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The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

“There is no time in our lives when we are so conspicuously without mercy as in adolescence.”

I don’t think I would ever picked up this ‘obscure’ and forgotten novel if it hadn’t been for the ‘crime fiction’ module I took during my second year of uni. Thanks to that module, which was in every other respect a huge waste of time (lecturer on Tom Ripley: “he does bad things because he wants more stuff”…truly illuminating), I was able to ‘discover’ Barbara Vine’s work.
Since then I’ve read a few other novels by Vine (which happens to Ruth Rendell’s nom de plume) and while I can safely say that she is an excellent writer, The House of Stairs remains my favourite of hers. Perhaps it is because of its sapphic undertones, or maybe I’m just a sucker for unrequited love stories.

“It felt like a passion, it felt like being in love, it was being in love, it was the kind of thing you delude yourself that, if all goes well, will last a lifetime. Things, of course, didn’t go well. When do they?”

The House of Stairs tells a dizzying tale of tale of psychological suspense. Like other novels by Vine it employ two timelines and explores the haunting effects of the past on the present. ‘The present’ features characters whose lives have been altered by an often unspecified accident and or crime. The second timeline, narrated from the retrospective, focuses on their past, and in particular on the events leading to that ‘one big event’. Vine does not limit herself to recounting past occurrences, instead she allows her characters to re-examine their own actions, as well as attempting to understand the motivations behind those of others. The past and present flow into each other, and throughout her narratives Vine traces both a crime’s roots and its subsequent ramifications.
Set in London The House of Stairs London opens in 1980s when Elizabeth—protagonist and narrator—glimpses Bell, a woman who has been recently released from prison. Seeing Bell is the catalyst that makes Elizabeth recount her story (transporting us to the late 60s and early 70s) but even if she knows the identity of Bell’s victim she does not share the details of this fateful event with the readers, preferring instead to play her cards close to her chest. This dual storyline creates an apparent juxtaposition of past and present. We can hazard guesses through brief glimpses of her present, her ambiguous remarks, such as ‘Bell’s motive for asking those questions was outside the bounds of my imagings’ and ‘[A]s they wished me to do, I was seeing everything inside-out’, and through her carefully paced recounting of those events.
By re-living that particular time of her life, Elizabeth—alongside the reader—acquires a better understanding of the circumstances that lead Bell to commit murder. Her narration is a far from passive relay of what happened for Elizabeth in the present seems actively involved in this scrutiny of past events.

“It is interesting how such reputations are built. They come about through confusing the two kinds of truth telling: the declaration of opinion and principle and the recounting of history.”

One of Vine’s motifs is in fact to include a house which is the locus of her story, functioning as a Gothic element within her storylines. In this novel the house (nicknamed—you guessed it—’the house of stairs’) is purchased by Cosette—a relation of Elizabeth’s—soon after the death of her husband, and becomes home to a group of bohemians, hippies, and outsiders of sorts. The house become an experimental ground: it is an escape from traditional social norms, a possibility for Cosette to make her own makeshift family.
The house creates an almost disquieting atmosphere: those who live there are exploiting Cosette, and tensions gradually emerge between its tenants. The house can be a place of secrecy—doors shut, people do not leave their rooms, stairs creak—and of jealousy, for Elizabeth comes to view the other guests as depriving her of Cosette’s affection.


Elizabeth, plagued by the possibility of having inherited a family disease, finds comfort in Bell, a beautiful and alluring woman. Elizabeth comes to idolize Bell (comparisons to the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi abound), and finds herself increasingly obsessed by her. Bell’s arrival into the house, however, will have violent consequences.
As Elizabeth is examining this time in her life, she, once again, finds herself falling under Bell’s spell.

“I found her exciting in a disturbing way, a soul-shacking way, without knowing in the least what I wanted of her.”

