Book Review : Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum



‘All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Leo Tolstoy , Anna Karenina

Anna Benz is a bored housewife .An American, she is married to Bruno, a Swiss, and finds herself stranded as an ex-pat in Zurich. Following a crisis , she is undergoing Jungian analysis ( well this is Switzerland) with Dr Messerli and is finally resigned to trying to learn German. As a distraction, she has started an affair with a fellow student in her German class. So begins Essbaum’s impressive debut novel.

Gradually we learn more about Anna’s past whilst her present slowly begins to unravel.

Anna’s marriage to Bruno is loveless and held together by convention just like her namesake’s with Karenin. Bruno’s mother, Ursula, watches over her like a hawk, judging and waiting to trip her up – there are obvious echoes of Countess Ivanova in Tolstoy’s novel.

The narration is broken up by excerpts from Anna’s therapy sessions with Dr Messerli, providing a sort of moral conscience. I thought these were the least successful sections of the novel and they felt a little heavy handed at times. More interesting were Anna’s musings on German grammar rules and the way they seemed to mirror her life .

“This is basic, class. Present tense. That which happens now. Future tense. What will occur. Simple past : what was done. Present perfect? What has been done.”

But how often is the past simple? Is the present ever perfect? Anna stopped listening. These were rules she didn’t trust.’

Just like her namesake, Anna’s life begins to run away from her and she finds herself unable to control events. 

This is described on the backcover as a literary page turner and it is exactly that. Whilst Anna’s story has obvious comparisons with those of Anna Karenina and, to some extent, Emma Bovary, this is a strong work in its own right. An immensely enjoyable read.

Hausfrau was published on 26th March by Mantle and my thanks to Sam Eades for the review copy.

Shadowing The Bailey’s : Keep Calm And Carry On

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The Bailey’s Prize long list has been revealed. Now all I have to do is read them all ahead of the announcement of the shortlist on April 13th . No biggie then !

Prior to the announcement, I had confidently and, as it turns out, arrogantly assumed that I would have already read at least half of all the books chosen.The judges, of course, had other ideas and have selected a varied and interesting collection of books.

Obviously there are the usual unexpected omissions  – Jane Smiley and Marylinne Robinson to name but two Pulitzer prize winners; as well as All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews ,currently causing quite a stir and shortlisted for both the Folio and the Wellcome prizes. I could go on.

As it turns out, I have read only six of the long-listers already and only reviewed three on the blog : Elizabeth Is Missing; Crooked Heart and The Paying Guests. I suppose this is a good thing in some ways as it gives me  time to write a few reviews while I get on with the easy task of reading 14 books in just under six weeks, still trying to work full time and have a social life.

I have decided to post only short reviews of the long listed books I read , possibly even two at a time. I will maybe post longer reviews once books are shortlisted – but I reserve the right to change my mind and do things completely differently . Your statutory rights are unaffected.

Secretly, I am very much looking forward to discussing , shouting about and flouncing out over the books with my fellow ‘Shadows’ – Naomi from thewritesofwomen.wordpress.com ( @Frizbot) ; Antonia from http://www.antoniahoneywell.com ( @antonia_writes) ; Eric from lonesome reader.com ( @lonesomereader); Dan from theinsideofadog.wordpress.com (@utterbiblio) and Paola ( @paola_ruocco).

I had grown a little weary of blogging recently. Endless book reviews can become tedious to write as well as to read. This project has given me a fresh impetus. Thank you to Naomi for organising it ……………….and Ssssshhhhh!!!! I’m reading !

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The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

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There’s been a problem on the line. The 17.56 fast train to Stoke has been cancelled, so its passengers have invaded my train and it’s standing room only in the carriage. I, fortunately, have a seat, but by the aisle, not next to the window, and there are bodies pressed against my shoulder, my knee, invading my space. I have an urge to push back, to get up and shove. The heat has been building all day, closing in on me, and I feel as though I am breathing through a mask. Every single window has been opened and yet, even while we’re moving, the carriage feels airless, a locked metal box. I cannot get enough oxygen into my lungs. I feel sick.

This passage from Paula Hawkins’ new thriller will chime with anyone who commutes regularly. I am not a big fan of the thrillers and I don’t read very many. It remains a genre that produces big sales and the publishing industry is now on a quest to find the new Gone Girl, whose ( to me inexplicable) success recently led to a Hollywood film. There are several highly publicised thrillers coming out this year which like  Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train are by women and feature female protagonists.

