Shame – Melanie Finn

Whilst people are off reading the Man Booker longlist, I have decided to be slightly different and give both the Gordon Burn Prize shortlist and Not The Booker shortlist a whirl as the variety that they both provide really interests me. Shame is up for the latter, where it could win the author’s Holy Grail that is The Guardian Mug, and if it is a sign of all the reading ahead then I am in for some unusual and thought provoking treats over the next month or so.

Orion Publishing, 2015, hardback, fiction, 308 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Pilgrim Jones is having a pretty horrendous time of it. The first of the awful things to happen to her, we learn, is that her husband has left her for a younger woman they met on a social weekend all together with mutual friends. She is, as the book opens, now in Tanzania after picking the first flight she could to leave the broken home they had created in the Swiss village of Arnau before ditching her fellow safari goers half way through a trip in Magulu. However, it soon becomes clear that this is no holiday of respite; Pilgrim is running away from something far worse, an accident that left three children dead. Yet as Pilgrim seeks escape the past and try to deal with it, it seems her past is coming looking for her.

But they are without shame. Like animals. Do you see? You maybe feel shame for them, but they do not feel shame for themselves.

For the first third of the book Shame reads like a compelling thriller. We move forward with Pilgrim as she gets to know the people of Magulu, such as Dr Dorothea and PC Kessy as well as the mysterious and pretty skin crawling inducing Martin Martins. We also begin to learn of the people of Africa’s superstitions which come to the fore when a box of albino body parts, deemed to be a curse, are left in the village not long after Pilgrim and Martin’s arrivals. Whilst all this is going on we are also going backwards to Switzerland and learning of the ripples immediately after Pilgrim’s divorce and the accident that labels her kindermörderin, child killer and the detective who investigates it, Strebel. Then about 100 pages in Pilgrim suddenly decides to leave, on a whim, and head elsewhere. Fate seemingly intervenes and suddenly she is in Tanga where she meets fellow ex-Americans Gloria and Harry and things take a surreal turn before just after half way Finn turns the book completely on its head, and I mean completely.

It is a huge gamble that Finn takes here as, without giving anything away, she shifts the book completely out of Pilgrim’s perspective and narrative and then takes it into some of the characters that she has met along the way. We are dropped by one character and then suddenly scooped up by another. It also gives the book a huge plot twist/reveal that I did not see coming from any direction. Readers will be completely intrigued; completely enraged by it or like me somewhere in the middle, as it both baffled me and completely thrilled me. I just couldn’t not read on.

I think, again without any spoilers, that the reason Finn does this is to highlight the two biggest themes of the book and no I am not talking about shame. I am talking about redemption vs. revenge and the stories we tell others vs. the stories we tell ourselves. Whilst shame is a huge theme in the book, as the title would suggest and as pretty much every single character feels shame (for what they have done, didn’t do, can’t do or won’t do) in some way I actually think it is the other topics that have their roots the deepest in this novel. Each character has an image they put forward that is very different to the one underneath their skin whatever their colour or whatever their background. They have secrets or problems they are shamed by in some way which they tell little lies and stories to cover up. Can they redeem themselves? Can they live with themselves? Can they even scores? All these things are looked at in Shame.

I do have to admit I had a few wobbles with Shame on and off which I think are worth highlighting before I recommend you all to read it, which I do. Occasionally there seems to be a lot of sudden reaction without motivation. For example Pilgrim’s sudden decision to leave Magulu and how she suddenly ends up in Tanga, which whilst I got it at the end seemed very confusing and broke the pace for the novel with me for a while before I was hooked again. I also felt that this happened with the sudden arrival of the albino body parts. Whilst I found the African magical elements/beliefs really interesting and occasionally grimly fascinating sometimes I felt it both strengthened and weakened the plot. Instead of adding darkness or a threatening presence, which I think was the intention, it added occasional confusion or diverted your eye away from its intent. These were by no means fatal flaws and I should add. Africa is described wonderfully in this book, with its mystery, oppressive heat, cultural ways and brooding landscape it becomes a character and presence all of its own.

Kessy smiles. ‘Imagine someone hates you this much? What have you done to him? Perhaps in your heart you know you are guilty. And this magic speaks to your heart.’
A sensation comes over me, as if something is moving underneath my skin, one of those terrible worms that beds down in your flesh.

