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Last month I had the opportunity to meet John Simenon, Georges’s son at an event celebrating the prolific Belgian author and his work. Apart from all the Maigret novels, Simenon was famed for his romans durs (hard novels) which are standalone, and typically quite dark and noirish in character – I previously reviewed one of them, Dirty Snow, here. At the event, I mentioned to John that I’d read one of the romans durs in preparation for the event: Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, which is reputedly very autobiographical and he told me that it was basically a novelisation of how his mother and father met.
John’s mother was Denyse Ouimet. Georges met her in Manhattan in 1945 when he interviewed her for a secretarial job. She was seventeen years younger than Georges and they married in 1950, once Georges’s divorce from his first wife was finalised. Their relationship was, by all accounts, tempestuous and Denyse suffered from psychosis in later years, but Three Bedrooms was written in 1946 when the couple were still getting to know each other, and could seen as coming straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak. Being so autobiographical, it’s not perhaps a typical Simenon in plot terms being a romance, but it is a typical Simenon in writing style.
Francis Combe is middle-aged, a noted French actor who has escaped to Manhattan from Paris when dumped for a younger man by his wife. However, once in New York, he finds parts difficult to come by and makes ends meet voicing radio dramas and living in a small apartment in Greenwich village. The novel opens with him waking at 3am and going out to walk rather than listen through thin walls to the drunken antics of his neighbours:
What were they doing, up there in J.K.C.’s apartment? Was Winnie vomiting yet? Probably. Moaning, at first softly, then more loudly, until at last she burst into an endless fit of tears.
Forced to be an insomniac, he goes into a late night diner and meets Kay in a scene that comes straight out of Hopper’s painting Nighthawks which was painted in 1942, (and is even more amazing in real life at the Art Institute of Chicago – it was one of my main reasons for choosing to visit Chicago one vacation ages ago – another was to see Grant Wood’s American Gothic there too, but that was out on loan. Grr!)
She asked the question in French, a French that at first he thought betrayed no accent.
‘How’d you know?’
‘I didn’t. As soon as you came in, even before you said anything, I just thought you were French.’
They eat a little, make small talk – he finds out she’s from Vienna – then, they walk through the streets of the Village and end up in the second bedroom – in a hotel.
The next day, Francis takes Kay back to his apartment, she essentially moves in straight away having been thrown out of the one she shared with a girlfriend which had been financed by Jessie’s now ex-boyfriend. At first Francis tries to resist falling in love with Kay, but Kay immediately and totally falls in love with him:
She said, ‘When we met’ – and she said it even more softly, so that what she was confiding to him now seemed to vibrate within his chest – ‘I was so alone, so hopelessly alone, I was so low, and I new that I’d never pull out of it again, so I decided to leave with the first man who showed up, no matter who he was.
‘I love you, François.’
Having been found and her feeling declared, Kay becomes resolutely upbeat, willing to put up with all of Combe’s moodiness (and boy, he is a moody one!). He is the half of this couple that needs convincing, allowing Kay to look after him, sometimes almost smothering him it seems, but over the course of a few weeks as they walk for miles, eat (slowly), drink (lots), smoke, talk, embrace, being quiet together, collecting Kay’s things from the third bedroom, Combe will eventually succumb. It’s touching that they find ‘their song’ on a jukebox, and this is a trigger for Combe – realising his own feelings after fits of jealousy, wondering what she is doing when they are momentarily parted.
The style may be typical Simenon but, there’s a Gallic coolness to it. If you weren’t aware of the autobiographical elements of the story, it would take you some time to warm to Combe, or Kay, but you actually do will them to work it out and find the happiness they are both searching for. That certainly raised this short novel in my expectations, and I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)
I read the NYRB edition which has an excellent introduction by Joyce Carol Oates. The novel was translated by Marc Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman. For another review of this story, read that by Jacqui – click here
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Space here for a short word about the second Maigret novel in the new Penguin editions, translated by Anthea Bell. This was the first Maigret to be published as a book, rather than serialised as Pietr the Latvian had been (reviewed here).
Maigret is sent to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Monsieur Gallet, a travelling salesman – or so his widow thinks. He turns out to be living a double life, and his family seem to be rather unpeturbed by his death – What is going on?
