Saturday, November 19, 2016

Five Quarters of an Orange, by Joanne Harris

I would never have found this book if not for book club, and I really rather liked it. Let's dig into the nuances of that assessment, shall we?

Joanne Harris hit the jackpot with her book Chocolat, a bit of magical realism with a decidedly hedonistic bent. Made into a movie starring the luminous Juliette Binoche and a delicious Johnny Depp, it was a delightful fairy tale that was completely grounded in the petty feuds and the judgmental religiosity of a small French town. The time period is left charmingly vague--it looked vaguely mid-20th century, but could have been set in almost any decade.

Chocolat dealt with women's roles in a male dominated village, issues of racism, domestic violence, and moral rigidity enforced by religious intolerance, but a happy ending was engineered by the protagonist's magical chocolate shop. As I said--a fairy tale grounded in reality.

Five Quarters of an Orange revisits that format, although less successfully over all. We are back in a rural French village, but in two specific time periods--the Occupation by the Germans in WWII, and the present day. The narrator is Framboise Dartigan, who was a nine year old during the events of the war, and who returned as a widow to reclaim her childhood home, while hiding her identity from the villagers who are largely the same people as when she was a child.

There are hints of a terrible secret from the past, and family conflict in the present day that threatens to unmask her true identity. There is a fairy tale element--the existence of a giant pike that lurks in the depths of the Loire. Local legend says that whoever catches Old Mother will be granted one wish. Framboise is determined to catch that fish.

The Dartigan family are named after fruits, and there is a lot of space devoted to Framboise's mother's recipes and Framboise's cooking--food is again a major element of the book.

Parts of this work very well, parts are frustratingly underwritten.

Once untangled from the bouncing around in time, the plot is rather straightforward. Framboise and her brother and sister fall under the sway of a charismatic young German officer named Tomas Leibniz. They pass all the village gossip to him, in return for luxuries that he can procure for them. Framboise doesn't care for the movie magazines and cigarettes--she imagines that she is bonding with Tomas on a more authentic basis. They are both fishers, after all.

Here is where I have to call for a time-out, because this seems like a major miscalculation. Framboise is nine years old. NINE YEARS OLD. It is 1942, in rural France. This is NOT a case where children are immersed in hyper-sexuality and I just don't accept that a nine year old has sexual feelings for an adult male.

I WOULD accept that she was love-starved, was looking for a father figure, or validation, or something. I am not okay with her being presented as romantically interested in a Nazi.

Back to the plot--there is a brief moment of concern that maybe the gossip they are feeding to Tomas is getting people sent to concentration camps, but that tension lasts about a half a page before being dissipated. Tomas is using the dirt the kids give him to blackmail the residents and he is skimming from the requisitions to pad his own accounts.

Things start to fall apart--Framboise's older sister is (almost-but-not-quite) raped by the Germans, an old man ends up dead. The nascent village Resistance is revealed. Mother Dartigan's migraines require morphine that she gets from Tomas--possibly as a payment for her silence about the assault. Tomas makes plans to leave the village, Framboise is determined he should stay (or run away with her) so she catches the Old Mother pike, wishes that Tomas would stay forever, and the wish backfires. Tomas drowns while helping Framboise pull in her trap--the one that Old Mother is actually caught in. So technically she gets her wish--Tomas does not leave.

The three kids panic about the body being linked to them, so they shot Tomas in the head so it looks like an execution. The Germans believe this story, round up the Resistance members and shoot them all in the village square. The locals blame Mother Dartigan, accuse her of being Tomas's mistress, and storm the farm and torch it. The family escapes and flees.

This is the climax of the book, which is as it should be dramatically, which means that all the contemporary family drama is incredibly mundane in comparison. Framboise's older brother sold the family farm to her and then died, leaving a son and daughter-in-law who offer a kind of existential threat to her anonymity. This second generation wants the recipes, wants a career, wants to publish the "true story" of what happened in 1942, none of which Framboise wants. At best, this is a tool for creating tension and mystery--what happened that was so terrible that Framboise is hiding?

Unfortunately, the larger question is: Why does Framboise even want to live in this stupid small village? Once she is there, she is misanthropic in the extreme, operating a tiny restaurant where she refuses to talk to the patrons even. The mechanics of the story are too visible. It's like Harris needed her narrator to be in the village in order to tell the story, but never created a character-based reason for that decision.

This is an ongoing problem with the book--it just needs to bake longer or something? The elements are good, the story is worth telling, the structure is sound, but the whole does not even equal the sum of the parts.

Part of the problem is that the characters are underdeveloped, so it is hard to care--or even remember them. The various townspeople are generically "rural" and "petty" with no real reason to care about them one way or another. Ten people are shot by firing squad due to the blundering of Framboise and her siblings, but they never really came to life so it is hard to care.

