There is a slightly spooky vibe to my Miscellany this month as I am finishing up my RIP Challenge reading. I’m also trying to clear the decks before the start of Novellas in November, so here are some of the highlights on my cultural radar this month!
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
Unlike most people, I didn’t particularly get on with Hamnet, so I didn’t rush to read The Marriage Portrait. Having said that, I found this new one more satisfying, while still having some of the same issues I had with her previous book.
In 1558, Lucrezia, daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici, was married to Alfonso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara. A year after entering her husband’s court in 1560, aged just 16, she died, supposedly of illness, but poison was also suspected. Nearly 300 years after her death, inspired by a portrait of Lucrezia, Robert Browning wrote My Last Duchess, a dramatic monologue in which Duke Alfonso admits to murdering his young wife. Now O’Farrell has threaded together historical fact, portraiture and poetic fantasy and used them as the basis for a fictionalised account of Lucrezia’s short life where she is forced too young into a dynastic marriage. The relatively simple story is embellished with elements from fairy tale and myth and O’Farrell gives Lucrezia a talent for painting which acts as metaphor throughout.
O’Farrell brings the world of Renaissance Italy to vivid life and her portrayal of women as property bites hard. The narrative is told in alternating timelines, giving the novel propulsion and drama and Lucrezia is an appealing heroine, her wit and intelligence surpassing the world into which she is thrust. The issues I had were the same as with Hamnet. I found the prose to be overwhelmingly flowery and the use of imagery often simplistic and on the nose. Again, the ending didn’t work for me. In The Marriage Portrait it fits with the overall feeling of fairytale, but it just didn’t convince me at all.
Class Trip by Emmanuel Carrere, translated by Linda Coverdale
I read and loved Carrère’s bonkers but brilliant novella The Moustache last year, and Class Trip has a similar surreal vibe. This short novel opens as Nicolas, an anxious ten-year-old, is on his way to ski school for a two-week stay. Because of a recent school bus accident in which several children were killed, the boy’s distant and overprotective father has insisted on driving him the 300 miles to the chalet, much to the boy’s embarrassment. To make matters worse, his father drives off, forgetting to take Nicholas’s case out of the boot of the car, leaving him without any of the necessities he needs.
Prone to bed-wetting, the idea of sharing a bedroom with other boys is a terrifying prospect for Nicolas, made worse by the fact that he will now have to wear someone else’s clothes. This exacerbates his already rampant anxiety, and despite being taken under the wing of Patrick, one of the trips leaders, Nicolas catastrophises every single interaction and constantly imagines the worst possible thing that could happen actually happening. Nicolas constantly indulges his darkest fears, meaning that Carrère manages to suffuse his short book with a sense of dread, not about what is going to happen, but about what might happen.
When a young boy goes missing near to the chalet where Nicolas is staying and Nicolas’s father cannot be contacted to retrieve his suitcase, Nicolas concocts a ridiculous story to explain both events and impress the other boys, but it turns out that this story is nowhere near as bad as the actual truth.
‘Be careful what you’re scared of’ might be a good tag line for Class Trip, as Carrère plays with the notion of real and imagined fears with an infectious sense of mischief. His pacing is top notch and Nicholas’s ongoing imaginary fears become so unsettling that, when the ending comes, it is almost a relief, albeit a horrifying one.
Where I End by Sophie White
Where I End is narrated by nineteen-year-old Aoileann, who lives on an island off the coast of Ireland with her intransigent grandmother Móraí and her mute bed-bound mother. Aoileann has never left the island or attended school and her life revolves around the intimate care of her mother, who is incapable of doing anything for herself, the wreck of some secret disaster that no one will talk about. She must be washed, turned to avoid bedsores, hoisted to the bathroom, washed, fed and dressed, but most of all; no one must know she exists.
