Birdseye by Maire Fisher

This is Maire Fisher’s first novel and I have been waiting for it for ten years. I know Maire, you see, and have watched her mold her writing in those brief moments she has managed to snatch out of her busy life. Although she is a friend of mine, I must assure you that I am not just giving this a positive review because of the friendship. This is truly a very readable, likeable novel that I would have read in one sitting if I had had the time.

Birdseye coverThe main character is Bird, the youngest of five children in a family that lives in an old mansion (called Marchbanks) on the cliffs above a Cape Town seaside town. On the top floor of the house lives Ma Bess, Bird’s grandmother, who never comes downstairs yet rules Marchbanks from above. She is a nasty old tyrant, reminiscent of Miss Havisham, who is beastly to all and sundry who venture into her dark bedroom. The children know all about their parents lives and love hearing about how their father wooed their mother, yet they know nothing about Ma Bess and why she lives a reclusive life.

Soon after the book starts, Bird’s 10-year-old twin brothers go missing and, in her refusal to believe that her brothers have gone forever, Bird starts a diary in which she tells her brothers what’s going on in the family so they don’t miss out it. This literary device can go horribly wrong and become tedious, but in this novel it works well and becomes a credible source through which we learn about the family – Bird has an all-seeing eye that reveals the humour, vulnerabilities and ultimately the truths about this complicated family.¬†Maire Fisher

One of the things that I liked about this novel is that Fisher never shies away from the nasty side of life. It would be easy for her to gloss over the boys’ disappearance and to bring them back to the family for a happy ending, but she doesn’t. This gives a balance to the story and makes it more like life – filled with humour, pathos, tragedy, love and loss.

What makes this novel so delightful is, not only is it set in Cape Town, but it has a wonderfully authentic young narrator who brings a freshness to the prose. Writing from a child’s point of view is never easy – bringing in the naivety, vulnerability and honesty of a young character – and sometimes authors get it wrong, but Fisher maintains the girl’s voice throughout and by the end of the book, I wished I could hear more from her.

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May we be forgiven by AM Homes

Forgiven

I haven’t read any other books by AM Homes who made a name for herself with her novel The End of Alice. I will read more by her, however, since I have read May We Be Forgiven. It is a read that starts on a roller-coaster ride of horrific events and ends up as a depiction of the tenuous strands of communication that keep us working as families and as a society. 

At the start of the novel, we meet Harold Silver having Thanksgiving dinner at his brother, George’s, house. George on the surface has it all – prosperous job, beautiful wife, two adorable children, yet Harold shows us how disconnected they really are. Harold lusts after Jane, the children sit and play on their small screens during the meal and George shovels food into his mouth, bombastic. Jane gives Harold a long passionate kiss in the kitchen – ‘The kiss was serious, wet and full of desire. It was terrifying and unexpected‘. 

A couple of hours later, Harold gets a phone call to fetch George from the police station. We never get the details of the car accident, but George has killed people. He get put in a psyche ward in hospital and, with him there, Harold stays with Jane in her house. When George gets discharged, he comes home to find Harold in bed with Jane and kills Jane with a lamp. 

All awful, yes, but told with a delicious dark humour that kept me smiling through the depiction of dreadful events. After this climactic beginning, I began to wonder where on earth the book could go. It slows down after this, yet retains its dark humour, focusing on Harold’s life in which numerous bizarre events happen.  He moves into George’s house, adopts his children and has to learn the delicacies of parenting  grieving teenagers, takes on the dog, loses his wife. He explores internet dating, he takes the children to South Africa for Nate’s bar mitzvah, has two grandparents move into his house, takes custody of the child whose parents George killed. 

The pace slows down and the writing becomes more reflective, focusing subtley on the disconnected relationships around him. It’s a curious read, one I was fascinated by even if sometimes I had to reign in my disbelief at the plot. 

Homes

Daughters of Jerusalem by Charlotte Mendelson

Charlotte Mendelson’s skill at portraying the undercurrents running beneath a family’s daily routines is superb. In Daughters of Jerusalem, she tells the story of the Lux family, who live a normal academic type of life – the father, a professor, the mother a translator, the elder daughter brainy and serious, the younger one pretty and demanding. 

But beneath this facade of normality, emotions and secrets brew and bubble until they have to spill over and break open the fragile security of the nuclear family. Jean, the mother, is bored of her life, she is sick of Oxford, hates the town and its inhabitants, and badly wants to get away. An unexpected declaration from a friend gives her a new escape from her life and in her obsession, she ignores her family.

