Reviews: J

Review: “Berlin Syndrome” by Melanie Joosten [2011]

Disclaimer: This is a review copy kindly sent to me by Scribe.

It is Berlin, 2006 and Claire, a woman from Melbourne, is mid-way drifting through a backpacking slash working holiday through the old Soviet countries. Claire is an architectural photographer and is working on a coffee table book of Soviet buildings. While visiting Checkpoint Charlie, Claire meets a local man, Andi, who randomly offers her strawberries. Delighted by this chance encounter, Claire sits down to chat with Andi who lets on the meeting may not have been random:

‘Sometimes I like to just sit there and complicate the world.’

He had watched for her reaction.

Clare had laughed, throwing her head back in a pantomime of enjoyment. Would it annoy him after some time? Would he stop trying to make her laugh?

Complicate? You mean contemplate…but it’s very funny.’

He had laughed with her. It was a good choice. He had almost gone with compensate. Consummate. Concentrate. Consecrate. Complicate had definitely been the best choice. – p. 15

Claire and Andi both connect and are attracted to each other but neither work up the courage to say anything. They go their separate ways but through another chance encounter at a bookstore a few days later, Claire goes home with Andi. The two begin a seemingly normal relationship and both Claire and Andi connect through their mutual disconnection in the world. Claire has left and given up keeping in touch with her friends and family, only sending her mother a few emails here and there to let her know that Claire is alright. Constantly travelling, Claire is searching for something that she cannot define and constantly looking into the distance.

‘But maybe we are always looking forward to something else,’ he  said … ‘I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Not if there are things to look forward to.’

‘It is impossible to be present in the present.’ [Claire] – p. 51

Andi only has his father with whom he shares a stilted relationship. Both are alone in the world. The romance develops but it soon disintegrates into something entirely sinister beginning with a locked front door:

She felt slighted, wanted to kick something. She gave the door a half-hearted nudge with the toe of her shoe. It was one thing not to be able to get in. But not get out? How could he have forgotten she was here? How could he have locked her in? She kicked the door again, harder, and a scuff mark appeared like a rebuke. – p. 57

Andi, utterly but quite rationally in love with Claire but completely deluded, wants to ensure that she won’t be able to leave him and so virtually keeps Claire locked in his apartment. He brings her gifts and does not harm her, hoping that Claire will soon warm to the idea and return his love once again. Like most lovers, Andi wants to save Claire:

‘Running away? What have I [Claire] ever run away from? You don’t know me at all!’

‘I’m just trying to help. I’m giving you a place just to be yourself. In the moment, not looking to the future. That’s what you said you wanted, isn’t it?’ He is doing this for her. Why can she not see that? – p. 97

Andi lives in an isolated apartment block and have taken away all forms of communication from Claire. Trapped, Claire eventually reforms a rather twisted relationship with Andi who wants nothing but Claire.

Berlin Syndrome is a really thrilling read and is the debut novel from a Melbourne writer. The prose is sparse but polished and, I found, very elegant. The small, claustrophobic cast was well drawn and in a rather bizarre sense, both Claire and Andi really complemented one another. They were really two lost souls and you felt for their loneliness and disconnectedness. I’m wondering if the title is a play on Stockholm Syndrome? I don’t want to put anybody off but if you liked Room by Emma Donoghue or Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson, then you’ll probably like this too because it’s in a similar vein.

Review: “Light Boxes” by Shane Jones [2009]

Originally published in Baltimore, USA in 2009 with an original print run of 500, it quickly gained notoriety through word of mouth and the underground. Penguin then purchased the rights and republished it under their imprint Hamish Hamilton and that’s how one copy landed in my hands all the way down in Australia.

In Light Boxes, February is punishing the townspeople and it has frozen the season for more than 300 days and counting. The townspeople have suffered through a never ending onslaught of snow and ice. Flight has also been banned and the sky is empty. Theddeus, Selah and their daughter Bianca try to keep their spirits up. Theddeus have drawn balloons on Bianca’s arms to inspire them all that they will one day fly again in their hot air balloons and their kites.

