Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Engagement - Orkney - Mr Bridge

Three books to take a quick look at, all involving couples, two of which are very unsettling and make amazing use of open spaces to create a sense of claustrophobia, the other a masterpiece from the underrated and, sadly, recently-departed Evan S Connell (August 17, 1924 – January 10, 2013).

The Engagement by Chloe Hooper

Liese Campbell is an English architect who has fled to the other side of the world in the wake of the financial crisis and begun work in her uncle's real estate business in Melbourne. It is through that work that she meets Alexander Colquhoun, a wealthy farmer looking to buy some property in the area. On one of many apartment viewings they find themselves beginning a game, sex in someone else's property and payment for Liese at the end of it. The game develops and becomes a regular thing, sex in new apartments, more money, and soon invented stories about Liese's other clients. When the novel begins it is at the outset of what she expects will be their final meeting, having announced her intention to leave the country and return to England, as Alexander takes her to his house in the bush for a final weekend with an envelope of cash at the end of it. But this is a novel of lies and confusion, where the reader appears to be in possession of the facts and an eloquent and honest narrator but as the pages slip your fingers you find yourself less and less certain about what is real, what fantasy, and who even to be worried about in a long weekend where a dangerous denouement seems only a page-turn away.

I struggled with this book to be honest and even after persevering and finishing it I remain not wholly convinced. The unreliable narrator is a common literary technique but actually surprisingly tricky to pull off. Notable successes include the deliciously villainous Tarquin Winot in John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure and the slowly revealed complexities behind the care and concern of the eponymous doctor in Patrick McGrath's Dr Haggard's Disease. I really struggled with the psychology of both Liese and Alexander when reading this novel perhaps because it is all coming through the filter of a character we will learn not to trust. I found too much of what they said hard to believe and the dialogue itself pretty clunky in places and even if this can be explained away by the unreliability of the narrator it strikes me that if the device interferes with the effectiveness of the prose then something isn't quite working. Too often I wanted to shake either one of them and get them to actually respond to what had actually been said to them rather than further continuing the ambiguities and confusion.

All of that said, it is an unnerving and thrilling read that creates tension, atmosphere and genuine fear. It could almost read as a metaphorical study of many relationships, the way in which couples do or don't deal with each other's pasts, the stories they tell one another of their lives in order to portray themselves in a certain light, and the way in which these images can be slowly eroded by the stories others tell about us or the gradual emergence of what I will term, with eyebrow raised and tongue firmly in cheek, the truth.

Published now by Jonathan Cape

Orkney by Amy Sackville

Amy Sackville garnered plenty of plaudits and prize nominations with her debut novel, The Still Point and managed to bag the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. I haven't read that and after 50 or so pages of her new novel I was beginning to think that might be a huge mistake but here is another novel of claustrophobic congress which followed a sort of reverse trajectory to the one above but left me with a similar feeling of admiration rather than love, a book I started off loving but which left me by the end feeling rather over-worked and exhausted.

A man and a woman arrive on Orkney for their honeymoon. He is an eminent professor, she a former student. They have come a long way from the scene of their infamous relationship but even on this remote island they are regarded by everyone as a strange couple. Through the professor's narration we soon realise how little he really knows about the woman who has so enchanted him but there is no doubting the spell she has cast on him. Sackville's writing is extraordinary in places and the opening pages create an evocative atmosphere that swept me along with the fervour of his feeling. This kind of writing is hard to sustain however, or rather it is hard to sustain a reading of, by which I mean that some people may find it a bit too much like consciously 'beautiful writing' and even those like me who found the style to be entirely fitting for a literature professor who has had his heart beguiled by a pale and otherworldly creature may find after a while that the novel gets a bit repetitive.

Described rather optimistically as a single sitting read, it is exactly the kind of book that may well benefit from being read in that way (if you happen to have enough time to read 250 pages in one go), the kind of novel that if it has you the reader in its spell, like our poor professor, will probably fly by as a richly engrossing account of love, fantasy and the enchantment and danger of the natural world. There will be just as many readers however who fail to fully fall for its charms and therefore find it a relatively short read that feels overwritten, overwrought and in danger of being suffocated by its own atmosphere.

Published today by Granta Books

Mr Bridge by Evan S Connell

Ah, the Bridges. How wonderful to be able to engage again with Evan S Connell's remarkable couple in Kansas City. You may remember I read and loved Connell's 1959 novel Mrs Bridge last year and at least I didn't have to wait as long as those at the time for its companion piece originally published in 1969. The man who remained a fairly enigmatic presence in the novel bearing his wife's name is now thrust to the forefront and we get to learn what Walter Bridge was thinking during all those hours spent working away from his family and indeed in the small amount of time he spent with them.

