What do the lives and thoughts of other people feel like? We’ll never really know, but fiction offers as good an approximation of knowing as we’re likely to come across. That absorbing illusion of a world elsewhere, with its promised distraction from the irksomeness of our own reality, has always been the most seductive reason for picking up novels and short stories. But like all pleasurable diversions, it has to be paid for. The practice of narrative has a hard history of moral ambition, and is as much concerned with what people ought to be as with what they are. Writers tend to agree that the two conditions rarely coincide. There isn’t a more complete guide to the ubiquity of human failure, cruelty and stupidity than the one you’ll find sitting on the fiction shelves of any bookshop. No matter how exotic their settings, or bizarre the doings of their characters, the lessons of novelists follow disconcertingly familiar patterns. The cumulative implications are clear: people’s lives have more in common than we might like to suppose.
Confronted with this unsettling evidence, we’re usually quick to shelter behind cultural complacency. Challenge is turned into reassurance with the assumption that others sin and suffer because differences in time, class, sex, race or nationality make them different (and inferior) in essence. In any case, we needn’t take fictional people too seriously because they are, after all, unreal. Their mishaps can confirm our own sense of safety. No writer is less willing to permit the solace of these soothing reflections than Bharati Mukherjee. The Middleman, and Other Stories, her forceful new collection, engages with a disturbing diversity of racial and cultural confrontations. Their shifting designs repeatedly juxtapose the cultural relativity of belief and judgment with unchanging experiences of loss, contamination and endurance. The bewildering ordeals of her characters, as they move through alien habitats, are presented with an intensity that makes it impossible to sustain a comfortable distinction between our own situation and what they have to tell us about inescapable insecurities.
Risk and flux make up the substance of these stories. Nothing is taken for granted. Most of them are written in the first person, their language dense with knowing reference to the specific items of information that structure and interpret the instability of lives on the move. Mukherjee’s prose is textured with names: people, places, products. This eclectic body of knowledge, cynical and streetwise, pulls us into her restless narratives. The stories list places we might know, cars we could drive. Anyone might encounter the brands of tea or alcohol (served, perhaps, with ReaLemon) that keep these fractured castaways going: so, too, their varieties of adversity and insight could be visited on us at any time.
The wary ‘Middleman’ of the title story provides a controlling image for the collection. Alfie Judah (‘of the once-illustrious Smyrna, Aleppo, Baghdad – and now Flushing, Queens – Judahs’) is a survivor, making his tentative way among the political corruptions and uncertainties of a turbulent South American state. He has taken cover with a dishonest magnate, whose voluptuous and despised wife Maria is eventually to wipe out her husband together with the whole of his rickety empire. Alfie Judah, caught in the middle of their destructive enmity, manages another scarcely creditable survival. He reflects on his ex-protector’s defiant death: ‘I know I would scream. I know I am no hero. I know none of this is worth suffering for, let alone dying for.’ He plans his getaway: ‘There must be something worth trading in the troubles I have seen.’ Alfie makes it his obstinate business to profit from alienation.
Trapped in conflicts which are not of his making, the middleman arrives at a dour self-knowledge which is the keynote of the book. Mukherjee’s dislocated exiles learn tenacity with their disillusionment. Nevertheless, they are as likely to show compassion as anger or brutality. The emigrant Indian woman studying in New York in ‘A Wife’s Story’ knows you don’t have to be a refugee to be a displaced person. She looks at a friend’s lover, a flute-playing nutritionist: ‘Like many men in this country, he seems to me a displaced child, or even a woman, looking for something that passed him by, or for something he can never have.’ The traditional certainties of gender roles are among the first casualties when cultures mingle and dissolve. The woman’s husband arrives on a visit from India. Her marriage is turned upside down, as she is compelled to take control: ‘I handle the money, buy the tickets. I don’t know if this makes me unhappy.’ She has exchanged certitude for growth. Has she made a good bargain? The story makes no judgment. Anything could happen. ‘I stand here shameless, in ways he has never seen me. I am free, afloat, watching somebody else.’
