Monday, April 2, 2018

Something New


We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“MAZARINE” by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage, $NZ38); “A SISTER IN MY HOUSE” by Linda Olsson  (Penguin / Random House, $NZ22)

            As she has been at pains to point out, Charlotte Grimshaw has never set out to write a novel that is only a thriller or a mystery story. Sheer genre writing is not for her, and she is more interested in analysing characters, commenting (sometimes – but not always – satirically) on society at large and reflecting on the art of narration itself. And yet there is an element of mystery in some of her novels and short stories, in the sense that they often involve the process of trying to find out what has really happened, as opposed to what characters in the novel think has happened. Mysteries are presented and (sometimes) resolved. In her latest novel, Mazarine, there is even what could loosely be called a thriller element.

This novel is in a limited sense a break from Grimshaw’s earlier work. Her two collections of linked short stories Opportunity (2007) and Singularity (2009), and the novels The Night Book (2010), Soon (2012) and Starlight Peninsula (2015) - the latter two reviewed on this blog – all somehow connected the same large cast of recurring characters, especially a Dr Simon Lampton. Mazarine has an (almost) completely different cast, although one minor character, Nick Oppenheimer, did appear in Starlight Peninsula.

If it were summarised as a thriller, Mazarine would go thus: First widowed, and then having broken up acrimoniously with her boyfriend Nick Oppenheimer, the aspiring novelist Frances Sinclair is deeply upset that her young adult daughter Maya has apparently gone missing in Europe. She has received an odd text message purporting to be from her daughter, but which simply does not sound at all like the way Maya would put things. And there are no further messages. Europe is at this stage still reacting to the Charlie Hebdo attack, talk of radical Islam and terrorism is in the air, and a little research tells Frances that her daughter’s boyfriend Joe Libard comes from a Muslim family and has a brother who is a devout Muslim. Could Maya have been caught up in some Islamic terrorist activity? Frances joins force with Joe’s lesbian mother Mazarine Libard to find Maya and Joe. Using the excuse that she is researching a novel, she travels to London, trying to track her daughter down through Maya’s friends and associates. In the process, she bonds with Mazarine, who in some sense becomes her mentor but in another sense is a mysterious character in her own right. Imagery of Ariadne’s thread relates to the various clues Mazarine and Frances follow to find Maya, and it is significant that the name “Mazarine” itself refers to an elusive blue butterfly. The action continues through Paris and Buenos Aires and, for those seeking a neat resolution, it comes to a perfectly plausible conclusion about what has become of Maya. (My not-being-a-swine rule means I do not provide spoilers about this).

Apparently Frances Sinclair’s inherited world is one of bourgeois culture. Her  (adoptive) father is a judge; her (erratic) brother is an associate professor of law. Her late husband worked on the Guardian in England. As a writer, she herself is part of the literati and her daughter has connections with publishing. So there are occasional literary references, with mentions of Alice Munro and Christina Stead and E.M.Forster’s quotation about “only connecting” and somebody reading Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, not to mention Frances’ childhood memory of visiting Menton (hello Katherine Mansfield). There is also the fact that Frances is a little out of her comfort zone when it comes to the use of modern communications technology, i-phones and the like. Thinking of the people she doesn’t know about, but whom her daughter might know, she reflects her age when she says: “It made such a difference, the kids’ ability to interact with the whole world from their bedrooms.” (p.84)

So, misleadingly synopsised thus as a thriller, Mazarine is about a middle-class, middle-aged woman out of her depth as she searches for a missing daughter who might be in great danger.

All of which is a complete misrepresentation of this novel.

The fact is, Mazarine is more about the WHO than about the WHAT, and it pivots on the concept of the unreliable narrator.

The novel is narrated in the first-person by Frances Sinclair herself and she is clearly a very troubled person. While her two siblings are her parents’ biological children, she herself was adopted. Not only does she have a running psychological battle with her abrasive adoptive mother Inez, but she does not know who her biological parents were and this has a big impact on her construction of her own identity. (Charlotte Grimshaw has dealt before in her fiction with a fraught situation involving an adopted child  – notably in the novel The Night Book). Frances fears getting migraines (p.42). She has had extensive psychiatric consultations with a therapist called Werner Bismarck (! – Grimshaw had a psychotherapist called Dvorak in Starlight Peninsula. Perhaps she likes giving psychotherapists famous names). Bismarck suggests that Frances has suffered an early lack of “attachment” to her prime caregiver. Frances has uncomfortable gaps in her memory. She claims she has difficulty with face recognition. She sometimes questions her own sanity. (Eloise Hay, Grimshaw’s protagonist in Starlight Peninsula, suffered from some of the same symptoms.) En route with Mazarine, she realises how little she really knows her daughter or anyone else and she frequently questions her own judgement.