Every night, Selah makes a concoction overpowering with mint to repel February and to keep their family safe. Children have begun to disappear with increasing frequency. Some townspeople, calling themselves The Solution, are waging a war against February. They wear masks of birds as disguises. Theddeus joins in the war effort although their efforts do minimal damage to the all mighty February. One night, Bianca disappears from her bedroom with only the scent of smoke and honey lingering and Selah is overcome with grief. When Theddeus attempts to exact revenge and goes to find February in his house at the edge of the woods, the mystery of February deepens.

This book, while short in length, is difficult to describe. It’s a play, an experiment on the traditional book form and prose but the storytelling is equally as effective. Light Boxes is enchanting, whimsical and rather brutal in some parts. The idea of February (aligned with the Northern Hemisphere seasons) dominating the townsfolk can also connote depression or seasonal mental disorders as suggested by this (one of many) great little list in the novel:

Lists of Artists Who Created Fantasy Worlds to Try and Cure Bouts of Sadness:

1. Italo Calvino

2. Garcia Marquez

3. Jim Henson and Jorge Borges – Labyrinth (s)

4. The creator of Myspace

5. Richard Brautigan

6. J.K. Rowling

7. The inventor of the Children’s toy Lite-Brite

8. D.A. Levy

9. David Foster Wallace

10. Gauguin and the Caribbean

11. Charles Schulz

12. Liam Rector

– p. 98

I’m not sure how accurate this list is but I do know J.K. Rowling did suffer depression.

Light Boxes was a unique, delightful and highly satisfying read not to mention that the cover is gorgeous. If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend it.

Review: “Milk and Honey” by Elizabeth Jolley [1984]

It’s such a shame that Elizabeth Jolley’s works are quite difficult to find and that she has become somewhat obscure. Except for The Well, not many of her other writing are published. Some of her titles are being republished by Penguin Modern Classics with beautiful new covers but I haven’t seen many, if any, of them in stores.

I don’t know why I decided to reserve Milk and Honey from my library when I saw it on the list. The title is indeed quite intriguing and the story rather bizarre. The story is narrated by Jacob, also known as Jackyboy by his lover Madge, who we know from the beginning is dead. He makes his living as a failing door-to-door salesman, trying to etch out a life in a dreary town, in a dreary little house, with his silent and exhausted wife and young daughter. Their lives are only slightly cheered every Sunday when a family friend, who we later find out is Madge’s widower, visits although Jacob is irritated by Norman. Jacob’s hands are also hideously disfigured and he recounts what his life was once was.

Coming from an immigrant family, Jacob is sent to board at a music teacher and his family’s house when Jacob is around fourteen. The family, lead by the elderly Leopold, originate from Austria. The large, run down house is also inhabited by Leopold’s two sisters, the stern Tante Rosa and aunt Heloise. There is also Leopold’s teenage daughter Louise and son, Waldemar. Waldemar likes to play harmless jokes on Jacob, is heavily spoilt by his family and loves sweet biscuits, milk and honey. Louise and Jacob bond but he is still being constantly teased by Waldemar. At the urgings of Leopold, Tante Roas and aunt Heloise, Jacob finally gives Waldemar a whack on the chest from which the overweight Waldemar promptly dies from. To Jacob’s surprise, the family loves Jacob all the more for it and treats him as a hero and not a murderer. With this hanging on Jacob’s conscience, he throws himself what he loves best – playing the cello.

When I played the cello and the cello hesitated, poised on a single note so pure and restrained and lovely I closed my eyes with an exquisite love of the cello. I was in love with the cello. – p. 35

Kept isolated in the house and living and breathing music, Jacob passes his teenage years. The only times he ventures outside is to accompany Leopold on his weekly trips to the local psychiatric hospital where he plays the piano for the women’s ward. Jacob also begins to play with an orchestra where he meets Madge who, although Jacob does not realise this for some time, represents freedom and the life he has missed out on. When Jacob’s father suddenly dies Jacob inherits his father’s small wealth. He also quickly becomes engaged to and marries Louise. Without any action on Jacob’s part, he has been entirely consumed by the household.

