You Just Can’t Get Good Help These Days

Coincidentally (I don’t plan these things), my recent reading included three novels about characters working for others in domestic service roles, ranging from a gardener, to a butler, to a maid, each of whom have very interesting tales to tell.

Issue #61, Saturday 2 March 2024


My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn

Translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger

Cover of The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn: a small rowing boat with no one in it sits on the water in a fjord. The interior of the boat is red with the rest of the image in monochrome.

This is one of those books with a fairly straightforward plot, but considerable psychological depth. And it stayed with me for quite a while after I had finished reading as I kept on thinking about it.

The story is all told from the first-person point of view of Allis Hagtorn, a woman in her early 30s. As the novel opens, she has just arrived at a house in a rural area of Norway, nearby to a forest and a fjord.

Allis has just taken a job at the house after having responded to an advertisement. The job, as she understands it, is to be a live-in helper to the owner of the house; to work in the garden and do housework and cooking for the owner. Expecting some kind of invalid, she’s therefore surprised when she finds that the owner, Sigurd Bagge, is a tall, strong-looking man. He is, however, terse and buttoned-up, saying little more than what is essential.

Bagge tells Allis that he spends most of his days in his workroom, which he accesses through his bedroom. He gives her brief instructions about preparing his meals, shows her her bedroom and the garden tools, and then leaves her to it.

Allis, though, misled Bagge when she responded to his advertisement. She has no gardening experience, is unused to manual labour, and struggles mightily in the first few weeks. We’re slowly made aware that Allis has applied for the job in an attempt to retreat from the world, and that she has suffered some kind of very public shaming, so public that almost everyone in the country knows about it. We don’t find out the details of what happened until much later in the book.

Allis’ employment at Bagge’s house was to be for the duration of the summer. Bagge’s wife is apparently away from home and won’t return for some months. He responds only with one-word answers to any questions about her and is clearly annoyed to be asked.

There’s obviously something Allis doesn’t understand, and throughout she has an uneasy sense of danger. This is added to by the sneering hostility of an old woman who runs a nearby shop where Allis has to buy essentials. This woman clearly knows who Allis is, and the story of her public shaming. But she also hints at negative knowledge about Sigurd Bagge.

The whole of the book is really about Allis and her relationship to Bagge: her efforts to understand this enigmatic, closed-up man, and eventually to try to elicit some warmth from him, despite continually feeling that she’s on the precipice of disaster.

There are several crisis points, and at one stage Allis tries to run away, only to realise that she has nowhere to go, she’s burned her bridges with the outside world because of her public shaming.

The ending of the book is in some ways predictable, but it’s still shocking and disturbing when it comes. And you’re left pondering and puzzling over a number of incidents in the book and over the two main characters.

Deeply engaging and intriguing. I liked this a lot.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The cover of ‘The Remains of the Day’ by Kazuo Ishiguro. Image is of a silhouetted figure wearing a bowler hat.

This novel won the Booker Prize in 1989 and was later made into a well-regarded movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

I enjoyed it greatly, and it clearly deserved the awards and the attention that it did. Nevertheless, I’m struggling to work out what I can say about it.

On one level it’s a very simple story to describe: it’s all told from the first-person point of view of an older man, whose name we only ever know as “Mr. Stevens”. Stevens has been in domestic service all of his working life, and the head butler at a stately house called Darlington Hall for many decades, from well before the Second World War. In 1958, he follows the advice of his new employer and takes a short holiday to drive to the West Country of England. The whole trip, as described in the book, lasts only six days. During the trip, he reminisces about his life and sets down his thoughts about what it means to be a “great” butler.

It’s these reminiscences which are the puzzling heart of the book. It’s not that Stevens is an unreliable narrator—we have little doubt that what he is telling us is the truth—but he’s a peculiar narrator in that he seems to have no self-awareness, no ability to recognise how he may appear to others. He’s totally taken on the persona of the professional, disinterested servant, to the point where he reacts to ordinary people in ways which seem abrupt and cold. He is unable to see things from their point of view. He has no sense of humour and struggles to learn how to “banter” with his employer or with other people, that is, to make light or joking conversation: a lack which he sees only as a professional shortcoming in his role as a butler.

