Friday, 10 August 2012

Mrs Moorhouse's Longest Day

No idea why the paper thought this would make a better headline, but ... oh well.

Good book. Read it.

Make room on the shelf
This is a surprising debut that you’d do well to welcome into your home

first published in The Star, 10 August 2012

Like the TV series 24, which stretches a single day over 24 episodes, much of Anne Korkeakivi’s more-than-200-page novel about a diplomat’s wife with a troubled past chronicles the events of one day. It’s hard to count exactly how many days pass in it, though, with all the flashbacks spliced in between the main narrative.

In An Unexpected Guest, Clare, the Irish-American spouse of Edward Moorhouse, the British Minister in Paris, is making preparations for dinner at their Residence, and she needs to help her husband make a good impression. So she taps her skills as hostess, mediator and procurer of fine ingredients to make the occasion great.

Earlier, she had discovered that Edward may be posted to Dublin next as an ambassador, a place that holds memories for her from 20 years ago – memories she’d rather forget.

Things get worse for her once she starts seeing a face in the crowd as she goes about her errands: Niall, an intense Irish lad who had got under her skin, mixed with a very wrong crowd and ended up dead ... but did he really die?

Struggling to hide her inner turmoil as her worst fears are confirmed, Clare also has to keep the peace between mercurial half-Swiss, half-Scottish chef Mathilde and the local help at the Residence, whom Clare is depending upon to make the dinner a hit. There’s also her son James, who has snuck over to Paris from boarding school in England. Later, Clare learns that a Turkish man she had earlier helped with directions has been arrested as a suspected political assassin.

In this novel, Paris is tense following trouble that ensued when French lawmakers discuss a bill that would criminalise denials of the Armenian massacres (1915-1917) that took place in Ottoman-ruled Turkey. In real life, this happened around 2006. This pegs the novel’s timeline within the post-9/11 era, which has seen incidents the likes of the infamous 7/7 attacks in London and the recent Hat Yai incidents in Thailand. Which is why, a), Clare feels exceptionally haunted by her time in Ireland and fears for the safety of her son; and b), why readers will probably be able to empathise with her.

Steeped as it is in today’s tumultuous and sometimes violent political and ideological realities, the novel doesn’t preach peace or side with anyone, but instead uses the setting to bring into prominence the concerns of a mother who works in the diplomatic service. If it sounds real, it’s probably because Korkeakivi is also a mother and her own husband is with the United Nations.

Oh, no, not another 200-page-long diary entry disguised as a novel, you say? But Korkeakivi manages to pull it off, keeping things exciting enough so that we don’t get too bored. The story is well-crafted, and many little details that seem irrelevant, such as Clare’s poor grasp of numbers, become significant later. Several other loose ends are tied up as well, including the connection between young James’s problem and his mother’s own youth.

One little issue I had with the novel was the apparent rush to establish ties between Niall and Clare when they first met. It was hard to believe that the brusque, thick-skinned Niall could charm the caution out of a younger Clare with his rough manner and bonny blue eyes.

Given Korkeakivi’s impressive writing chops in fiction and non-fiction (she’s been published in such eminent publications as The Atlantic magazine, The Yale Review, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal), such a wonderful debut novel shouldn’t be a surprise. But what a surprise it is. Her “unexpected guest” should be made welcome on bookshelves everywhere.

An Unexpected Guest
Anne Korkeakivi
Little, Brown and Company (2012)
277 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-21266-3


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