The Squeeze by Lesley Glaister
Here his path meets that of Marta, a young woman the reader first encounters in her native Romania after the downfall of Ceausescu. Having given up her dream of attending university after the death of her father, she works the evening shift in a chemical factory. No-one could blame her for wanting a better life. But, trafficked to Britain and forced into prostitution, and her only friend having mysteriously disappeared, she hides her unhappiness behind a painted smile.
While The Squeeze has all the elements of a cracking read – fine writing, convincing characters, social relevance and enough jeopardy to keep those pages turning – I couldn’t, at the end, make up my mind what I made of it as a whole. Maybe it says more about me than about Lesley Glaister’s fifteenth novel (kindly provided by publishers, Salt), that it didn’t move me emotionally the way I might expect. It did, however, make me question our collective (albeit grudging) acceptance of men paying for sex (as long as we don’t knowingly know them personally), a practice that enables people trafficking in the same way that viewing indecent images online enables the sexual abuse of children. For another novel on this difficult but important topic, see my review of Epiphany Jones.
A Separation by Katie Kitamura
Although it turns out that a crime has been committed, and the narrator discovers aspects of her husband’s philandering via the hotel staff, the heart of this novel’s investigation is into the ethics and etiquette of the transactions between men and women both in and outside marriage. The narrator’s status in relation to her absent husband is constantly in flux, becoming increasingly complex – and confusing to her – as the novel progresses. But it’s not only her own marriage and its deconstruction that intrigues her; she also diagnoses a certain artifice in other couples she observes.
The voice is languid, almost stream of consciousness, sometimes priggish and hypercritical, sometimes insightful. For example, she recognises the absurdity of the position of tourist, saying (p80):
A tourist – almost by definition a person immersed in prejudice, whose interest was circumscribed, who admired the weathered faces and rustic manners of the local inhabitants, a perspective entirely contemptuous but nonetheless difficult to avoid. I would have irritated myself in that position. By my presence alone, I reduced their home to a backdrop for my leisure, it became picturesque, quaint, charming, words on the back of a postcard or a brochure.
At other times, despite his multiple infidelities, she is protective of her husband’s reputation, if only in her own mind. Christopher has gone to Greece to research professional mourners for a book, although his mother doesn’t consider his writing a serious activity and he doesn’t seem to need to earn a living.
I enjoyed Katie Kitamura’s second novel – thanks to Profile Books for my proof copy – but a difficult one (for me at least) to summarise. Perhaps “difficult to summarise” is what the author is trying to tell us about contemporary relationships. For another odd-but-interesting novel about marriage, see my review of First Love.