Hawkins’ staring point is the monotony of a daily train commute – you see the same faces, stop at the same stations and pass through the same landscapes day in day out. One way out of the boredom is to invent fictional lives and names for the people whose lives cross ours everyday , albeit briefly.

This is how we first meet Rachel, one of the three female narrators of the book. She is a commuter but with a difference. In the wake of a failed marriage, her drink problem has caught up with her and she is now taking the same train every day to hide from her flatmate, and maybe from herself too, that she has lost her job and her life is approaching meltdown.

On the train she relives the moment that she discovered Tom was cheating on her with his now wife, Anna :

I found out the way everyone seems to find out these days : an electronic slip. Sometimes it’s a text or a voicemail message ; in my case it was an email, the modern-day lipstick on the collar.

Rachel is obsessed with Tom and is accused of stalking him. Her alcoholism means that she can’t always remember exactly what happened the night before. She is the classic unreliable narrator….or is she ? We also hear from two other female characters Anna, Toms new wife, and Megan, a young woman Rachel glimpses from the train every day, who each add a different perspective to the story. It is not really possible to say much more without running the risk of giving a spoiler.

I enjoyed The Girl On The Train very much. None of the characters are particularly likeable but the book is tightly plotted and kept me turning the pages to see what would happen next.As with any thriller, there are a few red herrings that kept me guessing and the plight of Rachel ,who descends from social drinking to full-blown alcoholism, is sympathetically told.

An ideal book for a long winter’s evening…..or, indeed, a long train journey.

The Girl On The Train was published on 15th January. My thanks to Alison Barrow and Transworld for the review copy.

 

Vanessa And Her Sister by Priya Parmar

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A novel about the Bloomsbury Set presents some challenges but Priya Parmar has stepped up to the plate in her book to be published by Bloomsbury on 30th December 2014.

The cast of characters is large and shifting, made doubly confusing by their love of (multiple) nicknames for each other together with their habit of hopping in and out of each others beds with alarming regularity.

Parmar has chosen to look at the group through the prism of Vanessa and Virginia’s complicated relationship. The book spans the years 1905 (just after the death of their father) to 1911 and Virginia’s marriage to Leonard Woolf.

The story is told by a series of fictionalised diary entries created by Vanessa as well as ‘ correspondence’ from her and other members of the set. It begins with the Stephens family’s move to Gordon Square, Bloomsbury and the start of the Thursday ‘at homes’ . Together with their brothers, Thoby and Adrian, the sisters preside over a household determined to kick at convention

Adrian was being pedantic and trying to persuade Virginia to change into evening clothes.

‘I do not see why I should wear a corset in my own drawing room,” said Virginia crossly. “You can breathe? Why shouldn’t I ?”

“Because you are a lady, Ginia,”Adrian repeated.

“And therefore not entitled to breathe?Since I do not need air, I will swim around the drawing room like a fish.The what will you do?”

Virginia’s logic.

Vanessa and Virginia’s relationship is tense. Virginia’s fragile health causes Vanessa to be ever watchful. Her sister’s moods can warn of an impending storm.

When Virginia is in a good mood, she enjoys hysterics. It is when she is in a quiet mood one should be careful. The stillness that presages the squall.

We follow the family through their travels and adventures however the central event in the novel is Vanessa’s courtship by and eventual marriage to the painter, Clive Bell.

Vanessa resists Clive at first only to marry him and become blissfully happy – for a short time. Her happiness is shattered by Clive’s infidelities,  first with her own sister and then with an ex-lover.

Apparently, I have misunderstood our marriage. He never thought we would be constricted by provincial fidelity. He never thought I would be so narrow minded, so Victorian, so unimaginative , as to confuse a marriage and a love affair. He never thought I would interrupt his personal freedom in this way.

Vanessa’s relationship with her sister is irrevocably altered. When Vanessa meets Roger Fry, the art critic who eventually became her lover, she warns her sister ,

No Virginia. You ruin. You ruin whatever you see coming between you and me. Roger is to my lover. He is my friend, but that hardly matters. We have a fragile, particular friendship, and you will destroy it if you can. As you destroyed my marriage. You cannot help yourself. You do not want something of your own. You want what is mine.”

I enjoyed this book immensely. At first it was a little difficult to follow who was who despite the list of characters which appears at the front. Things did eventual fall into place and telling the story through diary entries and letters did create the atmosphere surrounding the sisters, their acolytes  and of the times in which they lived.

