Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Believers

Zoe Heller
You remember I told you a few weeks ago that the Impac Award is the richest prize in fiction – €100,000 - and that the shortlisted books are nominated from an international panel of libraries? Well, this week, I visited my local library at the British Club, Bahrain, to search for Impac Award shortlisted books…
And could I find even one of these prestigious short listed books? Well actually yes, I found one – The Believers by Zoe Heller – but from the dearth of ‘Return Date’ stamps on the ticket I can only assume the Brit Club library, Bahrain, was not part of the international Impac selection panel…
The Believers is set in New York. It’s a soap opera style story of the Latvinoff family: dad Joel is a radical lawyer; he’s married to Audrey an Englishwoman; they have two daughters, Rosa and Karla. There is also a foster son, Lenny, who struggles with drug addiction.
As the book opens Joel is preparing for court: he’s defending an Arab- American accused of attending an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan; he’s scouring the papers for a mention; he’s mildly disappointed he has not received any death threats; meanwhile Audrey is preparing his breakfast.
Without doubt it’s Audrey who carries this book – she’s a fascinating character. Plucked from typing pool obscurity by Joel in 1960s London, he married her on a whim, and swept her away from her nondescript life to the big time in the Big Apple. Miss Average Audrey has never been able to really believe her luck that Joel picked her to marry when he could have had anyone; to compensate for the fact she’s utterly out of her intellectual depth with New York’s left wing liberal elite she has become more radical than Joel, more intransigent in her views and more strident with her opinions.
But her self-loathing and insecurity seeps through the pages of the book – daughter Karla’s ambitions to read law like her dad are insidiously undermined with spiteful, hurtful remarks – “I think you might be a bit dyslexic.” Rosa’s efforts to find meaning to her life, she first tries Marxism, then Orthodox Judaism, are dismissed with abrasive insensitivity. (I won’t quote Audrey for fear of offending readers with refined sensibilities - suffice to say she cannot open her mouth but a series of expletives spew out.)
The only person she expresses any degree of affection for is loser foster son Lenny; his problems are so transparently pitiful they make her feel good about herself.
And as for her relationship with Joel: much as she adores him, and even though her life revolves round him, she makes a fastidious point of never being impressed by any of his achievements – ‘deadpan unimpressibility’ is her trademark...
Until Joel suffers a stroke in court and is rendered comatose and inert. Audrey jealously guards his bedside, she will not consider allowing him to die – for forty years she has been the wife of Joel Latvinoff. If he dies, who then will she be?
When shameless brass necked Berenice Mason turns up at Joel’s bedside with proof of a love affair – “he wrote her poems, for God’s sake” - Audrey finally realises that for forty years ‘she had been confusing proximity with intimacy...’
Zoe Heller is an Englishwoman who lives in New York. She is best known for her novel Notes on a Scandal which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and made into a movie with Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench.
VERDICT: This is a beach read for highbrows – beautifully written, witty, engaging – I devoured it in two afternoons under a parasol by the British Club pool.

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