This week’s Best Book is Neverhome by Laird Hunt!
When she was in high school, author Sheila Allee discovered that her father had a brother she didn’t know existed. Melrose Allee, nicknamed Pie, was born with profound intellectual disabilities. Once Allee’s father “Dub,” who had taken much of the burden for Melrose’s care, left home in 1937, his parents placed Melrose in Austin State School. Even though her father was angry with his parents and swore to get his brother out, he never did, and Melrose eventually became an unmentioned subject.
Sheila could not understand how her family could have institutionalized her uncle in the first place and even worse, how they could have left him for years, unvisited. When she moved to Austin as an adult, she set about finding Melrose, eventually locating him in Travis State School in 1991.
This short book is the touching story of Allee’s own self-discovery through the agency of her impaired uncle. It is also the story of her discovery of the profoundly disturbing beliefs and practices surrounding the mentally handicapped that were practiced in this country in the first half of the 20th century.
In the interests of full disclosure, I know Ms. Allee, and I received a copy of her book in return for an honest review.
When Amber Hewerdine decides to consult a hypnotherapist for her insomnia, something unexpected happens. She blurts out a phrase that is puzzling her because she has seen it somewhere and doesn’t know what it means, “Kind, Cruel, Kind of Cruel.” Then she realizes she saw it written on a pad that one of the other clients was writing on in her car before her session.
She knows she has seen it before that. When she asks the woman if she can see it, the other woman denies having it on her pad. So, after the woman goes in to consult with the therapist, Amber gets into her car to look at the pad.
What Amber doesn’t realize is that the phrase is a clue in a murder. Detective Constable Charlie Zailer is the other client, and even though she is not on the case, she has been mulling over the phrase. But it was impossible for Amber to have seen the entire phrase on Charlie’s pad, because she had only written “Kind, Cruel” before Amber interrupted her.
The case where the phrase was discovered was the bludgeoning death of Katherine Allen in her own home, now being investigated by Charlie’s husband Simon Waterhouse. Amber didn’t know Katherine. She believes the phrase is somehow linked to a Christmas event several years before, when her sister-in-law Jo and her family disappeared for two days after inviting the entire extended family to stay at a house they had leased. Amber thinks maybe she saw the phrase in a locked room in that house. No one ever spoke about why part of the family disappeared, and Amber has always been curious.
Amber’s insomnia started after her best friend was killed in a fire. After the fire, Amber and her husband Luke took in her friend’s two daughters. Amber loves the girls but hasn’t slept much since the fire.
Sophie Hannah writes compelling psychological thrillers. Amber’s narrative is interrupted by that of Waterhouse, the detective whom Amber agrees to speak to, as well as that of Ginny Saxon, the therapist. Hannah’s plots are complicated and always interesting to unravel.
Mrs. Palfrey is an old lady who takes a permanent room at the Claremont, a hotel that has seen better days. Staying at the Claremont are several other older people who are all living on limited means.
One reason Mrs. Palfrey chose the Claremont instead of a seaside resort her daughter recommended is because her grandson Desmond lives in London and works at the British Museum. Mrs. Palfrey regrets having mentioned him to the other guests, though, as day after day passes and no one comes to visit.
The life of all the permanent residents of the Claremont is similar to hers, as they sit waiting for something to happen. Mrs. Post knits while Mr. Osborne writes letters to various newspapers hoping to see them in print. Any incident, no matter how trivial, constitutes a break in the monotony.
One day while out walking, Mrs. Palfrey falls. A young man runs out from a nearby building and helps her. He is Ludo Myers, an impoverished would-be novelist. After this encounter, the two become friends of a sort. Mrs. Palfrey doesn’t know that Ludo has decided to write about old people and is using her as a model. Still, they both behave kindly to one another, he even pretending to be her grandson so she can save some face with the other hotel residents.
Underlying the lives of all the old people are sadness and boredom, but Ludo also feels lonely. His mother goes from one affair to another and doesn’t seem to care if he comes to visit. He eventually takes up with Rosie, a young woman who also doesn’t care for him much.
This novel is observant enough of people’s behavior that it is sometimes funny, but mostly it sensitively explores the solitude that is in all of us. I saw the movie a few weeks after I read the book and was interested, but not surprised, to see how the movie was just enough more heartfelt and touching to make it avoid the central message and atmosphere of the book. I liked the movie, but it missed the point.
After some personal tragedies, Ash Thompson leaves the farm in Indiana to join the Union army and fight in the Civil War. Although the truth about Ash is not immediately apparent, I feel little hesitation in revealing that Ash is a woman, because the publicity for this novel makes that clear. Why she has chosen to leave her husband Bartholomew and go off to war is another matter.
Ash, who is tall and strong, shows herself to be a brave and obedient soldier, resourceful and a good shot. No one knows her for what she really is except a few women she sees in passing and her colonel.
This story is told by Ash herself in a very understated way. In fact, it is the voice of this novel, so distinctive, that makes it stand out. It is not until the end of the novel that we learn that Ash is not always a reliable narrator.
The city of New Venice floats on the ice in the Arctic Circle in this steampunkish work of fantasy fiction. The city is a supposed near-utopia, not a utopia because it is ruled by the corrupt Council of Seven and their sinister police force, the Gentlemen of the Night. The residents of the city dress in Victorian clothing and go on about their business, which is most often the pursuit of pleasure (and their idea of pleasure, basically sex and drugs, also doesn’t fit into my idea of a utopia). A black airship hangs over the city, but no one seems concerned about it.
The novel has two main characters, friends. Brentford Orsini is an aristocrat, an administrator of the city gardens, and a friend to the frightening Scavengers. He is concerned about the behavior of the Council of Seven, particularly in its mistreatment of the Inuit, and has anonymously published a subversive pamphlet called “A Blast on a Barren Land.” Gabriel d’Allier is more of a bohemian, concerned with his own pleasure. He is a reluctant professor at the city college who is being pushed out by the machinations of a colleague and his accusations of impropriety with students. He also soon finds himself receiving the unwelcome attentions of the Gentlemen of the Night, who think he knows who wrote the pamphlet.
Brentford receives a visit from a ghost in his dreams, Helen, a former lover, who tells him to make a trip to the North Pole. He heads out the morning after his disappointing wedding. Gabriel, who has ruined Brentford’s wedding and is in despair about his own love affair, sets out on his own intending to freeze to death outside the city’s controlled Air Architecture.
At this point, the novel, which is imaginative and well written in a style that is faintly Victorian (and has, as you can see, a beautiful cover—yes, I got it for its cover), becomes one of the silliest books I have ever read. It is almost hallucinogenic at times, like a combination of watching a side show and taking too many drugs. I can imagine it developing some kind of cult following, but I found it exceedingly ridiculous.
At one point when the book describes Snowdrift and Reliance, a book being read by one of the characters, I felt the description could have been self-referential, just substituting Victorian for Elizabethan:
Part melodrama, part Elizabethan tragedy, Snowdrift and Reliance has little to recommend it to the reader’s benevolence, the bewildering intricacies of its plot being further shrouded by unfathomable esoteric symbolism, not to mention an amphigoric style whose only coherent trait is its consistent lack of taste.