Of course the story is ultimately tragic but there is a thread of humour running through it, particularly in Lytton Strachey’s correspondence with Leonard Woolf, then stationed in India. Strachey is constantly promoting the idea of Woolf marrying Virginia – hilariously he even prepares the ground by proposing to her himself only to have to somehow dissolve this disastrous engagement.

Behing it all stands the cpmplex but alluring Virginia, determined to write groundbreaking fiction

‘Why must a novel begin at the beginning? Who declares such a rule? Who defends it?” 

Vanessa And Her Sister is published by Bloomsbury on 30th December. My thanks to Netgalley for the proof.

An Evening With Marilynne Robinson

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At this time of the year, the blogosphere is filled with favourite books of the year and so  I thought I would finally get round to writing about my favourite author event of 2014.

On 13th November, Marilynne Robinson was interviewed by James Runcie at the Southbank Centre following the publication of Lila, the third of her novels set in the mid West town of Gilead and following the fortunes of the Ames and Boughton families. What follows is not a verbatim account of the interview but will, I hope, give a flavour of the evening.

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Lila is a repeat of the story in the earlier books Gilead and Home but told from a different point of view, that of Lila, wife of Rev John Ames who is the narrator of Gilead. One of the issues of storytelling, Robinson finds, is to get sufficient dimension. In John Ames’ version [ Gilead] he is writing a letter to his young  son and therefore he is necessarily writing to his son’s mother. It is really like parents telling different stories.

Is Lila, though uneducated, intuitively wiser than her husband John Ames? Lila describes knowing a place before it was known. She is not self-aware in a conventional way. She is outside the sense of things and outside consciousness .

Runcie pointed out that taken as a whole, the stories of Gilead, Home and Lila feel like a parable and the Book of Ezekiel and the Prodigal Son come to mind.

Robinson is haunted by Biblical paradigms . The parable of the Prodigal Son teaches us that if you absolutely love someone you see them in a state of grace. God sees you more purely . The father sees his son at a distance and runs to him. If you love someone, you want to stop them from hurting themselves but it they do, you still love them.

Runcie remarked that there is a high moral seriousness to Robinson’s writing. She replied, dryly, that she was glad to be assured of that. She prefers to call it aesthetic . Good behaviour is beautiful. Humans are an amazing flowering on a planet. We have the freedom to care for one another and to forgive. She calls this a beautiful uniqueness.

Jack Boughton specifically asks for forgiveness and John Ames cannot give it to him. Robinson explained that she has created a theological Rubik’s cube. Jack Boughton may be at odds with his culture but he sees something John Ames and his father can’t. Gilead is a small self-blinded community. Jack lacks the moral confidence to point out that they are violating Christian standards. They are both wrong and both right.

Runcie asked why Lila feels such shame. Lila is fallen in the sense we all are. People who are in poverty, who are ignorant, feel shame. They are embarrassed and this, in Robinson’s view, is the major part of the cruelty of poverty. Shame reinforces injurious cultural norms.

Lila’s baptism is central to her story. Robinson’s own tradition is Congregationalist. There are only two sacraments, the Lord’s Supper and baptism. They both symbolise deep care.The cosmic force of water has always fascinated her. A member of the audience asked about the response of a younger readership to the biblical references. Robinson replied  with a flash of humour that she writes what is on her mind and she doesn’t find resistance to it. She can’t write something deliberately to be appealing.In the writers’ workshops she teaches the Old Testament from time to time. It is part of our inherited culture, for example, why is a book called Absalom! Absalom!

Runcie felt that whilst there was tentative hope in Lila, all the Gilead books are quite sad.Robinson doesn’t like the word pity and she objects to the word sad. We live in the knowledge of our own mortality. This is a profound thing. It is a fact of humaness, indeed it is what dignifies it. Runcie wondered if there is another word for pity or sad. Robinson cannot find an alternative word……..that is why she has to write novels.

Runcie wondered about the sense of loneliness there is in Lila and , indeed, in all the Gilead books. Robinson’s roots are in N. Idaho. People went there and no-one followed them so she is programmed to think that loneliness is a great Idea. She was brought up to be self sufficient.

Is she done with Gilead? She can’t be sure. She starts to write when a voice is clear in her mind.If a voice speaks to her persuasively then she may return there.All three books so far are free standing, they cast light on each other. In her view it is perfectly legitimate to read them in any order.

When she writes, Robinson needs solitude. She also needs hope, she doesn’t want to succumb to cliché . When she is writing and she likes what she is producing she can work for twelve hours. If she doesn’t feel engaged, she doesn’t work at all.She has to feel that there is a nucleus around which something is gathering to gain weight.

