‘Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty’ by Ramona Ausubel *****

I was so eager to read Ramona Ausubel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty that I ordered it directly from Washington state.  I adored her debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, which was published in 2012, and takes place in Romania during the Second World War.  The storyline of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is rather different, but no less compelling.

1024x1024Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, which has been so wonderfully received, begins in Martha’s Vineyard on Labor Day, 1976, and spans generations and decades.  Fern and Edgar, who were high-school sweethearts, are holidaying with their three children.  Despite their ‘deeply professed anti-money ideals’, both have been living a ‘beautiful, comfortable life’ thanks to Fern’s recently deceased parents.  When Fern receives a phone call to inform her that all of the money, which she and her family have been so reliant upon, is gone, their ‘once-charmed’ life unravels immediately.

Fern and Edgar both leave the familial home on separate adventures, unaware that the other parent has also escaped, and their three children have been left completely alone, in the care of seven-year-old Cricket.  As their ‘paths divide and reunite, the characters must make crucial decisions about their own values, about the space they occupy in American history, and about the inner mould of their family.’  Ausubel poses questions regarding their situation, using them to explore the bigger issues of inherited wealth and privilege.  Perhaps the most striking of these is: ‘When you’ve worked for nothing, what do you owe?’

When surveying his family’s vacation house, Ausubel writes the following about Edgar: ‘He knew that the summerhouse, the sea view, belonged to him because he paid for them, yet it felt like his bloodstream pumped with this place, like the rocks and waves and saltmuck were in him, that he was of them.  But money, old money, got all the press.’  His own parents are wealthy too, enjoying the profits of a successful steel business, which has even allowed them to purchase their own private island in the Caribbean.  He has repeatedly been offered a position in the company, which comes with a very healthy salary, but has so far turned it down; he sees himself, rather than a business operative, as an aspiring novelist, writing back against industry and inherited wealth.  ‘Being rich,’ writes Ausubel, ‘had felt to Edgar like treading alone for all of time in a beautiful, bottomless pool.  So much, so blue, and nothing to push off from.  No grit or sand, no sturdy earth, just his own constant movement to keep above the surface.’  Although the family protest about inherited money, when Fern tells Edgar of their wealth running out, ‘It was like announcing a death…  The money had lived its own life, like a relative.’

Ausubel writes with such clarity, and there is a wonderful depth to Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty.  She notices and relays the most minute things back to the reader, making them astonishingly beautiful; for instance: ‘Fern had felt the very specific warmth of Edgar’s skin, different from anyone elses.  Suddenly, the car had slowed and they had both jolted forward.  The road ahead of them had turned all silver, shimmering and slippery, like mercury had spilled all over it.  It had melted like the sea.’  Ausubel’s characters are multi-dimensional, and she has a real understanding both for the adults and children whom she has created.  Cricket particularly is an endearing creature; she has been rendered vivid in both her actions and speech, and one warms to her immediately.  The family’s story plays out against important elements of social history – the Vietnam war, for example.

Whilst Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty has perhaps a more conformist feel to it than No One Is Here Except All of Us, it is no less beautiful.  Ausubel deftly and brilliantly evokes a once perfect relationship which soon becomes a troubled marriage, and explores such themes as belonging, trust, the notion of inheritance – both bodily and monetarily, and love.  Her prose is thoughtful throughout, and some passages incredibly sensual.  Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is a deeply human novel, and I did not want it to end.

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‘The Hidden Room’ by Stella Duffy ***

Stella Duffy is a prolific author, but before picking up her newest novel, The Hidden Room, I had shamefully never read any of her work.  She goes back to her roots, so to speak, with this title, returning to the genre of psychological thrillers after twelve years.

The Hidden Room has been wonderfully reviewed.  Crime writer Val McDermid writes: ‘Nobody turns the screw of tension tighter… 9780349007878[it] left me gasping’, and Alex Marwood adds: ‘Duffy roars back into crime writing with her trademark intensity.  The Hidden Room is spooky, atmospheric and as psychologically on point as it could be.  If you want to be disturbed, read this book.’

