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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Review of THE ENCHANTED by Rene Denfeld

3 Stars
Earlier this year, I read The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld ( and I found it only average in quality, so it was with some misgivings that I sat down to read The Enchanted, Denfeld’s debut novel, because it was chosen by my book club.  After reading The Enchanted, my opinion of The Child Finder is even less positive because it repeats so much of what is found in the author’s first fiction. 

The Enchanted is set in an old prison.  One major character is identified only as the lady; she is a death penalty investigator hired by attorneys to work on trying to commute the sentence of an inmate named York from death to life in prison.  She delves into York’s past and finds that her own and his had many similarities.  The reader also learns about others who work or live in the prison:  a priest who offers spiritual counsel to inmates but needs forgiveness himself; the warden facing a crisis at home; a corrupt guard; a new female guard; a mute man who uses his imagination to transcend the bleakness of life on death row, etc. 

The book emphasizes the human need to be heard, to be seen, and to be understood.  The lady’s skill is in listening; York, for example, during the lady’s first meeting with him, thinks, “She hears me . . . she hears me” (11).  She listens and learns the pasts of the inmates so she comes to understand why they committed the horrific crimes of which they have been convicted.  The inmates are not innocent; they are perpetrators but they often are/were victims too.  The lady may be so good at her job because she herself wants to be seen and understood.

There are actual inmates but there are also characters who have built walls around themselves because of fear or guilt.  The lady, for example, has a past that weighs heavily on her:  “The few attempts she made at telling men ended in disaster.  She got wounded watching the disgust in their eyes, the recoil from her truth.  She told herself this was the way it would be, that she was destined to live alone” (174).  When she finally admits her shame, “she knows a door in her heart has opened” (175).  The priest also has a story to tell; when he finally brings himself to speak it honestly, the lady “sees a bloom in his pallid skin, as if he is coming back to life.  The poison is leaving him” (170). 

The novel describes prison culture very realistically.  Drug usage, rape, and corruption abound.  The story of a new inmate, a sixteen-year-old white-haired boy with “a mouth like Cupid” (73), is especially devastating.  It is not just the physical violence but the psychological damage that resonates.  Striker, one of the death-row inmates, never touches the mute inmate but he still manages to inflict pain in a brutal way. 

This mute prisoner is a great lover of books and also copes by creating a magic, enchanted world in which golden horses live underground and miniature men with miniature hammers hide in the walls:  “a magic world away from the pain and terror of his life. . . . a safe place he could take himself, a place to shelter the tender nugget of life within” (48).  Though I appreciate the message, I am not a fan of magic realism so the fantastical images had no appeal for me. 

This brings me back to The Child Finder where Naomi, the protagonist, states that the abducted children “who did the best in the long run made a safe place inside their very own minds.  Sometimes they even pretended they were someone else.  Naomi didn’t believe in resilience.  She believed in imagination.”  This echoes an idea found in The Enchanted:  the mute prisoner copes using his imagination and the lady mentions “her own childhood taught her how to pretend . . . just to survive, all the while protecting her pure, untouched core” (53).  In The Child Finder, Denfeld manages to show compassion for Mr. B., a child abductor.  As details of his past are revealed, the reader cannot but feel some sympathy and understanding for a damaged person.  The same is true in The Enchanted because the reader cannot but feel some sympathy for York and the mute inmate when the extent of their victimization is revealed.  The Enchanted also includes a theme found in The Child Finder:  there is hope because “No matter how far you have run, no matter how long you have been lost, it is never too late to be found.”  Furthermore, in both novels, the investigator has much in common with her clients. 

If I had read The Enchanted without having read The Child Finder, I might have been more impressed.  Perhaps I should say that The Enchanted is more original and The Child Finder is derivative?

Monday, April 23, 2018

2018 Women's Prize for Fiction Shortlist

The shortlist for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced today.  There are 6 finalists:

The Idiot by Elif Batuman
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
Sight by Jessie Greengrass
When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

The winner will be announced on June 6.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Review of MAGPIE MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz

3.5 Stars
This novel uses the book within a book structure.  Susan Ryeland, editor for a publishing company, receives the latest instalment of the Atticus Pünd mystery series written by Alan Conway.  The reader gets to read this cozy county murder story.  When the end of the manuscript is reached, Ryeland ends up investigating a mystery involving that draft and its author.

