Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Himself by Jess Kidd

When Mahony shows up in the village of Mulderrig, the publican notes that while he has "a sort of bearing about him," his trousers are "ridiculous...wide enough at the bottom to mop the main road."

Jack, the guard, invites the newcomer to sit by him. The cop, we're told, "works his stretch of the coast, sorting out the wicked, the misjudged and the maligned without once having to raise his voice."

But this village has dirty secrets, and to save his life, Mahony has to blow them wide open. He finds an ally in the ancient Mrs. Cauley. a long-ago star who once held sway on the the Abbey Theatre theatre in Dublin. The old lady now "lies in state" in the ruined library of her once-imposing house, which retains its "good bone structure," though the mice now have the run of the guest rooms."

The feisty old woman may have "teeth like a row of bombed houses," but she still notices that the newcomer is good-looking. In no time he's begun to charm her and she's judiciously spilling certain village gossip. When he leaves, her warning to her housekeeper Shauna not to "try it on" with him is only half in fun. Mrs. Cauley is not the only widow, but the other one is in mourning, and has been "since the death of de Valera."

This first novel has a large cast of characters, including the unappealing Father Quinn, whose confessional laps up "tales of suffering and spite," and "feeds on shame and remorse. Insincerely kind, the priest "pours the tea with spiteful servitude" for a parishioner he can't bully. Bridget, "who came with the parochial house, is the first to admit that she isn't a patch on her late mammy in the housekeeping department." Though her skill set includes wiring houses, castrating bulls, and drinking the publican under the table, she "holds no truck with the relentless drudgery of housework or the moral authority of Catholic priests." According to Mrs. Cauley, she's also "deep enough to make a well look shallow."

The dead pay visits too, though only Mahony and select others are able to see them. Moreover, even for those with the sight, the dead, "like cats -- don't always come when they're called."

Taking readers back in time, the author allows us to glimpse a possible fate for Mahony's lost mother. Did she really run away to Dublin in her "brand-new baby and her second-hand coat," only to hand the boy over to an orphanage? It seems unlikely that a loving mother would allow her son to be brought up in an orphanage where the "nuns have eyes in the backs of their habits." They "rub their relics if they want to put a saint on you. Then you're truly banjaxed."

Orla, the young unwed mother of Mahony, is well and truly banjaxed. When her parents fail horribly in their duty to care for their child, the father runs away, the mother blames the daughter and the priest blames both.

Early in the novel, we are shown the innocent but telling image of "the mammies inside getting the dinner and the daddies inside waiting to go out for a jar." As Kidd relentlessly unlocks the secrets of the villagers in a series of brief evocations, the reader wonders whether it will be possible for that initial innocence to return.

Meanwhile, with its "magical powers," a good pint can "heal surface wounds" and "cement minor friendships." Boys hot-wire cars, and women "sell black-market fireworks out of prams." At the Post Office and General Store, Marie Gaughan sells rat traps, knicker elastic, feather dusters, "water butts and garden hoses," as well as "banned books and jam made from hedgerows." On the day of the Village Festival, a theatrical evening, villagers fight over roles, "animals are sold...and marriages are brokered in the car park."

The characters are vivid, the themes weighty, and the plot complex and suspenseful. This reader derived equal joy from the vivid originality of the author's voice and language. As a Creative Writing student at St. Mary's University in London, author Jess Kidd wrote a thesis melding genres in crime fiction. In this novel, she's applied the techniques brilliantly.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Shanghai Redemption by Qiu Xiaolong

This mystery is wrapped not only in an enigma, but in carefully applied layers of literary reference, contemporary historical realism, and socio-cultural analysis.

After 15 years of walking a knife edge of Party sensitivities, Inspector Chen is suddenly stripped of his job as the Shanghai Police Bureau's Special Case Squad. He gets a new job title -- and title is the operative word. Chen and his colleagues in the precinct know this empty 'promotion' is no more than an effort to sideline one of his investigations. But which one, and why? The wily inspector still has his brain, his poetry and other resources. Obliged to shuttle back and forth on the high speed train between Shanghai and Suzhou, where he's having his father's gravestone renovated, Chen consults his gray cells as well as trusted friends of the utmost discretion to help him investigate.

