Posted by: Corri Vandestege | April 14, 2014

A tale for the time being, by Ruth Ozeki

In ‘A tale for the Time Being’ by Ruth Ozeki a Japanese girl Nao (pr. as ‘now’) writes in her diary:

If you’ve ever tried to keep a diary then you’ll know that the problem about trying to write about he past really starts in the present: no matter how fast you write, you’re always stuck in the ‘then’ and you can never catch up to what’s happening ‘now’, which means that ‘now’ is pretty much doomed to extinction. Not that ‘now’ is all that interesting. Now is usually just me sitting…… moving a pen back and forth…. trying to catch up with myself”

I had to smile when I read this, having just finished the final edit of my forthcoming book on the time I spent in Isfahan. This book of mine is based on diaries I kept during the Iranian revolution between 1977 and 1980. Writing in the present tense, as I do in that book, has the same problem as that which Nao is writing about, the now is forever slipping away, the now is my sitting here behind my laptop forever trying to keep up with my keyboard.

There are specific problems with writing in the present tense. Your character often has to refer back to something that happened in the past and it’s then easy to slip and continue your ‘now’ in the past. This is even more complicated when you transcribe sections from a diary that you wrote so many years ago, as I do in my book Half the World.

I like this book by Ruth Ozeki which consists of three stories, one about the Ruth who lives on an island in British Columbia and who finds the diaries of Nao, a Japanese girl, on the beach. The box that contains the diaries also contains a watch, a notebook and a bundle of letters. The diary is written in English, the letters are in Japanese and the notebook is in French. The letters and the notebook are by the same person, Nao’s uncle, who was a suicide bomber at the end of the Second World War. Or was he?

Ruth’s story is in the past tense and she reads Nao’s diary which is intermittently in the present and the past, as diaries usually do. It is nicely done, although the idea that Ruth is taking her time reading the diary in order to take as much time over it as it took Nao to write it, is perhaps a bit far-fetched, but it provides the rhythm of the book with alternate chapters on what Ruth does and thinks and sections of Nao’s diary, interspersed with getting various people to translate the notebook and the letters. Nevertheless, there is also the concept that time is important but is slippery and runs away from you, and Nao says that what it means to be a time being is that she is someone who lives in time.

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Towards the end of the book there is another slightly strange device, the use of Zen and the idea of time being, and the concept of alternate worlds where different actions take place so that outcomes are influenced by those different events, this device is used to help overcome the possibility that one or two of the main characters might have committed suicide. I don’t want to give away the plot, so this probably sounds as incomprehensible as it is when you read that section. However, that is a minor quibble, the rest of the book is very well written, and the stories flow without a hitch to their indefinite conclusion. On the way Ozeki touches on a wealth of ideas,  for example gyres, which are the systems of ocean currents that helped Nao’s box to travel all the way from the East coast of Japan to British Columbia, rare crows, Schrodinger’s cat, Japanese funeral rites, quantum mechanics and various other concepts some of which are further elaborated on in footnotes and appendices.

 

Posted by: Corri Vandestege | April 6, 2014

Am writing, am editing … Half The World

The last few weeks have been very busy. I’ve been writing and editing nearly non-stop with few breaks in between for other things, working on my book for 8-10 hours a day.  I’m not surprised I was unable to do this when I was still working, it takes all your attention and it’s intense and hard work!

I’ve finished the last big edit and ‘Half The World‘ is now  ready for proofreading by two readers and after this is done it will be ready for publishing.  I’m so very excited! Keep fingers crossed and you’ll all be able to get a copy from the Amazon website by the end of the month or in early May. We may just get it out in e-pub version first, for the Kindle, the Kobo and other devices and will  then push on with the paperback version.

Half the World eCover2

Just to remind you, this book tells my story, the story of a ‘foreign wife’ of an Iranian University Professor who lives on the University Campus in Isfahan, Iran, in the run up, during and in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution in the late seventies. What was it like for a young woman who was born in  a very small village in The Netherlands and who  had lived, worked and studied in London, to be transported to a culture and environment that was totally alien to her and which had little resemblance to her previous life? What was it like to be part of a revolution that was played out without the use of social media, without computers and without smartphones or even a landline phone in the flat she lived in and where the media was controlled by the state? What was it like to have to leave behind all your hopes and dreams and loose all your friends all over again?

