Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Just Thrilled

 I have a half dozen books piled next to the bed (as always). They include this and this and this. All important books that I should be devouring in the cold months. 

Not so. I've read nothing but thrillers all winter. Shameful. Among them, are this one and this one. They were both pretty good. Interesting narrative stance, good characters, a few emotional surprises. 

There's no explanation for this neglect of good books, except that our days are filled with hammering and sudden shots from nail guns all fueled by roaring compressors. At night, the blue tarp of doom covers the half finished renovations. We pray that no snow will fall, and wonder how much money we have left. 

Perhaps that's why this book by Morag Joss is such a fun read. In it, the setting of a house is a major character, as our house is for us just now. Also, I think it's ballsy for a thriller to be funny, and this one is. Each clever line is a happy surprise. 

The story is about Jean, an aging house sitter on what she knows will be her last assignment caring for an enormous estate while the owners are away on a summer-long vacation. She has had a tough life and a couple of events just send her right over the edge, where she decides that she owns the house. Then she decides to reclaim a son she gave up for adoption years before, even though she acknowledges that she's never been pregnant. She puts an ad in the paper for this son and attracts Michael, who is a petty thief and my favorite character in the book. He steals from churches, and he's not very good at it. There's an early, hilarious scene in which his getaway car breaks down. "The bloody van! On the way here he had been so busy feeling like Jeff Stevenson coping with a dodgy alternator or gearbox or whatever that he had not stopped to think about the van's next journey; it fell a little short of Criminal Mastermind standard for the getaway vehicle to be on its last legs." Michael acquires a stray character, too, a pregnant young girl on the run from her abusive boyfriend. The three of them make up a sort of family on this estate. And yet the way they manage this is through pretty dark means that get ever darker as the story progresses. 

But back to the humor. What I love is that the narrator has such wicked fun with the story, and especially the minor characters. Late in the book we meet Shelley, who is Jean's manager at the house-sitting firm and who is not a nice person. She's made an impromptu visit to the estate to check up on Jean and she's likely to learn that Jean has been selling off the furniture and drinking the expensive wine from the cellar. But we slow down as she arrives:

"Jean came out from the back of the house at the sound of Shelley's car on the gravel, patting her tidied hair and intending to give the impression that she knew her place and never used the front door. She had an idea that Shelley would notice and appreciate that sort of observance. But all of Shelley's attention was concentrated on heaving herself out of the hot car. She moved with a sense of grievance, as if she were being made to carry a weight that she considered privately was heavier than anything she could reasonably be expected to shift."

There's a very tense scene in which Jean introduces Michael and his new girlfriend, the runaway, and their ridiculous cover story. Then they walk together into the house as Shelley's phone continually sounds to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy.

"But Michael had started to lead the way down the path between the rose beds and Jean rather delicately dropped back and allowed him to. He was striding along rather fast now. Behind Jean, Shelley struggled along last with a lumpy shoulder bag on one arm and a ladylike black briefcase in the other. There was another volley of Yankee Doodle Dandy, which Shelley this time silenced with a couple of exasperated stabs. Jean turned and watched her. She was wearing low-fronted black shoes with heels like short pencils, which gave the impression that her thick legs ended in hooves. With each step her foot sank deep into the gravel, so she was taking dainty little steps, as if doing so would somehow make her lighter. The effect was of a cow trying to tiptoe."
Sometimes as a reader, I'd just rather have fun.

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