2012 REVIEWS: GENERAL #8

SCENT OF LEMON LEAVES, THE 

Author: Clara Sanchez
Bloomsbury RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

The Scent of Lemon LeavesDark and haunting, The Scent of Lemon Leaves is a complex book that delves into morality, forgiveness, retribution and identity through the parallel and intertwined stories of Sandra, 30, and Julian, who is in his eighties.Five months’ pregnant, unemployed and confused, Sandra stays in her sister’s Costa Brava beach house while she decides “what would be best” for her. She’s not in a hurry to make any decisions – all she knows is that she does not love her baby’s father “as much as I knew I could love” and the idea of a marriage of convenience is abhorrent. After she falls ill on the beach, she befriends the elderly Norwegian couple who help her. Their acceptance of her leads her to imagine herself as their granddaughter; trusting, naive and with a distant familial background, she is easily drawn away from her real life into theirs and soon becomes a companion/helper to the arthritic Karin.Julian, a survivor of the Mauthausen concentration camp, is in the Costa Brava after hearing from his friend, former fellow inmate Salva, that a group of Nazis and Nazi sympathisers have made the place their home. Julian and Salva spent years tracing and exposing war criminals; for Julian (and Salva, who dies before Julian arrives), the desire for retribution is obsessive and all-consuming. By chance, he meets Sandra and soon realises that her benefactors, Fredrik and Karin Christensen, are two infamous war criminals he wants to expose. It’s not easy for him to convince her that the Christensens are far from the kind seniors they present to the world, even when she sees Fredrik in his SS officer’s uniform, but she soon realises that all is not as it seems. The Christensens, and their close-knit circle of friends and protectors, are hiding something. But what? And what do they want with Sandra? Can she escape the complex and beguiling web that threatens to trap her?

The Scent of Lemon Leaves is a slow-moving book in which the tension builds gradually – it’s slow-boiling suspense with sinister, insidious undertones. The descriptions of the Nazis, their sympathisers and their group actions have an eerily detached feel – there is no sense of responsibility for the atrocities of their past and present. While Julian and Sandra are (mostly) motivated by a sense of right and wrong, the Nazis present as amoral. They are content in their belief that they are superior. I found this aspect chilling.

A couple of things stood out for me – how could Sandra and Julian meet in public in a small town without being discovered, when it was clear they were being watched? The alternating first-person narrative was confusing initially – a couple of times I had to go back to the start of each chapter to see who was narrating. However, once I came to recognise their distinct voices, the reading became more even and delivered profound insight into both characters. At times I questioned Sandra’s credibility – I would have expected her to be far younger than 30 in light of her child-like trust and general immaturity.

However, it is the concept of people as flawed beings that makes this book so profound. You could look at this as a good versus bad novel – Sandra and Julian versus the Nazis. But that’s simplifying things too much. Sandra, the reader sees is hardly perfect and she knows it: “Sometimes people were right when they said I was a disaster.” Julian, who wants to bring the Nazis to account, is motivated more by hate than justice. As the reader sees, and Sandra in particular struggles with, the lines between good and bad can be blurry. In the same way, readers are confronted with the issue of redemption versus retribution. Does time heal all wounds? Should it? Is the past the truth (it is for Julian) or is the present the truth (Sandra’s dilemma)? Does time redeem all wrongs or is retribution always needed? And will retribution heal? It’s a sophisticated concept that is cleverly brought out by the author, leaving the questions to some degree unanswered and the reader pondering the futility of it all.

Other concepts such as inter-generational friendships, ageing and self-discovery round out the book, creating a book that will resonate with some more than others. I loved it – it was beautifully written, suspenseful and evocative, with a startling twist at the end – but I don’t think it’s for everyone.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.


UNFINISHED JOURNALS OF ELIZABETH D, THE
Author: Nichole Bernier
Allen & Unwin RRP $27.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth DWould you read someone else’s diary? What if they had died? What if it was left to you? These are some of the questions that underpin Nichole Bernier’s novel The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D.

I picked this book up after reading a particularly confronting novel, so it was like a breath of fresh air. The cover first got my attention – I love wood-framed windows – because of its inviting feel. To me, the cover says, open me, come inside to my world. As a blogger, the blurb spoke to me also – “before there were blogs, there were journals”. It got me thinking about how honest people really are in blogs, knowing people are reading them. Are journals more honest? What percentage of yourself do you really reveal in a blog, even if you are sharing an opinion? And so on…

About to embark on a seven-week summer holiday with her husband Chris and their young children, Kate stops by to see their recently widowed friend, Dave. His wife, Elizabeth, was Kate’s close friend, and she left her journals (years’ worth) to Kate. Dave is somewhat unimpressed but hands them over and Kate finds herself drawn into her friend’s life and secrets. As she reads, the journals reveal a woman far different than the cheerful wife and mother Kate thought she knew; this revised portrait makes Kate question not just their friendship, but her own deepest beliefs about loyalty and honesty at a moment of uncertainty in her own marriage. When an unfamiliar man’s name appears in Elizabeth’s pages, Kate realises the extent of what she didn’t know about her best friend, including where she was really going when she died.

