So I’ve been rereading Capital Crimes with a view to selecting which stories to single out for discussion. This discussion – with my Usual Suspect cohorts – will not take place until July, but Pauline’s reading in this excellent anthology (and her shared enthusiasm for it) prompted me to do the same, sooner than I’d planned.
Stories by the following have made the cut: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Oxenham, Richard Marsh, Ernest Bramah, Thomas Burke, H.C. Bailey, Hugh Walpole, Anthony Berkeley,and Ethel Lina White. I so enjoyed White’s story, entitled “Cheese,” that I sought out a full length novel by her. Originally entitled The Wheel Spins, it’s now sometimes known as The Lady Vanishes, after the Hitchcock film which was based on it.
I loved this book. Iris Carr, the heroine, is plucky in the extreme. As the story unfolds, we share in her bafflement. We experience all that happens through her young eyes, share in her terror and bewilderment, and ultimately applaud her strength and her bravery.
Oh, and the writing was excellent:
As she lay with her eyes almost closed, listening to the ping of the breeze, her serenity returned. A clump of harebells, standing out against the skyline, seemed hardened and magnified to a metallic belfry, while she, herself, was dwarfed and welded into the earth— part of it, like the pebbles and the roots. In imagination she could almost hear the pumping of a giant heart underneath her head.
Click here for a review of The Wheel Spins on the blog Vintage Novels.
I am saddened by the passing of Anita Brookner. Over the years, my reading life has been greatly enriched by her novels. She wrote twenty-four of them; I’ve read some thirteen or fourteen. That sounds like a lot, but they are slender volumes, meticulously crafted. I’ve always admired her writing and her intellect; she possessed a large vocabulary which she deployed with pointillist precision.
As a writer for the Catholic Herald notes of Brookner, “her heroines and occasional heroes were people whom by and large life had passed by: their pleasures were small ones, and the great storms of passion were things that happened to other people.” This makes her characters sound somewhat dreary, but I think it would be more accurate to call most of them introverted, with a propensity for melancholy. At this point, one wants to assert hastily that they had rich inner lives. But if memory serves, that’s not always the case. In truth, memory is not serving me all that well at the moment, as I’ve not read anything by her since Strangers came out in 2009.
To my mind, Anita Brookner had always seemed a quintessentially English novelist. I’ll bet she’s got one of those distinguished British pedigrees that goes back several hundred years, thought I. Well she might – but not in Britain. Her parents were Polish Jews who emigrated in the early years of the 20th century. (I was genuinely surprised to learn this about her.) She was their only child.
Having earned a PhD in art history from London’s famed Courtauld Institute, Brookner went on to teach and write in that field. She wrote her first novel – A Start in Life, published here in 1981 as The Debut – when she was 53.
An interesting sidelight regarding Brookner’s time studying at the Courtauld is that one of her professors was a highly respected art historian who held the post of Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. His name was Anthony Blunt.
Ring a bell? Blunt was one of the Cambridge Spies, the most famous of which is probably Kim Philby. I’ve known for quite some time that Brookner studied art history under Blunt, but there’s a story concerning the two of them and a third individual that I’d never heard until I started looking for material for this post. It’s told by A.N. Wilson in the Daily Mail:
As a distinguished scholar at the Courtauld Institute in London, Britain’s foremost centre of art history studies, Anita Brookner worked with Anthony Blunt, the Keeper of the Queen’s pictures, who was later exposed as a traitor.
When one of their equally distinguished colleagues, Phoebe Pool, had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, Blunt asked Brookner to visit Pool regularly.
She did so happily, unaware Blunt was a Soviet agent, nor that he had used Pool — once an enthusiastic member of the Communist party — as a go-between to take messages to his Russian spymaster.
Every time Anita Brookner came back from the hospital after seeing Pool, Blunt would quiz her. How was Phoebe? Had she blurted out any names? Which names? The questions meant nothing to Brookner. She had no idea that the names Pool might have let slip could have belonged to spies.
It was only when, decades later, Blunt and the more minor figure of Pool were unmasked that she realised she had been a pawn in the Cold War. Brookner’s reactions were entirely typical. Yes, she was very angry, and went on being angry with Blunt to the end of her days.
She felt she had been ‘manipulated’ by him, and realised, going back over their conversations, that he had tried to enlist her as an agent.
Though one of the most intelligent women alive, she confessed that she had been ‘too stupid’ to realise what he was on about.