Qiu Xiaolong is a master of irony and double entendre, as we observe in this layered description of a traditional hotel room in Suzhou. "On one wall, there was an impressive row of pictures showing high-ranking party leaders in the fifties and sixties, eloquently documenting the hotel’s glorious past. The wall opposite displayed a long rice-coloured silk scroll of a seventh-century Tang poem copied by a modern calligrapher."

He portrays the status of women in China under 'Socialism with Chinese characteristics.' Among Qiu's fascinating range of characters are a Suzhou opera singer, the discarded ernai, (non-status concubine), of a Party official, and Chen's friend and former colleague, Detective Yu. Yu's intrepid wife Peqin helps her husband's inquiries in places where he is unable to venture. We also meet Party members who subtly threaten Chen using anodyne phrases, as well as expensive lawyers and American accountants who maintain that they're not obliged to tell the police a thing.

The topsy-turvy world of contemporary Shanghai is an excellent setting for this satisfying mystery. The booming city is rife with corruption, new money, 'Red Princelings' and 'Big Bucks.' While having concubines and playing mahjong are nominally illegal, "every service you can imagine" is for sale in the Heavenly World night club. In such places, officials avoid internet exposure by entering unseen through hidden underground parking access. "Red songs" enjoy an ironic comeback, while 'naked officials' ship their families and money overseas and then stay back with their ernai to see how the political wind blows. 

Meanwhile, skyrocketing Shanghai real estate prices mean many in the city must bury their dead in nearby Suzhou. Thus, the annual Qingming observance leads to a cemetery visit rush hour for the new high-speed train system to cope with. 

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Jackson Brodie is back. Now middle-aged, he sees himself as "a walking, talking history lesson...except that nobody is interested in learning anything from him." Deemed a Luddite by his twenty-something daughter, he regards his teenage son Nathan and remembers when he and his ex, Julia, created "the embryo that would one day sprawl its legs and fold its arms sarcastically."

When Nathan asks his dad for another ice cream, Jackson reflects that for this generation, "never enough" is "the dominant trait." They've been "bred to consume." Darkly, he predicts that capitalism will devour itself, "thereby fulfilling its raison d'etre in an act of self-destruction, aided by the dopamine feedback loop." Meanwhile, the insatiable Nathan and his fellow teens are "living sandwich boards, covered in free advertising for corporate evil."

Jackson remains "a friend to anarchy;" he still magnetizes hapless people who need rescuing. He sees bad things around him, and wishes he could fix them all. Remembering the twelve-year-old with a unicorn backpack he saw get into a car a couple of days ago, he still wonders. Is she safe at home, after being berated by loving parents for coming back late? "He hoped so, but his gut told him differently. In his (long) experience, your brain might mislead you, but your gut always told you the truth."

In spite of his determination to serve society and his intuitions about things that don't look right, Jackson still has time to think philosophical thoughts. Out jogging in a quiet wood, he ponders the Zen koan about whether a tree falling in the forest makes a noise if nobody is there to hear it. When he trips on a root and goes flying, he fancies he can "hear the sound of one hand clapping."

Jackson is not the only character to provide humour in this intricately plotted book. The grotesquely egotistical has-been comedian Barclay Jack gazes gloomily into the mirror before a show, confirming his fear that he looks his age. His spirits droop, and when his stomach also swoops within him, he wonders: "Stage fright? Or a dodgy curry?"

Another actress, Julia, comments laconically, "The class war's over. Everyone lost." Atkinson applies her legendary humour to description as well as plot and characters. Her evocation of a "modish" bar "so dark you could hardly see your drink in front of you," made me laugh out loud.

With inimitable sleight-of-hand, the author reinstates characters from Jackson's past books and ties them up in a contemporary mystery involving a "magic circle" of people in very high places. For far too long, they get away with trafficking girls. The twists and turns that eventually lead to their comeuppance make this a most satisfying tale.