She had great happiness when she was writing her first book Housekeeping. She was in Brittany in France and she felt being there helped her to focus on Idaho. She never thought that it would be published. She showed her manuscript to a friend, who in turn showed it to the person who became Robinson’s agent. When she is writing she starts at the beginning and then she does what seems to be the next required thing. She never even writes an outline.

This was a remarkable evening. Robinson’s serenity leaves a long lasting impression and it was fascinating to have a glimpse at her method of working and to hear her discuss the themes in the Gilead novels .

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The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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This is the latest novel from prize winning Sarah Waters. A taut and nail biting thriller it explores the effect that the arrival of two paying guests, Leonard and Lily Barber, have on the household of Frances Wray and her mother. it is 1922 and ,reeling from the after effects of World War One, the upper-middle class Wrays find themselves in reduced circumstances and forced to take in lodgers ‘ from the clerk class’.

The novel was published on 28th August and the Stylist magazine hosted a special book club event with Sarah Waters to discuss the book. At the outset Waters conceded that this was a very difficult book to discuss without giving away spoilers and so ,rather than a  book review  , I have decided to post a review of that evening in which she talked about her influences and her writing process.


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The event was held at the very upmarket Rosewood hotel in Holborn , central London. In fact, by coincidence, this building used to be the Pearl Assurance offices, which is where Leonard Barber goes to work each day and Waters also explained that right next door at that time was the Holborn Music Hall where Frances and her friend Christina go for a night out during the course of the story.

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Waters explained that she is interested in London’s history and enjoys walking through the city looking at buildings and landmarks. In fact, the characters she feels closest too in her books are those who walk around London on routes she takes and notice what she notices. She has always been fascinated by Champion Hill in Camberwell, where Frances and her mother live ,as it is a little island of upper-middle class gentility in a predominantly working class sea.

 She chose the early Twenties to set the novel as this was a particularly fascinating period in which society was still very much living in the shadow of WW1. There were a lot of challenges to the structure of everyday life, particularly for women. She is also interested in the ability in families not to say things to each other and to ignore or talk round difficult subjects.

In order to start thinking herself into the period she read the novelists of the day – Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence and Aldous Huxley. These helped her to get a sense of period but all these writers chose more upper class and bohemian  characters  whilst she knew she wanted to write about ordinary peoples lives. The best window into the every day lives at this time, she found, were the celebrated murder trials of the day. In particular Notable British Trials contains court transcripts in which you can hear the commonplace voices of the time and get an idea of how regular households were arranged.

Next she came up with the house, which is almost a character in itself,and then used  the classic scenario of a stranger arriving to upset things. She read newspapers from that period as well as cookery books and fashion magazines to get a sense of the smells and the sounds of the times. The way that people negotiate personal space and how that has changed over time has always fascinated her. In The Paying Guests there are a lot of half heard conversations through walls and chance meetings on the stairs.

The first half of the book crackles with unresolved feelings . Waters explained rather self-mockingly  that she had always thought the URST ( unresolved sexual tension) of romance fiction was not a device she would employ. She then read us an extract starting at p191 in the novel in which the URST positively leapt off the page. In the second part of the novel, however, there is a change of mood when duty and guilt begin to complicate passion and Waters found herself searching for new ways to describe fear.

Waters was asked to name her top three books. Firstly she chose Anna Karenina which figures in her novel as both Lily and Frances become fascinated with the story. In Waters view this is often pigeon-holed as a difficult book when in fact it is more of a soap opera, funny and tragic at the same time. Next she recommended Virginia Woolf’s diaries. These are very witty and insightful, they were very much on her mind when writing The Paying Guests. Finally she chose Katherine Mansfield’s letters. She thought the letters were in fact better then Mansfield’s fiction which, in her view , is a little uneven. They provide an intimate look at the fascinating life of an unusual personality.

As a writer, Waters is extremely disciplined. She aims to write 1,000 words per day and she always makes herself do it. Until the run up to publication, she approaches her writing as a job and works from about 8.30 am to 4.00pm Monday to Friday. Some of that time will be writing and some will be research which can just be reading a novel from the period or a newspaper. Towards the end of a book, however, the writing becomes all consuming. At the end of this novel she found all she was doing was writing and watching episodes of Breaking Bad ! She is now on a writing break and taking the time she read, think and go to the theatre and exhibitions.

