Pietro is our protagonist who has recently taken a job as the concierge in a condominium in Milan, late in life. Although defining his character as merely a ‘concierge’ perhaps simplifies his role. He eagerly integrates into the occupants’ colourful lives in the flat: Poppi, (an aptly plosive) teasing and rambunctious lawyer; Paola and her autistic 20-something year old son Fernando. And, of particular interest, the Martini family: Luca, a doctor, his wife Viola and their small child Sara. In his capacity as concierge he has free reign to roam the corridors… and cross thresholds.
Short stories are my absolute favourite form of literature (and writing – joint with poetry!). Utterly cluttered are the marginalia of every short story I consume/inhale. The gentle and explosive rhythm of the narrative; the way the plot unravels in the story; the twist potential; the preoccupation with time and the ability to give the impression of time expanding as the story is contracting; the heavy, heady significance of every carefully chosen word; the fact that you can be absorbed in several stories within an hour of reading…
Louis Kehlweiler knows something is wrong. He has a naturally inquisitive mind and he is predisposed to finding everyday things interesting. But since he got sacked from the Ministry he has trouble being taken seriously. He is seen as someone who simply lets his mind wander and who allows his imagination to play tricks on him.
Everyone is familiar with the sense of trepidation you get when you just know something is going to be a bit different and you have no control over it, but you can’t possibly explain just how it’s going to differ until it’s actually happening or has passed. And it’s how people act in those moments of change that can redefine us and alter our outlook on life.
The Lemon Grove revels in what can happen during those times of flux.
The story takes you on a summer holiday to a villa in Mallorca with a non-nuclear family: Jenn, our protagonist, her husband Greg, his teenage daughter Emma and her new boyfriend Nathan, the unknown and the stranger of the group. The novel cleverly observes how the dynamic changes when someone comes in and disturbs the ‘peace’ of a family who are not without their own tensions; Jenn frequently battles with the innate complexity of raising someone else’s child; Emma struggles with her own hormonal ‘weathervane’ moods and everyone has secrets. So how does one manage a stranger amongst the family as well as attempting to keep things relatively tranquil and enjoy a well-earned break simultaneously?
Helen Walsh’s answer is simple: you don’t. Instead, you have lots of fun with them. You invert familial convention and direct little energy in resisting temptation. You focus on attaining the thing you desire, as Nathan very quickly becomes the object of Jenn’s extremely intense affections and fixations.
It’s a beautifully written and smartly constructed novel. You feel the plot progress with the same rhythm of Jenn’s (asthmatic) breaths. Disaster is contracted into a few words as it happens rapidly, which is in stark contrast to the long, atmospheric descriptive passages of the abundant lemon and olive groves in the heat. The sense of place is a powerful one: you too feel like you are going up round the narrow, mountainous winding roads of Deià with everyone. As the family goes for a walk they find themselves close to the edge of a cliff, which proves to be a catalyst for action. Afterwards their holiday happiness rests on similarly unstable ground. Jenn is critical of her middle-aged body, feels very unhappy about her loss of youth, and, like her name, she feels abbreviated and incomplete, so vents her frustration by behaving recklessly. Cue very steamy sauce on the sand!
The Lemon Grove is a fierce book which encompasses so much and manages it so well: it directly challenges the notion of entitlement; characters move in unexpected ways.
You’ll be gripped and you will love it!
The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh is released on 27th February 2014, published by Tinder Press, RRP £12.99.
My copy of ‘The Lemon Grove’ was kindly sent to me (on my request) to review.