Review: “Left at the Altar” (A Match Made in Texas #1) by Margaret Brownley

Left at the Altar
Feuds don’t need no reason. Or at least none that matter.”
The year is 1880. The place, Two-Time, Texas, a town filled with gun-toting opinionated people with short fuses. In best-selling author Margaret Brownley’s opening book in her A Match Made in Texas series, Romeo and Juliet gets turned on its head and thoroughly (and delightfully) “western”-ized.
Meg Lockwood and Tommy Farrell have been friends all their life. Children of feuding jewelers who seek to control the town by imposing their own time zones, their wedding was supposed to broker a much sought temporal compromise that goes up in flames when Tommy jilts Meg at the altar.
The sole witness to her humiliation, Grant Garrison, an East Coast lawyer who has recently moved to Two-Time after the tragic death of his sister. Enchanted by Meg’s beauty and courage, Grant nonetheless agrees to represent Tommy in a breach of promise suit filed by meg’s furious father.
Despite their constant run-ins and instant mutual attraction, Grant stays away from Meg and is the perfect foil to the crazy Texans he’s surrounded by. Despite his staid demeanour, there are flashes of wit and a wicked sense of humour. Meg, on the other hand, was a romance heroine I had difficulty warming up to. At first, her thinking seemed provincial and mired in outdated societal mores like propriety and obedience. However, as the story progressed, however, and Meg herself started questioning the roles women are required to play throughout their lifetime (and the alternate ways they can wield power in the absence of political rights) gave the novel a much appreciated proto-feminist bent.
I haven’t read a lot of “clean” romances and it took me over 150 pages to realize that Left at the Altar was one of them. Ms Brownley managed to adequately convey the chemistry between the protagonists, though it is my personal belief that romance could have been developed a tad better. There were a lot of parallel story-lines which left little room for the romance to blossom independently.
The breach of promise suit proves to be a very interesting plot device and also ends up being quite educational through the nuanced arguments made in court and the author’s note at the end of the story. The feud angle felt a bit contrived to me in the beginning but the twisted revolution towards the end proved to be a satisfying explanation. Ms Brownley does a marvelous job of fleshing out her secondary characters and many remain memorable.
Ms Brownley’s Left at the Altar is a fun opener for her A Match Made in Texas series, incorporating socially conscious historical fiction with good, clean romance.   

Review: “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain

Paris Wife

The story of The Paris Wife is familiar to anyone who knows A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of “how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy“. Feast was written some 30 years after Hemingway left Hadley for her friend Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become the second of his four wives. McLain retells Feast from Hadley’s perspective, in the tradition of novels such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, giving voice to a pivotal and yet comparatively silent woman from a classic book. The difference between the two is that the action here is largely seen through Hadley’s eyes; the domestic takes precedence and there are more emotions and exposition than Papa would permit.

Hadley Richardson is 28 when she first meets the glamorous young war hero at a party. Wholesome, a little old-fashioned, she’s resigned to a spinsterish existence, living unmarried and unemployed in the upper floor of her sister’s house. Despite the cobwebs she is, as Ernest quickly spots, “a good clear sort“, and so he marries her and whisks her from St Louis to the whirlwind of 1920s Paris, in part because it was comparatively cheap for expatriates just after the First World War. The young Hemingways were soon befriended by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear, James Joyce, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Modernism was taking flight: in February 1922 Sylvia Beach would publish Joyce’s Ulysses, and in December 1922 T.S. Eliot and Pound published The Waste Land. Hemingway absorbed it all.

Even stripped to the core, the story possesses a classically tragic arc, and it’s not hard to see its appeal to a novelist bent on re-fleshing bare bones. Ernest and Hadley – Tatie, as they call each other – begin their expat life in a flush of love. He writes, she cooks, and they drink away the evenings “until we were beautifully blurred and happy to be there together“. The first ripple of disharmony comes when Hadley decides to bring all Ernest’s manuscripts – three years of work, copies included – with her in a valise to a rendezvous in Switzerland. Of course, the case is lost, and the disaster exposes a fault line between the pair that’s only further strained when Hadley discovers she’s pregnant.

McLain atmospherically evokes the garret apartments in which they lived; the notorious trip to Lausanne during which Hadley lost all of Hemingway’s drafts; the outings to the Paris races, skiing in Austria and bullfighting in Pamplona – the trips that would inspire The Sun Also Rises. It was an era of “open” marriages, although the openness was often one-sided, as McLain pointedly shows male artists such as Pound, Ford and, eventually, Hemingway, trying (often successfully) to install their mistresses in the same home as their wives. McLain resists the facile idea that such ménages were a jolly party in the first era of free love: as Hadley gradually becomes aware that Hemingway might be unfaithful, first with Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Brett Ashley, and later, much more seriously, with her friend Pauline, she must decide how “modern” she’s prepared to be.

Hadley is a deeply touching character, dignified even as she loses almost everything she’s loved, and making her goodness both convincing and interesting is an impressive feat. McLain captures Hemingway’s legendary charisma and his fatal tendencies toward bullying and boastfulness. She also manages to evoke his hypnotic, infectious cadences in her own prose without straying into parody: Hadley remembers “The wine and the sunshine and the warm stones under our feet. He wanted everything there was to have, and more than that.” Some might wish McLain had given Hadley a voice more distinct from the highly stylised prose of Feast – but for anyone steeped in that book its idiom is an undeniably effective way of making the story feel good and simple and true.

McLain writes with vivid, memorable touches: the pregnant Hadley, game to the last, sewing baby blankets between bullfights; Hemingway declaring that Pound can’t be “the devil”, because “I’ve met the devil . . . and he doesn’t give a damn about art“. Fitzgerald assures Hadley the first time they meet that he’ll write something new if she will “promise to admire every word extravagantly“; McLain has a similarly good ear for Zelda’s famously imagistic language, having her describe a flapper as “decorative and unfathomable and all made of silver“. The Paris Wife sings with such pitch-perfect renderings of famous voices, grounded in a tale made all the more poignant for our knowledge of how sad all the young men and women will turn out to be, how the bright young things will tarnish and disintegrate. In drafts cut from the first edition of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway explains: “This is about the first part of Paris . . . That Paris you could never put into a single book.” Maybe not – but Paula McLain has come impressively close.

Review: “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” by Paolo Giordano

solitude-of-prime-numbers

When I read The Solitude of Prime Numbers, I had no idea that it was originally published in Italy, had been translated into over 30 languages and had sold over a million copies. The few reviews I read before writing this post were nothing but complimentary, calling real-life particle physicist Giordano a literary genius and an incontrovertible  hottie.

paolo-giordano

 At first glance, the novel seems to be a very conventional love story about two people who have been marked by tragedy in their childhood. When she was a plump little girl, Alice used to be forced by her domineering father into taking ski lessons. On one such freezing, very foggy morning, she manages to urinate and defecate into her ski suit, get lost in a fog and lose all sensation in one of her legs. Of course, that means Alice is justified in growing up seething with resentment, taking her revenge upon the world by becoming an extreme anorexic.

