Before I begin, I thought I’d mention the snowpocalypse the UK has been having this week, creating loads of chaos on main roads and disrupting services all over. Here in our neck of the woods, we’re not experiencing major problems so far, other than a few roads closures. Two days ago, I braved the biting wind and pelting flurry to collect a library book AND make my hair appointment. I had two years’ worth of hair that seriously needed shearing off, and I had to pick up Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman. Priorities. Anywhoo, these last few days have provided the perfect, coziest excuse to stay in and bundle up. While my husband navigates Kingdom Come on the PS4 downstairs, I’ve squirreled myself away in my lady!den with my To-Read stack and various cups of hot beverages.
Okay, back to business! February’s book round-up is a strange motley assortment, ranging from the contemplative and obtuse fiction of Marie Darrieussecq, to the supernatural suspense offerings of Susan Hill and Kate Murray-Browne, to the hilarious memoir of Laura Shaine Cunningham. There was a fifth book I had hoped to add to the pile but I abruptly quit on it less than 50 pages in for reasons I’ll get to in a minute. In the meantime, here are the books I read in February.
Breathing Underwater by Marie Darrieussecq
She passes her hand over the little girl’s face, a round face, undefined, made even less defined by the impact of the sea: a broadening of the cheeks, the gaze, the fluttering of metamorphosis beneath the skin; a boundless childhood, distended, pelagic.
An unnamed woman decides to up and leave her husband one day, taking only their young daughter and ten thousand francs with her. The reason for her sudden departure is never stated. There’s not much drama and character analysis in this short and ambiguous story. There’s also no dialogue, which I think probably would have only hindered the flow of Darrieussecq’s dream-like prose. This type of writing may not be for everyone; not much happens. Instead, the author has us observe her characters as they go about in that town by the ocean. I did find myself hoping for some sort of dramatic payoff towards the conclusion, but this isn’t that kind of book. It is a ponderous, poetic piece of work.
The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill
If I had known the words ‘corrupt’ and ‘decadent’ then I would have used them to describe it. As I looked at the faces of those people, at the eyes behind the masks and the strange smiles, the suggestion of figures in windows, figures in shadows, I shuddered. I felt uneasy. I felt afraid.
Immediately after finishing Breathing Underwater, I found myself desperate to read something with a lot more ‘oomph!’ to it. That book was The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill, who is most known for penning her famous classic, The Woman in Black.
The Man in the Picture is mainly narrated by a young man named Oliver, a former Cambridge student who is visiting his old tutor, Theo Parmitter. One evening, the old man brings to Oliver’s attention an old Venetian painting hanging on the wall, and begins to tell him the strange and unsettling tale of how he acquired it. As the story unfolds, the painting’s malevolence begins to take hold, ensnaring anyone drawn to it.
For a novella only 145 pages long, this was a solid slow-build of ghost story, though not as chilling as I thought it would be. I did not sleep with the lights on after reading it (I’m looking at you, Jeanette Winterson of The Times) nor did I have any problem going to the bathroom by myself in the middle of the night, which is my standard gauge for measuring how frightening a book or a film is. It’s still one hell of a sinister, atmospheric tale. If you enjoy ghost stories in the tradition of M.R. James, then you’ll eat this up like I did.
The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne
They were on the top floor. Eleanor began to feel slightly peculiar here – it was almost airless, as if they were too far from the central nervous system of the house. There was only one room he hadn’t shown them. Michael stopped with his hand on the door and said, “OK, so you’re gonna need to use your imagination with this one.” He stumbled; there seemed to be a little resistance from somewhere and then the door gave and swung open too fast.
Inside, the walls were covered in writing – a child’s writing. The name ‘EMILY’ appeared again and again in capitals, sometimes very small, sometimes huge, covering almost all of the white. There were frantic scribbles – large clouds of line – and faces: dwindling to pointy chins with tiny dash like mouths and enormous eyes.
