I love the start of this book. It’s the antithesis of the thoroughly modern style where you bang crash into the action and grab the reader by the balls. (I don’t have balls but have a good imagination.) There’s a beautiful story setting: a woman does nothing more than walk down the road but I’m there, with her.
It’s my first adult Maurice Gee (why??) and I am in awe of the stylish way he puts words on the page. He should be studied by readers of literary fiction and the students will come out the wiser. His descriptions of people are sparse and instantly recognisable:
He was a weaselly man who pointed at things he wanted with his nose.
Her father worked in the sawmill and her mother, wiry, aproned, fag in mouth, worked at home. Slaved at home. Six children.
My grandma, she’s got poppy-out eyes, like one of those dogs, you know, a chihuahua. She’s built like one too.
Mac says, ambling, big-buttocked, in the corridor.
It’s all you need, these quick one line sketches to get a feel for a person, and suddenly you have a book packed full of people who move across the page in three dimensions.
The narrator of this story is Alice, a retired fungal scientist and a liar, a practiced one. She even tells us how to lie convincingly.
‘Gordon wasn’t as tall as this. And he had fair hair.’ I’m an easy liar; say the first thing into my head, then follow it up, knowing how facts strung together can confuse. Never stop at one. Don’t stop at two. ‘And crooked teeth. He never had a mouth full of choppers like this. He liked girls with dark hair too, not blondes.’
I was never sure that what she was telling us was the truth. Even the mundanities, like whether she saw her brother on the street or what happened when she dropped in to see him, all may have been casual lies. I didn’t like Alice much. She seemed defensive, though it was her brother who was damaged after a tragedy involving an early girlfriend. We go back into their childhood and parental failings, but you can’t blame everything on your parents. (Well, maybe you can—you have to shift the attitudes and prejudices you inherit, for a start.) Brother Gordon goes awol for decades after his girlfriend’s death and returns as an unreachable.
The story turns when a young man arrives on Alice’s doorstep, claiming to be the son of Gordon and the girlfriend and upsets the way Alice has reconciled her past. If she is going to let him in, and his girlfriend with the smarts, she’ll have to get her story straight.
Everyone has told me Maruice Gee is brilliant, but it’s like touching wet paint. You have to have the experience to know. And now I do.