Lauren Groff (2008) the Monsters of Templeton.

I was surprised a panegyric to the Monsters of Templetown by Stephen King was on the back cover and not the front. I’d describe that as bad marketing, but perhaps this was not to confuse the reader, because despite the title there are no real monsters.  Lorrie Moore describes the Monsters of Templeton on the front cover as, ‘A bold hybrid of a book’.  What she means by that is the stories are factional, and it’s a love story of place as much as characters. For Templeton read Cooperstown. Lauren Groff in the Author’s note explains,

‘I have grown up with these characters almost as if they were real people and they formed the myth of my own town in my head. They belonged very firmly in Templetown.

In the end, fiction is the craft of telling truth through lies…The story saw history as malleable and tried about a different kind of truth about my little village on the lake, one filled with all the mystery and magic that I was surrounded by in my childhood.’

I weigh story-telling by truth-telling. If I can’t tell where truth begins and fiction ends, that’s a good starting point. The Clydebank I write about rings true, because it is true. Templeton rings true because it is true. Harper Lee takes the reader back to the deep South and the old town of Maycomb during the hungry thirties in To Kill a Mocking Bird. A child’s eye view of change in a town where nothing really changes.

The narrator is Willie ‘Sunshine’ Upton (illeg.) born 1973.

Homecoming

The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.

That’s a killer first line to start any novel. All novels need questions that need answers so the reader turns the pages. Here we have two in the first sentence. Why is she disgraced and where did the monster come from?

Her disgrace is that aged 24, she’s pregnant; an English Harvard professor on an archaeological dig in the Alaskan tundra is the father, but he’s married. And Willie inadvertently tried to run his wife over with the supply plane. But there is symmetry in her disgrace.

Her mother Vivienne Upton (‘Vi’) 1955—arrived back in Templetown apparently pregnant, also aged 24. Vi claimed not to know who the father was, having lived in a commune with drugs and ‘free love’ on the menu.  Vi was the town’s official hippy. But she was also a property owner. Her (and Willie’s) ancestors had founded Templetown. It was in their blood. Their backwater town cured them of all ills even Vi’s acne.

Willie paints the backstory of the town and friendship with Clarissa, her Harvard best friend, who was an orphan like Vi (her grandparents being killed together in a car crash). Clarissa, in New York, suffers from lupus and her ongoing health concerns provide some ballast to Willie’s attempt to find out who her father was.

Vi had told her that he was a son of the town fathers. Willie therefore must play detective and this allows her to outline the history of the town using forgotten letters and uncover dark secrets that allows other characters to speak for themselves. For example, Sarah Franklin Temple Upton from her Journal, 1913-1933 m. Asterik “Sy” Upton 1895-1953, before she walks into the lake like Virginia Woolf with a pocketful of stones.  

Journals, letters and with a little help from a friendly, resident ghost, Willie tries to unravel the truth, while having a little fling with her childhood sweetheart.

All the parts fit in a coherent way, but some are a bit of a squash. There’s photos and portraits too, such as that of one of her forbearers and his dog—used to hunt Indians. A mish-mash of telling and showing. Worth a look. Read on.  

Louise Welsh (2012) The Girl on the Stairs.

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(Shit. I’d a whole spiel in my head about this being the tricky second novel, after the great debut novel and international success of The Cutting Room. But when I checked publication date, it was Louise Welsh’s fifth novel. Not her second. Anyway, I was going to fling in Swing Hammer Swing, Jeff Torrington’s debut novel and his follow up novel The Devil’s Carousel. I raved about the first and emm, didn’t rave about the second.  I’d segue away to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird and fifty years later, the unfortunate book that buried her, Go Set a Watchman.  If Harper Lee had written the first we’d probably not of heard of her and would not associate Gregory Peck as being a real-life Atticus Finch and his career would have nose-dived too. I’m lucky because I’ve not got a career to worry about. Nobody much has read my first novel Lily Poole. Although Scottish Book Trust are currently searching for a novelist daft enough to mentor my second novel, it’s a fair bet that it won’t get published and if it does nobody will read it either. But I’m in good company.  I’m a reader more than a writer. There’s consolation that Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories (Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin) with a dedication to his lover W.H. Auden and a protagonist William Bradshaw who is fleeing Oxbridge and England to the Weimar Republic and Berlin because he had only sold twelve of his published poems. Snap.)