Like many other Vine novels The House of Stairs is a deeply intertextual work. Henry James, in particular, plays a significant role in Elizabeth’s narration.
Guilt, culpability, love, obsession, desire, greed, past tragedies, and family legacies are recurring themes in Elizabeth’s story. Vine, however, doesn’t offer an easy answer as she problematises notions of normalcy and evil.
There are many reasons why I love this novel so much: Vine’s elegantly discerning prose, her examination of class and gender roles in the 1960s-70s, the way she renders Elizabeth’s yearning for Bell…while I can see that some readers my age may find this novel to be a bit outdated, I would definitely recommend it to those who enjoy reading authors such as Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Magda Szabó.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Dutch House by Ann Patchett — book review

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“I was still at a point in my life when the house was the hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.”

Not Quite a Review, More of an Ode to Ann Patchett:

Usually I tend to post my reviews a couple of days after I’ve finished reading a book. With The Dutch House it took me nearly two weeks to work up the ‘courage’ to review it. The fact is that I loved The Dutch House so much that I find hard to see it as a ‘mere’ work of fiction.
This is the eight novel that I’ve read by Ann Patchett and she has yet to disappoint. It is difficult to ‘pick’ a favourite, even if I can see that throughout the course of her writing career she has really honed her craft. Yet, I wholeheartedly loved her early books (especially her unjustly underrated 1997 novel, The Magician’s Assistant), so to imply that she ‘keeps getting better’ would be doing her a disservice. Regardless of the scope of her stories (whether they take place in a short period of time in a particular city, such as in Run, or move us between two ‘extremes’, in The Magician’s Assistant we move between Los Angeles and Nebraska, or take us on even longer journey, for instance in State of Wonder we follow Dr. Marina Singh’s as she leaves Minnesota for the Amazon Rainforest) Patchett tends to explore the same themes: there is a focus on familial relationships, especially between siblings, and these established dynamics are often changed due to some ‘major’ event (often the death of a loved one/relative/colleague). Although The Dutch House is written in Patchett’s signature prose, which can be described as being deceptively simple it features a first-person perspective, which is a departure from her usual third-person point of view. Being inside Danny Conroy’s head makes for an immersive experience and within the first pages I was captivated by his story.
Through an act of retrospection Danny looks back to the past and what follows is a narrative that could be described as a bildungsroman. Danny’s childhood in the Dutch House—a large, if not incongruous, mansion in a prosperous suburb of Philadelphia—is clouded by the absence of his mother (a woman he cannot clearly recall but whose absence he nonetheless feels) and by his relationship with his remote father. It is Maeve, Danny’s older sister, who takes on the role of ‘parental’ figure, and their relationship is very much the underlying thread of the story.

The Dutch House, weighed down by its history, inspires fascination in Andrea, the woman who will go on to become Danny and Maeve’s step-mother. The novel begins in fact with Danny’s memory of his first meeting with Andrea, one that seems to have almost a fairy-tale-esque quality in that it was the day where ‘everything’ seemed to change.
Throughout Danny’s narrative we will also see the way in which the Conroy siblings remain drawn to the house, a house which seems to acquire an emblematic role in the lives of those who have lived in: it represents their childhoods, their father—his career, his marriage(s)—and the rather unfortunate VanHoebeeks. Patchett renders this house without loosing herself in extensive architectural descriptions, rather she brings to the foreground some of its features (Maeve’s windowseat) and some of its objects. The paintings within the house (Maeve’s portrait and those of the VanHoebeeks) also seem to hold a certain function in Danny’s recollection of his past.

“Maybe it was neoclassical, though with a simplicity in the lines that came closer to Mediterranean or French, and while it was not Dutch, the blue delft mantels in the drawing room, library, and master bedroom were said to have been pried out of a castle in Utrecht and sold to the VanHoebeeks to pay a prince’s gambling debts. The house, complete with mantels, had been finished in 1922.”

In his remembrance Danny frequently makes vague, if not downright oblique, allusions to later events or revelations, which in turn creates tension between his past and present. Also framing Danny’s recollection of his youth are a series of scenes in which alongside Maeve, he sits in her car outside the Dutch House.
Danny also questions the veracity of his memories: “But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.” He reassess certain moments and figures of his past, finding hidden complexities in what had at first appeared to be seemingly unremarkable occurrences.

“Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?”