In a mere 155 pages it got so complicated I struggled to keep up and Maigret had to display much dogged determination to solve the mystery too. Aside from Maigret himself, there were no characters to really warm to either. Not one of the best for me. (6.5/10)
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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, affiliate link, please click below:
Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (New York Review Books Classics)
The Late Monsieur Gallet: Inspector Maigret #2 Penguin classics.
Last night it was a balmy evening in Abingdon – perfect for an author event in the packed courtyard garden of Mostly Books during Independent Bookshop Week. Visiting was Laura Barnett, author of The Versions of Us, a fantastic novel featuring three possible versions of the life of a couple. Publicists have billed it as ‘One Day meets Sliding Doors’, and it’s an apt comparison, as we follow Eva and Jim through the years with roughly annual snapshots in three different versions of how their lives could have turned out adding the what if? aspect of Sliding Doors, although Laura’s novel is more satisfyingly complex than either of them.
The story starts with a prologue in which Jim and Eva are born in 1938. Then we jump to 1958 when Eva and Jim are both studying at Cambridge (where Laura studied) and the timeline splits into three versions of their fateful meeting as Eva is cycling along the banks of the river Cam and she swerves to avoid a dog.
‘Are you all right there?’ Another man was approaching from the opposite direction: a boy, really, about her age, a college scarf looped loosely over his tweed jacket.
‘Quite all right, thank you,’ she said primly. Their eyes met briefly as she remounted – his an uncommonly dark blue, framed by long girlish lashes – and for a second she was sure she knew him, so sure that she opened her mouth to frame a greeting. But then, just as quickly, she doubted herself, said nothing, and pedalled on. As soon as she arrived at Professor Farley’s rooms and began to read out her essay on the Four Quartets, the whole thing slipped from her mind.
The three versions of Jim and Eva’s lives go on to intertwine around each other throughout the book, and we go from Version One to Two to Three as we move through the years. You may be reminded of the structure of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (reviewed here) – but there is no evolution in the lives here – there are just the three interwoven versions. Laura told us how Life After Life had been published as she was halfway through her first draft and she didn’t read it deliberately.
Why three versions? Laura always wanted to have one with the big romance at the start, one where there was a spanner in the works, and well, one that was completely different. Three felt right. She wrote all the stories together, intertwining them from the beginning, envisaging the novel as a plait. She didn’t plan out the three arcs in detail, but did include around five set piece scenes which occur in each version – big birthdays and funerals essentially. Outside of those, she let the lives of her characters develop as they went. She aimed to keep the balance between the three storylines, not favouring any of them, keeping them and the reader guessing, and always trying to maintain compassion for the characters.
Jim and Eva are fantastically well realised in all three versions. We ride the ups and downs of life with them, through good times and bad, infidelities, marriages, parenthood, their careers. We laugh and cry with them, get annoyed with them and get wrong-footed when they don’t do what we expect. Yet, we rarely get confused which version we’re in, except just a little in those segments where the three versions come together at a single event which of course will go three different ways. The Versions of Us is a very accomplished novel and I really enjoyed it.
Laura’s other day job is as a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic for several London newspapers and Time Out magazine, so she’s no stranger to writing and had written two unpublished novels before coming up with the idea for The Versions of Us. She told us how, after she’d finished the novel, she found an agent by googling the authors she admires and contacting their agents. In this way, she was picked up by Sarah Waters’ agent, and when they were ready to submit the novel to publishers, just before the annual Frankfurt Book Fair last year (good timing!), there ended up being a bidding war between six publishers and she had the luxury of picking the one she felt most at home with – W&N. Foreign rights are going well too, so it’s been a whirlwind time for Laura, now doing the publicity rounds.
One really great question from the audience was about if she felt that her novel had changed her as a reviewer and critic in any way. Laura’s honest reply was that she didn’t think she could review fiction any more, because she is so aware of what it takes to write a novel now and has great respect for the craft of writing. I asked a seriously smart alec question about the Fates from Greek mythology who spin, weave, measure and snip the threads of life and whether she’d imagined the fates of her characters like that at all with her ‘plaiting’ of their tales. Laura, bless her, hadn’t studied any classics at her South London comprehensive and was amazed at that congruity – she charmingly said she’d have to look it up!