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The story is fictionalised and is based on diaries that I kept (blue and green notebooks bought in a stationery shop in Tehran) and on other notes that I made of that time that I lived in Iran. The names of  main characters have been altered and some events have been fictionalised in order to protect anonymity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Corri Vandestege | March 13, 2014

Nou Ruz – A new beginning, a new day

I lived in Isfahan, Iran, for nearly four years back in the heady days of the revolution, from early 1977 until the middle of 1980.  One of my writing projects is to edit all the notes and short stories I have written about that time into a memoir. I am getting on quite well with it now that I am able to dedicate much more time to my writing. I hope to finish this one before the summer, however, I am also writing a novel which has now been edited into over 60,000 words and which I also want to publish this year. Plenty of writing to do!

Isfahan Chahar Bag

Isfahan, Chahar Baqh, 1978.

Of course, lots of my notes and are about the revolution, what happened to us there on the campus of the university in Isfahan, how I experienced the ups and downs and how I eventually left the country with a couple of suitcases and a child. To get to know the full story you will have to wait until my book is ready, one of my 51 stories!

I have just completed a section on the Iranian Nou Ruz: the spring festival when a new beginning is celebrated at the time of the equinox on 21st March or thereabouts. One of the most important rituals is the preparation of the Haft-e-Sin table, the table laden with items that include the  seven items starting with an s: sib (apples – representing beauty and health ), sabzi (greens, usually green sprouts, the symbol for rebirth), sir (garlic, a symbol for medicine) etc. as well as such things as a goldfish in a bowl, painted eggs, a mirror, gold coins and other items all being symbolic.

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Already people in Iran are again preparing for their Nou Ruz celebrations, and they will be visiting friends and relatives and receive visitors in turn to celebrate this new beginning and hoping that the next year will be better than the last one.

I quite enjoy my own celebration of spring nowadays and during these last few days the warm weather has brought out all kinds of colourful surprises in our garden.

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Posted by: Corri Vandestege | March 7, 2014

Beryl Bainbridge – The girl in the polka dot dress

The girl in the polka dot dress

Two days before the book club meeting I discovered that the book to be discussed was The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge,  and not According to Queeney (see previous post). I downloaded The Girl  quickly on my Kindle and read it over two evenings; easily done: it’s not a hefty book by any means.

Having joined this group now, it’s great to hear the different viewpoints on a book and to exchange viewpoints  - I am so used to reading on my own and writing up a review without much consultation (and previously, always in a hurry because of the day job as well!);  it is quite refreshing to listen to what others have to say, and to have the time to consider a bit more in-depth what you like or dislike about a book.

After reading Queeney I was not very keen on reading another Bainbridge, immediately; in fact, the Girl with the Polka Dot Dress was on my ‘tbr’ list for a long time and I removed it a couple of months ago because that list has become so very long. However, having read it now,  I liked it much better than Queeney even if the story itself and (the characters) do leave some question marks. First of all, the book is unfinished of course: Bainbridge wrote it while very ill and she died before being able to apply the finishing touches although I believe that she never intended to clarify the end of the story much more than what we have now. Nevertheless, it begs for an ending, something that gives us a clue at least as to what happens to the two main characters but also to Wheeler.

At the start of the story, Washington Harold gets his ‘newly bought second-hand camper’ ready for a trip and he is waiting for  ‘Wheeler’s girl’ who is coming over from England to join him in his search for Wheeler. He expects that he and the girl called Rose will ‘get to know each other real well and sunset time, wearing her polka-dot dress, she would toss the salad while he fixed drinks and made the fire; later, dark time, he’s stab his fingers at the heavens and list the names of the stars.‘   He also considers that ‘If they really hit it off he might take her into his confidence as regards Wheeler. Not everything of course.

Rose, however, is a huge disappointment to Harold and this clash between the two personalities sets the scene for the road journey they undertake together in what she calls Harold’s van (he is offended), and her expectation is that they will spend the nights in boarding houses. Harold has quite different ideas to begin with.

Harold has private means, he has investments thanks to his second stepfather which means that he does not have to work, although there is the suggestion that he is a psychiatrist. He is not a confident man, even though a bit of a bully towards Rose, and is haunted by his childhood with a mother who neglected him and a succession of stepfathers and uncles. He has a domineering personality towards women and is out for revenge on Wheeler, who, as we learn, had an affair with his wife who subsequently commits suicide when Wheeler leaves her. He is obsessed with cleanliness and is horrified at Rose’s disregard for personal hygiene.

Rose met Wheeler in England when in her teens and he was a neighbour. This is after the war and it is not quite clear what Wheeler was doing in England.  One of  Harold’s friend’s Jesse Shaefer hints that Wheeler’s stay in England might have had something to do with the Jupiter missiles stationed in Turkey. She considers Wheeler to have been her saviour, a man who helped her through her miserable childhood. Bainbridge’s sharp writing comes out for example when she informs us in a sentence on page 94 that Rose had an illegitimate child as a teenager:  ‘She’d become a convert [to Catholicism] when she was sixteen, after Mother had given the baby up for adoption

Later, Rose meets Harold through friends in London where she has found a stable and good job as a dental assistant, and together they cook up the idea of going in search for Wheeler: Rose because she considers Wheeler to be her guardian angel, the person who rescued her when she was in despair during an awful childhood in the north of England. Harold has different motives of course, but she does not know that, and he thinks Rose might be helpful in locating Wheeler, who appears to be very evasive.

