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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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Bad Love by Maame Blue — book review

Bad Love is a compelling debut novel that is part modern love story, part coming of age. The novel’s narrator and protagonist recounts her first relationship, one that blurred the line between ‘good’ love and ‘bad’ love.
Ekuah, a British-Ghanaian university student in London, meets Dee on a night out with her friends. From this very first encounter, Ekuah feels a pull towards him. Dee is attractive, ambitious, and possesses an air of mystery. While Ekuah is inexperienced in love, she is not wholly naïve. Dee’s casual attitude towards their relationship soon begins to test their bond. They exchange bitter words, give each other the silent treatment, they make up, only to fight and make up again. Dee clearly prioritises his music and career over Ekuah, yet he also seem happy to have Ekuah to himself. After eighteen months together, Dee ghosts Ekuah: he doesn’t reply to her texts or calls, nor does he show himself when Ekuah looks for him at his place.
Ekuah is devastated. After graduating Ekuah meets Jay. The two find themselves growing closer thanks to their community-oriented work, and together they organise poetry events. Ekuah, smarting from Dee’s ‘disappearance’, is the uncertain one in this relationship. Her feelings are further complicated by Dee’s ‘reappearance’ into her life and by her parents’ crumbling relationship.
While Blue brilliantly renders all of the places Ekuah visits (such as Venice and Accra), when writing about London, the setting truly comes alive. Ekuah’s voice will undoubtedly hold her readers’ attention. I deeply emphasised with her, even if she wasn’t necessarily always ‘good’ or ‘kind’, especially where her mother was concerned. Yet, Ekuah’s vulnerabilities are rendered with clarity, and I felt on her behalf. Through Ekuah’s story, Blue presents her readers with a realistic portrait of love, one that definitely doesn’t view love through rose-tinted glasses.
While not much happens in terms of plot, Ekuah’s evolving relationships—with Dee, Jay, her parents—had me captivated. Blue’s scintillating prose, her realistic examination of the many faces of love, her nuanced and realistic characters, make for a truly heart-rendering read.
The ending is perhaps the only aspect of Bad Love that I found slightly unsatisfied. And a teensy part of me wishes that the Mafia had been left out of Ekuah’s lightening trip to Italy.
Still, I thoroughly recommend this read, especially to those who prefer realistic love stories.

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

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Just Like You by Nick Hornby — book review

Set against the backdrop of the 2016 referendum (Brexit) Just Like You follows two very different individuals who happen to fall in love. Recently divorced Lucy, a forty-one year old white schoolteacher, is look71dpLD1kOUL.jpging to date again so she hires a babysitter for her two sons. The babysitter, Joseph, happens to be a twenty-one year old black man who works part time at a the butcher counter and aspires to be a DJ. In spite of how little in common Lucy and Joseph have, the two become romantically involved. Nick Hornby tackles many different issues: politics (particularly on Brexit), class, race, interracial dating, racial profiling, divorce, drug addiction, and alcoholism.
Throughout the course of their relationship Lucy and Joseph attempt to bridge the gap between their generations and to overcome their drastically different interests and backgrounds. Their friends and relatives are not very approving of their relationship, and their age gap raises a few eyebrows.
While I did enjoy reading the early stages of Lucy and Joseph’s relationship (a lot of which occurs via texting), once they begin sort-of-dating, Hornby seems to gloss over their more positive interactions, focusing instead on scenes in which tensions arise between the two. While their seemingly silly misunderstandings were realistic, in the way they often escalated to actual arguments, they didn’t give a full-picture of their relationship. Their earlier chemistry seems to fizzle out all too quickly, so that we are left with two people who don’t really act like they really like or even love each other. Towards the end in particular I wish that Hornby had articulated Lucy and Joseph’s feelings for each other (it seemed that ‘for reasons’ they wanted to make things work).
I also wish that Joseph hadn’t been painted as being so clueless and disinterested in politics and literature. He has no real passion for music, so his dj aspirations seemed little other than a diversion.
The story too could have been more developed as it comes across as rather directionless. Lucy and Joseph have very few meaningful connections, so that many interactions—in which either of them is sick of talking to whoever they are talking to—felt repetitive. They have awkward dinners and get-togethers, they meet up with ‘friends’ they don’t particularly care for…
And while I understand that Hornby wanted to play the devil’s advocate when he introduces us to ‘likeable’ characters who turn out to be xenophobic Brexiteers…well, the wound is still fresh, and I have 0 sympathy for these characters.
While I appreciated that Hornby wanted the everyday moments that make up a relationship, I found myself wanting a bit more passion or romance between Lucy and Joseph. Most pages however seemed to focus on the more negative aspects of their relationship….and by the end I was just ready to be done with the 2016 referendum. The first time around was hard enough, do I hate myself so much that I want to experience it again? Not really.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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You People by Nikita Lalwani — book review

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“People can see you, but they don’t want to see who you are.”

Given Britain’s political climate (in other words: the madness of Brexit) Nikita Lalwani’s You People is a poignant and incredibly relevant novel. Set in London, Lalwani’s story takes place in 2003 (get ready for some nokia-related nostalgia) and focuses on Nia and Shan, respectively a waitress and a cook, both of whom work at Pizzeria Vesuvio.

Although her father is Bengali nineteen-year old Nia ‘passes’ for white and is often mistaken for Italian. Having been raised by her Welsh mother Nia has never been in contact with her father or his culture. After years of putting up with her mother’s spiralling mental health and alcoholism Nia is eager to leave her hometown. University however doesn’t go as planned and she flees to London.
With a few white lies on her part Nia is hired by Tuli the owner of Pizzeria Vesuvio and soon she is enthralled by him. Yet Tuli—a Tamil who grew up in Singapore—with his philanthropist ways seems too good to be true. How can he afford to help so many other people? Why do people go to him?

