I've been a huge admirer of Ruth Rendell for literally decades, so I was really pleased to be sent a review copy of this, her latest novel. And oh how I wish I could say I loved it. It's not, of course, a bad novel -- how could it be? Rendell writes so beautifully -- I'd be fascinated to hear a real linguist analyse her prose, which manages to be wonderfully simple and clear while simultaneously conveying an extraordinary sense of impending doom. And indeed there is much to admire here.
The central image is unforgettable -- a pair of severed hands enclosed in a biscuit tin and buried in some underground tunnels during WW2. The hands belong to a pair of illicit lovers -- we know this from the start, as we also know the identity of the killer, a particularly unpleasant person, as many of Rendell's villains are. But the action soon shifts to the present day, when we meet the central characters, all now in their late seventies, who we discover to be the very same children who played in those tunnels in the 1940s. This remains the main time-frame of the novel, though it sometimes shifts backwards.
Essentially, though a crime has been committed, and though, once the hands are rediscovered, the police are seeking the perpetrator, this is not really a crime novel. It's much more a novel about the lives of these elderly people, their memories, their past relationships, and the ways in which they interact with each other. And we soon discover that people in their late seventies think and feel pretty much exactly the same as people who are a good deal younger. They feel unsure of themselves. They form new friendships or discover old ones. They fall in love, passionately and physically. Is this a surprise? Not to me, though perhaps it might be to some people. But of course they are also intensely aware of their own mortality, and several of them actually die in the course of the novel.
But what of the girl next door of the title? This is the beautiful Daphne -- still beautiful in her old age -- who was a bit of an outsider to the group of wartime kids, but proves to be central to the mystery in some ultimately very disturbing ways. I can't say more, but there are revelations at the end of the novel which many readers will probably find upsetting.
So this is a bold novel, dealing with issues that are not much talked about. Why, then, am I not more enthusiastic? Well, for reasons that are purely subjective, I'm afraid. I simply could not warm to any of the characters, for a start. I know novels don't have to be full of delightful, admirable people, but it's nice to have at least one person about whom you really care, and I just didn't find one here. Also, I found it terribly depressing to read about these folks messing their lives up in old age just as they had when they were young. But hey, that might just be me.
I imagine The Girl Next Door will be getting some very mixed reviews, though I haven't seen any yet, and I hope, and presume, that Rendell won't be at all bothered by the less positive ones. I also imagine it will sell well to everyone who loves her writing. In fact I don't want to put anyone off, and I'd be delighted to hear from anyone else who has read it and disagrees with me.
As I'm sure you know, Shiny New Books has a Facebook page. But maybe you don't know that if you "Like" our Facebook page, you will automatically be entered in a Prize Draw. The prize will be a choice from the books the editors have spare copies of. The two in the picture are included, but if you don't fancy either of them, just tell us and we'll offer you another option.
Yes, Shiny New Books today publishes issue 2a, or the inbetweeny. Although we are a quarterly magazine, there are books which one way or another have not quite made the deadline and so we add them to the relevant list. There are actually twenty-three new pieces for you to read, all helpfully marked as "New".
This painting is by Sally Storch, an American artist born in 1952. I've edited this post from yesterday as I was misinformed by a website that said she was a man. Of course she isn't, as a kind commenter pointed out below. In fact here is her website. She was influenced by Edward Hopper, as you can see.
This entertaining comedy thriller is (unfortunately for some of you) only available as an e-book. James Cary, the author, has described himself as 'a over-educated thirtysomething male who is slightly obsessed with the second world war'. He has won awards for his BBC comedy writing, which includes the successful series Hut 33. This is (I think) his first venture into fiction.
The plot is somewhat complex, as it whizzes back and forth between several time-frames -- the present day, eight years after the war, and 1944. The main character is John Fellowes, a crossword compiler, who, in between his obssessive need to invent clues for every unusual word he encounters, is trying to find out the truth about his grandfather, who seems to have been involved in the crossword clues which gave, or could have given, information to the Nazis about the forthcoming D-Day landings. With me so far?
John has been shocked by the revelation that his grandfather might have been a Nazi spy, and sets out to prove that he was not. In this he is helped by his two colleagues Turner, a highly intelligent but embittered chess grandmaster and Overend, a brilliant but eccentric nerd, and by the lovely Amanda, an accountant from downstairs. All the characters are great -- a bunch of boffins, sure, but it's fun watching their minds work.