Bainbridge’s writing is succinct, there is not a superfluous sentence in this book I think. She drops pieces of information on the way that sharpen the two main characters, although we learn little about the minor characters, Harold’s friends on the way with whom they stay, and even if we understand the two different motives of the two for wanting to find Wheeler, the man himself remains shadowy and unclear. My only objection here is that the two characters Rose and Harold at times become caricatures of themselves – they are just too awful and the deadpan interchanges at times feel like a set up.

Rose is appalled by the guns everywhere: ‘No wonder Mr Kennedy got killed,’ Rose said. ‘Or that Luther King.’ This is an intimation of what is going to happen – Bainbridge ends the book and their journey in Los Angeles at the hotel where Robert Kennedy is killed without clarifying the role of the girl in the polka dot dress, mentioned in a newspaper article at the time. The search and the journey appear to be the plot of the book, not the end or the arrival, unless Bainbridge’s death interrupted the final chapter.

Writing up this review  after having read the book so quickly and without making detailed notes, I  realise that it probably warrants a second reading to appreciate all the clues and references. Neither Rose nor Harold might be appealing as characters – they are not – but perhaps Bainbridge was not out to give us characters that we would like, rather she was evoking a time in American history that was very bewildering and uneasy even if Rose is totally indifferent to what she sees.

 

Posted by: Corri Vandestege | March 3, 2014

February into March: am writing / am reading

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I have a number of books on the go, under different headings ranging from references, research, to book club and pleasure and from fiction to non-fiction and in tangible paper format and on my Kindle. Where to start?

Let’s start with the fiction books:

On my Kindle:  Tobias Hill

After reading Tobias Hill’s The Cryptographer I have now started  The Love of Stones, a wonderful and in-depth researched tale of the search for a jewel called the Three Brethren.  The book is a mine of information on jewels and precious stones and the story has it that the Three Brethren was originally commissioned as a shoulder clasp by the Duke of Burgundy in the 15th century.  It consists of three balas rubies, arranged in a triangle around a diamond faceted like a pyramid with three pearls at the triangle’s points and a fourth hanging from one of the rubies.  I have not finished this book but enjoy the journey which so far as taken me from Turkey and London to Baghdad and I’m sure there is much more to come. I have been following the travels of the jewel also by continuously searching the internet and it is really not clear what is fact and fiction because a jewel / shoulder clasp and variations of The three Brethren are shown in portraits for example of John the Fearless (the Duke) who wears a shoulder-clasp.

Most of all, Tobias Hill is a great writer who comes up with enjoyable sentences and images that we can all learn from. If you want to know more about Tobias Hill you could read the interview in the Guardian, last Saturday.

Lottie Moggach: Kiss me First. I read this at the end of January, an uneasy and chilling read that invites us to consider the possibility of committing suicide without anyone ever finding out because you have invited someone else to take over your identity. It is the story of Leila who is not at all at ease with herself and contemporary life that is played on social media websites full of superficial friendships. The question is of course whether or not someone could completely take over the identity of someone else, including relationships and attachments. It definitely kept me reading!

Beryl Bainbridge‘s According to Queeney, a book I should have read already of course but I was not really attracted by the invitation to consider Samuel Johnson’s physical decline in particular.  I have recently joined a book club and this is the one on their list for discussion the next time they meet (my first time), so let’s see what the consensus is. Of course, Bainbridge is a fantastic writer, however, it still is not a book that would be high on my to read list, for the simple reason that I find the personalities and their idiosyncrasies slightly off putting.  Bainbridge does a wonderful job though bringing them to life and all marks for her writing.

Non-fiction and writing

I am well on my way through a second editing of my novel and enjoy having the time to do some more research. Parts  of the story are set in different countries, the Netherlands, England and Iran and so I have a great time browsing through Dominic Sandbrook’s ‘The Way We Were: Britain 1970-1974 which also brings back memories of the lights going out and the miners’ strikes. Seems such a long time ago, all that! Sandbrook’s series on the history of Britain also includes volumes on the History of Britain in the Sixties, a History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles,  and Seasons in the Sun (197401979). For anyone interested in what really happened in the sixties and seventies, this is a must have.

Yes, I’m having a great time catching up on so much reading. The other books on that table? Well, a collection of short stories by Alice Munroe (Dear Life) and The Penguin Book of Classical Myths by Jenny March – both also well worth having around for those times that you want something different!

