Tag Archives: alcoholism

You Can’t Go Home

Murder and Mystery in Dublin's poor inner city

Murder and Mystery in Dublin’s poor inner city

Tana French’s intriguing novel FAITHFUL PLACE is founded on the premise that you can never go home. But go home indeed is what Undercover Detective Frank Mackey is forced to do when something suspicious is uncovered in his old neighborhood. You see, back in 1985 on a cold winter eve, Frank made secret plans with his girlfriend, Rose Daly, to escape the dead-end life, poverty and dysfunctional family lives of their inner city Dublin neighborhood, Faithful Place. With a carefully planned out escape and elopement to London, Frank is uplifted by hope for once in his life. But when Rose fails to show up at the agreed upon hour and place, finding only a cryptic note, Frank  assumes she has dumped him and gone on alone. Frank leaves that night, not to return for over twenty-two years. That is, until Rose’s suitcase, packed with her clothes and tickets, turns up in a derelict building in Faithful Place. Thus begins a psychological tale of mystery pitting the successful son who “escaped” against the family members who remained home and true to their duties. In addition to family tensions, Frank is shunned as an outsider and turncoat for having become a cop, constantly judged and found lacking by dozens of watching eyes and whispering lips, evaluating his every move in the neighborhood. The mystery of Rose’s fate keeps the pages turning, as well as the tense, poignant, and cruelly realistic family vignettes in this novel. The characters are so sharply portrayed, it is hard to believe they aren’t real. French has a fine ear for language as well. The dialogue and slang of the rough streets of Dublin in the mouths of these characters, although unfamiliar, is lyrical and feels right. The only weakness I could see in the story was perhaps Frank’s daughter, Holly, who at age nine seemed a bit too sophisticated and savvy for her years.  Also, (no spoilers) a second body turns up and in the end, but I was not fully on board with the motivation for this murder was revealed. All told, however, French has spun another riveting tale of horrible violence, wrapped up and delivered in beautiful prose.

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Painful Memories Destroying Lives

knifeedgeAuthor Laurie Halse Anderson took on a tough issue in her new YA novel The Impossible Knife of Memory. The story opens with the main character, Hayley Kincain, attending high school in her dad’s home town and feeling alienated from the other kids, who she terms “zombies.”  This is the first time Hayley has settled down in one spot since her dad returned from the war in Iraq with severe PTSD.  Her life up to this point has been on the road in his rig, lurching from job to job, town to town.  He has resolved that his daughter needs to be in one place for a while, but he has not resolved to seek help for himself–which is the real problem.  Hayley has been forced into the role of parent to her dad, who is sometimes violent, moody, often drunk or drugged, and is becoming increasingly unstable.  She hides the severity of his disfunction from friends, school officials, and her ex-step mother–the one person who understood and was willing to step up and help.  Laurie Halse Anderson, author of such prize-winning works as Speak, does a masterful job illustrating the tension in Hayley’s life as she tries to keep her dad safe from others as well as himself.  What the author fails to do is write a believable love story between Hayley and an oddball student, Finn.  The dialog between these two characters is awkward, out of character, and often breaks the mood of the rest of the novel.  I liked Finn and wanted to believe in their romance, but for me it didn’t work.  Hayley in the beginning of the novel is such an unlikeable, bitter, and arrogant character that I was bored with her and tempted to put the novel down, but pressing on and with the revelation of more of her background, she became more sympathetic and softer.  A good story, but overly long.

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Toxic Relationships

drikingcoverI first discovered the  insightful writing of Caroline Knapp through her book about her relationship with her dog, Pack of Two.  What I didn’t know at the time was the story of her life leading up to that point:  a story of her battle against alcoholism and anorexia that led to her recovery through a relationship with her dog.  Everyone should read her books.  That is a bold statement, but one I stand behind one hundred percent.  I am saddened to learn that after Caroline Knapp beat her alcoholism and eating disorders, she did not have a lot of life left before died from lung cancer at the age of 42.  I am heartened by the fact that she probably faced it sober and head-on, with the laser like focus and analysis she brought to bear on her previous problems.  The book “Drinking: A Love Story” is a stellar work of self analysis, but more than that, it is a clear-headed view on the problem on alcoholism.  The metaphor she works through the book is that of a love story, which is so appropriate and just right in its description.  It begins: “It was love at first sight.  The beads of moisture on a chilled bottle.  The way the glasses clinked and the conversation flowed.  Then it became an obsession.  The way she hid her bottles behind her lover’s refrigerator.  The way she slipped from the dinner table to the bathroom, from work to the bar.  And then, like so may love stories, it all fell apart.”  The uplifting part of this story is Knapp chronicles her descent with unflinching honesty, but then lifts us back up out of her abyss through AA, describing every detail of her struggle in such a way that anyone with any sort of compulsive behavior can identify with her struggle. Although I did not always understand the injuries she suffered from her family situation, I understood her isolation and self-destruction, because she described it so beautifully.  Beautifully?  That is hard to imagine, but her writing is so lucid, so honest, so spot-on that that is the only word that springs to mind.  She was a writer before, during, and after her trials with alcoholism, and we should all be thankful for the gift she left behind to help anyone struggling through the same ordeal, or anyone who is living with a loved one in that situation.  Thank you, Caroline.  May you rest in peace.  Finally.  carolineknapp

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No Ghost of a Chance

ghostcoverSuzanne Berne’s “The Ghost at the Table” was described as “a crash course in sibling rivalry.”  It is the tale told by younger sister Cynthia, a single writer, who is invited to spend Thanksgiving with her perfect sister, Frances, in her lovingly-restored New England home, along with Frances’s husband and two grown daughters.  Already tense family interactions are strained to the breaking point when Frances springs a surprise on Cynthia: the fact that she has also invited their estranged father.  The story is told through the eyes of Cynthia, who relates past family dramas to include her suspicions that her father,  possibly aided by her sister Frances, had a hand in killing their bedridden and ailing mother.  The first part of the book reads more like a mystery, as we try to piece together the past, provided only in glimpses, through Cynthia’s recollections, juxtaposed with family concerns going on in the house in the present, as the family prepares for the holiday.  And there is no shortage of family dysfunction in the past or present, as marital infidelity, alcoholism, “cutting”, eating disorders, and a host of other mental illnesses are hinted at or observed by Cynthia. But then, the story seems to turn on its reader, and we start to doubt Cynthia’s reliability as a narrator– her ability to discern the truth of what she sees, and how she has interpreted the past.  I personally enjoy the “unreliable narrator” technique, and this shift would have been compelling if masterfully played out, but instead, I felt cheated as a reader and a little bit angry with author Berne.  So many threads of the narrative were never resolved or even re-visited to attempt to provide a solution.  They were just dropped.  What are we to believe, that Cynthia was totally unreliable in all her experiences?  And even so, she would have gone over them in her own mind to try to resolve them.  Suzanne Berne is talented writer who is able to paint a picture of domestic life so realistic the reader feels they are in the room, at the table, observing the drama unfold.  She has created compelling and interesting characters, set them in motion around a complex and compelling plot (the possible murder of the mother), and then leaves us hanging in the end.  Maybe I have just read too many mysteries lately and need the closure, but I get the sense that Berne had no idea how to end the novel, and it feels as if she just stopped writing when there was so much more to tell.  Liar

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