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  1. An unsolved mystery, ghosts, Victorian melodrama, the collection of numerous source documents and narrative strands. It sounds like something Sarah Waters might have written. What’s not to like? Quite a lot, actually. Some of the story lines are well written. The opening scenes, the tragic story of the Early Dawn in 1859, are told with a compelling urgency. The storm is real, the sea spray fills our nostrils. And then bump – we’re back on dry land following the story of the Briggs family who lost their loved ones from the Early Dawn. From this moment on, it is like wading through treacle. The language is deliberately impenetrable; any reference points are swathed in extraneous verbiage just to make them harder to grasp; the pace becomes glacial. Worst of all, it is boring. Then, after a brief and tantalising reference to the Mary Celeste, we find ourselves following a young Arthur Conan-Doyle on a ship bound for Africa. This ensures that any momentum that might have built in the Briggs section (if only…) is lost. The African section flits backwards and forwards, drifts from reality to dreams and back again. And it seems irrelevant, creating a distance between the text and the reader. So it carries on, section after interminable section. Some are more readable than others and, for a brief moment in the middle of the book, the reader feels that it might al be starting to make sense. But then we drift off into more blind alleys, following Arthur Conan-Doyle on a tour of the US and his encounter with a medium. It all unravels again. Names and pseudonyms change on a whim and relationships seem to be left deliberately obscure. There’s something about a book, but by this point I had given up trying to make sense of it all. The end, when it eventually comes, is a mercy. However, it does little to resolve anything. Like the Mary Celeste herself, the narrative just drifts. At the end, it is difficult to describe just what Valerie Martin might have been trying to write. It looks like something that presses all the buttons to win awards, but the incoherence suggests that Martin was not in proper control of her material. The lack of engagement with the reader made it an ordeal to complete – and it was too easy to put down in favour of alternative diversion. One can forgive bold ambition that doesn’t quite come off, but boring the reader is unforgivable. The Mary Celeste mystery is enigmatic enough to have deserved something better than this. **000
  2. Valerie Martin’s Confessions of Edward Day (Phoenix 2010) is a first-person narrative told by a successful actor , Edward Day, who is rescued from drowning by Guy Margate, a failed actor and his Doppelgänger. The action, in and around Broadway, covers several decades, as Edward slowly climbs the ladder of fame, while his rude and arrogant rescuer keeps bobbing up to haunt him, physically and spiritually. The plot is thickened by the fact that both men love the same woman, the beautiful but fragile star Madeleine. All three thespians are deeply scarred psychologically and attempt equilibrium through paying parts, both in life and in the theatre. The novel has a compulsive tension about it, neatly resolved in the dénouement, which takes place in the dressing-room in the middle of a performance of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, with the stage lovers Edward and Madeleine united after many years of estrangement. But what about Guy, who has in the meantime married his rival’s leading lady? Guy is the sardonic outsider looking in, hated by Edward and tolerated by Madeleine, who ultimately confides to her lover that her husband is impotent. But can we believe her? And does it matter? It does to the tormented Edward who, while he frequently ‘possesses’ his beloved, is in other ways kept apart from her. The book is saturated in theatrical lore and discussions of Method acting, mimicking, rehearsals, Equity cards, try-outs, call-backs and their lack, plus all the financial and psychological traumas inherent in the profession. It abounds in taut dialogue, where jealous and aspiring actors indulge in self-analysis and agonise over their genuine or fake feelings for themselves, others and the theatre as a vehicle for consolation or self-expansion. They emerge as a catty lot, terribly insecure, jealous of others’ successes, but sycophantic where necessary. Under the varnish, hatred and contempt are rife; contempt of self, others and even the audience. Here is Edward Day, having possibly been exposed as a flop by Guy’s agent, working himself up into a tizzy: I recalled, with grim specificity, the matinee. Matinees were never strong, everyone knows this. Old people with hearing aids come to matinees. Even if there was something to get in a play … they wouldn’t get it, so why waste the energy .... Why in hell had Guy’s vaunted agent chosen a matinee to check out my potential? … He [Guy] was distracted by his own reflection in the mirror. He frowned, first at himself, then at me. ‘She’s a busy woman,’ he said. ‘She had to fit you into her schedule. I didn’t know when she would come. She only did it as a favor to me.’ I chucked the tissue into the trash can. ‘Do me a favor, Guy,’ I said. ‘Don’t do me any more favors.’ The novel begins arrestingly: My mother liked to say that Freud should have been strangled in his crib, provoking the reader to ponder over mother-son relationships. And soon we learn that Day, the third son, was his mother’s favourite and that before she committed suicide she had made several abortive calls to him. Guilt, both over neglect of a mother in crisis and over a debt owed to the man who saves his life, marks him for life. Although sexually ardent he becomes a man who cannot feel. He has little time for dependents, old or young. He is hungry for stage success, which he achieves, but at a cost. Yet we come to like him and unwittingly take his part against Guy Margate, his self-sacrificing antagonist and near-double in appearance. Beneath the shimmer of the stage lie dark questions. Theatrical success comes at a price. In the novel it can and does destroy lives. Significantly, and for diverse reasons, all three protagonists remain childless and married life makes nobody happy. Sex works best when the partners become somebody else – there are many stage-simulations, enjoyed by both protagonists and applauded by the supporting cast. As in life, the men here have fantasies about sex, denying impotence and exaggerating performance. But Madeleine, who later aborts, is seemingly made pregnant by the impotent Guy rather than the randy Edward. Freud shows us what we prefer not to know, and that we can live with ourselves only by repressing the truth. Quite possibly both men are lying, and Madeleine too when she reveals her husband’s impotence. As with Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw the author ends her novel on a note of ambiguity. We see the action through the eyes of a narrator who is not entirely reliable. Guy’s and Madeleine’s stories would undoubtedly be different, and no more reliable. Valerie Martin has appended to the novel a set of Reading Group Notes: a plot summary, an account of her fascination with the stage and a series of A-level type questions for discussion. These may encourage further thought and discussion, but I was quite satisfied with the novel as it is. The best questions, after all, are those one asks oneself. I enjoyed the novel as it is and put off other important matters to finish it. I have only one or two quibbles that, as usual with me, concern matters of style, of appropriate language. Sometimes – thankfully not too often – I was brought up sharply by incongruous terms or inflated diction. Thus Edward, on meeting his beloved after some time, ‘drank in her presence.’ He describes the actress playing Sonya as ‘a collection of outraged nerve ends.’ Going home to his unheated apartment he finds that ‘somewhere between he first and second landing a memory eluded the thought police and burst into the full sensory-surround screen of my consciousness.’ I was not entirely convinced that this metaphorical pomposity belonged to Edward.
  3. Has anyone out there read this book? Have just finished it. Set in the deep South during the 19c. The style is very simple but the characters are tantalisingly complex, and I was left feeling very frustrated at how little I knew them. There was a sense that they each lived in a social isolation created by the basic injustice of their society. The title alludes to humans being the property of others, most obviously the slaves, but also the plantation owner's wife being the property of her husband. The story then unfolds, against a background of slave rebellion, and shows that any intimacy or honesty between the characters is impossible.
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