‘Cardiff, by the Sea’ by Joyce Carol Oates

Four deeply disturbing novellas rather than one single narrative, Cardiff, by the Sea is a strange hybrid of unsatisfying storylines underpinned by some beautiful, lyrically appealling prose.

Three of the stories are linked by a subject of displaced young women uncertain of the immediacy of the environment they find themselves in and threatened (real or imagined) by the people surrounding their inner sanctum.

A young academic studying in Pennsylvania learns of an inheritance from a woman of whom she has no prior knowledge. Adopted as a young child, she knows nothing of life before – but in travelling to Cardiff, Maine, she discovers a long abandoned house that is now hers. An unsettling narrative unfolds as Clare learns about her biological family – and the horrific incident that left her an orphan. The final story, The Surviving Child, also shares the theme of familicide with Stefan, spared when his brilliant but disturbed mother, a famous poet, killed his sister and herself. But its his young stepmother who takes centre stage of the narrative.

The least satisfying is Miao Dao in which a young girl, Mia, overcome by loneliness and pubescence, adopts a feral cat. Shy college girl in Phantonwise 1972, taken advantage of by not one but two academics highlights the predatory nature of men.

There’s more than a hint of Shirley Jackson in these novellas from Joyce Carol Oates as she explores women facing threats past and present. At their best, they are psychologically chilling packed with suspense – the titular storyline certainly the most successful as Clare meets her two surviving spinster aunts and threatening, silent uncle. But sadly, there’s little genuine engagement in any of the main characters in any of the four tales. The men are generally presented as domineering, manipulative, predatory, selfish trope – but the result is that it reflects badly on the female protagonists. The female student in Phantonwise 1972 comes across as weak and a victim.

‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt

A hypnotic, claustrophobic sprawl of a novel as an elitist, morally ambivalent group of friends murder one of their own in a smalltown college in Vermont.

Escaping a poor, abusive Californian home life, Richard secures a scholarship to study languages in the formal, old-fashioned Vermont college, the go-to for discrete and wealthy New England families. Denied a place on the select Ancient Greek course taught by legendary professor, Julian Morrow, Richard becomes obsessed with the five students Morrow has allowed to grace his rooms. Advised to steer clear, the west coaster inveigles his way onto the course – and whilst able to hold hs own academically, he is way out of his depth in terms of worldly knowledge and wealth.

As the narrator, Richard reflects years later on the sequence of events. Ever the outsider, late to the party as the result of initially being refused entry to the course, the individual friendships and camaraderie already established, at times Richard felt isolated and excluded.

On many occasions he was not invited to time away. Instead, he found reluctant solace in campus parties. He yearns to be closer to his so-called friends. Trust fund kid with an intellect off the charts, Henry is the unofficial leader of the group – with Bunny (a young Boris Johnson anyone?) a rebellious disciple. Twins Charles and Camilla drink too much (come to think of it, they all do) and drugs certainly feature, but the gentle, demure Camilla wins everyone’s hearts. Finally, another trust fund boy, Francis, gay and in love with Henry (unreciprocated) but who physically dallies with the ostensibly straight Charles, has access to a large, rambling home nearby which is the setting of many events taking place within The Secret History. It’s after one such excluded weekend that Richard discovers they have killed a local farmer, a result of Bacchanalian alcohol and drug excess.

Loyal to a fault, Richard will say nothing. Not so Bunny (also not present at the fateful weekend) and there follows an intense period of fear by the group as Bunny extorts money, drugs, essay writing and more from his friends whilst indiscreet comments are dropped at any given opportunity in any company. The group decide they need to rid themselves of the uncertainty.

With more than a nod towards Rope, the play written by Patrick Hamilton and adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock, The Secret History teeters between an arrogant, intellectual exercise proving their superiority of committing two perfect crimes (Phillip/Farley Granger in the film) and absolute fear (Brandon/John Dall). And ever present is the worshipped professor Morrow (James Stewart).

Tartt’s novel is a broad sweep of a tale as she not only explores both individual and group moral and ethical ambivalence, but also comments on 1960s privileged New England youth culture – alcohol, drugs, new freedoms. Through Richard, The Secret History takes on a more grounded, everyman student experience. It’s an engaging, immersive – if on occasions, at 600+ pages in need of some judicious editing – and enjoyable read.

