Saturday 14 December 2019

Half-sisters do it for themselves in '40s Hollywood

Sardonic tale: novelist Amy Bloom
Sardonic tale: novelist Amy Bloom

Holly Kyte

Fiction: Lucky Us, by Amy Bloom. Granta, tpbk, 234pp, £12.99.

Family is an elastic word - especially here, in the third novel from American writer Amy Bloom. The book is set during the wartime decade of 1939-1949, when displacement and loss are commonplace, when "anyone can be anyone" and betrayal is all too easy. It's a fitting backdrop for the peripatetic lives of two half-sisters, Eva Logan and Iris Acton, who will test the word's elasticity almost to snapping point.

Under Bloom's inventive direction, the sisters' lives prove just as unconventional as the telling of them. They are thrown together as teenagers when Eva's glacial mother abandons her on the doorstep of her father, Edgar. "My father's wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us," are the novel's superb opening lines, which set the tone for this sardonically funny tale.

The girls quickly become as thick as thieves ("which they turned out to be"): Iris, the ambitious wannabe starlet, and Eva - a "born stagehand" - her trusty sidekick. Rootless and determined, they hightail it to the gossipy backlots and hedonistic parties of Hollywood.

When that turns sour thanks to Iris's scandalous affair with another actress, they head east with their equally opportunistic father, latching onto a rich Italian family and reinventing themselves as they go. Edgar, a former professor, adopts the role of butler with aplomb, while Iris masquerades as an unlikely governess. Eva, though considered the smart one, finds herself sweeping up in a beauty parlour before setting up as a tarot-card reader.

It's part coming-of-age odyssey, part family drama, but Bloom doesn't do standard linear sagas. Instead, we see the short-story writer in her emerge, as she shapes a series of fragmented but intensely focused scenes and intercuts them with letters from various characters.

Inevitably this structure leaves the book with a certain disjointedness - it's a calculated risk, but surely also a deliberate challenge to the reader to piece together these lives just as the characters themselves must do.

More of a hurdle is the tone of voice, which, though beautifully precise and frequently stunning, remains detached throughout. One constantly feels reassured, though, that Bloom knows what she's doing. Her insights into human behaviour and relationships are acute and all the more shocking for their dispassionate style. And though her characters are driven to lie, steal and cheat by the vagaries of Lady Luck, we stick with them.

Bloom's triumphant parting shot is a lingering tableau of a family - one that has been ripped up and pieced back together, but a family nonetheless.

Holly Kyte

Lucky Us is available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

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