While the novel is narrated by Danny he never paints himself as the ‘hero’ of his own story. He often wonders whether he should have acted in a different way towards someone or something, trying to understand why things unfurled the way that they did. While the motivations of other characters might escape him, and possibly us, they are never reduced to a certain role/function. The each have a story even if we are not always made privy to it. An although there is an awareness of the limitations provided by Danny’s narration, the story never feels restricted to his experiences and worldview.

“Whatever romantic notions I might have harbored, whatever excuses or allowances my heart had ever made on her behalf, blew out like a match.”

My edition of this novel includes an essay in which Ann Patchett says that “for a long time I had planned to call the book Maeve as it was her story.” The novel, in fact, very much pivots around Maeve but it is her brother who is telling her tale.
We see the way in which their experiences in the Dutch House makes them determined to fulfil their desires or to take a certain path in their life: for Danny that is to become, as his father before him, a real-estate developer, while Maeve wants to carry on working a job she loves even if many consider her to be overqualified to do. While to some degree Danny’s vision of Maeve influences our perception of her, we are always aware that she may have hidden qualities. What is certainly undeniable is her love for her brother. Their bond is portrayed with such frankness and poignancy as to become vividly real in the reader’s mind.
This a story full of beauty and sorrow. There are regrets, wonderful reflections on memory, moments that are brimming with love or sadness…Patchett spins a tale in which families fall apart or come together. It is an intimate depiction of the bond between two siblings. Time and again Danny draws strength from his relationship to his sister, and even when he begins to feel unmoored from his own life, and as he struggles trying to reconcile himself with his past, Maeve provides him with a sense of belonging.
Patchett’s sense of place is as detailed and evocative as ever. She seamlessly renders midcentury America through Danny’s narration, evoking within me a sense of nostalgia for a country I’ve never even been to. And while Danny’s story spans decades, it maintains its focus on the same group of people, painting an intimate portrait of Danny’s friends and family.
…to put it simply I fell in love with it. Patchett’s harmonious prose made the experience all the more beautiful, and I was so enthralled by her story and her characters that to I struggled to think of them as works of fiction.
What more can I say? I think this is a masterpiece.

“We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it. I was sickened to realize we’d kept it going for so long, not that we had decided to stop.”

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy by Barbara Vine

“I want to be in love. I want to be possessed and obsessed by it, I want the sky to change colour and the sun to shine all the time. I want to long for the phone to ring and pace the room when it doesn’t. I want to be breathless at the sound of her voice and tongue-tied when I first see her.”

A layered and complex character driven novel, one that from start to finish thrums with suspense.
Guilt, lost chances, secretive relationships and desires are explored throughout this novel.

After the death of her husband, renown writer Gerald Candless, Ursula considers her loveless marriage and the freedom she has gained as a widow. Her daughters, unlike her, loved Gerald. It is hinted, from the very beginning, that Gerald marries solely to become a father: his desire, during the 60s and the 70s is made to make him unusual, different. Yet, he takes control of his daughters, pushing Ursula out of the family picture. Sarah, the eldest daughter, is charged with writing a memoir in his memory. Grief stricken, she agrees, only to then discover than her mythical father is not who he claimed to be.
A perusal of the past brings to life Ursula’s unhappy marriage as well as the lives of the families surrounding the mystery of Gerald’s true identity. Identity, love, freedom, all play a large role in the story’s narrative. The richly detailed backdrop provides a wistful portrayal of 20th century (from the 40s to the 90s) England. Characters who actively challenge themselves and one another make the narrative utterly engaging. Barbara Vine doesn’t shy away from depicting the most unnerving and uncomfortable aspects of her society: personal vices, poverty, depression, repression, and various injustices abound.
Also, Vine doesn’t provide clear cut answers or universal truths. Her story and her characters do no fit in neat little boxes. She explores the actions of different types of people without any sentimentalist moral lessons.
Vine allows us to know what is coming – that is the ‘mystery’ at the core of this novel – however she doesn’t let the details, the particulars, of that mystery known to us: she keeps us guessing, even when we are fairly certain of what exactly happened, we are only provided with fragmented glimpses of the fuller ‘picture’.
With a beautiful and richly descriptive prose, characters who are both sensual and finicky, a plot that relies on the art of writing itself (so many books are mentioned!) , well, The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy is a truly remarkable read.