Shame is a compulsive, fascinating, perplexing and disorientating one which keeps you in its thrall. It is a book that plays with storytelling, genre and expectations. It also looks at the way we perceive ourselves and others as well as how they perceive us, which changes from person to person, emotion to emotion. It is brilliantly written, quirky and plays with the reader as it goes along. Most interestingly it is a book that is about revenge vs. redemption, right up until the very last line. You’ll be left pondering what should be the most fitting outcome for all the characters, potentially feeling some shame yourself as to what fate you decide to leave them too.

Who else has read Shame and what did you make of it? It is one of those books I am desperate to talk about now I have finished it, so do let me know if you have. I am going to have to hunt down her debut novel Away From You at some point which is another novel about Africa too and was longlisted for both the Orange and IMPAC prizes. I am certainly looking forward to what she writes next. Next up from the Not The Booker shortlist I will be reading The Anatomy of Parks by Kat Gordon, which keeps making me think of my new (belated, last to the party – I know, I know) favourite show Parks and Recreation.

Note – I have just gone off to read some other reviews of Shame, as I do only after I review, and it seems that myself and the lovely Naomi of The Writes of Woman have blog snap as she has written about Shame today too.

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Filed under Melanie Finn, Not The Booker Prize, Orion Publishing, Review, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

I’ve Had Visitors…

I have just had the joy of my mother and my little brother coming to visit for a few days and it has been really, really lovely. The weather was amazing and so we headed to Crosby and Anthony Gormley’s statue (see below) as well as going to Formby which I had completely forgotten was where my Great Uncle Len and Great Aunty Betty used to live, and so where my mother spent quite a few summer holidays visiting as a girl. We had gone to see if we could see any red squirrels and after a serious bit of hunting we did in deed see… one. Yes, just the one but still one was better than none.

My mother, some random man and I

My mother, some random man and I

Of course my mother being my mother, there was a huge amount of book chat that went on. In fact at one point my mother said ‘I am so sorry but with all these books on all these shelves I find it very difficult to talk about anything else without staring at the shelves and talking about what I have and hadn’t read.’ It is at moment’s like this that I know we are really family, ha. I also managed some rather good book shopping as in Formby we played, with my brother and The Beard (whose mother met my mother for the first time this trip, eek) of course, the Charity Shop Challenge – who could get the best gift for someone else, chosen from a hat, for just a fiver! We all did very well, though I did most well at finding these bargains for myself…

Bargain book haul!

Bargain book haul!

It has been a wonderful few days. There is nothing quite like some quality time with family and fresh air, or indeed a cheeky charity shop haul, especially when you get some real gems. None of these were more than £2. I am thrilled with all of the above and they will feed my current need for some older fiction between my contemporary reads. What have you been up to recently? Got any book bargains at all? Have you read any of the books that I managed to get my hands on?

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Filed under Book Spree, Random Savidgeness

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth (Redux)

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks (and indeed last five weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week alongside the team at Fiction Uncovered. This week it is all about Emma Jane Unsworth’s wonderful, funny and deftly written Animals. 

I am making a slight change to the series of posts as Animals was the only book that won or was longlisted for the prize that I had already read (and blooming loved) before I was signed up as a Fiction Uncovered judge. Rather than write a review again, or indeed tweak the previous one, I thought I would simply give you a link to go and head off and read that review, because nothing has changed bar that fact that if anything I love Animals that little bit more since having some wonderful conversations about it with the other judges; India, Matt and Cathy. You should read it, well read my review and then go and read it. Ha!

You can also hear Emma and I having a lovely chat about Animals over a pint outside a Manchester public house last autumn on You Wrote The Book here too. Frankly I am spoiling you.

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The Weightless World – Anthony Trevelyan

Sometimes the title of a book can call to you and for some reason The Weightless World was one such title from the moment it arrived in the post. It intrigued me without even having to have read a page (or as you can see below without any illustration on the cover, though in its own way that is also intriguing enough). Throw in the fact that it was a debut (I do like a debut novel, all those idea’s all that energy) and was from an independent press, the press who published A Girl is a Half Formed Thing no less, and three of my favourite ‘I am strongly inclined to read this’ boxes were ticked. Before I knew it, I was off adventuring with an unlikely group of fellows in India.