The book is fairly lengthy but the reader gets two books for the price of one.  Horowitz is clever in intertwining the two narratives.  Each has multiple suspects and there are even parallels between the novel written by Conway and his life and between the mysteries Pünd must solve and the one Ryeland sets out to investigate. 

I preferred the Pünd mystery primarily because I liked the detective.  As is often the case with series featuring a detective like Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes or Vera Standhope or Harry Hole or Erlendur Sveinsson, the reader finds that the detective him/herself is part of the appeal.  Pünd, a Ben Kingsley lookalike, is “a German refugee who had managed to survive the war after spending a year in one of Hitler’s concentration camps.”  He has James Fraser as a sidekick, an assistant “whose loyalty and good humour had never failed him, even if he had never helped very much when it came to the investigation of crime.” 

Ryeland is a much less interesting character; in particular, she is not particularly intelligent.  She admits to being “a poor choice of narrator/investigator.  Quite apart from the fact that I’m completely unqualified, I may not actually be all that good. . . . Sadly, I have no Watson, no Hastings, no Troy, no Bunter, no Lewis.” The identity of the murderer is obviously revealed less than half way through, but she misses it.  When attacked by someone who has just admitted to having killed a person, Ryeland says, “I was so shocked, so taken by surprise that it actually took me a few moments to work out what had happened.”  Really?!

Ryeland is less interesting and her mystery and investigation are as well.  The motive for the murder obviously emphasizes the entrapment of a successful detective fiction writer but the perpetrator is not sufficiently developed and so is not convincing.  And would anyone really give a murderer several days “grace” before notifying the police?  I also disliked Ryeland’s heavy-handed statements like, “I began to read the book as you are about to.  But before you do that, I have to warn you.  This book changed my life. . . . I hope I don’t need to spell it out any more.  Unlike me, you have been warned” and  “If I had just worked a little harder, I would have realised that the clue I had been seeking was actually there, that somebody had said something to me, quite recently, that had identified them as the killer . . . Just half an hour more might have made all the difference in the world. . . . It was going to cost me dear” (191). 

What is interesting is that Horowitz explores the relationship between a mystery writer and his creation.  It turns out that Alan Conway has come to dislike Atticus Pünd and wants to write serious literary fiction.  He is like Agatha Christie who came to dislike Poirot and wanted to write different stories with new characters, "But her agents and publishers, who were in charge of the pounds and pence, were very keen on Poirot.  He was her most popular character.  The result, says [Christie’s grandson], was that Dame Agatha continued to ‘churn out’ Poirot whodunnits” (  Likewise, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle complained that “Holmes takes my mind from better things” and “Doyle’s heart was never really in detective fiction.  Nevertheless the stories were phenomenally popular in Britain and America and overshadowed everything else Doyle would ever write” (   Conan Doyle even had to bring Holmes back from the dead because of a public outcry.  Conway, like these real writers of detective fiction, finds himself trapped by a fictional character, readers and the publishing industry. 

Horowitz wrote an interesting classic mystery very much in the Agatha Christie style.  The contemporary mystery featuring Ryeland is less successful, especially because it is solved using coincidence.  “I don’t like coincidences in novels, and particularly not in murder mysteries, which work because of logic and calculation.  The detective really should be able to reach his conclusion without having providence on his side.” 

Friday, April 20, 2018

2018 Dublin Literary Award Shortlist

The shortlist of the 2018 International Dublin Literary Award was announced earlier this week:

Baba Dunja's Last Love by Alina Bronsky (Germany)

The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera (Spain)

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway)

Human Acts by Han Kang (South Korea)

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Ireland)

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland)

Distant Light by Antonio Moresco (Italy)

Ladivine by Marie Ndiaye (France)

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (South Africa)

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (United States) - See my review at

See for information about each of the books and their authors.  The winner will be announced on June 13.