I have already expressed my problems with Tomas and Framboise's passion for him. Her siblings are not served by the time jump. Cassis is casually cruel but also dangerously exciting when Framboise is nine, but in the contemporary sections, he is just feeble. None of the characteristics of his youth survive the transition, and there is no explanation of why. Reinette is even more poorly served--she exists to be young and sexy, to be interested in movie glamour magazines, and then to be assaulted. Once that plot obligation is fulfilled, she disappears. In the contemporary sections, she is in a nursing home, apparently completely senile.

There are hints that Harris had more in mind for these characters. She details conflict among the there of them due to the inequality of their mother's bequests. Reinette inherited a cellar of wine that is worth a great deal of money, that Framboise won't touch, that might be the object of Cassis's grasping son. . .a plot element that goes nowhere.

It's frustrating, because this book should be better than it is. It has all the ingredients, but the execution is poor--which is a fitting metaphor for a book that spends a lot of time talking about food.

I wish I liked this better than I do.

Friday, November 04, 2016

The Confession, by Charles Todd

I read this on the recommendation of my mother, who has excellent taste in reading material. However--and this is an important caveat--she consumes her Inspector Rutledge books in audio format, where they are read by the excellent actor Simon Prebble, and his mellifluous tones soothe her to sleep. I can imagine how delightful that is, and has given her many hours of enjoyment of this series.

Which is to say that this is not a book for reading, this is a book for sleeping through.

It's not actually terrible, and it has the bones of a much better novel. There are dangerous secrets worth killing for, there is emotional anguish and class resentment and the terrible beauty of the English marshlands.  Sadly, the writing manages to rob the action sequences of any excitement, flattens the characters to the point of them being fundamentally indistinguishable, which makes it hard to keep track of the suspects or the victims. Which makes the plot nearly impossible to keep track of--I think the mystery might be clever, or interesting, but since I could never quite tell who was dead and who was under suspicion, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Spoilers below--as I try to figure out what happened.

First off, I recognize that this is the fourteenth book in a series, and I have not read any of the others. It is unfair of me to complain that things that happened in other books aren't explained in this one, and I will try to avoid doing that. The central character is Inspector Ian Rutledge, of Scotland Yard, who has returned to the force after a traumatic experience in The Great War (WWI). It is now 1919, and he continues to wake from his nightmares screaming on a regular basis. He is a broken man who pushes himself to hide the PTSD so he can continue working. Work is the only thing he has to live for now.

A seminal event of his wartime was the death of a soldier under his command. Hamish MacLeod had been Rutledge's closest confidante, but when he refused a direct order, Rutledge was obliged to have him shot. Rutledge himself had to administer the final shot. Now he hears Hamish in the back of his mind, as real as if Hamish still lived. There are other recurring characters, but they don't play much of a role in this particular mystery--Rutledge's sister Frances, various members of Scotland Yard, and an official at the War Office who can be used to gather background information. None of them were really called on to do much, so I'll just assume they are old friends from earlier installments.

Rutledge himself is fine. He's not terribly interesting as a character, but that's fine as he's the glass through which we watch the murder investigation unfold. He's competent, he's got a back story with emotional resonance, he's fine.

Hamish is--a problem. At least in this book he is. I could accept him as the disembodied manifestation of Rutledge's guilty conscience, as a way to illuminate Rutledge's struggle to re-integrate into civilian society. But he's used in a strange way to advance the plot, commenting on the motivations of the suspects, warning Rutledge of things that  Rutledge himself can't see. Hamish is basically Rutledge's ride-along partner, being Watson to his Holmes. Which means he is more than just the symptom of PTSD--he is a character separate from Rutledge. In my opinion, he needs to be either explicitly supernatural, an actual ghost who is literally haunting his killer, or Rutledge just needs a constable to ride around with him that he can talk to.

It's the nature of the mystery genre. Clues have to be revealed slowly, and the reader has to be shown the detective's thought process without showing the solution too early. Questions like "Do you believe this suspect's story?" and "Do you think this person is guilty?" have to be asked and answered. For practical reasons, a mystery novel needs that character to keep the plot on track. In theory, it could all be done with internal dialogue, and Hamish is apparently an attempt to do that. As written, however, his comments are just too different, too independent to be the product of Rutledge's own thought processes.

Basically--Hamish needs to pick a lane. Either be a straight-up supernatural presence, and acknowledge that. Or, be a manifestation of Rutledge's trauma, but then you have to be less substantial ( and also--the attempts to render the Scottish accent is decidedly off-putting). Or just give Rutledge somebody to talk to--his Boswell, his Watson, or have him bring different people along. "Hamish" is just weird.


(Or, In which I try to tell several 2 dimensional silhouettes apart.)