I have a good friend who is a crossword lover and occasional compiler, and I was constantly reminded of him by John, and by the many cryptic clues that are dotted through the text. In fact the whole book is structured like a crossword, with the modern chapters headed Across and the historic ones Down. I'm pretty hopeless about solving clues, though I can immediately understand the solutions once they are pointed out to me. But if you are the same, don't let that stop you reading this ingenious and entertaining novel. All will be finally revealed, I promise you. And of course if you happen to be a crossword buff, you will be in heaven.
The Guardian did an interview with James Cary about the novel and all things crossword, which you can read here. In it he points out, among other things, that
in the second world war – perhaps like no other before – boffins, linguists and general smart-arses could be put to good use, thinking creatively and laterally as well as scientifically.
The Outlander was published in 2009 -- 2007, even, in Canada -- how on earth did it pass me by? I suppose in those days I was reading mostly older fiction, and not paying enough attention to newly published stuff? Anyway, I finally caught up with it only because someone who is moving house passed it on to me. And oh how glad I am.
Gil Adamson, whose first and so far only novel this is, is primarily a poet, and if I say this novel is pure poetry, don't get me wrong. Yes, the writing -- the texture of the prose -- is very beautiful, but more than that, there's an imaginative sweep through the plot which is constantly breathtaking, page-turning, endlessly surprising.
It was night, and dogs came through the trees, unleashed and howling. They burst from the cover of the woods, and their shadows swam across a moonlit field. For a moment, it was as if her scent had torn like a cobweb and blown on the wind, shreds of it here and there, useless. The dogs faltered and broke apart, yearning. Walking now, stiff-legged, they ploughed the grass with their heavy snouts.
The first paragraph really encapsulates what it is over-riding theme of the novel -- pursuit and escape. We don't yet know who is being pursued ('her scent') and won't find out till the third paragraph ('the girl') and finally the fourth:
Nineteen years old and already a widow: Mary Boulton. Widowed by her own hand.
This is Mary's story -- 'the widow', as she is most often called. But, like those opening paragraphs, it slowly unwinds through the course of the novel. She's on the run, yes, pursued by two men, red-headed brothers, Large men, identical in every way, standing close by each other, not speaking. These are her husband's brothers, obsessively fixated on revenge. She's lost her baby and shot her husband, though the details of all this will emerge only gradually. Mentally, she is more or less unhinged by what she has gone through, has lapses of memory, see things and people that are not there. But somehow as the days go by, days in which it is surprising she has not died from exhaustion and hunger, she survives long enough to be rescued by a man as isolated and almost as strange as herself -- William Moreland, the Ridgerunner. William rescues her, feeds her, loves her, deserts her. Then again, by some extraordinary chance, she finds herself in a small mining community, living under the roof of the kind, odd, Reverend Bonnycastle, who is building a church for the miners with his own highly unskilled hands and who takes her in and shelters her until the next disaster strikes...
"Winner of the International Association of Crime Writers' Dasheill Hammett Prize", proclaims the cover blurb. Well yes, I suppose in a way this can be described as a crime novel -- a crime of sorts has certainly been committed. But I would never classify it in that way. Yes, again, it's a novel of pursuit, but more than anything I'd call it a novel of survival. Robinson Crusoe comes to mind -- there can be few readers of that novel who don't ask themselves how they would survive on a desert island. Here too you can't help measuring yourself against Mary and wondering how you would fare in the trackless wastes, with no food, no rest, and no idea where you are going.
Physical survival, then, certainly, but mental and emotional survival too. Mary survives through the kindness of strangers, most of them social outcasts, people from whom, in her previous life, she would have run a mile rather than speak to. But she discovers that love is to be found everywhere, even in the most unlikely places. And so yes, this is also a love story, of a heart-rending kind. And on top of all this, it is a real page-turner -- I kept wanting to skip forward, as it was almost unbearable not knowing how things were going to work out. I can't tell you that, of course, but if you haven't read it, I suggest you put it high on the list.
