I had a go at Jo Nesbo a while back -- read one of his Harry Hole novels, which I didn't particularly like. So I'm not sure why I ended up reading, or rather listening to, this one -- perhaps Audible described it in an interesting way? Anyway, it was absolutely rivetting though not one for the fainthearted. I do read a lot of crime novels, especially at the moment, but I tend to go for something rather milder, with more emphasis on the solving of mysteries than on violence and gore. Well, those things do figure here, I can tell you, though I was able to stomach them because of the brilliance of the twists and turns of the plot.
Set in Oslo, this is the story of Roger Brown, who is a highly successful headhunter. Here's a bit of the opening chapter which shows his interviewing technique:
'I'd like..', I said with a smile. Not the open, unconditional smile that invites a stranger to come in from the cold, not the frivolous one. But the courteous, semi-warm smile that, according to the literature, signals the interviewer's professionalism, objectivity and analytical approach. Indeed, it is this lack of emotional committment that causes the client to trust his interviewer's integrity....I don't put on this smile because of the literature, though. I don't give a damn about the literature; it is chock a bloc with various degrees of authoritative bullshit. No, I put on this smile because I really am professional, objective and analytical. I am a headhunter. It is not that difficult, but I am king of the heap.
So yes, Roger is full of himself, and yes, he has reason to be -- not only is he top of his game as a headhunter, but he also uses his interviews with rich and successful businessmen to seek out information to help him with his lucrative sideline as an art thief. He has a beautiful wife, Diana, who runs an art gallery, and life is good. Or it was, until Diana introduced him to Clas Greve, a perfect candidate for an exciting position that Roger can help him attain. Not only that, but Clas has in his possession one of the most valuable works of art in the world, one that will make Roger rich beyon his wildest dreams. But when Roger sets up the theft, safe in the knowledge that Clas is out of town for the night, he makes a discovery in Clas's flat that turns his world upside down. From that point on, things get very sticky indeed, and soon Roger is on the run from a man who turns out to be a ruthless and amoral killer.
Well, to tell you any more would spoil the fun -- if, that is, you can stand being shocked and surprised and sometimes rather revolted at every turn. Why I can not only stand it but actually rather enjoy it is a bit of a mystery in itself, but there you are. I've just found out that there is a film of this novel and have read the Guardian review which has made me so desirous to see it that I am right now downloading it from iTunes. Isn't technology wonderful?
This lovely photo -- Leslie Caron in her dressing room during the filming of The Man with a Cloak, 1951 -- was sent to me by Peter, aka Dark Puss. It came from here , where you can see lots of other people in their dressing rooms.
Yes, I know this is All Virago All August month, but I started reading this before I knew that, and anyway I never promised that was all I'd read. So -- are there any admirers of Rumer Godden out there? It is interesting to me that I never seem to read reviews of her many wonderful novels in the blogosphere, even though she was an exact contemporary (1907-1998) of many of the novelists we all rave about so much. Even if you haven't read her, you may have seen one of the films that were made from her books -- The Greengage Summer (1958, filmed 1961), The River (1946, filmed in 1951 by the great French director Jean Renoir), and the amazing Black Narcissus (1939, and filmed in 1947 by the extraordinarily talented duo Powell and Pressburger).
It turns out that this one, published in 1956, was also filmed, as Innocent Sinners (1958), though I've never seen it or even heard of it. Nor had I ever heard of the novel till I found it a few days ago on my daughter's bookshelf. But oh how I loved it.
This, really, is a story about love, though not a love story in the accepted sense. It's set in post-war London, and in one of those parts of the city (which still exist, though there are fewer of them) where squares of wealthy houses sit side by side with streets where the houses are shabby and the people a great deal poorer. In Mortimer Square live the two middle-aged, unmarried Chesney sisters -- tough-minded, busy, successful Angela and gentle, nervous, frail Olivia. Living in nearby Catford Street are Lovejoy Mason, aged eleven, and her friend Tip Malone, who is thirteen. Though they have become unlikely friends, the two childrens' family lives could not be more different. Tip comes from a large, noisy Irish Catholic family, while Lovejoy is the daughter of a feckless, selfish, and usually absent mother whose interest in her little daughter has decreased sharply since she ceased to be "sweet" enough to be taken on stage as part of her mother's dancing act.