The prospect of disintegration is blacker in other stories. In ‘Loose Ends’, a Vietnam veteran turns murderer and rapist. The story gives a relentless account of the consequences of war for the naive 17-year-old that he used to be. ‘It’s life in the procurement belt, between those lines of tropical latitudes, where the world shops for its illicit goods and dumps its surplus parts, where it prefers to fight its wars, and once you’ve settled into its give and take, you find it’s impossible to live anywhere else. It’s the coke-and-caffeine jungle of being seventeen and readier to kill than be killed and to know that Job One is to secure your objective and after that it’s unsupervised play till the next order comes down.’ The raw misery of his unsupervised play continues far beyond the end of the war. This perpetual soldier turns into what he has always most dreaded: a body of passionless appetite, like a snake awaiting his next meal. ‘This is what I’ve become. I want to squeeze this state dry and swallow it whole.’ Another strong story, ‘Fathering’, broods again on a war which has made men strangers in their own country. An American ex-soldier claims the child he fathered on a bar girl in Saigon. But his daughter rejects the American prosperity pressed upon her: she has been too deeply hurt to choose anything but pain. They are a new family, made out of injury rather than love: ‘I jerk her away from her enemies. My Saigon kid and me: we’re a team. In five minues we’ll be safely away in the cold chariot of our van.’
The open end of ‘A Wife’s Story’ is more characteristic of the collection than the sombre desperation of ‘Loose Ends’ or ‘Fathering’. Meeting themselves in extremity, Mukherjee’s wanderers often discover unexpected resilience, still more unexpected good fortune. Habitual customs and beliefs have fallen away from them. This makes them vulnerable, even pathetic. But it also liberates them. A timid Tamil schoolmaster makes an unlikely adventurer in ‘Buried Lives’. Taking Matthew Arnold to heart (‘But there’s a something in this breast’), he breaks out of his stale existence and makes for the unknown satisfactions of the West. Against all expectations, including his own, it looks as though he might succeed. The last story, ‘The Management of Grief’, shows how the bereavements of our dissonant world can create room for opportunities, albeit bleak ones. A woman loses her family. She finally renounces all that she had to enter into a disengaged freedom. ‘I do not know where this voyage I have begun will end. I do not know which direction I will take. I dropped the package on a park bench and started walking.’ This uncompromising collection presents a razor-sharp reflection of a world which is disconnected, but not without hope.
John Fuller’s The Burning Boys is interested in other kinds of separation. David’s mother is killed in the Blitz, and he goes to live with his down-to-earth grandmother and nubile young aunt. His life goes underground. David covertly observes the strange adult goings-on around him, approaching puberty through the ardour of school friendships, and at last moving into the place of the young men who are going to war. His hesitant coming to consciousness is paralleled by that of a fighter pilot who barely survives an appalling conflagration as his plane comes down on a mountainside. Grotesquely burned, the pilot’s ruined face assumes the horrifying strangeness of the freaks that fascinate David in the local fairground. Like David, the pilot must construct an identity out of disaster. The two protagonists merge in the final words of the novel, becoming a single shining image of courage and hard-won release: ‘on and on upwards, a thousand boys climbing, hair glowing, a determination in their eyes that could not be put out, climbing out into the night, a thousand burning boys.’
This is a poet’s moment, and the assurance of this elegantly brief novel lies in its poet’s eye. It is in simile that Fuller catches the creativity of a vanishing innocence. David’s uncle has an astonishing motorbike ‘like a dentist’s chair mounted on a torpedo’. The pilot goes to a dance with an amateur band. ‘It was like dancing to a public address stethoscope.’ These glimpses of the incisive immediacy of what David and the pilot experience are a delight. But simile is a double-edged tool: it can distance what it illuminates. In one of the most winning passages in the novel, David and his friends watch the convalescent pilot with a group of fellow-patients:
Some of the others stood about on the sand in a widely scattered group, as if placed to illustrate the solar system. They barely moved, or only moved if another moved. Venus crouched, looking at his toes. Uranus lifted his arms to his head, walked two paces to one side. Neptune hugged himself. Then almost all of them at once stooped slightly, as if a passing wind had brushed their backs. It was impossible to see if some signal may have been given. They seemed to have settled to these new positions wearily, as if they could barely give the matter their full attention. Nothing else happened.