Posted by: Corri Vandestege | February 26, 2014

Five Fascinating Facts about Henry James

Corri:

I don’t often reblog but I like this one: an interesting blog about everything you always wanted to know about Henry James – by Interesting Literature / Viola van de Sandt.

Originally posted on Interesting Literature:

By Viola van de Sandt

1. He had no regrets. In a letter to fellow novelist Hugh Walpole, James wrote in 1913: ‘We must know, as much as possible, in our beautiful art . . . what we are talking about – &  the only way to know it is to have lived & loved & cursed & floundered & enjoyed & suffered – I don’t think I regret a single “excess” of my responsive youth – I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions & possibilities I didn’t embrace.’

Henry James2. James’s close and long-standing friendship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, a widely-read writer who like James had also settled in Europe, ended abruptly when Woolson jumped from her bedroom window in Venice in 1894. It fell to James to sort through her belongings and finally dispose of her clothing. Unable to sell or burn her dresses, he eventually…

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Posted by: Corri Vandestege | February 18, 2014

Tobias Hill – The Cryptographer

On Saturday I will be attending a workshop on writing by Tobias Hill.  I  hope to pick up some advice / suggestions / encouragement on  the  editing of my book, which is now in a finished draft format at  nearly 80,000 words.
Although I know of Tobias Hill of course and I have been told he writes very good poetry I had not actually read any of his books; and he has written a few. So last week I downloaded one of his earlier books, The Cryptographer, on my kindle and read it straight through. I am glad to say I really liked it, very much.
Below is my review.

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Anna Moore is tax inspector A2 grade; she has been assigned the investigation of John Law, code maker and breaker and quadrillionaire, however rich that is.
Hill’s writing is crisp and he evokes a carefully designed world, one which is neither our day-to-day world, nor is it one that is clearly science fiction , rather it is carefully invented as a world in the very near future with some dramatic changes in the way we deal with money and what money is. It’s a bit Kafkaesque, in that it often feels as if a threat is there just under the surface, the characters are enigmatic and individuals come across as quite lonely, in particular Anna. For example: There is Law’s accountant, an elderly woman called Mutevelian (is that a play on Machiavelli?) She and Anna  establish between them  that old relationship of inspector and accountant “a matter of diplomacy, since each is employed to consider the other with what amounts to a delicately veiled suspicion.”
Paintings are duplicated, in Law’s meeting room in a large bunker like building with only one entrance door, “there are two paintings, sparely lit, each of which Anna has seen countless times before, in countless reproductions, so that she knows them now as if they were her own possessions.
John Law is an enigmatic figure: he lives with is wife Anneli and son Nathan on a large secluded estate in London, huge and inaccessible unless you have a code to the entrance gate;the code changes every day and it is easy to get lost when entering by car and driving to find the house. There are numerous staff who make sure that the family and in particular John Law, is not intruded upon. When there is a New Year’s Eve party there is a sense of The Great Gatsby, where innumerable people turn up to mill through the vast house and enjoy the fireworks outside on the vast estate where an artificially high temperature has been created that contrasts sharply with the cold and snow of  London outside the gates.
The cryptographer Law has invented a code that replaces money and that is thought to be 100% secure although Anna during her investigation, as she probes deeper and deeper, suspects that this is not all of it.
At times it is difficult to follow what is going on, there are a lot of allusions to thought processes, ie what Anna thinks and what she infers that others are thinking or doing and why, and much of it only becomes clearer later as you continue to read, and this aspect of the book reminds of a thriller. Hill interweaves questions about trust, who can trust who and who in fact is trustworthy, with questions about love and also about whether everything has a it’s price.
Numerous questions are raised and only partly answered: Should Anna conclude her investigation after Law has paid his fine, even if she suspects that there are other things going on that no one is telling her? Is Anna going back for another meeting with John Law because there are further questions to be asked and answered or is this merely an excuse to see him again, because she has fallen in love with him?
What does Nathan, even if only a child, know about codes and what his father is up to and what is the real relationship between father and son and between John and Anneli for that matter? What is Lawrence’s real role apart from having been Anna’s mentor and lover, an older man now no longer working in the Inspectorate and spending his days still wooing Anna and getting drunk?
It’s an intriguing book and written in a very distinct style that I found extremely readable. I am aware though that there are mixed opinions (and reviews) and that it appears that you either love Hill’s writing and can read lots into it, or you hate it because it is not so straightforward and leaves some readers puzzled as to what it is all about.  I’ll definitely try some other books by Hill.
I am looking forward to Saturday and to what I can learn from him.

