The Cactus

In Sarah Haywood’s debut novel, The Cactus, the prickly plant resembles its owner and her eventual bloom. A romantic comedy with a side tour of sibling rivalry, the story has a middle-aged single woman narrating her story with the somewhat stilted and obsessive voice of a control freak. Susan doesn’t just carefully arrange her cactus plants, align her pencils, and straighten the papers on her desk; she confines herself to a regimented life to avoid unnecessary emotions.

When Susan’s mother dies and leaves the family home to her forty year old brother Edward, she decides to fight the will, and remains unwilling to allow her good-for-nothing jobless brother to stay in the house, despite her mother’s wishes.  Into her ordered life comes a surprise pregnancy.  At forty-five, she decides to keep the baby but forego the marriage proposal from the equally socially impaired father.  The story evolves into her growing sensibility, with new friends, a new outlook on life, and a surprise in her ancestry.

Do you remember the old movie “Cactus Flower,” adapted from the Broadway stage for Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, and Goldie Hawn? I had thought this book might have the same farcical approach, with the cactus as symbolic.  In Heywood’s story, just as in the Hollywood movie, the cactus finally blooms with lives improved at the end, but the book has fewer laughs and more anxiety. The story is a fast read with a happy ending.  You might even see a few characters resembling people you know between the pages.

The Memory Artist

images Despite the promise its name offers, The Memory Artist by Katherine Brabon is not an easy read.  Winner of the 2016 Australian Vogel Literary Award for debut novel, the book was not on my radar but was recommended by an Australian friend who graciously lent it to me.  More like a tome of Russian history, Brabon packs her book with references, a byproduct of her writing a dissertation on Russia’s twentieth century dissidents and censorship.

Brabon writes the story as the memoir of Pasha, whose family members are dissidents when he was a young boy.  Driven by a yearning to understand and remember, Pasha tries to capture three periods in his life as well as the complementary periods in Russian history.  Familiar names float through the narrative – Stalin, Dostoevsky, Gorbachov, Khrushchev, and others, as Pasha examines the past, trying to remember and record.  The story takes the reader from the Brezhnev years of Pasha’s childhood, the Glasnost years of his young adulthood, and finally, his solitary adulthood in St. Petersburg, at the beginning of Putin’s new Russia.

In its strong message warning that fact and memory are both closely related , with truth often changing depending on who is in power, Brabon offers a lesson for understanding history.  Brabon wields her research, weaving an understandable story, but it is no less easy to read.

Pasha’s story is not linear and Brabon inserts rambling references to Russian literature and politics, sometimes frustrating the reader.  References to the political oppression with horrors of the gulag  are not easy to read: heinous crimes committed in asylums and hospitals, where his father was incarcerated; political dissidents given drugs so they clenched their teeth unable to eat or speak;  “the parameters of madness and sanity… could be dictated by the government.”

Brabon clearly had a mission in writing her novel, and she accomplished it well, but the books is not for everyone – even those particularly interested in Russian literature or politics.  Perhaps time will give the book more weight as the future unfolds, but, like Pasha’s journey, perhaps the search for a lost country could never be satisfying.


The Madwoman Upstairs

9781501124211_p0_v2_s192x300With the mystery of Jane Eyre and the force of a modern romance, Catherine Lowell creates a satisfying plot in The Madwoman Upstairs.

Samantha Whipple, new student at Oxford University, is the last living descendant of the Brontë sisters.  Home-schooled by her father, Tristan Whipple, a scholar who “spent his entire life trying to deconstruct” the writings of his famous relatives, Samantha, at twenty, is well-versed in the famous novels.  Lowell generously sprinkles excerpts from the well-known Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as well as the less famous The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

At her father’s request, Samantha’s residence at Oxford is an isolated tower, often the site of campus tours.    When her father’s copies of the Brontë  books mysteriously arrive on her doorstep, encrypted with her father’s obscure notes referring to her inheritance, a collection of writings and paintings, including the “Warnings of Experience –  that may have been left to her by her father, she enlists the help of her tall, dark, handsome Oxford tutor to help her decipher the clues.

If you are a fan of the the Brontë  sisters, the references to the famous novels, and Lowell’s dissection of some of the plot lines may prompt you to reread the original texts.  References to the Brontë  treasure may have been inspired by the recent uncovering of a lost book containing poems and snippets from the Brontë  children –

“The Brontë Society has recovered the treasure for £170,000 from a seller in America where it has been for more than a century…it was originally sold following the death of their father Patrick Brontë  in 1861″…the Telegraph, 2015

If you are a student of literature, you will enjoy Lowell’s notes on literary criticism and intellectual pursuits:

  • “The great reward given to intelligent people is that they can invent all the rules and equate any dissent with stupidity.”
  • “…what everyone wants: meaning. Happiness in some sense, is irrelevant.”
  • “…the interpretation of a novel depends on the reader far more than it does on the text or the author’s intent…”
  • “Reading teaches you courage. The author is trying to convince you something fake is real…”

If you have never read a Brontë book – or only seen one of the many movies – and are looking for a romantic interlude with the trappings of an intellectual discussion, The Madwoman Upstairs has a story to keep you reading, while you sigh through the passion and try to decipher the mystery.


Cover of Snow

9780345534217_p0_v1_s260x420A young police officer dies in the small upstate New York town where he grew up; the apparent suicide could be murder and a conspiracy in Jenny Milchman’s debut thriller – Cover of Snow. As Nora investigates her husband’s untimely death, she uncovers secrets from his past and a police force that may be criminal.

The action is sometimes halting and confusing, and you will need to persevere to get beyond the grief-stricken widow platitudes. The twists in plot and characters who disappear for chapters subtract from the drama, but Milchman effectively uses the eerie atmosphere of forbidding, snowy desolation in her descriptions of the surroundings to create an ominous tone that she mines to create suspense. The thrills escalate as the story comes to a predictable end, but along the way Cover of Snow will give you some chills.