William Bradshaw finds playing the relationship game with Mr Norris very boring. It’s a mark of how you are related to whom and where are you in the social standing pecking order. In twenty-first century The Girl on the Stairs with the backdrop of a unified Germany and Berlin as the new star we find old hates and Venn Diagrams.

There were many different worlds, Jane thought, but they didn’t exist in different planes: one slotted on top of the other, as Alban Mann implied. They overlapped, like Venn diagrams, and you could be at the intersection of several realities without even knowing it.

Jane the peely-wally narrator is from Glasgow, and she’s an outsider in many ways. She’s pregnant. Her lover and wife Petra, is another woman. Jane has moved to Berlin to live with her, but is largely languageless, dependent on the kindness of strangers to speak to her in English. Jane is dependent on Petra for money. And although Petra and Jane stay in a reconverted and modern apartment complex, they live next to a graveyard and Gothic chapel, the haunt of prostitutes and corvines that call to her. It’s haunted house territory and Jane is made to feel like the madwomen in the attic when she accuses Dr Alban Mann of beating and raping his thirteen-year-old daughter, Anna.

Jane remembers a fairy tale about a mother who has gone to lift her baby from its cradle and found it transformed into a wrinkled old man. In the story the mother has let the old man drink from her breasts, until he has drained her dry.

Here we are in the Emperor has no Clothes territory and Dr Mann has to convince others that he not naked, and certainly his daughter is not naked. Anna of the red lipstick and Little Red-Riding Hood red coat and red herring territory.

I liked this book and ripped through it. It’s perhaps not as good as Rilke –and the space between silences- but there’s no shame in that. There was a line that caught me and it’s nothing to do with the Scottish or German language.

Far away in Vienna someone said something in German and Petra laughed. ‘Sorry,’ the laugh was still in her voice.

That’s a great line, but, minor quibble, repetitive. The laugh was still in her voice is attributed to several characters. It reminds me of when I was trying to describe something and had all my characters leaning back in their chair so I could describe the room. See, even great Scottish novelist, Louise Welsh makes mistakes.  We’re all human. I’d say that’s a theme. But when we start talking about themes we lose the plot.

The Girl on the Stairs. Well worth a read. And now on to Louise Welsh’s second novel. I’ll just need to work out which one that is.

Andrew Michael Hurley (2014) The Loney

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When a young lady sends you a note saying you should really read this – well, your heart goes all a quiver. Then you find out it’s a Gothic novel. You know the kind. Lonely places. Empty spaces. Mad monks and things that go bore, and more bore, in the night. Books the size of tombstones that go on forever.  By the end of the first chapter you want to fling yourself off a high flat, but you live on a ground floor and just can’t because you can’t move from your chair and your head is in your arse. Haunted for all the wrong reasons. Thanks for that Vera Clark.

The Loney is none of those things. It’s the best book I’ve read this year. Well, it’s only the 18th January, but if the best book I read last year was the Nobel Prize winning Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch then that’s good going for a first-time author. I’m reminded of John Davenport’s advice: ‘If Miss Lee was sharpens her style and is a little more parsimonious with the sugar, her second book will be something worth waiting for’. It wasn’t. They had to wait until Harper Lee was dead until they published Go Set a Watchman. And no wonder. Take away the bit about monks and everything I said about Gothic novels applies to her posthumous publication. You don’t need to nail down the coffin lid on Andrew Michael Hurley this is a living and breathing classic.

But I didn’t think I’d get into it. First paragraphs that start with a weather report usually has me reaching for a phial of morphine. Then we’d Dr Baxter, left hanging. Not literally hanging, but on the page. But that’s good, questions are good. Coldbarrow. There’s a name for you.  Tells you everything about the place. ‘A cold spit of land.’ The first-person narrator tells the reader, ‘But I suppose I always knew what happened there wouldn’t stay hidden forever, no matter how much I wanted it to’.

The reader is given a snapshot of his brother Hammy, married with two boys on the cusp of University and successful careers of their own. Their father a much sought after minster who’d published a bestseller My Second Life with God’. There’s the hook.

What happened on the Loney – ‘the strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter’? And St Anne’s shrine, second only to Lourdes and in the mind of Mummer, the narrator and Hammy’s mother, not second, but the only chance of a cure for her boy.

