Mary Lawson ‘A Town Called Solace’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Sure to be shortlisted for this prize.
“A Town Called Solace”: In order of reading book number 3.

The boxes were in the middle of the floor, which made Clara fidgety. Every time the man came into the living room he had to walk around them. If he’d put them against a wall he wouldn’t have to do that and it would have looked much neater. And why would he bring them in from his car and then not unpack them? At first Clara had thought it meant that he was delivering them for Mrs Orchard and she would unpack them herself when she got home. But she hadn’t come home and the boxes were still there and so was the man, who didn’t belong.

Mary Lawson takes us to northern Ontario, 700 miles north of Toronto in this bitter sweet novel with the aptly named town. Clara, a young child is sat in her window looking out for the return of her sixteen year old sister, Rose, who has run away from home when she observes a stranger in the house opposite, mrs Orchard’s house. Mrs Orchard is Clara’s friend and she has given her a key to feed Moses the cat whilst she is in hospital. As Clara questions what she sees based on her 8 year old experience, her dialogue is reminiscent of another Klara from “Klara and the Sun” as illustrated in the opening quote.

The story is told from three points of view, Clara but also Liam, the stranger from the first quote, arriving after a painful separation and Mrs Orchard who has gone to hospital, the novel explores the implicit link between Liam, who as a young boy lived next to Mrs Orchard before moving away and Clara living next door to Mrs Orchard with both of the adults for different reasons having come to the improbable Solace in pain and both finding a sort of solace. Liam working for a local roofer who it turns out had never left Solace and slowly reflects about his life, even slowly remembering some of the forgotten time before moving away from next door to Mrs Orchard when he was young. The search for Rosa permeates the story, as the policeman says, they run away to Toronto, there really is nowhere else to go. Mrs Orchard thinks about the past, talking to her long dead husband from her hospital bed, talks about the importance of Clara to her and about Liam as she revisits her own traumas:

I can’t tell you how I long for home. Just the normal routines of the day; they’re what I miss most. Putting the kettle on. Perhaps having a little chat with Clara if she pops over after school. I enjoy our conversations very much, you never know where they’re going to end up. She doesn’t make my heart lift the way Liam did, but no other child has ever done that.

This slow moving story as people learn to live with life’s pains grows on you and as a reader you slow down to the speed of the story.

First Published in English as “A Town Called Solace” in 2021 by Vintage

Blake Morrison ‘The Executor’

To a cuckold:

Miles mate, you don’t know me and if you did you wouldn’t like me and if you knew what I get up to with your misses you’d like me even less. But honest, I’m doing you a favour, haven’t you noticed how sweet and attentive she’s become? How she sings when cooking supper and never complains when you spend Sundays at the golf course? She’s lost weight too and looks younger, why be jealous? It’s me who endures her guilt and remorse whereas with you she’s happily luxurious. The key to a good marriage is adultery you see, every husband needs a louse to warm the bed for him every Union a bastard like me. So when you find out and come looking for me, don’t bring a knife bring a thank you present. The day she stops betraying you is the day your problems begin.

Matt Holmes, à journalist on the book pages has his annual lunch with his friend and twenty years his senior, the Poet Robert Pope, “the bow-tied poet”. Pope asks him to be his executor in the event of his death to which Holmes, without giving it too much thought agrees. Soon after Pope dies unexpectedly and the story unfolds in two timelines, as the narrator, Holmes relates the present day and also his relationship with Robert Pope. Holmes’ first surprise comes at the funeral when Louis, Popes literary agent tells Matt that Pope had asked him to be his executor a few months after he had made the request to Matt who is left feeling unwanted, but things are soon cleared up:

I got the call at the office a couple of weeks after the funeral, only Marie phones my extension everyone else e-mails so it took me a moment to grasp who the caller was, “What do you mean both of us?” I said.
“It’s common enough” Louis said “after we talked at the wake I realised that’s what he’d probably done, I tried to find you to say so but you’d rushed off. I spoke with his solicitor yesterday the will was straight forward, he left everything to Jill the codicil concerns his literary remains, nice phrase eh? he named us as joint executors, officially I’m general executor and you’re literary executor, but in effect we’ll be acting together.”
“You sound dubious?”
“I’m just surprised, I assumed he’d dropped me.”
“Well I’m glad he didn’t, my role is to sell his work, I’ve not the expertise to sort through the manuscripts”.
“I’m no scholar either.”
“Well he trusted you, he knew you’d do it well. There might not be much to do, he told me he’d written nothing since his last collection.”