Wilson adds that despite feeling used and manipulated when the truth about Blunt became publicly known (in 1979), Brookner retained a degree of loyalty to her erstwhile mentor: “She owed her job as an art historian to Blunt, who admired her scholarship and her knowledge of 17th and 18th-century French paintings.”
Although Brookner’s fiction is usually been held in high esteem, there are some who feel that in later years, the scope of her novels became increasingly constricted. As Matt Schudel states in the Washington Post: “By the mid-1990s, some critics had become weary of what some called an attenuated, bloodless quality that seemed to owe too much to earlier styles.”
Attenuated? Bloodless? Not to this reader (nor to many others). Instead, I felt that with each new novel I was given the chance to examine a different facet of a beautiful and enigmatic jewel. The spell was cast every time. I was always grateful.
If you are new to the fiction of Anita Brookner, you should probably start with Hotel Du Lac. This is her Booker Prize winner, a justly cherished novel. I’d like to reread Latecomers; it’s the only Brookner title I’ve read that dealt specifically with Eastern European immigrants living in Britain. And I have yet to read her final fiction: At the Hairdresser’s, available in e-book format only.
Jonathan Yardley, formerly a writer and reviewer for The Washington Post Book World, used to run an occasional column called Second Reading, where he called attention to older titles that might be worth revisiting as well as current authors who might be unjustly neglected. It was a marvelous feature. My favorite of all those columns was ostensibly about Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party, but Yardley ended up writing about five additional authors as well, all women. Anita Brookner was one of them, as well as two other favorites of mine (in addition to Colegate): the Penelope’s, Fitzgerald and Lively. (Yardley’s ‘Second Reading’ pieces are collected in a book of the same name.)
A Thousand Hills to Heaven is just such a book.
Subtitled Love, Hope, and a Restaurant in Rwanda, it’s the story of Josh and Alissa Ruxin, who arrived in 2005 to assist in the effort to get a shattered country back on its feet. Newly married and filled with dreams and determination, they were also clear-eyed about the challenges they would face.
And face them they did. They hired the right people. Many native Rwandans and also Africans from neighboring countries proved ready and willing to staff the various undertakings comprising the Millennium Village that Josh was so keen to establish.
Josh Ruxin formulated these rules for making a lasting and meaningful difference:
- If people are hungry, they must be fed, first and foremost.
- Demand high standards, especially when they mean improvement in task performance. Wherever institutions already exist that benefit people, those should be upgraded.
- Corruption of any kind, especially in government, is a deal breaker. Meaningful and lasting change cannot happen unless and until complete honesty and transparency are effected.
- Any project that you undertake should be sustainable; i.e. doable even when you have gone.
- The free market can provide powerful incentives for job creation and general improvement of living conditions.
The Ruxins did not arrive in Rwanda with these rules already in place and ready to put into practice. Rather, they are the result of experience and relentless effort. Some were learned the hard way. But all produced gratifying results. People who had endured – or barely escaped from – the horror of the genocide were finding ways to live again. Not only to live, but to live in a meaningful way, and even to prosper.
Josh Ruxin is also a founding member of Health Builders, an organization devoted to making affordable health care available to all through the establishment of high quality regional clinics. The organization establishes the parameters and initially provides the tools for these facilities; the local population is then empowered to build and run the clinics.
Ruxin earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in the history of Science and Medicine at Yale University. He also holds a Masters in Public Health from Columbia and a PhD in History from the University of London. He is currently on the faculty of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Work on the Millennium Village – helping the farmers revive the devastated soil, assisting with the establishment of the schools and clinics, finding and hiring top flight local help – Josh was a prime movers in each of these endeavors.
Aren’t you wondering what he does with his spare time? And what has Alissa Ruxin been doing?
Only raising three young children and creating and running a restaurant in a place where there is virtually no restaurant culture. With Josh’s help and support, Heaven became a reality. It is now a terrific place to eat and to hold celebrations; it’s also a great job creator.
So A Thousand Hills to Heaven is in a sense two books combined into a single narrative. There’s the story of the Millennium Village and Health Builders, in all its complexity, and it’s the story of Heaven, in all its complexity.
If you’re thinking that this must perforce be a long book, you’d be wrong. Josh Ruxin has packed a tremendous amount of material into just under 300 pages (including several pages of enticing recipes from the chef’s kitchen at Heaven). There is some background on the genocide – just enough to make you appreciate its ghastly reality. While acknowledging the suffering of the Rwandan people in the not-so-distant past, Ruxin is focused like a laser on the country’s present and immediate future. One gets the sense that this is what the Rwandans want, too. At the same time, though, they have instituted a system of adjudication called the Gacaca Court:
The Gacaca courts are a method of transitional justice and are designed to promote communal healing and rebuilding in the wake of the Rwandan Genocide.