If you are interested in the complete longlist of 150 novels, see and my blog entry where I provide links to my reviews of the books I have read from that list:

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Review of THE ONLY STORY by Julian Barnes (New Release)

4.5 Stars
Like many readers, I’ve come to expect extraordinary things from Julian Barnes.  This novel is as exceptional as his other books have been.

Paul Roberts, a septuagenarian, looks back at his life, specifically the romance that defined his life:  “Everyone has their love story.  Everyone.  It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may not even have got going, it may have been all in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real. . . . Everyone [has their love story].  It’s the only story.”  He then proceeds to tell his only story, the “only one that matters, only one finally worth telling.” 

In the first part of the novel, 19-year-old Paul meets Susan Macleod, a 48-year-old, married mother of two.  They embark on a love affair.  The second part outlines how their relationship falls apart, and the third part shows the aftermath with Paul seeking to understand love and make sense of his experience with it.  The first section is narrated primarily in the first person, appropriately so because “first love always happens in the overwhelming first person.”  Then as passion becomes dispassion, the narration moves into second person and then, as Paul becomes more and more detached and seems to want to distance himself from the past, the third person:  “But nowadays, the raucousness of the first person within him, was stilled.  It was as if he viewed, and lived, his life in the third person.  Which allowed him to assess it more accurately, he believed.” 

The novel opens with a question:  “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less?”  Paul chooses the former; he throws himself into a love affair, believing “that love was incorruptible, proof against both time and tarnish.”  He is entirely happy; he describes these days “as a time of cock-vigour so insistent that it forbade examination.”  Later, as things become more difficult, he realizes “love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger.”  It’s difficult to give up because “You still believe, however, in love, and in what love can do, how it can transform a life, indeed the lives of two people.  You believe in its invulnerability, its tenacity, its ability to outrun any opponent. . . . So you do the best you can.”  And he stays because “Love was a Duty in and of itself.  You had a Duty to Love, the more so now that it was your central belief system.  And Love brought many Duties with it.  So, even when apparently weightless, Love could weigh heavily, and bind heavily.”  In the end comes the realization that “loving one another does not necessarily lead to happiness” so he, though he doesn’t mind seeing people in love, “was superstitious about, and preferred not to witness [marriage proposals]:  the moment when they flung away their lives because it just felt so right . . . The fear of such a scene would often lead him to an early night.”  Perhaps love does survive but at a cost; perhaps a deep love can only leave one “walking wounded.  That’s the only choice, after a while.  Walking wounded, or dead.” 

The characterization of Susan is interesting.  Paul is drawn to her high spirits and her quick wit.  She has perfect nicknames for everyone and speaks in phrases which Paul sees as signs of intelligence (though “when she first heard people talking about adultery, she thought it referred to the watering-down of milk”).  Later, however, she just keeps repeating these phrases so they are not original and become only tedious.  Did Paul see her as she really was or did he make assumptions:  “Naturally, I assume that she laughs at life because she has seen a great deal of it, and understands it.”  She warns him that, “We all have an act” but he doesn’t see that sometimes she is acting and doesn’t “realize that there was panic inside her.”  She also tells him, “Because at some point everyone wants to run away from their life.  It’s about the only thing human beings have in common” and “That’s one of the things about life.  We’re all just looking for a place of safety.  And if you don’t find one, then you have to learn how to pass the time.”  These statements explain so much of her behaviour later in their relationship but he doesn’t seem able to see things from her point of view.  Susan’s favourite act is what she terms her “disappearing act”; in a print dress with flowers on it, she sits on a chintz sofa so she is largely camouflaged.  Gradually, as Paul points out, more and more of her disappears.

I would love to read Susan’s version of the romance.  We only see her from Paul’s viewpoint and he is not always a reliable narrator.  Though the reader may guess as to her motives, it would be interesting to know more fully her reasons for getting involved with Paul.  He is a callow and self-absorbed.  He is pretentious, taking pride in having a transgressive relationship and railing “about the sham or respectability, the sham of marriage, the sham of suburbia.”  He makes an extensive list of what he dislikes and distrusts about adulthood!  Susan does not seem particularly interested in sex, even describing herself as frigid, and that is a good thing because Paul is certainly not knowledgeable about sex:  “I know little about the female orgasm, and somehow assume that if you manage to keep going long enough, it will at some point be automatically triggered in the woman.  Like breaking the sound barrier, perhaps.” 

