03 June 2017

Library Limelights 134

Ruth Ware. The Woman in Cabin 10. Toronto: Simon & Schuster Canada, 2016.
Laura Blackstock is a journalist for a travel magazine, whose boss sends her on the maiden voyage of a new, small luxury ship. They will be sailing the Norwegian fjords as she tries to reconcile her feelings about her lover Judah. Laura's assignment is to send articles about the ship and its passengers a collection of twelve wealthy and/or celebrity guests. Somewhat derailed and sleepless after a frightening incident at her apartment, Laura drags herself on board to find that she's acquainted with a few others, particularly her ex-boyfriend Ben. She's barely met them all when she half-witnesses what she thinks is a murder in the cabin next door. No-one seems to believe her, a woman who periodically suffers from panic attacks.

It becomes a heart stopper, guessing what is real and what may be Laura's imagination. The insertion of post facto reports from the home front are a brilliant addition to the suspense; understanding the timing is crucial. And you may find yourself drawing diagrams of the ship's cabins. At times Laura's paranoia seems a bit over the top, making me distance myself. Likewise, her ultimate dash for freedom skeptically conjures a bionic woman. Nevertheless, Ware has fashioned a superbly chilling read, worthy of the best British thriller writers.

One-liners:
Apparently the majority of ball gowns were designed by five-year-old girls armed with glitter guns, but at least this one didn't look entirely like an explosion in a Barbie factory. (52)
I dreamed of her laughing eyes white and bloated with salt water, of her soft skin, wrinkled and sloughing, of her T-shirt ripped by jagged rocks and disintegrating into rags. (159)
I might as well have been in outer space, screaming into a soundless vacuum. (237-8)

Deprivation:
Was this it, then? Was I never going to sleep again?
I had to sleep. I had to. I'd had ... I counted on my fingers, unable to do the maths in my head. What ... less than four hours of sleep in the last three days.
I could taste sleep. I could feel it, just out of my reach. I had to sleep. I just had to. I was going to go crazy if I didn't sleep.
The tears were coming againI didn't even know what they were. Tears of frustration? Rage, at myself, at the burglar? Or just exhaustion?I only knew that I couldn't sleepthat it was dangling like an unkept promise just inches away from me. I felt like I was running towards a mirage that kept receding, slipping away faster and faster the more desperately I ran. (21)

The end?
"Bye, Judah."
"'Bye'? What do you mean, 'bye."
"Whatever you want."
"What I want is for you to stop acting like a goddamn drama queen and move into my flat. I love you, Lo!"
The words hit me like a slap. I stopped in the doorway, feeling the weight of my tiredness like something physical around my neck, pulling me down.
Hands in pale latex, the sound of a laugh ..."Lo?" Judah said uncertainly.
"I can't do this," I said, my face to the hallway. I was not sure what I was talking aboutI can't leave; I can't stay; I can't have this conversation, this life, this everything. "I justI have to go." (33)

Searching for a phantom:
"N-no ... there's no-one on the sailing crew who could fit that description," Ulla said slowly. "On the staff there is also Eva, but she is too old. Have you spoken to the kitchen staff?"
"Never mind." I was beginning to despair. This was starting to feel like a recurrent nightmare, interviewing person after person after person, while all the while the memory of the dark-haired girl began to dissolve and shimmer, slipping through my fingers like water. The more faces I saw, each corresponding slightly but not completely to my memory, the harder I was finding it to hold on to the image in my head. (120)


Antonin Varenne. Bed of Nails (2009). USA: MacLehose Press/Quercus, 2014.
The French are not often like you and me or the rest of the world. Which is to say this particular writer, at any rate, is so far from the usual formulas of police novels that his main character is in and out of an alternate universe. Lt. Guérin of the Paris police suicides investigations convinces himself that a rash of recent suicides are all related. "Everything is connected" is his motto; coincidence is not in his lexicon. He also concludes "the world of men" is a bed of nails. Guérin is a pariah among his colleagues, regarded as a lunatic, except by his loyal sidekick, Lambert. One of those suicides was an American for whom an old friend, John Nichols, is called to identify the body. Nichols is also not a stock character: a graduate psychologist, he prefers living rough and alone deep in a French forest.

Getting into the style and content takes some perseverance but rewards await. Nichols' dead friend died in distasteful circumstances ― Alan had been a heroin junkie who made money with fakir acts, torturing himself. Nichols is sad and puzzled by Alan's action, then finds more to the story. Inevitably he joins up with Guérin who is also committed to exposing some of his corrupt colleagues. Lambert worries about his boss overthinking everything, that the mental energy will burn up his brain. It's an extremely mixed bag ― shadowy background presences, sinister CIA practices, an ex-con camping in a city park, and a psychology thesis, not to mention Guérin's abominable parrot named Churchill. For something completely different ...