In spite of  spending my afternoon resting and planning ways in which I could enjoy my new freedom, I felt tied into the house, joined to the people by invisible cords. It was by their acts of kindness they imprisoned me. As a boy  I had only to call out in a dream and Tante Rosa was immediately beside my bed to comfort me. Leopold was devoting himself to my music lessons. And, I was, without any effort on my part, engaged to Louise. I wanted all that I had, but I wanted something else as well. – p. 57

Jacob begins an affair with Madge and attempts to loosen his ties to the house which is now near impossible. He soon discovers, but refuses to believe, that Waldemar is still alive after all and has been living on the top floor of the house from which Jacob has always been forbidden. Another twist comes when Louise, the timid and obedient girl, reveals she is pregnant soon into the marriage even though she and Jacob failed to have sex on their wedding night.

Milk and Honey is a very quiet book and yet it is constantly filled with tension. Elizabeth Jolley effortlessly evokes the heavy, stifled atmosphere and pushes the reader gently along. That Waldemar has an undisclosed mental impairment is never loudly revealed but Jolley gently guides the reader to realisation. I love that the house is featured as a supporting character. The Leopold family remains mysterious, particularly Louise who remains a silent figure going about the daily drudgery of life having never quite lived. The title, of course, refers to how one can catch a bee more easily with honey than with a trap. None of the characters, except Leopold, were particularly likeable. Jacob himself was quite self absorbed but who can really blame him after spending his formative years virtually a prisoner?

‘All whom I held in my arms did not remain

but you are reborn again and again:

because I never held you, I hold you for ever.’

“You don’t love anyone except yourself Jacob. You don’t want the words to sing for me Jacob. You want them for someone else.” – p. 164

Review: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson [1962]

Shirley Jackson’s classic American gothic tale is narrated by eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood, also known as Merricat. From the beginning, Merricat’s distinct way of narration and flow of her mind is obvious:

I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister, Constance, and Richard Plantagenent, and ‘Amanita phalloides’, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.” – p. 1

The mention of the Amanita phalloides is a sly reference to the mystery surrounding the Blackwood family which consists only of the two sisters and their elderly and ill Uncle Julius. Six years earlier, everybody else in the Blackwood family died from arsenic poisoning. Constance was accused of putting the arsenic in the sugar because she didn’t take any that fateful night. Furthermore, Constance had admitted to washing out the sugar bowl before the police arrived but was later acquitted of the murders. The rest of the village refuse to believe Constance’s innocence and continue to ostracize the already despised Blackwood family

The Blackwoods live isolated on their property hidden away from the rest of the village and protected by overgrown trees and plants. There, the girls live a well ordered and methodical life. Constance, being ten years older than Merricat, is preoccupied by her vegetable garden, cooking and baking and looking after Uncle Julius. Merricat, despite being eighteen, is only allowed to do certain things that Constance allows such as carrying tea things but not allowed to pour the tea. Uncle Julius, seeming to suffer from a form of Alzheimer’s although it is never mentioned, works on his book about the infamous Blackwood poisoning but continues to forget where in time he is. The trio live quietly in this manner until their estranged Cousin Charles comes knocking one day, breaking the rhythms of the house and family to the distress of Merricat.

Merricat is a fascinating character. She is in a way quite infantile but, at the same time, she is very protective of Constance and does everything she can to protect her from the scorn of the village. There are several oddities to Merricat who, on the surface, can seem to be extremely superstitious. She believes in signs and protective totems, having nailed a book to a tree and buried a boxful of silver coins to secure their property. She believes in magic words that loses their protective powers once they are uttered. I thought that Merricat might have suffered from a minor form of autism while Joyce Carol Oates, in her afterword, suggested a form of paranoid schizophrenia. Considering these, Merricat is a most unreliable narrator and, as readers, we can never be sure of what she says. Castle is a suspenseful and terrific read with a brilliant twist and revelation. I’m hooked onto Shirley Jackson!

