Sunday, March 25, 2012
Three Weeks In December, Audrey Schulman’s latest novel, takes place in East Africa, and is two stories, really, though both stories revolve around people who are more or less outcasts in the community in which they live and who make great strides in discovering who they really are when they’re sent to live and work among strangers in a strange land. Each story covers the same three weeks in December, and each is told in alternating chapters, built around a genuine historical event. The first story takes place in 1899, while the second takes place in 2000.
The first story revolves around Jeremy Turnkey, a fragile young civil engineer, who is the only American working for the British in the construction of a five hundred mile railroad across British East Africa, from Mombasa to Kisumu, in what is now southern Kenya. Jeremy, who hails from Maine, intends to remain in Africa and make it his home once his engineering job is over. “[h]e felt he had been born anew in Africa, with the delight of an infant in each unfamiliar sight and with the same inability to recognize danger.”
To help Jeremy complete the railroad are hundreds of African natives and even more workers imported from India. Unfortunately, as the men approach the Tsavo River, where they will build a bridge, at least twenty-five percent of them begin to sicken from the malaria that is endemic to that waterway. And if malaria doesn’t get them, there are jungle ulcers, or parasitic worms that hatch in their feet and eventually feed on their brain that will.
Although Jeremy seems a little clueless about Africa, at least at first – he does, after all, insist on bringing his horse to the jungle, and the horse suffers for Jeremy’s indiscretion – Jeremy is not clueless. Nor is he heartless. He works long hours, and he does his best to make sure the laborers working under him are safe. The most immediate threat to Jeremy and his men comes from two huge rogue lions, one of which is more than nine feet long, and who have a definite predilection for dragging the men out of their tents at night. These lions are so powerful they managed to kill two people, twenty miles apart, on the same evening, and even for a lion, that’s no mean feat. As the boss, Jeremy must protect his men, something it would appear he’s not cut out for at all. Otombe, however, is.
Otombe, a beautiful man of incredible physical grace and stamina, is Jeremy’s African guide, and with Otombe, Jeremy, now sick with fever himself, keeps nightly vigils over the course of several weeks, in an attempt to kill the lions. Besides protecting his men, Jeremy feels that killing a lion or two will help him in his plans to make a home in East Africa. “Shooting a few pesky predators is an integral component of the colonization process,” a British colleague tells him. “I have seen it work time and again. The tribes immediately become more pacified, convinced we whites offer certain benefits.”
But killing the lions would also cause Jeremy to lose the pleasure of Otombe’s company, something he is loathe to do. Somehow, Jeremy will have to come to terms with the warring forces inside him, and chart a map to his own survival.
The second story strand takes place during the same three weeks in December as Jeremy’s does, but in the year 2000, and it revolves around a woman, also from Maine, who, like Jeremy, has been ostracized by her community. Max Tombay is a postdoctoral ethnobotanist with Asperger’s syndrome. When Max’s story thread begins, she’s being asked by Panoply Pharmaceuticals to journey to northern Rwanda to a gorilla sanctuary in the Virunga National Park in order to discover a mysterious vine that grows there, one that contains powerful natural beta blockers and would be capable of saving the lives of thousands of cardiac patients, while greatly enriching Panoply’s shareholders, of course.
Max knows that job offers – good job offers – will be few and far between, and if she doesn’t take the position offered by Panoply, she might very well “spend her life researching deodorizers.” In the search for an elusive vine, however, Max’s Asperger’s – and the pinpoint focus it gives her – usually a deterrent, will be a benefit. So Max accepts, and soon finds herself in the midst of three female scientists who are making a serious study of mountain gorillas.
“You search as long as you want, very long I hope,” one of them tells Max, “but I am not helping.” None of them is helping. The three scientists are “normal,” i.e., they do not have Asperger’s; they are, as Max calls them, “neurotypicals.” They are not happy to see Max, and even more unhappy with her mission in Rwanda. Should Max discover the vine, harvesters employed by the drug company would overrun the park and destroy the gorillas’ habitat, which the researchers fear will soon be under siege from poachers and a strange band of drugged rebel children called the Kutu, led by a Congolese warlord who favors tattered wedding dresses and cannibalism.