 

Posted by: Corri Vandestege | February 11, 2014

EL Doctorow – The Book of Daniel

In 2011 I read and wrote a short review of Doctorow’s Homer and Langley  (18th May 2011) .This is quite an extraordinary story about two brothers who end up living together in a great mansion of a house in New York, that slowly but certainly falls apart around them. One of them, Homer, becomes blind when still a teenager and the older brother, Langley comes back from the First World War in Europe with gassed lungs.  They are orphaned in 1918 when their parents die in a flu epidemic and continue to live in the house left them.  It is funny and serious, sad and exhilarating, at times unbelievable, but all through a very enjoyable read.

51cOmf0IELL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX342_SY445_CR,0,0,342,445_SH20_OU02_The Book of Daniel is a much earlier book by Doctorow and was first published in 1971.  I read this in the Modern Classics Penguin format, which has a foreword by Jonathan Freedland. This, Freedland says, is not just a book about an America gripped by the cold war in which Paul and Rochelle Isaacson see around them danger and injustice, unlike the America Saul Bellow’s ‘the Adventures of Augie March’ which tries to capture an exhilarating post-war America ‘bursting with possibilities’. Not only is The Book of Daniel an un-American novel about a different kind of America it is also a novel about the changing face of dissent in the United States, comparing the gentle and subordinated dissent of the Isaacson with that of the anarchistic dissent of their son Daniel in the Vietnam protest area of the sixties.

Paul and Rochelle Isaacson are the counterparts of the Rosenbergs: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union in 1953 (they were accused of passing atomic secrets).  In the book, Paul and Rochelle have a son called Daniel and a daughter Susan, both of whom are involved in the anti-war movement in the Vietnam era.  They have been adopted by Bob Lewin an assistant professor of law and his kindly wife Lise who provide them with the kind of middle class life that might help them forget completely who they are and where they come from, it is so very comfortable. However, Susan remains troubled and at the start of the book, Memorial Day 1967, has been picked up by police after a suicide attempt and been taken to a secure hospital, and is waiting for her parents and Daniel to come and get her out.

Daniel’s protest is that of a left-wing anarchist and the damage done to both of them is shown by their behaviour, which is often self-destructive. For example, despite his love for his wife Phyllis and their baby son, Daniel will behave callously towards her, drive carelessly and nearly kills them. In addition, Daniel’s sense of crisis and fragmentation is reflected in the way Doctorow uses the narrative voice, which changes from the first person to the third.

To fully appreciate the literary style of this book I will need to read it again (and again); the story of the Isaacson as conveyed by Daniel is harrowing whilst at the same time you get the real sense of a vanished era of Jewish immigrants who want to make a better world for their children and grandchildren, and of their approach to political protest which is non-wavering in their continued obeying of the law and behaving decently and appropriately, as opposed to the 60’s anarchism of protest and irreverence to authority.

It is difficult to do justice to the very many themes in this book that is divided into four parts, books 1-4: Memorial Day, Halloween, Starfish and Christmas. Some of these themes touch closely on my own current writing and I’ll give some quotes that indicate the depth and variety of these themes, ranging from god to politics and rebellion.

In Book 1, Daniel (or Doctorow) contemplates the nature and function of God (p.12 ff) which narrowly reflects my own experience of a very Calvinistic (now presumably no longer practiced in the same way?) upbringing – although of course the Isaacson’s are Jewish: ‘Actually, that’s what God does in the bible – like the little girl says, he gets people. He takes care of them. He lays on this monumental justice. Oh the curse, the admonition; the plaques, the scattering, the ruinations, the striplings dead, the renderings unto and the tearings asunder. The flood. The fires. It is interesting to note that God as a character in the Bible seems always concerned with the idea of his recognition by mankind. He is constantly declaring His Authority, with rewards for those who recognize it and punishment for those who don’t.

Anyone who has read up on post-second world war history will recognise the following about behaviour after the war / a war (p.28ff) and this may form some kind of insight into what happened during the McCarthy era:

Unfortunately, the necessary emotional fever for fighting a war cannot be turned off like a water faucet. Enemies must continue to be found. The heart and mind cannot be demobilized as quickly as the platoon. On the contrary, like a fiery furnace at white heat, it takes a considerable time to cool.

Daniel expresses skepticism about the real motives for post-war politics as expounded by America (p.290):

The Truman doctrine will not be announced as a policy of providing military security for the foreign governments who accept our investments, but as a means of protecting freedom loving nations from communism.

