missed, and relevant to art. Elinor’s approach may have been popular with artists of the time, but I feel that she also displays the female view that war cannot be justified and is always a waste. That this view was not popular in 1914-15 is made very clear, with references to bullying families and persuasive poster campaigns. Paul, though able to see things analytically, goes along with the war. Elinor tries to ignore it. Her association with the Bloomsbury set is an act of defiance towards her family and towards Paul.

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Read in December 2009

The Hill Bachelors

by William Trevor

I wrote this review / essay after reading the book in late 2013, well before we were scheduled to discuss it at my book group.  The short write-up on each story does contain some spoilers.  You have been warned!

Like the other Trevor stories I have read, these are very well-crafted, satisfying stories.  Trevor seems to have the ability to make the characters and plot of a short story just as intriguing and fleshed-out as other writers try to do with those of a novel.

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Three People

The three people are Mr Schele, his daughter Vera, and a friend and neighbour, Sidney. Sidney is a party to Vera’s guilty secret – of how she killed her disabled sister. The facts of the act are implied rather than explicitly stated, and the three characters are drawn sympathetically. The reader knows that there is no future in the relationship between Sidney and Vera, because he knows (and has helped her cover up for) her crime. Score: 7

Of the Cloth

Rev Grattan Fitzmaurice (Protestant, as his name suggests) is an ageing priest in a small country parish. He attends the funeral of his former gardener Con Tonan (name= Catholic), whom he had ‘rescued’ by giving him a gardening job when an accident rendered him unfit for agricultural labouring work. The Catholic priest, Father Leahy, comes to visit the old Protestant priest after the funeral. The implication is that the Catholic Church, with its steady congregation and full services, while Rev Fitzmaurice’s congregation is dwindling, would not have given him the time of day in better times. But now they are facing a crisis of their won: the historical child abuse cases. So in some way, the two clergymen are united in adversity. Score: 8

Good News

Single mother Iris, whose own stage ambition had been thwarted, takes her daughter Bea to an audition. The ‘good news’ is that Bea gets the part. Subsequently, during rehearsals and filming, she is ‘interfered with’ by one of the actors – though this is only alluded to, never explicitly described. The play itself deals with the subject of child sexual abuse, and the actor who plays her abuser turns out to be an abuser in real life. The nature of the abuse is left open to the reader to imagine. Bea realises that she must not speak of this, for fear of destroying her mother’s ambition and her own hopes of a reunion between her estranged parents. Score: 8

The Mourning

Liam Pat has left his dead-end labouring job in Ireland and travelled to London, where his Irish contacts lead him to a job and a room, and, eventually, a commission as an IRA bomber. The “courage his fear had allowed” causes him to deposit the bomb safely in the river and flee back to his family in Ireland. this story is compassionately told; the reader gets the impression that Liam Pat is not particularly bright, but honest and hard-working and easy prey to the hardline terrorists. His Republican sympathies allow him to be beguiled by the talk of “walking in the footsteps of Michael Collins”. A sensitive approach to a difficult issue. Score: 7

A Friend in the Trade

Probably the strangest story in this collection! The ‘friend’, Michingthorpe, attaches himself to James and Clione, a middle-class couple who run a small publishing house in south-west London. Through the years of their married life, he invites himself into their lives and becomes a fixture. In middle age they decide to retire to the country, and Michingthorpe decides to involve himself in their house purchase – apparently intending to move with them. At this point they decide they’ve had enough, and ‘drop’ him.

Like all the other stories in the volume, this is eminently believable and a little bit shocking. You ask yourself: what would I have done? It is easy to see that whatever you did you would feel guilty about it. It is easy to understand the hurt that they are inflicting on their ‘friend’, just by moving on with their lives. Score: 7

Low Sunday, 1950

Tom and Philippa were children during the Troubles of 1916. A shell-shocked soldier and a case of mistaken identity led to their parents being shot. Ever since then, the pair (now adults in 1950) have remembered that Low Sunday.

This story explores chance encounters in our lives and the lasting effects that they produce. Like so many of Trevor’s characters, Tom and Philippa are lonely, isolated people. The story is sad but very human. Score: 7

Le Visiteur

An American woman picks up a stranger in a bar, and murders her husband while the stranger is still in her hotel room.

This felt like two stories to me. One is the story of Guy, who visits an older couple who farm on the shores of Lake Geneva. He visits them once a year, and understands – though it is never spoken – that M Buissonnet is his father, and that he will one day inherit the farm. It is while Guy is having dinner with the Buissonnets that he observes the young American couple arguing at another table. He sees that the husband is drunk, and arrives late, having left his wife alone at the table for some while. The wife is upset and Guy, another loner, imagines the kind of comfortable family life he could have with this woman.

You are left wondering: did Guy actually sleep with her? Did he witness her husband’s murder? Or is all this in his overactive imagination?

The story didn’t do much for me – of all the stories in this collection, this one was the least convincing and the least satisfying. Score: 5

The Virgin’s Gift

This is my favourite story in the book. Michael’s life has been lived according to instructions given him at intervals by the Virgin Mary. His first vision, at age eighteen, leads him to forsake the farm where he lives, an only child, with his parents, and join a monastery. After 17 years at the abbey, the Virgin visits him again and tells him to go and live as a hermit. Twenty-one years later, he is prompted to move again. This time he walks until he arrives back at the farmhouse where his parents, now very old, are barely eking out a living.