With such a person as narrator, there is always a tension between what she states as fact and how reliable we think she is. Is her daughter really in danger, or are her fears possibly paranoid fantasies?

As Frances herself considers this, and especially under Mazarine’s influence, she advances one of the novel’s main ideas – that the way we perceive others is a form of fiction. In effect we “make up” other people from our limited observations of them, which we then weave into a narrative. And in the same way we “make up” our own identity.

Take, for example, the following passage where Frances reflects on her estranged partner:

I’d never admitted to her that I’d split up with Nick because he’d started making me uneasy when he revealed, just a couple of times, that he wasn’t the man I’d thought he was. Now I took hold of Maya’s thesis, examined it. I’d ‘invented’ Nick Oppenheimer, created a character for him, that of the safe, knowable, wholesome guy, cheerfully masculine, tough, but with a heart of gold. The invention was made possible by the fact that he was enigmatic. He was a blank space into which I poured my hopes. And, because his true nature was hidden, the disparity between the real and the invented was only gradually and subtly revealed…. I’d made him into rather a cliché, I suppose, because ambiguity and complexity would have been less reassuring.. So, to give Maya’s theory full expression: Nick Oppenheimer was the creative product of my yearning and my loneliness. And then I found out he had a real self.” (pp.44-45)

Or again, when Frances is unable to interpret the message ostensibly from her daughter, she remarks:

I couldn’t understand it, and worse, I didn’t entirely trust my own judgement. It was my old problem, being unable to read people, never having an overall certainty about a relationship, but always scanning for evidence with each new communication…” (p.58)

Considering how her daughter Maya might not be the person she thought she was, Frances asks:

How had I failed her? Could it be that as well as ‘inventing’ Nick Oppenheimer, I’d invented my notion of myself? I’d thought I was a good parent, that we got on brilliantly, that our relationship, Maya’s and mine, was solid, successful, normal – admittedly it was a single triumph on my interpersonal record of fuck-ups, misunderstandings and solitude, but that was why I valued it so!” (p.111)

Given that Frances is so uncertain of herself, has such an unreliable memory and so often misjudges things, I am unsure whether Charlotte Grimshaw intends us to take it at face value when Frances, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, makes a complete reassessment of herself and embarks on a new beginning in her emotional life. (Again, I carefully provide no spoilers about this.) Is this meant to be seen as some sort of epiphany? Or, given her track record, could it be seen as one more of Frances’ delusions?

If the narrator of this novel is unreliable, it could be that no fiction can be trusted as a worthwhile reflection of the world anyway. Remember, Frances is not only a worried mother. She is herself a writer. To produce novels or short stories means always making use of other people as material. Even when she is setting out in panic to find her missing daughter, Frances is thinking what novelistic use she can make of the situation:

When my girl and I were reunited I would revert to my officially stated aim, and carry out research for the idea I’d always had: a novel set in London and Paris, my own Tale of Two Cities. I had a name for it: Self State.” (p.84)

Later, she wonders how much her fiction-writing ambition compromises her role as loving mother:

Who was the I who yearned to hold my daughter? Did that I cohabit with a different self, the writer, who watched and waited in order to requisition everything, every secret and injury and loss for one purpose: the first novel? A self so single-minded it would turn even the rawest, most private pain into fodder…” (p.137)

It would be incredibly offensive to suggest that Charlotte Grimshaw is drawing a self-portrait here, but she does drop hints that she, as novelist, shares at least some experience with her very flawed narrator. Like Grimshaw, the fictitous Frances has written fiction set on a west Auckland peninsula. One of Frances’ memories is of a dangerous childhood expedition in the Waitakeres, similar to a semi-autobiographical story Grimshaw once wrote. Perhaps this is only to say that a real novelist writing about a fictitious novelist will inevitably do some self-reflection.