The Marshall Plan will be advertised not as a way of ensuring markets abroad for American goods but as a means of helping the countries of Europe recover from the war. Russia had the effrontery not to collapse. We are faced with an international atheistic communist conspiracy of satanic dimension. Which side are you on? Russia moves into Rumania, Bulgaria, East Germany. Russia rolls over Czechoslovakia. Here is NATO. Here is the Berlin Blockade. And behold, it has come to pass, just the kind of world we said it was –

The book of Daniel is about the gentleness of the Isaacson parents, their almost fatalistic walk into the electric chair, which is in sharp contrast with the agonizing later protest and grief by their two children; and the damage done to them.

I think this is an amazingly well written book and  recommend it if you are looking for something to read that has a bite to it.

Next, I’ll get hold of Andrew’s Brain by the same author,  which was published last January.

 

Posted by: Corri Vandestege | January 30, 2014

Tana French and Dublin Noir

Broken Harbour and Fateful Place by Tana French – Review

These last few weeks I have discovered Tana French, who writes Dublin placed psychological thrillers within a setting of the boom and bust era of recent.  These are thrillers which I would class as genuine noir, they’re not bland ‘whodunit’ stories; they provide an often disturbing commentary on evils and horrors in present day society and culture.  French is a terrific writer who does dialogue and settings like no other, and her story development is engaging: you cannot stop reading because you need to know more, the characters have caught your imagination and you are hooked.

Tana French _ Broken Harbour

In Broken Harbour French takes on living in a new housing development just outside Dublin, being built at the hight of the property boom when houses have been sold to aspiring young couples who dream about climbing the property ladder and living in a paradise of mod cons that will have the kind of facilities and chic that their parents could  only dream of.  Ocean View in Brianstown is just such an estate, built in an area off the coach that used to be called Cold Harbour, a holiday camp with caravans where city people could enjoy a few weeks away from it all in a cheap environment right next tot the sea even though the weather is rarely that of a Mediterranean summer.  Buyers take on a 110% mortgage and when the boom turns to bust, builders disappear leaving behind a ghost estate of half built houses and amenities, where the unlucky ones who have meanwhile moved in find that their houses crumble and develop structural faults that no one will now put right.

The Spains  are one such family: husband, wife and two children; Patrick and Jenny are the exemplar couple to their friends and relatives; they have been in love since their teenage years and they grab the opportunity of buying a house in Brianstown, “a new revelation in premier living.  Luxury houses now viewing“.

Detective “Scorcher” Kennedy (Mick) is called in by his superior and is asked to take on a most appalling and horrifying crime: the Spain family has been attached in their own home, the two children have been suffocated in their bed, Pat is dead and Jenny is discovered still breathing and taken to hospital, fighting for her life.  Both Patrick and Jenny have multiple stab wounds and there appears to have been a struggle with blood everywhere in their beautiful kitchen.

All kinds of emotions are set in train for Kennedy when he discovers the location of the crime, which he knows as Cold Harbour, the beach area where his parents once a year took him and his two sisters and where they stayed in a caravan.  It was the only place and these were the only two weeks that his mother appeared to be happy until at the end of the holiday when Patrick is 15 she walks into the sea and kills herself.

About the difference between Ireland today and the Ireland of his youth he muses ‘I remember this country back when I was growing up.  We went to church, we ate family suppers around the table, and it would never even have crossed a kid’s mind to tell an adult to fuck off. There was plenty of bad then, don’t forget that, but we all knew exactly where we stood and we didn’t break the rules lightly.’

The two stories of the horrific murder of the Spains family and Patrick’s coming to terms intertwine naturally given the setting; both are inextricably linked to Cold Harbour, Patrick’s emotions are inevitably drawn back to what happened in the past and this crumbling estate where evil and demons spread like a sticky black dust.  Will Kennedy be able to hold together the awful discoveries he and his young ‘rookie’  Ritchie make as well as the demands on him by his youngest sister who has been damaged beyond repair by what happened that night their mother died, and by the many shadows cast by his experiences?

“I didn’t tell him [Ritchie]: the ghosts I believe in weren’t trapped in Spains’ bloodstains.  They thronged the whole estate, whirling like great moths in and out of the empty doorways and over the expanses of cracked earth, battering against the sparse lighted windows, mouths stretched wide in silent howls: all the people who should have lived here.”

The end of the book is devastating and the understanding of what happened to the Spains and how they ended up slaughtered on their own kitchen floor knocks Kennedy backwards.

This is a fantastic good read: the creepiness and the bleakness of the story were intensified as I read this whilst staying alone on the top floor of a city apartment with creaking floorboards and gurgling water pipes.

Tana French _ Faithful Place

I immediately downloaded another of French’s books, Faithful Place, which is also set in Dublin.  Unusually, rather than sticking to the same Detective in her different novels, in Faithful Place a different detective, Frank Mackey, in Undercover, rather than in the Murder Squad is the focus.  In Cold Harbour ‘Scorcher’ portrays himself as the good guy with decent looks and who is very capable.  In Faithful Place we come across him but from the point of view of Frank Undercovers are better at subtlety and when the Murder Squad turns up ‘The cavalry had arrived, and it was Scorcher Kennedy”.

