Tuesday, 9 November 2010


Lucas Paige is an historian, teaching and writing books that fall far short of the dreams he once had. His wife has left him, and he is in St. Louis, giving a reading of his latest disappointing book to a disappointing crowd of mostly disappointed people. Apart from one of them. Because after the talk, Lola Faye Gilroy introduces herself. The Lola Faye who worked for his father, at his father's unsuccessful little variety store, and whose husband shot his father for stealing her affections away. Luke's life was ruined in that moment, and he has always blamed Lola Faye. And she insists on talking with Luke.

Thomas Cook's novel recounts that conversation, and the flashbacks it triggers for Luke, his memories, believes, all the shadows and frustrations of his life now and their deep roots in his life then. Luke was the smartest boy in Glenville, Alabama, something everyone knew, something his mother cherished and his father frustrated. Glenville was not part of the genteel South, its decay and lack of amenities is something we've seen before in Cook's 'southern' books. I've written before about how his novels seem to divide into southern and northern, and it isn't just the setting. In this case, the work of Edgar Allen Poe resonates through the conversation engaged in by Luke and Lola Faye; Cook builds it slowly, with hints of mysteries unresolved, revenges untaken, lives needing to be accounted for. I kept hearing 'The Cask of Amontillado' in their conversation, and in those moments Luke snaps back from his memories Lola Faye seems very threatening indeed, in that classic Southern gothic way.

Luke's intelligence did not make him a pleasant child. We see him taking cruel advantage of his girlfriend, we feel his sullen resentment of his father, we sense the depth of devotion from his mother. When this fragile system is disturbed, the results might well be incalculable. It's not the run of the mill problem of the bright, arty boy in the physical Southern world, and in this sense it's not a Southern gothic at all. It's more the sense described by the recently-deceased Alice Miller, who wrote The Drama Of The Gifted Child, how the child's talents, and the parent's encouragement of them, along with their expectations, seem to drive the child away from them and into himself. This is the internal world Cook describes, and in its subtle accuracy it is often more chilling, and always more heart-wrenching, than the remarkable suspense he creates from one conversation. As Lola Faye's second husband, a retired detective, told her, 'Things aren't pretty in the human heart'.

The resolution, to which he has built so slowly and carefully, is one of the most surprising in all of Cook's work; it is not a 'typical' Cook ending, and that, for fear of spoiling is all I will say. One of Luke's books was titled 'The Touch Of Time: How History Is Felt', and that might have served as a good title for this book too. For history is the study of ghosts, and this is a novel about the ways those ghosts haunt is. But in the end I went back to the book's epigraph, which Cook takes from Marianne Moore, that least Southern gothic of poets. 'When what we hoped for came to nothing, we revived'. No, it's not a Southern revivial. But it's a brilliant piece of moody suspense writing, and it's a moving novel.

The Last Talk With Lola Faye
Quercus £20
ISBN 9781849162012

NOTE: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

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