Modern Lit: Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins

Into the Water
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The sleepy, remote little town of Beckford, England has a decidedly spooky history. The river that runs through it has what’s known as the drowning pool, which over the centuries has the site of a string of drownings, all women. As Into the Water opens, Jules Abbott is summoned following the death of her older sister Nel, to identify the body and to take care of Lena, her teenaged niece. Nel has been researching the  history of all the local women who died in the pool, starting with a young 17th century woman who drowned during the dunking test for witchcraft. There are many in Beckford who resent that work and who vow to keep the book from publication. The police believe, or say they believe, that Nel committed suicide, but Jules isn’t buying it. One of Nel’s supporters is Nicky, the elderly town mystic. Most view her as barmy, but when she tells Jules that most of the victims, recent and historical, have been wronged by the men in their lives, what she says resonates with Jules, who will come to rely more and more upon Nicky’s insights. Nicky may not have paranormal powers, but she’s certainly a good observer.

Into the Water has multiple narrators, and it is difficult to tell which are reliable. The star of the production is the town with its river; the theme is social justice, misogyny, and the misuse of power. Because there are several victims, there a several subplots, the most vivid being not Nel’s death but that of her daughter’s best friend who drowned only the month before. But all of the women’s stories are compelling in their own right;  the development of Jules’s thorny relationship with her niece is well presented, as is the denouement of her thorny relationship with her sister.  And over everything lies the aura of the strange, secretive town, not threatening, just peculiar. And it’s easy to allow oneself to be drawn into Nel’s conundrums. Into the Water is more psychological drama than suspenseful mystery.

Most of the critical reviews I’ve read compare Water with Girl on a Train, all opining that Water lacks the same brilliance. I prefer to judge books on their own merits, and that’s what I’ve done with my own review.

 

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Modern Lit: The Guest Room, by Chris Bohjalian

The Guest Room

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After a lifetime of devouring books, I have concluded that most of them are read and easily forgotten, but a few stick with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Chris Bohjalian has the distinction of having written two of the latter. The first is Skeletons at the Feast, about the horrors committed on the populace by Germans and Russians during the last months of WWII. I just finished reading the second yesterday, The Guest Room, which is about the horrors of international human trafficking, and have no doubt that it too will continue to haunt my memory for years to come.

A bachelor party (when did they stop calling them “stags”?) gone terribly wrong is the impetus for the story line, which plays out from the points of view of the host, Richard Chapman, and one of the young “exotic dancers”, Alexandra. They are both powerful characters. It is painful to read Alexandra’s graphic account of her brutal kidnapping and degradation, and the utter hopelessness of her ensuing life, and she is one of the most unforgettable protagonists I have ever encountered. It is less easy to feel sympathy for Richard, the urbane and savvy investment banker with a beautiful wife and child who simply watched his brother’s “party” decline into total debauchery and end in murder. But loss of control characterizes Richard’s situation as well as Alexandra’s, and as he struggles to cope with the many humiliations and complications he will have to suffer,  his deep shame and  his refusal to make excuses reveal him in essence as a good man who drank way too much and failed to put his foot on the brakes when he should have. His wife, Kristin, is also multi-dimensional, refraining from vengefulness despite her sickening sense of revulsion  and disbelief over her husband’s betrayal and the bloody desecration of their home. Melissa, their nine year old daughter, is the child Alexandra never had the chance to be; one of the few smiles provoked during the story came from Melissa’s fear that the men killed in her home were still present as ghosts.

This is a tightly plotted novel written with all the skill I’ve come to expect from Bohjalian’s prose. Surprises abound, and the book ends up at a place I never foresaw for it. It is not easy to read, but it is certainly gripping, and I finished it in a day. But the hopelessless that colors most of the chapters is somewhat mitigated at last.

Now I have to figure out what I want to do to help end human trafficking.

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Bad Girls: Kiki de Montparnasse

brancusi-rosso-man-ray-05I first learned about Alice Prin, aka Kiki de Montparnasse, while reading Laurie R. King’s novel, The Bones of Paris, a mystery set in 1920’s Paris. Kiki’s story is an intriguing one. She was born in Burgundy in 1901, raised in poverty and poorly educated. She arrived in Paris at age 12, when her mother moved there to find work. Kiki herself worked at a bakery and as a dishwasher, gradually becoming an artists’ model, through which, she said, she had found her “real milieu”. Of Montparnasse she wrote, “People are broadminded and where what would be crime elsewhere is just a pecadillo”. Kiki was no thin little waif; there was meat on her bones and  she was never shy about showing off her face or body. More accurately, it seems, Kiki was never shy about anything; she once landed in jail for slugging a cafe owner and a policeman. She modeled for and provided inspiration todozens of well known artists, and when she became Man Ray’s muse and lover, she quickly became celebrated as a symbol of bohemian Paris.