Laura proved to be a very engaging speaker and she was happy to chat and sign books for all. If she’s coming to your neck of the woods, it will be well worth a visit to see her and I can recommend her novel too – bring on the next! (9/10)
It has a wonderfully inventive structure – being a novel of alternating strands. In the first framing narrative, written in the second person, the reader is trying to read a book called If on a winter’s night …. Then, in the second half of each chapter we get the book he is reading, except that it appears to have been mis-bound and consists of a set of different first chapters, which of course, I think, will turn out to be linked. I say ‘I think’ because I gave up at about page 69, although I did flick through to the end skimming the conclusion and I realise that I’ve mostly missed a love story between the narrator and Ludmilla, who also buys the defective book.
My problems with reading the book were two-fold. Firstly, I didn’t engage with the smug narrator – who spends half the book telling you how to read. Secondly, I didn’t really engage with the stories because I had one of those moments reading the first one where a particular sentence irked me – and I obsessed over whether it was the original or the translation (William Weaver, 1981) that was annoying me (I still don’t know which). The sentence that got me was:
In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station café odor.
It was the repetition of ‘odor’ that got me (that and the American spelling probably!) It just felt lazy to use the same word twice.
On the next page he then goes on to use it many more times:
…with the odor of train that lingers even after all the trains have left, the special odor of stations after the last train has left. The lights of the station and the sentences you are reading seem to have the job of dissolving more than of inidicating the things that surface from a veil of darkness and fog. I have landed in this station tonight for the first time in my life, entering and leaving this bar, moving from the odor or the platform to the odor of wet sawdust in the toilets, all mixed in a single odor which is that of waiting, the odor of telephone booths when all you can do is reclaim your tokens because the number called has shown no signs of life.
Maybe it was deliberate the first time too, but by then it was too late for me, I’d been sensitised. Instead it just all felt totally smug, and thus all the parody about books, reading, writing and style, plus the metafictional aspects which I’d been looking forward to fell flat.
So, if I try Calvino again, I’ll go for The Complete Cosmicomics, stories about the evolution of the universe – but I might leave it a while!
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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (Vintage Classics) trans William Weaver. Paperback, 272 pages.
The Complete Cosmicomics (Penguin Translated Texts) trans Martin McLaughlin. Paperback, 432 pages.
I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading this, the first volume in Louise Welsh’s planned Plague Times trilogy (the second was published earlier this month), for it turned out to be a taut suspense thriller combining a murder mystery with a deadly pandemic – just my kind of book! Equally, I don’t know why I’ve never read any of Louise Welsh’s books before – I own several others after all.
Stevie Flint has just been stood up in a Soho Club. Irritated, but understanding, for Simon is a doctor and often gets called away she goes home, although ‘he had always phoned, or got someone to phone for him’ before.
The next evening she’s at work with Joanie – the pair are presenters on a TV shopping channel, you name it they sell it – dual action toasters today ‘My husband Derek, he likes his golden brown…’ says Joanie. Stevie and Joanie are good friends in real life too and make a great double act on TV with Joanie acting the married housewife and Stevie the smart singleton, roles that are close enough to real life, although Joanie and Derek are separated now. After the end of her shift, Stevie rings the hospital where Simon works only to find that he’s ‘on holiday’, and heads off to his flat to collect her things!
She finds him dead – in bed – with no obvious signs of murder. She does the right thing and calls the police. Later, having called in sick to work, she really is ‘gut-wrenchingly, jaw-stretchingly, horribly sick.’ It takes several days for the fever to work its way through her system. Stevie is one of the first survivors of what they’ve called ‘the sweats’, and few, if any others, are surviving, but it’s not the end of the world – yet!
