Reading: “Apology for the Woman writing” by Jenny Diski

IMG_20180527_234430_353.jpg

Her father’s library in Gournay was the place of escape from her present and from her preordained future. She slipped through the dark panelled door at every possible moment of the day and night, whenever she could avoid being tutored on how to be someone’s wife, some house’s keeper, some child’s mother.

‘I’m not ill, Maman,’ she whispered, still breathing fast, her face changed from dead white and vivid pink to the yellowish pale of parchment. ‘It’s Monsieur de Montaigne. He has ravished me.’
There was a gasp from the three other women, each of whom instantly reassessed their usual picture of Marie in the library.
‘His books … the ones Uncle Louis gave me … they are … extraordinary … I’ve never imagined … they are … remarkable. No, remarkable is too small a word. Nothing, nothing, in all my life I’ve read nothing like these essays.’

Already she was using his name to boost her own work. A devotion to Montaigne’s work would replace the husband she would never have, the quality work she would never produce, and the restricted life she must inevitably lead. So there was something in it for her, as well as for him and his memory. He decided to speak to Francoise about it, and ask her to send a farewell letter to La Demoiselle as if dictated by him. And yes, he knew how close this thought was to a crime against her. A further crime. He would have liked to think that he was not a dishonest man. But he was, after all, a man like any other.

I first heard about Jenny Diski when I read her obituary in the Guardian (read it here). Diski – a passionate smoker – was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in 2014. She wrote about her diagnosis as well as her life with cancer in the London Review of Books (find it here). Jenny Diski died on April 28, 2016. This may sound a bit morbid but her obituary made me want to find out more about this interesting and headstrong woman. After reading some of her contributions in the LBR, I decided to get some of her books, which was not as easy as I thought. I don’t know why – maybe Diski isn’t mainstream enough, maybe it’s not the right time for odes on smoking in trains and the like – but some of her works were hard to find. In the end I settled for two fictional works, the short story collection The Vanishing Princess and the book I will discuss here, Apology for the Woman writing.

Diski’s main protagonist, Marie de Gournay, is a stubborn, passionate, and at times aloof woman, who is in no way interested in following the well-worn paths of her mother and the women of her times and instead devotes her life and existence to the work and (later) legacy of Michel de Montaigne and his Essays. Setting out to become a writer and philosopher herself – something unthinkable for a woman in the French upper-class of those days (sixteenth/seventeenth century) – she eventually moves to Paris (first with her family, years later on her own) to try her luck. Diski portrays Marie as an ambitious scholar, an autodidact who tries to sharpen her intellect with the works she finds in her late father’s library and whatever books her uncle shares with her, but also as a woman with a lack of not only female looks but also features. In this instance, Marie at times seems like a caricature, though later in the book it becomes clear that she is indeed savvy enough to organize her house on a tight budget, so she is at least a bit practical, albeit maybe not in the typical and expected female way of those days.

But back to the first third of the book. After reading Montaigne’s Essays, Marie seems to have found her true calling, namely being one of history’s first “groupies” (in some way) and existing only to promote and support Montaigne’s genius, even though he does not even know her. After falsely believing that he is dead and finding out he is not, she writes him a passionate letter while residing in Paris with her family. He, after reading her flaming words and realizing they are both in Paris right now, imagines a beautiful and devoted young woman and decides that he wants to meet her. So Michel de Montaigne pays Marie a courtesy visit and from then on things go awry, in some way. Marie is not the beautiful young woman Montaigne imagined, still she overwhelmes him with her passion and devotion, pinching herself with her hair pin to demonstrate to him how strong her “love” for him is. After refusing to adopt her and instead offering her the title of”fille d’alliance”, a “daughter of his intellect”, Marie invites Montaigne to stay at her family’s home, the Chateau de Gournay, whenever he feels like it – while Montaigne tries to get away from her as fast as possible.