kiki5b45dWhat makes Kiki a “bad girl” is her refusal to be just another artists’ model, instead deciding for herself what her public persona would be. She performed in short, experimental movies, some of them deemed shocking, and sang risque songs in music halls. She demanded the same sexual freedoms that were granted to men, and celebrated her sexuality. In the hundreds of photos that were taken of her, she stares directly out at the viewer. One of her closest friends was Ernest Hemingway, who wrote the introduction to her memoirs, which were considered so scandalous that her books were banned in the U.S. Hanging out with so many major talents inspired Kiki to develop her own creative abilities, and when her paintings were exhibited at Galerie au Sacre du Printemps, they sold out on opening night.

As the era of the 1920’s drew to a close, Kiki fell into a long downward spiral, during which substance abuse and addiction would destroy her health. She died in 1953 at the age of 53. As the “Queen of Montparnasse”,  she was a trailblazer in the quest for women’s freedom to live their lives on their own terms.

 

It’s a Mystery: The Evening Spider by Emily Arsenault

The Evening Spider

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One house, two women, two centuries. The Evening Spider opens with a traumatic experience for new mom Abby. She and her husband have recently moved into an antique house with their 5 month old daughter, Lucy. Like many new mothers, Abby feels like the proverbial fish out of water in her new role; having taken leave from teaching history, she finds herself home alone with the baby much of the time. One evening, troubled by some anomalies she’s noticed in Lucy’s room – its noisy, squeaky door that requires muscle to open, and an eerie shushing sound coming over the baby monitor each night- Abby spies a spider on the ceiling, and when she turns her back to kill it, Lucy takes a tumbles onto the floor. She develops a vivid round bruise on her face, one that her mother can’t explain to herself or to her husband. To calm herself, Abby begins researching the history of her new home and discovers a diary penned by one of its previous inhabitants.

Spool back to 1885: Frances Barnett, a would-be biologist feeling stifled by her new role as housewife and mother, experiences a profound sense of disquiet that causes her to question her ability to bond with her child. Her husband, Matthew, though not overtly critical, dismisses Frances’s scientific interests and seems to find her wanting as wife and mother. When Matthew takes on a sensational murder case, Frances becomes obsessed with its details, especially the forensic ones, to the extent that her sanity comes into question.

Part Gaslight-style mystery and part haunted house tale, The Evening Spider traces the struggles of these two women to come to terms with the commonplace but very daunting changes in their lives. Of the two stories, Frances’s is the more compelling, and depictions of the psychiatric practices of the time are quite chilling. Equally chilling, however, are Abby’s fears that she is being haunted by Frances, which are played out in a subtle yet convincing manner. Most intriguing are the ways in which each woman will discover the source of her trauma. Frances’s tale comes to a reasonably satisfying resolution, considering the times in which she lived. Abby’s is less conclusive, and I’m still trying to decide how things will turn out for her. What is most interesting is the way the author has depicted the truly awesome adjustments that all new mothers must make, particularly the emotional ones.

Recommended for readers who enjoy a mystery with a heavy infusion of the gothic and the psychological. Just don’t expect that all the ends will be neatly tied.

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It’s a Mystery: X, by Sue Grafton

X (Kinsey Millhone, #24)X by Sue Grafton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

X is for _____? Sue Grafton is famous for her alphabet series, with each letter standing for the particular crime being investigated by intrepid PI Kinsey Milhone. It seems that Ms. Grafton’s failure to choose an x word has disgruntled many of her fans. Actually, trying to figure out what it might be is part of the fun of reading X. It could stand for Xenakis, XLNT, X wife, and various other possibilities.

In Kinsey’s 24th case, she tackles 3 separate issues. The book opens with a phone call from a woman wanting her to track her son, recently released from prison for bank robbery. Kinsey takes the job only to find that the woman is an imposter who stiffed her on her fee. The second part of the case revolves around Pete Wolinsky, a colleague who factored in several earlier novels but was recently shot to death. Pete’s widow requests Kinsey’s assistance in organizing his tax documents in preparation for an audit. Before his death, he had been working on gathering evidence against one of his clients, who had a propensity for abusing women. Being Kinsey, she is compelled to finish this work for him. The third situation involves some new neighbors who raise Kinsey’s ire, and who are not what they seem.

