30 April 2019

A wow debut: ELMET by Fiona Moxley

Now and then a first novel knocks your socks off. In ElMET, without fuss or complexity, and told in humble descriptive prose, you are from the first in the clutch of narrative tension  and you know you’re headed dark places. 

The Guardian called it “an impressive slice of contemporary noir steeped in Yorkshire legend…”

I’m not familiar with Yorkshire legend, but I was able to picture the landscape – the loamy smells, the rustling of the wind – where families live largely off the grid. What we used to call down-home living. A culture of hard work and stoicism. Also an eye for an eye, and a take-what-you-can-get-when-you-can-get-it way of life.

And so it is for this family – an enigmatic father, a mighty independent daughter, and a delicate son, the narrator, who speaks to us now and then from a distance of time and place so we know he survived, but we’re not sure who else might have. Their mother is long gone and although she occasionally makes an appearance in flashback, we learn little of her, and their father, a large looming figure, with nearly mythological strength, is their rock: a surprisingly gentle man sometimes called upon to earn a living as a fighter, also a sort of fixer [that’s where the noir comes in] and a lumberman. A man who respects land and neighbors and tries to do what’s right, with a priority to protect his own, whatever that takes. 

Like many country settings where families are known to feud, he is opposed by another powerful man and his sons. The story revolves around their struggle for control and the inevitably destruction that will be left in its wake. No good can come of this rivalry, not in this landscape. 

I wondered if she thought about it too. Or if the boys did. Or if any of the other small people t the far reaches of my recollection spent the time that I had thinking about the bits in which they played a part. It seems to me that so much of everything came from this, and that if anyone thought about moments like this enough, the future would be done before it had even started, and I mean that in a good way.

Despite the Robin Hood setting and the dominance of malevolence, this is Cathy’s story – a slip of a girl mothered only briefly by a grandmother, determined to survive on her own terms. Cathy is no victim, and not one to play by the rules. She is her father’s daughter. And although [avoiding a spoiler here] there is a moment where the Christ figure enters, it is Cathy who may rise from the ashes.

In this novel, the climactic conclusion, a startling denouement, is secondary to the journey. The reader is voyeur. We make every move with them, and the characters surrounding them, and with each page we hold our breaths a little more until barely breathing. We don’t know what’s coming, but we know enough to fear it.

ELMET is a unforgettable little novel and I suspect we will read more from this lovely writer.

10 April 2019

A most unusual ladder to success

By John Boyne
John Boyne
The Irish writer John Boyne is on a winning streak. Following the commercial success of THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS, he published a fan-favorite entitled THE HEART’S INVISIBLE FURIES, a charmer. Both are what you might call smart, and poignant, page-turners. He captures the reader’s attention at once and holds you in his tender hands throughout.

Now another, except a change in style: an edgy sharply-observed parody of our celebrity and media-driven culture. 

Boyne tells you right up front that this lead character, Maurice Swift, whose name is scribbled over the author’s name on the title page, is of dubious intent. 

You’ve heard the old proverb about ambition, haven’t you? That it’s like setting a ladder to the sky. It can lead to a long and painful fall. This is a tale about ambition.

This novel is about ambition in a Machiavellian way. Ambition at all costs. 

In alternating narratives by key players – a writer who’s life is destroyed, a brilliant writing-wife, a biographer, and Mr. Swift’ himself, we discover this talented wordsmith is a manipulator without a story of his own to tell, who nonetheless becomes a celebrated author. He also starts and serves as editor of a magazine cleverly named Stori. Over a lifetime, he manages to seduce men and women willing to pave his path and none, except the great writer Gore Vidal, in a razor-sharp scene set in a fabulous villa, of course, are wise to his dark secrets. Boyne does an excellent job capturing Vidal’s perspective when he comments on the public humiliation of a great writer Swift has decimated.

And as far as I can tell, half the world’s novelists have chimed in with their opinions, which has provided each one with their intended few minutes of publicity. How competitive everyone is in expressing their outrage! As far as I can tell, Bellow is the only one who’s said anything sensible on the subject.

Secrets are Boyne’s literary concern – all his books are centered around what people hide, for the sake of salvation as well as opportunism. In a review of an earlier novel, THE ABSOLUTIST, John Irving said, Boyne is very, very good at portraying the destructive power of a painfully kept secret — not to mention the damage done by the self-recriminations (and other condemnations) that are released when that secret is revealed.

Maurice Swift is ruthless to the point of unscrupulous. In fact, diabolical. We slowly, with that pit in the stomach, recognize he is a sociopath. Rare to discover this depth of amorality in a lead character that does not diminish the reading. I imagine my jaw was in permanent drop position through the last third of the novel. He is a fascination. A direct descendant of Raskolnikov, of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, one of my personal favorites, and another of the road-kill genre of literature: you simply cannot turn your eyes away.