The book begins with a "sensational" inciting incident--a dying man comes to Scotland Yard to confess to a murder. He quickly becomes evasive when pressed for details, then decides that this was a mistake. Rutledge is skeptical, but can't really do much in the absence of a body or a case. This man turns up dead a few days later, shot in the back of the head. Hurrah! Now there is a case!

In a surprise that shocks no one who has read a mystery novel before, the man isn't who he said he was. WHAAAAAT? You mean, men with fatal cancer diagnoses who decide to confess to vague crimes might not be totally truthful in all aspects?

In order to even begin to understand the convoluted story, we now leave the summary of the book and reconstruct the events in chronological time. All the the suspects and victims and most of what passes for investigation happen in and around a country manor house in Essex known as River's Edge. Owned by the Russell family, the patriarch (who is mostly skimmed over and ignored in the book) had a disastrous first marriage to an apparent gold digger who had a child after the divorce. Was that child Russell's son? Probably not, but also not definitively established.

He eventually became wealthy, married another woman-- mostly known as "Mrs. Russell," occasionally as Elizabeth--and they had a single son, Wyatt. They also acquired two wards/surrogate children/extended relation/cousins that they took in and raised as their own. Justin Fowler is a tragic boy whose parents were brutally murdered and was himself attacked and left for dead. After months in hospital recovering from multiple knife wounds (all three Fowlers were attacked in their beds while asleep), Elizabeth Russell brings him to River's Edge, and no one ever speaks of his trauma.

The second ward is Cynthia Faraday, who lost her parents to an accident while they were traveling. Despite this, she is well adjusted, a bit of a "spitfire" (which basically translates to rude, impulsive, but pretty enough to get away with it). You know what? Don't bother with Cynthia Faraday. She's mostly pointless. Everybody was in love with her, she didn't love anybody, she's the damsel in distress in the final boss battle. Other than that, no point to her.

There are two other boys, roughly the same age as Wyatt and Justin. There is a village boy, named Ben Willet, born to be a fisherman, but with aspirations to be a writer. He left the village to become a footman before the war. There is also a Mrs. Russell's driver named Harold Finley.

The plot begins with the disappearance of Elizabeth Russell in the summer of 1914. She was seen headed to the marshes, and never returned. Search parties failed to turn up any sign of her. The assumption was that she died due to depression caused by Wyatt and Justin going to WWI.

Justin Fowler and Harold Finley go missing in 1915, presumed deserters.

In 1919 (the book's present day), we get a shell game of identity swapping. "Wyatt Russell" turns up at Scotland Yard, and confesses to killing his cousin, Justin Fowler, in 1915. "Wyatt Russell" turns out to actually Harold Findlay? Can I keep these characters separate? No, because so far they are indistinguishable; just names.

So Ben Willett is the cancer riddled former footman who wrote a couple of books after the war. He confessed accused Wyatt of killing Justin in 1915. His body turns up shot in the head. Who did that? Why is he wearing Elizabeth Russell's locket around his neck? (Mostly in order to give Rutledge some clues to follow up, basically.) Did he engineer her disappearance in 1914?

Let's just skip to the resolution, rather than try to tease out all the clues and the red herrings. Everybody was killed by a madman. The anonymous child of that first disastrous Russell marriage? Grew up a resentful sociopath, convinced that he should have been the Russell heir. (Again--not clear he was even related, but whatever.) His life is literally devoted to destroying the Russell family. He becomes the rector at the local village church (????) where he hides in plain sight for the duration of the war I guess?

He killed Elizabeth Russell in 1914, tied her body to some rocks and sank her in the marshes. He also killed the Fowlers, failed to kill Justin as a lad, but managed to do it in 1915 when Justin was at River's Edge (along with Harold Finlay), recuperating from war wounds.

Finlay finds Justin's body, swaps clothes with the corpse, and dumps the body into the river to confuse identification. (He is apparently afraid that Cynthia will be blamed for the murder. No clear reason why.) He then fails to go back to the war in either identity, thus becoming a deserter, and sets up a new life for himself in Northern England or Scotland or somewhere.

Wyatt is in a nursing home somewhere, his mental stage swinging from clear to befuddled, mostly depending on what clues have to stay hidden. Rutledge plants a story that Wyatt had died, to lure the killer.

Who is the rector, going by the name of Morrison. But why does the rector want to kill all these people? To the extent there is any "reason" given, it's that he's SO resentful of Wyatt having the life he thinks he should have had, that he plans to kill everybody, leaving Wyatt for last so Wyatt is as miserable as possible.

Okay. This is not a theme or a trope or a leitmotif or an atmosphere or anything that has been running through the book. In fact, to the extent that there is a thematic emotion running through the book, it's that WWI sucked, and everybody's life is worse because of it. In fact, the sheer scale of the WWI carnage is such that it's hard to get worked up about a few hand crafted murders, really.

