Mick Jackson, Ten Sorry Tales (2005)
I liked this book from the very first sentence: ‘Lol and Edna Pierce liked to keep their own company, which was just as well as their nearest neighbour lived nine miles away.’ That sentence establishes the wry, playful quality of Jackson’s writing; and the rest of the story, ‘The Pearce sisters’ – in which Lol and Edna finally gain some companions, albeit by taking some rather extreme measures – sets the cautionary, macabre tone of the collection as a whole (I was reminded of Roald Dahl and Dan Rhodes when reading these stories).
Other characters to be met within the pages of Ten Sorry Tales include a boy who finds an antique kit for revivifying butterflies, and tries it out; a rich couple who employ their own hermit, and pay the price for neglecting his welfare; and a man who spends his retirement building a row-boat, then devises an ingenious way to get it out of the house. Jackson tells all their stories with the same sense of dark glee; it’s a delight to read.
Catherine Hall, The Proof of Love (2011)
In 1976, a Cambridge mathematician named Spencer Little travels to the Lake District for the summer, intending to work on the proof that will secure him a fellowship. He takes a job on the farm of Hartley and Mary Dodds, and finds a friend in their ten-year-old daughter Alice. It takes a while for the locals to warm to Spencer, but they do when he rescues Alice from a fire. Even then, however, life doesn’t begin to run smoothly, because Spencer gets caught up in the tensions between Alice and her father; the secret he left behind in Cambridge still haunts him; and he gains a new secret to keep when he falls in love in Cumbria.
Catherine Hall does two things particularly well in The Proof of Love, which combine to create the spine of the novel. The first of these is to evoke the rawness of life in her setting (with effectively precise description) and the way it has literally left its mark on the inhabitants (including Spencer, who starts off far more used to focusing on his mind than his body, and is made physically capable and stronger by the farm work). The second is to dramatise the conflict between different ways of life, as represented by the characters. This is not a straightforward case of intellectualism versus physicality; it’s more about showing how the farming lifestyle has taken over the Dodds family. Hartley reveals that he had the intelligence to go to university, but that path was closed off from him because he was required to inherit the farm; in his turn, he refuses to allow Alice to do anything that might open up new possibilities for her life—and the friction this causes is only exacerbated by the arrival of Spencer, who is emblematic of precisely such a different kind of life. (Spencer, of course, finds his own kind of freedom in the very life from which Alice dreams of escaping, thus highlighting the complexity of the situation.)
As the final page approaches, the sense increases that things are going to end badly. Hall deftly builds tension of the kind that comes from seeing the pieces of the story falling, but not knowing where they will land—and where they do land has both an inevitability and a final twist. The Proof of Love is tough on its characters, but rewarding for its readers.
This review first appeared on Fiction Uncovered.
François Lelord, Hector and the Secrets of Love (2005/11)
I’ve not read the first of Lelord’s ‘Hector’ books (Hector and the Search for Happiness), but I’d suggest on the basis of this second one that they’re an acquired taste. Lelord’s professional background is in psychiatry, which is also the career of his protagonist. Hector is pondering the nature of love when he attends a pharmaceutical conference with his girlfriend Clara, where he is sent on a mission to track down an old acquaintance, Professor Cormorant, who had been working on a love drug. On his travels, Hector – whose relationship with Clara is already under strain – meets a beautiful waitress named Vayla, and falls in love with her; but how much of that is real, and how much down to the drug that Cormorant persuaded them to test – and what difference does it actually make either way?
I suspect that a reader’s reaction to this book will depend on how he or she takes to the prose (the translation is by Lorenza Garcia). It has a faux-naif, ‘storybook’ tone, which allows for some wry humour (“because countries like [Hector’s] had invented psychiatry, they were the ones who decided what was normal and what wasn’t,” p. 191), but which can also be quite irritating. I appreciate the complex picture of love that unfolds as Hector’s journey progresses; but, at the same time, the observations Hector makes don’t feel particularly fresh or striking to me. So, I’m ambivalent about Hector and the Secrets of Love – it’s good in parts, but not enough to overcome my misgivings.