Galley Beggar Press, 2015, paperback, fiction, 265 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Raymond Ess is going to kill me.
This is the thought I can’t stop thinking. One way and another I have been thinking it for years, though I used to mean something like Raymond Ess is going to be annoyed at me or Raymond Ess is asking too much of me. I don’t mean either of those things now. I just mean he is going to kill me.
One night soon, when he find out what I’ve done. Raymond Ess is going to slip quietly into my room and murder me in my bed. He’s going to stab me through the sheets with a kitchen knife, crush my throat with his speckled hands, and he’s not going to do it because he’s mad, though he is (stark, staring); he’s going to do it because it’s what I deserve. Because it’s the only punishment that fits the crime.

They say that the opener of a book should instantly draw the reader in. The Weightless World  pulls you in with some force. We soon discover that the Raymond Ess is not some psychopathic monster hunting our narrator, Steven Strauss, down but actually his boss and Steven has done something he believes is so terrible it is worthy of murder. But what? Well, obviously that is the question that a lot of the book is based around so I am not going to tell you. What I can say is that Steven has ended up on the other side of the world from his home in England and is now on a trip to India with his boss to go and find an antigravity machine. Yes, an antigravity machine.

What makes this all the more intriguing, and frankly bizarre, is that Ess found this antigravity machine when he was away in India finding himself after having a mental breakdown of sorts which meant he had to take leave from the company he cofounded, Resolution Aviation. The company he has also almost driven to bankruptcy after a big gamble that went massively wrong. Whilst on his travels in India he got lost from his guide Asha and found himself in the middle of nowhere where in a wooden hut near a river he found recluse Tarik Kundra who just happened to have build a machine that can make anything (including concrete moulds of swimming pools) defy gravity. Now, with Steven and Asha in tow, he wants to find him again and make the company and himself millions once more.

Now I have to say as the novel went on I was slightly unsure I was going to get along with it. The reasons for this being I don’t like books based around business and work colleagues (hence why I was one of the only people on earth who didn’t like Joshua Ferris’ And Then We Came To The End) and also because on the mention of antigravity, whilst making the wonderful title make complete sense, I had an ‘uh-oh this is going to end up going to space’ moment. I was wrong on the latter count as we don’t go to space, well maybe one character does, and whilst yes this is a book about business I rather enjoyed it because at its heart I think The Weightless World is something of a farce.

In actual fact as I was reading Trevelyan’s debut I kept thinking of Graham Greene and both The Ministry of Fear and also in particular Our Man In Havana. Not because this is a spy story, though there is an element of that thrown in, but because The Weightless World  is very much a tale of a bumbling white middle class male a little bit lost and out of kilter with everything, except his girlfriend Alice when he can reach her on Skype, who somehow starts to find himself in the most random and adverse of situations, as his naturally complicates them no end. Also, like Greene, it is brilliantly written with some stunning prose even when Trevelyan is merely writing about the complexities of a Skype call.

I stare at the screen. The circles ping, ping. Then the wifi icon shrivels, the circles dim then blip to nothing and the screen holds nothing but futile light.
Somewhere on the face of the earth Alice is staring into her laptop. She’s waiting for it to conjure me, incarnate me. But the magic has failed. She is there and I am here and the curve of the planet turns stubbornly, irreducibly between us.

I have to admit that on occasion I did get a little lost. As the characters build, from just Ess and Steven to Ess, Steven, Asha and Harry (a slightly smarmy and seemingly untrustworthy business man who tags along after he invites himself) there are occasionally moments you feel that you haven’t quite got a handle on them and indeed sometimes they haven’t quite got a handle on themselves. There is a lot of ‘do you know what is going on?’ said to one another which is often both funny and slightly confusing and distancing so I would have to go back and figure things out. This is a minor grumble as Trevelyan offers a lot more going on below the farces facade.

