Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Sea House by Esther Freud (2003)

Esther Freud was born in London in 1963.  She trained as an actress before writing her first novel, "Hideous Kinky" in 1991, which was made into a movie starring Kate Winslet.  I haven't read that book but did see the movie a few years ago.

I picked up "The Sea House" at the library, and enjoyed it, although it was sometimes a difficult to follow - the novel alternates between the past and the present in the same seaside town on the English coast.  In the present we have Lily, who comes to Steerborough to do academic research on the architect Klaus Lehmann, a German who emigrated to the UK with his wife Elsa.  Lily stays in a seaside cottage and finds Lehmann's letters to his wife strangely evocative of the feelings she has for her boyfriend, Nick, back in London.  She starts questioning their relationship and her life in London as she becomes entranced with the slow paced life in the village and the two little girls who are staying next door, as well as their father.
The passages about Lily are alternated with the late 1950s in the same location, where we see the artist Max, a deaf German immigre whose sister recently died.  He comes to Steerborough, invited by his sister's good friend Gertrude to come and paint.  Little by little Max comes into contact with Lehmann and his wife and as the story progresses we begin to see the connections between Lily's work in the present and the impact that Max, at the beginning a simple observer, ends up having on the history of the village and the people in it.  At the end of the story all the connections are made clear. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Helpless by Barbara Gowdy (2006)

Barbara Gowdy, (born 25 June 1950) is a Canadian novelist and short story writer, who lives in Toronto.  Gowdy's novel "Falling Angels" (1989) was made into a film of the same name.
I'm not that familiar with Canadian novelists, so I knew nothing about her work when I found a few of her books on the shelf in our library.  "Helpless" caught my attention so I took it home, and it turned out to be one of those books you can't put down until you find out what happens.

The novel is the story of the stalking and kidnapping of nine-year-old Rachel, who lives with her mother, Celia, a struggling pianist, in Toronto.  Ron, an appliance repairman who lives in the neighborhood, becomes obsessed with Rachel, quietly stalking her as she walks home from school and keeping an eye on her while she is at home and on the playground. 

The first few chapters of the book made me think of the way Jodi Picoult writes about similar themes, but it got much darker once the abduction takes place.  The striking thing about this novel is the access we are given to the inner workings and the past of Ron, the kidnapper - it's almost too close for comfort.  In June 2008, the novel was abridged and adapted for BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime. This resulted in several listeners complaining that the novel was 'dark', 'disturbing' and had '(frightened) the life out of them'. One listener described it as 'inappropriate for any time of day least of all at bedtime' and another claimed that Gowdy's graphic description made him feel 'physically sick'.  I won't say there were passages that made me physically sick, but a lot of it was definitely disturbing. 

One of the most disturbing aspects of the book was the character of Nancy, Ron's unwilling accomplice, and how someone who is not mentally ill (I suppose) was, due to her life circumstances and current situation, unable to take a decision on a moral issue that seems so obvious and clear cut.  I found myself angry at Nancy, shouting at her in my mind to just get Rachel back to her mother and turn Ron in!  She immediately knew what Ron was doing was wrong, it just seemed to take her forever to put her own self interest aside in order to do something about it.  And even then, it only seemed she took action when it became clear that there wasn't anything in it for her anymore.   Nancy reflects the modern person who won't stop and help someone who needs help, because it might inconvenience them, someone we are all in danger of becoming, in one way or another...

Thursday, December 15, 2011


This lovely statue of a girl reading is called "Renee", the artist Armand Loveniers, and is located in the city where I live, on the Naamsestraat, appropriately right next to a bookstore! It is also the location of many university buildings and the first female dormitory at the KU Leuven.
I love to find artwork about books and reading...
This statue is sometimes called "Fronske" (Little Frown) because, as a serious and hardworking female student she is the antithesis of the "Fonske" statue of the merry male student on the Fochplein in Leuven, who simply pours knowledge (or is it beer?) effortlessly right into his head.

Renee has been on her spot, studying, reading, dreaming... since 1997.