It is my privilege to have received an advance copy of The Physics of Grief, by Mickey J. Corrigan. Mickey is an author whose work I have long admired, someone who brings wisdom, humour and gracious writing to both the mundane and humdrum grind of daily life and to the truly horrific events that occasionally engulf human beings. This book is published today, April 22nd 2021, by QuoScript.
The Physics of Grief is classic Mickey. The protagonist of the book, Seymour Allan, is initially only a semi-likeable character to whom the reader is drawn – if at all – by sympathy for his situation. He is living in a retirement complex because poverty, rather than old age and infirmity, has made this a necessity. He is broke; he is lonely; he is full of self-loathing; and he lives alone, save for a stray cat he has adopted. (Note from a cat lover: few characters in novels who love cats are entirely bad.)
Seymour’s luck changes when he is accosted in a café by the mysterious and enigmatic Raymond C. Dasher. For me, Dasher is the most intriguing character in the whole novel. Is he even a real human being? There clings about him something of the supernatural, reminiscent perhaps of Hermes Diaktoros, the “fat man” of Anne Zouroudi’s crime novels set in Greece (surely intended as an earthly manifestation of Zeus?), who comes and goes like the Cheshire Cat, or of the shade of the grim reaper who lurks in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, having a voice but never a physical presence.
But Raymond C. Dasher is both corporeal and articulate. He’s not particularly likeable, either: he has a dangerous sense of humour that verges on the cruel and he treats his employees – or perhaps I should say employee, because Seymour never meets any of his colleagues, another puzzle – with casual if paternalistic contempt. Nevertheless, the poverty-stricken Seymour does agree to become an employee of Dasher, as a professional griever (apparently this is genuinely a way of making a living in several countries today – not entirely surprising, as paid mourners, or ‘mutes’, were a definitive part of the grief landscape in Victorian Britain, too).
Corrigan has great fun while portraying Seymour at work, as he uncovers the back-story behind each of the deceased who, without being able to muster a respectable number of personal mourners, has left cash to pay to plug the gap at the funeral with “extras”. And whose funerals are they? You’ll be enmeshed!
However – and with a few hiccoughs at the start – Seymour begins to take it all in his stride… with what effect on himself? And how is he personally affected? What lies in his back-story? Corrigan’s skill plays delicately with the reader’s reactions to this man.
Funny, sad, ambiguous, profoundly philosophical yet grounded in the reality of the everyday, extremely erudite about the customs of death (but wearing its erudition lightly), The Physics of Grief is a hauntingly beautiful novel about people and why they do what they do – until they die. And Corrigan also manages to suggest without any hint of religiousness, that even then – perhaps – death is not the end. This is a crime novel with a labyrinth of twists, its originality breath-taking. If you are looking for a mesmerising book to read this spring, you can hardly do better than to invest in The Physics of Grief.
I’ve been a Ruth Rendell fan for a very long time; in fact, since before she was famous. I remember a conversation that I had with the Hutchinson rep (a delightful man called Frank Storey, who was then on the verge of retirement) when I was the purchasing manager for a library supply company in the early 1980s; I enthused about The Master of the Moor. Frank had given me a proof copy of the novel on his previous visit. I told him that I thought Rendell had huge possibilities, especially for the library market; he said that Hutchinson was committed to her, but that sales were still disappointing.
They must have improved dramatically soon afterwards. I no longer have the proof of The Master of the Moor (nor several other Rendell proofs that have passed through my hands, probably because I gave them to librarians), but I’ve just taken down from my bookshelf a proof of The Bridesmaid (published in 1989) and see that on the title page is inscribed ‘No 413 in a limited edition of 500’. I think that it’s safe to assume that an author who can prompt her publisher to pay for a proof-copy print run of 500 and then take the trouble to number each volume has arrived! In the intervening years, I’ve continued to read Ruth Rendell and also enjoy (perhaps even prefer) the psychological thrillers she writes as Barbara Vine.
Opening The Saint Zita Society, her latest book, at its title page, I see that Rendell’s been loyal to Hutchinson and Arrow, both now Random House imprints. I’ve just completed this novel; it has been a fascinating read. It’s about the owners of the houses in a well-heeled street in London, Hexham Place, and (especially) their servants. (Saint Zita, apparently, is the patron saint of servants.) One of the key characters in the novel, June, is that fictional stereotype, the elderly female retainer. She’s worked loyally for her employer (a sort of fake princess) for more than sixty years. June is one of the prime movers in the Saint Zita Society, which the servants of Hexham Place decide to set up as the vehicle of a collaborative effort to improve their lives. I’m certain that the portrayal of June is deliberately hackneyed, because the other servants in the novel are anything but stereotypes. They range from the exotically-named Montserrat, who is supposed to be an au pair but never seems to do any work, to the mentally challenged and rather sinister Dex, a jobbing gardener who takes instructions from a deity called Peach who lives in his mobile phone. Dex has served time in an institution for the criminally insane for attempting to murder his mother. Rendell has always excelled at black humour and the scenes featuring Dex are some of her best. Then there is Thea, who insists that she is not a servant, yet nevertheless acts in that capacity (unofficially and unpaid) to her landlords, a gay couple. Thea is a professional doormat. Even though she knows that people are making use of her, she can’t say no and thus ends up romantically entangled with Jimmy, the chauffeur of an eminent academic who is soft on his servants – and incidentally responsible for introducing Dex into the community – because he started life in humble circumstances. It is another of the novel’s delights that the many gradations of snobbery pertaining in Hexham Place are captured to a ‘t’. My favourite character is the beautiful and tragic nanny, Rabia, a Muslim woman whose children and husband are all dead because of a genetic disorder perpetuated through intermarrying. Her father wishes her to give up her post and return home so that another marriage can be arranged for her with a certain Mr Iqbal. Iqbal himself is a nurseryman whose work brings him several times to Hexham Place.
If all of this is beginning to sound more like a comedy of manners than a modern crime novel, it means I have managed to capture some small part of its essence. Hexham Place and the characters who frequent it – despite their wholeheartedly embracing the paraphernalia of twenty-first century life, including Smartphones, satnavs and civil partnerships – do not really belong to a particular time or place. There is an elegiac quality to The Saint Zita Society and a timelessness that puts me in mind of the later works of another female writer whom I greatly admire: Muriel Spark. Rendell’s novel has much in common with Spark’s The Finishing School (2005), another work that takes a traditional subject – in this instance life in a girls’ boarding school, instead of Rendell’s tale of servants – and whisks it to a higher plane. Neither of these books is really about the everyday situations with which they purport to deal. Both are timeless studies of humanity itself. There is, however, an additional twist to The Saint Zita Society, because although it deserves to take its place alongside some of the greatest human comedies in the language, it is also, as the reader expects from Rendell and then almost forgets, a crime novel. Among its many other qualities, The Saint Zita Society is a fiendishly clever murder story.