Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Mystery of Mercy Close, by Marian Keyes
Marian Keyes:  Queen of Chick Lit, one of the funniest Irish authors in print, and creator of a series of much-loved books about the Walsh sisters (there are five) and their long-suffering parents.  A wonderful success story, surely, were it not for the fact that Ms Keyes has suffered from life-threatening bouts of depression, an illness she writes about from sad personal experience in this latest novel. 
Ms Keyes follows her usual formula:  each book is wonderfully humorous, but deals with big subjects:  domestic abuse;  drug dependency;  alcoholism and infidelity – our sisters experience many of the pitfalls of life and Helen, the youngest sister and protagonist of ‘Mercy Close’, is about to suffer her second bout of depression, the knowledge of which utterly terrifies her.
Helen has just been forced by circumstance to move back in with her parents – a fact that her parents greet with as much dismay as she.  Her formerly successful business as a private investigator has dried up, thanks to the all-encompassing Irish recession, and her beloved flat is no longer hers but now belongs to the bank:  she is thirty-three years old, homeless, jobless, and if it weren’t for her reluctant family, friendless; she’s too prickly and blunt to have many friends.  Poor Helen is the ideal candidate for depression -  insidious messenger of desperation, hopelessness and despair -  to set up shop.
Enter Jay Parker, detested ex-boyfriend and Con Man, oily, smarmy, bad news in a good suit – but he has a confidential job for her.  (Confidential?  CONFIDENTIAL?!  She’ll sew her lips together with #8 wire after removing her tongue if that’s what’s required:  she needs the dough!)  Jay has now transformed himself into the manager and go-to guy for one of Ireland’s many Nineties BoyBands, the Laddz, who, because they are also in dire need of  money, are planning a big comeback concert in a week’s time.  Unfortunately, one of the Laddz, Wayne Giffney, has disappeared and Jay is relying on Helen to find him.  Otherwise they’ll ALL be in the cack – promises have been made;  merchandise has been ordered;  the venue is booked ( a 15,000-seat stadium – Mary, Mother of God!), and where the Bloody Hell is Wayne??  Time is running out and he has to be found, or they’ll all be in for a quick trip down the gurgler.
Despite a complete absence of clues to his disappearance and a stunning lack of co-operation from those whom she felt should help, Helen finds that the deeper she delves into Wayne’s life, the more of an affinity she feels with him – maybe he doesn’t want to be found;  maybe he just wants to continue living peacefully in his little house in Mercy Close, as far away from the cut-throat music world as possible.
Sadly, too much is at stake with the other band members for that to happen, and as the concert draws near and Helen’s illness threatens to engulf her, life-changing decisions have to be made, not all of them good.
Ms Keyes peoples her story with great minor characters;  she is a shrewd, almost painfully funny observer of everyday behaviour – no foible is left unturned! – but she also gives a courageous and honest account of what it is like to live with a disease that makes its sufferers want to die.  Highly recommended.

The Dinner, by Herman Koch
On the front cover of this explosive little book a question is asked:  ‘How far would you go to protect the ones you love?’  The reader finds out soon enough as Paul Lohman and his wife Claire prepare to meet his detested older brother Serge and his wife Babette for dinner at a restaurant that has a three month waiting list:  naturally, Serge didn’t have to book three months in advance;  he is such a popular politician that the way is cleared for him wherever he wishes to go, for it is a foregone conclusion that he will win the next Dutch election.
Paul would be quite happy not to have contact with his brother at all;  he considers him a hypocrite and a boor, coarse and unmannerly, and it mystifies him that Serge is so popular -  ‘a man of the people’ –  worse still, he can’t bear to be witness to the wide-eyed admiration and fawning of staff and patrons in the restaurant.
Serge has arranged the dinner for a particular reason:  they must discuss their sons, 15 and 16 year old cousins who spend a lot of time together.  Recently, a  dreadful crime has been committed:  a homeless woman was burnt to death as she sheltered in an ATM cubicle, and the Netherlands is up in arms at the sheer ruthless brutality of the act.  The entire population is screaming for justice – a perfect opportunity for an astute politician to cement his already secure position as front-runner, turning  to his advantage the public’s horror at the barbarity of the crime.  Instead, Serge wishes to discuss with his family his retirement – for clips have surfaced on YouTube of the ATM cubicle;  though the authorities are as yet unaware, the boys are implicated in the country’s most heinous murder.  Serge’s son has confessed.
To read this beautifully constructed little horror story is to peel off layer after careful layer the veneers that people wrap around themselves in order to be respectable, happy, successful – normal?  And the criminal lengths they will employ to preserve the fa├žade, and the survival of those they love.
Mr. Koch is adept at leaving the reader with more questions than answers – what an excellent writer he is, helped most ably by his translator, Sam Garrett.
Canadian writer Anne Michaels once said that to read a novel in translation is like kissing a woman through a veil:  that may be true, but this reader  (who must always depend on translators!) marvels at the ease and facility that  Mr. Garrett employs to make the words flow.  There wasn’t a veil in sight.  Highly recommended.  


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