Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Sensibility overwhelms Rebecca Connell's first novel "The Art of Losing"

Europa Editions

First love. Mad love. Love at sight.
Love that’s so impulsive, so addictive, it submerges self-control. 
Such is the love found and lost in The Art of Losing, a strong, youthful novel by Rebecca Connell that kept my interest, but not my passion.
Louise Knight lost her mother as a child. Now in her early 20s she pursues the man she blames for her mother’s fatal accident, Nicholas Steiner, her mother’s former lover.  She takes on her mother’s name, Lydia, and stalks him. Her quest is vague. She wants to fill in the missing pieces of the tragedy that seemingly ruined her life; revenge would also be nice. She begins by following him, then by chance meets his son, Adam who provides her with a means to get closer. She cons Adam into inviting her home for pre-holidays and moves in with him, his mother, Naomi and Nicholas.
Told in alternate chapters by Louise in present time and Nicholas, two decades earlier, the novel depicts an affair and its consequences.
Repeatedly Nicholas, Lydia and later Louise (as Lydia) and Adam act before they think or think before they act, then do whatever impulse dictates anyway.  Sometimes they struggle with conflicting impulses before giving in to the worst possible choice. The heat of the moment uncouples acts from consequences. Time and knowledge recouple them disastrously.
Sensibility, that state of heightened nerves and delicate perceptions, is Nicholas’s topic when Louise first hears him lecture. He states: “But sensibility was once the encapsulation of the finest feelings of which man was capable. An acute sensitivity to emotion, significance, mortality, all the things that still surround us in modern society but which are more often forced underground than brought out into the open. “
Surprise! Sensibility is also Connell’s theme. While she effectively depicts the Geiger counter of nervous responsiveness in several characters, she overdoes it. Sympathetic nervous systems are ramped up. Body parts are talking so nosily they almost overwhelm systems.  A few examples: Nicholas: “When I saw her, my body went into overdrive, blood pulsing through me and adrenalin spiking my skin, making me feel light headed and delirious.” (p.44)
Lydia (Louise) cries or pukes in reaction to encounters.
“Lydia can’t help her eyes from drifting around the room, searching for Adam.” (p. 67)
Nicolas; “Part of me knew it was a bad decision, but I gave myself no time to talk myself out of it.” (p 96) 
“Even as she considers the possibility, her feet have taken on a life of their own." (p. 124)
“Lydia lingers, half wanting Naomi to say something more, to delay her from going upstairs.”(p. 167) 
And on, and on.
Enough sensibility! I found myself desperately wanting a grown up to step in and shake some sense into these people. When the only one available, Louise’s father Martin does, it’s too little, too late.
Then too, plausibility is strained and the plot is somewhat predictable. I stop mid chapter distracted with questions: why doesn’t anyone set some boundaries or act on suspicions?  How coincidental that Louise is asked to leave her apartment at just the right moment. Two thirds of the way through the book, I wake after a night’s sleep and have figured out the book’s secret. I often sleep on books after finishing them, and wake to discover connections I hadn’t made while reading, marveling at subtle structures. This was different; the thrill of the thriller was gone; the drama of the psychodrama lessened. 
Connell takes her title from part of the repeated line – “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” in Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle  “One Art.”  The poem, which proves the line glib and untrue, is about maintaining composure despite losing the love of one’s life; its structure grasps control until its last line lets go in the inevitable, unavoidable disaster of grief. In it, art and emotion unite.
Connell’s book does not display that same control. Like her characters, she lacks the maturity, subtlety and restraint that come with time and practice. The art of writing’s difficult to master. She’s young. Her bio says she graduated from Oxford University in 2001, and I suspect younger readers, particularly those in the throes or aftermath of first love, might connect to the work quite differently than I do. I’d read her again. She’s already got ability and sensibility; with time and mastery, they may combine seamlessly into one art.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sunday Salon update: March 10, 2013

After two weeks of driving up and down the East coast—from Virginia to Maine to Virginia to Florida, to Virginia,  I am back online. I am also back to work at my seasonal part-time job. Alas, less reading time.
I visited relatives in both Massachusetts and Florida. I had plenty of time to listen to Jon Meacham’s new biography of Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, on audiobooks while driving. It presents Jefferson as a philosopher politician, one who thought idealistically, but acted practically, which translated to compromising  principles to get things done. A rare idea! What impressed me most was how much Meachem put Jefferson’s concerns in context, particularly his fears of the possible return to monarchy.  Partisan politics thrived even in the early years of our country. What treacherous times! I also had forgotten that long before the Civil War the “united” states were not convinced they wanted to stay that way; in our country’s infancy sections of states were often on the verge of saying “We don’t like your (the other guy’s) policy. We quit.” Northeastern States threatened secession twice during Jefferson’s presidency alone. It’s amazing we even have a country. Actor Edward Hermann read the audiobook. I love his voice.
I also read Ian Rankin’s Naming the Dead, a Rebus crime novel. I’m catching up on back titles by this Scottish author, inspired by recent reads about Irish crime.
I have now finished and reviewed the three crime novels by Irish writer Gene Kerrigan as part of the Europa Challenge. I  posted a review of The Midnight Choir this week. People here are just beginning to discover him. His newly released book, The Rage, is climbing the NYT bestseller list.
I also finished The Art of Losing, by the British writer Rebecca Connell, a short thriller and another Europa Edition.  A strong first novel with some flaws. Will post a review soon.
I love the Europa challenge; this Penguin imprint has opened a whole new world of international literature to me.  Europa specializes in international literary fiction – books that often make bestseller lists in other countries but are unknown here, and Europa Noir, -- international mysteries that do the same. What could be better! Currently reading Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, another Europa.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Many voices unite for cacophony of crimes in Gene Kerrigan's "The Midnight Choir"