Meanwhile, her counterpart, Mattia, a little boy suffering from an undiagnosed variant of autism,  is growing up across town, imprisoned in a desperately lonely childhood largely because of his twin, Michela, who is developmentally disabled. Mattia’s clueless parents persist in sending both children to the same school, so Mattia never gets to play with his classmates and, above all, never gets invited to any birthday parties. When Mattia and Michela finally do get an invitation, Mattia ditches his sister in a public park right next to a turbulent river, telling her to wait a few hours until he comes back. Of course, little Michela is never heard from again. There’s nothing for Mattia to do but turn into a mathematical genius with a propensity to self-harm.

Flash forward to the traditionally harrowing high school years, Mattia and Alice go to the same school. Alice is being systematically tortured by the Italian version of Mean Girls, exacerbating her anorexia. Then the main tormentor orders Alice to find herself a boyfriend. Alice picks Mattia, who may be smart but is utterly lacking in social skills. They kiss at a party, and this experience, though it seems somewhat repugnant to them both, has the effect of making them soul mates for life.

While writing this, I keep thinking of those reviews which claimed that every reader of this novel will find small pieces of themselves in it. What particular small piece would that be? Alice spends the next 15 years or so sulking in her room, blaming her oaf of a father for her loneliness and depression. When she finally does get a job, it’s a transparent plot setup for Alice to punish her high school tormentor. She finally marries a nice-enough man who wants nothing more than to have a normal life with some children in it, but Alice’s concave belly is far more dear to her than any hypothetical kid. Her husband is intelligent enough to recognise “Alice’s profound suffering,” but obviously not close enough to help her battle her condition.

Things haven’t been going well for Mattia either. He’s grown up to be a mathematical genius, but when he gets an offer from a foreign university to take a prestigious research position, even his own mother isn’t sorry to see him go: “She hoped with all her might that he would accept, that he would leave this house and that place that he occupied opposite her every evening at dinner, his black hair dangling over his plate and that contagious air of tragedy surrounding him.”

Since I’ve been on a spree of watching Hitchcock movies and listening to Sinatra all day, I can’t help drawing parallels between Solitude and Dean Martin’s Rebel Without A Cause. Except in the latter, James Dean was not only smarter than his obviously moronic parents, but more special, better in every way. He was better because he was cuter, but he was also better because he suffered more; he had a livelier sense of the sorrows of the human (adolescent) condition. It’s a given here that both Alice and Mattia are better, made of entirely finer clay than their parents. To look at your own parents, with all their drooping skin and personal shortcomings, and to realise that odds are pretty good that you’ll end up with the same skin and shortcomings is the quintessential adolescent tragedy. Did I mention that Mattia carves up his skin and puts out the flames on stove tops with his bare hands? He manages to be in agony most of the time. And of course, Alice refuses to treat her behaviour as problematic on any level.

There’s no arguing with this depressive emotional position, besides growing up. We all have to die, and that means in the end that the depressives are right. I’m just wondering about the thousands upon thousands of Europeans who (presumably) subscribe to this position, and have turned, by their adulation, this whimpering cub into a literary lion.

Review: “A Bad Character” by Deepti Kapoor

A Bad Character.jpg

Deepti Kapoor’s A Bad Character is about a tumultuous period in one college-going female student’s life in New Delhi. Kapoor’s novel seems influenced by the novels of writers like Marguerite Duras, jean Rhys and Kate Zambreno, but it’s being marketed as one of the few contemporary novels by non-white, non-Western writers that explore the intersection of female urban experience and sexuality in a South Asian city.

Kapoor’s novel is about a 20-year-old protagonist whose actual name is never revealed—though, at the start of the story, she gives herself a name, Idha: “lunar, serpentine, desirous”—and her slow disintegration into a life of drugs, drink, sex, and aimless meandering. When we meet Idha, she is living with her well-meaning but utterly proper and bourgeois aunt; her mother died when she was 17 and her father has slowly drifted into a new life in Singapore that doesn’t include his daughter. As Idha explains, “I don’t know why it happens. I can’t explain why I’ve been abandoned this way”. Her aunt, like most upper-middle-class Indian women, wants for her niece what she herself was trained to want: a husband, a family, a nice home, some children, comfort, and luxury if she’s lucky. Idha chafes against these imposed restrictions even while dully fulfilling what is required of her: attending classes, hanging out with female college mates, going for “visits with Aunty”, and acquiescing to meet prospective husbands.

On the inside, however, Idha is raging, but very quietly. Alone and introverted since she was a child, Idha finds it hard to adjust to bourgeois society’s expectations of A Good Girl: “The agony of being alive, of functioning like a human being. Can you understand this? This is who I am”. So when she meets a man—or rather, allows herself to be met by him—in a coffee shop one day, even though everything about the way he is goes against what she was raised to want, she allows herself to fall into his orbit.

Much of Idha’s subsequent depiction of the events that occur feel this way: she allows things to happen to her. Little is known about what Idha wants, desires, or is curious about, except the fact that she can’t bear to go on living as she always has. In one way, this is understandable—sheltered as she is, Idha’s love affair with this man was one manner of trying out a life. However, this option to experiment is of course not afforded to all young women of Delhi, and Idha’s story is just one very privileged perspective among the many narratives of female experience that exist in the city.

Many reviews of A Bad Character draw attention to how this book has arrived at the right time, since feminists outside of India, particularly Western liberal feminists, are suddenly paying attention to India after the Nirbhaya rape case made international news. What’s disturbing is the silence by the majority of reviewers around the particular perspective that Idha brings: that of a privileged, financially-secure young girl who, no matter how much she experiments, will always have the safety networks of family connections, due to her class position, to see her through to relative safety, or at least help her land on her feet.

In any case, these recollections are being written by a mature, and we presume, older and wiser Idha, we learn that the only person who ends up dead is the man she was with—and though Idha refers to him as “my love”, it’s hard to know if she ever loved him. If love is meant to be in the showing instead of the telling, it’s hard to tell if this is a weakness of Kapoor’s writing, or her intention to muddy the waters. Either way, the result feels vague, inconclusive, and not in the manner of Duras or Rhys, where the vagueness or indecipherability has a narrative goal, in that it reflects the character’s psychic volatility. In Kapoor’s case, it just feels like a deliberate effort at being poetic or literary to no particular end. There are also perplexing switches of narrative voice from first-person to third-person that do nothing to either anchor the story or free it from its constraints.

From the start, Idha tells us that her lover had dark skin, and was ugly: “Ugly with dark skin, with short wiry hair, with a large flat nose and eyes bursting either side like flares, with big ears and a fleshy mouth that holds many teeth.” There’s a moment when Idha lectures us: “It’s the years of conditioning that make me think his dark skin is ugly, poor, wrong. Which makes me think he looks like a servant.” This is all well and good, this awareness, but it has not translated to knowledge, as the older and wiser Idha continues to tell us that the fact of her beauty in contrast to his ugliness is what turned her on. In her society, this dark-skinned man will be thought of as ugly, more properly a servant, but Idha is held apart from this society, as someone different, someone who will actually have sex with a dark-skinned man who “looks like a servant”.