Her advice to any aspiring writers in the audience was simple………..just do it! Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, you must carve out a space for it. Whilst a first novel is often a labour of love you have to approach continuing like a job. She revealed that she always feels awful on a Monday morning and has long period of agony and frustration.

She was asked about her favourite of her own novels. She found that a very difficult question to answer . Tipping The Velvet had been very good for her and she enjoyed the TV adaptation in which she appeared as an extra. She re read it recently, the only one of her books she has re read , and found it to be ‘ a complete mess’.Perhaps her favourite is The Paying Guests because she found it more difficult to write than any of the others . In fact the first half was rewritten countless times. There were several scenes that caused particular difficulty, some were excluded altogether in the final draft and some although kept she still does not feel entirely happy with. In the original draft, she revealed, there was lots more sex but this she found slowed the narrative down. Its important to her for a novel to tell a story and her very favourite writers are ones that can create suspense and intrigue with a serious agenda……Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith came to mind.

This a was a fantastic evening. Sarah Water was an engaging and witty guest. In my own view The Paying Guests is her best novel yet full of suspense and surprises.

My thanks to Susan de Soissons and Virago for the advance copy.

 

Book Review :Man At The Helm by Nina Stibbe

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Nina Stibbe’s first book, Love Nina, was an hilarious memoir of her experiences as a nanny catapulted from rural Leicestershire into the literary circles of North London in the 1980s. In Man At The Helm she has turned her comic talents to fiction, albeit with a dash of personal experience.

It is 1970 and Lizzie and her sister find developments at home a little bewildering after her father leaves following a fight :

‘Mother will go 100 per cent crazy on her own,’ said my sister. ‘Let’s pray he comes home soon and they don’t split up.’

‘They won’t split up.’ I said.

‘I bet they will. They have nothing in common – they’re chalk and cheese,’ said my sister. I didn’t agree. I thought they were just different kinds of cheese (or chalk).’

To set this conversation in a context you have to understand that divorce in 1970 was not yet commonplace in the UK. The Matrimonial Causes Act, which introduced the concept of a ‘ no fault divorce’, was not enacted until 1973.

Just a few years after this fictional conversation takes place, I came home from a school trip to Germany to have my sister whisper to me in our bedroom at night that things had been pretty awful and she thought Mum and Dad would have a divorce. My reaction was exactly the same as Lizzie’s – I told her not to be so stupid. It was perfectly normal for parents not to get on.

In fact Lizzie’s sister, just like my own, is perfectly right and so begins the family’s descent into chaos. They become a single parent family , headed up by her shell-shocked mother and regarded by all with suspicion . Lizzie’s sister is convinced that the children will end up wards of court sent to a children’s home their only hope is to begin a quest to find their mum another husband – a man at the helm.

The book is full of period detail. I laughed out loud at references to the feather cut ( yes, I have some hideous school photos of that) and also Chi-Chi the panda. It was mention of My Learn To Cook Book by Ursula Sedgwick that really had me chuckling. This formed part of my own childhood library. My sister still has our copy and our disastrous attempts to make, I think, Apple Crumble directed by the cartoon dog and cat led to a ban on using the cooker when my mother was out at work.

Lizzie is an astute observer of family life and relationships. She writes ruefully about having to agree with her big sister even when she isn’t  too worried about the issue herself :

‘Except that what bothered her bothered the rest of us in the end.’

Her mother had some early and fleeting success as a playwright before getting married. In the turmoil of a marriage breakdown, her mother turns to writing as an outlet for anger and frustration. Her mini plays, plotting the sad trajectory of her post divorce life and acted by the children,  provide some very funny episodes in the book, almost a Greek Chorus ….Lizzie, however, has some mixed feelings :

‘Clever, sometimes funny and always worldly – as good as anything you saw on telly or onstage except perhaps Terence Rattigan, who didn’t do as much explaining and yet revealed so much. Our mother did rather spell things out and her characters occasionally broke the fourth wall, which I considered cheating.

This is more than just a farcical romp through the 1970s, Lizzie is a wonderful comic creation. She vocalises  a child’s bewilderment at the collapse of the world around her,  coupled with the casual ,although usually unintended, cruelty of adults .Lizzie serves to remind us that children are perfectly calibrated barometers of family life.

Lizzie’s voice is poignant , brave and totally authentic. My only criticism would be that she does, at times,  does display a worldly knowledge beyond her supposedly 9 years.

 Man At The Helm is published on 28th August. I am very grateful  for the review copy from Nina Stibbe and Penguin……but I am definitely buying   two more copies, one for my sister and one for another friend of my youth who I know this will speak to.