Sunday, April 03, 2016

The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud, is probably the most disturbing novel I've read in a while. On the face of it, there's not really anything scary or suspenseful, and it's not a conventional horror story filled with gratuitous violence and torture scenes. All the same, the tension just kept building in my mind as I read.
Nora Eldridge is a school teacher in her late 30s, on the outside seemingly patient, kind and dependable. Within herself, however, she is prickly and a bit despairing of her lifeShe had ambitions of being an artist, but that ambition fails to materialise. Her life seems to be waiting for validation in some way, for something exciting to happen. That happens when one day an 8-year-old boy called Reza Shahid is admitted to her class as a student. Nora falls instantly in love with the kid, taking care of him when he is bullied for being a "terrorist" because of the colour of his skin. That's the first occasion on which she meets Reza's mother, an Italian woman called Sirena with whom she feels she has an instant intense connection, especially when she finds out that Sirena is an artist. Unlike Nora, Sirena is actually a fairly well known artist back in Paris. Nora's two friends feel she has a "crush" on the Siren (as they refer to Sirena), but Nora is offended that they so casually dismiss her feelings for Reza's mother.
When Sirena suggests to Nora that they rent a studio together to work (separately) on their respective art projects, Nora is thrilled beyond belief. The two women seem to get on quite well together, sharing pastries, coffee and long chats in between working - but Nora's emotions are very much more involved than Sirena's. When, one day, Nora meets Sirena's Lebanese husband, Skandar, unexpectedly at the studio, at first she is almost jealous as he seems to have "come between" her relationship with Sirena and Reza. But soon enough she grows very fond of him - in fact she is in love with all three of them, separately and as a family unit. It's very much as if Nora is vicariously living her dream of being a successful artist while having a loving husband and beautiful son, although she denies this to her friends. For the first time, she considers herself happy - having "eaten her greens" all her life (being dutiful and sacrificing her life for her parents), she finally feels that she has reached the dessert course of her own happiness.
Eventually, as Sirena becomes busier and busier with work for her video exhibition/show to be staged in Paris, Nora draws closer to Skandar and they sleep together. This only happens the once, and as far as she knows, Sirena does not know and she thinks that Skandar would not have told her. While the realisation that he does not intend to repeat the occasion does hurt her, she is still happy to be what she thinks is a big part of their life. But of course she is not... nor does she have Sirena's friendship, as she finds out to her cost.
Nora's inner monologue gives you all the insight you could need into her character and spirit...her obsession with Reza and Sirena, her repressed creativity, her inferiority complex that makes her describes herself as "the woman upstairs", meaning someone who lives on the fringe of other people's lives, having no life of her own. She is not the most likable of characters and comes across as tediously self-involved in many ways. Yet the tension does build and the denoument, even while I was expecting it to be shocking in some way, is still like a punch straight to the heart with the terrible betrayal that it lays bare. The verdict: not my most favourite book ever, but I also didn't want to stop reading it.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Widows and Orphans, by Michael Arditti

15/100 I might just be stupid, but the title "Widows and Orphans" didn't seem to me to be at all related to the story. That said, this book by Michael Arditti is very readable, a gentle but accurately observed microcosmic (microcosmal?) portrait of a greedy modern society.

 The book is set in the fictional seaside town of Francombe, once a thriving community but now almost derelict, a nothing town. Duncan Neville is the editor-proprietor of the town's newspaper; he is a good, decent man who is in the unenviable position of trying to run an increasingly irrelevant newspaper on a shoestring budget while trying to expose the machinations of local politicians and businessmen. Geoffrey Weedon, an oily and wily developer, is the worst of the lot and Duncan's arch-enemy, so to speak. Duncan suspects Weedon of destroying the town's historic pier through arson so that he can set up X-rated parlours and clubs, ostensibly to shore up the town's sagging economy. Duncan's efforts to stop this seem particularly useless set against Weedon, who is a smarmy silver-tongued operator who is very good at getting people on his side.

 Things are not rosy in Duncan's private life either. His ex-wife has remarried and his son Jamie is a loathsome little teenage brat - seriously, for most of the book there just isn't anything redeeming about him - his language and attitude towards Duncan are nothing short of shocking. Duncan, however, hurt though he is by Jamie's cruel words and attitude, is not the sort of man who would tell off his son harshly. He is a man who is ruled by his conscience, sensitive to other people's feelings and able to see things from another's point of view. He sees understanding of the flaws in others and is able to look past them, and he is honest in acknowledging his own.

Events build up, however, culminating in Duncan being accused of possessing child pornography - but it is a set-up, and when he finds out who the culprit is, what Duncan feels is not anger for the damage to his reputation; what he feels is grief that someone so young could be so full of hatred towards him.

 This book is certainly not what you would call a fast paced thriller, but it is not short of melodrama either. Human emotions are given free range -  love, dislike, hatred, intolerance, violence... they're all there, The author's writing draws you into the story and makes his characters very real. Michael Arditti certainly managed to make me feel intensely sympathetic towards Duncan and his predicament. I don't think I've come across a character so likable since - dare I say it - Atticus Finch. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a tad, but when you're shouting (in your mind) at obnoxious Jamie to tone down his nastiness towards his dad because he doesn't deserve this behaviour, the author is obviously doing something right for his unlikely protagonist! I would definitely recommend this book as a good read. #100bookpact