The Courage Consort, by Michel Faber

I didn’t intend to write about this book, thinking I had nothing to say about it. However, the three novellas have stuck with me for weeks like a tune that I cannot get out of my head.

The first concerns a vocal group that has received a grant to spend two weeks in a Belgian chateau preparing for a difficult concert. Told mostly from the point of view of one of the women, the director’s wife, the story teases out the harmonics and dissonances of the ever-changing relationships between the three men and two women who make up the group.

The second follows a woman who goes on an archeological dig in Whitby, England, taking along her nightmares from a stint in Bosnia. She encounters a man with a dog and finds herself in the middle of a two hundred-year-old murder mystery.

The third, oddly enough, relates the adventures of two small children brought up in total isolation by their parents in an Arctic research station. What is most remarkable about this story is the way Faber captures the world-view of such children, their beliefs and magical thinking.

I picked up the book because my attention was caught by the settings: I’ve been to Belgium and explored its dark woods and golden fields. I’ve spent time in Whitby, climbed the steps to the Abbey ruins, and walked along the Marine Parade. I haven’t been to either pole but, buried in Scott’s journals or Cherry-Gerard’s memoirs, sometimes feel as though I have.

What has stuck with me, however, is not so much the pleasure of revisiting places I love as it is the characters. The woman in Whitby kept saying, “‘I want. I want.'” So fundamentally human. And yet so poignant, with its unspecified object. In these stories, people fumble toward understanding what they want, sometimes aware of, but more often disregarding the effect their pursuit is having on others.

One reason I read so much is that motives—my own and those of others—remain so murky to me. I search stories for clues, motifs, signatures. I find people who want without knowing what for, who recognise a little too late that the random notes are actually a tune, who reach for a resolution that slips away even as their fingers seem to close on it. I took comfort from the children, who at least understood what they were looking for when they found it.

The Babes in the Wood, by Ruth Rendell

Recently, there has been some discussion on DorothyL, a mystery maillist, as to whether the inclusion of details about the detective’s private life adds to or detracts from a mystery, with readers’ opinions predictably split pretty equally. Some readers are interested in only the mystery itself and don’t want to waste time on the detective’s home life, while others find the personal information adds to their understanding and appreciation of the character.

My feelings fall somewhere in the middle. I like some information about the detective, if only because real detectives don’t work a case every second of every day, so a little of their private lives helps me suspend my disbelief. Too much, however, or the wrong type and it intrudes on the story.

For example, in Robin Paige’s otherwise very good series of Edwardian mysteries about a husband-and-wife team, Kate Sheridan (the wife) writes novels and considers her authorial persona as a separate person—named Beryl—with whom she carries on conversations and arguments. This is just a little too precious for me.

Or take Deborah Crombie’s excellent series about Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. Beautiful writing and delightfully tangled plots, but they are somewhat ruined for me by Gemma’s affair with her boss—Duncan—and the way this is not only presented as okay but also as without any repercussions, no jealousy from colleagues, no issues of power and authority, no cross-over between the professional and personal relationships. I find this unrealistic. In the later novels Gemma no longer works directly for Duncan.

I prefer mysteries like P.D. James’s series about Adam Dalgliesh or Ian Rankin’s Rebus, where we get just enough about the personal lives of the detectives to round them out but not enough to intrude on the story.

The Babes in the Wood is part of Rendell’s series about Chief Inspector Wexford. Two teenagers and the woman who was supposed to be babysitting for them have disappeared. It is not clear whether foul play is involved, and the investigation is stalled for some time while the rain-swollen rivers and lakes are searched on the assumption that the three missing people have accidentally drowned.

There is a great deal about Wexford’s home life and his concerns about one of his daughters, so much so that in another book I would be seriously bothered. I didn’t mind here, however, because the investigation stretches over several months so of course more of the detective’s life outside of work must intrude. Even more importantly, Wexford’s domestic concerns add a rich layer of understanding to the main story. I found the book entirely satisfying, not least because the ending, when we finally got there, seemed not only right but inevitable.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson

I expected to start out this entry by saying that this was the freshest and funniest book I’d read in a long time. My bark of laughter at the first sentence sent my surprised cat shooting off my lap and running to hide under the couch. I never LOL at a book. Well, almost never. However, the further into the book I got, still snorting at the narrator’s wit, the more I saw the story’s serious side.

This is the first-person narrative of Ruby Lennox, born in 1952 to the owners of a pet shop in York, England. First person can be tricky and often is a turn-off for me, but here it is handled brilliantly. Atkinson captures the voice and viewpoint of a child at every stage of life, from the wonder and egocentricity of a baby up through the insolence and depression of a teenager. Woven into Ruby’s story are the stories of her family. In a series of footnotes, Ruby bares the complicated tangles of their relationships, the losses they suffer, and the dreams they are unable to fulfill. What gradually emerges is the way reckless choices affect the later generations.

If this sounds a bit like Charming Billy in theme, it is, although the execution is totally different. The tone here is about as far as you can get from the gentle, ineluctable recounting of McDermott’s book. Also, focusing on so many people rather than just one necessarily diffuses the impact. However, the final picture is similar: communities, families held together with stories and secrets, needing in the end each other in ways they never expected.