‘The Lady in the Lake’ by Raymond Chandler

To some critics, The Lady in the Lake, with it’s cleverly twisting plotlines and character development, is seen as Raymond Chandler’s masterpiece, a Philip Marlowe investigation into the disappearance of Crystal Kingsley, the vanishing wife of his latest client.

On being called to Kingsley’s office, Marlowe is hired to find Crystal. Kingsley claims to have received a telegram stating she was divorcing him and, heading off to Mexico, planned to marry the younger Chris Lavery. But on a follow-up, boy-around-town Lavery was found to be still in LA and had no idea where she was. Things become a little more complicated when Lavery is found dead – as is the neighbour, Muriel Chess, of the Kingsleys in their lakeside getaway home in nearby Bay City.

Expect lots of plot twists and whipsmart laconic Marlowe humour as the dots are joined in a case that’s more than simply a missing person. It’s a snappy, fast-paced narrative as the private detective inches his way closer to the truth – and not without upsetting a few important people along the way and being arrested himself for murder.

Chandler is something of an American crime noir icon but one downside for any Marlowe fiction is, irony among ironies, Humphrey Bogart. Although the legend only played Marlowe once on screen (The Big Sleep), he will be forever synonymous with the character. Try reading The Lady in the Lake without Bogart in your mind and without seeing everything in black and white – just how film noir should be seen!

Booker Prize Shortlist: 2022

Opinions inevitably vary when it comes to placing preferences for one item above another (the Oscars, anyone?). Certainly no difference here as, having read all the books on the 2022 Booker Prize shortlist, the personal burning question is – did the judges make the right call?

Shortlisted books first:
Glory – NoViolet Bulowayo
The Trees – Percival Everett
Treacle Walker – Alan Garner
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida – Shehan Karunatilaka
Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan
Oh William! – Elizabeth Strout

It’s a pretty consistent list although surprised that neither Young Mungo (Douglas Stuart, winner in 2020) nor To Paradise (Hanya Yanagihara) even made the longlist – and personally would have loved to see The Colony by Audrey Magee make the shortlist.

So what of the six – and did the judges make the right call in awarding the 2022 Booker Prize to Shehan Karunatilaka and The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida?

The last book on the list I read shores up the shortlist at the bottom of the pile. The final book of a trilogy, Oh William! is by far the weakest of the three as Elizabeth Strout continues to follow the narrative life story of Lucy Barton. It’s a pity as the first two made for great reading of a woman who came from nothing and Amgash, Illinois to become a successful writer.  Instead, whilst a tale eminently readable, Oh William! is not as commanding or engrossing as its predecessors. (60%)

At 87, Alan Garner became the oldest shortlisted author in the 60 years of the Booker Prize. An author from my childhood – the fantasies of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath rivalled the Narnia tales of C.S.Lewis as holiday and bedtime reading – Treacle Walker is a playful and luminous novella on the art of storytelling and a beautifully written, evocative fusion of a tale that is difficult to categorise. (62%)

Two down and four to go – and interestingly, to my mind there’s very little between them – but unlike the judges of the 2019 Booker Prize who presented a tie with Bernadine Evaristo (Girl, Woman, Other) and Margaret Atwood (The Testaments), a decision is to be made. So, being aware that the four are interchangeable according to the day read – fourth on the list is the eventual winner of the 2022 Booker Prize, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.

Mordantly funny, brimming with pathos, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida looks to explore and expose the carnage of Sri Lanka’s civil wars. Described as part ghost story, part whodunnit, part political satire, it’s a crazy ride as the story looks to identify the killers of acclaimed war photographer and narrator of the book, Maali Almeida. It’s a frenetic novel that is incisive, frustrating, funny, confusing and was lauded by the judges for its ambition in scope and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques. (70%)

Calm and reflective, Claire Keegan’s novella Small Things Like These is short in word count, morally visceral in impact. It places Ireland’s inhumane Magdalene Laundries under the microscope. Ostensibly a home for ‘fallen women’, the laundries in local Catholic convents were found throughout Ireland where the young women experienced everything from deprivation to abuse and death. Short and capacious, it is a deeply affecting debut novel. (71%)