Schulman does a very good job of portraying Max’s Asperger’s and her extremely heightened sense perceptions. When she was a child, “sensation seemed to pour in as an uncontrolled flood, shimmery and overpowering,” Schulman writes. As an adult, Max has control of her condition, most of the time, through sheer willpower, a diet of oatmeal, rice, tofu, and bananas, a wardrobe of gray pants and gray tee-shirts, and the practice her devoted mother gave her in learning to “read” facial expressions by noting the movement of the specific muscles in use.
Asperger’s under control or not, Max in Rwanda is Max completely out of her element, and this makes her a vivid character – far more vivid than poor tragic Jeremy – though Max can, at times, come across as distinctly “bristly.” This “bristlyness” is softened, however, as we get to know Max and share in her painful past and the challenges she faces daily as she deals with her disability. And, as we get to know her, most readers will, I think, care deeply for her, especially as she discovers a real empathy with the gorillas.
I loved the structure of this book, but I’ll admit, it carries the inherent danger that one of the storylines is going to be far stronger than the other, thus overwhelming it. And so it is in this book. Max’s story is the real story here, and this is coming from someone who began reading the book determined to find preference with Jeremy’s. I dislike reading about people with Asperger’s (no offense is meant, it's painful for me to do), and, as a general rule, I prefer stories set in 1899 to those set in 2000. Still, even though Max’s story is so strong, one can’t deny the emotional pull of the far quieter Jeremy’s. When I was reading Jeremy’s story, I was anxious to get back to Max’s, and when I was reading Max’s, I was equally anxious to get back to Jeremy’s. Both of these persons are looking for themselves, for truth, for life, and yet both, if they are successful in what brought them to Africa in the first place, will bring death and destruction to the continent. If Jeremy is successful in getting the railroad built, “civilization” and suffering will find its way into East Africa; if Max finds the coveted vine, human lives will no doubt be saved, but the gorillas will be destroyed. And, both Jeremy and Max feel the lure of holding back, of deliberately not completing their jobs, of preserving the status quo.
Naturally, comparisons are going to be made between this book and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. I can state without equivocation that I greatly preferred Three Weeks in December. The psychological portrait of its protagonists is deeper and richer and more mature, and though Patchett writes beautifully sensual prose in State of Wonder, giving a reader a vivid close up look at the Amazonian jungle, I found myself more “at home” in Schulman’s book, and she, too, is vivid. I could “smell” the river water, feel the long grass brushing against my legs, squint against the bright sun burning through the acacias. Schulman also made me feel much empathy and affection for the gorillas. The passages revolving around them are extremely moving.
The stories of Jeremy and Max run parallel to each other, and Schulman does tie them together at the end of her novel. Most readers are going to be able to predict just how she does it, even those like me who aren’t usually good at that sort of thing, but that takes nothing away from the enjoyment of their stories.
This is a beautifully written novel revolving around highly unusual people who are simply searching for a place in the world. It’s a book that affected me deeply and it’s not one I’ll ever forget.
5/5 (Cover Art)
Recommended: Anyone who liked Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is probably going to love this novel. I think it’s a deeper, richer, and far more believable novel than Patchett’s Amazonian story. This is a beautiful book that at times is truly heartwrenching. The book's cover art is beautiful and very fitting for the story the book tells. This is a softcover book, but it does have French flaps, which I love.
Note: In his Booker acceptance speech last year, Julian Barnes stressed the importance of cover art. As an amateur photographer who wants to learn more, I've always been very aware of cover art, so beginning with this book, I'm going to give each book I review a "grade" on its cover art as well as the overall "book grade."
Sunday, March 18, 2012
This is the first book by Joseph O’Connor (yes, he’s the brother of Sinead O’Connor) I’ve read, but I can tell you, it won’t be the last. I loved Ghost Light, and I intend on investigating this wonderful Irish author further. Joseph O’Connor’s writing runs the gamut from non-fiction and journalism to screenplays, stage plays, and novels, of which Ghost Light is his seventh.