The story is mainly told from the perspective of Michael’s solitary life, with haunting descriptions of the landscape, the way he feeds himself, living at one with the land and the creatures around him. He finds it hard to follow the latest calling when he is required to leave this behind him.

What I find so moving: the natural descriptions; the sense of a human being at peace and at one with the world around; Michael’s (and his father’s though not his girlfriend’s) acceptance of his calling, and certainty that God will provide; the ‘rightness’ of it all. The last lines, after Michael’s return to light up his parents’ lives: “No choirs sang, there was no sudden splendour, only limbs racked by toil in a smoky hovel, a hand that blindly searched the air.
Yet angels surely held the cobweb of this mercy, the gift of a son given again.” Score: 10

Death of a Professor

Professor Ormston’s obituary has been published in the Sunday papers, although he is alive and kicking. His wife, seeing the news in the paper, decides that the kindest thing will be to hide it from him. His colleagues gather for a regular drinks party and are amazed that he doesn’t mention the event at all. His wife feels remorse, but he reassures her. In his wisdom, he realises that the the prank is not directed against him, but against an unpopular colleague who is in love with Mrs Ormston. “His wisdom was what she loved when first she loved him.” The author reassures us that the marriage is built on a solid foundation, as unalike as the partners are.

I am not totally convinced, but it is a very satisfying story nonetheless. Score: 9

Against the Odds

Mrs Kincaid was cheated out of a large sum of money by a man in her youth. Since then, she has lived on her wits – arriving in a new town, targetting a man on whom she uses her charms to part with a cheque for a few thousand pounds, disappearing from the scene and cashing in the cheque. Her life as a con merchant seems calculated rather than exciting. She is clearly doing it for revenge.

But the latest of her male victims, the farmer Mr Blakely, not only regrets losing her (though he has also lost his money), she regrets losing him too. The implication at the end of the story is that they might get together after all.

The Telephone Game

A young couple is about to get married. He is British, she is German. On the eve of their wedding, at a party for her German friends, he suggests playing ‘the telephone game’ which involves ringing up an unsuspecting (and unknown) third party and convincing them to do something. In this case, the victim is an elderly lady and Tony persuades her to climb into her attic and turn off a tap. Liese and her friends don’t appreciate the humour of the game, and Liees is horrified when the lady doesn’t hang up her phone, imagining that something terrible might have happened to this innocent victim.

The point of the story is unclear, and in a way this is what makes it fascinating. Liese does not like the game, and feels anxiety for its victim. Tony is embarrassed but gets his way in the end (they put the telephone handset back on its cradle). “The shadow of truth that had come was lost in the euphoria.”

You get the feeling that all is not going to go well in this relationship. But Trevor seems to want to make us believe that this is because of a clash of cultures. I think, however, it is the different characters at work here that create the tension. Score: 6

The Hill Bachelors

The last story, after which the book’s title is taken, concerns the situation on small Irish farms which succeeding generations are unwilling to take on. When his father dies, Paulie’s brothers and sisters – all established in their careers and their own family life away fro the farm – expect him to return home to take are of his mother. And so he does, resigned to his fate, though it means giving up his job and his girlfriend. He is realistic enough to realise that no girl is going to want to marry into the kind of life that his mother was glad to settle for: a remote farmhouse, with a live-in mother-in-law. Paulie is destined to become another of the ‘hill bachelors’.

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Read in November 2013

The Secret Life of Bees

by Sue Monk Kidd

I was prejudiced against this book, having tried to read it once before and discarded it. So I didn’t expect to get into it very quickly.

It’s actually quite easy to read. It’s easy to sympathise with Lily, who has an abusive father and huge guilt about causing the death of her mother when she was four years old. August Boatwright is the wise, patient, understanding mother-figure (and bit too good to be true?).

The bee-keeping sisters in Tiburon, South Carolina, accept Lily for who she is. They allow her to ‘heal’ at her own pace, and don’t make any demands on her. Likewise, they accept her housekeeper/nanny, Rosaleen, without cross-examining either her or Lily to find out why the pair are on the run.

I liked:

  • characterisation: Lily, Rosaleen, the Boatwright sisters
  • settings: Lily’s hiding place in the orchard; the night spent on the riverbank; the Boatwright sisters’ pink house
  • scenes: the Daughters of Mary in their spectacular hats, smearing honey all over the statue; Rosaleen spitting on the shoes of the taunting racists
  • Lily’s passage into adulthood
  • May Boatwright, the description of her trouble and how she finds an outlet for her sorrow by going to her ‘wall’

Not so keen on:

  • bees as a metaphor – a bit laboured
  • the Daughters of Mary cult – slightly absurd
  • demonisation of T Ray – only the merest hint that he is also a victim
  • male characters are all somewhat one-dimensional. This is a girls’ book!

Overall: easy to read, a nicely developed story, gives you a warm feeling at the end.

Score: 7/10

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Read in March 2010