“He is a walking set of choices and consequences: love thy neighbour, the greater good, take your pick. This image of him—of them—filters and echoes through her memory, there are a thousand iterations or more. She can never be certain of its imprint or impact. She tells herself the story as it unfolds from this moment. She does it to understand him, and so to believe in his cure.”

Having left his wife and son behind, Shan, a Tamil from Sri Lanka, is wrecked by guilt. His passage to Europe doesn’t go as planned and he falls more and more into debt. While at first, out of naïveté or perhaps desperation, he believes that he can at a later date be joined by his wife and son, once in London, he realises that the agents who organised his ‘trip’ are little more than conmen. London too isn’t the city he’d envisioned and he finds it hard to make enough money to survive each week, let alone pay his debts or the passage of his loved ones. It is Tuli, his new boss, who comes to his aid.

“They all know, everyone knows, that he did it partly for them, partly for himself, there is no way to disentangle the motivation and purify it.”

Unlike Tuli’s other employers Nia has never been subjected to xenophobia or racism. While her life has been less than ideal—punctuated by poverty, emotional neglect and abuse—she has a simplistic view of immigrants and her government, and it in her time at the Pizzeria Vesuvio Tuli challenges her idealistic notions. Nia is shocked to learn of what Shan was subjected to in Sri Lanka and that for him to be an ‘illegal’ immigrant is better than the alternative, which may be death, torture, or imprisonment.

“So, the question would be—is it better to tell all of the truth, one hundred per cent, and get deported, or is it better to tell mostly the truth, with a few untruths, and become legal?”

Yet, in spite of their different backgrounds and circumstances, both Nia and Shan are wracked by guilt. They both left someone behind in order to survive and as the novel progresses their two narratives become entwined with each other.

What stands out in Lalwani’s novel is the ambience and imagery that are the backdrop to Nia, Shan, and Tuli’s lives. Through the scenes that take place at the Pizzeria and the ones that take place on London’s busy roads, Lalwani’s creates a portrait of community life. Her ear for accents and mannerism brings to life many different people and their cultures.
Through a few description Lalwani emphasises the characters’ environments. Occasionally she does so by focusing on a small detail, or by presenting the setting of a scene in an almost cinematic way.

“The glass was spotting with rain again and there was something sublime in how the red and yellow lights outside were permeating each individual bubble of water with colour.”

The unease that pervades Nia and Shan’s narratives builds up in a quiet crescendo. Although ‘not much’ seems to go on, both the characters and the readers are aware of the dangerous and vulnerable position Shan is as he spends most of his waking time unsure whether his loved ones are alive and in fear of being deported.
You People is not an easy read. The violence against and dehumanisation of ‘illegal’ immigrants is horrifying. They do not have the freedom that most people—me included—take for granted. To even speak of or refer to people as ‘illegal’ seems wrong. Yet, sadly that is how they are seen by the government. There is one particularly harrowing scene in which the immigration enforcement turns up and what follows will haunt both the readers and the other characters. The ‘not knowing’ what is going to happen to them is terrifying. That a person can be simply taken away like this is horrifying.

“They have come from the government, the logo is all over them, they think they are invincible, that is how these people see themselves. Someone has told them that they are the good guys, like those superhero films, where the audience is instructed to cheer for each every violence act committed in the name of freedom.”

Both narratives are told from a third point of view but while Nia’s sections are in the past tense, Shan’s are in the present tense. This switch between tenses suited the characters and their storylines. Nia herself says that she is always looking back, whereas Shan is stuck in a fraught present, not knowing his fate or the one of his loved ones.

“Already she was looking back at life and saying to herself, I was young then, as thought that idea of youth was over.”

Rather than using ‘Nia’ or ‘Shan’ the narratives often address them as ‘she’ and ‘he’. This might annoy some readers, and it does take some using to, but once you’ve leaned into the flow of Lalwani’s prose you might appreciate the ambivalent mood that this technique creates.

“There had always been this relationship with fiction, she imagined it could offer her blueprints for living, loving, dying—that it could save her, let her know how things should be.”

I loved the scenes which depicted interactions between the Vesuvio staff. Although Shan is far too preoccupied by his life to socialise with the other Tamil cooks, he finds himself bonding with Ava, who is a waitress at the Pizzeria. Nia, who is seen as a white British girl, feels somewhat left out by her colleagues. It is Tuli who quickly becomes the central figure of her ‘new’ life and seems to take an interest in her.
The character dynamics were as nuanced as the characters themselves. Although the cast of characters is fairly small, and the story is mostly focused on Tuli, Shan (his wife and son) and Nia (her mother and sister), however short their appearances may be Lalwani’s characters struck me as incredibly realistic.
It was interesting to see Tuli from different perspectives. His characters always retains a sense of mystery, and for most of the narrative readers are never sure of who he truly is.

Nia and Shan’s stories are steeped in loneliness. As they try to reconcile themselves with their past decisions and their new circumstances their worldview is irrevocably altered. While this novel certainly doesn’t provide easy solutions or happy endings, what it does offer us and its characters is hope.

Occasionally there were the odd descriptions which were a bit too purple for my taste ( “her whole physicality is streaked with the force of these tight lines of feminine power” / “that solid, satisfying element which ran down her spine like the hard chocolate centre of a Feast ice-cream bar”).
For the most part however I appreciated the aesthetics created by Lalwani’s idiosyncratic way of presenting a scene or articulating a phrase.

You People is a deeply melancholic and heart-rendering novel one that I would describe as being the book equivalent of an independent film. Lalwani’s quiet yet atmospheric style and her character-driven and introspective story won’t appeal to everyone…but I do hope that her novel will strike a chord with those readers who are looking for a poignant and necessary story.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up)

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