Ghost Light revolves around the great Irish playwright (and co-founder, with William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory, of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre), John Millington Synge, and his fiancée, the Irish Catholic actress, Molly Allgood, an actress who performed under the name of Maire O’Neill. Synge was fourteen years older than Molly, and a Protestant, things that did make a difference. Their engagement, in fact, their entire relationship, was frowned on by just about everyone, including their families and Yeats. Molly’s friends and family believed she was being led astray by the older Synge, while Synge’s friends and family thought his romance with Molly would cause his art to suffer, thus affecting the success of the Abbey Theatre. Synge had graduated from the university, while Molly had trouble with everyday spelling and punctuation. Synge encouraged Molly to read better books, and to study poetry so she could critique his own work. But Molly Allgood was no student.
As a general rule, the pair kept their love more or less a secret, and when Synge, who was suffering from Hodgkin’s disease, went to convalesce in England, he was filled with worry and suspicion, afraid that a younger “man-about-Dublin” would steal Molly away in his absence. And, though Molly did allow other men to admire her from a distance, she increasingly found Synge’s all-too-frequent absences and the fact that he hovered between sickness and health a bit “too much.” She was, after all, in the prime of life and blessed with good looks, energy, and vitality.
After Molly’s triumphant performance in his play, The Playboy of the Western World, Synge was even more in love, and told Molly: “You are my whole world . . . you that is, and the little shiny new moon . . . .”
When Hodgkin’s claimed Synge’s life in 1909, just weeks shy of his thirty-eighth birthday, Molly was forbidden to go to his funeral by his family.
Though both Molly Allgood and John Synge were real persons, and though Molly was, indeed, Synge’s lover, O’Connor makes it clear that Ghost Light is a work of fiction rather than a biography of a love affair. In fact, at times, the book is all fiction save for the fact that Allgood and Synge were real:
The experiences and personalities of the real Molly and Synge differed from those of my characters in uncountable ways, writes O’Connor. Most of the events in this book never happened at all. Certain biographers will want to beat me with a turf-shovel.
I don’t doubt they will, but the fact that O’Connor made a lot of his facts up didn’t, in any way, dim my enjoyment of his book. I think Ghost Light is am amazing book, and I enjoyed every minute I spent reading it.
The novel opens in 1952, in London, where Molly’s living in a rundown lodging house on the Bayswater Road. Once the toast of the Irish theatre, Molly’s now destitute, and her life revolves around tea, tobacco, and cheap gin. There is, however, one bright spot in Molly’s life: She been hired by the BBC to read a part in a radio play, and even though she knows it’ll be some time before she’s paid, she will be paid – eventually – and the part will jog the memories of those who once saw her and loved her on the Irish stage.
Like many of Sebastian Barry’s books, Ghost Light is a “memory piece.” As Molly walks from Bayswater, across town to the recording studios of the BBC, she thinks about a letter she’s received from a California student who wants an interview:
I could offer a small sum as remuneration for your time. Would an amount of, say, $50 be acceptable? Alternatively I should be happy to send you anything you require to that value, since I know certain goods and foodstuffs are still quite scarce in England. There is another financial question I would like to broach, Miss O’Neill, and I hope I shall do so without offense. I understand some years ago you sold to his surviving family all your letters of an intimate nature from Synge. My institution has authorized me to say, should other manuscripts having to do with JMS and his circle remain in your possession (scripts, revisions, juvenilia, notebooks, drafts, fragments, abandoned works, et cetera) we would be honored to acquire them for our archive.
If Molly had anything of value left, given her circumstances, one would think she would have sold it already. And so she has. A second-hand dealer in Russell Square has purchased all of Molly’s possessions deemed to have been valuable – with the exception of one. Molly still has the very first letter Synge ever wrote to her, a letter in which he apologizes for the criticisms he made of her during a rehearsal at the Abbey Theatre:
It was bloody of me and I am sorry, Synge writes. I allowed myself to become upset. You must permit the words to lead you to the heart words come from. You requested of me advice. That is it.