When she discovers an ‘in case I’m dead’ type letter from Simon in her tea caddy telling her that he’s hidden a package in her loft, Stevie realises that he was probably murdered for it. The instructions he’s left her are to give it only to Dr Malcolm Reah. When Stevie finds that Reah is dead, and Simon’s colleague Dr Ahumibe is unnaturally interested in Simon’s package, she realises that something’s going on, and that she may become a target too. She has to investigate Simon’s death, so she can protect herself. Finding that the package contains a password protected laptop, who can she turn to? She asks Joanie’s ex Derek, a policeman, for help…
It’s a race against time for Stevie, people are dropping like flies all around her but she is obsessed with finding out who killed Simon, for she had been beginning to think their relationship may have been going somewhere. The question is will she like the answers if and when she gets them?
The spread of the pandemic is well-realised. At first it’s just a nasty virus that’s going round and the world must go on, but as the days go on and more people get the sweats, life begins to break down bit by bit. It brought back strong memories of Terry Nation’s TV series Survivors from the mid-1970s (not the poor 2008 spin-off, and how I loved Greg, Ian McCulloch, in that series, although he had to vie with Robin Ellis in Poldark for top spot in my affections back then!).
By combining the thriller with the pandemic, Welsh has created a wonderful hybrid which made for compulsive reading. If pushed, I’d say that I was more interested in the pandemic strand than the medical thriller one, but the two themes have a synergy (I can’t believe I just used that word in a review!) that makes the novel more than the sum of its parts. The tension is palpable and the pace rarely pauses for breath.
In the early stages, I particularly liked the behind the scenes view of the TV studio. Welsh could have made Stevie a news or magazine programme presenter, but her choice of the shopping channel was absolutely brilliant. Being that cheesy on screen is not as easy as it looks.
Needless to say, I can’t wait to read volume two, Death is a Welcome Guest, which I have on my pile. The proof copy arrived complete with a kit of surgical mask, gloves and a forehead thermometer strip! A Lovely Way to Burn would make perfect summer reading for fans of thrillers and dystopias alike, I enjoyed it very much. (8.5/10)
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Source: Publisher – Thank you!
To explore further via my Amazon UK affiliate link, please click below:
A Lovely Way to Burn: Plague Times Trilogy 1 by Louise Welsh. Pub 2014 by John Murray, paperback Jan 2015, 368 pages.
Death is a Welcome Guest: Plague Times Trilogy 2 by Louise Welsh. Pub Jun 2015 by John Murray, hardback 384 pages.
Two trips into London in one week (see here for the other), is going out a lot for me! I wouldn’t have missed last nights Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize at the Jerwood Space in Southwark for the world. Many thanks to the enterprising Simon Savidge, (I’m calling him that as he loves projects) who was not only one of this year’s judges, but was able to invite a group of fellow bloggers. So I caught up with Kim and David, but finally got to meet Simon’s OH ‘The Beard’, Eric, Rob and Kate, Naomi and Nina. Rob & Kate, Naomi and David have all been guest columnists on the Fiction Uncovered blog too – it was great company.
But the evening was really about the books and their authors. The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize is five years old this year, and is the only prize to solely award British writers, celebrating great British fiction. There were 15 novels longlisted and the prize-money was spread between eight of them, each receiving £5k plus a handbound edition of their book thanks to the generosity of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, and the winners were:
A special mention from me must go to Bethan Roberts, who comes from Abingdon where I live and has many a fan in the local literary community. I reviewed Mother Island for Shiny New Books and interviewed her about it here. I was so delighted for her to be ‘Jerwooded’.
It was also lovely to meet Emma Jane Unsworth and her wonderful mum! I’m so looking forward to reading Animals now.
What a fabulous evening – and a glorious sunset was just beginning to envelop the Shard as I left just after 8.30pm to go home.
One of the great things about Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels is that they’re short. Each features a story told in full, but achieved within 160 pages or so – in this he resembles Muriel Spark. No words are wasted and there is no flowery language. Indeed, Simenon was known for cutting out ‘beautiful sentences’, editing out unnecessary descriptives and adverbs – in this he also resembles Elmore Leonard. Or rather given that Simenon started writing decades previously, perhaps they resemble him in these respects. More recently, Pascal Garnier has been labelled as the heir to Simenon; true, his novels are short and noir, recalling Simenon’s romans durs, but they are deliciously comic in their nastiness, whereas I wouldn’t say that any of Simenon’s works are overtly funny – although as a character, Maigret is not without a sense of humour!