And

Scorcher’s real name is Mick. The nickname was my doing, and personally I think I let him off lightly.  He liked winning, our Mick’ I’m pretty fond of it myself, but I know how to be subtle. Kennedy had a nasty little habit, when he came top at anything, of pumping his fist int hear and murmuring ‘Goal!’, almost but not quite under his breath.

So then Frank takes the piss and asks ‘Mikey, is that a goal? Is it a good one, yeah? Is it a real scorcher?’

You notice I’m well away in this book as well and read half of it on my way back from Rotterdam to Norfolk yesterday.

Posted by: Corri Vandestege | January 27, 2014

Urban living

(Filed from Rotterdam)

The flat is on the third floor of an apartment block in the centre of Rotterdam, a few blocks and a walk away from the big stories, Bijenkorf, Hema, V&D, Zara and many others. During the day a continuous stream of shoppers pound the streets below, increasing in number on a Saturday. At night there are the shouts of young people looking for entertainment in the bars, coffee shops, cafes and restaurants that intersperse the clothes shops with running gear, men’s clothes, jeans and outdoor gear, whilst further up towards the tramstops and going out of centre there are  food shops  a few butchers, bakers and patisseries, a frame shop and an art shop, an ice cream parlour just visible from my window; although in the middle of January with a never ending succession of cold rain showers and a sharp and painful wind, there are not as many people venturing out and dawdling as will be the case when the weather warms up again in spring and summer.

Each section of this apartment block building has four apartments, which you enter through a security front door at the street.  The basement holds storage areas for each of the four flats but I have been unable to open the one belonging to the apartment. It looks as if someone has put in new locks and the keys no longer fit. There is a large apartment on each of the two lower floors going up and two smaller ones on the top floor where I am, right under the roof. There are no lifts and I need to carefully weigh up what I take down to street level in the morning in terms of rubbish, my empty rucksack and a shopping bag and how many full shopping bags I can carry back up. Since my accident last summer when I broke a leg my knees and right foot refuse to play game and have become stiff and at times are unmanageable and painful. I long for the ease of access to my own large detached house in rural England, which lies hidden in a large garden only a five minute walk away from the small town centre where I can buy all the essentials I need.

Here, every morning rubbish collectors shout their warnings and beep their siren when they carefully manoevre their large truck backwards into the narrow side street where they empty the bins that line the pavement at the top end and which are filled with rubbish by the apartment dwellers along the road, a continuous flow of full plastic black bags that sprawl across the top and sides as the bins fill up. I am a great contributor to this daily exercise of dumping waste, as I have taken it on me to empty the apartment of all the conceivable detritus that has collected over years of letting. The girls in the managing agency express their great relief and gratitude that someone at long last makes an effort to have good clear out: ‘so necessary – and when we have the place cleaned after tenants leave and before new ones come in, we don’t know what can be discarded as we are no longer sure about what belongs in the flat and what has perhaps been left by tenants.’

I suspect that most of what I find in the flat belongs to my son who left Rotterdam in a hurry when he transferred to England and then, a few years later, decided to move to Asia for his work. He was never the best of cleaners or the most tidy person around for that matter. I don’t tell the girls this but nod in agreement and for the past ten days on a daily basis I have carried down the stairs large bin bags full of old sheets and towels, a broken vase, a few dirty cushions and also some heavy equipment including a greasy bread fryer with crumbs still attached to the fat congealed at the bottom and heavy metal supports for a non-existent wall mounted TV that will never be put up.

Two sets of unwieldy window blinds for the two bedrooms upstairs have been left lying around when new double glazed windows were fixed so that the blinds no longer fit at the top: if fixed to the top of the frame they will prevent the new window to open to the inside as is customary with double glazed fixtures this high up. These windows have a rather clever design, not only will they block the noise penetrating inside the flat and avoid the heat escaping, the best thing about them is I think that you can open them in three different ways: just the top, sideways and with a tiny gap for airing. The problem is that the blinds have become useless. Now there are only curtains to cover the wide windows that reach from one end of the wall to the other and when these are open wide I imagine that from about fifty flats from opposite the roads at the front, where the shopping street is, and back people have a good view of what is going on inside this flat, they seem so close. Most of the flats I look at have tightly drawn curtains or blinds except for the ones on the higher floors. We will need to find a different solution to this conundrum so that we can enjoy the view without being looked at.