This family included generation after generation of children at risk—ignored, considered more of a burden than anything else—and parents who were too self-centered to notice or care what impact their behavior had on the children. As a parent myself, and one who immoderately adores her brilliant and talented offspring, I found the selfishness of these parents incomprehensible, until the weight of their lives, particularly those of the women, and the aridity of their choices made me—however reluctantly—sympathetic. Without birth control, without the rights women enjoy today, women of as little as fifty years ago had to bear child after child, long past what their physical strength and financial resources could sustain.

Ruby’s funny and surprisingly sweet story left me thinking about the fragility of the family, how tenuous its structure is, how easy it is to loose the ties that McDermott celebrated. People disappear, homes are broken up or abandoned or burnt. Memory and the meaning of the past can slip away before we know it, leaving us with only a photograph and a silver locket.

Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott

I followed All Souls with this story of another Irish family embedded in its community, this time in New York. Fiction rather than memoir, this book was deeply moving. Much has been written about Charming Billy so everyone probably knows that it uses the funeral and wake of Billy Lynch to explore the grip of the past and the strength of a community’s ties.

Usually I’m disappointed when I finally get to a book that has been praised and hyped and awarded prizes, but Charming Billy was even better than I had been led to believe. Reading it was like having my hair combed by someone whom I trusted completely. McDermott took the tangled mess and calmly picked apart the knots until by the end each strand had been smoothed and laid in place. Quiet, unassuming, this book led me deep into the hearts of Billy and the people around him until I felt as though I knew them all too and had grown up in this tight-knit family with its joys and griefs and compromises.

I’m still trying to figure out how McDermott did all that. I was never confused by the large cast of characters. Somehow she spiraled around their stories until each appeared clear and distinct in my mind. And the way the past was brought forward and gently inserted into the present. I’m going to have to read it again and possibly a third time before I begin to understand the craft that went into this book.

What the book brought home to me was how the stories we tell about each other bind us together. They become the legends and the common legacy of our community. I usually mistrust these tales, assuming that they are distorted or exaggerated. They can be so wrong and that lie becomes what is remembered about the person, as Milan Kundera in Immortality brought out so effectively.

Perhaps not lies, just ignorance or misunderstandings. My mother liked to tell stories about her children, putting her own opinions in our mouths. So, for example, she told one sister that I disliked her husband (my brother-in-law) so much that I could not bear to be in the same room with him, when in fact I like him very much and enjoy his company immensely. At first, I thought my mother was bored and trying to cause mischief, but now I think she did not even realise what she was doing.

Charming Billy opened my eyes to how we enchant ourselves with these tales and the way being lied to is the flip side of believing. Stories are powerful, especially those we tell ourselves about ourselves, but their power is not just destructive. Their power can be creative, and they become our common memories, the currency of our shared lives, the very fibers of our network of relationships with friends and family.

All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, by Michael Patrick MacDonald

I cannot recommend this memoir highly enough. MacDonald’s prose is straight-forward and engaging as he tells this story of growing up in the projects in Southie. I happened to pick it up just after watching The Departed and found the book a refreshing real-life look at the symbiosis of drug lords, politicians and policemen in South Boston. I never lived in Southie, but spent a lot of time there and in Roxbury in the mid-Seventies when I was considering moving there. MacDonald’s tales of project life ring true to me.

Since the story takes place in the Seventies and Eighties, it captures the progress of the drug trade, beginning with the—in retrospect—almost idyllic time when the kids idolized the local marijuana-peddler because of his wealth and his commitment to the neighborhood and carrying through the hard times: the crime and killings after cocaine and heroin took over. The book almost becomes a threnody as MacDonald memorializes not only his lost siblings but others from the neighborhood, with page after page of visits to the local funeral home to bury friends. I was lucky that when I was living in poverty, it was the Seventies, before the cocaine epidemic hit my town.

However, the book is for the most part upbeat. The individual members of this large, close-knit family are clearly drawn and their pranks and shenanigans lovingly recounted. Kids find a way to have fun, even living in the projects. One of the most remarkable things about the book is the way his voice migrates from that of a child, aware of the things a child would be aware of, to that of an adult. He is unapologetic about the love they had for their neighborhood, particularly the all-Irish project that was their territory.

Sometimes your territory—the place where everyone has your back—is all you have. Within the context so brilliantly evoked here, the protests against court-ordered busing in 1974 make sense. Racism had its part, for sure, but it was more that people who had little else wanted to hold onto the fabric of their lives. And there was the excitement. Who could be bored when there were marches and protests going on? One of the things I hadn’t realised was how many children dropped out of school with parental blessing rather than be bused to Roxbury, leaving them vulnerable to crime and drugs.

MacDonald presents both the good and the bad sides of Southie: the interconnectedness of a community where neighbors watched out for each other, the secrecy and refusal to admit that the gangsters who ran the place were not actually a source of protection. He was shocked to find out that the most powerful gangster of them all was collaborating with the feds. At the same time, though, MacDonald rejoiced to find, for example, people still giving quarters to a street person known as Bobby Got-a-Quarter without his even having to ask. For me as well, the best thing about my years in poverty was the strong support of my community of friends.