After suffering from a heavy bout of gout on his way home from Paris he is forced to accept her invitation to Chateau de Gournay. Staying for several weeks, Marie and Montaigne revise his Essays and it is then that she experiences her biggest triumph, seeing how he includes a paragraph appreciating her and her work in his writing. This is what will keep her going to the end of her days. This is what will make her vulnerable and at times ridiculous, even though she does not see it. Apart from the ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll part, she is the perfect groupie and I can only imagine what would have happened had she ever had the chance to meet the Beatles, Michael Jackson, or Justin Bieber (and forgive me for mentioning Bieber in one line with Jackson and the Beatles, this is referring to fan devotion, NOT musical genius/importance) …

She also works on her own books and writings as well, though Diski does not focus on this part of Marie’s life and work as much as her fangirling concerning Montaigne (her work is still quite impressive for a woman of her times, writing for nobility and receiving an allowance by Queen Margo, thereby being able to support herself). But everything that is remarkable about Marie as a person – her stubbornness, her ability to teach herself and learn from others and their writing (styles) – makes her work average and uninspired, at least according to Montaigne and Diski. Which may be the reason that Diski never really focuses on Marie’s writing apart from what happened in direct relation to Michel de Montaigne.

After Montaigne’s death, Marie’s wrong (asymmetrical?) self-assessment climaxes when she revises the final edition of his Essays – even though Montaigne’s wife, complying with his last will, simply asks her to find a printer in Paris to keep his memory alive – to her favor. Montaigne’s widow makes it quite clear that she does not appreciate Marie’s additions and revisions and that she furthermore wants her out of her life. From then on, Marie realizes that she indeed overestimated her position in Montaigne’s life and work and that she has to create her own life, if one might say so. Now we get to know Marie apart from Montaigne, Marie on her own, Marie with Jamyn, her maid and one more woman who is capable of so much more than she truly shows. Also, Diski adds an interesting twist to the relationship of the two women, which at times seems like a bit of an uninspired cliché, but more importantly adds an important and interesting layer to Marie’s character.

In the “Author’s note” Jenny Diski calls her work a ‘historical novel’ and explains her fictional Marie and why she chose a certain direction over another. Apart from the main characters and most of their works, this is fictional and not factual, something one should never forget when reading books like that. This is even more important when the author regularly uses a sort of factual, distanced prose that may create the illusion of reading a biography, not a novel. But this is Diski’s strength, and I loved the book for the distance she creates while narrating artificial and longed for intimacy between the various characters. Marie can be annoying at times, her fangirling and the way she never sees how her beloved philosopher at times simply uses her, can be exhausting. But I don’t have to love my main character every single page to appreciate and like a book.
Therefore, even though this book might not be for you, go out there, take a look at her oeuvre and maybe you find some other Diski that is right for you.

Reading: “Don’t skip out on me” by Willy Vlautin

20180405_201218.jpg

Horace was alone in the city and he realized that being alone in the city was worse than being alone on the ranch. Because when he was alone on the ranch he had the dream of the city, the dream of what he would become in the city. But now he was there and he was still alone. He was just himself in another place.

‘But I don’t care anymore, Mr. Reese. Every night I’m here, I hope I get run over or stabbed or shot or thrown in prison. That’s how I feel.’
‘I’d be tired too, if I were you,’ the old man said. ‘It’s hard to hate yourself every single day, and it’s hard to try and be something you’re not. Both of those take their toll.’

Have I ever before mentioned my love for Willy Vlautin? One of best authors I’ve read in the last few years? One of my favorite authors ever? Have I not? Shame on me.

So, I love Vlautin’s books. He creates unique characters with very special voices, stories, issues, that affect me deeply, remind me of someone (myself at times), let me explore unknown perspectives and lives and introduces new ways of looking at familiar issues to me—all this in his very own, unique way of telling a story. My first Vlautin was Motel Life, followed by Northline. I highly recommend reading both books if you want to enjoy Vlautin’s full ouvre, the early Vlautin, so to say. Northline also comes (at least it did back then when I ordered the book) with a wonderful soundtrack, a musical gem that is one of my main “work soundtracks” next to Cliff Martinez’ Solaris. Moreover, there’s The Free, another masterpiece by Vlautin. Oh my, you see, mine won’t be a sober, impartial “review”…