Hammy communicates with his brother and guardian, four years younger than him, by what he carries in his pockets. ‘A rabbits tooth meant he was hungry. A jar of nails was one of his headaches. He apologised with a plastic dinosaur and put on a rubber mask when he was frightened.’ The reader knows he is cured, but not how.

The Loney is a place of pilgrimage, but not empty of people and the pilgrims bring the baggage of the past with them. In particular, what happened to Father Wilfred who led the early party of pilgrims and whose death left a whiff of something unwholesome, and it lingers in ongoing arguments within the group of the chosen. In particular, the affable Father Bernard, a farmer’s son from Antrim, whose job it was to replace that striker down of unwholesome practices and god-the-father like figure, Father Wilfred. It no surprise he can never measure up to his predecessor. And if he cannot lead, Mummer would drag the group –Farther, Mr and Mrs Belderboss, Miss Bunce and her fiancée David, and her two sons – through the waters of the Lonie to heal her son, come hell or high waters.

Both are sheltering on the Loney. Although he nearly drowns, the narrator has a sixth sense for such things. Laura and Leonard and the adolescent Else arrive in a fancy Daimler. The girl is pregnant, in a wheelchair and due to give birth in that forgotten place. But more worrying are the strangers Hale, Parry, Parkinson and Collier, whose dog chews a ewe’s new-born lamb to bloody stumps and who seem to have some strange hold over Clement, the caretaker of the house, the pilgrims stay in. Hammy has been allowed to touch and cradle the belly of the girl giving birth and want to return to Else who has bestowed a kiss on him. Collier, for his own reasons also wants the boy he terms ‘retard’ back in the cottage they are staying in. When he comes out of the cottage he is neither innocent nor retard. The miracle is in the prose. Classic.

Harper Lee (2015) Go Set a Watchman.

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I searched for my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, but was unable to find it. Harper Lee’s classic was published before I was born and is one of those books I’ve no doubt someone would steal. Go Set a Watchman was published posthumously.  It’s one of those books that you could leave on the bus, on the train and hidden in plain sight among a collection of Showaddywaddy, Under the Moon of Love, classic rock singles, and it’s the latter, rather than the former that would be more likely to go missing. Get this. A couple of old guys dressing up as Teddy Boy clobber and getting to Number 1 in the charts with complete pap. We expect that. What we don’t expect is Harper Lee to be too boring to read.

Go Set a Watchman, of course, went to Number 1 in all the book charts. A brilliant marketing exercise. Scout, is now long legged, twenty-six-year old Miss Jean Louise Finch, a resident New Yorker, travelling back to her home town Maycomb by train. She would fly, but among other things Atticus would insist on getting up at three in the morning and driving a hundred miles to Mobile to meet her, and then do a full day’s work. He’s seventy-two now, and his arthritis means he can longer hold a spoon, fork or knife, but he’s Atticus and we know what that means. It means Gregory Peck. It means Jesus asking himself before he made any big decisions – what would Atticus do? So we, the reader, tag along to see and hear and breeze through the post-atomic world of Maycomb County.

Later, in the book, Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, accuses Miss Jean Louise Finch of confusing her father with God. Of course she does, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, doesn’t everyone?  But here we find he’s got feet of clay. He’s a bigot. He believes that blacks should be treated like the children they are and kept in their place. That they don’t qualify as right-minded citizens with all the responsibilities that entails. He’d defended the black man accused of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird because it was the right thing to do. Not because he was innocent. He was guilty of statutory rape as the girl was under sixteen, but she was willing. It was a technicality he was willing to overlook. I’m telling you all this so you can overlook this book. I might as well add Scout’s brother, Jem, dies of a heart-attack before he reached twenty-one and is only mentioned a few times. A genetic condition, inherited from their mother. And Dill doesn’t appear. Instead we get Henry Clinton, Atticus’s protégé and eyes and ears in Maycomb’s convoluted political and social hierarchy. He’s in love with, and of course wants to make an honest woman of, Miss Jean Louise Finch. God forbid, sex before marriage. The one bright spot is when Miss Jean Louise Finch remembers when she was a tomboy as the local school, and because someone had kissed her, and put their tongue in her mouth, she believed she was pregnant. There’s a story there somewhere.