Paperback reviews: Mood Indigo, The Tottenham Outrage, The Ghosts Of Happy Valley, The Liar’s Daughter, Queen Victoria: A Life Of Contradictions

 

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Mood Indigo By Boris Vian (Translated by Stanley Chapman) (Serpent’s Tail £8.99)

Boris Vian was a French polymath: a poet, novelist, translator, playwright, jazz critic, and musician. Friend to Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, he penned a number of popular songs himself, including the anti-war anthem “Le Déserteur” (which later became a hit for Joan Baez during the Vietnam War). He died in 1959 at the age of 39, suffering a heart attack while watching the film adaptation of one of his pulp noir novels.

Vian described his most famous work, the extraordinary L’Ecume de Jours (1949), as a “projection of reality on to an irregularly tilting, and consequently distorting, plane”. It tells the story of Colin, a well-to-do fop who lives in a tilted, distorted version of Paris, a place where “clavicocktail” machines turn jazz harmonies into alcoholic drinks and candy-floss clouds descend around lovers out for a stroll.

Colin meets the beautiful Chloe and falls in love. But after their marriage she becomes seriously ill; the only cure is to surround her with fresh flowers day and night. Paying for this treatment – along with his loan of money to a bibliophile friend obsessed with expensive editions of “Jean-Pulse Heartre” – exhausts Colin’s fortune, and he is forced to take on a series of increasingly nightmarish jobs to pay the bills. Vian’s vision of the city collapses in on itself like a melting candle – and Paris transforms from whimsical paradise to dystopian hell.

The book is re-issued here under the appropriately jazzy title Mood Indigo to tie in with Michel Gondry’s new film adaptation. Stanley Chapman’s fine translation captures Vian’s language, with its bubbly musicality and surreal similes (“[she sank] into Colin’s arms as cuddly as a contented cobra”; “a sound like a kiss between a pair of amorous snails”). Quite what it all means is anyone’s guess – but this is a mad, moving, beautiful novel.

*****

The Tottenham Outrage By M H Baylis (Old Street £8.99)

When a family of Hasidic jews is poisoned in Finsbury Park, a gang of local Arab youths is blamed. But Rex Tracey, veteran reporter at a local newspaper, thinks there’s more to the case, and sets out to uncover the truth. His sleuthing leads him to investigate north London’s Islamist cliques, its feuding local historians, and its forgotten revolutionary past. The Tottenham Outrage is the second novel in M H Baylis’s crime series. The title alludes to a real-life incident – an armed robbery carried out by anarchists in the early 20th century – but this book is rooted in the borough’s colourful, multicultural present. Rex Tracey makes for a compelling protagonist: a witty, Polish, lager-swilling hack who is always ready to defend this “sprawling, teeming, unloved” corner of London against the incursions of the genteel. And though the plot is more complicated than the one-way system around the Harringay Ladder, Baylis brings the whole thing to a satisfying, and unexpected, conclusion.

****

The Ghosts Of Happy Valley By Juliet Barnes (Aurum Press £9.99)

Between the wars, a number of middle-class Brits upped sticks to colonial Kenya, where they enjoyed the sort of indulgent, cosseted lifestyle that was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain at home. Many of them settled in an area that became known as “Happy Valley” – and they became infamous for their decadent, bed-hopping antics. In this elegiac travelogue, Juliet Barnes explores the area as it is now, and investigates the still-unsolved murder of one of its members, the Earl of Erroll, in 1941. Barnes is by turns amused, scandalised and sympathetic. But her descriptions of the modern valley, now home to corrupt politicians, poor farmers, and beleaguered conservationists, are just as fascinating.

****

The Liar’s Daughter By Laurie Graham (Quercus £8.99)

Born into a poor community in Portsmouth in the early 1800s, Nan’s prospects are bleak, and she is forced into prostitution at a young age. But when her mother reveals that her father was none other than Lord Horatio Nelson, Nan is determined to live a life worthy of her noble ancestry, and leaves Portsmouth to seek her fortune in London. The Liar’s Daughter is a beautifully crafted piece of historical fiction. While Graham might have done more to give the reader a sense of the texture of life in 19th-century England, she captures Nan’s earthy voice perfectly. Nan’s gradual acceptance that she will never know her paternity for certain is touchingly evoked.

***

Queen Victoria: A Life Of Contradictions By Matthew Dennison (William Collins £8.99)

Matthew Dennison’s short, elegant biography of Queen Victoria focuses on the woman herself, rather than her effect on the country or her monarchical legacy. While it doesn’t tell us anything particularly new, the book offers a nuanced portrait of Victoria, who could be impetuous and hypocritical, but also surprisingly progressive in her social views. Dennison writes with flair, and his vivid pen portraits of the peripheral figures in Victoria’s story, such as George IV (“in his late fifties balloon-faced, extravagant and quick to pique”) or Victoria’s loyal Highland servant John Brown (whose “granite hard insolence seemed to jeer at the perpetually ruffled feathers of Victoria’s hothouse court”) are worth the price alone.

****

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