There are two time dimensions in this story: two eras with a single point of reference – the fire. The fire has destroyed a compound which was a home of a religious cult led by the charismatic and savage father John. The opening chapter thrusts the reader straight into the inferno as the reader follows the female narrator and watches with her eyes the death to the people she called her brothers and sisters and the destruction to the place she knew as her home. She doesn’t take it passively – she does everything in her power to save lives.
After the Fire she is examined by a psychologist and interviewed by an FBI agent, and the events Before the Fire are masterfully pieced together to recreate the life within an extreme religious sect. The young woman embarks on a journey of self-discovery which is a bit of a minefield as she has too many secrets to bury while at the same time uncovering the truth.
Fundamentalism and religious brainwash are pitted against the failings of human nature and against the power of rational mind. There are no winners as such, but this book isn’t about the black-and-white victories, it is about salvation and survival of reason.
Everything in this novel points out to an obvious and inescapable conclusion: the title, the opening scenes, things that are untold but insinuated about the characters. As a reader you are lulled into a false sense of certainty that you can cross the Ts and dot the Is all by yourself, without the writer’s help. You feel like you could write that book, no problem. Which is an illusion cleverly contrived by Edwards.
Naturally, you come to discover how wrong you were as you near the end of the story. You are still tortured with other possibilities and you twist like that proverbial worm on a hook until the least expected denouement falls into your lap.
I found myself frowning, feeling a little cheated at that point. I guess it was my inner Miss Marple who felt she had not been presented with all the evidence – sour grapes.
The story is narrated in the first person. The prose is straightforward and genuine. It does not stand in the way of the plot. You feel for the protagonist who struggles to believe in what his eyes (and a couple of other characters) are telling him.
Jar of Hearts starts with what would normally be a satisfying ending to a crime story: a woman who was an accessory to murder and dismemberment of her once best friend is imprisoned. That woman is Geo, a successful thirty-something, at the height of her corporate career and on the threshold of her nuptials to an equally rich and successful man. As a result of her arrest, her life falls apart and she loses most of what she has achieved so far. Yet, she is a callous and clever operator and survives prison with flying colours, building alliances with powerful criminals and using her body to win favours with prison guards. When she is released she goes back to live in the relative comfort of her surgeon father’s house. This is why I was unable to warm up to her. I didn’t like her at the start of the novel and neither did I get to like her towards the end. I felt no empathy with her, even more so because I was expected to understand her in the end. I may have understood but I still didn’t feel there were any redeeming features to her, any meaningful atonement.
Equally, I was unable to read her ex-boyfriend responsible for the killing of her friend: I couldn’t fathom why he was the way he was, what drove him to become a violent man, rapist and murderer. There was no background to him – he was just the chief-baddie until such time when even greater evil took the spotlight. Then he simply became dispensable.
The third protagonist, Kai, was perhaps the most sympathetic of the lot, but I found him a bit juvenile; he didn’t grow or develop for me, remaining for ever sixteen and with a boyish crush on Geo.
So the main characters didn’t work for me. A couple of minor characters were however well drawn and realistic, like Cat.
I also loved the prose and the pace.
The writing in Jar of Hearts is smooth and fast, composed, factual, to the point. Not a single word is wasted. The story is plotted with precision. It moves forward briskly and takes the reader on a ride. It isn’t so much thrilling or suspenseful as it is revealing, like reading someone’s secret diary.
Some books are brilliant because they open your eyes to human conditions you know nothing about it, and they take you somewhere where you’ve never been before. Other books are brilliant because they make you look inwardly, within yourself, and face your own fears, or your past or your internal demons. Falling Short falls within the second category.
I was sucked into the world of Frances and Jackson because so much of it I recognised as my own. Partly because their story in the present time is set in a school and I know that working environment intimately having taught now for well over ten years. The teachers, their sentiments and resentments are spot on. Some of the observations made me laugh out loud.
But the book is absorbing on a deeper level too. I was able to identify with what the characters were going through, particularly Jackson and his fragmented, compartmentalised identity which he so aptly smothered with cynicism and apparent lack of ambition. Which one of us had not made life-obliterating mistakes that led to us to being judged harshly, running away and feeling that maybe others were a bit too harsh on us because we hadn’t meant to do it, or to hurt anyone, least of all ourselves? How many of us can articulate our feelings well and without inhibition?