What I think The Weightless World is about on deeper level is the relationship between India and the UK (and indeed the Western World). As Steven and Ess adventure on India broods in the background both with its trading, be it big business or on the market stalls in the streets, its western interference to dominate and ‘make good’ whilst also making profit (there is a poignant moment involving a collapsed warehouse) and also the instability India has with and without interventions; as Steven and Ess arrive there is a huge bomb in Banaglore. It is also a book about the brilliance, nightmare and reliance that we put on technology and how sometimes, with a very moving story back in the UK with Steven’s girlfriend Alice, we feel the world has got much smaller and that technology can placate and replace reality. An interesting debut indeed.

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Filed under Anthony Trevelyan, Galley Beggar Press, Review

Grasshopper Jungle – Andrew Smith

When I was at Booktopia last year one of the books almost everyone kept raving about was Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. They were all saying that it was their books of the year. As the synopsis they gave me was that it was about ‘the importance of love while giant horny mutant grasshoppers take over the world’ I thought they were all mad. Well guess what? I must also be mad because one of my books of the year is Grasshopper Jungle, and it is about the importance (and confusion) of love whilst giant horny mutant grasshoppers take over the world. Yes, first it was bees and now it is grasshoppers, insects in fiction are clearly my thing.

Electric Monkey, paperback, 2014, young adult fiction, 400 pages, bought by me for me

Austin Szerba is trying to work the world out. He is trying to work school out, he is trying to work his family out, he is trying to work his friendships out and if he loves his best girl or boy friend the most, plus he is trying to work out what the point of everything is and how it all interconnects both in Ealing, Iowa, and outside it in the great beyond. You know, all the stuff you spend hours and hours pondering over when you’re a teenager and start to freak out about. Only soon, after an incident he is involved with, Austin and his best mate Robby unleash something which gives them something to worry even more about; they unleash a hidden capsule of the strain plague 412E, which can turn people into giant horny mutant grasshoppers who just want to eat, mate and take over the world. This is far more threatening and concerning than his worries about his own sexuality and who he loves surely?

At that moment, Grant Wallace fell down in his bathroom while taking a piss. Grant hit his head on the rim of his toilet. It was not a Nightingale. Grant Wallace’s head broke open. It didn’t matter. Grant was hatching. The bug that came out of Grant was young and powerful. He was hungry and also very horny. He needed to eat, he needed to find Eileen Pope. He could smell and hear Eileen Pope,  even though she was four miles away from the Wallace home.

I have to admit that from the start of the novel I was sceptical to say the least. How on earth was a book about mutant grasshoppers a) going to interest me b) make me give a monkeys c) leave any lasting impressions on me? Well, blow me down because it did all three. From the start of the book I was pretty intrigued by both Austin as a character and also as a storyteller. Before all the big (six foot tall, green armoured) drama starts, we get into the mind of a boy whose mind is all over the shop. He is a mass of hormones and questions. He thinks about sex all the time, both with his girlfriend Shann and openly gay best mate Robby – a friendship which also gets him constantly bullied He also manages, well sometimes between sex and more sex, to think about so much else including history (personal and world), the power of language, books, philosophy, science and human nature vs. animal (or insect) instinct. I instantly felt for him and was engaged by him.

So I was already intrigued before the green monsters of menace arrived onto the scene, then I became hooked. I know, me who doesn’t really read science fiction or fantasy – utterly gripped. Smith writes with a thrillingly gritty and gross style that appeals to the part of me that is still in my teens and likes to spend stupid amounts of money on Jelly Belly’s just because he can. I loved the gross descriptions of how the grasshoppers are born and how they then go on and rampage, killing and mating left, right and centre. You feel like you are in an utterly bizarre yet totally brilliant movie frankly, and you don’t want it to end.

Pastor Roland Duff continued, ‘Masturbation can also turn boys into homosexuals.’
When he said homosexuals, he waved his hands emphatically like he was shaping a big blob of dough into a homosexual so I could see what he was talking about.
That frightened me, and made me feel ashamed and confused.
Then he called my mother into the office and talked to her about masturbation too.
Up until that day, I was certain my mother didn’t know there was such a thing as masturbation.

Before you all start thinking that this novel is just a huge crazy romp, which for the most part it is an unashamedly so, there are some really interesting and much deeper things going on beneath the surface of the best monster movie we have yet (though apparently soon) to have watched. One of the things that Smith looks at, through the eyes of Austin, is how we need to find our place within the world and also connect with it. No matter who we are we have spent, and occasionally still spend, hours and hours mulling about this.

