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Friday, June 19, 2015

The Chateau: #20

I absolutely adore William Maxwell's They Came Like Swallows, a brief, beautiful, powerful novel of love and loss and family. I would say the same about So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Unfortunately, I would not repeat the praise for this book of his.

The Chateau, unlike those two slim volumes, is a long book. I don't mind a long book. In fact, some of my favorite novels are long books (A Suitable Boy! The Goldfinch! Anything by Anthony Trolloppe!). But this book felt long. Set in France just after World War II, the story -- if what the book encompasses can be called a story -- is of Barbara and Harold Rhodes, a young American couple spending three months traveling in Europe. Maxwell captures well the feelings of travel, the thrill of new vistas, the discomfort of not understanding the habits, the awkwardness of getting the customs wrong. And it is interesting to get a view of France immediately after the way, especially after so many books I've read recently that are set in Britain in the same time period. But there are paragraphs, sometimes pages, that chronicle the couple wandering down one street and another, walking for hours, trying to find a hotel...it all becomes nearly as tedious as doing it in real life.

The book centers around the couple's visit to a chateau, a once-regal home that, because of the new post-war circumstances, is now accepting paying guests, where they meet various people and don't do much of anything. They visit other towns, have a picnic, eat dinner, meet people who are sometimes nice, sometimes not, rarely interesting. There are questions raised -- of how the family lost their fortune, why one visitor is pleasant one minute and rude the next. But those questions are not answered until part two of the book. Entitled "Some Explanations," this relatively brief section poses the questions readers might have, and answers them. The tone reads as condescending, a bit snarky, as if Maxwell is saying, "Do you really need to have everything explained to you, you dim hidebound provincial reader?" And the explanations are anything but rewarding. Perhaps if more of the background had been woven into the thin framework of the narrative, it would have felt like a more robust, more fulfilling novel. But as it is it reads as a beautifully written travelogue, and frankly I'd rather experience the journey than read about it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Little Stranger: #19

I think Sarah Waters is my new favorite writer. I absolutely loved The Paying Guests, which was my first book of the year (and one that it's going to be hard to top). And now I've read another Waters novel, The Little Stranger and thoroughly enjoyed it. Apparently, she likes exploring different time periods in her work. The Paying Guests is set in London in 1922, and much of the story is set in motion by events relating to World War I. The Little Stranger follows the Second World War, and the deprivation and altered economic states of so many Brits form the backdrop for the tale.

The narrator is a doctor in a small country town who comes to care for the family of the local squire. When Dr. Faraday was a child in the town, the Ayres family was at the top of the social heap, the family that hosted the annual fete and gave out medals to the promising local youngsters (like the doctor himself). Now, their fortune has evaporated and their house, lands, and future are all in a desperately precarious state. The father is dead, the son is damaged, physically and mentally, by the war, and the daughter has returned home to help try to keep the ancestral home from crumbling around their ears.

The horror of their declining fortune is mirrored in a series of strange events that begin, slowly, to occur, gathering force as the novel progresses. There is a sense of growing horror, a constant feeling of unease. Waters has a remarkable ability to slowly, slowly move the dreadful tale along. The crumbling home, the threatening weather, the local gossips -- it all combines to create a feeling of awfulness, of decay, of terrible danger. It's a compelling and creepy web she weaves, a web that reminded me of the tense and fearful feeling I get from reading Wilkie Collins, or Emily Bronte. I can't think of another writer who has the sense of pacing that Waters possesses. Even when almost nothing is happening, you can feel the darkness gathering outside the window. And the slow, inevitable creep of tragedy keeps you turning pages, even while holding your breath. The fact that she is using gothic horror to spotlight economic and social themes just makes her writing more impressive.

I've already got my next Waters novel: I bought Fingersmith this week.