Glory is the novel I thought would pick up the prize. A coruscating African Animal Farm, a commentary on global politics, a bitter yet, at times, incredibly and bitingly funny chorus against corrupt Zimbabwean politician Robert Mugabe, Glory is NoViolet Bulawayo’s follow up to her 2013 literary debut, We Need New Names. It’s an equally deeply political and social observation of life in Zimbabwe. But, in cloaking her world and her characters in the voices of animals, Bulawayo avoids potential tome-like overt political agitprop. Instead, she can call out and emphasise the absurdities of politics, both localised and global, and how the common people are impacted in an accessible energy of a novel. (72%)

But my preference falls on new-to-me American author, Percival Everett and The Trees. Everett has written more than 20 novels and was Pulitzer Prize shortlisted in 2020. But few of his books have made it outside the States. Comic masterpiece The Trees will change all that. A dark social satire that directly addresses racism past and present in a bold and shocking way, it also mixes in old-fashioned pulp fiction film noir storylines of murder. It’s a page-turning comic horror of a novel: it also topped the best of the 2022 Booker Prize list for me. (74%).

Yet although it was not my preferred choice, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, because of that ambition in scope and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques was arguably a good call to win the Booker in 2022. My jury is out on that one.

‘Oh William!’ by Elizabeth Strout

Part three of the trilogy – assuming author Elizabeth Strout decides to end the Lucy Barton narrative at this juncture – is, like its predecessors, deceptively simple in style and prose, and continues to explore the then and now of Lucy’s life. Only the now sees Lucy, a recent widow, spending unexpectedly more time with her first husband William – and consequently the then becomes about him and them.

An eminent storyteller, Strout weaves and wafts between time frames and characters as William discovers he has a half sister only a few years older than himself. It appears that when William’s mother walked off the Maine potato farm belonging to her first husband, she left behind a baby girl. He feels he needs to know more. With time on both their hands (William’s third, and much younger, wife has just left him), Lucy agrees to accompany her former husband to the small, rural town in Maine.

And that’s about it as far as a ‘story’ is concerned. But Strout does not need a structured beginning middle and end to her storytelling. Lucy Barton may remain as the central pivot but plot lines be darned – random moments of recall, distinctive memory of place and time, conversations partially remembered, vague recognitions all form part of Lucy’s armoury of life remembered.

But sadly, Oh William! does not reach the heights of its predecessors. There’s something laconic and uncertain as the two spend time together – either in Maine or New York, alone or in the company of their two daughters. The strengths of Lucy developed over the years, someone who came from nothing as we are frequently reminded, are somehow undermined as the relationship with the William of today appears to make Lucy appear somehow gullible – not the same character who left home in rural Amgash, Illinois to take up a place of study in Chicago. Add the level of condescension – oh William! this, oh William! that – prevalent throughout and the result is a tale eminently readable but not as commanding or engrossing as the earlier parts of the trilogy.

Nominated for the 2022 Booker Prize but lost out to Shehan Karunatilaka and The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.

‘Trust’ by Hernan Diaz

Playful yet thoughtful, challenging yet engaging with its four manuscripts of interconnected narratives resulting in, in part, a novel-within-a-novel structure, Trust is a fictionalised tale of an early twentieth century New York power couple. Or at least, that’s how it initially appears.

Through fiction, Diaz explores the fiction of money as Benjamin Rask becomes a wealthy man by playing the part of a wealthy man – a billionaire successfully playing the financial markets in the years leading up to the 1929 Wall Street crash and the resultant Great Depression. Yet the crisis makes him even richer – with more than a hint that through discrete sales earlier in the year, he was responsible for the crash. There’s a lingering sense that he’s pulling the strings of the national economy.

Whilst on the surface Rask betrays potential Great Gatsby traits with his extreme wealth, lavish parties and more, Rask and his equally aloof and eccentric wife, Helen, take little interest in New York society. Invitations may be at a premium but the financier leaves it all to staff – right down to the guest list. It’s not unusual for him to not even attend his own functions. To Rask the act of making money is all important through well-timed investment decisions. Focus is required – he attributes his success to his strong intuitive capabilities, intense research and his acute understanding of the financial world. Everything else is secondary.