We are following the story of Horace Hopper, who wants to become a Mexican boxer, even though he does not have any Mexican roots, but is a half Paiute Indian. He also strongly dislikes Mexican food and doesn’t speak Spanish, still he thinks that the identity of a Mexican boxer is what suits him most. Left behind by his mother when he was eight, he grew up with his grandmother, who tried her best but as the saying goes: the road to hell is paved with good intentions… In his teens he started working as a ranch hand on the Reece ranch, where he found a home with the elderly Mr. and Mrs. Reece, supporting them when Mr. Reece’s health and body fail him and giving Mrs. Reece a new reason to live and a purpose in life, which she lost bit by bit after their daughters left the ranch to pursuit their life and luck elsewhere. Mr. and Mrs. Reece are worried about Horace and his plans, wanting him to stay and one day take over the ranch since to them he seems like their own son. But Horace has to prove that he is worth something, that he is worthy of love and attention and respect, even though his mother left him and his father never cared about him. So he will be Hector Hidalgo, and Hector will become a successful boxer, thereby letting everyone know WHO he is and how great he is—even though he is not what he pretends to be. Sounds a bit unhealthy? Like you want to give Horace a hug, tell him he is a great person just the way he is and he shouldn’t waste a present life full of appreciation and love for who he is to let himself be haunted by a past he will never be able to change, no matter who and what he pretends to be? Well, Horace is 21 and he wouldn’t listen to you anyway, as he doesn’t listen to Mr. Reece, and so we are forced to watch another wonderful human being fight the demons of his past.

Reading the quote at the beginning of this post, once again Vlautin’s story reminds me of someone: me. When I was 17, I moved back to the city after having to live with my family on the countryside for two years (I HATED the countryside, still do); I had a lot of shitty teenage drama going on, as we all had at that age, and it’s nothing compared to what Horace is going through BUT I too can remember the moment when I realized that by simply moving back to the city, being on my own and responsible for myself, nothing changed or magically got better; I didn’t become this perfect little butterfly I wanted to be, I was still me, with all my insecurities, fat ass, and shitty thoughts, just somewhere else. This hit me really hard, and I can still remember my desperation when I realized that there was more to improving your overall situation than just moving somewhere or doing something different; it took me quite a few years and gallons of alcohol to find the courage to face the issues that really mattered…
So I do understand Horace, I understand his desperation, his feeling lost and overwhelmed
, not knowing where to go, what to do, whom to turn to. Because Horace feels alone, to him the only person he trusted to turn his luck around, to bring him success, was Hector Hidalgo, and as the story proceeds, Hector (for reasons I won’t mention at this point because you will find out for yourself) might not be so reliable after all. Learning to rely on other people and trust them picking you up and supporting you no matter what you do is hard, and sometimes it comes late in life …

Writing this post took 4 days and several attempts until I thought it’s at least halfway expressing what goes through my head (and heart) everytime I think about Horace and his story. It’s hard for me to write about this book because it was such an intense reading experience. It always is with Vlautin, but this one brought me to tears at the end (though mind you, I cried reading Stoner too, so this can happen from time to time…). Writing about books I like seems much easier than writing about books I love. Anyway, go and meet Horace—don’t skip out on me.

SPOILER ALERT: I will close this post with a quotation of the beautiful and poetic ending of Vlautin’s novel; though it does not give away much, decide for yourself if you want to read it or not…

Mr. Reese rolled him over and pulled him from the bag as tears leaked down his face. He held him in his arms and rocked him back and forth, and the night went along.

Reading: “The Nest” by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

IMG_20180225_133652_488.jpg

 

Leo had been avoiding his wife, Victoria, who was barely speaking to him and his sister Beatrice who wouldn’t stop speaking to him—rambling on and on about getting together for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving. In July. Leo hadn’t spent a holiday with his family in twenty years, since the mid-’90s if he was remembering correctly: he wasn’t in the mood to start now. 