I read a lot of Maigrets when I was a teenager, but none since except for The Bar on the Seine back when this blog was new and I’d acquired a cheap set of nine Penguin ‘Red’ Maigrets from The Book People in 2006. Now, with the Penguin reissues in wonderful new liveries, and mostly new translations, I plan to make reading his novels a regular thing, not least because their length makes them perfect for the train journey to and from London or as palate cleansers between other tomes.
Let me tell you about the two Maigret novels I read last week – one from the new series, one from the old:
This was the first Maigret novel, published originally in serial form in 1931 – yes that long ago! At the beginning Maigret is stoking his office stove when a message comes from Interpol that a wanted international conman known as Pietr the Latvian is due to arrive at the Gare du Nord. Maigret hurries off to meet the train:
He stood still. Other people were agitated. A young woman clad in mink yet wearing only sheer silk stockings walked up and down, stamping her heels.
He just stood there: a hulk of a man, with shoulders so broad as to cast a wide shadow. When people bumped into him he stayed as firm as a brick wall.
Just as he has spotted his man with a retinue of hotel porters in the crowds getting off the train, a shout alerts him that the police are needed – a body, shot, has been found on the train, and his quarry gets away. No worry, Maigret knows where they were headed. However the corpse also matches the description of the Latvian, but Maigret has a hunch about the other man and goes to the Hotel Majestic, where he openly stalks ‘Mr Oppenheim’ who dines with a wealthy couple at the hotel – later all three will vanish from the hotel.
Back at the office, a strand of hair in a glassine envelope that had stored a photograph was the only posession on the body from the train. An address in Fécamp, a town on the Normandy coast, has been faintly imprinted on it. Dispatching Torrence to the Hotel Majestic, Maigret goes to Normandy and stakes out the house of the envelope’s owner, standing in an alleyway in the pouring rain:
Maigret worked like any other policeman. Like everyone else, he used the amazing tools that men like Bertillon, Reiss and Locard have given the police – anthropometry, the principle of the trace, and so forth – and that have turned detection into forensic science. But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent.
That last quote encapsulates to me the essence of Maigret’s style of detecting. Waiting and watching. Maigret, however, doesn’t always do this passively – he is not beyond pushing buttons to see what happens, more often than not confirming his hunches. Needless to say, Maigret clears up the mystery of the identities of Pietr the Latvian and the body on the train, but not without some psychological intrigue, twists and more gunfire.
In this first Maigret novel, we may get to know the figure of Maigret – his solid presence and how he works, but little of his personality – that will surely follow. In the last chapter of Pietr the Latvian, we also briefly meet Madame Maigret who bustles about looking after him, an unexpectedly jolly woman, I can imagine the pair of them, her gently henpecking him, and him indulgently letting her do it in subsequent outings.
David Bellos translated this new edition and it certainly didn’t disappoint – it was fresh and reflected the character of Maigret in the prose – a great start to the series. (7.5/10)
This is the fifth or sixth Maigret book depending on which source you read (I’m finding the Maigret Bibliography and other pages at Trussel.com very helpful. There, The Yellow Dog is the 6th book, also published in 1931). The edition I read, the Penguin Red Classic from 2006 was translated by Linda Asher, and this translation has been retained for the new editions (although I don’t know it it has been changed at all).
It is set in the fishing port of Concarneau in Brittany, a location which Simenon must have known well, for at the bloggers’ reception I went to last weekend, John Simenon told me that many of the buildings described in the book actually exist, including the bar and hotel which are at the centre of the story (see here for an article in French by John Simenon about them).
One November evening, a shot rings out in Concarneau. One of the town’s notables, the wine dealer Mostaguen was shot at point-blank range through a letter-box as he sheltered in a doorway to light a cigar after leaving the Admiral Café. A large yellow stray dog is seen in the vicinity, assumed to belong to the would-be murderer. Maigret, who has been helping the Rennes police force, attends the next day bringing the young detective Leroy with him.
