Death in Summer - William Trevor
A third of the way through this novel a shift in emphasis occurs. The key figure in this evolution is Albert, an apparently insignificant young man whose job is to scrub graffiti off subway walls. He first appears as he listens to Pettie, a girl he came to know when they were in the same orphanage. Albert is worried, for he sees signs of distorted thinking on Pettie’s part. She’s been turned down for a job as live-in nanny for a baby whose mother was killed in a road accident. It’s the mother-in-law’s fault, Pettie believes; Thaddeus, the father of the child, wanted her to get the job, they had a bond, Pettie could sense it. . . . Albert tries, gently, to steer her away from this line of thinking. It’s futile; much of what Albert sets out to do is futile. What matters – in the terms Trevor establishes – is that Albert’s goodness makes him someone of major importance. It’s in his nature to worry about people who are life’s lost souls and to act on their behalf. In this novel those who are compassionate take on substance; those who lack that quality are diminished. Mrs Ferry, who at first glance is using an old affair to cadge money from Thaddeus, is not to be dismissed so easily, not when we gain insight into what motivates her. There’s a long section in which we follow Pettie’s thinking; she will kidnap the baby, but she doesn’t do it with malicious intent; her life has been blasted by so much pain that she has found refuge in a world of fantasies. At the end Albert pays a visit to the father. He wants to make Thaddeus understand Pettie, for understanding will lead to forgiveness; it’s important to Albert that the she be forgiven for what she did. There are scads of books aimed at enlightening; but here, in people and situations that are real, is a moving lesson in values. *
Where There’s a Will - Rex Stout
This is the sixth Nero Wolfe mystery I’ve read, and the most disappointing. Too many characters, too complex a plot. Even Wolfe, near the end, admits that he can’t figure out who killed Mr. Hawthorne. If the genius can’t untangle things, how can I feel anything but frustration? Wolfe does wind up solving the case, but the clue that opens the door is gratuitous, flimsy and involves knowledge that only a botanist could possess. Stout also throws a major red herring into the stew pot: one side of Mrs. Hawthorne’s face has been horribly disfigured by an arrow shot by her husband – presumably an accident – and he dies from a gunshot that rips off half his face. Yet this peculiar coincidence turns out to have no significance. Lastly, due to the large cast of characters, we get little of Archie, who merely runs around a lot, and even less of Nero, who merely asks questions. The first two Wolfe novels I read were good; the next three were not so good; this one was a waste of time. I’ll give Stout one more try.
The Grass Is Singing - Doris Lessing
In this novel a marriage is the seedbed for the unfolding of a horror story. It’s not just that Mary and Dick are mismatched, and that poverty and isolation (they’re poor white farmers in South Africa during the time of apartheid) grind them down. Mary, whose mind we spend the most time in, is mentally ill. “Of course I am ill,” she says in the last chapter. “I’ve been ill ever since I can remember. I am ill here” – and she points to her heart. But this is a brief moment of clarity; on the last day of her life she’s overwhelmed by despair. We know the outcome of the story in the opening pages: Mary is dead, murdered by Moses, the houseboy, and Dick is stark raving mad. What follows is a flashback in which Lessing relates in detail the factors that led to the disintegration of these two people. It’s a serious literary work, well-written and engrossing; but the ending, instead of bringing a sense of completion, raises questions – and doubts. Mary had always felt loathing for blacks and had treated them tyrannically; but in the last chapter, as she waits for Moses to kill her, Lessing suggests that the two have been involved sexually. Since the reader hasn’t been made privy to the development of this relationship, the forces compelling these two people to feel and act as they do are inexplicable. Lessing also suggests that Mary was sexually abused as a child; but why raise that issue at the end? And why all this suggesting? The intensity level of the entire book is pitched very high; but intensity can’t serve as a substitute for perception, and immoderation is always suspect. South Africa, with its debilitating climate and morally bankrupt racial attitudes, comes across as a sort of hell. The only singing on these pages is a wail of lamentation.