It’s hard to know whether the older Idha is aware that this fetishisation is as abhorrent as her family’s and friends’ condescension of people who look this way. When Idha loses her virginity to him, she notes that “he was a part of me, his ugliness, his black skin”. It’s an utterly disturbing observation, and not because this declaration is brave and subverting established norms, but because of its lack of self-awareness. Whatever it is, naïve and lonely Idha is shrewd enough to be well aware of her own value in contrast to a dark-skinned man when she has sex with him for the first time.

Caste and class politics are erased, both in Idha’s narrative and the reviews that praise A Bad Character, but a fundamental fact of Idha’s attraction to this dark-skinned, ugly man—so hot, apparently, when considered in contrast to her beauty—is that he speaks well, with an accent that sounds American, and is conveniently very rich. Idha knows it’s years of conditioning that makes her think he looks ugly, like a servant. Yet, she enjoys how he has money but doesn’t flaunt it, how his accent and “educated” voice and his manner of speaking English indicates his class position—yay, he’s not a servant!—and the unique cool factor this brings: “It marks him out as different too. Combined with his ugliness, his confidence, his dark skin, it’s intriguing. For someone who looks like him, it turns him into a mystery”. At this point I’m not sure if the reader is supposed to stop and applaud or perhaps give Idha a medal for being an affluent pretty young girl who is so vastly different from her her shallow peers and female relatives that she has decided to be with an affluent ugly young man who may be mistaken for a servant because he has dark skin, but who (plot twist!) is actually not a servant.

Brave Idha! Resisting and subverting Indian middle-class norms by being with a bougie Indian man who doesn’t look the part. Slow clap?

If I sound impatient, it’s because I am. Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark is a formative, if brief, analysis of how blackness and the fetishisation of it is deployed, intentionally or not, by so-called liberal white writers. In “playing with darkness” through form and content, those canonical works actually uphold and solidify white supremacy in America and lay bare how the spectre of blackness is how the white American subject comes to know and understand itself and its place in the citizenry. Similarly, the work of “dark skin” and its spectre in Indian society, particularly middle-class, caste Indian society and specifically in the context of what is then sold and marketed as a form of liberatory, universal feminism, is worthy of analysis.

Colourism in India is, of course, produced by racism and the aftereffects of colonialism, but how does it continue to live on and take material proportions? The fear and fetishisation of dark skin is a thread that runs throughout this book but not once does Idha, who finds all things about middle-class Indian society stifling, look the matter of caste and racism squarely in the face. This would have probably been too “extreme” for a liberal novel; it would become “too political” and not “art”, presumably. On the other hand, Idha’s inability to see much beyond her own situation is the most striking symptom of her privilege. The narrative utilises her youth and femininity as a shield to preemptively protect her from criticism of being (there is such a thing) dangerously self-absorbed, and accordingly, the reviewers follow suit in taking their cues about how to think about the book by the book’s very ideology.

All this doesn’t mean that Idha’s lover is blameless. It seems quite obvious that he is also clearly using her to his own ends; excitement, sexual variety, the allure of forming young pretty college girls into his own image, as if they were clay. Again, the reader is meant to see this as love, and it’s entirely possible that love existed between these characters, but the facts of Idha’s narrative also point to a curious intermingling of misogyny (he sees her as a lump of clay waiting to be formed but grows contemptuous of her naïveté, and then becomes outright abusive), and a particular form of Indian colourism (she sees him as ugly and dangerous, and makes constant reference to the monstrous, animal-like qualities of his face). At one point, his face is even described as taking on a “tribal” quality, whatever that means. Actually, perhaps we know what that means.

This dark skin of his is also imbued with an animal-like quality and is supposed to indicate the madness that exists in him, his Shiva-the-destroyer side. The fact that Idha tries to make associations like this: dark skin reflects madness, or that madness is made animalistic, wild, and tribal, is possibly an indication of poor writing or a weak imagination, or that both the writing and imagination are such because of the years of “conditioning” that the writer has been subject to. (There are other similar revelations: another dark-skinned man, a drug dealer, is made palatable by the way his face “catches the light”, while a waiter is described as being handsome “in a mountain way, Kashmiri, Himachali, or Afghani, a killer” a description that is notable for the way it embeds multiple bigotries in one sentence!) This is a recurring theme: servants have a certain look, the uneducated have a certain look, killers have a certain (racialised) look, and Idha is constantly taking note of how people behave differently from what their image represents to her without seeming to actually learn anything from these observations.

Sometimes Idha’s observations are so trite as to be embarrassing, her privilege producing a vision of the world so naïve that while sitting in a cafe as a paying customer, she manages to think of the waitress, who is from the North-East, as more fortunate than her: “the kohl around her eyes looks like rebellion, around mine it is a prison.” No doubt the waitress experiences her ethnicity in India as a form of prison, considering the systemic ethno-racism of the Hindu Brahmin majority (Idha’s aunt, for example, refers to this woman and others like her as “Chinky”), but perhaps lining her eyes thickly with kohl as she works a low-wage job serving Delhi’s pampered youth enables her to be free? One is not quite sure.

The plain fact is that Idha’s worldview is steeped in racism and class privilege, but we are meant to sympathise with her because she is so very sad. The reader’s emotions are manipulated toward a very particular end; that of excusing much of Idha’s views due to naïveté, youth, and femininity. In some ways, it’s an insulting view of youth and femininity.

Idha generally doesn’t think well of most of the women in her life; be it her college classmates, or the women of her aunt’s circle, or even the Muslim women whom she encounters while going to enjoy the transcendent effects of qawwali at the shrines of Sufi saints. The women of her circle don’t understand how deep her river flows, while the Muslim women present a nice exotic tableau upon which both Idha and her lover can project their desires straight-out of some embarrassing orientalist fantasy; lust on his part, apparently, for “their enormous kohl eyes etched in black, for their lips made up with ruby-red and lashes rising to the moon” and her romantic musings on this curious others, these “heavenly girls of milk-white whose skin the sun does not see—they glide past us in silence with their painted cat eyes framed in black.”

I’m not sure if these Muslim women are even part of this planet, much less India. The sun does not see them but their lashes are rising to the moon, so at least they’ll have somewhere to land, we hope. As part of the pampered elite, Idha and her lover are cultural tourists in their own city. While it becomes clear that a middle-class Hindu woman can have access to these spaces safely in the presence of a middle-class Hindu man, once she has access to these masculine freedoms Idha can only pontificate about Delhi, the city of “meat and men”, in terms of the freedoms of the men of her class, religion and caste. One hopes for Idha’s lashes to rise to the moon, to take her out of this bubble in which she seems trapped intellectually and emotionally.