As Molly walks from her dilapidated rooming house to the BBE broadcasting offices, her mind returns to Dublin in 1908 and her memories of Synge. As she travels the London streets, Molly encounters people and places that remind her of her past, and the reader learns how she met Synge and became his lover. We learn that though she loved him dearly, her relationship with Synge brought Molly more heartbreak than happiness, though it did become the one dominant relationship in Molly’s life.
I thought I would heartily dislike O’Connor’s use of the second person to tell his story, but after reading only two or three pages, it came to seem natural to me. Molly is, after all, speaking to herself. And, using the second person allows O’Connor to layer his story for maximum impact on the reader and to develop a number of disparate themes. We learn about fin de siècle Irish theatre, repressive Irish family life, decline and destitution, the fickle nature of celebrity, and more.
This is a rich novel, with well-developed characters that really come to life. I loved Molly. Her inner voice was radiant, even though it was, at times, filled with self-pity and self-hate. And, she was Irish to her core. This is Molly as she looks at a painting in the National Portrait Gallery:
Heavens to Betsy, what an ugly old trout. Face like a bag of rusted spanners. Imagine, someone paid good money for that glower to be painted. More beauty in the door of a jakes, that’s the God's honest truth. My Jesus Almighty, but there’s hope for us all, Molls. ‘The Duchess of Blandford’. Looks like Mussolini in a wig. Il Duce with udders. God help us.
I found I couldn’t forget Molly, and I felt I understood her pain. Rather than be angry with her when she considers selling Synge’s letter for a bottle of liquor, I understood her destitution, I felt her pain and her poverty, and her need for comfort, even if that comfort was only going to last an hour or two. In Joseph O’Connor’s able hands, Molly Allgood’s a character who simply leaps off the page.
This is a story than goes back and forth in time. I liked that, and I think it worked perfectly in this book. I know some readers like their novels very straightforward and very linear, however, but even those who do will probably like Ghost Light. The jumps in time are so well handled and smooth.
There will be readers who will criticize this book as containing “too much truth” to be a novel, and there will be readers who will criticize it for not being straight biography. I can understand that, but “based on a true story” doesn’t really bother me at all, and it does give O’Connor the opportunity to answer some of the burning questions those of us who love Synge’s plays have always wondered about. Did Synge really, truly love Molly? Did they ever consummate their love? Given the age difference and his ill health, how much did Molly love Synge?
Here’s Molly, in a fictional letter written to Synge from an island off the west coast of Ireland, a place where Molly had gone to learn Irish:
And everything about you gives me the courage I never, ever had and without you I’m like a ghost drifting through some old house of a life and there’s nothing about you I don’t love.
That’s so beautiful that true or not true, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss reading it.
Ghost Light, for me, is a wonderful Irish novel, and the fact that it’s about the theatre and those in the theatre, which I love, and that it revolves around Synge, who’s plays I adore, is just an added bonus. The best thing about the book, however, were the authentic Irish voices:
Johnny Synge’s bit of native. The proddy’s little squaw. That Kingstown playboy’s huer. Insults hurled long ago by the wags of witty Dublin, still audible after more than forty years.
I’m going to read O’Connor’s two previous books, Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls, both very wonderfully received, and darker books than Ghost Light. I expect to love them both.
Recommended: To those who love the theatre and really well written Irish novels, or simply literary novels of any kind. I studied drama and I act in my local community theatre, so I might have loved this book a bit more than some, but still, theatre lover or not, Joseph O’Connor is an author worth investigating and following.
Sunday, March 11, 2012
Every novel, if it’s a novel at all, has its “inciting incident,” a phrase I think was coined by screenwriting guru Syd Field. The inciting incident of Bereft, the luminous new novel from Australian writer, Chris Womersley, takes place in 1909 on a stormy day near the former gold rush town of Flint in New South Wales. That’s the day the book’s protagonist, then sixteen-year-old Quinn Walker, was found by his father and his uncle standing over the body of his twelve-year-old sister, Sarah, a bloody knife clutched in his hand. Quinn does what many sixteen-year-olds would do in that situation – he runs. He’s not heard from again until his mother receives a telegram informing her that Quinn is missing and is presumed dead in the trenches France, one of the multitude of victims of the Great War.
