Ever since I read It’s Beginning to Hurt, a collection of stories by James Lasdun, I have eagerly picked up any writing of his I could find. He comes from a long line of self-aware male novelists who point to themselves, the human condition with its male inadequacies, and laugh with us, e.g., Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, and further back, Kingsley Amis and P.G. Wodehouse. That Lasdun is not as broad as these last two, matters not at all for what it is he perceives and is able to convey.
Lasdun may be one of the most underrated novelists of whom I am aware. A new novel of his should be an event, and widely heralded. Instead I came upon this novel published last year in a library display. All my other reading had to wait until I had a chance to see what he was doing in this extraordinarily chilling horror novel in which the unspooling of mystery is embedded in the comfort the characters enjoy.
There is a threesome: a wealthy banker, his beautiful wife, and a talented cousin. There are some stressors: the banker has been laid off, the wife has an artist’s eye but not an artist’s income, and the talented cousin lost his last investment in a restaurant of which he was chef. However, it is summer, and the three escape city heat to enjoy the cool of the summer house in the Catskills, time to refuel one’s energies for the stretch ahead.
The vacation idyll has a butterfly garden, a pool house, privacy hedges, large airy rooms, and a fully stocked kitchen. The chef shops for local produce using the banker’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of funds to prepare gorgeous meals of diverse and exciting courses, accompanied by wines from an extensive cellar that the banker enjoys replenishing in his free time. Everything is lovely until, suddenly, one character in the piece appears in town outside of the role assigned them…
On one foray to the tiny shops in town servicing the vacationers, the chef sees the wife driving to an apparently secret assignation. Lasdun cleverly constructs this novel so that whatever happens after, our sympathies are at war with our understanding. Tiny, shocking revelations mentioned almost as afterthought set alarm bells clanging, turning around hours of conclusions we have already made from the details Lasdun gives us.
This is a deeply disturbing novel, perhaps the more so because we are lulled into believing that none of these likable and ordinary-seeming characters can harbor dark secrets. But, we discover, one of the three is indeed twisted, and even when we get an inkling of the truth, we are not willing to completely believe the evidence of our eyes. After all, Lasdun did leave out something crucial when we were first constructing our own narrative.
Tell me the following passage, which comes late in the story, isn’t calculated to give you chills. Can we even trust the author?
“It was still raining when he went to bed. The pines stood dripping behind the guesthouse, dark and immense. Glittering strings ran from the unguttered octagonal eaves. He opened the door and slid the suitcase out from under the bed, half expecting, as he always did, the things inside to have rearranged themselves, so bristlingly volatile had they become in his imagination. They lay exactly as he had left them.”Loved it. To me this is a perfect summer read—drifting in and out of consciousness by the water—one instinctively feels something is wrong, but a stray sentence jolts us awake, sending heart rate pounding. Terrific little psychological thriller.
You can buy this book here: Tweet