Anyone who has written 24 successful novels featuring the same character must be good a devising plots, and Ms. Grafton certainly has that talent, weaving unrelated people and events into one cohesive tale. But these books, which rely upon continuity, are never redundant. Unlike some others, Kinsey remains true to herself and loyal to friends while growing from her experiences and relationships, and she is one of the most deeply moral characters in the genre. Best of all, ancillary characters are nearly as well developed, particularly those who play recurring roles. Each book has its suspenseful scenes that never go over the top, and in X, Grafton has provided the best stream of consciousness example of the experience of being suffocated that I’ve ever read.

Looking forward to Y, and hoping that Sue Grafton doesn’t retire from writing when this series reaches Z.

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It’s a Mystery: The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson

The Bookseller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kitty Miller is a trailblazer. Nearing middle age during the 1960’s, she’s unapologetically single, the co-owner of her own Denver book store, and enjoying her simple, independent lifestyle. True, her social life has dwindled and her business is struggling because the new mega shopping centers have drained business traffic from downtown. But Kitty and co-owner Frieda are life-long best friends, and life is good. Then, Kitty finds herself spending her sleep time in another world, where, as
Katharine, she’s married to the hunky Lars and raising their family of triplets. Soon she can’t quite distinguish which of her lives is “real”, and sets out to investigate how her memories and experiences in both might just intersect.

The plot of The Bookseller proceeds with alternating chapters, first in one world, then the other. The general social tone of the early 1960’s is captured in both settings, before Beatlemania changed so many things. Kitty wears slacks, for example, though many women frown upon that. Her parents are conventional, supportive, and homebodies. There isn’t much detail about the bookstore, however, and not much talk about books, so the title doesn’t seem quite apropos. The pace is slow until the final third of the book, when Kitty/Katharine begins trying to pin down the facts. One of Katherine’s sons is presented as autistic, this in the days before special education, and while some of his problems are handled realistically, others are glossed over. This is a book loaded with little mysteries, and the denouement occurs abruptly, with an outcome opposite to the one I expected. The cause of the entire episode is left for the reader to infer.

A promising debut novel.

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It’s a Mystery: The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train 5 of 5 stars

Rear Window meets Gone Girl in The Girl on the Train, the debut novel of former journalist Paula Hawkins. Rachel Watkins is the eponymous girl, in actuality a 30-something divorcee still reeling from the breakup of her marriage, for which she takes the blame, all of it. Her ex, Tom, remarried instantly and now resides where he and Rachel lived with his new wife, Anna, and year old daughter. Rachel can’t stop herself from hounding them with tearful, demanding phone calls, most placed in the middle of the night. The novel’s plot revolves around what Rachel sees everyday on the train to London, which passes by the back gardens of her former house and neighborhood. A strong first clue to Rachel’s state of mind lies in the fantasy she spins out daily about a couple she observes having coffee each morning from the deck of one of the other houses. Another comes when it becomes apparent how much wine and gin she’s habitually drinking. Finally, we learn that Rachel is taking the train each day to preserve the illusion that she still has the job that she lost because of her drinking problem. One morning she sees the woman, Megan, kissing a man not her husband, and a few days later, Rachel’s shocked to learn that Megan has, as they say in the UK, gone missing. She offers information about that stolen kiss to the police, who consider her an unreliable witness, so she chooses to tell Megan’s husband, Scott.

Rachel is the protagonist in the story, as unreliable a narrator as ever conjured up in the pages of a book. As she becomes immersed in the mystery, she grows more and more unstable, and begins having vivid flashbacks to traumatic experiences that she doesn’t remember. Her point of view, mainly stream of consciousness, alternates with those of Megan and Anna, who are as grounded in denial as Rachel is. All three characters are profoundly disturbed, though at first it appears that Anna and Megan are more functional than Rachel. Tom and Scott, while having no narrator duties, show themselves to be abusive and manipulative. What makes The Girl on the Train so compelling is the remarkable way in which Paula Hawkins presents the interplay among the characters and the manner in which they tailor their perceptions and behaviors to suit their personal needs and self images. Sometimes we all delude ourselves, of course, but these characters have lost their own integrity and connection to reality. We never can tell quite what is lurking right under their facades. As their narratives come together during the latter chapters, the suspense becomes intense, more so because there hasn’t been a lot of warning (few telling slip ups here) and we aren’t quite sure how any of these people will react. Despite the dark, depressive atmosphere, which never really eases, there are glimmers of hope at the end, but this is no easy beach read.

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