The novel follows a married couple named Laurie and Martha, who should, by all accounts, be incredibly happy.  They have three healthy teenage children, and live in an enormous house, a finished renovation project which they undertook together, in the middle of the Lincolnshire countryside.  After Laurie’s architectural career takes off, ‘Martha had become the prime carer by default, which had never been the plan, and had almost grown into a problem – until Martha had something else to occupy her thoughts, someone else.  Someone to think about when she was increasingly the only parent picking the kids up from a late practice or date, the only parent around to enforce Sunday-night homework.  Someone to make her feel a bit sixteen again, and a lot less thirty-nine.  A lot less almost forty.’

The novel’s opening paragraph sets up the creepiness and tension almost immediately:

‘Laurie lived in a community when she was a child.
Some people called that community a cult, and she was taken away when she was nine years old.
She didn’t stay in touch with anyone from there.
She never went back.
Nothing remains from that time in her life.

Laurie keeps secrets.’

Throughout, Duffy introduces a series of flashbacks which relate to Laurie’s early life, and the cult which she belonged to.  When still a child, she was ‘covenanted’ to a boy two years older than her.  After the ceremony, they ‘led the community in their dance that night.  They led stumbling, unsure, it was difficult to make the steps with their hands crossed and bound to each other, but they led anyway.  Exactly as Abraham often explained, they led because the others followed – he had dreamed the community into being, and it was a community only because they all surrendered to the dream.  The dream and the promise, all tied together in a long, thin strip of tired red cotton.’

When Laurie is alone in the house, she finds a small crawlspace in the attic, which she soon begins to refer to as her ‘hidden room’; it is ‘narrow, wide enough for a single bed with a very little space to move alongside, and just over six feet long.  It was definitively a part of the house, and it had once been a room, the bookcase had been nailed and drilled into place against what had been a door frame.’   She tells nobody about it, and when her past comes back to haunt her, it is to this space that she retreats: ‘So when she found the little room behind the bookcase she saw it as a gift.  She didn’t think Martha would have minded if she’d said she wanted a space, for her work, or even just to think.  But it wasn’t only a room that Laurie wanted, she wanted a secret, something of her own.’

Both the present and past stories which Duffy builds in The Hidden Room are engaging, and her often breathy prose sets the pace marvellously.  Whilst the novel was nowhere near as taut, nor as tense, as I was expecting, and whilst I did guess the twists, I found the novel compelling nonetheless.  Some elements were predictable, and others strange, but overall, the balance which Duffy has struck here works well.

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Reading the World: ‘Human Acts’ by Han Kang **** (From the Archive)

Human Acts was Katie’s choice for the May instalment of our Chai and Sheep book club.  I had a slight mishap with the library, in that both our May and June choices had rather large waiting lists, and then came in during April; I thus had to read them way ahead of time and try and hide my thoughts.

The novel, Han Kang’s second, has been described as ‘a riveting, poetic and unrelentingly powerful examination of humanity at its most appalling, and its most hopeful.  It is an act of extraordinary resistance and a refusal to forget’.  It is ‘a radically brave novel about an atrocious episode in Korean history’.

Human Acts has been translated from its original Korean, and Deborah Smith won the English PEN Award for doing so.  Kang was adamant that the ‘translation maintain the moral ambivalence of the original, and avoid sensationalising the sorrow and shame which her home town was made to bear’.  The novel itself has won awards in Kang’s native country.  I haven’t read much Asian fiction at all, but it does seem to be rather in vogue at the moment, and this book, to me, sounded both strange and intriguing.  9781846275968

The setting is Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980, where Kang herself spent some of her childhood.  Following a ‘viciously suppressed student uprising’, many searches ensue – a boy’s for the corpse of his friend, and, perhaps above all, that of a ‘brutalized country’ for its voice.  The novel is told in a sequence of interconnecting, and sometimes overlapping, chapters.  It took until 1997 for this brutal uprising, in which many died, to be memorialised; in fact, ‘casualty figures remain a contentious issue even today’.

Interestingly, the novel begins with a chapter which uses the second person perspective.  This is a relatively simple but incredibly effective tool to set the scene: ‘When you let your eyelids part just the tiniest fraction, the gingko trees in front of the Provincial Office are shaking in the wind.  So far, not a single drop of rain has fallen’.  It continues with our journey, as it were: ‘You step into the gym hall, fighting down the wave of nausea that hits you with the stench…  The coffins that have already been through the memorial service have been grouped neatly near the door, while at the foot of the large window, each covered with a white cloth, lie the bodies of thirty-two people for whom no relatives have yet arrived to put them in their coffins.  Next to each of their heads, a candle wedged into an empty drinks bottle flickers quietly’.  This well-evoked setting is a centre filled with volunteers, who are housing the massacred as they await identification.