So this is Leo and this will be Leo for the rest of the book, no matter how much he seems to undergo any sort of reformation; people like Leo do not reform, they perform. To an excellence it may even fool themselves at times…

In The Nest we encounter the Plumb family – mother Francie, brothers Leo and Jack, sisters Bea and Melody (in this oder), their late father Leonard Sr., ever-present thanks to his financial legacy called “the nest”, as well as his second cousin George – and a variety of people in their lives, most notably Stephanie, Bea’s former literary agent and Leo’s former lover; Walker, Jack’s husband; Walter and twins Louisa and Nora, Melody’s family…to just name a few. Leo, the oldest brother and the most successful sibling regarding monetary matters, crashed his car while high and drunk getting a handjob from 19-year-old waitress Matilda Rodriguez, whom he picked up at the wedding he attended with his wife and sister. George Plumb, trustee of “the nest” and family attorney, seeks the best possible option for Leo, with his wife Victoria filing for divorce and the New York high society already waiting for a scandal involving Leo Plumb: he pays out Matilda using a huge part of “the nest” and gets Leo into rehab, away from everyone and everything, until the dust settles and no one will even remember who Leo Plumb is. Which seems a good idea – but it’s not, at least not regarding to the rest of the Plumb brood.

Especially Jack and Melody desperately need and count on the money from the “nest.” They would get their share of the trust on Melody’s 40th birthday, which is just months away when we enter the story; now, after George and their mother Francie decided to use the money to get Leo off the hook, their shares shrunk significantly and are not enough to cover the expenses they already made and pay back their debts.
But of course, this book is not only about the money. In the end, it is hardly about money at all, but about a dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional society in a traumatized city full of traumatized people who try to make a living in the best ways possible. And that’s were the magic starts, at least in my opinion. Focusing on the basic themes – moderately rich or well-off white brats going through life more or less aware of a world and people around them; immigrants trying to make it big or at least bigger than their parents in their new home country; people traumatized from war, injuries, 9/11 and its aftermath – we have seen it before (and better) BUT I’m always ready for more if it’s well done (which is totally subjective, of course) and I really like the way Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney tells the stories. There’s a number of characters and a lot of names, so I had my usual problem remembering who is who at times (husbands Walter and Walker, for example), but this happens to me all the time, so it’s nothing special. My ADHD and lack of focus is not an author’s fault, anyway.

Most importantly, at various points throughout the novel, just when you start thinking “hello cliché, no surprise meeting YOU here,” she takes a different direction, not necessarily one that no one would have foreseen BUT one that you would not expect her to go, simply because novels of this category – “light fiction”: funny with some (dark) humor, entertaining, bit of a critical undertone, but overall enjoyable – often choose the easy way out, ‘rewarding’ clichéd expectancies with the appropriate clichés. This rarely happens here, so I really enjoyed spending my time with the Plumbs and the people around them, even though some twists and turns were more foreseeable than others. Besides, some twists seem foreseeable because they are familiar – don’t we all know this ONE SPECIAL friend/family/ex-lover/colleague/acquaintance/asshole in exactly the same situation as Leo, Jack, Bea, …?

So what happens to people spending with money they haven’t gotten yet and, thanks to the overall human incompetence of their oldest brother, will likely never get? They are in a world of shit…so to say. And we are there with them, front row special seats. It’s a composition of different life stories and their various voices, perspectives, and worlds; an enthralling novel and a real pleasure to read. If you want something entertaining, humorous, and diverse to read, check the blurb and if you like it, go for it!

I want to close with a quote I love from the last chapter of the book – SPOILER ALERT – so be warned and continue reading on your own risk, knowing too much too early OR not understanding a thing:

Years later, when the tree had grown and formed the perfect canopy over the rear of the yard, Lila would marry beneath the massive leafy boughs turning red and orange on a blindingly beautiful October afternoon. She would ask Jack to escort her down the leaf-strewn path to her partner. Jack would be good to Lila all her life, showing up whenever she was missing a father. On the day of her wedding when Lila appeared on Jack’s almost-seventy-year-old arm, Stephanie would see Leo at her side and for a debilitating moment would be crushed by the enormity of everything he’d missed.

