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Absorbing portrayal of a corrupt patriarch's family

Fiction: All This Could Be Yours

Jami Attenberg

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All This Could Be Yours

All This Could Be Yours

All This Could Be Yours

Bastards make for the most beguiling backdrops, and Victor Tuchman, the core and catalyst of All This Could Be Yours, qualifies for this title. We meet him minutes before he has a massive heart attack which will, by novel's end, have killed him.

Set over the course of a sweltering August day, Jami Attenberg's seventh book chronicles a wicked man's life and the malignant shadows it casts over those within its orbit. The only winning thing about Victor has been his name and now that the 73-year-old faces his demise, we learn how the sins of the father have rippled down the generations, and will continue to ripple.

The Tuchmans have swapped their fine Connecticut mansion to live in (relatively) reduced circumstances in New Orleans. Victor was a criminal dressed up in a handmade suit; while Attenberg is vague, he was involved in real-estate chicanery and tax evasion. When his crimes and misdemeanours eventually catch up with him, though he has usually bought his way out of scandals, now he flees south. Appropriately, it's his violent misogyny which does for him ultimately. But we won't meet those nameless victims. Instead Attenberg focuses on three women closest to him whose lives have been irrevocably tainted by their relationship with this toxic patriarch.

As they gather round his deathbed, Barbra, his cold, acquisitive wife, is more concerned with getting her daily round of steps in the hospital corridor than answering the questions of her eldest child Alex. Barbra's relationship with Victor is revisited in flashback and posits the question, who's worse: the bad dad or the complicit mother who turned a blind eye? Attenberg excels at teasing out their complex union. "She was the one who kept his secrets safe, and that was one of them, that he was a monster. But there he was, being a monster to any old woman who crossed his path. This, for some reason, wounded her most of all."

Alex, a newly divorced lawyer, drinks her way round the bars of New Orleans as she accepts the painful knowledge that "one could be both satisfied and unhappy simultaneously; she had known this for a very long time". Hiding out in Los Angeles is her brother Gary, a film director who is so damaged and disappointed that "he wanted nothingness, a flat line in the head"; he's married to make-up artist Twyla, a boozy mess who suffers greatly at her father-in-law's hands.

The setting befits the narrative: the sultry 'Big Easy' has recovered post-Katrina and there's a tyrant in the White House too. Attenberg deftly weaves in vignettes of blue-collar workers who drive the trolleys and the ferries, looking after the living, the dying and the dead - their solid, decent lives a contrast to the spoilt (in every sense), privileged leading players.

A sub-plot about a hospital worker and his coroner girlfriend feels slightly extraneous but this American author writes so well about people, creating a whole world in a few short pages, that the reader is left wanting more.

Victor, driven by anger down the decades, explains, in the few words he's allowed, that his peccadilloes and addictions are a "release from the grip of life".

Where there's a flaw in this absorbing, accomplished novel, it's the failure to explain or even hint at what made him so savage. A riveting portrait of cruelty and dysfunctional families, it would have benefitted from an examination of what drove Victor's devastating, destructive amorality.

Sunday Indo Living