Dissonant singing – squealing on others in order to benefit oneself  -- sets the tone of  The Midnight Choir.  Irish writer Gene Kerrigan takes the title of his crime novel from a line by Leonard Cohen:
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free
 One character after another does in somebody else, then finds a way to justify the act. It isn’t just the singing that jangles. The novel could well serve as a series of case studies in what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” When one’s behavior contradicts one’s beliefs, there’s so much uncomfortable mental noise that people change the beliefs to align with the actions.  In this book even the most despicable can convince themselves they are somehow “doing the right thing.” 
Set during one week in the lives of several Irish police officers or “garda,” and those they investigate, The Midnight Choir is made up of many voices. As in other Kerrigan crime novels, several incidents requiring police attention intertwine. In Galway a cop, Joe Mills talks a suicidal man from jumping off a roof; the man is incoherent, covered in blood, and later states:  “I’d never hurt a woman before.” What woman, where? Mills and his partner seek the source of the blood.
In Dublin Detective Inspector Henry Synnott and Detective Rose Cheney investigate a rape.
Dixie Peyton, a widowed single mom, tries to rob an American tourist and gets nabbed in the process. She asks her jailers for Synnott. She’ll trade information, as she’s done before, for lighter treatment and the chance to save her son. The hoodlum Lar Mackendrick she’s snitching on is a big catch – and a very dangerous man.
Joshua Boyce stakes out and robs a jewelry store, but his escape includes some unplanned events that make the crime worse. Synnott knows Boyce did it, but needs to find a way to prove his guilt.
Synnott, a central character in this book, is a man who established his reputation for “telling the truth” by ratting on and testifying against other cops two decades earlier. His crime-solving methods have won high-profile cases, but garnered suspicion and made enemies among those he’s worked with. He’s up for a possible promotion, but needs to put the rape and the robbery he’s investigating behind him first.
Dixie, desperate Dixie, another central character, can’t catch a break. Despite drug addiction, losing her son, and several failed attempts at raising cash, she believes she’s got a shot at escaping the criminal life and raising her infant son.
            Somehow, I may not believe, but desperately hope that’s true. To the very end, I’m rooting against ruthlessness, rooting for Dixie.
Kerrigan makes harmony of discord by thematically and dramatically tying plotlines together: characters betray, even kill and justify their actions. The writer reserves the most brutal and emotionally difficult scene for a crime against a woman (something he will do again in The Rage.) Here he adds an extra layer: Who is worse the perpetrator of violence or the one who could have stopped it? Like other characters, both find ways to explain their actions to themselves. Kerrigan also repeats actions in slight variation. When we first meet Dixie, a syringe is dropped. A version of this action happens with Dixie again towards book’s end. 
Similarly, the O’Connell Bridge at the book’s very end literally and figuratively links it to the next in the series.
            As I learn to read Kerrigan’s crime novels, I grow in admiration of them. Like others of its kind, this series is best read in order. The Midnight Choir relates to the Europa edition that precedes it – Little Criminals, and the newly released Europa that follows it, The Rage. This series differs from others in that Kerrigan doesn’t focus on a single character; his series is not about an individual cop or criminal. It’s about a landscape of cops and criminals located primarily in Dublin over time. Minor characters in one book become major players in another.
           John Grace, who worked a case in Little Criminals has worked with Synnott in the past. Synnott attends Grace’s retirement party in The Midnight Choir. Synnott’s present partner Rose Cheney will partner with Bob Tidey, who also has a minor role in Choir, in The Rage.  Lar Mackendrick’s life habits have changed and he’s now running things alone in Choir after the death of his brother Jo-Jo and his mother  -- as related in Little Criminals.
Assistant commissioner Colin O’ Keefe and Detective Chief Superintendent Malachy Hogg preside over the detective, in all three novels, but have small roles.
            For Kerrigan the choice allows him to explore many personalities and interactions over time. For the reader, it offers an expansive view of the city and a chance to hear many stories, many voices.
It’s a view and a sound I look forward to enjoying in the next installment, whenever it's released.
This is the fourth book I have read this year for the Europa Challenge.