I've got to tell you about this book.
Not that I've got time! T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month. TSE was a prissy man--an American monarchist, come on!--and I always thought he was full of the brown stuff on the April thing. What's not to like about spring? But in fact, in my life April is always a rollercoaster and I'm always fixin' to fall off. This particular April you may have heard me go THUD several times, and we've still got a week before the fat lady sings.
First there's the work ethic question that has haunted humankind since we abandoned hunting and gathering in favor of industry: Stay inside and work, or go outside and play? Then, even if you opt for choice B, you've got the terrible choice between roaming through the woods looking at wildflowers and rolling in the dirt planting flowers of your own.
Probably I could divide my time between those two pretty cheerfully if it weren't for choice A, the work part. The month starts with me frantically trying to scare up a series of April Fool's articles, which possibly I enjoy writing more than anyone enjoys reading, but there you are, it's a Planet tradition and I can't help it. Then, in the middle of the month, you have Tax Day. Every year I say I'm going to get our return filed in February, but for poor people we've got a complicated tax situation and I dread it and can't force myself to do it unless there's a gun to my head.
On top of all that, this year our household was afflicted with a late flu that kept everybody suffering for two full weeks, I've had to change computers twice, and I have continued the existential life-or-death struggle with The Planet's hosting company that may eventually close the rag down.
Anyway, I've been busy. Sometimes I've been happily busy and sometimes miserably busy, and throughout all of it the one consistent bright spot has been The Stranger Diaries, by Elly Griffiths. I must have checked it out from the Dade County Public Library's new book shelf in the last couple of days of March, and at the end of every busy day, after I took my hot shower and put on my nightie, I would sit in my comfortable chair beside the gas log trying to stay awake long enough to read another chapter.
The novel is a page-turner, eat up with tension, and so beautifully written that I loved every word; but I told you how this April's been and every night I would pass out with my reading glasses still on my nose and the book still on my lap. I repeat that this is no indicator of the book's quality, only of my exhaustion, but I mention it because for me it added another idiosyncratic thrill:
The book is mostly a murder mystery but it revolves around a weird little ghost story you read in excerpts throughout the main narrative. It was all just creepy enough that when I would jolt back awake in my chair at 2 or 3 a.m. I would realize I was sitting in front of uncurtained windows, surrounded by the night and possibly watched by malevolent eyes out in the darkness. You know, scared spitless but in a good way. I know that for the rest of my life every time I think of The Stranger Diaries I will do so with that tingly little frisson of mingled fright and enjoyment.
Well, that's atmosphere. Here's a synopsis:
The central characters are Clare, an English schoolteacher (in both senses--she's English and she teaches English); Georgie, her teenage daughter; and Harbinder, an Indian-English police detective. What's particularly interesting about the way the novel is written is that the three take turns being the first-person narrator, the "I." But in Clare's case she does that on two levels, because besides being the "I" in the main action she also writes in a diary.
Then there's another "I," the narrator of The Stranger, the Victorian ghost story that at the beginning of the story Clare is reading to her class. It was written by a peculiar old gentleman, R.M. Holland, whose peculiar old house has now been turned into a school. Clare has become obsessed by R.M. Holland since she started teaching at the school and is researching his life to write a biography. Sometimes we get to go with her to the upper reaches of the house-slash-school where R.M. did his writing, and sometimes that can get seriously scary.
But this is not really a ghost story, this is a murder mystery, and at the beginning of the book Clare's best friend and fellow teacher, Ella, is found killed. Enter policewoman Harbinder to suss out whodunit, and the wizardly machinery of the book is set in motion. Because the narration is shared among the three storytellers--interspersed, of course, with weird old Mr. Holland's smarmy Victorian narrator and his hip flask of brandy --we sometimes hear the same conversation and see the same scenes three times, all from a slightly different angle.
If that sounds boring, believe me, it's not. It somehow amplifies the tension so that by narrator no. 3 you've got your jaws clenched. And by the time, near the end of the novel, when Harbinder puts Clare and her daughter on a train to send them to safety, you practically jump out of your chair and scream ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND? A TRAIN? HAVEN'T YOU EVER READ THE [Bleeping] STRANGER?
It's all done just masterfully. Elly Griffiths can seriously write. One of the things I liked about The Stranger Diaries is that it's so extravagantly literate. The ghost story--as well as the mystery killer who takes a cue from it--revolves around the Shakespeare quote, "Hell is empty," and the novel also cleverly works in a reference to the Wilkie Collins classic, The Woman In White, which inspired its narrative trick. I am seriously nutty about both Wilkie Collins and Mr. S., and blown away by writers--why are they aways English?--who come to the trade by having read a little first.
I will STFU before I commit any spoilers. But I will say two things about the end: (A) I figured out whodunit before I should have; that is the only part of the novel I have any criticism of. And (B) Don't worry about Herbert! I'm one of those people who can't stand stories that involve animal suffering, and on page 5 there was a reference to animals in literature being expendable that almost made me put the book down at page 6 when I learned Clare had a dog named Herbert. So whether or not it's a spoiler, I hereby give sensitive readers like myself the all-clear on the Herbert front.
I loved The Stranger Diaries. It was such a treat of a read that for me, it ruined the other new book I took out at the same time. I remember the name of that one but I won't tell you, it doesn't seem nice somehow. But the writer of it tried to avoid the age-old dilemma of whether to tell her story in the first person or the third person by, get this, telling it in the god damn second person. Like: You walk into the bathroom and you shut the door, only for a minute but when you walk out... After the elegant writing of Elly Griffiths I simply couldn't take more than a chapter or two of this crap.
Stranger Diaries by contrast was so good that I'm glad that April was so exhausting, because passing out mid-chapter every night prolonged my reading pleasure. The good news for me is that Elly Griffiths is the author of not just two more novels but two series of novels. The Dade library has kindly arranged to get me one of each from interlibrary loan.
And the good news for you is that, having now finished this review, I will forthwith return The Stranger Diaries to the library and you can check it out.
Robin Ford Wallace, April 22