Installed at the hotel, Maigret goes to drink with Mostaguen’s circle of friends, when Michoux, a former doctor, notices grains in their drinks which are identified as strychnine. Next day, another of the group, Servières disappears, his car found abandoned and blood-stained. Sensing a potential serial killer story, the town is besieged by journalists and in coming days the Mayor presses Maigret constantly to find the killer, whom they presume to be a vagrant – with a yellow dog…
Maigret lets Leroy do all the conventional detecting, while he assumes his usual waiting and watching alongside cultivating the waitress Emma who works at the bar:
Maigret’s gaze fell on a yellow dog lying beneath the till. Raising his eyes, he saw a black skirt, a white apron, a face with no particular grace, yet so appealing that throughout the conversation that followed he hardly stopped watching it.
Whenever he turned away, moreover, the waitress, in turn, fixed her agitated gaze on him.
The Yellow Dog is a great yarn – everyone involved seems to have something to hide, especially Emma perhaps? Maigret obviously has his suspicions as to whodunnit early on, but we don’t find out the full story until the cast are gathered together for the denouement, very much as Hercules Poiret so loves to do. The younger Leroy gives Maigret a chance to offer fatherly advice about more intuitive detecting style based on observation rather than forensics, which was a nice touch, but Maigret’s co-star in this short but complex tale is Concarneau itself. The events happen in the depressed off-season, when the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots in town are at their greatest – in the summer everyone works. The notables believe that only an unemployed social outcast could be capable of these dastardly acts, but Maigret’s sympathies lay firmly on the side of poor downtrodden Emma and the vagrant, whom we’ll meet in time.
I don’t think I’d ever have been able to work out whodunnit in The Yellow Dog; for a mystery of a mere 130 pages, the plot was surprisingly complex. I really liked Maigret more in this novel – his non-judgemental support of the underdog, not suffering fools like the mayor gladly and his ability to say no comment without actually having to say it. Translator Linda Asher is able to bring the town and the tail-end of autumn’s weather alive, whilst giving Maigret some joviality and a bit of a twinkle in his eye, which made this such fun to read. (9/10)
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Source: Own Copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Pietr the Latvian: Inspector Maigret #1 by Georges Simenon, trans David Bellow. Pengiun classics, 2013 edition, pbk 176 pages.
The Yellow Dog: Inspector Maigret #5 by Georges Simenon, trans Linda Asher. Penguin classics, 2014 edition, pbk 144 pages.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a reception for bloggers to celebrate the legacy of Georges Simenon. It was hosted by the team that manage the Simenon estate in the UK, the venue was the Groucho Club, and this time I got to talk to everybody!
I was to have met Victoria there, but sadly trains didn’t work out and she was unable to come, however it was lovely to catch up with Sakura, and to meet a whole lot of new-to-me bloggers including: Sarah of Crimepieces; Andy of Euro But Not Trash; Charlie of The Worm Hole; Elizabeth of Fictionbitch and her author blog; and Ayo of Shotsmag.
The main attraction, however, was the chance of meeting Georges’s son, John (left, please excuse the fuzzy photo), who is heading up the renaissance of interest in his father’s work. It was a thrill to hear him talk lovingly of his father – who was always there for him – putting family above writing. John also talked about his father’s writing process – and very much like Maigret, he spent a long time letting everything come together in his mind before polishing his typewriter and writing.
John also had some exciting news for us – they are making a couple of new Maigret films for ITV – but you’ll never guess who will play the pipe-smoking detective – none other than Rowan Atkinson. Filming starts in the autumn for spring 2016. Interesting casting indeed! John confessed that he preferred Rupert Davies to Michael Gambon in previous UK TV series.
He was very laid back and lovely to talk to. I mentioned that I’d read one of the romans durs in preparation for the event: Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, and asked how autobiographical it was (review to follow), and he told me that it was basically a novelisation of how his mother and father met. Sweet!
We also discussed the wonderful new Penguin editions – their aim is to republish all of Simenon’s work, both Maigret and the romans durs, in new translations – they’re coming out at a couple per month. The Simenon estate really want the world to re-engage with his work – and I must say I’m very happy to do so. Having read probably half the Maigrets in my teens, I’ve started to read them again and found them very enjoyable. You can get a taster from Lizzy Siddals’ piece for Shiny New Books last year on the new Maigret reprints. I’m particularly looking forward to reading more of the romans durs though, I read Dirty Snow a few years ago, and it is so dark in comparison with the Maigrets – loved it – my review here.