My rating: 5 stars

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Ashland & Vine by John Burnside

Ashland & Vine follows a film student Kate Lamber who has been deeply affected by the death of her father. Medicating her grief through alcohol Kate spends her days trying to numb her feelings. Working on a project started by her flatmate/occasional lover Laurits, Kate is tasked with ‘collecting’ stories. Which is how she ends up meeting an elderly woman Jean Culver. Jean will tell Kate her own story if Kate stays sober for four days. Kate who is drawn to Jean, by her house, her garden, her quiet yet healthy lifestyle, ‘wills’ herself off alcohol.
Jean’s recollection of her past consists in chunky paragraphs. Throughout the novel, in various meetings, Jean tells Kate the story of her family. I didn’t quite buy into Jean remembering exactly what people said to her – or even to each other – years before, and I find the disjointed manner in which Jean tells these various anecdotes to be a bit confusing. Into her story there are crammed a lot of monumental historical moments. Her family members all seem to be part of vital American movements which wasn’t very believable. As Jean’s oral-history progresses, Jean herself – as well as her words – seemed to become the author’s mouthpiece. Jean asserts certain ‘universal truths’ which came across as the author’s preaching his own believes onto his audience. The past is filled with senseless violence, we should take care of our environment, the modern age has forgotten past values. We get it. There was also many instances were entire paragraphs are dedicated to classic films, art, and literature, which could have worked better if I didn’t feel as if Burnside was showing us his ‘knowledge’.
While Kate does provide interesting observations – questioning her own self, recalling her own childhood, describing her less than ideal relationship with Laurits – Burnside’s dialogues and paragraphs are far too long. Long rants or remembrances can be interesting but to use this technique throughout the novel slowed the pace of the narrative as well as appearing repetitive.
A strong and vivid beginning is weighed down by the author’s somewhat pretentious agenda.

My rating: 3.5 stars

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The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

“She had lost so much that she had lost herself as well. She had a secret that she carried with her, and it hurt, as if she store a stone beside her heart. It was her hatred of herself that was her burden, and it grew each day. At first it was tiny, a mere pebble, then it was as big as her heart, and then it was the largest thing inside her. She had decided it wasn’t the curse that was at fault. It was her.”

A truly delightful and ‘magical’ read. The wistful narration sweeps you off your feet from the very start. The rhythm carried by Hoffman’s style resonates with the her ‘other-worldly’ setting, one that is ‘ruled’ by words such as fate and curses. Hoffman swiftly incorporates magical elements into a New York of the 60s.
The pivotal relationship between the Owens siblings is rendered beautifully: the scenes between them are convincing and heart-warming. And while they do tend to disagree and squabble, there is an underlying love that is just palpable. Franny, the self-named Maid of Thorns, deliberately attempts to resists her feelings for her best friend, Jet, the kind hearted middle child, suffers at a young age the cruelty of the curse, while Vincent is a free agent, one whose powerful gifts render him hard to miss. Plenty of eccentricities mark these characters, distinguishing them from each other: their individual gifts become part of the characters themselves.
The story, which I would actually describe as more of a ‘tale’, follows their respectives journeys into a future in which they will be able to love freely and without consequences.
Sweet and alluring, The Rules of Magic is a must read for established fan of Alice Hoffman or any fan of a nostalgic type of magical realism, such as the one to be found in Chocolat, The Witches of New York, The Wild Girl and State of Wonder. Truly enchanting!

Love more, her aunt had said. Not less.”

My rating: 4.75 of 5 stars

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Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

A small part of him which he already recognizes as a lost, former self longs for his mother’s garden, the sound of wind rustling the leaves. He takes a breath, his feet flat against the carpet. His right toe itches.