I love this quote because it is so positive, it is not about the daughter being left behind and missing out, but the father missing all the wonderful stuff that comes with having kids. To me, there is so much love in this small passage, I cried the first time I read it (you may need to read the whole story before even trying to understand my emotional exaggeration…).

 

 

 

Reading: “Autumn” by Ali Smith

IMG_20180121_215951_390.jpg

“All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country, people looked up Google: Irish passport applications.

” As she passes the house with GO and HOME still written across it she sees that underneath this someone has added, in varying bright colours, WE ARE ALREADY HOME THANK YOU and painted a tree next to it and a row of bright red flowers underneath it. There are flowers, lots of real ones, in cellophane and paper, on the pavement outside the house, so it looks a bit like an accident has recently happened here.”

Smith and I had a rough start with her Public Library and other stories, and it didn’t get much better from than on. She has a unique voice, which makes her special in the best and worst possible way; while I liked some of her short stories, most of them contained a lot of literary references (I know, what a surprise considering the title and concept of the book) and casual name-dropping that made it hard for me to follow the story itself, so to say. Of course Smith is a master of her craft also in regard to this name dropping, since she is not only a writer, but she also studied them; so she names all these artists and authors for a reason and it’s not her fault that my knowledge regarding certain literary circles/periods/trends is sketchy at best. Still, I could not get drawn into the stories because a lot of it felt just random.
So much for the short stories – since seeing Autumn all over Instagram, everyone being enthusiastic about it and all, I decided I need to give Ali Smith and me a second chance: Autumn it was.

Not surprisingly it didn’t work out. I liked the novel much better than the stories, because in the end I could see some story-line and I was interested in the Brexit theme, BUT once again I had the feeling we are all over the place in so many different ways.
There are several familiar motifs that work well with each other (of course), but for me they also got lost along the way repeatedly, turning up again, only to disappear once more – a literary to and fro deluxe. For example: I often hoped I would meet a wise and lovely old (wo)man who would take me under (her)his wings and give me a sort of guidance along the rough waters of adolescence and young adulthood – I have seen movies about it (probably, I’m not sure, I don’t like movies), I’ve read countless inspiring and wonderful books revolving around this topic BUT did it ever happen? No, of course not, probably because they are already booked playing “rent-a-gramp” and reading to orphans at the public library.

Now I know that the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth is a bit more complex, but it’s still working with the same familiar pattern, which is why I mention it in this context; it’s a wonderful topic and a great theme to work with, but it’s not like one has never seen this before. Same goes for the difficult mother-daughter relationship; nothing new but very well construed, and Elisabeth’s mother is as intriguing in some aspects as she is irritating and sometimes uninspired in others. Elisabeth’s various adventures on her way to a new passport are priceless, and a lot of us will recognize the mysterious ways in which the systems work in their own countries. And of course there’s Daniel, sleeping and dreaming (and more). I could hardly focus on a lot of ‘his’ parts simply because it was, again, all over the place, dream sequences and the like. Again we have a lot of name-dropping and Smith works with several references to the world of art and literature but this works much better in a novel than in the stories, at least in my opinion.

One of the main reason I wanted to read Autumn was of course the Brexit-theme. As someone living in Europe who has visited the UK several times, sometimes even on a sort of regular basis, the fact that they did vote LEAVE only to try to find out what that actually means afterwards, was “surprising” and I was curious to find out how a renowned writer worked with this important event in Britain’s recent history. And these were also the parts I liked most, the parts I read without putting the book down, the parts I still have in mind. Sometimes you see it directly – Elisabeth and her mother describing (and fighting) the fence, the quotes from above, the reference to the murder of Jo Cox – sometimes it’s more subtle, but it’s still there. And anyone living in Europe with eyes to see and an open mind knows we are fighting on all fronts against fear, racism, sexism, nationalism, idiocy, hatred, and politicians who use peoples’ anxieties and ignorance to their own PERSONAL advantage; Brexit is just one very drastic sign that we still have a lot of work ahead of us (to describe it in a positive way; otherwise one might just say “that we will never learn and are not worth the land, air, and nature we’re systematically destroying”).