When female-centred narratives like this appear on the market, there is a rush to praise and support them in an effort to somehow curb the sexism (often disguised as mere preference for “work that’s good, you can’t blame me that it’s men who are producing good literature!”) that proliferates in the publishing world. I’m gonna say it: “as a woman”, I understand this impulse. But there is also the danger of presenting all women who write about specifically feminine experiences as above criticism, as though simply being a woman means that they must be spared critical scrutiny or that all such scrutiny has its roots in misogyny. This is dangerous in its own way, conveying the idea that women are eternal victims who cannot be responsible for what they produce, and erasing differences between women that arise out of caste, class, and race.

Most often, this is because the “feminine experience” that often sees the publishing light of day reflect a bourgeois worldview that is then praised by reviewers who come from the same background. Any criticism on the grounds of class or race or caste is often drowned out by accusations of misogyny. The positive praise for Kapoor’s novel that doesn’t address the troubling aspects of this book at all fall into this category. Would this book have been written if it wasn’t about a middle-class girl who is tainted by proximity to darkness and black skin? I find it hard to imagine that this book would have come into existence in this way if the man in question, the man who sets things in motion, was fair and lovely. The spectre that haunts A Bad Character is the spectre of darkness.

In the end, it’s hard to shake off the sense that while Kapoor can write with originality and imagination about Delhi (though even here one gets the unsettling sense of a distinct bourgeois aversion to Delhi’s “masses”, those awful people who are dirty and everywhere and stare at Idha with mean eyes), the story she tells about men and women and sex isn’t new or refreshing or subversive. It’s the same old story: Young girls are made interesting by their beauty, and men, no matter how unattractive or sexist, are made interesting by their wealth. Even after she learns of her lover’s death and spirals further into depression, Idha goes around meeting men and ends up having a fling with a rich businessman who sets her up with her first post-college job and apartment. Before that, the first random guy she picks up at a cafe is a blonde Danish expat who is boring and generally unappealing, but dresses in a manner that indicates a “pardonable air of wealth”.

Kapoor’s entire narrative sets Idha on a collision course with hypocritical Indian bourgeois morality, but as it turns out, all Idha ever wanted was to feel a little more comfortable in her skin within that milieu. She may complain about Delhi’s “meat and men” and its rich, entitled sons of wealthy patriarchs (“Delhi is rotten with the sons of men”), but the crucial fact is that it’s the men with wealth who often grab her attention and end up in her bed. Feminine disgust and fear of the city and its dangers has its roots in sexual violence, but it’s mediated by ethnicity, class, and caste.

Too many reviews of this book universalise Idha’s experience and praise it for providing a window into the Indian woman’s experience. Which women? Having gotten to know members of Delhi’s upper classes, people who generally want for nothing but appear to be skilled at destroying their own lives and the lives of others, the reader has spent considerable time with more than one bad character and is none the better for it.

Review: “Tender” by Belinda McKeon

Tender

Disclaimer: This super-duper long entry was supposed to be posted exactly a month ago to mark a very special occasion. Well, better late than never. This one’s for you, D. I am certain you would have roared and called me Cathy after reading this. 🙂

What happens in the heart simply happens.” So writes Ted Hughes in his collection Birthday Letters, a series of poems addressed to his late wife Sylvia Plath. Of course, Hughes’ use of “simple” here is misleading–the relationship between the two poets was famously volatile. Belinda McKeon’s second novel, Tender, which features Hughes’ line, also devotes itself to a volatile relationship. And though Hughes seems to insist that matters of the heart “simply happen”, McKeon reminds us that these affairs are never, in fact, simple in the slightest.

The protagonist of Tender is a young woman named Catherine Reilly, who has left the parochial confines of County Longford to study English and art history at Trinity College, Dublin. Up in the capital, she rents a room in a flat with two girls. The room was previously occupied by the girls’ school friend, James, who has since moved to Berlin to work as a photographer’s assistant. However, James is now back from Germany, and Catherine is intrigued to finally encounter the enigmatic character about whom she has heard so much.

That was another thing Amy and Lorraine had said about him: that he talked. Talked and talked; there was nobody else like him for that, Amy had said, meaning it as a good thing, and Catherine had found herself quite looking forward to meeting him, then, this talkative James. To see what that looked like: a boy who could talk.

This anticipation is infectious, building in the reader as well as Catherine, while another, darker emotion also mounts. Catherine admits to a certain sense of anxiety: she is “[w]ary not so much of him, but of herself–how would she handle this? What account would she give of herself? What would he think of her, when she was forced to actually talk to him?” This wariness, of course, is entirely justified.

The pair seems to hit it off right from the start. As expected, there is a lot of talking — much like Hughes in Birthday Letters, McKeon explores love through its relationship to language. Catherine and James form an instant intimacy that is rooted in banter and quotations and codes of speech: “Already they had their own way of talking, their private phrases, their language.” Catherine is both delighted and confused by this intimacy, struggling to understand what exactly is blooming between them, but James puts any romantic intentions to rest when he tells her that he is gay. This revelation brings relief, as well as a complex range of other emotions, from “inadequacy” and “childishness,” to “gratitude,” “gladness,” and even “pride.” Matters of the heart may just happen, but once again, they are far from simple.

With the terms of their relationship clarified, the pair’s friendship blossoms, particularly in the linguistic realm. While James is back in Germany, they write letters almost every day. When he returns, James serves as an interlocutor through which Catherine can articulate her impressions of the world around her. She even frames her inner thoughts and perceptions just as she would their correspondence: “it was James she was addressing,” she realises. “James to whom she was writing an imaginary, long juicy letter.”

McKeon’s ability to capture the intricacies of this relationship is startling. She carefully portrays every nuance of their platonic but “rich, layered affection.” The power dynamic shifts back and forth, but the sheer energy of the bond never wavers: Catherine’s life is now a “teeming, booming, multiplying thing.” Eventually, however, the intensity starts to become too much, laced more and more with traces of obsession and deceit. Even Catherine struggles to find the right words–the right talk to articulate exactly how their bond is spiralling out of control:

What was this? What was this feeling? What were these feelings, because there was more than one of them: there were several of them, and it was by them, now, that she was crowded; it was by them, now, that she was feeling cornered, feeling overwhelmed.

She begins to experience a kind of “madness” as their pair careers towards very dangerous emotional territory.

I first read McKeon in 2011 when her debut novel, Solace, was published to a host of awards. The protagonist that time around was a Mark Casey, who also leaves the confines of parochial Longford behind to pursue his studies in Trinity College, Dublin. Here, Mark negotiates the progress between tradition and progress, between staying loyal to his rural family and engaging with his urban academic life, as signs of a changing Ireland unfold all around him. In Tender, Catherine undergoes a similar coming of age and experiences a similar tension between the familiar and the new.

The specific context of Catherine’s story is all the more pertinent given that James comes out only four years after the decriminalization of homosexuality in Ireland. Even then, Catherine admits to never having actually met someone who is openly gay: “Nobody real. Nobody Irish, really other than David Norris, the senator who had fought for the law to be changed, and it was not as if Catherine actually knew him.” So she admits to the “novelty”  of the fact and the sense of being a “tourist” in James’s presence, yet another emotion to add to the list. That said, she isn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that, legal or otherwise, James’s news still presents great difficulty. Despite his family being, in Catherine’s eyes, very “modern,” they react poorly to his coming out, while her own parents try to forbid her from cavorting with such company. It is significant that it wasn’t until 2015, the year Tender was published in Ireland, that same-sex marriage was finally legalised there,  revealing the ongoing challenges inherent in being gay in a predominantly Catholic country.

