Comments on White Nights, Simisola and Shiny Water
When I got to the Hotel Orchidea in Florence I found more detective novels in the little bookcase beside the reception desk. The hotel was composed of a mere seven rooms ringing a sitting room abutted by a reception room. We shared two bathrooms. More often than not there was no one at reception; the owner lived right above the hotel and she always left a note on the reception desk inviting people to run up and ring her bell if there were any problems. I was able to do much of my reading lying on the couch in the sitting room, which made a nice change from reading in bed in a tiny bedroom. It was also nice to be waiting for a birth, or births actually. The landlady’s dog was near the end of her term and reportedly very uncomfortable. Before I left she had seven puppies.
Two of the mystery novels I read were British. White Nights by Ann Cleeves was about a detective, Jimmy Perez, on the Shetland Islands. I’ve seen episodes of a television series based on these books. In this novel, a colleague from the south, called in to assist on major cases, contemplates his own terrible competitiveness and realizes too that he is afraid of boredom and always running from it. That struck me because I have to admit that I am doing the same thing. In his case, his competitiveness gave him the drive to engage in a lot of action, but it also reflected his difficult relationships with his father, and his brothers. This is a man who has repudiated his family. At last he decides to accept a senior posting to his hometown, where his brothers still live. We realize that he’s going to stop running, and that for him home and family are related. There’s a lot of tension about home in this novel. Several people washup to the Shetlands and decide to stay, or realize that they can’t stay, that they need to return to what is their real home. It’s hard to know, always, whether one is running away from something, or toward something. We all have to make our own homes and that may require leaving a childhood home. We can run away from a worse home to find a better one. But I think we have to make peace with the old one before we can make a new one.
Simisola by veteran and venerated author Ruth Rendell is also about social issues, in this case the tension between rich and poor, and the abuses of power that the rich engage in, including slavery and sexual slavery. This novel is about a wealthy doctor and his family who live in Kuwait for a time, and bring back a “domestic”, calling her a family member to avoid immigration issues. This deprives her of all legal recourse, as she is used as a sexual slave by both father and son, and eventually murdered. Rendell brings up the rationale, that the weak are abused because they’re weak and helpless. An abuser may first render his victim weak, and then blame his victim for being weak and feel that weakness justifies further abuse. In this family, the entire family is invested in that dynamic. The mother mistreats the girl on grounds that the girl wouldn’t know how to sleep on a bed, is terribly clumsy with furniture etc because as an African she’s never lived with furniture. Chief constable Reg Wexford has to solve an apparent murder (a different black girl goes missing — turns out she has taken on a position as live in nanny and not bothered to inform her parents), a real crime, a black enslaved girl is murdered by the eminent surgeon who has taken her from Kuwait and has been raping her, and another real crime, white women who works at an unemployment centre has also been murdered. Wexford originally thinks the two black girls are only one, and come to reallize his learned racism has prevented him from doing his job properly. He failed to pay attention to the reality behind the surface similarity of skin colour. During the course of his investigation he fantasizes about another job centre worker because of her luminous blue eyes, which turn out to be contact lenses. I love this literary touch, coloured contact lenses symbolizing appearance that lies.
Shiny Water by Anna Salter, was an American shocker for me. The story is told from the point of view of a psychologist, Dr. Michael Stone, who diagnoses and treats abused children and women with ptsd, and even multiple personality disorder (she uses that term rather than the more correct “dissociative identity disorder”). In her novel men of power rape children and the children are never believed because of today’s climate, in which there is a backlash against women who claim decent powerful men are rapists. In a custody battle, claims of sex abuse against the father are routinely dismissed as “coached” by the mother.
The psychologist, Michael, (who is a woman) had a difficult family — a powerful but unmotherly “Mama” whom she refers to a lot, and a semi-employed alcoholic father, who apparently loved her and whom she loved. Not bad people, but not particularly able to parent. She says that though she doesn’t like the south and left as soon as she could, “an expatriate Southerner is still a Southerner, and home is home. Everybody has some place that resets the clock”. And about sadistic child molesters/killers: “There isn’t a snake in the world that has enough venom in it to do a thing like that. Am I really related to a species that has that much malevolence in the gene pool? Being reincarnated as a housefly might be a step up.” This is a social justice whodunnit with a vengeance. And she says about home: “everybody needs a space that is inviolate. The lucky ones have it inside their heads.”