But I digress, let’s stick to literature, shall we?

Of course Smith is a great writer, no matter if I like her work or not; in some instances literature (art) is not simply a matter of taste, but also of timing. Maybe this is not the right time for Ali Smith and me; maybe this time will never come, who knows. Go ahead, read her, give it a try – no matter if you like it or not, she’s definitely worth your time.

Reading: “The Diary of a Nobody” by George and Weedon Grossmith

IMG_20180105_112415_746

May 9: The Blackfriars Bi-weekly News contains a long list of the guests at the Mansion House Ball. Disappointed to find our names omitted, though Farmerson’s is in plainly enough with M.L.L. after it, whatever that may mean. More than vexed, because we had ordered a dozen copies to send to our friends. Wrote to the Blackfriars Bi-weekly News, pointing out their omission.

May 12: Got a single copy of the Blackfriars Bi-weekly News. There was a short list of seceral names they had omitted; but the stupid people had mentioned our names as “Mr and Mrs C. Porter.” Most annoying! Wrote again and I took particular care to write our name in capital letters, POOTER, so that there should be no possible mistake this time.

May 16: Absolutely disgusted on opening the Blackfriars Bi-weekly News of today, to find the following paragraph: “We have received two letters from Mr and Mrs Charles Pewter, requesting us to announce the important fact that they were at the Mansion House Ball.”

Mr. Charles Pooter leads the ordinary life of the lower middle class in late 19th century England. He is a devout husband, a humble employee, and a respected father and friend – at least he likes to think of himself this way. For some 15 months he keeps his diary, cherishing good experiences, pondering about the bad stuff, and in general wondering how and why the world changes and with it a lot of things he took for granted.

I came across this book when I was actually looking for a birthday present for someone else; since I love literature from the late 19th and early 20th century Britain, I decided that every new day is a sort of birthday and I should not let this opportunity to gift myself with a wonderful piece of literature pass by. Of course there are certain issues like dress codes, vehicles, professions, and vernacular that are hard to grasp nowadays, especially for non-native speakers; however, being “calibrated” by writers like the Bronte sisters, Austen, and Doyle, I found my way around the lesser known expressions and enjoyed an entertaining and funny read.

A cause for concern is the conduct of Pooter’s only son Lupin – actually called William, but opting to only use his second name Lupin –, who does not show the same steadiness regarding his career and way of life as his father, who has been working for the same company for the last 20-something years at the time he is writing his diary. Mr. Charles Pooter does his best to get Lupin back on track, even going so far as getting him a position in the same company he’s working for (this – surprise surprise – does not end well), but we will learn that Lupin follows his own path, skillfully avoiding the average and humdrum life his parents are leading.

It seems evident that Mr. Pooter does not think of himself as a person of great importance, he states so in his diary regarding a possible publication of his writings after his death; however, what he states and what he’s writing about differ to some degrees (as can be seen in the quote above). He may not be important in regard to a certain social rank but this does not mean that there is no order which one has to follow; servants are servants, artists are artists, and respectable men (and women) should know how to act appropriately in every possible situation.

The authors use some references to people and circumstances of their time which can cause initial confusion if one is not that savvy regarding the everyday life of the lower middle classes in Victorian England. But this does not thwart the immense fun of reading this book. If you ever wanted to read a diary that is neither puberty-cliche-ridden, dramatic, and/or your own, than this is a good one to start. First published as a book in 1892, this book has lost nothing of its charm and the likelihood to find traces of oneself in Mr. Charles Pooter’s musings. Enjoy!

 

 

Reading: “The Blackwater Lightship” by Colm Tóibín

IMG_20180114_020233_676.jpg

“I have to keep convincing myself”, Helen said when they got outside, “that this is really happening. You’re all so matter-of-fact about it, but the truth is that he is dying in there and I have to go and tell my mother.”