There is the sexuality theme, which is done brilliantly – I can’t imagine people reading it and thinking ‘eww that’s gay’, even though it sort of is – and is actually more about love defying labels or not being labelled at all (rightly so). It also looks at how hard is it to talk about, ask about and (with society and schooling being the way it can be) even think about. There is also the theme of longing for a connection with what has gone before us so we feel part of society and the bigger picture and also so that we can conquer the future, whatever awaits us. Though hopefully for most of us it won’t include having to try and save the world from a giant insect riddled from of Armageddon.

What I also really liked about it was that at no point did I feel patronised and nor did I feel that the young adult market, for which it is primarily aimed, would feel this way either. Smith writes Austin’s voice with authenticity and in a quick, speedy, frank manner which engages, entertains and makes the reader think as they read on. It is also one of those brilliant books which is bound to send it’s reader, again as it has done me, to want to go off and read lots and lots more books, starting with the ones it features. I have already bought Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and will be reading that in due course.

As I said earlier Grasshopper Jungle is going to be one of my books of the year without a shadow of a doubt. It has it all; thrills, thoughts, death, destruction, emotion and some very, very funny moments with some very moving ones. I also think it could make a huge amount of teenagers feel a lot better about some of the questions that are going through their heads; that it is ok to be gay, straight or whatever. It does all of that without ever preaching or persecuting whilst also being a whole load of fun. It’s a book that will educate and entertain adults and young adults alike.

Who else has read Grasshopper Jungle and what did you make of it? Have you read any of Andrew Smith’s other novels? I have The Alex Crow on the shelves and will be reading that after I get to The Chocolate Wars. As always, I would love any other recommendations of some corking, entertaining and enlightening YA novels (I will be recommending Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours to you all soon) that you have read and really rate.

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Filed under Andrew Smith, Books of 2015, Electric Monkey Publishing, Review

Other People’s Bookshelves #68 – Sabeena Akhtar

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are in London to have a nosey through the shelves of lovely blogger Sabeena Akhtar of The Poco Book Reader. I am a recent lurker to Sabeena’s site and am a big fan already and have got several wonderful recommendations to help increase the diversity of my shelves even more. Before we have a rummage through all of Sabeena’s shelves, lets all settle down on her lovely sofa’s, grab a brew and find out more about her.

I think I’m probably very similar to many of you – An insatiable book buyer, I love books, I read a lot of them and occasionally blog about it! :) I review Post-Colonial Literature at The Poco Book Reder and sometimes feel like the oldest person on the Internet because I have never reviewed (or read!) a YA novel. Born and bred in London, I enjoy noise, road rage, rain and not being disturbed when reading on the tube please and thank you.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

I think I’m becoming a hoarder in my old age. I never used to be so precious about books and frequently gave them away, but now they all have a place on my shelves and are slowly taking over the house. My husband once suggested I buy a kindle. He’s buried beneath a pile of books somewhere. (Simon laughed about this till he cried for almost ten minutes.)

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

When I was studying it was easier to group books together in terms of my modules for example all  American Lit on one shelf. Even though that was quite a while ago now, the system seems to have stuck and particularly makes life easier when I’m blogging and need to find a book quickly. I do however, have about three shelves reserved just for the books I love. My TBR books are in piles next to my bed, either on the floor or lining the fireplace.

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

I wish I knew the answer to this. I don’t remember the first book I bought myself, but I do remember my older sister once taking me out to buy me the first books that belonged to me and weren’t hand me downs. We walked to the bookshop on a freezing winters day when I was about eight and I vividly remember the warmth and ambience of the bookshop. She bought me a hardback copy of Roald Dahl’s The Witches and I was spellbound by the cover and then the story. I’ve passed it on to my daughter now so it currently resides on her bookshelf. I’m pleased to say she loves it just as much as I did.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

Not really. I’m a bit of a book snob and don’t read romance, crime novels or any other books I might be embarrassed by! My husband, however, does have a dodgy sci-fi/fantasy shelf that I constantly feel the need to tell people belongs to him and not me!  

