Beating hearts and messy moral fibre


Beating hearts and messy moral fibre

DEBORAH STEINMAIR loves to read about what gets people out of bed in the morning, and how they navigate life and relationships. It's no picnic.


TO me, there is no canvas, no background or decor as poignant as the human psyche, no stage as bloody as the battlefield of interpersonal relationships, the dynamics between people.  You can keep your spy intrigues and forensic evidence bloodily ripped open to the bone. I want to know what makes people get out of bed and move on with the business of life.

I read two books in which the spotlight falls on the domestic; the small, casual moments between people. Both writers have an eye for the negative spaces, for things that remain unsaid, for the absent that is urgently and eternally present.

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The first is interesting and ambitious — the story is told in the form of letters, lists, diary notes, the guestbook of a hotel and transcripts of conversations, among other things.

Scarlett Thomas is considered one of the most exciting and original writers of her generation. She's British. In one of her books, the main character, Mr Y, sums up her outlook on life:

I'm very much someone who wants to work out the answers. I want to know what's outside the universe, what's at the end of time, and is there a God? But I think fiction's great for that — it's very close to philosophy.

The Sleepwalkers is described as a darker The White Lotus, for those like me who binge-watched the vivid, wryly funny series. It's also set in a hotel: the somewhat dilapidated Villa Rosa on a Greek island. The owner/manager is the enigmatic Isabella, who sometimes appears fearful and persecuted.

We first see her through the eyes of Evelyn, a bride who arrives for her (disastrous) honeymoon. She flees and leaves her groom, Richard, a long, handwritten letter. In it, she refers to an incident at their wedding that doomed the marriage from the outset. The reader doesn't find out what it was until much later. Evelyn writes about Richard's impatience, his indifference, the way Isabella comes on to him and acts increasingly passive-aggressively towards Evelyn — he refuses to admit that this is the case. Evelyn and Richard's quarrels are spectacular. She is the author of a successful one-woman play that has been turned into a less successful TV series. She is never at a loss for words.

The letter form used to be popular but rarely appears in modern literature. It's so superbly used here: the way she speaks directly to him and casually refers to people and incidents that are (for now) unknown to the reader. It is clear that Thomas does not simply want to convey information but to create a particular ambience — an eerie sense of impending catastrophe, that the carnival is over. See how lovely and unadornedly she writes:

The summer itself was slowly creeping away … The swallows flitted across the water for the last few times and then they all flew off together, heading for Africa. The other tourists were long gone.

George’s Taverne stopped serving fresh fish because the fisherman had taken his wife to Athens. Those last days of Greek salads with old dry feta and toasted bread, because by then even the bakery had closed. Those last days. Our last days together. I will always treasure them, even though they were so very tainted.

The fat, slow hornets; they were still there. And the beautiful people. And us.

Later, there is a letter Richard wrote to Evelyn and the reader gets into his head: privileged upbringing, private school, quite a bit of money, an honest admiration and respect for Evelyn's talent. Their backgrounds are radically different and there are all kinds of skeletons threatening to fall out of closets.

It's also a whodunnit: something is amiss at the Villa Rosa and slowly the nightmare unfolds. A different, fascinating novel that kept me awake. I highly recommend it for the glimpse into tormented psyches, the dramatic storyline and the humour — I often laughed out loud.

The Sleepwalkers by Scarlett Thomas was published by Simon & Schuster and costs R402 at Exclusive Books.

Blue Sisters by Coco Mellors also caught me off guard. Here is the first part of the prologue:

A sister is not a friend. Who can explain this urge to take a relationship as primal and complex as a sibling and reduce it to something as replaceable, as banal as a friend? Yet this status is used again and again to connote the highest intimacy. My mother is my best friend. My husband is my best friend. No. True sisterhood, the kind where you grew fingernails in the same womb, were pushed screaming through identical birth canals, is not the same as friendship. You don’t choose each other, and there’s no furtive period of getting to know the other. You’re part of each other, right from the start. Look at an umbilical cord — tough, sinuous, unlovely, yet essential — and compare it to a friendship bracelet of brightly woven thread. That is the difference between a sister and a friend.

The three Blue sisters are each other's joy and grief. Their other sister, Nicky, overdosed on pain pills and died. She had endometriosis for years and developed a dependency. A sense of loss permeates the book, but even before her death, each of the sisters was damaged and lost in her own way. Their childhood was neither the worst of times nor the best. “Were you beaten, did you starve, were you locked up in the garden shed?" their unemotional mother wants to know. No, the cramped New York apartment where they grew up didn't have a garden. And every room was dominated by their father's mood swings and drunken tirades. Their mother wasn't exactly motherly and the eldest sister, Avery, had to play mom.

Avery is still a head girl type, driven, focused, perfectionist … and secretly falling apart. She smokes on the sly, shoplifts compulsively and cheats on her wife with a young man. Bonnie is a boxer who advances all the way to the Olympics. She is in tune with her body and in love with her trainer, a brusque Russian. She was the one who discovered Nicky's body, and it destroyed her. Lucky, the youngest, is most clearly lost in the woods. She's tall, statuesque, a model since she was 15, and she flits from one party to another in a haze of booze and drugs.

Now their parents want to sell the apartment they grew up in, and the sisters reunite from the ends of the earth to dispose of Nicky's belongings. There are epic quarrels and hilarious conversations. It makes one grasp something of what it is to be a human being.

This writer reminds me strongly of Jonathan Franzen: the story is so accessible that it is almost light, but with dark undertones and a lot to ruminate on. Humour and humanity, in all its tattered miraculousness.

The Blue Sisters by Coco Mellors was published by HarperCollins and costs R350 at Exclusive Books.

What are we listening to?

Mary Chapin Carpenter sings Only a Dream:

♦ VWB ♦

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