And Frances? How many of us have felt at least once in our lives that we were going nowhere, blundering from one disaster to another? Though we could still put on Madonna’s ‘Pappa Don’t Preach’ and dance to it in those precious few moments of subconscious carpe-diem madness? The writing to describe those, and other, moments is vibrant, breathless and vivid, like here: “she’d kicked off her shoes, and her arms were raised above her head as her long body undulated with the unmoored urgency of a sheet hung out in a high wind.”
This book will touch a nerve, and you will love it for it.
Socially, Eleanor Oliphant is far from fine. She is an emotional cavewoman: awkward, technologically retarded and blunt. She lives in a straitjacket of habit: work, pizza, crosswords, vodka. She speaks as if she has learned English by studying Jane Austin on a different planet – her language is antiquated, her expressions woodenly proper. She dresses hideously in a sexless jerkin and Velcro shoes, carrying around a shopper bag wherever she goes. People annoy her and she is judgmental about them in return in the most hilarious way imaginable. The only person she communicates with regularly is Mummy who routinely puts Eleanor down. Other than that, Eleanor is alone. Her loneliness is acute though she doesn’t realise that.
And then Raymond, an IT guy from work, reaches out to her. It isn’t romantic (Eleanor has other – comical – romantic interests). It is just simple kindness. Eleanor begins to open up like a little flower touched by the early-morning sun. She takes the reader on a journey into her horrifying past. I won’t betray the story. Suffice to say that towards the end I was smiling through tears. A loveable story.
Monsignor Quixote, as the title implies, is Graham Greene’s tribute to Cervantes’s opus magnum. I read Don Quixote in my teens, and though many lofty themes were naturally lost on me, I loved the spirit of that book and the character of a raving-mad knight imposter taking on windmills, wearing a barber’s basin for a helmet.
Greene has done a brilliant job of bringing Don Quixote into the twentieth century and making him relevant. Father Quixote, the Don’s supposed descendant, is as endearing as his famous forefather. His travelling companion, the Mayor of El Toboso, is his answer to Sancho Panza. Like their namesakes 300 hundred years earlier, they too embark on a life-asserting journey, driving Rocinante (no longer a horse, but a rusty old car with a soul). Their road-trip is plagued with difficulties: they are pursued by Guardia and briefly held hostage by a marauding convict (whom they aid and abate out of the goodness of their hearts). They overindulge in wine and food. There is never a dull moment!
Behind their outrageous adventures hides a momentous discourse about the triumph of basic humanity over two totalitarian concepts: religion and communism. The idle conversations between the two protagonists where Father Quixote defends the virtues of Catholicism and the Mayor the ideas of communism, are priceless. I relished the humour, the irony and the warmth of those debates. The two adversaries’ ability to reconcile their differences without compromising their beliefs and to preserve their friendship restores one’s faith in humanity.
Body & Soul is the last in Frank Elder series and, altogether, John Harvey’s swansong. I hadn’t read any of the Frank Elder books so, for me, the broad and slow introduction of this character was welcome. I relished the fact that Harvey refused to jump head-on into a gruesome crime scene to shock and hook the reader. Instead, he started with Elder’s laidback life in semi-retirement, with his songstress love interest Vicki by his side.
The small-village Cornish setting is well drawn. Frank fits in well. The discord and the suspense are built into this idyllic setup slowly and with an assured hand. You can tell that at the back of Frank’s mind a turbulent copper’s past is lurking and refuses to be put to rest. Then comes the arrival of his estranged daughter, Katherine. Her bandaged wrists and her reluctance to talk nevertheless tell a tragic tale. Frank uncovers only snapshots of what might have happened, but that’s all he needs: his little girl has been badly hurt. That unleashes their long-buried past and Frank’s internal demons. He burst onto the bohemian London arts scene to punish Antony Winters, a man he blames for Katherine’s breakdown.
The characterisation is excellent: the raging father, the vulnerable, damaged daughter, the smooth, thrills-seeking artist, and then the psychotic criminal responsible for Katherine’s broken body and soul. The investigating officer is no longer retired detective Frank Elder – it is DI Alex Hadley. She is trying to calmly and sensitively put it all together, meandering between father’s grief and daughter’s unreliable mind.
I found the ending brutal, but not unrealistic. My thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for making it possible for me to get to know Frank Elder in this final chapter.