Through Stevens’ eyes, we learn how his employer Lord Darlington, with the best intentions in the world, became embroiled in negotiations with Germany in the period between the world wars, firstly attempting to mitigate the severe reparations demanded of Germany in the Treaty of Versailles, and later to avoid the outbreak of another war. It brings us back to that period when well-intentioned aristocrats felt they had a role in world affairs. Alas, this turns out to be misguided and Lord Darlington is eventually disgraced. We learn of this only much later, when it makes sense of those times when Stevens, like Peter denying he knows Jesus, misleads people by telling them he never worked for Darlington.

Early in his time at Darlington Hall, Stevens employs a young woman, Miss Kenton, as housekeeper. They work together for many, many years, but their interactions, as recalled by Stevens, are always “professional” and even through his own account we can see that she must have found him completely exasperating to work with, and they were frequently at odds. Frankly, you frequently want to kick him.

However, it’s mainly because of Miss Kenton, who eventually left Darlington Hall to get married, that Stevens is headed for the West Country on his trip. Miss Kenton, it seems, has written to him, and something in her letter suggests to him that she might consider returning to the Hall in her old role. This suggestion, plausible at first, strikes us as more and more unlikely as the book goes on and as Stevens reveals more of their interactions in the past. And then, once they do eventually meet again at the end of Stevens’ trip, our feelings are made to turn around again.

Though he’s too bound up in his “great butler” persona to tell us so explictly, at the end of the book there’s an underlying thread of deep regret and sadness, and we’re left with an impression of a wasted life.

A magnificent piece of writing.

I’ve yet to see the movie based on the book, but from having read it, I imagine that Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson were ideally cast in the main roles.

Note : I listened to this as an audiobook, narrated by Dominic West, who captures Stevens’ cultured voice perfectly while also being able to convincingly give us the voices of working-class people with regional accents.

The Mystery Guest by Nita Prose

The cover of ‘The Mystery Guest’ by Nita Prose. Image shows a hand holding a key as seen through a stylised keyhole.

This is the follow-up to the author’s debut novel The Maid , which I quite enjoyed, and reviewed here . The Maid was very well received, hit the bestseller lists in a number of newspapers, and won the Ned Kelly Award for International Crime Fiction, among other accolades.

I found the sequel very disappointing, though. It features the same first-person point-of-view character as in The Maid —Molly Gray, in her job as a maid at the Regency Grand Hotel (in some American city which is never named). A bestselling author of crime novels is scheduled to give a speech and make a major announcement at the hotel, but before he can do so, he collapses, apparently poisoned. Cue the beginning of an investigation into the mystery.

What follows would have to fall into the category of a “cosy” mystery novel: there are no descriptions of violence and gore, never any real tension, and the solution of the mystery is in the hands of amateur sleuths.

Unfortunately, this book has none of the charm of its precessor The Maid , which focused on Molly as a mentally-challenged young woman, impoverished because of a cruel scam, who comes under suspicion of murder after she finds a guest at the hotel dead in his room. There’s a real prospect that she will be convicted despite her innocence, and the plot has therefore a high degree of tension and urgency.

That’s not the case in The Mystery Guest however. Now we have a lot of flash-backs to fill in Molly’s background and her childhood association with the murdered author, and we now find that there’s nothing mentally-challenged about Molly at all, she’s just a bit different and misunderstood. And in this novel she’s never under any suspicion or danger herself, so the tension is almost entirely lacking. Halfway through, I felt no real interest in finding out “who dunn it”.

I’m also puzzled by the title. There is in fact, no “mystery guest” in the novel, unless we’re meant to think of Death as that guest—that’s a pretty big stretch, though.

A pity. I hope the author can go on to write better books. As it is, though, I would have zero interest in reading another novel featuring Molly Gray.

Also Completed

…but I will hold off on my review until next issue.

Cover of ‘Snare’ by Lilja Sigurðardóttir. Image shows a plane travelling across the sky with a jet trail meant to suggest a line of cocaine, with a nearby razor blade at the edge of the image.

Currently Reading

Covers of ‘The Hush’ by Sara Foster, ‘An Intimate History of Evolution’ by Alison Bashford, and ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ by David Grann

Want to Read

Covers of ‘Trap’ and ‘Cage’ by Lilja Sigurðardóttir and ‘Body of Lies’ by Sarah Bailey

And that’s your lot for this issue. See you next time!


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