The next chapter is narrated by the boy’s friend, Park Jeong-dae; he and his sister, Jeong-mi, have both been murdered.  It begins as it means to go on, with the following striking sentence: ‘Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross’.  Bodies are a central theme to the whole: ‘From that moment on, I was filled with hatred for my body.  Our bodies, tossed there like lumps of meat.  Our filthy, rotting faces, reeking in the sun’.

Translator Deborah Smith’s introduction gives valuable background information into the history of Korea, setting out the political and social backdrop which Kang writes against.  ‘Military strongman’ Park Chung-hee has been assassinated when this book begins, and his protege, Chun Doo-hwan, steps up to the plate, expanding martial law and curtailing the freedom of the press, amongst other dictatorial things.  Kang, Smith writes, ‘starts with bodies.  Piled up, reeking, unclaimed and thus unburied, they present both a logistical and an ontological dilemma’.

The contextual information about Korea – a country in which, I must admit, my historical knowledge is rather lacking – was fascinating, as are the facets of culture which are embedded within.  For example, ‘In the Korean context… violence done to the body is a violation to the spirit/soul which animates it’.  Gender politics and regionalism are touched upon in the novel too, and one cannot help but feel that they are learning about a completely different world when they are reading.

Kang’s descriptions are vivid; throughout, there is a very tight control over the vocabulary and the translation.  The characters, even those who are deceased, feel realistic; they all have different wants and longings.  The translation has been perfectly rendered, and there is such a marvellous flow to the whole that it is difficult to believe it has been translated in places.  Kang certainly has a deft hand for writing, and I have heard from so many people that they very much enjoyed The Vegetarian too.  Human Acts is a captivating, stark, and memorable novel, with much to discuss within its deceptively slim covers; the perfect choice for a book club.

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‘Mirror Shoulder Signal’ by Dorthe Nors **

Critical reviewers seem to adore her work on the whole, but the incredibly mixed reviews of Dorthe Nors’ Mirror Shoulder Signal which I have seen around the Internet intrigued me far more than the gushing positives.  Let us begin with some of the more favourable reviews.  Daniel Woodrell writes: ‘To read a Dorthe Nors story is to enter a dream and become subject to its logic’, and the Independent follows a similar thought pattern, stating: ‘Her words whip along, each idea cascading into the next: it’s like having a window into someone’s thoughts’.  The novel – or, rather, novella, as it runs to just under two hundred pages – which was first published in Denmark last year, has been translated from its original Danish by Misha Hoekstra. 9781782273127

Mirror Shoulder Signal follows protagonist Sonja, a translator living in Copenhagen.  She has finally decided to take driving lessons, now that she can afford to, and part of the novel takes place within the space of the car in which she is practising.  The novella opens when Sonja and her driving instructor, Jytte, are getting used to one another in the rather stressful setting: ‘It’s difficult to maintain boundaries in an automobile.  When you’re a driving student, you have to relinquish free will…’.

The novella flits back and forth from the present day to Sonja’s childhood memories.  Whilst I ordinarily find that this technique works well in building up a character in a novel, or a film, Sonja feels relatively one-dimensional.  At first, she comes across as a promising construct, but this is somehow lost.  Her experience with the city was certainly the more interesting part of her story for me: ‘…  the city was overpowering.  The sounds, the faces, the colors all seemed chaotic, and she remembered how she’d lain in bed with earplugs and a blindfold.  Molly lay in the next room and blossomed, but Sonja had to switch off.  She turned down that knob in her brain that let her take in the world at full blast, and once the knob had been turned almost all the way down, the heath, the tree plantation, and the sky overhead seemed empty of content.’  Sonja is the undoubted focus of the novella, but it does not feel as though we ever really get to the core of her; she does not have enough substance to sustain the whole.

The plot within Mirror Shoulder Signal is not the most interesting, and nor does it have much impact.  There are some surprising moments from time to time, and Nors occasionally presents glimpses of character which would not be out of place in a Katherine Mansfield story, but the matter-of-fact prose and way in which loose ends have not been very well pulled together let the whole down immeasurably.  Perhaps if more Danish history and culture had been included, the city would have come to life, and added a sense of immersive reality to the whole.  As it is, the small details of the political climate which have been invited feel a little too brief to satisfy.