I have numerous family connections with Canada, and am particularly fascinated by stories of how it was in the olden days -- The Tenderness of Wolves, which I also loved, could be a companion piece to this one. People forging lives in the great empty landscapes, the terrors of loneliness and the constant threats of the weather -- and the courage it took to survive all these. All of this is supremely shown in what I can only describe as a truly beautiful novel.
Does anyone read LP Hartley any more? If not, they really really should. I picked up a 1956 edition of this 1955 novel at a vide grenier (aka jumble sale) in a friend's garden on Sunday, where books were three for a euro. I read it fast, and with huge enjoyment, and couldn't wait to tell you about it.
I suppose Hartley is most famous for The Go-Between (1953), which was made into an excellent film, though he published about eighteen other novels and several collections of short stories. I've also read his Eustace and Hilda trilogy and am certain I reviewed it on here but I can't find the post. But I'd never heard of this one, though it really deserves to be better known.
Essentially, this is the story of the marriage of Harold and Isabel Eastwood. Harold is an accountant, conventional and unimaginative, and Isabel is clever and has literary leanings. Despite this discrepency, the marriage jogs along comfortably enough, largely because Isabel
knew what was likely to happen when a woman of slightly superior social standing, decidedly superior brains and greatly superior imaginative capacity married a dullish man and lived in the provinces, and was on her guard against it.
Are we hearing alarm bells? We certainly should be. For, as the novel begins, Harold has met Alexander Goodrich, a well-known novelist, on a train, and somehow found himself agreeing to take on his tax affairs. When Alec comes to visit some weeks later, two things happen -- he is immediately smitten by Irma, a lovely Austrian girl who is working behind the bar in a local pub, and Isabel is immediately smitten by him. Her smitten-ness, though, is initially highly altrusitic. Thus it is that she believes it is her duty to procure Irma for Alec -- Isabel has lived in London, where she was initially teased by her more sophisticated friends for being a prig, so this is something she has worked on diligently. Harold finds the idea initially rather shocking, but Isabel manages to persuade him that it will benefit both parties, providing a better life for Irma and improving Alec's novels, which have been criticised for being too full of unpleasant, bitter women.
So Harold agrees to ask Irma out to dinner, and is amazed when she says she will come. But soon he finds himself involved in a most enjoyable affair with her. Isabel, meanwhile, is drawn into a passionate relationship with Alec, and spends increasing amounts of time with him in London, at theatres and restaurants and of course in luxurious hotel bedrooms. Initially the marriage rather benefits fron this. Harold becomes a great deal more cheerful, even uncharacteristically playful, and Isabel is grateful for this. In addition, each partner is so involved in their own secret affair that they don't have time or energy to notice what the other is up to. But this apparently happy state of things cannot continue forever, and when Isabel gets hold of the manuscript of Alec's latest novel, things take a dramatic and alarming turn...
This summary cannot do justice to the many great things about this novel, which manages to be both serious and witty at the same time -- there were many moments when I laughed aloud at some particularly apt observation, such as the description of a group of young men in the pub whose dark hair "set off the Brylcreem perfectly". There are some wonderful characters, including Alec's long-term mistress Elspeth, a tragic harpy whose intervention brings about the shocking events towards the end. Then of course there are the children, desperately serious Jeremy and frighteningly emotional and talkative Janice, who at the age of six is obsessed with love and marriage. These two are wonderfully well observed, as their own interactions innocently mirror that of their parents. But above all, the novel focuses on the inner lives of Harold and Isabel, and does so in an astonishingly perceptive and ultimately very moving way. You could justifiably say that Hartley sees into the human heart, and forgives its frailties. There are so many examples of this in the novel, but here's one more or less at random. This is Isabel, back from an illicit week in London with Alec, and surprised by Harold, who she feels she hardly recognises, and his gentle, teasing welcome:
She had braced herself to meet the alien atmosphere of home, the sunlessness, the smilelessness, the necessity to feel, think and act from the dry, dusty centre of her being, without the energizing power of love. Love was not here, how could this pleasant stranger be in love with her? And yet there was a simulacrum of it, to which her heart responded.
Well, I can only say that if you get a chance to read this novel, please do so forthwith. You will not be disappointed. You know you'd have seized upon it if it had been published by Persephone, which it easily could have been. And it is, in fact, available on Amazon for not very much money. So what are you waiting for?