17 February 2014

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen

Elizabeth Bowen has swept me away, once again, and this is the third time I've reached the end of one of her books feeling absolutely sick with suspense.  For some reason I had the impression that the book's namesake was going to be a lonely figure who reflects a sort of spinster ideal.  Far from it.  There is enough psychological madness to unfurl and dissect within these pages to keep a reader on the edge of their armchair and Eva is a character who will stay with me for a very, very long time.

The novel is set in the late 1950s and begins in January with Eva driving most of the Dancey family through the English countryside, coming to a stop at a neglected castle.  'This is where we were to have spent our honeymoon' she states quietly.  The children in the group range in age from seven to thirteen and have absolutely no idea what she's on about.  Their mother is busy watching from the car, studying Eva is more like it.

At twenty-four, the heiress is supervised by an unlikable fellow named Constantine, a former friend and most likely lover, of her father, Willy, who committed suicide years ago.  Eva's mother, Cissie, died in a plane crash when Eva was only two months old while on a dalliance with her lover.  While Constantine quite likes the financial side of being tied to Eva he is more than happy to turn around and pay Mr and Mrs Arble to house and care for her daily needs.  They are also only to happy for the extra money but I felt so sad that the money came before Eva's well-being, especially given Constantine's knowledge of the family history...

'We must face this:  Eva's capacity for making trouble, attracting trouble, stewing trouble around her, is quite endless.  She, er, begets trouble - a dreadful gift.  And the more so for being inborn.  You may not realise for how long and how painfully closely I've known that family.  The Trouts have, one might say, a genius for unreality: even Willy was prone to morose distortions.  Hysteria was, of course, the domain of Cissie.  Your, er, generous defence of Cissie won't, I hope, entirely blind you to how much of what was least desirable in Cissie is in her daughter.  Eva is tacitly hysterical.'

Iseult Arble taught in a boarding school and developed a strong attachment to Eva.  Having no children themselves, the Arbles enjoy having her around but eventually they realize she seems to be coming between them.  Deeply upset by betrayal, Eva packs up her meagre belongings and sets out for a house she has rented in Broadstairs called Cathay..  Her first night in the house, which needs loads of work, quickly makes clear how unprepared she is for independent living and responsibility which in turn worries the agent.

'Not the least of this unfortunate agent's fears are, that you may blow Cathay up by tampering with, er, intricate gas appliances, or burn the place down - he scented pyromania in your excitability when he struck matches.' 

Henry Dancey is put in charge of selling her Jaguar to raise funds until Eva's trust fund matures in a few months when she turns twenty-five.  Mr Arble arrives one night after discovering an address on a postcard sent to Henry.  It is during an encounter with Mrs Arble a few months later when Eva is asked to join the couple for Christmas that Eva announces she will be having a child by then.  Nine months after Mr Arble's visit.  So begins the second part of the book, picking up eight years later and all involved are just as mystified by what Eva has engineered and why.

From here on in the book takes on a sort of noir feeling with frenzied telegrams, missed calls, quick escapes and extreme panic.  The comparison of a thrush that flies into a church and its subsequent struggle to find freedom while a character sits in a pew coming to terms with his own struggle is absolutely breathtaking.  Needless to say I was transfixed for the last few chapters and it would have taken the house burning down around me to make me put the book down.  The ending is explosive.

Once I finish a book I like to search around for other readers' thoughts and can only shake my head at those who didn't find Eva Trout to be one of Bowen's masterpieces.  Come to think of it, I don't understand why this title isn't as widely known as The Heat of the Day or The Death of the Heart.  Eva Trout made the Man Booker shortlist in 1970 but lost to Bernice Ruben's The Elected Member,  which I can only surmise must be bloody fantastic to trump Elizabeth Bowen.


4 February 2014

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I finished The Book Thief late this morning and straight off the bat let me warn you not to read the last twenty pages on public transit, at the office during lunch, or with anyone else present...at all.  Despite having seen the movie and knowing how it ends I sniffed and sobbed my way to the last page.  Not about to put the book down to go in search of tissue I began grabbing handfuls of my t-shirt to wipe my tears and dab at my wet nose.  Frankly, I resembled an extremely proficient wet nurse in need of a charge once it was all said and done.  Now I finally understand why this beautifully told story has been in constant demand since it was published several years ago.

Leisel Meminger is a young girl being delivered to a foster family on Himmel Street at the beginning of World War II in Germany.  The English translation of 'Himmel' just so happens to be 'Heaven'.  Liesel has recently witnessed her brother's death on the train during their travels and his swift burial in a cemetery not far from a train station.  A dropped or discarded copy of The Gravedigger's Handbook  lies in the snow near Werner's grave. Despite being illiterate Liesel takes possession of it.  The book will serve as the impetus of a loving bond between the young girl and her foster father as Hans Hubermann teaches her to read using an unusual resource.  Her new 'mama' takes a bit longer to warm up to with her prickly personality, rubbish cooking skills and stern visage.
'One or two gasped at the sight - a small wardrobe of a woman with a lipstick sneer and chlorine eyes.  This.  Was the legend.  She was wearing her best clothes, but her hair was a mess, and it was a towel of elastic gray strands.' 
Tempering the horror of the Holocaust is the relationship between Liesel and her partner in crime, Rudy Steiner.  Both despise the Nazi movement and hunger so they constantly conspire ways to stay on top of the food chain.  Spirit and courage is something these two have in spades but Leisel trumps when she regularly climbs through a window at the Mayor's house to steal books from his library.  Any bibliophile reading this story will completely understand the weighing of danger versus reading material and cheer for each successful acquisition.  The book thief has another accomplice in Ilsa Hermann, the mayor's wife, when it dawns on Liesel that the library window is being left open and, in one case, a dictionary is left on the ledge.

Ramping up the tension in the story is the appearance of Max Vandenburg, a Jew, on the Hubermann's doorstep.  There is a back story which I won't get in to but as is the case when anyone is hiding with the possibility of exposure there is no doubt your heart will be in your throat a time or two.  On a personal note, this plot line reminded me of my Ukrainian father-in-law telling me that he and some housemates hid a Jewish man during World War II.  Children would run streets ahead of German soldiers on patrol to give warning and off this man would go into his hiding spot.  My in-laws met in a German labour camp so he wasn't able to get away with his plans of deception in the long run, it seems.

The most fascinating aspect of The Book Thief is that Death is the narrator.  He is surprisingly witty and caring, it's not a job he relishes and he even finds the image of himself as a grim reaper with a scythe highly amusing.  But oh, his floating above concentration camps and bomb sites waiting to collect souls is incredibly chilling and unsettling.
'The Germans in basements were pitiable, surely, but at least they had a chance,  That basement was not a washroom.  They were not sent there for a shower.  For those people, life was still achievable.'
 I loved absolutely everything about this book.  A mild obsession with oral histories relating to concentration camp experiences around twenty years ago began to darken my thoughts to the point where I had to eventually steer clear.  This book delivers so many endearing tales regarding love and compassion they override the evil of patroling Nazis and frightening politics.  You will laugh, you will cry and I guarantee you will never forget the relationships Liesel Meminger forged with her second family.