It was a lovely afternoon. Thank you to John, Simenon.com and the estate team, and Penguin who supplied lots of Maigrets for us to take away.
Elle wrote a thought-provoking post a few days ago titled Am I a Sexist Reviewer? about how she actually reads a fairly even split of female:male authors, but doesn’t blog about all the novels by men, as she finds more to talk about in general in novels by women.
It got me thinking about the balance between the sexes in my own reading. That was easy to check thanks to my huge spreadsheet – time for a quick chart…
Note: 2012 was skewed by having hosted Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week.
*NB, before I go on to ramble about the subject, I want to apologise for any sweeping generalisations I may make below!*
I like to think that I choose the books I read in a gender-neutral way – choosing mainly by perceived content. Even if I consciously opt to pick a particular author, I don’t select them because they are male or female, I strongly believe that the author’s sex doesn’t come into it.Yet, I usually read more books by men than women, and often considerably more by men in a year. Am I subconsciously favouring male authors?
As a teenager, I read as voraciously as I still do now. I devoured fiction including a lot of novels by Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy et al, but what I enjoyed most were thrillers; Alastair MacLean, Hammond Innes and Desmond Bagley in particular, how I loved these manly adventures with token women. At the same time at school, I discovered SF through Brave New World, Day of the Triffids, 1984 and their ilk. In fact the only book I can recall by a female author that we read in class was To Kill a Mockingbird.
I make no secret of the fact that I’m nothing more than a reading enthusiast. I have no literary qualifications beyond English Language O-level. My senior school at the time (1970s) had a progressive attitude towards English Literature. We still read lots of it, mostly classics, modern classics and plenty of Shakespeare, but didn’t over-analyse it in that way that off-puts many teenagers – we didn’t do the English Lit O-level, freeing us to find what we each liked reading the best. I chose Maths and Sciences for A-Level so never went further studying English, bar a journalism option in 6th form general studies.
I went on to study an applied science at a university college with twelve male students to each female one at the time. I was the only girl engineer in the factory in my first job and was the first female scientist on the team in my second, so I’ve always been happy operating in a male-dominated world – seeing myself not as a token woman, but rather as helping to break the mould (although I have exhibited some ladette tendencies on occasion, *ahem*). It’s more unnatural for me now working in a school with more women than men on the staff!
Am I set in my ways?
I still tend to pick a novel promising a good adventure; lots of intrigue; a black comedy; or something techy over domestic dramas. Give me dystopian societies, spies, quests, science (but not necessarily SF) and literary thrillers etc. These are all types of plot-driven novels that have tended to be dominated by male authors (although that is changing, as is the balance of male over female protagonists?), and these form a large part of my reading.
Conversely, when I do take a punt on a domestic drama or novel of family life, I often find myself picking an older one from my TBR and I admit it does make a refreshing change, although I won’t deny that they can be harder for me to write about. Although I can live without reading any more Anita Brookner novels – I was entranced by the Barbara Pym I read a couple of years ago, I want to read more Edna O’Brien and Penelope Fitzgerald too, and still have quite a few ‘Beryls‘ yet to be read, to name but a few. There are still acres of female crime and suspense authors to explore – types of books I do really enjoy too.
Where do I go from here?
As I skewed the figures towards equality in 2012 by reading loads of Beryl Bainbridge, so my male:female reading ratio will likely be strongly male this year due to my (nearly) monthly dose of Anthony Powell, and multiple reads like the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer; I’m about to start my third Simenon in a week too.
Having subjected my reading habits to some navel-gazing regarding gender bias, I still believe that I don’t consciously choose male authors over female ones. Instead it’s the world I’ve grown up in and as a resolutely non-girly girl I feel comfortable there. I don’t plan to make any big changes in how I pick the books I read, but I do have good intention to select more great books that challenge my preconceptions now and then, which should include choosing some more women authors.
This is a thriller about small town America writ large – and chunky, weighing in at 609 pages. However, it was totally gripping right from the start as each page peels away all the secrets and lies that foster in the particular community on Long Island where it is set.