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Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

There’s probably a few, but one that stands out for me is a copy of Beloved by Toni Morrison that I bought as a  teenager, simply because of the impact it had on me.  Today, we all know Toni Morrison is massive, so much so that it’s become cliché to cite her as a favourite author. But then, I knew nothing about her and had never read anything like it. Beloved swept me away. For a sixteen year old brown girl to read a novel by a black woman, about black women, using a black vernacular was mind blowing. It was the first time in my life that I thought that minorities could be protagonists in their own stories and that their own stories could be written however the hell they wanted to write them. (It was the also the first time I’d encountered a dialogic narrative!) Suffice to say, it informed a large part of what I read today. Until that point I had only read classics ( I didn’t get out much!) and secretly fancied myself as starring in a Bronte-esque adaptation. I shared this dream with my sister who side eyed me and said ‘erm yeah, maybe as the servant’. Beloved introduced me to a literary world that I could picture myself inhabiting.

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

Strangely enough, my parents had a small, beautiful purple bound hard-back copy of Tragedy of a Genius by Honor de Balzac on their shelf. I have no idea where it came from but I was drawn to it and read it when I was about twelve. Randomly, I found it in their attic last year and nabbed it for myself again.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I don’t really borrow books any more, as I have book buying addiction problems! But I definitely do have to have copies of books I love. On a recent rummage around a charity shop in Leather Lane I found a hard back copy of The God of Small Things, which I love. Even though I already have a paperback copy, I bought it again!

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

I’m trying to curb my book binging at the moment so sadly I haven’t bought any for a while, although embarrassingly, I hadn’t read any of Elif Shafak’s books so ordered some of those on the recommendation of a dear friend. My very inquisitive 8 year old then spent about a week last month asking me who the Bastard of Istanbul was!

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

Thousands, millions probably. I’m still waiting to acquire the library from Beauty and the Beast so that I can fill it with treasures.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I’d like to think that they thought ‘wow what an interesting woman with eclectic, cross cultural reading tastes’(!) Recently a friend came over and as he stared at the books, I imagined that this was what he was thinking until he turned around, creased up his nose and said ‘You’ve got a lot of ‘brown’ books haven’t you?’

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A huge thanks to Sabeena for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Sabeena’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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Deep Water – Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith is one of those authors who I have been meaning to read for years and years. (I think I said I would write a list of such authors I have meant to get to a while back, oops maybe in the next week or so.) Recently Virago sent me a set of some of her reissued novels and so I was left with the delightful choice of which one to read first. I settled on Deep Water as my first choice after authors Stella Duffy, Sarah Hilary and Jill Dawson all waxed lyrical on how marvellous they both thought it was, and goodness me were they right.

Virago Modern Classics, paperback, 1957 (2015 edition), fiction, 340 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

“Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reasons that most men who don’t dance give to themselves. He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance.” As Deep Water opens we are thrown straight into a very middle class evening of wine dancing and merriment at a house in the suburbs of Little Wesley. Vic Van Allen is observing the merriment rather than joining in with it, specifically watching over his wife Melinda who spends most of the evening dancing, rather indiscreetly, with her latest male admirer Ralph. We soon learn that this has become a bit of a regular, rather annoying, aspect to the marriage of Vic and Melinda, whilst for a while now Vic has let Melinda have small infatuations they have started to become too public.

In a rash moment of annoyance, the otherwise well liked and thought of Vic manages to whisper in Ralph’s ear ‘If I really don’t like somebody, I kill him …You remember Malcolm McRae, don’t you?’ It transpires Ralph does, and Vic’s ruse, which is of course untrue, works as Ralph backs off, even though the whole town soon starts talking about it. Yet within weeks Melinda has become very close with pianist Charley, new to town, someone who doesn’t seem to scare of so easily and within days Vic’s fiction becomes much more of a reality.

It was astonishing to Vic how quickly the story travelled, how interested everybody was in it – especially people who didn’t know him well – and how nobody lofted a finger or a telephone to tell the police about it. There were, of course, the people who knew him and Melinda very well, or fairly well, knew why he had told the story, and found it simply amusing. But there were people who didn’t know him or Melinda, didn’t know anything about them except by hearsay, who had probably pulled long faces on being told the story, and who seemed to take the attitude that he deserved to be hauled in by the police, whether it was true or not. Vic deduced that from some of the looks he got when he walked down the main street of the town.