I love the author’s turns of phrase and his imagery.  There’s a perfect image for Susan and Paul’s relationship.  Instead of holding hands, Paul often holds Susan’s wrists.  Later he dreams of Susan having climbed out an upstairs window and his holding on to her by her wrists.  Her weight makes it impossible for Paul to pull her back inside.  He fears his strength will fail and she will fall.  This image is used to great effect throughout but especially at the end.

As is typical of Barnes’ writing, there is so much to analyze in this novel.  I haven’t even touched on his examination of the role of memory.  The book’s tone is melancholic and the tale is almost overwhelmingly sad in its portrayal of how love can consume a person’s entire existence, but it deserves a reading and at least one re-reading.   

Note:  I received a digital ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Review of HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie

4 Stars
This book was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and recently appeared on the longlist of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction.  I understand why it was so honoured.

Isma Pasha, a Pakistani-Brit, goes to the United States to work on a PhD, leaving behind her siblings in London. Nineteen-year-old Aneeka is studying law but her twin brother Parvaiz ends up recruited by ISIS.  Shortly after leaving the country to join the terrorist group, he realizes he has made a mistake and wants to come home.  Though the British home secretary, Karamat Lone, has revoked the citizenship of all nationals who have left Britain to join a terrorist group, Aneeka sets out to bring home her brother, even starting a relationship with Eamonn Lone, the son of the British home secretary.   

The book is divided into five sections; each gives the point of view of a different character:  Isma, Eamonn, Parvaiz, Aneeka, and Karamat.  This structure allows the reader to get to know each of the main characters and to understand his/her motives. 

The book examines the difficulties of being a Muslim in a hostile world.  Isma knows not to pack a Quran and is not surprised to be interrogated for nearly two hours before her flight to the U.S.:  “[The interrogating officer] wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, The Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites.”  Aneeka’s cousin in Pakistan outlines the tenuous situation of Muslims:  “’My sister lives in America, she’s about to have a child there – did you or your bhenchod brother stop to think about those of us with passports that look like toilet paper to the rest of the world who spend our whole lives being so careful we don’t give anyone a reason to reject our visa application?  Don’t stand next to this guy, don’t follow that guy on Twitter, don’t download that Noam Chomsky book.  And then your brother uses us as a cover to join some psycho killers . . . ’”  Of course, the Pasha family’s lives are complicated by the fact that their father was a jihadist.   

Parvaiz’s drift towards ISIS is well-depicted.  He is a young man haunted by the memory of the father he never really knew.  Adil Pasha, who had fought in Kashmir, Chechnya, Kosovo and Afghanistan, died enroute to Guantánamo after being tortured in an internment facility in Bagram, Afghanistan.  His father was never mentioned in his home:  “secrecy had lived inside the house too.  His mother and Isma both carried an anger toward Adil Pasha too immense for words.”  Adil’s reputation as a fighter is used to lure Parvaiz into the group; one of the reasons he joins is that he is promised he will be able to meet men who knew his father.  Parvaiz is not demonized; he is portrayed as a misguided youth whose life seems rather aimless and who falls prey to an experienced recruiter. 

Sympathy is aroused for each of the characters.  Each makes some questionable choices but for perfectly understandable reasons.  A sister informs authorities of her brother’s joining terrorists which she views as “enemies of both Britain and Islam” but in so doing she can be seen as disloyal to her family.  A politician focuses on the country’s security by not allowing the return of would-be terrorists, but he turns his back on his background and faith.  Characters are put in positions where they must answer, “What would you stop at to help the people you love most?”  Complex issues are examined and the solutions are not easy. 

