05 September 2016

Library Limelights 114

Emma Beddington. We'll Always Have Paris. UK: Macmillan, 2016.
Emma, Emma, Emma! My favourite-ever blogger! Her first book, my eagerly awaited long-distance package arriving via Scotland and Holland. I'm one of her countless fans who feel as if we know her, but new personal details are disclosed here. The crazy self-disparaging humour of her blog (BelgianWaffling) carries over perfectly to an autobiographical account of her long obsession with trying and failing to be French. For reasons related to her blog, I expected the book to be about cake. French pastry, that is. Well, that's in it too. Blogging became her outlet for expressing what she cannot speak ― and this is a woman who writes for The Guardian!

But the real story follows her struggles to adapt and adjust her goal as husband and children enter her life. Is her wish to be French really a painful search for independence? ... Trite fare? Not from English-born Emma who admits along the way that she has "a bottomless well of Britishness, stewing like tea in a WI urn." Her yearning is sprinkled with bits of French literature classics, even as she notes numerous unpleasant realities of living in the City of Light. Turns out that concierges and landlords and shopkeepers and people on the street terrify her. In the most hilarious way. Olivier, the love of her life, is a caring, all-forgiving man, steadfast through her yo-yo phases of self-discovery. Eventually choosing a home in Brussels is a compromise, not a failure.

Words: veronal - the brand name for an old barbiturate
oxytocin - a hormone related to human reproduction and bonding
rumspringa - a rite of passage in Amish/Mennonite communities when youngsters have freedom to explore something of the world and relationships with each other, finally being expected to choose staying with the church or not.

If only I had given birth to puppies instead of children, perhaps everything would have been different, I think, a little sourly. (311)
On some level, I suppose I think that Belgium will be like France with training wheels, and Brussels like Paris for the psychically feeble, but it becomes very obvious to me very soon after we move in that I am wrong. (231)

The Parisian apartment:
In our block the promiscuity of collective living is less a conduit for immorality than a resented source of constant conflict. Everyone wants peace and no-one can have it, so we peck at each other mechanically like battery chickens. As the new chickens on the block, we draw a considerable amount of the available ire.
First, we mark ourselves out as undesirables by having children. Next, unforgivably, we get the lift wrong. I know this because a smartly dressed middle-aged couple knock on our door, brimming with outrage, to tell us so. Apparently, by failing to close the creaky concertina door correctly, we have blocked the lift on our floor. Finding the lift incriminatingly stuck here, this couple have identified us as the culprits.
"IT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE," says the man, putting his face, which has become puce, close to mine. He is wearing a dark red paisley scarf tucked into a fine dark tweed jacket and he smells of deliciously expensive aftershave. Probably Guerlaine, I think, and start wondering what it is, but my reverie is interrupted by his wife, who looms over his shoulder in patent heels, a short, tight Catherine Deneuve-style skirt and a cloud of disapproval to add "SO inconsiderate!" (82-3)

Everyone's a critic:
Outside our handsome building full of people who hate us is all of Paris, gorgeous dreamy Paris, the city of all my childhood dreams. Unfortunately everyone there seems to hate us too.
Perhaps hate is too strong; it's more that they find us tremendously irritating. My mere existence seems to be an affront to much of Paris, which is a serious blow to my belief that I am a French person trapped in an Englishwoman's body, just waiting for the opportunity to emerge, ice cool, uncompromising and unapologetic. 
Day after day, walking to the shops and the market, I am subjected to a surprising – to me at least, used to the blanket indifference of London – barrage of criticism. I thought the social contract of capital cities (you leave me alone, I leave you alone) was the same everywhere in Europe, but it appears I was wrong. Strangers, passers-by, stop to tell me I am walking too slowly or in the wrong place, that my toddler needs to stop shouting or that his sticky fingers have no place on that shop window. The baby attracts a particular brand of ire, which is mainly directed at how he is dressed. Why, women ask me, incensed, is he not wearing a hat (it is May and 20◦C)? Where are his socks (he has probably taken them off and dropped them)? Why have I not brought a blanket (see above, May, 20◦C)? (101-2)

Deidre S. Laiken. Death Among Strangers. USA: Landmark/Macmillan (large print), 1987.
George is a divorced cop in small-town upstate New York, obsessively devoted to his job and ambivalent about his new relationship with Elizabeth. The vicious murder of a young girl absorbs him while Elizabeth secretly dallies with Gary, a magnetic, itinerant photographer. She comes to realize there are depths to her own nature that scare her, although all the characters appear to stumble with their own feelings, let alone the ability to express them. Seeing (as opposed to looking at) another person as they really are is a recurrent element, along with the complexities of parent-child trust. The vague and dubious abnormal psychology left me impassive.