Review: “The Well” by Elizabeth Jolley [1986]

The Well is a spine-tingling and deliciously sinister story in a non-traditional way. Set in the vast dry and dusty Australian countryside, the novel explores the relationship between the elderly Hester Harper and her young ward and companion Katherine, an orphan Hester has unofficially adopted one day.

“What have you brought me then?” …

“I’ve brought Katherine, father,” Miss Harper said … “But she’s for me.” – p. 10

For the lonely and isolated Hester, who also struggles with a lame leg, Katherine is the only companion or friend Hester has had in a long while. Having been alone with her father for most of her life on the desolated farm, with the exception of the family’s accountant, Mr Bird, and Hester’s one time governess, Hilde Herzfeld, Hester craves companionship.

From the beginning, there is an instant connection between Hester and Katherine and the bond only strengthens after Hester’s father dies. Now a free and relatively wealthy woman, Hester spoils Katherine and satisfies her every whim. Their lives descend into a slight hedonistic haze, giving themselves decadent and wasteful banquets every night,  going on shopping sprees and getting into the habit of drinking champagne with their cornflakes at breakfast. Katherine is flushed with life and Hester, never given the opportunity to quite live, is living through Katherine. Because of this, and somewhat due to her upbringing, Hester becomes quite possessive of Katherine. She holds contempt against Katherine’s only other friend who she writes to constantly, but not without Hester reading each and every letter first, and the two women eventually become extremely isolated when the main house is leased, and they to a small out-of-way cottage with a dried up well.

It is while Katherine, still learning, is driving recklessly the two women back home from a party on the dark and usually deserted road, that she hits something. When they decide to dump the creature into the unused well, it is when all their troubles begin and the relationship between Hester and Katherine begins to unravel when Katherine starts hearing a voice coming from the well.

This was a thrilling read and, while it is spine-tingling and sinister, it is unlike other any other thrillers. The Well focuses more on the psychological aspects of the sinister, of the emotionally deprived Hester and the somewhat blank and unformed Katherine. Their relationship bordered somewhat onto the homoerotic and as Jolley dangled them along the ledge, I was constantly reminded of another female relationship in a subsequent novel, Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal (which of course came after Jolley’s).

Review: “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James

I sobbed in despair: ‘I don’t save or shield them! It’s far worse than I dreamed. They’re lost!’

Henry James’ curious gothic short story remains very ambiguous. More well known for his novels than short stories, exploration of women and society rather than gothic, horror tales, this short story shows a lesser known side of James. Turn of the Screw is told to an unknown narrator while he is staying in an hotel. The story survives in an old journal that once belonged to the young governess who is now long dead. It is her tale that we hear.

Taking up a governess position in the isolated country side, she is placed in charge of two young children who have been recently orphaned. The children’s guardian, their uncle, while generous with his wages and flexibility to the young governess has one condition – that the governess must never bother him with anything and that she should deal with everything as she sees fit. Once installed in the isolated mansion, the governess (who remains unnamed) suspects that something sinister has taken place on the grounds. She instantly falls in love with her young charges, Flora and Miles, who appear to be the most beautiful and angelic children. However, the governess soon realises that they are haunted by Miss Jessel, the previous governess, and Peter Quint, a previous groundsman.

Turn of the Screw is unlike any other gothic, horror story I’ve read. There’s the suspense and the chills and thrills but the horror is what you imagine yourself. The ambiguity throughout the story, with James refusing to spell out in detail what the exact horrors are, keeps the suspense up. While it is short story, the writing is very dense and intense and it seems so much more than a short tale. Character’s are so in-depth that I didn’t realise that the governess remains nameless! It is, however, not an easy read but it is one of those tales that I will go back to from time to time in order to gain new understanding.