There are scenes in this novel which are anything but forgettable, the conclusion being the most memorable.  It has been pointed out that the book is a contemporary re-imagining of Sophocles’ Antigone; the author quotes the play in her epigraph:  “The ones we love . . . are enemies of the state.”  A knowledge of the Greek tragedy, however, is not required.  The book will not leave the reader unaffected.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Review of MACBETH by Jo Nesbø (New Release)

4 Stars
This is the latest of the Hogarth Shakespeare series which has contemporary authors retelling the Bard’s plays.  I’ve read all of Nesbø’s Harry Hole novels, and in my 30-year career as an English teacher, I taught Macbeth numerous times.  My conclusion:  pairing Jo Nesbø with Shakespeare’s Macbeth was an inspired choice.

Nesbø sets his crime novel in the 1970s in an economically depressed, deindustrialized town.  Macbeth is the head of the SWAT team; he answers to Duncan, the newly appointed police commissioner.  Other members of the police force include Banquo, another member of the SWAT team; Inspector Duff, head of the Narcotics Unit; and Caithness, head of the Forensics Unit.   Duncan is trying to clean up the corruption that has been rampant in the force and to take down Hecate, the local drug kingpin.  Macbeth’s lover is Lady, a local casino magnate; she helps convince Macbeth that he should kill Duncan and become the chief commissioner himself.  Anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s tragedy will be familiar with the rest of the plot to which this novel remains fairly faithful. 

It is obvious that Nesbø has studied the play quite closely.  For example, in his version, he incorporates Shakespeare’s clothing imagery (an ambitious man’s shoes always creak “because he always buys shoes too big for him” and Macbeth’s new uniform “rubbed against his skin and gave him the shivers”), animal imagery (Lady’s “pupils twitch, and this reminded him of something.  Frogspawn.  A tadpole trying to break free from a sticky egg”), and blood imagery (Lady has “full red lips” and “flame-red hair” and “long red nails” and favours red wine and red dresses).  Like Shakespeare, Nesbø uses dramatic irony:  Macbeth says, “You’ll be the death of me, Lady, do you know that?”  Pathetic fallacy is used:  it is almost always overcast and raining and sometimes the weather is described as “hellish.”  Even soliloquies are adapted; Shakespeare’s Macbeth describes life as “a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing” (V, v, 26-28) and Nesbø’s Macbeth says, “Perhaps we’re just detached sentences in an eternal chaotic babble in which everyone talks and no one listens, and our worst premonition finally turns out to be correct:  you are alone.  All alone.”

What is largely missing is the comic relief found in Shakespeare’s play, though there is a nod to the Porter’s speech about  alcohol causing “a colourful nose, sleep and pissing” and a humourous nod to Shakespeare’s dramas in the description of “the expensive national theatre with its pompous plays, incomprehensible dialogue and megalomaniac kings who die in the last act”.  Nesbø’s Macbeth is a dark, brutal and bloody saga.

I appreciated that Nesbø tried to explain some ambiguous statements found in the play.  For instance, Lady Macbeth tells her husband, “I have given suck, and know/How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me;/ I would, while it was smiling in my face,/ Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums/ And dashed the brains out” (I, v, 55-59).  Nesbø gives an explanation for this child.  He also examines Lady’s background which helps explain her ambitions for herself and her consort. 

There are some missteps, however.  “Brew” is a powerful drug prepared in a large container by Strega (the Italian word for witch) and her two sisters, too obviously evoking the three Weird Sisters and a cauldron.  Later, Macbeth is introduced to an even more potent drug than Brew which Hecate calls “Power.”  This metaphor is a tad heavy-handed.  Accepting that Macbeth would bring home that shoebox and what it contains requires too much suspension of disbelief.  And though Shakespeare does perhaps suggest a Satanic element to the character of Seyton, Nesbø’s portrayal is over the top. 

It is the portrayal of Duff which is outstanding.  In Shakespeare’s play, MacDuff is an upright man who acts mostly in the background.  In Nesbø’s prose version, Duff is more morally ambiguous.  He too is ambitious and has a desire for recognition.  He is also described as a “selfish, arrogant bastard” and “the most selfish person I’ve ever met.”  He dominates in several scenes; there is even an extended section showing his escape after the slaughter of his family, a massacre made even more poignant because of its timing.  Duff ends up serving as Macbeth’s foil:   as Macbeth devolves, Duff evolves.