Then Mars, as if suddenly galvanised by physical discomfort, like Uncle Alfred and the wasp, started to stamp gently on the ground with both feet, lifting his knees higher and higher, finally flailing his arms and almost collapsing, doubled over as if in pain. At this, Venus lifted his clasped hands and turned to look sharply towards the sea, where Pluto was suddenly running along the tideline, as if to chase a wave before it broke slightly into flower.
The figures sitting on the benches, and on the edge of the terrace, applauded.
As a Martian description of the oddness of beach cricket, that could hardly be bettered. But the fact remains that cricket by the sea, even when transformed into a pattern of strange and luminous grace, is a comfortingly nostalgic activity. Those sporting figures on the sand quietly evoke the rites of a world we have had to move beyond.
You don’t have to have been alive in Hitler’s war to feel that you have been within the covers of this book many times before. The skilful fluencies of its language finally insulate its readers from what might have been distressing: the pilot’s anguish, David’s loneliness. A radiantly poised expression of an imagined Eden remains, when boys burned with heroism and girls were peripherally enticing, if a little unreliable. Fuller’s shapely writing allows his readers to retreat into a sanctuary of bygone values. The dust-jacket highlights the invitation, tempting the retrospectively-minded with a cunning collage of wartime memorabilia – a ration book, an identity card, newspaper headlines in which the solitary word ‘Safe ...’ is prominently positioned. For all its beauty, this is a book that is not prepared to take many chances.
Do we continually re-invent the past to answer our own imaginative needs? Gillian Freeman makes this the central question of Termination Rock, her intelligent and honest new novel. Joanna, a young journalist, discovers that she has cancer of the womb. She is cured, but the treatment she undergoes is profoundly traumatic and it leaves her sterile. Attempting to assimilate her grief, she begins to see ghosts. Another life imposes its extinct unhappiness upon her own. Joanna is drawn into episodes from the story of the spectral and long-dead Ann, living in 19th-century London, who is seduced by her mother’s lodger, and shipped over the Atlantic when she falls pregnant. There she gives birth, watches her baby grow and thrive, only to lose him to the nefarious machinations of a New World entrepreneur who sells surplus boys to emigrant families lacking sons. All this Joanna discovers through a combination of psychic experience and scrupulous detective work, as she follows the trail of her Victorian double to Termination Rock at the Niagara Falls, where the hapless Ann is finally parted from her child.
Is Ann simply a projection of Joanna’s hunger? The novel leaves our options open, proclaiming itself neither a ghost story nor a tale of self-deception. The point is that Joanna finds a means of healing. Whoever Ann is, the old story of her sorrow enables Joanna to make sense of what has happened to her. She is not alone. Her overwhelming misfortune leads to the perception of other countries, other times. The novel opens into sympathy for lives that had seemed tiresomely irrelevant: Joanna’s academic husband, her reproachful mother, finding places for themselves in an America that still seems to offer a new start. The history of Joanna’s sadness is not set aside. But she, too, is given the chance to begin again.
Not every novelist chooses to probe the deepest shadows of our inner lives. Joan Aiken’s robust Blackground deals with guilty secrets, greed, betrayal and murder. The story begins with the sober portrayal of a slow death. Nevertheless, it is on the whole a jaunty piece of work. Written with pace and confidence, it adroitly combines the genres of romance and thriller. Cat Conwil, an actress playing Rosamond Vincy in a televised version of Middlemarch, finds that the coquettish persona she takes on attracts amorous interest from the mysterious Lord Fortuneswell. ‘The blue stare narrowed. Fortuneswell was not accustomed to having his invitations declined.’ They marry. Not unexpectedly, Fortuneswell turns out to have a dark past. So, however, does Cat. Aided by the friendly attentions of a rural healer, a fellow actress, two unlikely old ladies and an entirely incredible child genius, Cat evades the murky schemes of her enigmatic husband. Justice and cheerfulness prevail, as every reader must have known they would. No one could imagine that life is like that. But Joan Aiken knows her trade, and she knows that reality isn’t necessarily what people will want to take on holiday with them. Mystery and murder make more agreeable companions for our time off.