The House by the Thames and the people who lived there, Gillian Tindall (Pimlico, 2007)

House by the thames

A brief warning to the reader: if you are expecting, like I was,  a present-day London-based One Hundred Years of Solitude, albeit on a smaller scale, you will be somewhat disappointed. I think this teaches us not to judge a book by its cover. What we do receive nonetheless is an endearing historical account spanning nearly half a millennium, about the people who lived in, and the area surrounding,  a lone house on Bankside: number 49.

Gillian Tindall takes us on an exciting journey through the centuries, focussing specifically on the Southwark area, which as she states herself, has often been overlooked by historians.

This is surprising, as we encounter interesting characters from the top of the social and financial hierarchy, like Anna Lee, a famous moviestar, right down to the destitute labourers living in squalor. Tindall delves into the lives of the poor, reminiscent of Dickens, to whom she alludes at times, highlighting the lives of both desperation and privilege on Bankside.

One of the book’s main features is Tindall’s flowing prose style; not typical of historical accounts, it captivates the reader, effectively holding our attention throughout and developing like a novel until its conclusion. In The House by the Thames and the people who lived there, we are educated and enthralled by the socio-economic history of London’s bankside, which takes us from the watermen company of the Sells, the most prominent family in the book, right up to the building of the Globe and the Tate Modern. Together, these two edifices have preserved the life of its quiet neighbour number 49 to the present-day and secured the prolongation of its fame in the future on Bankside.

3.5 Books

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Filed under History, Non-Fiction

Husbands & Other Lovers, Jane Elizabeth Varley (Orion, 2006)

Husbands and other lovers

In this novel, we encounter multiple relationships, sometimes interlinking, introducing us to wealthy figures like the successful Robert who works in PR, to more aspiring characters, like Jasmine, a young photographer and interior designer.

Husbands & Other Lovers deals primarily with the relationship between James, a lawyer, and Susannah, an estate agent, which despite its idyllic appearances, is suffering some problems beneath the surface. James’s alcoholism is their greatest obstacle, which is effectively dealt with by Varley, capturing the destructive nature of his ‘illness’, from denial, to acceptance and finally to rehabilitation.

James’s brother Robert also hides dark secrets and desires behind closed doors; abusing, manipulating and controlling women. However, Varley does not present a one-sided story and simply condemn Robert’s behaviour; she delves into the childhood of each character and explores how past experiences can have grave psychological effects later in life.

Throughout the novel, we witness the fallout from Robert’s previous marriage to Tabitha, who fights for escape from her controlling ex-husband, in an attempt to gain freedom for herself and her daughter. Tabitha is supported by Theo, from the United States, with whom she embarks upon a long-distance relationship; a lovely touch, despite its struggles, to a novel permeated by failing marriages and affairs.

This is not a fairy-tale novel, and thus the final outcomes are not idyllic, but they reflect the true story of modern-day families and marriages, which are frequently affected by divorce, alcoholism and other associated problems. Nonetheless, Husbands & Other Lovers demonstrates a positive view of human nature, as Susannah and James overcome their issues, maturing and developing along the way, and eventually discovering their true desires in life.

It was a shame not to see life through the eyes of Matthew, Sussanah’s son, in regards to his experiences of living with an alcoholic father, and the consequential breakdown of his parents’ marriage. Nonetheless, Varley produces an excellent novel, which insightfully explores relationships in the twenty-first century, emphasising how the decisions which parents make can greatly influence their children’s futures.

3.5 Books

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Filed under Drama, Romance

The Interpretation of Murder, Jed Rubenfeld (Headline, 2007)

Interpretation of Murder

The death of debutante Elizabeth Rutherford and the attack on Nora Acton the following night coincides with Sigmund Freud’s arrival to New York. The latter is due to deliver a series of lectures at Clark University. Rubenfeld proposes his hypothesis for the latter’s dislike of the US, which forms the backbone to this thought-provoking novel.

Detective Littlemore heads the investigation’s inquiries, while Freud entrusts Stratham Younger, the first-person narrator of the novel, to conduct several psychoanalysis sessions with the surviving victim, Miss Acton. This is where this unique novel comes into its own, as we gain an insight into Freud’s psychoanalytic methods and his beliefs, specifically in regards to the Oedipus complex. We also encounter some Shakespeare, through Stratham’s alternative interpretation of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech.

The picture of the US at the turn of the twentieth-century painted by Rubenfeld captures the country’s immense growth; economically, populously and physically, with the appearance of many skyscrapers. The author’s tendency to shift from this development to a Freudian conspiracy or a murder investigation may cause confusion for some. I, however, feel that this shift in perspective reflects the disjointed nature of a murder inquiry, while adding to the suspense of this exciting novel.

For the most part, the institutions of law and psychology remain apart, pursuing separate leads, nonetheless, we see a merging of the two, highlighting the importance of latter particularly, in criminal inquiries. Some may point out a few inconsistencies in The Interpretation of Murder, but I personally think that this novel, full of shocking twists, will keep you thinking throughout. A superb debut from Jed Rubenfeld; I look forward to reading its sequel The Death Instinct.

4 Books

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The City of Shadows, Michael Russell (Avon, 2012)

City of Shadows_Medium

In The City of Shadows, we are given an insight into Ireland, specifically Dublin, in the build-up to WWII. I myself had very little prior knowledge of this period in Ireland, and was surprised to learn about the strong influence of Nazism, the strength of the Catholic Church and the hostility against homosexuals. More well-informed readers may be more familiar with this history, and would probably warn me not to take it as given, as this is nonetheless a fictional work.

Through Stefan Gillespie’s investigation, in which he discovers the bodies of Vincent Walsh and Susan Field, Hannah Rosen’s  friend,  we are taken to Danzig and back, delving into the darkest corners of life. These are not the only two deaths we encounter in The City of Shadows, as institutional corruption in the government, the police and the church uncovers bribery, blackmail and a lack of consideration for the value of human life.

The pastoral location of West Wicklow, Stefan’s childhood home, is also explored, where Tom, his son, now lives with his grandparents. Here lies the underlying subplot: a fight for justice. The local priest attempts to send Tom away, owed to the views of his Protestant father and his late Jewish mother. This battle illustrates the fragility of human nature, as Stefan becomes a product of the evil against which he is fighting.

Meanwhile, the love affair between Stefan and Hannah Rosen, a Jewish friend of the deceased Susan, is tested by the discriminatory society and by distance, as she travels to Danzig and later follows her Jewish roots to Palestine.

I felt somewhat disappointed with the conclusion of the novel, which was not as romantic or ideal as I had expected; nevertheless, it is a realistic ending to a gripping mystery novel, into which Michael Russell cleverly weaves the history of the era. An excellent debut by an author from whom I hope to hear more in the coming years.

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