This novel can be read without the reader having any knowledge of Shakespeare’s play, but a familiarity with the drama will increase the reader’s appreciation of what Nesbø has accomplished.  He has touched on all the major themes found in the Bard’s work, and even though I knew what was going to happen, I still found the book a compelling read. 

There have been many film adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth; I can well imagine a film version of Nesbø’s novel which is an excellent example of the crime noir genre. 

Review of A FIST AROUND THE HEART by Heather Chisvin (New Release)

3.5 Stars
Two Russian Jewish sisters were sent to Winnipeg during the Anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.  Esther, the older sister, spends her entire life in Winnipeg, occasionally experiencing episodes of mental illness; Anna, younger by four years, moves to New York City and ends up being a women’s rights activist there.  In 1942, Esther returns to Winnipeg when she learns her sister has died in an apparent suicide.  Having difficulty believing Esther took her own life, Anna reads Esther’s journals and examines her own memories of key events which shaped her life and that of her sister. 

The novel covers just over 60 years, and it is obvious that the author did considerable historical research.  I enjoyed learning about the California Perfume Company, womb veils, and If Day in Winnipeg.  Historical figures like Margaret Sanger make cameo appearances.  Sometimes, however, it felt as if the scope of the book is too broad and the examination of historical events is rather superficial.  Anna finds herself in St. Petersburg in 1918, about a year after the Russian Revolution, but little information is given about the Russian political situation; the reader is left to figure out Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and Chekists.  (Would a Russian nobleman support Bolshevism?  Anna, for example, attributes her Bolshevik sympathies to her stepfather, an émigré Russian Count?  She tells a Bolshevik, “’If it weren’t for [Count Chernovski] I wouldn’t be who I am today.  I wouldn’t be nearly as sympathetic to your cause’”?)

Anna is not always a credible character.  When she arrives in Canada, she is 5 years old.  When she is 9 or 10, she is already spending her time, “reading about Grace Greenwood and Nellie Bly; articles on workers’ rights and sexual freedom and the vote for women”?  At that age she can read Harper’s New Monthly and Century Magazine in her second language?  She is only 15 when she finds herself in a situation that has her moving to Manhattan?  What a precocious young girl!

There are some other implausible events which irk.  That Nathaniel, Anna’s neighbour and friend in Russia, remains her friend in Canada seems unlikely.  He lives in the north end of Winnipeg, in New Jerusalem, and she lives in the west end, in Armstrong’s Point.   How would they have found each other?  And Anna, a young girl living in a sheltered world where “there were rules of etiquette for everything,” is just allowed to wander around the city with Nathaniel?  The officer in charge of the investigation into Esther’s death tells Anna, “’I thought you might want to look around [Esther’s house] before the police team goes through.  We’ll be restricting access to the property at that time.’”  He lets her into Esther’s home even though he says, “’We don’t want anyone going in until the investigation is over’”?   He even tells her, “’You can do whatever you want.’”  I guess police investigative procedures were very different in 1942?  And then there’s the evasion of a plot problem.  When a friend uncovers Anna’s deep secret, she asks how he found out and he replies, “’Anna.  Don’t ask me that.  It took years.’”  Oh please!

The relationship between the sisters is interesting.  Anna looks after her older but more fragile sister for the longest time but eventually becomes torn between taking care of Esther and escaping her.  That is the pattern that emerges throughout Anna’s adult life.  She convinces herself not to worry about Esther and to focus on her own life.  This type of behaviour is understandable though it doesn’t always make Anna an admirable character.  Anna knows Esther’s diagnosis for about 20 years, yet allows a situation where “After an initial flurry of letters and phone calls, our correspondence got spotty again”? 

There is an interesting story here, but the telling is sometimes muddled.  The eventual explanation for Esther’s death is certainly original.  I just wish there were a less scattered structure so the novel’s potential could be better realized.