Despite being a beautifully written novel Salt Houses lacks personality.
We follow different generations of a Palestinian family whom are forced to relocate time and again due to the constant strife that is – sadly – the backdrop in their lives. So while the story has the potential to explore the emotional turmoils of its characters, whom are undoubtedly affected by the various wars taking place around them, they feel flat. They do not differ greatly from one another, their differences feel forced, one child is the ‘wild one’ the other is the ‘studious one’ and so forth, but ultimately they all revealed the same ambivalence: they are constantly unsure and undecided in a way that just made them irritating rather than realistic. They do not convey any sympathetic attributes or qualities, they all seemed, at one point or another, just obnoxious and inexplicably problematic. The relationship they had with one another were unbelievable: they seem to dislike and resent each other so much it is hard to believe that they would care for each other. We are given no proof of the love they profess one another and at the same time, the amnesty and tensions between them reads as completely factitious and unnecessary. Ultimately, the characters sounded so much alike that midway through the novel, in my mind, they sort of merged into one unlikable protagonist: a character who shows little depth and can be described as being completely and utterly fickle. I did not care for them nor their story.
Characters and story aside, Alyan’s prose is alluring. So much so that it nearly makes up for her lacklustre characters and tedious storyline. Alyan’s style combines lyrical allusions with impersonal observations<. Juxtaposing characters feelings with their surroundings, their fears and doubts against the actual present. It would have had even more of an effect on the reader if the characters did not seem so dispassionate – so stale – and whose thoughts and actions verge the border of apathy itself, their remoteness so complete, that Alyan’s consideration lose their momentum.
Ironically, there is a great sense of place in this novel: Alyan manages to bring each city to life, evoking places through incisive descriptions and careful remarks. Smells, colours, seasons, all play a part in making Salt Houses very atmospheric.
Overall, Alyan has all the right ingredients for a great tale, however, she doesn’t seem to invest enough time into making her characters as rich as their background, which consequently makes their stories less appealing. Alyan’s writing professes talent but Salt Houses is, at best, a lukewarm read.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

This was quite an epic. This novel follows Cyril Avery and depicts the hardships and misadventures he experiences throughout his life. Adopted by two rather distant parents his views on love and family are, from the very start, somewhat unusual. He falls in love with his best friend Julian, a person whom he admires far too much, and spends the following years lying about who he truly is.
I found this novel to be both funny and heartbreaking. There are many hilarious conversations that carry a subtle sort of humor to them, and Cyril himself can be quite satirical.
The novel gives us snapshots of Cyril’s life; it jumps through time and fills us with we have ‘missed’ as the story progresses. Cyril’s experiences can be painful to read, and I was not happy after one particular tragic scene towards the end…after that…well I simply found that the flow of the story lost a bit of its momentum. It wasn’t quite as engaging as the rest, and it felt a bit repetitive. Nevertheless, The Heart’s Invisible Furies is an absorbing read.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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11.22.63 by Stephen King

There are several reasons why 11/22/63 should not have appealed me. First of all, I’m European. So I knew nil very little about Kennedy and American politics. On top of that, I was born in the late nineties, so I am probably not part of this book’s ideal target audience.
And yet, I devoured this 730 pages long beast of a novel. If it had been up to me, I would have read it in one sitting.
I would recommend just reading its opening chapter before deciding wherever this is the sort of book you would like. Those first few pages really captivated me.

But we never know, do we? Life turns on a dime.

It’s hard to imagine a story that manages not to lose momentum over the course of 700 pages or so. King, however, showed me that, yes, stories like that do exist.
Despite being intimidated by the size 11/22/63, while reading it, I never felt that it could have been made into a shorter novel: every single page is a thread of a rich tapestry. (It sounds corny, but that is what I think).
King has an eye for rendering in vivid details life in small communities. What may seem as a trivial scene, impacts somewhat our understanding of Jake’s ‘new’ world. Seemingly mundane conversations are as important as the more tense, dramatic moments. I loved the way in which King is able to render those ‘small-town’ vibes. The conversations Jake has and what he observes in various neighborhoods made this story very evocative.
There is also plenty of humour. Jake is an amusing narrator whom I found endearing. His relationships with other characters are equally diverting. Him and Sadie… well, I felt very invested in them.
King tops it all with a sense of the Other. The storyline transmits a sense of foreboding into the reader. We know that Jake’s ‘journey into the past’ has consequence (I was equal parts curious and uneased by the ‘Jimla’).
A gripping and complex plot combines with an amusing cast of characters resulting into an engaging novel.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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