Friday, February 21, 2014

Our Picnics in the Sun

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Our Picnics in the Sun (Delacorte, 2013).

My to-read pile is very nearly unmanageable, and so, for a few months, I've curbed my fun experiment in trying some modern literature sight-unseen. For readers who missed it, I decided to order whatever novel got a featured review in Entertainment Weekly, and read an earlier book by that author while waiting for it, with no background and no idea what to expect. This resulted in some disappointments, but some great times over the last year.

While waiting for Our Picnics in the Sun, I read a previous novel by Morag Joss, Among the Missing. I enjoyed it tremendously, until the rushed and confusing mammoth disappointment of the ending left me wanting to throw the darn thing out the car window. Ahem. So I did not come to Our Picnics in the Sun with a swelling sense of optimism, and it took a very long time for this bleak and depressing story to win me over. Happily, it did.

The story concerns an aging couple, Howard and Deborah, who eke out an existence living off the land and running a barely-ever-open bed and breakfast in the middle of nowhere, Scotland. Howard suffered a stroke not long before our story opens and has made little progress in recovering. They were doing home repairs when it happened, and both fell from a ladder; Deborah's injury to her shoulder has not healed correctly. Their son, in his late twenties, is a high-flying financial whiz and rarely sees them. This is a depressing story, especially as Deborah foolishly convinces herself that Alec is coming home for his birthday, and their annual, pathetic picnic on the moor. No reader will be surprised, after following the back-and-forth email exchange, when he doesn't make it back. Deborah is so desperate to see him again that she doesn't read between the lines well at all.

On the night that their son was expected, two men arrive, demanding a room and board for the night, and everything changes in their sad life. One of the two remains behind, a shadowy figure who is alternately very helpful to Deborah and impatient and cruel to Howard, whose occasional perspective on his difficulty and inability to make himself understood is beautifully written. The narrative voice changes regularly through the book, from Deborah's narration to the emails to two different objective voices, one explaining the world through Howard's eyes and another flashing back to some of their son's previous birthdays.

These flashbacks show Howard and Deborah in such a poor light that, even though the man has had a stroke and is mostly an invalid, I found myself completely losing sympathy for the couple. The man was a lunatic, and when his son ran away, it was just so he could desperately try to enjoy a normal childhood and attend school. When he destroyed his eight year-old son's birthday gift (a "violent" toy from one of those '80s GI Joe knockoffs, MASK), I wanted to reach into the book and punch him. And geez, his idiot belief in the "life" of bread...

So it is a rough read, a depressing situation with parents who are revealed to be downright awful. If you need a sympathetic protagonist, I wouldn't recommend it. But it evolves into a taut psychological suspense study, with their new tenant manipulating the situation and Deborah reacting to his presence in profoundly unpredictable ways. It becomes creepy and chilling and really got under my skin, and I did not see the revelations of the end coming at all. Morag Joss still had a little trouble with the abrupt climax leaving me with a question or two, but, in an absolute work of genius, a fantastic little postscript from some psychology paper drives one nebulous point home with the force of a railroad spike. Overall, I love it, despite the very rough ride getting through the first half-and-more. I can't recommend it without some reservation, but it worked for me in the end.

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