‘Even in great relationships, there are limits on how well we can ever really know someone.’There is a real sense as you read The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D that no one is as they appear – as Kate finds through her reading, there is a lot she didn’t know about Elizabeth; she and the reader also see a different side of Dave (Elizabeth’s husband, who doesn’t come across too well for a lot of the book). Kate is also realising that she doesn’t always know her own husband, and there are some things she is not sure she wants to know. Kate seems to get more and more weighed with a combination or responsibility and guilt as she reads (guilt, because she knows that Dave is jealous that she has them, that she has access to his wife’s private thoughts). So, how would it feel if you had the chance to find out what someone really thought? It’s thought-provoking – good for discussion at a book club because there are lots of grey areas.As I read, I noted quotes that stood out for me – you can read about that here. What I liked about this book was that it prompted lots of reflection (which, ironically, is what journals are for) about choices (are you a “what if” person?), identity (does anyone know the real you?), judging others, expectations, as well as loyalty, parenthood, careers, relationships and friendships.

Character-wise, it took a while to engage with the characters. They didn’t seem to have a lot of depth. As I read, I came to know them more – their natures were revealed slowly, and in hindsight, this reflects how we come to know about the people in our lives. We never know someone straight away; also, there are some people we “click” with straight away, and others we appreciate more over time. I don’t know whether that was Bernier’s intention, but the slow character development is a technique that, in this case, makes sense. I do think Kate developed well over the course of the novel. She comes across as a bit selfish, more of a taker initially; at the beginning she notes that Elizabeth used to “dabble” in painting – despite being a close friend, she really has no idea how important painting was to Elizabeth. Towards the latter third, Kate realises that she has unfairly judged Elizabeth as “dreamless”. She seems more self-aware. Dave comes across as abrasive, and at times, weak, but I felt for him. He’s dealing with the loss of his wife, bringing up their children, realising that he may not have known his wife as well as he thought he did. That’s a lot to bear and it would leak out; not surprisingly it’s Kate who bears it, because she is going to get answers/insight and all he has is questions. It’s easy to judge Dave based on some of Elizabeth’s journal entries – he’s certainly flawed – but there is a maturity, a quiet, new strength about him by the end.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book. It’s bittersweet, honest and invites plenty of thought.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin and was read as part of a bloggers’ read-along.


TIGERS IN RED WEATHER
Author: Liza Klaussmann
Picador
Review: Monique Mulligan

Tigers in Red Weather“No, everything was new now, just waiting to be discovered. And she would. She and Hughes would do it together. She was hungry for it, she would stuff the world whole into her mouth and bite down.” 

Tigers in Red Weather sparked a sizable bidding war – a coup for Liza Klaussmann and her debut novel. After reading it, I can see why – it’s skilfully written, polished and loaded with tension of varying degrees.

Newly inherited by Nick, Tiger House is the lynch-pin of the novel. The island house, and adjoining cottage, is where Nick and her cousin Helene have always spent their summers; the East Coast island is a playground for the wealthy, a place where the beautiful and damned come to play, a place of martinis and moonlit conspiracies, of secrets and stolen moments. It’s so much a part of Nick and Helene’s lives that they intend to keep summering there – if their husbands will let them.

The story begins in 1945, spans nearly 25 years and is told by five characters. As it begins, Nick is off to meet her husband Hughes, who has just returned from the war. Helene is off to meet her fiance on the opposite coast. The two go their separate ways, promising that they will meet each summer: “Nothing’s going to change. Not in any way that really matters. It will be like always”. Ready to take on the world with Hughes, Nick finds her husband a changed man. There’s a coolness between them, almost a politeness; author Klaussmann shows this perfectly, giving the reader an intimate look at a young marriage that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Two years later, not much seems to have changed – when Hughes buys Nick a house, she reflects that he is buying a place to put her, “a place for her to be perfect in, where all her strangeness would be sucked out of her”. Here are two people, it seems, with very different expectations of marriage: Nick wants fun, excitement; Hughes wants routine and children. Rocked by a discovery about Hughes’ time in the war, Nick gives in and decides to have a child, but despite Hughes’ happiness, she feels as though her own dreams are dissolving.

Fast forward to 1959 and Tiger House. Daisy (Nick and Hughes’ daughter) and Ed (Helene’s son) are on the cusp of adolescence. When they discover a dead body, everything changes. The event is a catalyst for stripping back the polished but fragile facade of the island and the characters – underneath the glamour lurks violence, hatred, secrets and bubbling anxiety. A shadow is cast on the island and also on the relationships of all main characters. Not everything is what it seems. And everything that really matters has changed.

The characters were strongly written – although I will say that I didn’t really like any of them, except for Daisy. Nick is sleek and beguiling, used to privilege, a strange mixture of naivety and sophistication. She’s also narcissistic. Everything is about her – and if it isn’t, she makes it so. Hughes is as much a contradiction – weak in some areas, strong in others. For some reason he overlooks some of Nick’s actions, probably because he thinks he deserves her indiscretions. Ed is a chilling young man; damaged and sociopathic, he unnerved me through the novel (testimony to some great characterisaton). Disappointed, dependent and in-denial, Helene is a strange character – as much a product of an abusive relationship as generational disappointment. It’s hard to like her because she’s really only seen in a negative light.

What I enjoyed most about the novel, aside from Klaussmann’s undoubted skill in weaving together complex plotlines, backstories and characters, was the simmering tension she created. Tension between spouses, parent/child, lovers and minor characters – tension borne of situation as much as personality. It’s a tension that lingers after the end, because it’s clear that the story goes on.

Available from good bookstores and Pan Macmillan. This copy was courtesy of Pan Macmillan.