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25 November 2012

Present Tense

As I read a lot of novels, it perhaps isn't too surprising when from time to time, I find myself reading two books in a row that have very similar themes. Over the past couple of weeks, though, I've read three novels that have a lot in common: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne, and The Dinner by Herman Koch.

The first two overlap the most. Both involve alternating chapters with the protagonist confronting issues in the present day that force them to look back on his/her troubled childhood. Both Victoria in The Language of Flowers and The Guilty One's Daniel grew up in children's homes and acted out, before being placed with a foster parent who helped them to see that life could be happy and that some people deserve to be trusted. In both cases, though, it soon becomes obvious that something has gone tragically wrong with the mother figures, who have since become estranged. Although the mother figures seem to have betrayed Victoria and Daniel, the two children are not entirely innocent either.

I like the structure of both novels, with the switching back and forth between the present and the past and the gradual way in which the relationships of the two characters with their foster mother mothers are slowly elaborated upon and eventually, we begin to realise how it all went wrong. The books are quite different in tone and in genre. The Language of Flowers' Victoria, in the present, turns 18 and earns her legal emancipation after years in group homes. She must now try to find a job and make a life, and all she has to keep her going is her extensive knowledge of and love for flowers (and their meanings), which she learned from Elizabeth, who, we soon learn, was the foster mother who offered her a last chance to be part of a family before the foster-care system stopped trying to place her. We know that although Victoria soon bonds with Elizabeth, the placement didn't work out, although the reasons why are only revealed as the novel progresses. Meanwhile, in the present, Victoria finds off-the-books work with a florist and then meets and develops a tentative relationship with a guy called Grant. But has she learned from past mistakes enough to let Grant in or is she doomed to be alone? The Language of Flowers is a dark and sad but convincing read. Victoria isn't always easy to understand or to like, but she does come across as a character worthy of our sympathy.

The Guilty One reminds me of some of the better Jodi Picoult novels, in some ways, because it combines family drama with courtroom drama. Daniel is a solicitor assigned to defend an intelligent, precocious 11-year-old, Sebastian, who is accused of murdering the neighbours' eight-year-old son. Sebastian's cool, matter-of-fact responses to Daniel's initial questions about what really happened unsettle the solicitor, who thinks there is a lot more to the story. Sebastian comes from an affluent, Islington family but his home life is far from perfect and his mother Charlotte, abused by her husband, takes a whole host of different pills and potions to "calm her nerves," and on the day Sebastian is arrested, she is so out of it that she sleeps right through it. Daniel isn't convinced Sebastian is innocent, but the boy reminds him in some ways of his younger self.

At age 11, Daniel was taken away from his drug addict mother and placed in the foster care of Minnie, a widow who lives on a rambling farm up north and whose own daughter died at a young age. Daniel doesn't take to Minnie at first--he wants to be with his mother and to look after her, as Sebastian looks after his mother--but eventually, he likes her so much that he wants her to adopt him. We know from the present-day threads, however, that Daniel and Minnie became estranged, and as the book progresses, we start to understand the decisions that were made--in the name of love--that caused the rift. I found this book to be very engaging, although I've read so many courtroom dramas that I saw the ending coming a mile off. It didn't take away from the unsettling portrait of a troubled young boy and from the parallels between Daniel and his client. The Guilty Ones would be a more accurate title, because all of the characters have made mistakes and bad decisions.

Finally, there was The Dinner, which was recommended to me by a friend, and which started off reminding me of the Roman Polanski film Carnage, but rapidly progressed into We Need To Talk About Kevin territory. As with the other books, though, a lot of emphasis is placed on the things that people do to protect the ones they love, and especially the things parents do to protect their children. As The Dinner opens, Paul and his wife Claire are getting ready to go out for dinner in a smart Amsterdam restaurant with Paul's brother Serge and sister-in-law Babette. The first few chapters read as pure social commentary, bordering on farce, as Paul mocks, with intricate detail, the way people are willing to pay hundreds of euros to sit in a fashionable restaurant and eat beautifully presented but ridiculously tiny portions of food with exciting provenances. The waiter "offers" them the house aperitif, a glass of pink Champagne, but later they worry that they will actually have to pay for it, rather than it being on the house. Serge is an important opposition politician and so their table receives a lot of attention from the wait staff and fellow guests, but more important issues are up for discussion.

A short time earlier, the 15-year-old sons of the two couples were involved in an act of violence that resulted in the death of a homeless women. The boys have not yet been implicated, as the CCTV footage is not very clear, but the unhappy foursome are trying to decide what they should do, especially as Serge is planning to run as party leader. But the couples have other problems too. Paul, who initially prefers to give the reader the impression that he and Claire are just another couple enjoying an evening out, is a rather unreliable narrator, leaving out points that later become important. And, as in The Guilty One, the extent to which parents are responsible for and should be blamed for the bad behaviour of their children comes to the surface. The behaviour of Paul's son, for example, like Sebastian, seems to have been shaped by his father's actions. I found the dénouement of The Dinner a little anticlimactic and I enjoyed the book less than the other two, in part, perhaps, because Paul does not make a likable narrator and his son and nephew barely appear in the story at all, making it hard to pass judgments on their actions. I liked the writing style, though, and it made a compelling read.

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