BOOK REVIEW: Something to Hide, by Deborah Moggach


Available now in bookstores nationwide.

Deborah Moggach is the author of the much-loved book The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which has since been made into a film.

In White Springs, Texas, Lorrie is locked into a marriage with Todd. Lorrie loves him very much; they have grown up dirt-poor, were childhood sweethearts and bound together. Todd is in the army and has served two terms in Iraq. Lorrie and Todd and their two teenage kids love to eat and so over the years they have all put on the pounds. Lorrie is very lonely with Todd away so much – she goes on-line, finds herself a job. “Earn hundreds of dollars a month in the comfort of your own home! Become a sales rep with our fast-growing company. Earn commission rates of twenty percent of retail sales prices, rising with the volume of items sold”. The whole thing sounds far too good to be true! All of Lorrie and Todd’s life savings are drained from their savings account.

In Beijng, China Li Jing is married to Wang Lei. They desperately want children, but this was not to be. Wang Lei is a businessman, but as to what he actually does, Li Jing has no idea. She came from a poor background and since their marriage her parents had been looked after by Wang Lei, providing them with a house and everything they could possibly need.

In Pimlico, London, Petra is mulling over her disastrous love life – her failed marriage to Alan and her disconnection from her two adult children.

The way in which these characters are connected becomes clear as you read. Petra has an affair with Jeremy, the husband of her best friend Bev from school days. Jeremy and Petra fall in love, continuing their relationship via email after he flies back to West Africa, ultimately deciding to make thier arrangement permanent, with Jeremy to leave Bev. How to tell Bev and how the transition will take place is something they yet have to decide.

Meanwhile, back in Texas, Lorrie decides to replenish her and Todd’s savings account, without him being aware, by becoming a surrogate for a couple who are unable to have children of their own. That couple live in Beijing. With Todd being deployed for months on end and Lorrie being overweight, deceiving those around her is not that hard.

The story weaves in and out of the three women’s lives. This intriguing story of lies and deception is rather gripping. I became wrapped up in the character’s lives, reading well into the night. The tangled web of lies, interwoven with truth make for a fascinating read.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Something to Hide
by Deborah Moggach
Published by Chatto & Windus
ISBN 9781784740474

Book Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper


Available in bookstores nationwide.

Dust, water, fish, deer. In the open arms of the wild earth, the elements and God’s creatures move together in a rural dance. Gophers are sacrificed so the land can better support. A daughter will always ‘know where to punch a calf to kill it, if it needs it. And hard enough.’ Prairie Canada seems the same but so very different to the rural experience everywhere else. The same: life and death are but a waltz apart. Different: there is dust, geographic specificity and the Canadian voice – ‘Doesn’t look like Russell’s back yet, hey?’

Although the uniquely Canadian aspects appeal, it is the universal that really draws us in to Hooper’s story. Etta and Otto are both at the curtain-call end of their lives – their life – together. More than 60 years of prairie living have passed in what one assumes is contented and compatible companionship. Except Russell lives next door, and Russell has also been a part of their lives for more than that 60 years of prairie living. The subtlety of their shared story resonates beyond the pages. The tale of Etta and Otto and Russell is centred by two locations; where they meet and when they part. The setting is importantly both of these things – time and place. The reader moves between historical wartime and present day as crucial decisions made almost by accident are relayed and related. ‘Russell waltzed instead of walked’ because of an accident on Otto’s family farm – even here at the start, Otto and Russell’s stories are intertwined.

As is Etta’s. Young Etta is a teacher. She has suffered the loss of her dear sister Alma and turns to teachers’ college, perhaps to stay near to her vulnerable parents. Otto is one of 15 Vogel children, attending the school at which Etta is teaching. When Otto signs up for active duty during wartime, Etta becomes his pen pal. Slowly and with absolute grace, these letters lead to love. Russell, because he ‘waltzes’, is left behind. Such is to be the story of his life.

Letters are present in older age, too. Otto writes to Etta, knowing they may not get to her. He signs these ‘Here, Otto’; a reminder of place and belonging. She has left; ‘I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there’, she writes. But she is ‘Yours (always), Etta.’ Her memory is failing – dementia? Alzheimers? Perhaps just aging, so she carries a piece of paper that reminds her of self, family and others. There is a satisfying symmetry of action here; at the beginning of their story, he leaves her, and at the end, it is Etta’s turn for adventure. Otto remains and channels his grief through cooking Etta’s recipes, and creating papier-mâché creatures that bring him state-wide fame.

Fish are an important trope throughout. Not only because they live in the water Etta is yearning, but also because they provide a tenuous link to her lost sister. ‘They can come back alive when they touch your skin,’ says Alma of fish skulls. Etta wonders if ‘being against the skin of her fingers’ is enough to ‘wake them up, to make them talk.’ Later, as she consumes fish to survive, they whisper Il faut manger – it is necessary to eat. Sacrifice is necessary. ‘One small fish skull’ is one of very few precious belongings that Etta takes on her journey – a reminder that grief may settle but never really leaves.

Russell’s grief is the most heartbreaking. He loves Etta timelessly. ‘Why didn’t you tell me she was wonderful?’ he asks of Otto after his first day at school with his new teacher, a young Etta. She falls into his arms but once, when Otto is at war and all seems lost, except dancing. And so they do. As an old man, he is their neighbour, and yet can never share what Otto and Etta have. When Etta leaves to walk 2000 kilometres to the sea, he is frustrated and chases her. Otto wisely realises ‘it’s not what she wants, Russell,’ conveying an intuitive understanding that only one who shares intimacy with a person over decades can.

The magic realist elements in this text are harmoniously woven throughout the story. James is a coyote companion gifted words, although it would seem named, in another nod to the power of grief and memory, after Alma’s stillborn son. He is perhaps there to be looked after, as well as look after, Etta on her journey – a surrogate son or nephew. For Etta and Otto never have children, and little is said about this throughout.

The many evocations of grief and memory sting the reader, too. I felt for Russell, who spends his life pining after what he doesn’t have. He, Etta and Otto are at the end of their lives, and so there is a natural inclination to feel a certain sadness when reading. The book evokes a wistful and nostalgic air reminiscent of good poetry or music, and left me thinking for a long time about the exquisite pain and the exquisite beauty that is to be found in the irretractable rhythm of our lives as we simply and plainly just go about living them.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

Etta and Otto and Russell and James
by Emma Hooper
Published by Fig Tree
ISBN 9780241185865