Amazingly, Orient is a real place, a village of less than 1000 people right at the tip of the North Fork of Long Island; an island itself connected by a strip of causeway to L.I. The people of Orient are, of course, nothing like the characters in the book – and appear to have welcomed the attention that Bollen’s novel has brought to the area. Bollen wrote this article about the real Orient for the New York Times T magazine, and makes it sound rather a lovely place. I haven’t been to Long Island, but I have holidayed on Cape Cod and can imagine many similarities between the two areas.
The Prologue sets up the novel for us right from the start:
When people try to picture me, they undoubtedly recall only the last time they saw me, just before I went missing. There’s been a lot of speculation about the night I left the far North Fork of Long Island – how a nineteen-year-old wanted for questioning in a string of murders managed to elude police and vigilant local drivers, both parties hurrying too slow through the pale marsh frost and winter Sound winds that turn the coast beds into grisly scrap yards of ice. That part is simple: I ran. What seems lost, in the growing storm of blame, is how I got there in the first place. …
I came to Orient at tail end of summer, and I went by the name MIlls Chevern. I arrived mostly innocent. Do you remember seeing me on those last warm days?
Mills Chevern is rescued by New York architect Paul Benchley when he finds him sprawled in the hallway in front of his neighbour’s appartment. Mills is a sofa-hopping junkie trying his luck in NYC, a frequent visitor to Paul’s neighbour. When Paul offers to save him by taking him out to his late parents’ house in Orient to help clear it, nothing more expected other than hard work and some company, Mills jumps at the chance to clean his act up becoming Paul’s defacto foster-kid.
They arrive in town on the day of the annual end of summer picnic hosted by Paul’s Orient neighbours, the Muldoons. It’s obvious from the start to Mills that there is no love lost between the Muldoons and Benchley. Nearly everyone is suspicious of Mills, and Paul’s motives for bringing this edgy outsider into their community – except for Beth Shepherd, an artist who has recently returned to Orient from the city too with her Eastern European artist husband.
It’s not long before the tensions in the small town are exposed.
Then Jeff Trader is found dead, his body tied by rope underwater so he drowned. Is it murder or suicide? Jeff was the local handyman, he had keys to all the houses in Orient so he could do everyone’s odd jobs and they’ve gone, he was often drunk. Magdalena, an old lady and long-time resident who is the voice of reason on the Orient Historical Society board, knew there was something wrong and thinks he was murdered – and the jar of keys is missing. She asks Beth to find his workbook, she’s sure there’s something in it, and Beth takes Mills along for the ride.
Mills will, in coming weeks, find himself always in the wrong place at the wrong time as the tensions in the village ratchet up and more people die. They want a scapegoat, and as we know from the prologue, Mills is it. Mills and Beth place themselves in great danger, but are compelled to pick away at all the secrets and lies that everyone in town has, including their own! Watching over it all is the Bug Lighthouse, a metaphor for an all-seeing eye that knows everything.
Orient is a complex thriller. The different tensions in the town drive the plot first this way, then that, adding more and more questions that need to be answered as events happen and new information comes to light. I never guessed whodunnit until their identity stared me in the face. It’s cleverly constructed too – starting with the entire large cast of characters nearly all together in the one place at the Muldoon’s picnic. This pool of possible perpetrators gradually declines throughout the novel as they die or are otherwise eliminated from Mills’s and Beth’s enquiries.
You can see how inhabitants such as the Muldoons come up with their schemes to protect their heritage with, so they think, good intentions – for the benefit of their community, not realising that such conservative views will polarise local opinion, and probably lead to the wrong kind of rich people being the only ones who can afford to buy properties there like Luz and Nathan. The conflicts between new and old money, history versus progress set against family infighting and unneighbourly selfishness, add a rich texture to Orient and the characters are intriguing, all getting their spots in the limelight.
Summer may be gone and winter approaching – but things are just beginning to hot up in Orient, and the suspense (maintained throughout the 609 pages) is killing! Highly recommended. (9/10)
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Orient by Christopher Bollen. Pub April 2015 by Simon & Schuster. Hardback 624 pages.
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