#BlogTour Helga Flatland- A Modern Family

When Liv, Ellen and Håkon, along with their partners and children, arrive in Rome to celebrate their father’s seventieth birthday, a quiet earthquake occurs: their parents have decided to divorce.

Shocked and disbelieving, the siblings try to come to terms with their parents’ decision as it echoes through the homes they have built for themselves, and forces them to reconstruct the shared narrative of their childhood and family history…

A slight diversion from my normal crime fare in the shape of this one, A Modern Family from Helga Flatland, dubbed the Norwegian Anne Tyler. The machinations of family life has been a rich seam for Scandinavian fiction and film for many years, instantly bringing to mind Festen and the Danish TV series The Legacy, both structured around the pressure points that arise, and relationships that become strained in families. Although the events of Flatland are probably less driven by greed and competitiveness, Flatland constructs a story that really delves beneath the veneer of this particular family, and the seismic implications of an unexpected announcement…

I think it’s fair to say that this is a book driven by character, as this nuclear family of mother and father, their two daughters, Liv and Ellen and their son, Hakon, their respective partners, and their children are put so much under the microscope, after the announcement that their parents, in their twilight years, are seeking a divorce. What Flatland does is raise this book above a rather humdrum premise, to an incisive and probing exploration of family life; what makes them tick, the underlying alliances, the individual members’ weaknesses, strengths and their own personal issues. Speaking from the viewpoint of an only child from a small family, I found this particularly interesting, never having to navigate the general stresses that this particular family seem to have in droves!

As the story unfolds between the split narratives of Liv, Ellen and Hakon, we not only bear witness to their own assimilation of the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, but also a detailed insight into their own lives with issues of infertility, marital strain, fear of commitment and so on, swirling around the central motif of the unsettling effect of their parents’ break up. Flatland also pays particular attention to the changing dynamics of the relationship between Liv, Ellen and Hakon themselves, as in the wake of their parents proceeding boldly on the course of their new lives untethered to each other, it seems that their children find the whole scenario just a tad more difficult to cope with themselves. In fact, as the story progresses my admiration for their parents’ growing fearless attitude was one of the highlights of the book. As Liv and Ellen get sucked into a increasingly gloomy narrative arising from the emotional fissures in their lives, and Hakon, who comes across as a teenager in adult clothing, seems entirely confused by how the whole world of relationships works, it serves to put them on a different emotional plain entirely to their increasingly stoical and pragmatic parents.

Although A Modern Family obviously has its foundations firmly rooted in this family unit, Flatland also punctuates the book with some interesting observations on a whole array of subjects from publishing to politics, from green issues to female equality, some of which brought a wry smile to this reader, as the characters mount their soapboxes and let fly with their observations. I think this is done extremely well, rooting the reader in a fixed space and time in the characters’ lives, but also adhering to the Scandinavian reputation, both in fiction and crime, of giving their readers a broader and balanced view of the world against which their narratives play out, and I enjoyed Flatland’s realisation of this very much. I will confess that this is not normally the type of book I would naturally seek out, but I did enjoy this modern saga of a family in a period of change, crisis and renewal, and the points of stress, high emotion and the process of acceptance that Flatland explores within her characters. Recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

 

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

There’s Always Someone Watching… Leo Benedictus-Consent / James Lasdun- The Fall Guy

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This book is an experiment.
We’re experimenting together.

You are part of the experiment, if you’ll agree to it.

Normally I don’t let my subjects choose to be subjects. If you know you’re being watched, you cease to be you.

But I want you to read this. I wrote it for you.

This magnetic book pulls you in its wake even as you resist its force. Sometimes you don’t want to know what’s next…

Just to make my reviewing equally difficult, here is another book,  that in common with the book jacket itself, I am going to tell you hardly anything about in terms of plot. I saw the author being interviewed by James Naughtie recently, and my interest was piqued by what I was liberally describing as a creepy ass psychological thriller to my bookselling colleagues….

I thought this was absolutely superb and a truly dark and deliciously twisted thriller, entwining us in the psyche of a stalker, and providing a commentary on the repercussions of his actions on just one of his many chosen targets, Frances.  Benedictus is completely without fear in his representation of this despicable individual and the measures he takes to inveigle himself more and more deeply into Frances’ life, and the danger this poses to both her associates, both personal and professional, and to Frances herself. I was mesmerised by the supremely cool and dispassionate first person narrative of the stalker, whose actions seem perfectly reasonable to his own consciousness, but grow increasingly unsettling and worrisome to us, as we pre-empt the effect his actions will have on Frances. Likewise, the growing unease and persecution of Frances, slowly gathers pace, again feeding into, and adding to the chilling nervous tension that Benedictus perfectly builds. I enjoyed his depiction of Frances, as such a normal, hard working, ambitious, and unencumbered by personal vanity type of woman, as this sense of her being such an ‘everywoman’ resonates much more strongly with a female reader, and making her plight all the more tangible, and ramping up the effect on us as a reader.

I am always held in the thrall of writing that has a tangible physical effect on me as a reader, and Consent did this admirably, as I felt my heartbeat quicken on several occasions, and a slight roiling of the belly at one particularly graphic moment, that discomforted even this normally strong stomached reader. I didn’t, however, object to the use of violence in this particular context, unlike say the gratuitous violence of American Psycho (which I do have a wee soft spot for), as to my mind it actually worked extremely well within plot, and allows the book to remain on the right side of the needlessly voyeuristic.  It merely elevated the fear quotient a little more, and gave the narrative a swift injection of kapow, before carrying us along to that unexpected, supremely creepy denouement…shudders…

I thought the pacing, use of language and increasingly uncomfortable feeling that this book produced in me was cleverly done, perhaps reflected by my reading this in pretty much one sitting, and putting down the book with a palpable sense of satisfaction, despite that truly dark and unsettling ending.

As it says on the cover, Read Me….

Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of Consent, published by Faber Books)

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It is summer, 2012. Charlie, a wealthy banker with an uneasy conscience, invites his troubled cousin Matthew to visit him and his wife in their idyllic mountaintop house. As the days grow hotter, the friendship between the three begins to reveal its fault lines, and with the arrival of a fourth character, the household finds itself suddenly in the grip of uncontrollable passions. Who is the real victim here? Who is the perpetrator? And who, ultimately, is the fall guy?

A new author for me, and a great introduction to his work, as The Fall Guy, resonates with a feel of Patricia Highsmith, and kept the Raven hooked in its clutches…

As is natural with an intense character driven psychological thriller of this kind, the synopsis above is all I am going to give you in terms of plot reveal. Like me, I would urge you to read this largely in a vacuum of unknowing, as the tension both in personal relationships, and the air of deceit and disloyalty, gradually builds and builds. With such a finite group of characters, I felt like I was almost observing a stage play, and for some reason I had an echo of Albee’s brilliant  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf tickling in the back of mind throughout. I thought the relationship between the three main characters and the dips, ecstasies and growing dislike and distrust were beautifully played out, against the backdrop of a sultry heat that seemed to add to the tension of the piece even more. There is an increasingly poisonous relationship building between married couple Charlie and Chloe and cousin Matthew, and be warned your sympathies will be toyed with, and your allegiances shifted along the way…

Lasdun shows his perfect control of pace, as slight reveals and little moments of trickery, lulling us into the feeling that we know exactly what’s going on, and how this will all play out. Wrong tiddly wrong wrong. I was sucker punched by the ending, and was just so, so pleased that it caught me completely off guard. Beautifully paced, a brilliant escalation of tension, and great characterisation. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Vintage for the ARC)