"A photographer is like a thief―only people don't miss the things he steals." (227)
She hoped that after a while he would become part of her past, melting silently into her gallery of old lovers. (252)

Elizabeth reflects:
He had been here, at the door. That meant he remembered where she lived. Perhaps she would see him again. But of course that was no longer important. She went into the bathroom to splash cold water on her face and touch up her lipstick. A futile gesture, but she was too nervous to do anything else.
Looking into the bathroom mirror, she almost expected to see another face staring at her. This has got to stop, she thought. Perhaps all this talk about death and danger, and the very real possibility that a murderer was in the vicinity, was creating her discomfort. Who wouldn't be frightened? (79)

Can numb be hungry?
There were times when Gary felt the intensity of his obsession with photography. At other times he felt only the numbness and the hunger to stretch the limits of his vision. Danger fueled his art. Walking the thin line between the possible and the unthinkable excited him. Gary believed risks were necessary. There was nothing safe about the worlds he wanted to explore, nothing ordinary in the forbidden portraits he longed to create. (112)

Another kind of danger:
He was more aware now than ever that he did not have the protection of his uniform. This place, these people were out of his jurisdiction. He was putting his career on the line for a girl he didn't know.
By the time George reached the third floor, he felt the familiar fear. He had experienced it first as a young cop walking a beat. It had returned that rainy night when he had approached what he thought was a disabled car by the side of the highway; it was the same fear that had surfaced as he dragged the body of the murdered girl from behind the gravedigger's shed.
Then he felt the rush―an equal mixture of terror and excitement. (213)

William Trevor. Felicia's Journey. Toronto: Vintage Books/Random House, 1994.
This is a small literary gem of a "thriller," a prize-winning novel for the author. His descriptions of working-class Irish and English life are evocative and resonating. Teenaged, pregnant Felicia leaves Ireland to find, in England, the boy Johnny who abandoned her. With only the slightest of information at hand, she searches factory towns to find him, meeting colourful characters on her mission. One of them, Miss Calligary, is a door-to-door evangelist who wants to assist. Another who befriends her is Mr. Hilditch, who keeps his secret fantasy life to himself.

It's not an uncommon tale ― the plight of an innocent "abroad" ― but the milieu through which Felicia moves and which Hilditch inhabits is populated with finely-drawn human beings, people on the lower end of the social scale. Anxiety over her failing quest, hampered by the overly solicitous Hilditch, brings memories of home increasingly to her mind. A little depressing, ultimately. Atom Egoyan made an equally praised movie (1998) based on the book with minor story alterations.

One-liner: Listening, not saying much herself, Felicia feels that all of it is more like a dream than reality: she has never in her life met people like this before, nor even known that such people exist. (88)

At home:
Her father would be on the way back from Heverin's with the Irish Press, her brothers' heavy morning footsteps just beginning. In the bedroom she left behind, the jigsaw pieces would be scattered on the bedclothes and on the floor, the few the old woman managed to interlock fallen apart, the jigsaw tray slipped down between the bed and the wall. In a moment there would be the bedpan, her father having to heave the old woman on his own. (32)

On the streets:
As they walk, Lena talks a lot. Stale as old cabbage, a prison social worker is; another one's called Miss Rubbish. She was lucky, this time, with her cell-mate. "Wants me to go in with her when she gets out, Phyllsie does. Some type of dodge she has with the benefit. I wouldn't go in with no one, Felicia, I give it to her honest. Now I've found the boy I ain't looking for nothing else. Me and George stick together, Felicia, know what I mean? I wouldn't want nothing dodgy there, not with young George. Don't know the meaning of it, the boy don't." (105)

"You said you couldn't face them, dear. You said it to me several times in the car. I'm nervous for you, dear."
"I have to go."
"You weren't at all well in the car. I thought I'd have to send for assistance the way you were in the hall. You can't set out on a journey in that condition, dear."
"I shouldn't have done it."
"What's done's done, dear. No one ever got rich on regrets. What about the bright side, eh? For as long as you want it, Felicia, there's a welcome at Number Three. You have your own little room now. The sensible thing would be if we took it day by day." (148)

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