Victor, the father, appears to be a typical absent-minded professor, yet he is insecure in his post and is desperate to be chosen to give the prestigious Spenser memorial lecture.

Eve, the elder daughter, is exquisitely portrayed as a teenager full of self-hatred and anger at the world. She is ignored in the main by her parents, who concentrate on trying to appease the younger daughter, Phoebe, and Eve resorts to desperate measures to impress her parents, like asking her father to teach her ancient Greek, or give her books on French art. She is a lonely, unhappy teenager, who cuts herself or pricks herself with her mother’s needles to be able to feel something and who plots the demise of her seemingly charmed sister.

Phoebe, the younger daughter, is flirtatious and demanding, wants attention all the time, wants a pony, gets what she wants – but she is not happy, either. She is a ‘dunce’ in an extremely clever family and she secretly drinks and takes drugs to seek distraction from family life. 

The story crescendoes when Victor’s nemesis, Raymond Snow, appears in Oxford and in some way, each member of the Lux family is affected by him. He is a noxious man, yet charming and a perfect antagonist.

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The author

Mendelson description of the character’s inner lives is brutal – she doesn’t pretty up any of it. She writes what many of us have thought, but would never say out loud. She depicts familial relationships in as honest a way as possible with all the vicious undercurrents and petty hatreds that suffuse families. Reviews talk about the Lux family being dysfunctional, yet I believe so many families function with similar pathologies – they are just never exposed until a crisis occurs.

Mendelson has written two other books and her fourth is being publishing in August this year. I look forward to it immensely.

 

Diplomatic Baggage by Brigid Keenan

This book was published in 2006, so it isn’t right up there on the Exclusives New Arrivals shelves. It’s in my book club and I had ignored it for a while because it has a really silly, chick-lit cover and has a shout from Joanna Lumley saying ‘Fabulous’, which didn’t sound very literary. Others in my book club had said it was great, about a woman travelling around the world with her husband, a British diplomat. It sounded a bit boring to me, a kind of personal travelogue (which I can find very irritating and¬†pretentious).

This book is FABULOUS, just as Joanna Lumley said. It is one of the funniest books I’ve read in years. I don’t laugh out loud at books, but this one had me snorting in an embarrassing way. (I was reading lying around the pool at Club Med, where there were lots of people close by me. I think I was the only single person at Club Med and I suspect people started avoiding me after my maniacal laughter by the pool.)

Brigid Keenan was a successful, glamorous London fashion journalist who married a diplomat. She says “…quite how I, a sophisticated Woman’s Editor of the Observer, could ever marry this shy, desert booted adventurer.. .was quite beyond me.” But she did and straight away he got sent to Nepal. She stayed a while as editor at the Observer (it was a new job), but then went to join him in Kathmandu, so giving up her life as a career journalist and becoming a diplomatic wife instead.

And so the book carries on, covering her thirty years as a wife of a diplomat, living in stranger and stranger places, from Nepal to Ghana to Barbados and Kazakhstan. Just as she gets used to one place and develops friends, they move. She arrives at each new country, usually unable to speak to the staff and, because they are the only people she knows initially, she has to develop relationships with them, all of whom are weird and wonderful.

I love her, I’ve decided, because she admits to being useless at most things, such as organising dinner parties or diplomatic get-togethers. She doesn’t know how to fill her days when she arrives in new countries and finds herself phoning her husband ten times a day until he gets irritated. She’s a normal person, a you and a me (I’m presuming you’re like me).

She describes the most wonderful characters, most of them her staff members , and her relationships with them. She describes the friends she makes in each new country; she describes how her daughters have to go off to boarding school in England and how dealing with rebellious teenagers from afar is very difficult.

There is far too much and too many places and characters to go into this book in depth, but I have to just show you a bit of the first page because it still makes me laugh. She describes how she received a letter one day that said, “Dear Ms Keenan, I want to tell you how much I admire your courage and strength and resilience.’ She writes, “It went on in this vein for a while and I was glowing with satisfaction: here at last was someone who understood the sacrifices we ex-pat wives make. But then the author asked for a signed photo, which seemed a touch over the top, even to me, and then he mentioned my ordeal in Beirut, and I realised the letter had been delivered to the wrong Keenan. The praise was intended (quite rightly) for Mr Brian Keenan, the hostage, and not for Ms Brigid Keenan the trailing spouse. Glumly I sent it on to Mr Keenan.”

That sets the tone for the book. I found it very funny, yet also poignant and an intimate account of her life. Reading it was like she was my best friend telling me her story over coffee (or probably gin and tonics).