One-liners:
The old men, cloth caps pulled down over their heads, their outlines as angular as the twisted arms of sundials, projected onto the steps shadows of a timeless rural existence. (15)
Alan's absence, even though it seemed unreal, was revealing a presence whose weight he had not yet measured. (37)
"Unemployment, brother, is the mother of vice." (132)
He had been hurtling along like a scalded cat, only to get there an hour early. (181)

Two-liner:
Lambert sighed deeply. The American was even nuttier than his boss. (174)

Musings on the job:
Being nice wasn't a quality required in this building. Indeed, one had to admit in the end that it was of little use. Any niceness you had, you got rid of as fast as possible, feeling a bit ashamed, like losing your virginity to some broken-down hooker. Lambert wondered if the boss―forty-two years old, thirteen of them in the job―was perhaps making this unnatural exception in his case only. Another reason, he told himself, not to act like a dickhead. Guérin was certainly capable of the opposite.
[NP]Trainee officer Lambert, who sometimes pursued his thought to its exact limits, wondered whether the boss wasn't in fact using him as a sort of lifebelt, a refuge for his feelings. When he lost himself in these hypothetical ramblings, generally after a few beers, the image of the dog and its master came back every time. In the end, it summed up their relationship pretty clearly. For the humble, humiliation is the first step toward recognition. (5)

Guérin's theory dissolves:
Everything was falling apart, the elements were becoming atomized. The yellow raincoat had got bigger, or else Guérin had shrunk. Churchill was sulking as he slipped into depression. The apartment had become a mausoleum to the memory of his mother, watched over by a neurotic parrot. There were no more temper tantrums or cackles, only silence. Guérin had lost the thread. He simply saw a parallel between his own condition and that of the world: they were both chaotic, no need to imagine any conspiracy, just a complex mass alternating between hazardous free will and anarchic disintegration. In that steaming cauldron, anything might make sense. (136)

Bunker, the ex-con:
The fashions, gestures, colors, and shapes around him meant absolutely nothing to him. He was from a completely different age: twenty-five years too late. He thought: I kept my regrets warm, I built walls thicker than a prison's. I was a coward. I just didn't face them, and I thought I'd got rid of them. And then along comes this kid with his rotten backpack and his pal who sticks needles in himself ... (182)

Camilla Grebe. The Ice Beneath Her. USA: Ballantine Books, 2016.
Here's a perfectly crafted Scandinavian (Swedish) noir suspense novel. A gruesome murder is discovered in a wealthy suburban house but the homeowner has disappeared. Narration shifts between Emma the solitary introvert, Peter the police detective, and psychologist Hanne, his once-lover. Emma's secret affair with the CEO of a fashion retail conglomerate meets unforeseen problems when she wants more from Jesper. Peter is wrestling with his personal responsibilities and feelings when Hanne comes to consult in the investigation. Hanne herself is existentially burdened with the onset of dementia and a loveless marriage.

Revealing too much about the story would give away critical plot development. But the characters are defined by past life events and their unarticulated feelings. Themes of abandonment by mothers and lovers, and men who fear commitment, recur. Emma's narcissistic, alcoholic mother and Hanne's controlling husband among other minor players are catalysts for propelling the action. Grebe is in top form, right up there with masters of the genre.

Emma:
It's as if my value is in some way dependent on him wanting me more than I want him–or at least wanting me as much. (33)
I always thought it strange that he didn't want his name on the door, but he said he preferred anonymity. (74)
Peter:
These days, I have difficulty finding meaning in what I do. (6)
The thought of the mother of my child fighting a life-threatening disease left me completely unmoved. (254)
Hanne:
My intellect, my memory, is disintegrating, fragmenting into small, elusive crumbs that no longer join into any meaningful whole. (40)
If you don't stay up to speed on cultural life, you'll end up embarrassed and silent at our dinner parties. (44)

Helpless:
I like to imagine memory as a web, and my web has holes in it here and there that will grown and multiply over time. As if someone used a cigarette to burn holes into my web at random. So far, I can compensate for them, hide them from the people around me. But eventually the disease will eat up the web, until only thin threads hold together whatever pieces remain.
Sometimes I wonder what I'll be left with then. I mean, a person consists of their accumulated experiences, thoughts, and memories. If those are gone―who am I? Someone else? Something else? (115-6)

Half full or half empty?
But most of all I think about how I felt when I was with her. How marvelously wide open, vulnerable, and light I became.Like a feather.Who says it can't be like that again? Who decided it can't happen?Life is about loss, my mother used to say when she stood smoking under the fan. Loss of the innocence we're all born with, of the people we love, of our health and our physical abilities, and ultimately―of course―the loss of our own lives. 
As usual, she was right. (283)

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