Despite its portrait of coming of age in a changing Ireland and its juxtaposition of urban and rural life, Tender is, in fact, a very different book from its predecessor. Solace was a beautiful, delicate novel in which much was left unsaid. Mark and his father only communicated in “an established rhythm” where “[t]here were set subjects, set responses; a set way to move your head, to shrug your shoulders, to turn slowly towards the door and keep an eye on whoever was coming in.” Outside of this routine, “[t]here were things that seemed unsayable; things that seemed impossible to push over the surface of thought.” Indeed, so much of the novel’s power lay in the charged silence, which permeated every page. In many ways, this felt like the continuation of a certain Irish literary tradition–a more “established rhythm,” to put it in McKeon’s terms. In the last 50 years, Ireland has produced a long list of novelists who are masters of stillness and restraint, from John McGahern to Sebastian Barry to McKeon’s own mentor, the wonderful Colm Tóibín.

Tender, however, is a much louder novel, allowing us to be almost entirely privy to the unsayable. For one, James’s bluntness captivates Catherine from the start, as she marvels at “[t]he directness. The openness” of his personality: “He was saying aloud the stuff that , Catherine now realised,  she had always thought you were meant to keep silent.” Even beyond what is said aloud, we spend the majority of the novel deep inside Catherine’s head, where her emotions and neuroses breed and multiply. Just as she “actually squirmed, listening to [James],” so we become increasingly uncomfortable in the presence of her manic energy, her insecurities, her melodramatic trains of thought. Even though Catherine does her best to present a calm and collected outward persona, inwardly her obsession is taking over, as we witness the full extent of her troubled and twisted mind.

This tension between the outward and inward versions of the self is also explored in James’s photography. Early on, he admires the mug shot photographs on the Trinity students’ ID cards, praising “[t]he way people are caught in them. Before they have a chance to arrange their expressions the way people always want to when you photograph them.” This “truthful” appearance is something he later strives to capture in his own work, creating images which are “stark and strange and disorienting […] people being caught in their unguarded moments, accessed in the pureness and vulnerability of who they really were.” These portraits resonate with McKeon’s portrait of Catherine, which may not be particularly flattering, but is certainly unflinching in its attempt to capture the “pureness and vulnerability” of her character.

This attempt not only challenges the boundaries of how deeply a reader may be invited to immerse themselves in a character’s head, but it also pushes formal boundaries. The novel’s third section, ironically titled “ROMANCE,” is composed of a series of brief and breathless one-line paragraphs, a textual reenactment of Catherine’s frantic headspace. These paragraphs range from depressed truisms–“Nothing that was not him was anything she could see“–to unanswered questions–“what, though, was actually wrong with her?” Elsewhere they embed themselves in parentheses, adding another layer of consciousness to the cacophony inside Catherine’s head: “(She could not work out anything about how things were meant to be.)” We also find extracts from the corny horoscopes Catherine writes as part of her summer job, as well as a number of lines of Hughes’s poetry: “I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.

These poems hail from the aforementioned Birthday Letters, which James buys for Catherine early on in the novel to help her write an essay about Plath. The epistolary form of Hughes’s book also recalls the letters which James and Catherine exchange—both of the real and the imagined variety. Furthermore, while Hughes’s writing is variously described by McKeon’s characters as “melodramatic,” “insane,” and “intense,” so too is McKeon’s own writing, particularly in the “ROMANCE” section. The text itself is unabashed in the discomfort it causes, as we watch Catherine’s anxiety manically escalate.

This inclusion of a particularly resonant literary figure is a trope McKeon has used before. In Solace, Mark is writing a PhD dissertation on the 19th century author Maria Edgeworth, whose Longford home was mere moments from his own. Edgeworth’s dedication to education, as well as her interest in the tension between the local and the cosmopolitan, echo the novel’s broader themes, even if Mark cannot seem to figure out what critical angle he plans to take. What he does seem sure of is that he wants to research Edgeworth’s “self-reflexivity and autobiographical interpolation, and about how she used these things to play with what people expected fiction to be.”

This idea of “self-reflexivity and autobiographical interpolation” is crucial in both of McKeon’s novels. Not only does she draw on the works and lives of canonic literary figures, but she also draws on her own life. Catherine’s journey from Longford to Trinity; her journalism work at Trinity News; her interviews with authors and increasing involvement in the Dublin literary scene are all taken directly from McKeon’s experience. Indeed, in a recent interview McKeon termed the novel “autobiographical at its core.” And yet, she insists she is not interested in any explicit linking of her life and that of her characters. Fiction isn’t so straightforward. “There are different layers of the autobiographical and the imagined,” she says. “The boundary between what really happens in a life and what you imagine is much more fluid than I used to think — and I’ve become much more interested in writing which explores that.” It is no wonder that Catherine tells us she wants to write her Hughes essay about something to do with “autobiography, and how it never showed itself in the work in the lazy way that readers expected it to.”

McKeon obviously has fun with this blurring of fiction and reality, not least since Catherine—not Belinda—is in fact McKeon’s own given name. And yet, even in the novel this has different layers of its own. Catherine is alternately known as “Reilly,” “Citóg,” “Poetess,” and “Muriel”; she routinely switches between personas, depending on the person she is with. Once she even thinks of doing something, only to remember “she was not that version of herself.” But we, the reader, are privy to all of the versions—the real and the imagined, the internal and the external. McKeon paints a rich and painfully honest portrait, so bursting with life and intelligence that it reverberates in the mind long after the novel has come to a heartbreaking end.

Review: “Eligible” by Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible

Jane Austen hasn’t written a new book in 200 years, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying to resurrect, recast and reimagine her old ones. Pride and Prejudice, in particular, has enjoyed a full and occasionally wacko afterlife. It’s been a Bollywood extravaganza (Bride & Pre­judice), an undead-themed novelty novel (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), a frothy homage (Bridget Jones’s Diary) and, best of all, a BBC mini-series that established the universal truth that a billowy poet’s blouse is one hot garment on a man, if the blouse is wet and the man is Colin Firth.

Now comes Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, which moves the story to that roiling hotbed of societal intrigue, the Cincinnati suburbs, with a scene that will feel charmingly familiar to anyone who knows Pride and Prejudice. There’s Mrs Bennet calculating the availability of Mr Bingley, who has recently arrived in town looking for a wife. There’s Mr Bennet barely suppressing his irritation. And Lizzy is still the bright second daughter — although now almost twice as old as her Austen original — wittily observing all these personalities while navigating the cross-currents of her own heart.