From the Wikipedia entry
Rwanda has had a very dark cloud hovering over it; emerging from this devastation takes no small act of courage. That it is possible at all is due in part to people like the Ruxins, and even more so to the Rwandan people themselves, whose perseverance and determination is nothing short of amazing.
In A Thousand Hills to Heaven, one meets some truly fascinating individuals and hears some memorable stories. One of my favorites concerns the restaurant. Here, in Josh’s retelling, is what happened:
At one point, one of our chefs asked for “fresh” goat, and in the midst of service for eighty customers, a live goat was delivered to the kitchen.
The chef let it be known that this was not exactly what he had in mind!
A Thousand Hills to Heaven was suggested for our AAUW discussion group by Barbara, one of our chapter’s members. Since 2006, she’s had the extraordinary good fortune to travel to Rwanda several times as a member of People to People and as part of a delegation of nurses. The following are her observations:
Rwanda is a beautiful, peaceful small country with friendly gracious people. Most people speak English so it is easy to get around. The people are very proud of their government which is very transparent. There are signs all over asking people to report corruption immediately. They are very self sufficient and ask that visitors not to directly give the children anything, including an empty water bottle. They do not want children “begging”. Each time I have gone to “Heaven” restaurant and it is as wonderful as described in the book.
As it happens, I am going to miss the discussion, but I want to emphasize what a great choice this book is for that purpose. (I can barely stop talking about it myself.)
The Ruxins are Jewish. In 2013, many Jewish families celebrated “Thanksgivukkah,” when the dates of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coincided. The Ruxins duly celebrated this holiday at Heaven.
There exists in the Jewish religion a concept called “Tikkun Olam,” or literally “world repair.” Jews are urged to go out into the world and do whatever they can to fix what needs fixing, especially as it pertains to people in need of help. Most of us do this through various sponsorship activities and donations to worthy causes. The Ruxins have done it by working to build a Millennium Village, to establish health facilities and schools, and to restore depleted farm land and make it productive once again. Oh, and by opening a beautiful restaurant, thereby adding many jobs, a place for people to gather, and a source of pride for everyone involved.
Talk about a purpose driven life!
Having just moved into a house in a desirable part of London, Carl Martin is one lucky guy. The house, inherited from his recently deceased father to whom he was not especially close, is spacious enough for Carl to be able to let the top floor to a tenant of his choosing. Dermot McKinnon, he decides, will fill the bill nicely.
Carl is fortunate in other ways as well. His first novel, Death’s Door, has just been published and has been well received. And to top it all off, he has Nicola, his openhearted and beautiful girlfriend.
As Dark Corners opens, these various benevolent elements of Carl’s life are nicely in place and he is just setting to work on his next book. There is but one dark cloud on the horizon: money is at the moment tight. But with Death’s Door selling nicely, and rent money coming in, that shouldn’t be a problem for very long.
But a lack of funds, even if temporary, makes some people very uneasy. It can be a powerful motivator. And motivates Carl to do something he should not have done. And the ramifications of this fateful act…well, read the book and they will gradually become known to you.
There is a parallel subplot involving a character named Lizzie Milsom. Lizzie is a cheerful and inventive liar; moreover, she’s a type that I recognized from other Rendell novels of psychological suspense. (See Joan Smith, a far more evil prototype, in A Judgement in Stone.) Perhaps for this reason, I found Lizzie’s presence in the narrative rather less than compelling Her fate was of much less interest to me than Carl’s. She does serve a purpose in his story, though, through a significant coincidence which I wasn’t sure I found entirely convincing.
In sum, I would say that this is not in the first rank of this author’s work, but I still enjoyed it. It was short, tightly wound, and thoroughly engrossing. Most of all, it’s characterized by that mounting sense of dread that generates such powerful suspense in so many of Rendell’s novels.
The title comes from a description that Carl recalls from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: “the duke of dark corners.” The entire phrase is “the old fantastical duke of dark corners.” With its hint of sinister import, it’s exactly apt.
Dark Corners is the final work from the pen of this unique and supremely gifted writer. It saddens me to see her picture on the back cover and beneath it the dates, 1930-2015. Still, I am grateful that she lived and wrote – and that she was as prolific as she was brilliant.
I shall be reading her, and rereading her, for a long time to come.