It is very difficult to write about Deep Water without giving too much away. I think it is fair to say we know from the off that things are not going to go well for Vic and Melinda and that there is going to be a murder (or maybe more) ahead. This would frankly be well trodden ground if it wasn’t for two things, Vic himself and Vic and Melinda’s marriage, which I think compel this into being a thriller rather unlike any that I have read before.

Firstly we have Vic’s character which is possibly one of the most interesting insights into someone as they go down a dark road to disastrous actions. From the start we are made to sympathise with Vic. He is a man who leads a decent harmless life. He has wealth via an allowance (which admittedly we never know much about) and so has set up his own small press publishing lesser known works which he goes in as and when he feels like, yet employing one of the locals full time. Outside the hobby of his business he likes to spend the day reading, contemplating, oh and breeding snails and letting bed bugs use his blood while he learns about them. Yes, a slight oddness lies within Vic but as we watch the way his wife carries on around him, we forgive him, forget it or just think it’s adorably geeky.

How many of us would allow their partner/husband/wife bring back different beau’s every few months, they are clearly having sex with, and invite them for dinner and indeed let them stay till the small hours dancing together in front of you willing you to go to bed in the former spare room which is now yours? No, me neither. Yet Vic doesn’t seem bothered, despite their having one child he remains asexual in many ways not responding to other local wives flirtations, if anything it seems some kind of penance or game he just deals with. Well, until he reaches his limits, which to be fair we all would. (Note – if you think I have given everything away, not a chance, we aren’t past page 50 yet!)

Vic said in a light, joking tone, ‘It’s too bad I’m married to you, isn’t it? I might have a chance with you if I were a total stranger and met you out of the blue. I’d have money, not be too bad looking, with lots of interesting things to talk about -’
‘Like what? Snails and bed bugs?’ She was dressing to go out with Charly that afternoon, fastening around her waist a belt that Vic had given her, tying round her neck a purple and yellow scarf that Vic had chosen carefully and bought for her.
‘You used to think snails were interesting and that a lot of other things were interesting, until your brain went to atrophy.’
‘Thanks. I like my brain fine and you can have yours.’

The other mystery, aside from the murders of the past and any that may follow, that we become fascinated is how on earth Vic and Melinda’s marriage ended up in such a horrific state. Unlike War of the Roses (one of my favourite films) or Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn is a huge Highsmith fan and discusses Deep Water in this edition) this is not a case of marital misunderstandings turning to malice or two deeply unlikeable people marrying each other and causing the other hell, this is the case of one woman flaunting her affairs, toying with her husband and getting away with it. Melinda is all the more fascinating as whilst we never get inside her head, which I admit I would have liked to, we watch spiral out of control as she loses control of the situation she has created. It is fascinating as we watch these two characters unfold and even more fascinating as we start to side with one of them. I will leave it at that.

I loved, if that is the right word, my first foray into Highsmith so much. Deep Water is one of the most entertaining, snarky, camply dark, vicious and twisted psychological thrillers I have read. It is also one of the most unusual as the reader watches a sociopath come to the fore from their normally meek mild mannered self… and we egg him on and like him, even understanding him oddly, the whole time. It is a fascinating insight into the mind of a killer, if this is a prime example of what Highsmith fondly described as “my psychopath heroes”, I can’t wait to meet the rest. If you haven’t read Deep Water then honestly, erm, dive in – you are in for an absolute treat.

Who else has read Deep Water and what did you make of it? Which other Highsmith novels have you read and would you recommend? I have already got my next Highsmith lined up and ready to read. I was going to read The Talented Mr Ripley next but the film, which is brilliant, is still rooted in my head so I am going to save that a while. I cannot wait for This Sweet Sickeness to come out next year in print, as Marieke Hardy brought it to ABC’s The Book Club and it sounded brilliant. I have decided that I am going to give Carol/The Price of Salt a whirl next, especially as the film with (the always brilliant) Cate Blanchet is coming out soon. I genuinely can’t wait.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Patricia Highsmith, Review, Virago Modern Classics