But in this reiteration, Chip Bingley isn’t just a handsome gentleman; he’s a handsome doctor, and a former contestant on the reality TV dating show Eligible. His proud friend Mr Darcy is a brain surgeon. Such updates continue down the cast of characters, from Lizzy, now a magazine writer, to Jasper Wick, just as dangerous as Mr Wickham, but with a new and more odious secret past.

The essential elements of Austen’s plot have been neatly rehabbed, too. Mr Bennet, you’ll recall, had no sons to inherit his estate, which threatens his family with the eventual loss of their home. Sittenfeld’s Mr Bennet faces crushing medical bills, which will just as surely leave his family homeless. Other translations to our modern times are as creative: Artificial insemination and sex reassignment surgery add complications inconceivable to a society once determined by primogeniture laws.

As a long game of literary Mad Libs, Eligible is undeniably delightful. Aeroplanes for horses! Texts for letters! Tedious Cousin William is now a tedious Web programmer. And Darcy’s notorious marriage proposal sounds hilariously rude in the sterile language of his medical mind: “It’s probably an illusion caused by the release of oxytocin during sex,” he tells Lizzy, “but I feel as if I’m in love with you.” Who could resist that?

Sittenfeld’s cleverest move may be working a reality-TV dating show into her story. What might seem like a bit of pandering to pop taste is really a feat of metafictional satire. After all, just as the Austen Project recasts Regency romance in the 21st century so “The Bachelor” recasts modern dating in terms of Regency courtship. In either direction, the mashup is just as awkward and hypnotically bizarre.

Unfortunately, though, Sittenfeld pulls back far too soon, and her novel grows sentimental when it should develop real bite. No matter how up-to-date Eligible might be, anachronisms lie around the story like lace doilies at McDonald’s. The Bennet sisters are thoroughly liberated women weirdly corseted by old-fashioned attitudes about marriage. And Sittenfeld’s dialogue, usually so contemporary, can suddenly grow arthritic with costume-drama formality, as when Mr Bingley says to Mrs Bennet, “I wouldn’t want to offend your sense of propriety.” That, madam, offends my sense of reality.

It helps tremendously that Eligible moves along so breezily, but changing the scenery and the props aren’t sufficient to modernise Pride and Prejudice, even if such a thing could (or should) be done. We crave a witty vision of our culture commensurate with Austen’s of hers. Too often Eligible delivers humour that’s merely glib or crude. In the middle of the novel, Liz interviews a Gloria Steinem-esque character, and their encounter promises a sharper feminist perspective, but once again the scene never delivers the social insight that could push this story beyond merely a diverting lark. And watching Liz straddle Darcy in bed for a rousing session of what they call “hate sex” won’t get us there either.

Modern-day Mrs Bennet is a snob, a homophobe, a racist and an anti-Semite, but she’s got the right idea when she says, “I’ve always far preferred a good book.”

We already have that book. We’ve had it for 200 years. And it’s worth rereading.

Review: “The Devil’s Consort” by Anne O’Brien

Devil's Consort

So, funny story. I bought a copy of The Devil’s Consort without looking at the synopsis and the cover (local indie bookseller recommendations FTW), thinking it’s another Philippa Gregory. Instead, as you can see, the cover said, “Better than PHILIPPA GREGORY” like it could read my mind. Mildly apprehensive but buoyed by the tagline of “England’s Most Ruthless Queen”, I settled in to read a book where I knew I wouldn’t stop making comparisons. Despite my negative (and totally wrong) preconceptions, I found it to be action-packed, full of intrigue and emotional drama, very similar to chick-lit but with greater impact because it’s loosely based on historical fact.

For those of you who are as ignorant as I was on the subject of the European monarchy in the Middle Ages of the non-Tudor variety, Eleanor was a pretty powerful lady; Duchess of Aquitaine (a sizeable region of France) in her own right, she was also the only woman ever to have been queen of both France and England. Documenting the early part of Eleanor’s life, the first person narrative of Devil’s Consort keeps the reader privy to the Duchess’s most intimate thoughts throughout her disastrous marriage to King Louis VI and the initial years of her relationship with King Henry II. Those amongst you who don’t consider yourself history buffs should feel a little more well-educated on the subject of Eleanor of Aquitaine after reading this book, thanks to O’Brien’s in-depth portrait.

A former history teacher, the author has obviously used her passion for the subject to drive her writing, although in places it seems like O’Brien has been so desperate to display her knowledge surrounding the subject that it detracted from the flow of the book.  In particular, parts of Louis’ Crusade were so drawn out that just reading these sections felt slightly like a crusade in itself. Like most historical novels, Devil’s Consort probably takes a fair few liberties with the truth by filling in the blanks in order to make the story as interesting as possible, but from reading around the subject it seems O’Brien managed to stay fairly true to historical accounts. Whilst Eleanor is not the easiest character to love, I did empathize with her frustration at the misogynistic laws which rendered her largely impotent in comparison with her male counterparts.

Devil’s Consort’s main fault lies in its length and the author’s sense of timing.  Over the course of the novel the narrative varies from covering a few days in several pages to many years in one page, and there doesn’t seem to be a good balance. As O’Brien has chosen to document a real person’s life which readers may already be familiar with (even those who aren’t are greeted with an Aquitaine family tree before starting the story), I would have preferred a little more emotion and excitement into the writing in order to truly grip the reader.

Sadly, Devil’s Consort is not quite captivating enough to obtain the affections of those who don’t have the best relationship with historical novels. Overall, it was a decent read, particularly as the reader’s guide at the end gives you further suggested reading to delve more deeply into the historical background and more factual research into the character of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I am particularly excited to read more on what happened to Eleanor and Henry after the novel drew to a close.

Review: “Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea

Girls of Riyadh 2

I don’t know much about life in Saudi Arabia. It’s not very often that I have come across a novel, or indeed any other literary production from Saudi Arabia. The few times that I have, they are more often than not written by women, whom I invariably assume are covered up to the eyebrows and confined in their houses by tyrannical husbands, traditional-minded fathers or miserable Islamic religious authorities of one kind or another. My friend, who has read a lot more on the region than I have, informs me the cliches rarely live up to the true horrors these women suffer.

Even in the western imagination, as Rajaa Alsanea correctly says in her novel Girls of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is made up of oil wells, terrorists and “women dressed in black from head to toe“. Giving the problematic first two a wide berth, she sets out to redress this injustice by proving that “women here fall deeply in and out of love just like women everywhere else“. More specifically, Girls of Riyadh is a self-confessed Saudi Sex and the City, tracing the lives of four twentysomethings from the capital’s wealthy “velvet class” – clever Sadeem, dumpy Gamrah, sassy Lamees and the rebellious half-American Michelle – in a series of weekly emails sent out by a sharp-tongued and “shamelessly” red-lipsticked narrator, reminding me of Gossip Girl.

Her fictional disclosures – illicit drinking, women posing as men in order to drive cars, homosexuality, premarital sex and clandestine dating – made Girls of Riyadh an instant bestseller in Arabic. It was banned by the Saudi authorities, who, with Alice in Wonderland logic, guaranteed Alsanea a rare book deal in the West. But while the girls’ love of shopping, makeup and checking their boyfriends’ star signs is instantly familiar, I found the English edition heavily edited and footnoted. This is not just chick-lit, Alsanea hints, but a primer to an alien society “riddled with hypocrisy, drugged with contradictions“.