One would think that Quinn, now twenty-six in 1919 when the main action of the book takes place, and still alive, would make it a point to stay as far away from Flint as humanly possible, but this isn’t the case. Spurred on by a mysterious note given to him during a séance in Marylebone in London, Quinn returns to Flint, a town that’s lost its reason to live, determined to avenge the murdered Sarah. He’s not the same Quinn who left ten years previously, however. Part of his face has been mangled by shrapnel. His hearing has been dulled by repeated shell blasts. A gas attack left his throat “a violin with a frayed string that fluttered useless and annoying, tangling in those strings still tuned tight and in working order.” And Quinn, of course, has been affected emotionally as well as physically. He’s shell shocked and haunted by ghastly memories and hallucinations: the crack of gassed birds underfoot; stricken men calling for their comrades; the sight of a soldier sodomizing a corpse; and the “claustrophobic” presence of the dead, “as if their silence were an impossible demand.”
Though he’s far from France, the horrors awaiting Quinn in Flint are, in some respects, much like the horrors of war. It’s 1919 and the Spanish flu pandemic is in full force. The dead and the dying are everywhere, some of them beckoning to Quinn like the ghostly apparitions that haunt his sleep. One of the dying is Quinn’s own mother. She lies in bed, feverish and alone, awaiting the end. It’s Quinn’s mother who explains the meaning of the book’s title:
Widows, widower. Orphan – and you know I was already one of those. Do you know, Quinn, there isn’t even a word for a parent who has lost a child? Strange, isn’t it? You would think, after all these centuries of war and disease and trouble, but no, there is a hole in the English language. It is unspeakable. Bereft.
And Quinn tells her that there is no word for a brother who’s lost his sister, either, for he, too, has been left bereft.
Even with the alterations in his physical appearance, Quinn doesn’t dare to stay in Flint. Instead, he hides in the hills above town, and it’s in those hills that he meets Sadie Fox, a twelve-year-old orphan whose parents fell victim to the Spanish flu. Despite Quinn’s murderous reputation, Sadie seems unafraid of him and befriends him as she awaits her own brother’s return from war. Pursuing her is Quinn’s uncle, Robert Dalton, the sheriff of Flint, a man Sadie swears is himself a murderer several times over, and, along with Quinn’s father, the man who vowed to hang Quinn for Sarah’s murder.
From their very first meeting, it’s clear that Sadie is the savvier of the two, the one more attuned to living in the wild, and it’s also clear that she knows far more about Quinn and Sarah than any twelve-year-old should, including the details of Sarah’s murder and even the name of her murderer.
It’s not a spoiler to let you know that Quinn didn’t murder his sister. Womersley makes that clear very early in the book. Suspense will flow, not from wondering whether Quinn did or did not kill Sarah, but from wondering if he’ll be able to hold himself together long enough to avenge her death and prove his innocence, and whether he has the physical and emotional strength to prevail against those who have dark secrets to keep, those whose lives are now fated to collide with his.
Though initially cautious of each other, Quinn and Sadie form an unshakable bond. A strange combination of ageless spirit and childish sprite, it’s Sadie who protects Quinn from danger and even brings him the oranges he’s craved for years. It’s Sadie who pushes him to fulfill his vow of avenging his sister’s death. This seems natural. Quinn is, after all, the big brother who lost his little sister, the big brother who returned from war; Sadie’s the little sister still waiting on her big brother to return.
I spent a good deal of time while reading this book wondering if Sadie was real or a figment of Quinn’s broken mental state. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you whether she was or was not real. That would be too much of a spoiler, but I will say that there’s much about this novel, which is written in the gothic tradition, that borrows from magical realism as well. It’s filled with signs, portents, and superstition, and though young Sadie feels she must hide from Sheriff Dalton, she can, at times, simply dissolve into her surroundings “like smoke or water.”
This is a book filled to overflowing with remembrances of a better past, a desire for what’s been lost, for what’s been ripped away. In Bereft, the past, or what the past had been, be that good or bad, is always threatening to overwhelm the present. Even the town of Flint is but a shadow of what it once was. It has been left bereft:
Fifty years earlier these hills were full of gold and the town of Flint had swarmed with hungry men . . . but the boom was fleeting and had left in its wake a landscape riven and tortured, littered with the ruins of rock stampers and wooden scaffolds that had been erected over shafts.