Nors’ short stories have been highly praised, and, with hindsight, would have perhaps been a better introduction to her work than Mirror Shoulder Signal proved to be.  At first glance, it appears that it would fit wonderfully upon the Peirene Press list of short, sharp translated fiction, but there is not quite enough depth to it to match any of their other titles.  Mirror Shoulder Signal does not pack a punch in any way; in fact, it is almost profoundly disappointing in its execution.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout adds a detachment to the whole, and despite Hoekstra’s fluid translation, it does not live up to its potential.  The pacing is off too, and the whole feels a little plodding from its outset.

The real joy in Mirror Shoulder Signal is in some of the more poetic sentences, particularly those which deal with the art of translation, such as the following: ‘Language is powerful, almost magic, and the smallest attention can elevate a sentence or be its undoing.’  Every now and then, there was a sentence such as the above, or an idea, which really piqued my interest, but these threads were soon lost, unfortunately replaced by dullness and predictability.

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‘The Hours Before Dawn’ by Celia Fremlin ****

Celia Fremlin’s 1958 debut novel, The Hours Before Dawn, which has been recently reissued by Faber & Faber, sounded utterly splendid.  The novel, which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1960, marked the beginning of Fremlin’s prolific career, in which she went on to publish sixteen novels in all.  Fremlin’s metier, says Laura Wilson’s intelligent and informative introduction, ‘was psychological suspense in a domestic setting; no grand guignol or melodrama, but something a thousand times creeper and more insidious in its small-scale, suburban gentility.’   A forgotten period novel, lost to the annals of time, which contains an awful lot of psychological tension, was wholly appealing to me.

9780571338122The novel, which focuses upon a young mother named Louise Henderson, and details her troubles of sleepless nights following the birth of her youngest child, is based upon the experiences which Fremlin herself had.  It opens with just this issue: ‘I’d give anything – anything – for a night’s sleep…’.  Louise has two school-age daughters, and a new baby named Michael.  She ‘struggles to service the needs of her family, keep things on an even keel with husband Mark, keep the noise down for the neighbours and keep up appearances in middle-class London.’  Her life is stagnant, and stuck in a rut; she continually has to perform the same tasks day after day, and the majority of these revolve around her children: ‘The dull, relentless daylight of a wet spring evening was still undiminished; it seemed to go on – and on – and on.  Would it never be time to switch on the lights, draw the curtains, and let it slip back into firelit winter again?’  Louise does not have a great support network around her; or, arguably, much of one at all.  Mark is very much of the view that it is a mother’s, rather than a father’s, prerogative to look after the children; he implores Louise to make his life easier without making any efforts of his own: ‘”You’ve got to see that Michael stops crying at night.  You can’t expect anyone else to put up with it.  I’ve had just about all I can stand myself.”‘

Following Michael’s birth, the Hendersons find that they have to take in a lodger to make ends meet; Miss Vera Brandon comes along, and Louise soon feels a growing uncertainty about her: ‘Miss Brandon, in both voice and appearance, gave the impression of being a successful woman of the world, both critical and self-assured; not at all the sort of person whom one would expect to choose for her house an inconvenient, ill-equipped attic in someone else’s house.’

The Hours Before Dawn begins in an Infant Weighing Clinic; Louise tells the nurse that Michael cries all the way through the night, and will not settle.  Her discomfort with her son, and his with her, is made immediately apparent: ‘As she spoke, she jiggled Michael with mounting violence, feeling through her palms, through her thighs, the tide of boredom rising within him.  Harder – harder – it was like baling out a boat when you know without any doubt that the water will win in the end…’.

Louise is constantly surprised by rather awkward situations that occur.  When Vera comes into the family’s lounge when she is breastfeeding Michael, for instance, Louise is at first embarrassed, and then unsettled, talking quickly in order to divert attention from her bodily exposure: ‘Louise stopped, uneasily conscious that she was beginning to run on about her children in just the kind of way that up-to-date mothers must be so careful to avoid.  To talk shop if you are a mother is not socially permissible as it is if you are a typist or a bus conductor.’