Within the narrative of Trust, Rask is fictional character. Or is he? Andrew Bevel is concerned it’s too like him – so much so Ida Partenza becomes the secretary – and ghostwriter – to the financial mogul as he decides to put the records straight. And then the final section blows all the putting of records straight in all preceding sections out to sea. As Ida’s father says,

You can’t eat or wear money, but it represents all the food and clothes in the world. This is why it’s a fiction. … Stocks, shares, bonds. Do you think any of these things those bandits across the river buy and sell represent any real, concrete value? No. … That’s what all these criminals trade in: fictions.

It’s no easy read. But, unexpectedly, considering it’s subject of financial institutions, stocks, bonds, the making of money, it’s also engrossing.

‘Anything Is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout

A companion piece to the earlier My Name Is Lucy Barton, Strout’s later novel is, in essence, a series of interrelated short stories.

Set much later than the earlier work, with Lucy Barton by now an older, successful writer, Anything Is Possible is a readily accessible character study of people from Lucy’s rural home town – the fictional Amgash, Illinois – and surrounds. Although a key figure throughout, Barton only features beyond name in one of the stories when, with a reading scheduled in Chicago, she decides to call on her brother. It’s their first meeting in many, many years.

All the characters look to live their lives the way they can – people had to decide, really, how they were going to live according to bed-and-breakfast owner, Dottie. The past plays a strong role as they struggle to understand themselves and others, to accept choices made. Some chose to forget, cruelly reminded with the release of Barton’s latest: the name alone is sufficient to bring to the fore past indiscretions or memories. A tear for school counsellor Patty Nicely – one of the Nicely girls in the earlier novel – reminded of her short, happy marriage to Sebbie. After a student calls her Fatty Patty, the shift in dynamic and tension is significant with a conclusion that, in the most positive of all the short stories, proves anything is possible with a degree of application and straightforward thoughtfulness. 

Strout’s skill is creating and developing diverse characters with complexity, depth and ordinariness along with the many ambiguities that make up the human condition. The characters have grace, humour and love amidst loss, hardship and challenges. A mother and daughter relationship, many years apart, gains perspective and depth in Italy. The retired school janitor continues to visit Lucy’s isolated brother, Pete, to check on him in spite of the rumour the Barton patriarch burnt down the man’s barn, ruining him to the point he was forced to take the lowly public wage.

Poignant and hopeful, Anything Is Possible sees, mostly, honest and authentic connections. Love, jealousy, loneliness and so much more is revealed and exposed in this elegant, bittersweet novel.

To listen to a person is not passive. To really listen is active.

‘The Trees’ by Percival Everett

Mordantly funny, brimming with pathos is the opening to my review of Booker Prize-winning The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka. It could so easily be the opening gambit of this review for a novel finding itself shortlisted in the same year.

The Trees opens with a series of brutal murders in Money, Mississippi. But what makes the situation more than a little different is the presence of a second dead body at each of the crime scenes: that of a man who resembles Emmett Till, a young black boy lynched in the same town 65 years before. Till is a non-fictional character and his death – in Money, Mississippi and where the three murderers were acquitted – is seen as a key moment in the American civil rights movement, highlighting racial injustice and violence towards Black people in America. The image of the boy [Till] in his open casket awakened the nation to the horror of lynching. At least the White nation. The horror that was lynching was called life by Black America.

The victims in The Trees are from the same red neck family and, as the opening chapters unfold, it soon becomes apparent they are connected, through family ties, to the lynching. As the murders unfold, so the secondary body disappears each time from the morgue, much to the confusion of Ed and Jim, the Special Detectives (‘And that’s not just because we’re Black,’ Jim said. ‘Though plenty true because we are.’) sent to investigate.

