My Husband’s Lies by Caroline England

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


My Husband’s Lies by Caroline England

Reviewing books for Toasted Cheese is one of my greatest pleasures. It gives me the opportunity to read a range of literature—poetry, short stories, memoirs, and novels. I like to read. It goes with being an editor. My day typically begins early with a few chapters and a cup of coffee and the moon keeping me company, and often ends the same way except without the cup of coffee. Another pleasure I have is to write a second review for a TC author. I’ve written a handful of second and even third reviews thus far for a select group of authors who have stuck it out, persevered in their craft, hammering away despite the daily drone of life that most often takes precedence and yet have somehow managed to pick up a pen or tap on their laptop keys to produce something meaningful. And what’s more, rose again to the challenge of finding an agent or an editor who was willing to read it. I recently received a query from one such author: Carolyn England, whose short story collection, Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses, I reviewed for Toasted Cheese in 2013. Since then, England has written two novels with a third soon to be published. I was delighted to have a second opportunity to read her work and see how it has evolved.

Carolyn England’s second novel, My Husband’s Lies (Avon, 2018), is about friendship. Adult friendship. Although the book jacket hints of more: Everyone has a secret… and Do you really know your friends? England masterfully narrates her story in a third-person point of view that shifts between several characters often revisiting important scenes to show the reader a detail up close or an idea seen with more clarity through another set of eyes. The characters are interesting, robust, and believable in their complexities and imperfections. Nicknamed “The A-Team,” they share a common bond: a friendship that began in their teenage school years at St. Mark’s.

They are:

Handsome Dan Maloney, a Realtor married to Geri and expecting their first child; wealthy Nick Quinn, newly married to Lisa; golden boy Will Taylor; and intuitive Jen, a married mother of two and the only girl member of the A-Team. These characters and their significant others are reunited at a wedding in the novel’s exposition and each holds a secret that is hidden from the other characters. Chapter by chapter, England reveals the characters’ flaws, problems, and secrets through close narration, building tension and suspense.

These characters are real and very likeable despite their troubles. Here’s an elegant character sketch from Nick about his much older and beloved brother, Patrick, who just happens to be a favorite of mine.

The low sound of the car’s horn brings him back to the road and a stubborn stray sheep. He turns to Patrick, suddenly remembering how comforting it was to see his fair hair in the darkness when he was small and had a nightmare. Immediately there by his side, it was as though Patrick knew. Today his greying hair is hidden behind a suede hat with flaps. Give him a moustache and he’d look like a dashing World War II pilot rather than a sad fifty-year-old keeping his ears warm on a cold March morning. (p. 178)

The hallmarks of England’s writing are still there. Her storytelling is expressed keenly through dialogue sometimes with a slight change of tone or in the smallest movement. I could see these people and their stories play out like a film in my mind in a sublime economy of words that doesn’t give anything away.

The story begins in medias res, in an atmospheric and exciting prologue—a big kick start that introduces one of the characters in serious peril. This character is the linchpin in the story, set up with purpose for the reader to follow, like Alice’s little white friend flying down, down the rabbit hole. What is further interesting is that the character isn’t named. I loved that. I pondered whether or not this mysterious character was a reliable narrator. Great characterization.

After this initial scene, England uses flashback to explain the perilous event and then structures the remainder of the story in a linear timeline of events peppered with smaller flashbacks. England drops hints and clues, letting the secrets out piece by piece, like a giant jigsaw puzzle until the whole puzzle is laid out and then the fun begins: What will happen next? England shows all and tells nothing. Her prose is spot on and evocative, vividly told, page by page, chapter after chapter, layer on layer as she builds the characters’ stories with suspense from the get go and with it a mystery that leads, takes root, and grows into an exciting Hitchcock-style conclusion. Masterful storytelling.

*

Born a Yorkshire lass, Caroline England studied Law at the University of Manchester and stayed over the border. England was a divorce and professional indemnity lawyer and instigated her jottings when she deserted the law to bring upher three lovely daughters. In addition to the publication of her short story collection, Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses, England has had short stories and poems published in a variety of literary publications and anthologies. Her debut novel, Beneath the Skin (Avon Harper Collins), also known as The Wife’s Secret, was published in 2017. Carolyn England’s second novel, My Husband’s Lies, followed in 2018. Her next novel, Betray Her (Little, Brown) is soon to be published in 2019. Facebook | Twitter | Instagram.

pencilShelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses by Caroline England

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses

Caroline England’s collection Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses (ACHUKAbooks, 2012) brings the short story form to its zenith. A dozen stellar stories are filled with prose that surprises and hooks the reader, very often in the first line. The collection is inhabited by characters that are lovelorn, nostalgic, tragic, the keepers of secrets and much more. Many of the stories are family stories that traverse the dark side of human nature. They often begin one way and turn in a surprising direction. “The Bees Knees” borders on the grotesque, while the Alfred Hitchcock-like ending of “Heart” is a stunner.