Fremlin realistically draws her characters with just a few deft strokes of her pen.  Of Louise’s youngest daughter, she writes: ‘Harriet, smaller, darker, carrying nothing, free as air, flew past her woebegone sister, skimming like a dryad across the crowded pavement and into Louise’s arms’.  Louise certainly has an easier relationship with her daughters than with her son, but her lack of sleep and constant worry certainly affects every member of her family, sooner or later.

Written in, and of, a period in which ‘gender-demarcation was well-night absolute and motherhood fetishised as woman’s highest calling’, The Hours Before Dawn still holds much relevance for the modern woman.  Its prose is nuanced and modern in its feel.  The novel is immersive, and has none of the telltale signs which one might associate with a debut.  Fremlin has found her voice in The Hours Before Dawn, and her writing appears to be more practised than practising.  Fremlin’s pace is spot on, and she builds tension and terror admirably.  The denouement is both surprising and clever, and I for one cannot wait to discover the rest of her work.

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A Disappointing Novel: ‘The Shadow Land’ by Elizabeth Kostova

‘Soon after arriving in Bulgaria a young American helps an elderly couple into a taxi – and realises too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers an urn filled with human ashes. As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she gradually uncovers the secrets of a talented musician shattered by oppression – and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.’

9781911231103I have now resigned myself to the fact that Kostova will probably never again reach the heady heights of The Historian, a book which I have read twice and loved even more the second time around. The Swan Thieves, her second novel, was markedly disappointing, but I did struggle through to the end, something which I could not bear to do with her third effort, The Shadow Land.

The novel is set in Sofia, Bulgaria, a city which I recently visited and absolutely loved. The city itself is not well evoked within The Shadow Land, and neither is Bulgarian culture. Kostova flits back and forth in time to her protagonist Alexandra Boyd’s childhood in the US, using her first person perspective in which to do so, and rendering the present day story in a third person narrative voice. Alexandra’s voice is not at all convincing, and I found Kostova’s writing rather dull in places; even her descriptions are rather ordinary.

The Shadow Land sounded like a promising book, but it failed to pull me in, and it got to the point where I simply could not stand to read more about the very annoying Alexandra. I think it is high time to give up on reading Kostova’s future work.


One From the Archive: ‘Virginia Woolf in Manhattan’ by Maggie Gee ****

Championed by bestselling authors such as Jacqueline Wilson and Patrick Ness, Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhattan was first published in 2014, to great acclaim.  The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, for instance, term it ‘a remarkable feat’ and ‘an exhilarating novel’.

The premise which Gee has focused upon is most inventive: ‘What if Virginia Woolf came back to life in the twenty-first century?’  Rather than simply muse upon this idea, Gee has fashioned quite an original story around it.  A mid-life crisis has befallen her protagonist, bestselling author Angela Lamb.  After her ‘irrepressible’ daughter Gerda has been left at her boarding school, Angela decides to take an impromptu flight to New York in order to ‘pursue her passion for Woolf, whose manuscripts are held in a private collection’.  The following twist ensues: ‘When a bedraggled Virginia Woolf materialises among the bookshelves and is promptly evicted, Angela, stunned, rushes after her on to the streets of Manhattan.’  She soon becomes the chaperone of the novel’s ‘troublesome heroine’, as she tries to adjust to life in the modern – and rather bewildering – world.

The novel begins in an engaging manner, the tone, strong prose and wit of which is sustained throughout: ‘There is thunder as Angela flies to New York with Virginia Woolf in her handbag, lightning crackling off the wings of the plane’.  In Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, Gee writes intelligently.  It is clear to see that she is very practiced at her craft, and is comfortable with being playful in both her choices of vocabulary and turns of phrase.

The whole of Virginia Woolf in Manhattan has a marvellously contemporary feel to it; there are no constraints in terms of the text existing in strict, conformist paragraphs.  I was reminded of Ali Smith at times, with regard to the thought which had clearly been given to the visualisation of the text.  The narrative, too, has been well-handled.  Portions are told from the imagined voices of both Woolf and Angela, and these alternate with the omniscient third person perspective, which gives a wonderful overview.  Virginia Woolf in Manhattan is facetious, creative, and brimming with a plethora of thought-provoking scenes.  It is the first of Gee’s books which I have read, but I can safely say that it certainly will not be the last.

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