Despite its mystery story structure, Mazarine is more a character study, a commentary on the way identity is constructed and a critique of the art of writing fiction itself. It is, however, the thread of the mystery story that will probably keep most readers turning the pages.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

I am reviewing Linda Olsson’s A Sister in My House in the same posting as Charlotte Grimshaw’s Mazarine out of sheer chance. I happen to have both novels before me to review in the same week and (apart from the fact that they are both written by women resident in New Zealand) the two novels have little in common. Chalk and cheese. True – both deal in part with fraught family relationships and both have a first-person narrator. But, despite a few little hints that her narrator may occasionally be in error, Linda Olsson’s first-person narrator does not confront us with all those complex and weighty issues of narrator (un-)reliablility that Charlotte Grimshaw’s narrator presents. Instead we have the more naïve phenomenon of a narrator whose words we are implicitly meant to trust throughout.

A Sister in My House is narrated by Maria, a Swede living in a desirable sea-front residence in Catalonia. In her late forties, childless and apparently single, Maria has been estranged from her younger sister Emma for a number of years. Emma is married with children. When they meet again at their mother’s funeral in Sweden, Maria impulsively invites Emma to come and stay with her for a few days. As the time comes for Emma’s sojourn, Maria has misgivings. She does not get on with her little sister and, as soon as Emma arrives, Maria feels “that creeping shameful irritation at my sister invading my private territory.” (p.40)

What has caused the bad blood between these sisters? That is the question that A Sister in My House unravels across the six days that Maria and Emma are together.

Apparently Linda Olsson has written four previous novels, but this is the first of her works that I have read. A Swede who has become a New Zealander, Olsson seems to write her novels first in Swedish and then to translate them into English. A Sister in My House was first published in Swedish in Stockholm in 2016, and nobody is credited as translator - so presumably the author translated it herself. Maybe because of this Swedish connection, a reviewer of an earlier Olsson novel compared it with an Ingmar Bergman movie. I can see why. In its set-up, A Sister in My House is like one of those “chamber” movies Bergman often made, where a few characters (usually women; always middle class) tore at the psychological truth of one another in a few limited settings. Cries and Whispers (sisters slug it out), Autumn Sonata (mother and daughter slug it out) and their ilk, many of which I watched patiently in my years as a film reviewer.

But if it is Bergmanesque, it is only superficially so.

The hard fact is that this novel does not really develop its characters. True, as long conversations between Emma and Maria go on, and as we hear the narrator Maria’s commentary on them, we bit by bit learn more about the family background of these two women and the events that separated them – sibling rivalries; how they vied for the attention of their sister Amanda; the defects of their mother and father as parents; how they were both attached to the same guy at different times; the lesbian affair one of them had (how chic; how daring written in a novel now…); an unexpected death; and a horrible accident that left one of them feeling guilty and the other resentful. But this is simply to drip-feed us events rather than real insights. I feel that too often these events (about which, as is my wont, I scrupulously do not provide spoilers) have been with-held from us at the beginning simply to create a spurious sense of gradual discovery.

More difficult, however, is the stilted nature of the dialogue, which is often self-expository to a painful degree. Here is a specimen of such dialogue as Maria enlightens Emma about her past:

Then I got pregnant. And my whole world fell apart. Olof was my only confidant. But this I could never share with him. Not with anybody. I knew I would never be able to make Olof understand. I had reached a point where I had to leave. So I had an abortion. And then I went to London. But you know that.” (p.100)

This is not credible dialogue – it is exposition. And when I reach the line “But you know that”, I feel like saying “So why the hell are you telling her?

On the same level of obviousness, when past events are revealed to us, Maria makes comments upon them which are, I suppose, meant to sound like profound reflections on her life, but which are more akin to self-help manual platitudes. Thus:

I know it wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t mine either. But as with much of what we experience in life, we are not just shaped by the incidents themselves. How we react to them is at least as important. How we deal with them afterwards. There was nothing either of us could have done about the accident. But afterwards, there were choices. And there have been choices ever since….” (pp.167-168)

I am a little intimidated in reviewing this book, because its end-pages include not only a six-page (anonymous) interview with the author, in which she explains her inspiration and motives; but also fully eight pages of extracts from laudatory reviews of Olsson’s earlier novels, written by reviewers both estimable and not-so-estimable. We are also reminded that Olsson’s novels have been big best-sellers and some of them have been translated into nearly 20 foreign languages. So who am I to disagree with all this?

But with the deepest regret, I closed A Sister in My House with the distinct impression that I had been reading soap-opera striving to be psychological revelation. 

FOOTNOTE: Subsequent to this review's appearing, the author contacted me and said the novel was written simultaneously in Swedish and English, so neither version is a translation.

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