And the trials faced by her alternately designer- and burqa-clad heroines are gruesome. Forbidden by law from driving or meeting unrelated men in public, the girls are denied a free choice in education, career or marriage by either overbearing parents or the baroque Saudi obsession with tribe and tradition. “Is her blood pure?” croaks an evil mother-in-law, about to scupper Michelle’s chances of marrying her aristocratic sweetheart Faisal. Gamrah is married off to, then divorced by, an abusive businessman; Sadeem’s fiance dumps her for “giving herself” to him before their official wedding day. But the proscriptions that fence their lives provide the novel’s rare moments of satire. In online chatrooms, Saudi men use one of two stock pictures: “a guy sitting behind his desk in a nice office with a Saudi flag behind him” or “a guy making himself out to be a big strutting Bedouin” – and of poignancy – marriage, the unhappy Gamrah’s family warns her, is like “the watermelon on the knife“: either “extra-sweet” or a “dried-out, empty gourd“.

Like the youthful majority of Saudi Arabia’s population, the girls are squeezed between homegrown tradition and global modernity. Alsanea’s prose pieces together classical Koranic Arabic with slangy, roman-script “internet language“, colloquial Lebanese and Emirati, song lyrics and scraps of English – a patchwork that enraged Saudi proprieties almost as much as the “racy” content. Though many of the nuances are lost to non-Arabic readers like me, the off-key Americanisms of her own translation are equally revealing. Between syrupy meditations on men or makeup (“light pink blush, a little mascara and a swipe of lip gloss“), the girls exchange lines such as “you’ll never pass Gossip 101” and, my favourite, “I’ll be giving myself the best closure ever“.

The clumsiness is significant: despite its American borrowings, it is obvious that Girls of Riyadh deals with a profoundly different world. The love affairs provide occasions for some inimitably Saudi kitsch: Sadeem’s boyfriend tenderly chauffeurs over “her favourite Burger King double meal” on Valentine’s Day, Faisal presents Michelle with a Barry Manilow musical teddy bear doused in “his elegant Bulgari scent” and wearing giant diamond earrings; after her divorce, Gamrah’s family send her to Lebanon for a restorative nose job.

But the details of day-to-day life in Riyadh are weirder, and more fascinating, still. Men still wear the traditional shimagh (headcloth) and thobe (robe), but they are now designed by Gucci, Christian Dior, Givenchy and Valentino. Boys “number” girls in shopping malls and on the highways, throwing business cards or scraps of paper into car windows. On international flights, people queue for the bathrooms to change into or out of prescribed Saudi dress.

I wouldn’t recommend this novel for its style of writing. Some of the sentences are extremely clunky (eg, “Is there an inverse relationship between one’s social and economic status, on the one hand, and good humour and a merry personality, on the other?“). There’s also an uneasy tension between the breathless narration and some of the unhappier plot twists. Girls of Riyadh is unromantic – bad things happen to its heroines – but Alsanea is clearly on the side of romance, and her exploration of whether it can exist in Saudi Arabia is brave and surprisingly informative.

Despite official paranoia, Girls of Riyadh is more conservative than crusading. Alsanea, like her heroines, barely touches on the fraught context of their reversals in love. “Why was it that young people had no interest in politics?” muses broken-hearted Sadeem.”If only she had a particular cause to defend or one to oppose! Then she would have something to keep her occupied and to turn her away from thinking about Waleed the beast … ” The girls’ final, rousing gesture of defiance is to set up a party-planning business importing Belgian chocolates. After Alsanea’s promises, the novel’s collapse into the frothiness of its TV blueprint is telling – in the end, Girls of Riyadh is more a love letter to America than a poison pen to the Saudi establishment.

Review: “Tiger, Tiger” by Margaux Fragoso

Tiger Tiger

Who might know a paedophile better than the child on whom he (it’s usually a he) has lavished his attention, sometimes for years? Who has studied him as intimately, allowing him his humanity as most of us refuse to do?

Child molesters, reviled even within prison caste systems, receive little sympathy from the adult world–so little it’s hard for most of us to imagine how long-term sexual abuse can not only be facilitated but also perpetuated by a victim’s loyalty to his or her abuser. Children on whom paedophiles prey, often neglected and needy, advertise hearts as well as bodies to be plundered; for the child who loves his or her abuser, the sexual price exacted for what is offered as affection represents a betrayal from which not every child recovers. The lesson learned–that to be loved one must endure violation–sows a lasting tolerance, even desire, for injury and subjugation.

Spending time with a paedophile can be like a drug high,” Margaux Fragoso observes in her first book, Tiger, Tiger, a memoir of her 15-year relationship with Peter Curran, whom she met at a public pool in Union City, New Jersey, when she was 7 and he was 51. He “can make the child’s world…ecstatic somehow.” Fragoso’s response to Curran, whose genuinely inventive distractions tear her away from the protection of other adults, will continue to mimic the course of addiction, inevitably delivering her to a desperate, entrenched craving for what threatens to destroy her life.

It begins innocently, almost. Under-supervised by her guileless, mentally-ill mother and lacking the well-loved child’s reflexive suspicion of strangers, Fragoso finds a playmate with “bowl-cut, sandy-silver hair,” who “didn’t even seem adult in the sense of that natural separateness adults have from children.” Once she’s crossed the length of the pool to approach him, she asks if she can join him in splashing with his two stepsons. Seven, eight (“the most beautiful age” in Curran’s estimation), twelve, fifteen–as a girl, Fragoso never perceives Curran as he appears to those outside the magic circle he draws around the two of them, can’t see the man her adult self exposes to her readers: by turns pathetic and repellent.

Having binge-watched hundreds of episodes of Law & Order SVU in the past six months, it was incredibly creepy to see how Curran outfitted his home with purple-painted shingles; year-round Christmas decorations; an indoor swing; and a menagerie of reptiles, rodents and birds flying (and excreting) freely inside to demonstrate that in his private Neverland the usual rules don’t apply. Invited to his home with her mother–who, having been sexually abused herself, cannot even in her lucid moments recognise the danger her daughter is in–Fragoso is instantly smitten by the endlessly indulgent Curran. “I want you,” she tells him at the end of their first visit, “to make a schedule of days when we can visit your house.”

It’s testimony to Fragoso’s narrative ability that she can render both her own and Curran’s points of view convincingly, as different–opposed–as they are. Written without self-pity, rancour or even judgement, Tiger, Tiger forces readers to experience Curran simultaneously as the object of a little girl’s love and fascination and as a calculated sex offender who cultivates her dependence on him while contriving to separate her from anyone who might prevent his molesting her. Balanced uncomfortably between these antipodes, Tiger, Tiger is the portrait of a man who will disgust and alienated readers by a writer too honest to repudiate her love for him. There’s little suspense, as we know from the first sentence that Curran has committed suicide and that Fragoso remains sufficiently intact to explain what–who–destroyed her childhood. And while some readers whose appetite for a memoir may excuse the inaccuracies inherent to so subjective a genre, others may require a leap of faith to accept that a detailed account of early youth, including lengthy adult dialogue, could be reconstructed accurately.

