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Saturday, June 26, 2010

TONY & SUSAN by Austin Wright and MY UNCLE IS A HUNKLE, SAYS CLARICE BEAN by Lauren Child

Please forgive the radio silence but I’ve had some reading mishaps, involving two of my previously mentioned personal stumbling blocks: unpleasantess and poor segue.

The first was in what I can tell – even though I had to stop reading it - is an extraordinary book.

It was recommended to me by my crime fiction expert friend, who said it was one of the best books she has ever read and she was thrilled to see it had been recently republished.

She read it when it first came out in 1994 and was puzzled at the time, why it didn't receive the critical recognition it deserved.

This has now been rectified - I've rarely read such deeply admiring reviews - but in a sad echo of The Girl With the Open Sandwich Tattoo, the author died before he could see them.

Tony & Susan comes with these two quotes on the cover:

Ruth Rendell: ‘Absorbing, terrifying, beautiful and appalling… This novel I know I shall never forget.’

Saul Bellow: ‘Marvellously written – the last thing you would expect in a story of blood and revenge. Beautiful.’

If I’d read the quotes properly, instead of just going Ruth Rendall, oooh, Saul Bellow, oooooh, I might not have opened the covers. Terrifying and appalling don’t go near it.

I was so terrified by the end of the first chapter I had to stop reading. My heart was pounding. Nothing awful had happened yet, but you just so knew it was about to. I couldn’t sleep for ages, worrying about the people in the book and what might be about to happen to them.

Although I thought the writing was compelling, I was too scared to read on, in case what I feared was about to happen did. So I rang the friend who recommended it to ask how horrible it actually was.

She couldn’t remember, it was more the atmosphere of the whole book which had stayed with her for over fifteen years, she said, rather than the plot. But yes, it was pretty heavy stuff.

Don’t you mind reading that kind of thing? I asked. Doesn’t it upset you?

Not if it’s not happening to me, she said. It’s just a story, it’s not real.

But that’s my problem. It’s not real in this case – but real stuff like it happens all the time. And at some kind of primitive level I’m frightened if I read about ghastliness it will come into my life. It feels like you’re opening the door a crack.

I was in quandary, to read on, or not? The writing was so interesting and in something of an American form of the spare style I loved so much in my previous read, by Elizabeth Taylor, so I wanted to. But what if it got as ghastly as I thought it might?

Then I had the idea to flick forward a bit and see if any serious unpleasantness was apparent... Holy shit. The worst kind. And now it’s in my head without even having the pleasure of a proper reading of Austin Wright’s tight prose.

So if you’re not a big wuss like me, if ghastly murders don’t send you quivering under the covers, I would say read this book. I honestly wish I could.

This experience has given me an idea: books should have Certificate Ratings, like films. Even the telly warns you now if a programme ‘Contains scenes of extreme violence.’ Why can’t books do that?

It would have saved me from years of being haunted by some of the things I read in Last Exit To Brooklyn. Just a quote from American Psycho that I read in a review of that hateful book, still floats round in my brain like a malevolent spirit.

Obviously 'Rated X' or 'Rated R', or 'Warning: reading this book can blight the rest of your life' is never going to happen, but I am going to add Unpleasantess as a rating in my own system.

Now for the segue. I mentioned in my last posting that I had spoiled my enjoyment of Barbara Kingsolver’s oeuvre by guzzling it down in one orgiastic readathon, after being blown away by The Poisonwood Bible. So it seemed amusing to make my next read her Orange Prize-winning novel The Lacuna.

But after Taylor’s marvellously cool and restrained English style and Wright’s taut American modernism, I found I was repelled by the poetic descriptions of nature in this one – exactly what I normally love in Kingsolver’s work.

This time, though, all kinds of soppy fish flitting about on a reef, being nature-y seemed way too akin to the Emily Dickinson and Henry Thoreau skipping through the meadow school of Am Lit, which has always given me the willies.

So I needed a palate cleanser - and what could be better than the shortest book in my current personal book Top Twenty?

By the acclaimed author and illustrator of Charlie and Lola, this is her slightly older – much naughtier – creation.

All the Clarice Bean pictures books are great (the chapter ones, not so much), but this is the winner.

The text weaves through Child’s wonderful illustrations, just as it does in Charlie and Lola books, but there is a whole pantheon of complex characters.

These range from Clarice’s very annoying younger brother and her teenage siblings – the male of whom never leaves his bedroom and the female never gets off the phone – to various fabulously flawed adults. The grandfather is a particular joy.

The hunkle is Clarice’s frankly gorgeous firefighter uncle (it does worry me slightly that I can have a semi-crush on a character in a children’s picture book, but I can’t help thinking Lauren Child has too, rather as I do on my own male leads when I'm writing).

Among other endearing habits, he loves watching westerns with Clarice and uses phrases like ‘Hey there, little lady…’ He gets in trouble with Clarice’s mum when he teaches Clarice to use a lasso and the table lamp gets broken.

That’s just a small part of the drama. There’s a lost guinea pig, an annoying boy next door, a grumpy lady down the street… so much action packed into this small space.

Every time I read it – whether to my daughter, or secretly to myself – I bark with laughter.

It’s the perfect antidote to high level unpleasantness and after a couple of reads of it, I moved on happily to my next novel. What is it? Aha!

These scores are for My Uncle is a Hunkle, as I didn’t finish Tony & Susan (but if I had I would have given 9 for Unpleasantness).

Reading satisfaction: 9
Un-put-downable-ness: 2
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9
Recommend to mother: 8
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 8
Recommend to man pal: 4
Recommend to Helen Razer: 4
Read on public transport: 0
Unpleasantness: 0


  1. Maggie, I suggest you keep reading Tony and Susan. It's interesting the way the structure of the book pulls you out of the stress and trauma at key points. I'm also a total wuss, but I managed to finish it! Was just trying to do some research as to why the book has just re-surfaced in book clubs in Australia and found your blog. Yay! I love reading your column in the Good Weekend every week, and now I don't have to wait til Saturday.

  2. Hi Maggie, I have been meaning to comment on this post for some time. I stumbled across your post after putting Tony & Susan down - I wish I had read your review before picking it up. Not the best choice for post-baby-delivery reading bliss! I plan to tackle it again soon, but only on a sunny day.