BUT--from a mystery perspective--this is a lot of carnage for not much payoff for Morrison, don't you think? I mean, these are all the people he has killed:

Mom and Pop Fowler
Justin Fowler (attempted)
Elizabeth Russell
Justin Fowler (successful)
Ben Willett
Wyatt Russell (he thinks, but not really)
Cynthia Faraday (attempted)
Ian Rutledge (attempted)

What did any of this do for him? He's still a rector in a tiny little village, where everybody hates him because he is an outsider, he doesn't get any of the Russell family money, nobody acknowledges him as family, he doesn't seem to get any satisfaction out of revenge. . .

There is no meat to this character at all. There is no reason for him to have been the murderer, except that in Mystery Writing 101, they tell you that the perpetrator has to be the most unlikely character. And he is, because this whole story of the "first marriage to a gold digger who dumped you when you were poor but then raised her child to be resentful of the eventual wealth" is only barely covered in this book. Because why tell that story when instead you can spend pages and pages talking about the emptiness of the marshes, and have people just looking out on the landscape.


The most irritating thing about this book is that there are scenes and secrets and dramatic occurrences that are basically shoved into the cracks of the plot like so much binding agent--everything is flattened into a sort of formless mess.

Let's talk about the single most dramatic thing in the book--the tragic story of the village.

This river village is overtly hostile to strangers--obnoxious to the point of caricature. Rutledge shows up in the tea room, and the operator would rather kick out the regulars and close up than let an outsider eat there. NOT THAT THIS IS SUSPICIOUS IN ANY WAY?

There is dialogue that amounts basically to this:
"Why are you so hostile to visitors"
"Because we are hiding a Deep Secret and we don't want people to hear about it!"

What is that Deep Secret? It's actually the most compelling story of the book--far more upsetting and emotionally scarring than the Mad Rector. Back a generation or so ago, river smuggling was a pretty big part of the economy. (Still is, although the presence of British soldiers nearby patrolling the coast has caused some fluctuation in the market.) A rich ship came up-river, got stuck on a sandbar, and the locals rowed out to investigate (loot) it. There was nobody aboard!

(Cue spooky music! OooooooooOOOOOOoooOOOooo!)

It was a plague ship, and there was a diary by the last survivor explaining what happened. One of the greedy villagers just tossed the diary overboard so as not to interfere with the looting. BUT THE PLAGUE CAME ALONG WITH THE LOOT! Some of the villagers became ill, and the then-rector started caring for them in the church, turning it into a makeshift hospital. The healthy villagers panicked, nailed the doors shut and burned down the church, killing everybody inside.

This is incendiary stuff. The toxic stew of emotions--the fear, the cruelty, the horror, hearing your family members dying inside the church, the long tail of guilt and misery. Why did the son of one of the arsonists went and named his pub after the plague boat? That is a story worth telling! The emotions! The visuals! The charred bodies and the destroyed church! The dancing flames and the rifts that grew up among the survivors!

But no.

This story does get told, but in a weird third-hand way that robs it off nearly all its power and majesty. Ian Rutledge reads about it--actually in Ben Willett's unpublished manuscript. But we don't get the manuscript either. We get the omniscient narrator reporting that Ian read about Ben's novelization of a scene he only heard about because it happened before he was born. I count that as something like fourth level hearsay.

Which is just so frustrating! There are the bones of a fascinating story here! The village history is still affecting the people who live there, a more traumatic experience than the entirety of WWI on the collective spirit of the village! That is a story worth telling!

Ben Willett might also have been interesting to get to know--a son of a river fisherman, who wanted something different out of life, and left to become a footman to an aristocrat, only to be mustered up and sent to France to fight WWI. He caught a glimpse of an even better life (than that of a footman!) and after the war, lived in Paris and wrote books! But his family never forgave him for getting above himself--so much so that he never came back after the war. That is a story worth telling!

Even the crazy story of Rector Morrison, maybe, if we saw the mix of the bright and the dark. I mean, the  character of the Rector is constantly being kind and helpful to Rutledge, and feeling hurt by being left out of the life of the village--well, they are keeping the secret of what they did to the LAST rector (more or less last one? The chronology is unclear here). How can this character be combined with the life-long-sociopathic-murderer that the plot requires? The book didn't do it, but that might be a story worth telling!


I should just quit farting around and write my own damn novels. I am so frustrated by the fact that a book like this gets published--actually, "Charles Todd" has written NINETEEN Ian Rutledge novels, and a further 7 with a different main character. WHAT THE HELL AM I WAITING FOR, thinking that I don't have anything to offer.

Is it too late to start NaNoWriMo this month?