Eleanor and Richard have just purchased a new home – an old Victorian townhouse that Richard plans on remodeling into the perfect family home. Eleanor isn’t so keen; from the moment she and her husband set foot inside, she senses that all is not right with the house, especially the upstairs room with its contents left as is and its walls scribbled repeatedly with the name EMILY. Richard is quick to dismiss the room – and everything else off-putting about the house. To finance the remodeling project, they take on a lodger named Zoe, a 27-year-old woman seemingly adrift in her own life. Very soon, strange things begin to take place within the house; Eleanor and Richard’s eldest daughter begins to act out and misbehave, various objects are misplaced and discovered in odd locations, and Eleanor starts to suffer from intense, debilitating migraines – but only while she’s in the house. Downstairs in the basement flat, Zoe begins to experience strange nightmares of a young girl in her room, watching her sleep. As both her health and her marriage begin to deteriorate, Eleanor makes it her mission to uncover the truth behind the mysterious upstairs room, Emily, and the people who owned the house before them.
There are a lot of stand-out moments, truly creepy ones in this book, and had the author focused more on keeping the tension and the psychological horror going instead of derailing it with one too many chapters devoted to Eleanor and Richard’s collegiate backstory and Zoe’s abysmal relationship woes, I would have probably ranked this book higher than The Man in the Picture. I still recommend this book; Murray-Browne knows how to craft a gripping and suspenseful story, with fleshed-out characters you can be angrily frustrated with AND still find relatable.
Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham
Cunningham’s wonderfully offbeat and very funny memoir of growing up under the care of her two mildly eccentric yet devoted uncles was exactly what I needed after suffering through the oppressive gloom of the last two books. Young Lily and her mother Rosie move into their first apartment at AnaMor Towers. For the next few years, Lily divides her time between her two friends, Diana and Susan, staging elaborate make-believe games and running around unsupervised. Lily is eight when her beloved mother suddenly passes away, but onto the scene arrive her uncles, Gabe and Len, two quirky bachelors who immediately take Lily into their lives and raise her themselves, providing a stable, if somewhat unconventional home life. Later, they’re joined by Lily’s senile and self-centered grandmother Etka. One of the funnier bits best describes the evolution of their relationship:
Our rivalry mellows into conspiracy. Within months we find uses for each other. I provide her with lunches and secret, forbidden ice-cream sundaes. She rewards me with cold cash. She continues to steal my clothes. I start to charge her competitive prices.
Cunningham doesn’t shy away from the unsavory elements she encountered when she was five and spending time with Diana, the most uninhibited of her two playmates. There are plenty of painful and cringe-worthy moments, but through it all, Lily is buoyed by the love and support of her unusual family.
I can’t say enough about this book that isn’t already emblazoned all over its back cover and frontpiece. It’s funny, it’s shocking, but most of all, it’s got a lot of heart. I only wish that Cunningham had written just as much about her teen years as she had her childhood. In other words, I didn’t want it to end.
Now, remember that book I mentioned earlier, the one I didn’t finish?
Faerie Tale by Raymond E. Feist
Egads, I wanted to like this book, I really did! How can you look at this cover and not think, ‘I will get the crap scared out of me, but whatever. YOLO.’ I’d take the book with me to the living room and my husband would immediately turn it over because he hates spiders and the cover has a creepy-licious spider with bat-like facial features.
Alas, I couldn’t get into it. With the exception of young twins Sean and Patrick and the two otherworldly creatures in the forest behind the house, all the characters felt flat and unremarkable. I tried to hold on and push through, reminding myself that I had only just begun, but the story wasn’t picking up fast enough for me and the dialogue was eating me alive. I couldn’t do it. I had to give up. Sorry, Mr. Feist.
On considering whether or not to hold on to the book (just in case I want to give it a second chance) I asked my husband if he wanted to read it.
“No. I can’t stand the cover.”
“I’ll put a post-it over the spider-thing.” I offered.
“It’ll still be there, touching my fingers” LOL. That was all I could say to that.