Note:  I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Review of SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE by Sarah Schmidt

3.5 Stars
This title came to my attention when it appeared on the longlist of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction.  It offers an interesting retelling of the famous August 4, 1892 double murders for which Lizzie Borden was tried but acquitted. 

The author’s re-imagining focuses on the events of August 3 – August 6 as narrated by four first-person narrators:  32-year-old Lizzie; Emma, Lizzie’s 42-year-old sister; Bridget, the Borden family maid; and Benjamin, a man hired by John Morse, the girl’s maternal uncle, who witnesses some of the events at the Borden home.

To call the Borden household dysfunctional is almost an understatement.  Abby, the girls’ stepmother and the first victim, has a rancorous relationship with her step-daughters who have never fully accepted her as a mother.  Andrew, the girls’ father and the second victim, is overbearing, mean-spirited, critical, and miserly.  The marriage does not seem especially happy; Lizzie mentions that “[Father and Mrs. Borden] did that from time to time, their being friendly and pleasant to one another.”  Lizzie is a selfish, manipulative attention-seeker, whereas Emma resents her father’s favouritism towards Lizzie and living “with a sibling who would never give me up.”  Uncle John, whom everyone seems to dislike, seems overly interested in the family money and “had a strange way with [Lizzie], all that holding and stroking.”  Even Bridget is unhappy, longing to return to her family in Ireland. 

The house is full of simmering resentments and frustrations.  Lizzie wants to go on another European grand tour, and Emma wants a life that will “take me away from the family, from Father. . . . having to abide by what they wanted versus what I wanted.” Bridget saves her money so she can go home but Abby always manipulates her into staying; when she tells Abby her intention, Mrs. Borden’s response is telling:  “’You shouldn’t be allowed to just leave!’ she bellowed, she wailed.” 

At one point, Bridget says, “’This place is no good.’”  And, indeed, the house itself, which is always creaking, seems to have absorbed all the simmering tension.  Because doors and windows are always locked, it is swelteringly hot and everyone sweats.  Like emotions are repressed, odours are trapped.  A mutton broth sits on the stove and has been reheated for the family all week; it is probably the reason why everyone has digestive upset, resulting in the stench of vomit permeating the house.

Lizzie’s narration is the most unusual.  From the beginning, her mind is shown to be disordered at best.  Sometimes she speaks in a type of baby talk, repeating words:  “The clock on the mantel ticked ticked” and “My heart beat nightmares, gallop, gallop” and “I went to the pail of water by the well, let my hands sink into the cool sip sip.”  Some of her descriptions are rather unusual:  “My legs began to shake and drum into the floor and I took a bite of my pear to make them still.”  Certainly her first reaction on seeing her father’s body is bizarre:  she says, “’You ought to stop with the tobacco, Father.  It makes your skin smell old.’”  Is her confusion when describing her actions an indication of a dissociative fugue?   

Benjamin’s narration, however, is the least interesting.  He gives the perspective of an outsider but he really adds little to the story.  His association with the creepy uncle and his proclivity for brutality do for a time suggest another suspect in the case, but I found his narrative to be a distraction.  Are his psychopathic tendencies supposed to mirror those of the Bordens’ killer?  He is used to fill in some of the details of the trial and subsequent events, but I would have appreciated Emma’s perspective more.

The only family member who elicits the reader’s sympathy is Emma.  As a teenager, she made a promise to her dying mother, a promise which Lizzie does not let her forget:  “’Don’t think you can go live without me.  You’re breaking your promise to Mother.  You’re selfish, Emma.’”  Because of Lizzie, Emma gives up on love and has to live with the realization that “I had made the wrong decision.”  She lists some of what she sacrificed for her sister:  “All of it for Lizzie.  My flesh heated.  How could Father not have noticed?”  At one point Emma concludes, “I knew deep down that I ought to abandon the fanciful and take what was real, that I lived with my father and stepmother, lived with a sibling who would never give me up.  My time to be anything, anyone, had slipped.  I had to live with that disappointment.” 

Readers should be warned that their senses will suffer an onslaught:  the author excels at auditory, gustatory and olfactory imagery.  And in the end, readers may even be convinced that events did in fact occur as the novel describes.