Saturday 22 October 2016

Lose yourself in absorbing family saga and a vintage French thriller

Fiction: Commonwealth, Ann Patchett, Bloomsbury, €19.00

Published 19/09/2016 | 02:30

Through Ann Patchett's characters' lives we understand our own lives better and how
Through Ann Patchett's characters' lives we understand our own lives better and how "all the stories go with you"

Towards the end of this marvellous novel, we learn that "the pleasure of a long life" is "the way some things worked themselves out". The working out, in this instance, involves two families, the Keatings and the Cousinses, over five decades, and a story that begins in an LA suburb in 1964 at a christening party. Handsome, irresponsible Bert Cousins gatecrashes with a bottle of gin, falls for young, "bone-crushingly beautiful" Beverly Keating, mother of the newly-christened Franny, and when they kiss, in a memorably unusual bedroom scene, he thinks "this was the start of his life."

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Commonwealth tracks dissolving marriages, how children cope or don't, illness, ageing and how memories shape and make us. We follow Cal, Holly, Jeanette, Albie, Caroline and Frances, six children from marriage break-ups, a commonwealth, "a fierce little tribe," united in the hatred of their parents Bert, Teresa, Fix [Francis Xavier] and Beverly.

There's nothing plod, plod in Patchett's pace or structure. Time, says Ian McEwan, is always the other character in a novel and Patchett handles time shifts brilliantly. We learn early on of events to come: that a teenager dies a horrible death, that someone marries three times; or the past swims back into the present as when Fix recalls a violent shooting of a fellow cop.

Dialogue and setting, be it a Chicago bar, a tiny Brooklyn apartment, a celebrity's house in Amagansett, a Swiss Zen centre, are vivid, filmic. When Teresa visits Holly in Switzerland, Patchett brings something fresh to mere scene setting: "The trees, their lower trunks furred with moss, got thicker and taller and started to cut into the light while ferns stretched across the forest floor. There were enormous rocks, boulders really, that looked like they'd been placed by a set designer around a fast-running stream. Show me an enchanted forest! The producer must have said."

And then there's Patchett's intelligent humour. Fix, now old and ill, remembering Beverly, tells Franny: "What you have to remember about your mother is that she didn't have her own character. She turned into whoever she was sitting next to. When she was sitting next to Miss Free Love then free love sounded like a great idea."

Or Patchett's wise understanding of adolescence - "That's the trouble with being 15 - all he can think of is what he doesn't want," or life itself - "a series of losses. It's other things too, better things, but the losses were as solid and dependable as the earth itself."

Not only is Patchett a great, entertaining storyteller but Franny's relationship with famous novelist Leon Posen prompts important questions about life and fiction. Posen's hugely successful novel, Commonwealth, draws on Franny's family past and when Albie, who is affected most, discovers, by chance, that "his life had fallen into someone else's hands" he discovers a terrible truth about himself.

In her 2008 essay My Life in Sales, Patchett generously says that "reading is a private act, private even from the person who wrote the book. Once the novel is out there, the author is beside the point. The reader and the book have their own relationship now, and should be left alone to work things out for themselves." Through Patchett's characters' lives we understand our own lives better and how "all the stories go with you." And some things do work themselves out, through hurt, disappointment, heartbreak, resilience.

Dust off those jaded, familiar phrases: "A totally absorbing and moving novel."; "Couldn't put it down."; "A must for Book Clubs." Every one rings true in this instance. You'll finish Commonwealth with admiration and gratitude.

Buy Commonwealth here

Crime: The Trespasser

Tana French, Hodder & Stoughton, €22.50. Buy The Trespasser here.

Tana French's last book The Secret Place was a complex mystery that evolved over two separate timelines a year apart. There were multiple points of view and several would-be killers in the mix. By contrast The Trespasser is very simple and straightforward in terms of timeline, crime and possible suspects. The action occurs over a few days. A young woman, Aislinn, has been killed in her glossy magazine-perfect home. The cause of death is no mystery - she has been punched in the face, fallen and hit her head. There is only one suspect. Despite the simplicity of the plot this is vintage Tana French and thus gripping.

This is French's sixth novel about the Murder Squad and like all the others it focuses in on a peripheral character from the previous work, in this case ball-breaking Antoinette Conway.

It's nothing short of understatement to call Antoinette complex and from her point of view French is able to examine much of what modern Irish women have to tolerate. Antoinette faces a daily round of institutional sexism, racism and misogyny made worse by the fact that none of it exists officially. While Antoinette is extremely good at her job she is harassed to the point of a colleague urinating in her locker.

French also examines the relationship between fathers and daughters and what happens when that relationship goes wrong.

Antoinette and victim Aislinn, despite surface differences, have a lot in common. With the character of Aislinn, French firmly shows that few people can successfully exert control over their own destiny. The very modern idea that an individual can command the universe to do their bidding is revealed as a dangerous fallacy.

Aislinn is a poster girl for self-help. She took "control", turned her home into a picture from a magazine, lost weight, dyed her hair and transformed herself from an unattractive teen into a woman men desire.

Aislinn attempts not just to manage her future, but also her past. Yet, despite all of her careful planning she ends up dead.

The Secret Place captured brilliantly the claustrophobia of a girls' boarding school. In The Trespasser French creates a different claustrophobic environment - the Murder Squad is a boy's club, but Antoinette has also closed in upon herself, has hemmed herself in even more than her colleagues ever could.

Another gripping tale, beautifully told, by a woman at the top of her game.

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