The characters, especially the pivotal characters of Quinn and Sadie, are extremely well drawn and believable. Even Sadie’s magical like attributes were believable to me. I felt what these characters felt, at least as far as it was possible for me to do so, and I sympathized with both of them. I wanted them to have what they needed and wanted. Where Bereft really shines, however, is in the high quality of its writing and its evocation of place. The beauty and the harshness of the Australian landscape add so much to this book and the telling of this story that I can’t imagine it taking place anywhere else. The very first sentence sets the novel’s tone:
“On the day twelve-year-old Sarah Walker was murdered in 1909, a storm bullied its way across the western plains of New South Wales.” This left the landscape of Flint “riven and tortured,” and the town, which had not seen such drama for years felt “a guilty air of ill-gotten excitement.” The images are lush; the writing is spare, but poetic, and Womersley always chooses just the right word. When a writer describes men in the trenches of France as “so muddied and grey about the gills they might have been fashioned from the earth itself,” I get excited about that author’s work, and Womersley did not let me down.
And the book isn’t overwritten. Quite the contrary; it’s filled with graceful restraint. Despite its poetic qualities, the prose in Bereft is spare and almost formal, something I found very fitting as it reflects the formality of the time period. Even if you’ve not yet experienced the all-consuming loss described by the word, “bereft,” you’ll understand what others who have experienced it are feeling. Womersley brings that much depth and nuance to his writing.
Like the great Toni Morrison, Womersley leaves many holes and spaces in his narrative for the reader to fill in. He trusts his readers to “get it.” His details are often scant, as when he describes the town of Flint. I liked this sketchiness, though. For me, it only added to the ghostliness of the story.
The details may, at times, be scant, but the images this book paints are beautiful, horrifying, and terrible, but always vivid. I remember in particular the images evoked when Quinn and Sadie take refuge in the “Cave of Hands,” a cave that seems to have been conjured by magic and one that plunges the book’s protagonists into “a galaxy of painted hands.”
Some readers I know found Bereft too unremittingly bleak for their taste, but I liked the darkness of the book. And, have no doubt, Bereft does take the reader into some very dark, and very uncomfortable, places. Murder, post traumatic stress, guilt, these are all difficult to read about when they’re presented as authentically as Womersley presents them. For me, however, the book was authentic enough to warrant spending time in the dark.
If I have any complaint at all, it would have to do with the book’s ending. I like ambiguous endings as opposed to endings in which everything is wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow, but I don’t like to have to guess too much. After investing so much of myself with the characters, I want to be able to make sense out of what I read, and I’m not sure I can. At least not completely. Perhaps the fault is mine and not the book’s. And I did say I liked the fact that Womersley left all those holes and spaces for the reader to fill in. So, who am I to complain? At any rate, I thought this book was so superior I couldn’t even deduct one-half star for an ending I felt could have been a little stronger.
Some readers have compared this book to the work of Cormac McCarthy. I’m not one of those readers. Though I do like the early novels of McCarthy, e.g., Child of God, The Orchard Keeper, and Suttree, I found this book, on the whole, to be very different. There is a bloody and spine chilling climax here that is reminiscent of McCarthy, but overall, I’m reminded more of Sonya Hartnett than of Cormac McCarthy.
This extraordinary novel works on so many levels. It’s a story of revenge. It’s a story of redemption. It’s a story of devastation. It’s a story of the trauma experienced by the returning soldier. It’s the story of a man who is broken in both body and spirit, yet who remains determined to make sense out of one of life’s most tragic acts. Bereft is a beautiful and a powerful book and one no reader will soon forget. Read it.
Recommended: The book is bleak, but it is so beautifully written and contains so much depth that the bleakness becomes almost beautiful. This is one of the best books I’ve read in the last decade. I look forward to more from Chris Womersley, and I look forward to more books like Bereft.
Sunday, March 4, 2012
Believing the Lie is Elizabeth George’s seventeenth “Inspector Lynley” novel, and in this book, Tommy Lynley is back to form and back on the job fulltime.
