The Servants’ Quarters
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 256 pp., $24
“The Servants’ Quarters,” a novel of revenge and regret, is written in a most appealing voice -- the wise child in a household of secrets. It’s a haunting voice in literature, the child who will take charge of her own destiny and will not be told which rooms she can enter, which she cannot. Cressida is 9 when the novel opens, living in postwar Africa. World War II is a recent nightmare. Miranda, Cressida’s older sister, dreams of Germans at night and wakes screaming. Their father was hit in the head with a golf ball and lies in a far room completely inert, cared for by Phineas, an old Zulu. Their mother is determined to hold on to the family’s dignity. They run out of money, and Mr. Harding, a wealthy, disfigured RAF pilot, swoops down from his big house on the hill and brings the entire family to live in the servants’ quarters above his converted stables. But Cressida, who is, her mother says, selfish and ruthless, struggles not to be enslaved in the myriad ways the world enslaves the poor. “He didn’t love us, I could have told her that. I did tell her. I said, ‘I don’t like him, and I hate his voice, and I don’t want to sit next to him anymore.’ What I couldn’t tell her was that the war was becoming a terror for me, too -- that it had taken the shape of Mr. Harding’s scarred, pink, dented head.” Cressida’s mother feeds her daughter to Mr. Harding, bit by bit, a form of human sacrifice. Hard as she struggles, Cressida is ensnared.
A Day in the Life
One Family, the Beautiful People,
& the End of the ‘60s
DaCapo Press: 338 pp., $24.95
There’s a mournful quality to this fascinating book about beautiful people gone down, a feeling that some people have about the ‘60s. Was it greed that sucked the peace and love generation down the rabbit hole or into the mainstream? Money? Drugs? Was it just a generation trapped in adolescence? Greenfield has chosen two poster kids, though in many ways their extremely wealthy backgrounds disqualify them from providing answers to some of these questions. The money, their beauty and the famous people they hung out with all over the world make them glitter and splutter out. But the same sweet vision of a possible future (peace, love, warlessness) makes us sorry when they fail, money or no.
Tommy Weber was born in Denmark in 1938. He was rich and good looking and pursued a technicolor dream -- race car driving, producing movies. In 1962, he married British heiress Susan “Puss” Coriat. They were vivid in love, had two children, got into all kinds of sex and drugs (LSD seems to be the drug of choice) and lost the thread of their relationship. He fell in with actresses (Charlotte Rampling, Sally Field), started dealing drugs, and she fell to pieces. The children had a rough time of it. Greenfield gives them more backbone in their respective searches for the good life than the reader may feel they deserve, but he’s right -- they stand for something. The ‘70s flattened their dream, made frenetic jet-setters out of wounded children. What else could they do but destroy themselves?
The Halfway House
Guillermo Rosales, translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner
New Directions: 121 pp., $14.95 paper
“My name is William Figueras,” writes the author’s fictional alter ego, “and by the age of fifteen I had read the great Proust, Hesse, Joyce, Miller, Mann. They were for me what saints are to a devout Christian. Twenty years ago, I finished writing a novel in Cuba that told a love story.” The novel was never published, censored and banned by government bureaucrats, and Figueras, frustrated like his creator (who committed suicide at 47 in Miami), went crazy. This is the story of his exile in Miami (Rosales was also exiled in 1979) and his life in a halfway house, “my tomb.” The characters in the halfway house are tragically beautiful and unforgettable. Figueras dreams of Havana, “the bewitched city in Sleeping Beauty.” It takes everything he’s got to find beauty in the boardinghouse, hell’s inner circle. He does what writers living in or running from intolerable political situations do -- weaves another world, like a bird feathering a new nest. Whether that world is inhabitable or not, well, that is another question.