At night I close all the curtains upstairs as well as the blinds in the sitting room and in the kitchen, which have been refitted, I switch on the lights and with a touch of night frost beginning to rear its head I turn on the heater to a higher setting.  The whole of the downstairs of this apartment has been redone with a lovely wooden floor, the kitchen is fully equipped with modern cooker and large fridge freezer and dishwasher and there is a four seater wooden table that looks out over the small balcony next to the kitchen from where you can look down at the daily hustle of garbage trucks and of people coming and going, men with briefcases of to work, fathers and mothers pushing prams, students getting on their bikes and shoppers pushing coins in the meters after parking their cars. Although there is an odd family with a very small child or baby, there are few families with growing up kids.  This is not the place for them.  This area is for young couples, singles, students and young and up coming professionals, people who want to live in the centre of a town because that is where there jobs are and that is where they go out.

The narrow hot and cold water pipes throughout the flat date back to the previous century and at night when all is quiet they emit unexpected rattles and noises that made me jump up the first few nights and wander through the apartment to find out if there was something amiss. Some of the pipes have been painted, others are shamelessly silver looking or brown. Others again have been painted with a gloss paint that peels off the moment hot water flows through them. Upstairs in the main bedroom where I sleep the floorboards creak under the carpet and resettle themselves after I have gone to bed and I sit up straight in in the middle of the night when a board slowly but very loud in the stillness of the night groans and creaks itself back in place. There may be an odd latecomer on the stairs outside in the communal staircase banging a front door or there is a noise on the roof that I cannot place. It is only by three o’clock in the middle of the night that everything seems to come to rest, only to come fully to life again at seven in the morning.  I am not used to this, this closeness of so many other people and the noise and city smells that conjure up a kind of claustrophobia that I cannot shake off.

I’m on my own to sort things out. I have painted over walls in inside cupboards where a previous leak, now repaired, caused water damage.  I have tidied and cleaned shelves and dusted and wiped nooks and crannies all through the flat and now I am ready to go back to my own comfortable home. I miss my large and luxurious bathroom, the quietness of the house and the peacefulness outside. I miss the space of my workroom upstairs with all its shelves full of books and magazines, and the comfortable desks. I also miss being able to walk out either into the village or into the garden without having to manage endless stairs.

Nevertheless, here I am able to write and edit every afternoon for between two and five hours, depending on how much tidying, fixing and cleaning there is to do around the flat and also on how many items I have to replace and therefore have to go for to shops. Sometimes I work in the open sitting room with the Mac on my lap in the one comfortable but very old chair near the large window overlooking the shopping street below; and slowly as the day draws to a close, it becomes darker and darker until all the lights are on in the shops and streets and the last workers and shoppers hurry home, some walking, others on their bikes or driving cars.  There are always a few stragglers who hang on to inspect the shop windows once more, shivering and with their hands in their pockets or holding umbrellas against the rain that has just started again. At other times I sit in the kitchen at the table which is more conducive for editing and cutting and pasting, using the table as my mouse pad.

There are advantages of course of living in an urban area with all its conveniences. There are the many coffee shops that you can walk to, the bars and cafes where you can read a newspaper whilst enjoying a large cappuccino, I need one caffeine shot a day to keep me going and just around lunch time I pop out again to pick up some food from the local Albert Heijn and to stop on the way for my daily fix. Sometimes I treat myself to a large piece of apple tart  accompanied by a blob a whipped cream, a Dutch treat, and one that I will not indulge in once back in England. On Saturdays there is a very large and busy market just downstairs off the side street, running along the Lijnbaan. I have bought a couple of side tables for the flat off one of the second hand stalls as well as fish, fruit and vegetables, and cheese of course. The crowds of people however are relentless and it is difficult to move forward at any pace at all.  The second hand stalls sell everything from DVDs and CDs to old bicycles, picture frames,  and second hand clothes in all shapes and formats.  There is a strong trade in knick knacks, vases and pots, small photos, odd china sets, cups and saucers, pans, small tables, and even bedding. They are there, every week again and sometimes also on Tuesdays. Another parallel row of stalls displays  fruit and vegetables, fish and bread and cakes, Indonesian delicacies and hot pancakes and Dutch stroopwafels. People stroll around,  carrying bags full till the brim and pulling wheelie baskets behind them so that if you’re not careful you may trip; whilst they saunter along they eat deep fried battered fish or other warm food from greaseproof paper.  After strolling along with the crowd I reach the end of the market near the Library and  then decided to find another route back to the flat, unable to cope with the claustrophobia of the masses of people.

On Sundays, in particular in the morning, that same market area is completely deserted and the shops that do open for business only unlock their doors at 12 o’clock midday.

IMG_0717

Cube houses in Rotterdam

 

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