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Posts Tagged ‘1970’s’

It had been years since I’ve read Niall Williams. I own the series of nonfiction books he and Christine Breen wrote about moving from New York to County Clare. We went through a serious phase in our thirties of wanting to live radically differently than we do. We researched various alternatives, and that was how I found the Kiltumper books.

I knew that Williams went on to write fiction (and so has Breen, I learned this evening), but I hadn’t read any of his novels until now. This is Happiness caught my eye in the spring when I still thought I’d be ordering new fiction sometime this year for the library. I put a hold on the eBook and just got to check it out last week.

It’s the story of Noe, a seventeen year old who has left seminary in the early 70s and comes from Dublin to Clare to visit his grandparents, Ganga, a perennially happy but not very productive small farmer and Doady, his long suffering wife. While Noe is staying with them, their Faha, is being connected to the electrical grid. Not long after he arrives, Christy comes to board. He works for the electrical company and is there to assure the various property holders have signed off on the paperwork necessary to install the poles and lines.

But as Noe learns, Christy is really in Faha on a mission. He jilted a woman fifty years before, and is there to gain her forgiveness. In the meantime, he rides bicycles around the countryside with Noe, seeking a particular fiddle player. An unlikely friendship, this older man who is trying to walk back his regrets and a young one, unsure of his future? Perhaps, but it makes sense. In a way they are both trying to understand how best to live.

Noe is recalling all of this as an old man. Williams weaves the stories through a spring and summer when miraculously, it stops raining. Noe’s and Christy’s stories unspool slowly, and maybe because I read this book during a week when it was hot and mostly dry, that seemed fitting. At one point, Noe explains his long, winding digressions:

“The known world was not so circumscribed then nor knowledge equated with facts. Story was a kind of human binding. I can’t explain it any better than that. There was telling everywhere. Because there were fewer sources of where to find out anything, there was more listening.”

Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?

The details are so vivid in this book you’ll see the “car” Doady and Ganga take to church, pulled by an aging horse, smell the turf smoke, feel the heat that induces naps and the people bumping close together in St. Cecelia’s where everyone just moves down the pew and makes space. Williams’ musical, witty turns of phrase can help you picture expressions. For example, describing a neighbor:

“Bat was a man who tried in vain to make himself believable. He often looked like he was in mid-sum and realising he had forgotten to carry the one.”

And, when Noe develops a truly crushing crush on a young woman:

“I said her name, and, like the first man to eat the egg of a bird, felt a little ascension, and like him wouldn’t have been surprised to find feathers at my back.”

While we actually never learn whether Noe decides his future, Williams does bring Christy’s story to a tidy conclusion. And we learn that it’s his philosophy that “this is happiness” — meaning we can be content in the moment, even when things aren’t going our way (as they frequently don’t, in Faha). Ganga also ascribes to this, as he tells Rushe, and engineer from the electric company, that he and Doady aren’t “taking” the electricity which Rushe tells them contains, “In one switch, all the cures for loneliness.”

“Aren’t we happy as we are?” Ganga asks.

Imagine that. a lovely book about life and love, and yes, happiness.

 

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I order fiction at my academic library, and I like to order novels whose characters work in fields our students are studying. That is why Paradise Lodge caught my eye. Lizzie, the book’s heroine, becomes an “auxiliary nurse” at a nursing home in a former grand home in England in the 1970’s, because she wants to earn money and because a classmate is going to apply and she tags along. Lizzie soon learns that she likes working more than she likes school. Her mother wants her to study for her “O” levels, but she is drawn into the life of Paradise Lodge as it faces a crisis. The owner’s wife has gone to run a rival facility, and lures staff and potential patients away.

Stibbe peoples her novel with interesting characters — Lizzie’s free-spirited mother, a smart nurse manager, Sister Saleem, who is recruited to rescue Paradise Lodge, Matron, who may have had a tough life or may be a pathological liar (or both), the elderly residents. The story is a coming of age tale, following the ups and downs of fifteen year old Lizzie as she navigates her concerns for her family, a crush on her friend’s boyfriend, and her indecision about her future. It’s also a humorous examination of human nature, one that reminds me of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and Margaret Drabble. Both the characters and the emotional tenor of the story seem spot on.

An altogether satisfying read. I hope it will be adapted to for film or television.

 

 

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If you pick this book up after reading a blurb about it being a “sweet read” and without knowing much about McEwan, you’ll be irritated. McEwan is a master of exposing the worst of human nature. When you start a book and the opening paragraph warns you that the protagonist “was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover” you can’t expect an uplifting story to unfold. And then there’s the setting — the 1970’s weren’t exactly a sweet time.

Yes, it’s a love story, but I was suspicious of Serena’s capacity for love from the start. She’s a very mixed up person masquerading as a strong woman ready for anything. McEwan lays out the psychological workings: a distant but irreproachably admirable father, an affair with a married man old enough to be her father. That man manipulates Serena into her first job out of Cambridge, just as her parents manipulated her into studying maths instead of literature.

In her first job (at MI5) she develops a crush on another (for reasons I can’t expose without spoilers) unattainable man. This reader wanted to shout, “Serena, get a clue!” — she has so far explained her affection for a gay man, for a married man, and now for another guy who you sense will lead to nothing but grief. When she also gains a strong willed, outspoken best friend, Shirley, you think she’s going to get a clue.

But instead she walks straight into the arms of yet another man, one she meets as part of Operation Sweet Tooth. The program funnels financial support to promising anti-communist writers without their knowledge, to fight the Cold War via literature. Her affair with Tom, the writer she brings into the program (and Sweet Tooth’s only novelist) is unprofessional and she knows it. We know she’s not particularly attached to her job, that she’s there for reasons not her own, but you have to wonder, why doesn’t she just quit instead of engaging in self-sabotage? If she’s so bloody smart, why is she acting like such an idiot?

I suppose McEwan is telling us that you can be terribly smart and have marvelous opportunities (or at least as marvelous as they could be for a woman working in the British intelligence community in the 1970’s) and still be flawed, or maybe scarred. Serena thinks she’s got it all together but it turns out she doesn’t really know Tom, who never seemed quite right to me. My suspicions were confirmed late in the book, which is all I can really say without giving away the plot.

As for the writing? Brilliant. McEwan’s ability to evoke a place, a person, an emotion, damned near anything he sets out to evoke in just a few words is unparalleled. It’s a nice book for readers, because he references dozens of writers and books. It’s fun for spy thriller fans (of the old school — no special effects, just good old fashioned LeCarre style intrigue).  And the finale, in which we learn what Tom’s been up to, threw me, which I suppose is what McEwan set out to do.

Somehow I’m still not convinced Serena pulls off what McEwan wants her to. But maybe he needed her to be a less than perfect heroine in order to showcase his central premise.  Anyway it’s both smart and page-turning, original and witty and quite a fascinating take on spying and also on novel writing.  You’ll feel both smart and entertained when you’re through. But it may not entirely satisfy. I suppose that’s the trouble with having a sweet tooth — the craving never goes away.

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