The family are outcasts on an island of outcasts, with Aoileann in particular eliciting anger and fear from the other islanders, for a reason she does not understand. Even Dada, Aoileann’s father, perhaps through guilt or shame, lives on the mainland, visiting only once a month. The horror of their situation is of a banal, domestic kind as Móraí and Aoileann do nothing but tend to the ‘bed-thing’ as they call her, keeping her alive and presentable, trapping them all in a stultifying, loathsome existence, from which has bloomed a festering hatred.
Aoileann is desperate for love, for a family and when Rachel, an artist, arrives on the island for a residency with her baby, Aoileann finds a focus for her relentless need for belonging, and consequently, unearths the secret of her upbringing.
Where I End is not for the fainthearted. A taut and beautifully controlled melding of folk-horror and body-horror, the novel is written with a graphic ferocity, which cannot be rushed and can at times repel. White uses the harsh landscape of the island and imagery of the sea to wonderful effect, and as the story builds to a devastating, yet wholly believable conclusion, White’s exploration of motherhood, loss and madness takes on a beauty all its own. One of the most striking and unforgettable books I have read this year and another triumph for Dublin’s Tramp Press.
Lately I’ve been losing patience with Netflix movies, which invariably disappoint, but I took a chance on The Stranger, mainly because of the presence of Joel Edgerton who always makes good choices and always delivers.
Henry (Sean Harris), an ex-con and drifter meets a stranger, Paul, on a bus and Paul tells Henry he knows where he can find some work – not of the legal kind. Soon Henry has entered the web of Mark (Joel Edgerton), an undercover police officer who is posing as a mid-level gangster. What Henry doesn’t know is that he has entered into an elaborate undercover operation which is attempting to uncover evidence against him for the abduction and murder of a young boy ten years previously.
Based on a true story, Australian move The Stranger is an atmospheric and dream-like experience which is sophisticated in its narrative and complex in pacing. Dramatic editing and a pervasive soundscape elevate a relatively basic cat and mouse thriller into a meditative and unpredictable viewing experience in which the audience is asked to put the work in and nothing is spoon-fed. Edgerton is as excellent as you would expect, but British actor Sean Harris is a revelation as Henry, managing to elicit both sympathy and fear, sometimes within the same scene. Highly recommended.
In Bergman Island, Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps play Tony and Chris, a renowned film director and his screenwriter spouse who have come to the Swedish island of Fårö for a creative retreat. Fårö was home to film director Ingmar Bergman and the location of many of his films, his house and properties there being preserved as a festival and study centre site.
Chris is here to work on a script she is having trouble with but Tony is distracted and unhelful. As cracks begin to appear in their relationship, Chris’s screenplay is dramatised on screen as a film within a film and the line between reality and fiction starts to blur.
Bergman Island is a cerebral and at times fascinating look at relationships and art and the fine line between the two. Krieps, Roth and Mia Wasikowska in particular are all excellent, but I felt that my lack of knowledge about Bergman’s work and life meant that I missed a lot of the depth of the film. Similar in some ways to Aubrey Plaza’s excellent Black Bear, this is an interesting, if slow film about creativity and has interesting insight into the growing commodification of the life of great artists for tourism purposes.
I have to admit to being quite the fan of the Alien and Predator franchise, but the endless trotting out of prequels and sequels seems often like a case of diminishing returns. That said, Prey manages to feel fresh by taking the story back to the Comanche Nation of 1719. A young woman Naru (Amber Midthunder) yearns to be a hunter, but is continually underestimated by her family and belittled by the men in her tribe who refuse to take her ambition seriously. But when Naru notices a new kind of predator, one who can’t simply be hunted as a bear or lion would, she finds a way to prove herself and save her people.
The story isn’t new, but the setting raises interesting questions about colonialism and self-determination. It is particularly refreshing to watch a film which focuses solely on Native American community (aside from some odious French white men) and the pitting of the futuristic Predator against the tribe’s limited resources also makes for interesting set pieces. It’s more thoughtful and sombre than your usual monster movie, and because of that, is much more interesting.
Next week, my sister and I are off to Dublin for a few days for a joint birthday celebration and as a treat we are going to see the wonderful pianist Dustin O’Halloran. Can’t wait!
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!