When Ian Cresswell, nephew of the very wealthy industrialist, Bernard Fairclough dies in Cumbria’s Lake Windermere, the victim of an apparent accidental drowning, Fairclough takes advantage of his friendship with New Scotland Yard’s Assistant Commissioner Sir David Hillier in order to have the death looked into unofficially. Fairclough wants to make sure no one in his family had anything to do with Ian’s demise and that there’s nothing more sinister than a boating accident is going on.
Hillier, of course, can think of no better detective to send to the Lake District than Tommy Lynley. And, since Lynley feels he’ll need a little help in dealing with Fairclough’s considerable family, forensic expert, Simon St. James and his photographer wife, Deborah, both depressed over Deborah’s inability to carry a child to term and at odds over adoption, go along for the ride. Along with Lynley, Simon and Deborah will help the Scotland Yard DCI determine if anyone in the Fairclough family had the motive, means, and opportunity to murder Ian Cresswell, for if it was murder, it had to be someone in the family who committed it.
And what a family Bernard Fairclough has. His wife of forty-three years, Valerie, seems “normal” enough, though Lynley will learn that like her husband, Valerie has her own unique foibles. Of their three children, son, Nicholas, and twin daughters, Mignon and Manette, only Manette seems fairly well adjusted. Nicholas, who seems fine at present, is a reformed drug addict and “wild child,” now happily married to Alatea, a gorgeous Argentine woman who has plenty of secrets of her own. And Mignon, well, maybe the less said about Mignon, the better.
The deceased, Ian Cresswell, left behind a very bitter ex-wife, Niamh, who is doing her best to rid herself of Ian’s two children, the very troubled Tim and the very scared Gracie, even though these are her own children as well, and really, quite lovable. And lest I forget, there’s Kaveh Mehran, the handsome, young, Iranian man who persuaded Ian to leave his family and introduce Kaveh to them as his lover on Tim’s fourteenth birthday. All of these people profited, or could profit, from Ian Cresswell’s death, but did any of them actually murder him?
Meanwhile, both Lynley’s boss, Isabelle Ardery, with whom he’s carrying on a grief-inspired torrid affair (begun in the previous book This Body of Death), and Lynley’s former partner, DS Barbara Havers are busy back in London. Isabelle’s upset because she can’t get Lynley to tell her where he is or what he’s doing, and Barbara is deeply involved with her neighbor, Taymullah Azhar, his lady love, Angelina Upman, and their daughter, Hadiyyah. But why, for goodness sake, will Azhar never allow his older children to meet the intelligent and adorable Hadiyyah? I think we’re going to learn more about Azhar and family in future books, and I hope we do. At any rate, eventually even Barbara is pressed into service by Lynley.
Complicating matters is tabloid reporter, Zed Benjamin. He’s sniffing around the Fairclough clan as a “last resort.” He either brings his boss a big story or he loses his job. Meanwhile, Zed’s mother, who is really more caricature than character, is trying to marry her son off to a “nice Jewish girl” named Yaffa Shaw, but Yaffa insists she’s engaged to Micah, a long suffering medical student in Tel Aviv.
Believing the Lie is one of Elizabeth George’s longest books (my hardcover copy is 608 pages), and it’s also one of the most intricate and complex. There are multiple plot strands that radiate from a central occurrence, in this case, the drowning of Ian Cresswell, before all converging near the book’s end. The characters are, for the most part, well developed. And, like most of George’s books, the problems involved revolve around relevant social issues. Personally, I loved the book’s complexity and it’s length. I love finding a big, hefty book that’s going to allow me to bury myself in the story for days to come, which I did. While there were two storylines I didn’t particularly like – the one involving Zed Benjamin, and to a lesser extent, the one involving Tim Cresswell, I have to say that there’s no “fat” in this book, nothing truly extraneous. (Okay, the one involving Tim could have been cut, but it was nicely woven in, and I really liked Tim.) I’ve never been terribly interested in “relevant social issues,” but a person has to take some interest in order to get along in the world and pay his dues. This book seems to revolve around the broad theme of parents and children and the relationship of one to the other, and I don’t think anyone can deny that that’s an important subject.