So who–other than voyeurs looking for a sustained close-up of a paedophile in action–will want to read this book? To bear witness to a numbingly long series of violations of a child by a man who has honed his wickedness for decades is not more pleasant than it sounds. As a society we energetically oppose sexual abuse; as individuals most of us shy away from investigating a relationship characterised by creepy kisses and inappropriate fondling. Worse, we defend cowardice by calling it discretion–minding our own business. Maybe a book like Tiger, Tiger can help us be a little braver. Certainly, it took courage to write.

WARNING: These extended observations contains spoilers and sexually graphic descriptions.

What begins with mutual intoxication follows a slippery trajectory familiar to victims of long-term abuse: orgies of tickling, hide-and-seek played in the nude, pretending to be “real” and therefore necessarily naked “animals in the jungle,” “Bazooka Joe” kisses requiring two tongues to pass a chewed wad of gum back and forth. An experienced hunter, Curran knows when to watch, when to make a move and what to say. “Only if you want to, sweetheart. No pressure.”

There’s no need to apply any. As Curran well knows, Fragoso’s home life is so punishing she’ll do anything to secure the love and protection of the man her mother has decided “was Jesus in another life.” Once he’s lured Fragoso into his basement lair, Curran explains it is her “great power” that summons the erection of his “magic wand.”  Is it instinct or practice that suggests the perfect words to seduce a child whose father’s alcoholic rages and mother’s frequent institutionalisations have made her feel helpless, without any agency to alter her circumstances? As it happens, the act of fellatio that Fragoso offers Curran as a birthday present inspires her with dissociation rather than sense of potency.

Soon, what appeared a child’s paradise becomes claustrophobic. He can’t live without her, Curran tells Fragoso; if separation didn’t kill him outright, he’d take his own life. When she resists his tightening embrace, he cries. Tears are his currency, as well as praise, gifts and adventures: Curran tries to give Fragoso whatever she demands, telling her nothing can adequately demonstrate a love so absolute it makes its own laws. How can he help doing what love drives him to do? Fragoso, already the victim of her parents’ instability, doesn’t understand that love doesn’t excuse Curran’s molesting her because love would never permit, let alone inspire, such an act.

Nor would love insist she use a razor to remove her pubic hair, or say her vagina began to smell when she started to menstruate. Love wouldn’t work to undermine Fragoso’s connection to her family and friends, cultivating the conceit of an us-against-the-world romance to escape culpability for brutally violating her.

The real cost of a broken taboo is that the revulsion it awakens allows predators freedom to claim one victim after another: because we glance away from crimes–abominations–prevented only by vigilance, the most disheartening aspect of this story is sickeningly familiar. Years before meeting Fragoso, Curran forged papers to marry a 15-year-old; he “hurt” his daughters from a second marriage by “being sexual with” them; during the two years Fragoso’s parents were sufficiently responsible to keep their daughter separated from him, Curran was accused of molesting one of the children he fostered for the state of New Jersey. Tiger, Tiger is an opportunity for its readers to open their eyes and redeem themselves.

Review: “The Virgin of the Wind Rose” by Glen Craney

Virgin of the Wind Rose

While investigating the murder of her fiance in Ethiopia, rookie State Department lawyer Jaqueline Quartermane becomes obsessed with a magical word square found inside an underground church guarding the tomb of the biblical Adam. Drawn into a web of esoteric intrigue, she and a roguish antiquities thief named Elymas must race an elusive and taunting mastermind to find the one relic needed to resurrect Solomon’s Temple. A trail of cabalistic clues leads them to the catacombs of Rome, the crypt below Chartres Cathedral, a Masonic shaft in Nova Scotia, a Portuguese shipwreck off Sumatra, and the caverns under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Intertwined with this modern mystery-thriller, a parallel duel is waged. The year is 1452. One of the most secretive societies in history, Portugal’s Order of Christ, is led by a reclusive visionary, Prince Henry the Navigator. He and his medieval version of NASA merged with the CIA scheme to foil their archenemies, the Inquisitor Torquemada and Queen Isabella of Castile, who plan to bring back Christ for the Last Judgment by ridding the world of Jews, heretics, and unbelievers.

Separated by half a millennium, two conspiracies to usher in the Tribulations promised by the Book of Revelation dovetail in this thriller to expose the world’s most explosive secret: The true identity of Christopher Columbus and the explorer’s connection to those now trying to spark the End of Days.

I liked Craney’s style of writing for the most part. However, I felt he had a tendency to over-dramatize the negative, especially by using unnecessary adjectives. In addition, I had a lot of issues with his portrayal of Jaq. In the beginning, she is portrayed as this pious virgin with a “Caribbean figure” and “luscious sable hair with wild Medusa curls.” If that isn’t sexist enough, she is engaged to marry a missionary who was “impressed enough with her potential for obedience” and voluntarily enrols in a Christian cult a.k.a. “rehab” just because her father-figure says so. I confess, what I know of evangelical Christians and “true believers” of any kind is heavily biased. But, if you choose to pit Muslims and Christians against each other in your story, why is the Christian made to sound rational in his piety and the Muslim a deranged lunatic, when it is understood that their faiths have largely similar origins?

In terms of historical content, it is obvious that Craney spent a great deal of time and effort researching the different events and characters that pop up in the course of the story. However, the descriptions often become long expositions and include a lot of obscure details, making them a difficult read, even though the reader knows they exist to provide context. Even the characters often rely on an archaic vocabulary to make their point, using words like ‘carnaptious’, ‘druthers’ and ‘troglodyte’, making the entire setting seem anachronistic.

Despite being based so firmly in real history, Craney never makes you forget the story’s a work of fiction with his conspiracy theories that border on the implausible. They don’t take anything away from the novel per se, and end up paving a truly epic path for the protagonists to follow. We get treated to secrets guarded by Prince Henry and the Order of the Christ, Queen Isabella’s hunt for them, the Spanish Inquisition’s lesser-known purposes, cryptographic tablets with orders passed on them, End-Time cults… all in all, things definitely worth suspending one’s disbelief for.

The balanced narration ensures that the mystery is exposed at the right pace, switching between the present and the past at the right times, with Craney revealing just enough to pique our curiosity while keeping the really jaw-dropping revelations until the climax. The way the whole thing evolves is rather reminiscent of Dan Brown’s style (or Brad Thor, as some prefer to compare), focused on keeping the mystery alive and prominent until the end, and perhaps even after that.

Overall, The Virgin of the Wind Rose is an enthralling page-turner that will keep you glued to the couch despite its flaws. It’s a largely logical and well-developed mystery and anyone who enjoys reading about globe-trotting treasure hunts will certainly love this book.

P.S. I was provided a copy by the author. The views expressed are honest and personal.