Thursday, December 6, 2012

Elegy for April

The "crime" in Benjamin Black's Elegy for April (Picador, 2010) is not particularly heinous, although its precipitating events, which we only learn about at the end, are hard to read.  In fact, we really don't know that there has been any sort of criminal activity at all for most of the book.  We know only that Phoebe Griffin's friend April Latimer, has gone missing.  Phoebe turns to her father, the recently dried-out one-named Quirke, for help.  And in his big old way, Quirke rather bulldozes his way to a conclusion. 

Quirke's and Phoebe's relationship is the center of the story here.  Since Christine Falls, we've learned how strained, how close, and how constantly tested it is.  I'll simply say that it's not entirely clear that things are improving here, despite everyone's half-hearted efforts.  Quirke can't stay dry, and Phoebe can't get past her past (not surprisingly, given the events in Christine Falls and The Silver Swan).   But Black's gorgeous prose and elegant atmospherics will keep us coming back for more.  What a master at setting up a depressing scene.  The story here takes place in winter, so Dublin is apparently permanently shrouded in fog and mist (until the end of the story, when things CLEAR UP).  But for much of the story, we get scenes like this:  "The sun somewhere was trying to shine, its weak glow making a sallow, urinous stain on the fog."  (38)  Others might just say that the sun was trying to break through the fog, but not Black - his sun is urinous.  This sums up Black's Quirke novels.  Life is just not that great, and sometimes downright awful.  But it is what we have, and like democracy, beats the alternative.

And of course, Black employs his (to me) almost-trademark of setting the scene by smell.  Consider:
"She went out to the kitchen.  Night smells, she had often noticed, were different from day ones, were mustier, fainter, more insidious.  She drew open the lapels of her silk gown and put her face into the hollow there and sniffed.  Yes, her smell too was different, a babyish, secret staleness."  (150)  There's an eroticism, a sense of menace, and a truth, all here.  Later, "The house had a stuffy, morning smell of bedclothes and bath soap and milky tea and bread that had been toasted under a gas flame."  (264)  Of course there is.  You know just what he's talking about.

There are two more Quirke novels, but I have to spread them out.  They really are kind of depressing to read, but so rich and compelling that they satisfy in spite of themselves.  Despite Quirke's efforts to obliterate his mind through drink, he keeps on keeping on, and you do too.

No comments:

Post a Comment