Families and relations – The Guardian, March 15, 2003, by Isobel Montgomery and David Jays

English, Press

 

Fiction

Families and relations

Isobel Montgomery and David Jays on Clara | Unless | Assorted Fire Events | The Brothers | The Mariner's Star | Everything's Eventual

Clara, by Janice Galloway (Vintage, £6.99)

It would be easy to make Clara Schumann the vehicle for a harangue against her husband and her era which ensured Robert's fame and reputation would eclipse that of his wife. Though Janice Galloway has Robert playing the romantic genius while Clara worries about the household budget, and shows him pursuing other women while his wife suffers the agonies of 19th-century childbirth, her portrayal of this prodigiously talented pianist is rich and nuanced. Clara had to contend with a domineering father and a demanding husband, but here she is shown as someone adept at creating her own space and who, when faced with problems, is practical rather than self-pitying. Galloway weighs up Clara's response to her talent and her marriage against Robert's: where Robert is all flamboyance and inspiration, Clara shows that the perspiration part of genius and love can be just as fascinating and ultimately more enduring.

Unless, by Carol Shields (Fourth Estate, £6.99)

Reta is the epitome of a comfortable middle-class middle age. Her life is seeming perfect: “abundant, bustling but with peaceful intervals… food in the fridge, more in the freezer”. She has produced three girls, written a well-received and commercially successful novel and is the translator of the memoirs of Danielle Wester-man, a celebrated feminist and poet. But when her daughter Norah drops out to sit on a Toronto street corner with a sign saying “Goodness” around her neck, Reta realises her happiness is as fragile as glass. Written after Shields's diagnosis and treatment for cancer, Unless is a tentative celebration of life's small victories couched in hesitant qualifiers. While Westerman and Reta's husband, Tom, come up with big explan-ations for Norah's behaviour, Reta realises the answer lies in small clues. Unless is a beautiful and heartening novel that, like Austen, affirms the value and importance of the domestic sphere.

Assorted Fire Events, by David Means (Fourth Estate, £6.99)

In case you want an exact figure (and by the time you reach the penultimate, and title, piece you will probably begin to wonder), David Means packs 20 deaths into this taut and often sickening collection of 13 stories. So generous is the body count that he confesses: “I don't want anyone to die in my stories anymore”, at the beginning of “What I Hope For”, the least distressing of his excavations of soured expectation and thwar-ted masculinity, before slyly raising the possibility of murder, if not actually producing a corpse, in a two-page portrayal of lovers on a weekend break. Mortality is both a

catalyst and a denouement for stories that have all the horrible fascination of traffic accidents. Means writes exacting, consciously literary prose that alludes to Steinbeck and Hemingway. Though much here will make you truly uncomfortable, the book is unflinchingly honest about violence and death. Means inflicts pain to show just how much it can hurt.

The Brothers, by Milton Hatoum, translated by John Gledson (Bloomsbury, £6.99)

Brazilian novelist Hatoum creates an archetypal tale of brotherly hate that shakes a family. Twins grow up in a Lebanese family living in the Amazon port of Manaus: Yaqub the quiet engineer, pale as a chameleon on a damp wall; dissolute Omar, with “the whiff of a jaguar's skin”. One of them is our narrator's father – the illegitimate son of the family's indefatigable maid, he spends the novel watching and wondering who spawned him, sobersides or spendthrift. Loping through the middle decades of the past century, the brothers' enmity becomes epic, Cain and Abel up the Amazon. Hatoum's singularity is to assemble a world of pungent detail – peppery stuffed fish, pulpy fruits – which is blown by melodramatic gusts of rancour. John Gledson's absorbing translation keeps its senses on full alert for a slumping hammock or the aniseed tang of arrack, for public brawling and sweaty sexual rivalry.

The Mariner's Star, by Candida Clark (Review, £6.99)

Another storyteller's archetype – men put out to sea while women wait at home and keen when the waves engulf their beloved. Like all the women of her family, Clark's nameless narrator has lost her fisherman husband to the ocean. Drawing heavily on ocean-lit – the obsessive quest for Moby-Dick, the Ancient Mariner's thousand slimy things – Clark takes her cue from Shakespeare's ardently ambiguous sonnet, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds”, with its impassioned comparison of marital love to the mari-ner's fixed star. In her own wandering bark, through a storm-tossed, trawler-threatened night, the woman recalls the breathless beginnings of her marriage and bitterly laments that she couldn't turn the tide of its ending. Clark's luscious, grieving language laps around loss, its rockaby rhythms carrying the deliberately timeless story. Her sonorous prose doesn't sound the depths, but it is hard to resist her mermaid murmur.

Everything's Eventual, by Stephen King (New English Library, £6.99)

Those with a fear of being buried alive must never read the opening story in Stephen King's collection, with its nightmare of living autopsy (“Dear God, I'm in a bodybag”). Alongside his e-novella, “Riding the Bullet”, are tales that shuffle through the deck of genres, from fantasy and horror to American urban myth. King knows just what wags the shaggy-dog story, with gothic images including the devil's orange eyes as he burns up from within, and cigarette smoke puffed through the bullet-hole of a dying gangster. The yarn-master has a gift for grip but he's no stylist. There's a lot of belligerently asserted manhood here, as his protagonists battle their terrors of castration and anxieties about fags and nagging wives. Best are sneaky, playful tales like the suicidal salesman who collects off-beam toilet graffiti; weakest is a glimpse of political torture in Latin America, which King's afterword calls “Kafka-esque”. He wishes.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/mar/15/featuresreviews.guardianreview20

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