Mr Bridge uses the same technique as the earlier novel; short chapters with their own titles, small moments of life that slowly assemble into a rounded portrait of suburban America in the 1930's and 40's. Walter Bridge is a lawyer, the kind of man who works long hours and even brings his work home occasionally. Described by another character as a 'consummate puritan' Walter is a man almost of another time, his morals apparently very fixed, but one of the joys of this book are the ways in which we will come to see that perception altered as we learn more and more about what makes this man tick. Walter likes things that are tangible and dependable. In one early scene we see the genuine joy he gets from opening his safety deposit box and simply leafing through and holding the stocks and shares that are his investments for the future. His love of these is made all the more hilarious later in the novel when we see him making a proud gift of them to his family at Christmas and encouraging them to buy more when they all receive a bequest.

Walter is often baffled by his family, particularly his wife, whose infrequent emotional outbursts leave him completely at a loss and resorting to the only course of action he can imagine which is to gloss over them and pretend they have never happened at all. Walter is also a contradictory man, it is very hard to pin down exactly where he stands with regards to certain prejudices, seeming at times to be anti-semitic or racist and then confounding those thoughts with a secretive action that we will only learn about much later. And this is where the real joy of Connell's writing lies. His prose is measured and unadorned but most importantly as a novelist his is completely non-judgemental. First India and now Walter Bridge are shown to us as they are, without any authorial comment or guidance as to how we are supposed to react to their thoughts, feelings and actions. It is left entirely up to the reader to decide whether to admire, despise or love them (or indeed all of the above) and that kind of writing makes for an involving, moving and complicated read that will make the characters live with you long after finishing the last page.

Published now by Penguin Modern Classics


Anonymous,  6 February 2013 at 17:26  

Hi Will,
Excited about going back to chatting about books on the other side again! Thanks for the great review - I completely agree with you on The Engagement. Love your last paragraph too.
Can't wait to read Mr Bridge. I thought Mrs Bridge was wonderful.

William Rycroft 7 February 2013 at 13:15  

I was thrilled to see your reviews the other day, both really brilliantly written, so I hope there'll be plenty more bookish banter. I hope you enjoy Mr Bridge as much as I did. The same but different...

Anonymous,  7 February 2013 at 15:09  

I have been wondering about both The Engagement and Orkney -- I'd say you have tilted me towards letting them pass (Orkney still has some appeal -- I suspect because of the setting).

And I have just finished Mrs. Bridge so Mr. Bridge will be approached with enthusiasm a few months down the road -- Connell's style means reading them too close together is not a good idea.

William Rycroft 7 February 2013 at 18:00  

I hate to be the one to turn people away from books, especially books like these which are very well written. But I, like you I suspect, am increasingly pressed for reading time and so I'm not afraid to examine a book's weaknesses as much as its strengths. The brevity of these reviews maybe accentuates the negative. Both of these books are worthy reads and indeed many people out there have already raved about both. They just didn't quite work for me. Orkney is stylistically more interesting and the hint of the supernatural about it is another factor in its favour, but I did feel smothered reading it.

Did you enjoy Mrs Bridge, Kevin?

Anonymous,  7 February 2013 at 23:53  

Mrs. Bridge was excellent -- I'll abuse your site by posting a link to my review: http://kevinfromcanada.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/mrs-bridge-by-evan-connell/

Anonymous,  8 February 2013 at 18:14  

Thanks Will. I'm still finding my feet a bit! Kevin, lovely to read your Mrs Bridge review too. I remember feeling like I couldn't wait for Mr Bridge (before, er, getting distracted with other books) but think you're right that a break is a good idea. It'll follow The Universe Versus Alex Woods now, though, which is probably almost as great a contrast as you could create. Unless Mr Bridge gets hit by a meteorite and starts smoking pot

Anonymous,  20 February 2013 at 17:49  

I'm glad I followed your tip and read Mrs Bridge, followed closely by Mr Bridge. A-maz-ing! I picked out the phrase 'consummate Puritan' too as a key to Walter's personality.

I have Orkney to read, and am looking forward to it. I very much enjoyed Sackvilles debut 'The still point' although it did smack slightly of being the product of a creative writing course in 'beautiful writing'.

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