Helen’s beloved little brother is dying. This brings the family together again – grandmother Dora, mother Lily, and Helen. While Declan has a seemingly casual relationship with his mother and grandmother, Helen hasn’t seen both for years and didn’t even invite them to her wedding. Her mother has never seen her two grandchildren, her grandmother met Helen’s family – her husband and her two sons – only once.

Reading the blurb (which says something like “forced to listen to each other” and “come to terms with each other”) I immediately thought of something blunt like an alcoholic grandmother, a crack-head mother, and two highly traumatized siblings coping with their past in different ways. The last part rings true in some way, but the first part is highly unimaginative, crude, and – thankfully – bullshit. Blurbs usually do their best to convey stereotypes to sell a book (we recognize the familiar), sometimes the opposite (at least for some readers). But I read one of Colm Tóibín’s short stories in The Book of other People, which I really liked, so I wanted to read one of his books. A bargain box at the local bookseller’s gave me the perfect opportunity to do so.

[Spoiler alert]

Helen’s little brother Declan is dying of AIDS. Assisted by his two close friends Larry and Paul, he spends a few days with his mother and sister at their grandmother’s place, an old house close to the sea, and the arrival of three gay men is reason enough to shake up Dora’s world. Nevertheless, this does not mean we meet the average old lady harboring prejudices against homosexuals; Dora is full of prejudices and resentment, so Declan’s friends are just the icing on the cake, at least in the beginning. Dora adapts to the new situation – Declan being seriously ill and dying – fast and seems to cope relatively well with the coming developments; mind you, the emphasis lies on ‘seems.’ For Lily and Helen, the situation is more difficult, since their relationship is strained at best; coming together again after years of not seeing each other and hardly any contact in the light of something as grave as the son/brother dying is a challenge on multiple levels.

“And why is it that he sent you to tell me?”
Helen stared at the road ahead. When she saw a double-decker bus, she thought about asking her mother to make her own way to the hospital, but it was a thought that she did not entertain for long. She softened and tried to imagine what it must be like for her.
“I think he felt that at a time like this we would all forget our differences,” Helen said.
“Well, I don’t notice any difference in you”, her mother said.
“Bear with me, I’m making an effort,” Helen said. She could not keep the dry tone out of her voice.

None of the two knew about Declan’s infection and illness, and especially Lily feels left out after realizing that Declan’s friends, especially Paul, know much more about his health and how to deal with his illness than any of his family, having accompanied him through the various stages of his HIV infection over the years.

Our main protagonist is Helen; though it’s a third-person-narration, the focus lies on her, her history, her issues, and her incapability to deal with her past. We also learn more about Paul, Declan’s friend, who never leaves his side and is the main force regarding his care (much to Lily’s chagrin). But apart from those two everyone else rather seems to set the stage for Helen and the family’s difficult past – at least this is how I felt. And it’s not that I didn’t like it; I loved it. First, when looking back on her past, Helen does not face a ‘huge trauma’ in the stereotypical way of trauma, meaning abuse and violence or the like. Her turning point was the death of her beloved father when she was 12; much of what follows are conflicts that could happen in a lot of families (maybe I feel that way because of my own background in regard to my mother and grandmother, so I’m sorry if this does not sound as serious and insightful as someone else may see the story). So while Helen’s inner (and outer) conflicts are understandable, one does not have to be awestruck how one person can go on with her life in the light of a past as gruesome as hers.
Second, Paul is wonderful. There’s no other way for me to describe it, he is a compassionate, caring, and thoughtful character, the best friend one can have in general and in Declan’s situation in particular. Larry, Dora, Lily, and Declan add their stories and all this together tells a difficult and sad story that will have no happy ending, but also one that shares a certain hope, though I cannot describe this feeling more detailed. I love being so vague…

Hope can feel good, even if it’s false hope. I read this book in two days, and it only took THAT LONG because I needed some sleep. Tóibín is a wonderful narrator, his stories carry a certain atmosphere I cannot specify, but I feel it whenever I read something by him. Nora Webster is already waiting, but I will take a little break before my next Tóibín. It’s an intensive and wonderful reading experience, one I cannot and won’t take lightly, for the best possible reasons.