In the present day, Matt advances then slowly as Popes office is at Jill, his frosty and wary widow’s home where Matt is ill equipped emotionally to deal with Jill but where Matt’s wife Marie seems to understand her and enables Matt to slowly find the right tone, but initially finds no new material. In the past he relates how they met when Pope was a lecturer an Brandon, an american university, and Holmes was studying there, they hit if off, with Pope telling him of a girl Corrine, he had fallen for but who had left him and of the late age he had lost his virginity. Soon after Holmes comes back to London, he tells us of the return of the energetic, city loving Pope, a contrast to the older suburbs living Pope:

His poems began to appear in journals and within months to my amazement and envy he got some reviewing work too, editors liked his fearlessness, he was the new kid on the block, cudgel in hand ready to take on the old guys.
“It helps that I don’t know anyone.” he said “once you’re friends with other writers you’re sunk.”
I was unpublished and didn’t count, but writers can’t make a living without contacts, and though he continued claiming not to know anyone, people got to know him, editors, publishers, radio producers.
“I’m enjoying my fifteen minutes” he said, stressing his lack of credentials failed PhD student, second rate academic, wannabe poet.

As the story then progresses, Holmes slowly discovers unpublished poems hidden away in other documents that cast his friend in another and as yet unforeseen light, as a misogynist and a predator of women, illustrated by the opening poem. Was he serially unfaithful to Jill, was it possible to write these poems with such apparent feeling without having lived these events?

The conflict within the story is then centred around Jill, fiercely fighting to keep the exiting vision of Robert Pope, and Matt trying to as best as possible carry out the will of his friend and to publish his works, and what if there were more to these poems than we imagined?

A clever story that keeps the readers interest and an ending in keeping with the mood of the book.

First Published in English as “The Executor” in 2018 by Vintage.

Jayne Anne Phillips ‘Quiet Dell’

-All was so clear when one held a letter in one’s hand, one’s handwriting was intimate, a reflection of one’s deepest nature. Cornelius had spoken volumes, page after page of his flowing script had comforted and lead and reassured her, he’d questioned with her, answered, deepened their bond to one of lasting strength.img_0940

This Book is the story of Harry Powers, the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell as the newspapers of the early thirties called him, but also of his victims, of how he operated and of his trial.

Powers preyed on lonely women, widows, divorced women and spinsters sending hundreds of letters through the American Friendship Society, answering small ads searching for kindred spirits for:

-Correspondence leading to true friendship, fidelity, and matrimony

The first part of the book written as a nineteenth century novel describing one of the two key families in the case, the Eicher family, although long, helps us to better understand the women in the 1920s-1930s who wrote looking for friendship. Asta Eicher was completely dependant on her husband, a housewife bringing up her children with her husband’s mother living with them, initially her husband was thinking of leaving them for another woman and as her mother in law tells her:

-Lavinia, regal,kindly poured the tea. Aster, hear me out, in this world in which women have so little freedom and enjoy so little regard it is not always a bad thing to share a man, openly or not if all are happy, and it is not such an unusual arrangement amongst artistic people that alliances be discreet, particularly when there are children involved.

Aster was left with no income when first her husband died suddenly and then her mother in law, she had taken in a lodger, Charles who had ‘inclinations’ and had re-mortgaged her house and as funds were running low, Powers, under an assumed name writes to her, promising security for her in West Virginia. But Powers was an astute con man and did not just promise security in his letters:

-All was so clear when one held a letter in one’s hand, one’s handwriting was intimate a reflection of one’s deepest nature. Cornelius had spoken volumes, page after page of his flowing script had comforted and lead and reassured her, he’d questioned with her, answered, deepened their bond to one of lasting strength

In the summer of 1931, Powers, as agreed, comes to Chicago to pick up Aster in his automobile, takes her back to Quiet Dell where he tortures and murders her before coming back for the children to do the same.

In the second part of the book written as a journalistic investigation lead by Emily Thornhill a Chicago reporter we meet several of the true characters on whose names she remarks,  Defense Attorney Law, a murderer called Harm, and Sheriff Grimm with whom she strikes up a working relationship. Grimm tells us of the situation surrounding the case and of how Powers was caught:

-Grimm had spoken of dozens of enquiries from relatives of missing women how many more had inspired no search? Might Powers have killed a hundred women……police took little notice of willing disappearance, if Powers picked the right victim and bade her come to him, he might leave no trail at all, he travelled constantly and must have done so for over a decade previous to the four years he’d lived in Clarksburg. The EIchers had no money, Powers was caught because he went back to Park ridge for radios and rugs, determined to realise a profit.

Finally, Powers was not tried for the murder of the Eicher family but of that of another of his victims from the same period, Dorothy Lemke.

A slow beginning but an interesting re-telling of this true story.

First published as ‘Quiet Dell’ by Vintage in 2015