With the structure of pulp crime fiction, The Trees mixes mordant humour with hard-edged commentary. Looked upon with suspicion by the locals, Ed and Jim find themselves involved in a seemingly supernatural act of revenge. But, with 105 year-old Mama Z and her list of every individual lynching since her father was murdered in a racist attack knowing more than she is letting on, The Trees slips into the surreal as similarly violent crimes (and the presence of more secondary bodies) spring up around the country.

Full of glorious repartee and immensely likeable characters, The Trees is not so much a murder mystery to be solved as it is an address to the crimes of the past. The crime scene is not present day Mississippi but history itself. The murders are not random but are linked to events in history. Not that such crimes are consigned to the past – in his page-turning comic horror of a novel, Everett highlights that past with the present day.

The Trees was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker prize but lost out to The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka.

‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ by Elizabeth Strout

A complex and complicated mother/daughter relationship is the core of Elizabeth Strout’s award-winning novel. As Lucy spends an extended time in hospital with an undiagnosed illness, the sudden arrival of her for-many-years estranged mother from Bible Belt Illinois sends Lucy into a reflective tailspin.

Deceptively simple in style and prose, My Name is Lucy Barton explores the then and now of Lucy’s life – a dirt poor childhood through to married New York life as a successful writer with two young daughters. Abused by a violent father unprotected by a powerless mother, Lucy and her siblings survived the poverty and violence, much of which is now suppressed. Occasional moments in the hospital ward flash into Lucy’s consciousness, fleeting and unformed.

Strout’s book has limited ambition – confined into a restricted physical space reflecting on the relationship between the two women. The book itself is set in a time beyond the hospital confinement, allowing Lucy hindsight to the discussions as adults. There are no words about the father. This is virtually all mother/daughter as they search for common ground. A great deal is left unsaid – conversation between the two is as much about the pauses and what is not discussed. It’s full of silence and self-questioning. Intimacy and gestures are hoped for but rarely apparent; it vibrates with things left undone. The revered quietness of the hospital, particularly at night, adds to the sombre mood.

My Name is Lucy Barton is something of a grower. Elegant, told in the first person, Lucy Barton slowly unfolds on the pages of this relatively short novel – and stays with you.

‘Glory’ by NoViolet Bulawayo

A coruscating African Animal Farm, a commentary on global politics, a bitter yet, at times, incredibly and bitingly funny chorus against corrupt Zimbabwean politician Robert Mugabe and his sinister entourage of family members and hangers-on: Glory is all this and so much more.

A revolutionary hero of the African liberation struggle who helped free Zimbabwe from British colonialism, Mugabe as prime minister and, later, president, was accused of 40 years of widescale corruption, abuse of power, economic mismanagement and crimes against humanity.

NoViolet Bulawayo follows her powerful Booker Prize-shortlisted 2013 literary debut We Need New Names with an equally deeply political and social observation of life in Zimbabwe. But, in cloaking her world and her characters in the voices of animals, Bulawayo avoids potential tome-like overt political agitprop. Instead, she can call out and emphasise the absurdities of politics, both localised and global, and how the common people are impacted in an accesible energy of a novel.

High Horse, once a charismatic soldier, and his elite band of Chosen Ones, driven recently by his beloved and ambitious young donkey wife, Marvellous, have held on to power since the demise of the white, human colonialists. But High Horse is ageing and, much to the concern of others, it is Marvellous who has the ear of her husband (if he hasn’t nodded off, dreaming of glory days) and the people. But corruption is endemic and other than the fear of ‘disappearing’ with an inappropriate neigh or grunt, the Chosen Ones are pretty secure with their economically rewarding sinecures.

Among the people, say it loud, say it often, appeal to the vanity and remind them of what was: the perfect ideology to keep the mutterings down to a minimum. But among the elite, the uneducated, Marvellous remains a concern – a woman and too young to have been in the wars of independence.

At the centre of the story of the people is Destiny – a young female goat who returns to Jidada, the country of her birth, a decade after disappearing. It is she who will bear witness to the revolution as she sets in motion a series of events that leads to the demise of tyranny. Rallies, religious hysteria, rigged elections all feature as the people of Jidada awaken to the reality of the world they have allowed to be created in their name.

Shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, Glory is a powerhouse of a novel, a hard-hitting satire of epic proportions that would readily be a worthy winner of the prize.