Bernard Fairclough is interested in getting along with his grown son, Nicholas, and his twin daughters – also grown – play important roles in the novel. There’s the relationship Ian Cresswell had with his aunt and uncle, and the relationship he had with his own young children, Tim and Gracie. There’s Kaveh Mehran’s relationship with Ian’s children, which is far better than their mother Niamh’s relationship with them. And two couples, Alatea and Nicholas Fairclough and Deborah and Simon St. James, are despondent over not being pregnant and are considering surrogacy. Down in London, Barbara Havers is concerned with the only child in her life – Azhar’s daughter, Haddiyah, while Isabelle Ardery receives a surprise visit from her two sons.
I’d never been a fan of Deborah St. James until this book, when I really began to like her and warm toward her. That was odd, I thought, because Deborah wasn’t at her best or nicest in this book. Maybe that’s what drew me to her. Maybe I saw her more as a “real” human being with her vulnerabilities and flaws exposed. She was, however, at her most introspective and that almost always endears me to a character. Still grieving over the loss of Helen, Lynley, too, is vulnerable and flawed in this book, though he remains very good at doing the job he does. Both characters, at least, understand their weakness, making them more attractive to readers than if they did not.
Lynley and Company expose a wealth of Fairclough family secrets and lies, including one really big twist near the book’s end, and the twists and turns in this book can rival those on an Alpine road, you can be sure of that. Some readers didn’t like the fact that this book seems to be short on actual crime and long on melodrama. That didn’t bother me. Lynley, Havers, and the St. Jameses were front and center in this book, and I really loved that. I applaud George for trying something a little different once in a while. There’s not a thing wrong with this book. Unlike the foolish Fairclough clan, this book makes no missteps.
George is particularly skillful at integrating setting into her story, and this book is no exception. In Believing the Lie, George takes us to Cumbria’s beautiful Lake District. By the time I finished the book, I was ready to pack my bags. I felt the same way after reading the “Inspector Lynley” books set in Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Scotland, Cornwall, the New Forest, etc.
I loved reading this book. I found it extremely well written and complex. And, it’s not quite as dark as some of the previous “Inspector Lynley” books. Personally, I love the darkness in George’s books, but things can’t be all dark all the time.
There’s a lot of story here. I don’t doubt that it’s going to be “too much” story for a lot of readers. In my opinion, though, it’s quite worthy. Although some of Elizabeth George’s fans say the books are “suffering” lately, they still climb to the top of the bestseller list, and I expect all future books to do so as well. Even those readers who were dismayed at Helen’s death, who dislike Tommy’s affair, who want to see more (or less) of Simon and Deborah, etc. will pre-order the books, as I do, and read them the day they are published. Such is George’s hold on her readers. I hope it never changes, and I hope the “Inspector Lynley” series goes on for at least twenty more years.
Recommended: Elizabeth George fans won’t want to miss this one even though some of them will say it’s not her best. For those who are new to the “Inspector Lynley” series, I recommend starting at the beginning and working your way through to this book. Hopefully, by the time you do, a new “Inspector Lynley” book will have been published.
Note: Elizabeth George did not kill Lady Helen because of pressure from her publishers or because she wanted to introduce new characters. She planned on it for quite some time, for reasons I’m not quite sure of. George said she knew for a long time before Helen was killed that she was going to die. She simply had to find the proper time and place and means for it to happen. I liked Lady Helen, though I think I prefer Tommy Lynley unmarried, and I applaud George for having the courage to shake up the status quo of her books with a decision that wasn’t too popular with many of her readers.
From first to most current, the “Inspector Lynley” books are:
A Great Deliverance
Payment In Blood
Well-Schooled In Murder
A Suitable Vengeance
For the Sake of Elena
Playing for the Ashes
In the Presence of the Enemy
Deception on His Mind (Lynley on honeymoon)
In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner
A Traitor to Memory
A Place of Hiding
With No One As Witness
What Came Before He Shot Her
Careless In Red
This Body of Death
Believing the Lie