Lovejoy is one of those children whose lives have been to a large extent subsumed in caring for their parents, though with Mrs Mason so often away she has had to learn to fend for herself. As a result she has developed a tough, resiliant exterior though she's pretty angry and obviously supressing a lot of pain. Having always adored her mother, she has come to recognise that her mother cares little for her and has, in fact, more or less abandoned her in their rented room. But Lovejoy suddenly makes a discovery which will transform her life -- she picks up a packet of flower seeds and gradually, after some false starts, and helped by Tip, she starts to make a garden in a disused yard behind the Catholic church. Needless to say nothing runs smoothly and when the children are discovered taking earth from the square to grow a rose bush, serious trouble descends and things look very black for poor Lovejoy.
I was talking recently about good writing, and that was partly inspired by my reading of this novel. There is so much to praise here. For one thing the characterisation is wonderfully perceptive and believable -- Godden has really seen into the hearts of these two children, both in their different ways so disadvantaged but both so bright and so sensitive, and all the other characters are also really well observed -- I particularly liked Vincent, husband of Lovejoy's landlady, who struggles to run a high-class restaurant in shabby, poverty-stricken Catford Street, and takes Lovejoy for walks in Mayfair and Chelsea to admire the quality of life he aspires to. As for Angela, prejudiced, blinkered, controlling, unable to appreciate the fine qualities of her timid, warm-hearted sister, she is a rather terrifying but totally convincing creation. The plot moves along at just the right pace, with just the right amount of uncertainty and tension and you are never sure if there is going to be a happy ending. As for the themes -- well, there's class prejudice (Angela vs the poor of Catford Street), religious prejudice (Angela and her housekeeper vs. the Roman Catholics), but above all, as I said earlier, there's love.
Olivia, who has never loved or been loved, finds comfort and even a kind of redemption in the feeling she develops towards the children and this brings about the novel's immensely satisfying denouement. But it's the love that develops between Lovejoy and Tip that is so beautifully handled here. The adults are generally completely bemused by it, though towards the end Tip's mother comes rather unwillingly to see it for what it is. There are some wonderful moments, as when Lovejoy is being "difficult", and Tip finds himself distracted by
noticing how she had a ridge of very fine short hairs on the back of her neck, soft as down, mouse-coloured but tipped with gold; they looked as if they were protecting the tender knobs of her spine; gently Tip put out his finger and felt those little bones. It was no good; even when Lovejoy was difficult and ungrateful he found it impossible to be angry; instead he began to coax her.
As for Lovejoy, she is almost horrified to discover that Tip is the only person in the world in front of whom she can cry, and despite her sharpness towards him she misses him desperately when he is not around. So, though I said this wasn't a love story in the conventional sense, it really is, or it's what a love story really should be -- gentle, understated, innocent.
As for the quality of the writing -- well, it's not showy, poetic or obtrusive, but for me the words just leapt off the page and as you can see I enjoyed every minute of it.
Last night Film Four showed the 1994 film of Little Women which, amazingly, I had never seen. It was a book that I loved so much when I was a child that I must have read it half a dozen times. I was curious to see what they had made of it, and was pleased to see that though obviously some changes had been made it was, for me, absolutely true to the spirit of this fine book. In fact the film also covers the sequel, Good Wives, which I managed to find afterwards on the bookshelves though I don't seem to have a copy of Little Women. I raced through Good Wives this morning, marvelling rather as I did so at the thought that I must have read this aged no more than 10, and wondering what I had made then of some of the quite complex and archaic language, not to mention the literary allusions, which must have gone right over my head. What struck and impressed me most, both in the book and in the film, was the fact that, though the books are undoubtedly rather moralistic by today's standards, they are also extremely honest, and the characters seem as real as they must have done in the 1860s. There's an interesting chapter in Good Wives, for instance, in which Meg gets so caught up with her babies that she neglects her husband John, who takes to going to his friends' house for a bit of light relief. The marriage, which has got off to such a good start, is under threat for a while, until Meg's mother advises her to take a bit more trouble to make John feel loved again. Many people will recognise that syndrome. Of course it is Jo who is central to both books -- how I loved her when I was a child and how I still love her now, having seen three children of my own struggle with some of the issues she has to face. It's her temper, above all, the she has to learn to control, but of course she is an extraordinary feminist icon and many of her problems arise from the fact that she is denied the possibility of living the kind of life she craves for, essentially a man's life. It is interesting that though Alcott married Jo off very happily to the adorable Professor Bhaer (played in the film by the gorgeous Gabriel Byrne), she herself never married and once told an interviewer that this was because " I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man." I have to admit that, sentimental fool as I am, I sat there with tears pouring down my face not once but several times during the course of this movie, a very satisfying result.