England employs first, second, or third person narration with a point of view that is quite intriguing. One such story, “Words,” is told in third person with very little dialog. It is dramatic as we see the protagonist from the watchful narrator’s perspective, sometimes wide-lensed and distant and sometimes internal, as the narrator omnisciently reports the character’s thoughts and feelings.

“Today is one of the many family stories. What makes this story so interesting, again, is the point of view. It begins innocently with first-person narration—“Today I wrote to Richard.”—but as the story reveals itself, it becomes complex and layered. England creates incredible depth through the clever use of several techniques. The narrator never changes yet there are shifting points of view that present other characters’ perceptions.

In his essay “From Long Shots to X-Rays” David Jauss writes, “point of view is more a matter of where the language is coming from than it is of person.” And that is precisely what is happening in “Today.” The story unfolds in poignant increments and the reader may not see the entire story—not see “it” coming—until the last page even though there are subtle hints along the way, changes in tone or character voice. There is a sublime economy of words—masterful storytelling.

Likewise, in other stories the narrators are present, yet they reveal little of themselves. Less is so much more. A turn of a phrase, a short sentence of dialog or just a word or two carries double meaning. Such is the case in “Nothing Broken: the “blackout blinds” (being blind to the outside), “virgin” (innocence), and the evocative “cheeses, orange, white, yellow, blue, some waxy, some curdled with deep red tomatoes and onion to match.” The cheeses are ordered from fresh to not-so-fresh, implying a descent or passage of time. The ripe tomatoes followed by the onion hint of a fertile lushness chased with something sweet and bitter.

Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses is one of the finest collections of short stories I have read—smart, provocative writing. It is a collection for readers and writers alike.

*

Caroline England prefers writing to dusting, ironing, vacuuming and washing-up. Born a Yorkshire lass, she studied law at Manchester University and stayed over the border. Caroline became a partner in a solicitors practice and instigated her jottings when she deserted the law to bring up her three lovely daughters. In addition to the publication of her short story collection, Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses, and her first novel, A Slight Diversion, Caroline has stories and poems published in Toasted Cheese and variety of literary magazines. Despite her best endeavors, Carolyn’s writing always veers to the dark side. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter: @CazEngland.
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Shelley Carpenter is Toasted Cheese‘s reviews editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

Words

Fiction
Caroline England


The searing heat of righteousness kept Mrs H company through the night, at least until the early hours, and even then the feeling of having been wronged, indefinable though it was, still burned in her dreams.

During her waking moments, she tried to identify the cause, to concentrate on the nub, but her mind was in spasm, convulsing with thoughts, moments and memories but unable to focus on any one thing. Archaic, antiquated. No longer of relevance, she thought. Mrs H closed her eyes and recounted the books from the well-stocked library of her childhood home.

She slept again, eventually, and woke at dawn feeling thirsty and vaguely bereft. Getting herself out of the lofty bed was more of an effort than usual, and she averted her eyes from the looking glass as she always did. She had been almost beautiful once and didn’t need to be reminded of a face consumed and robbed by lonely old age and secret obsession. She cleaned her teeth for longer than usual, focusing on nothing except the swirl of blood in the bowl when she spat.

Her mind was merciful for the first few hours of the day as she methodically replaced books in the reference chamber, but it didn’t take long for doubt, regret even, to elbow through the haze. Sentiment long out of fashion, she thought, lamentable excess of gush.

Mrs H shook her head from time to time as she cautiously climbed the ladder to reach the topmost shelves. She had been so confident, so convinced that she was right, that the time was right. But now she was not so sure. She needed to concentrate, to think it through, to examine every word, every thought, every nuance, but despite the notices demanding silence in the chamber, people kept talking, whispering loudly, asking her questions and interrupting her thoughts.

It wasn’t until Mrs H unwrapped the cloth from her cheese-and-tomato sandwich at a table in the far corner of the staff room that she had time to think, and even then she found herself jotting down words and abstract phrases because she still couldn’t focus. Sentences popped into her head unbidden. Want of originality, want of intensity and, worst of all, want of concentration. There were gaps in her memory, gaps she didn’t realise were there until she let her mind drift to fill those gaps with horrible recall. Things that were written, things that she had written. Things that had seemed so important at the time, but now she was doubtful.

Lacks perfection and inevitableness of expression, either in the splendid, or in the simple, style, she recalled. Mrs H sighed and put her head in her hands for a moment before pulling away the upright chair, causing her untouched sandwich to fall from the table and collapse on the red-tiled floor. Too many flowers, she thought, too little fruit. The trouble was that she was still having difficulty in getting to the end of the story in her mind. At every turn she was diverted to another path of thought, dismal, dark and full of doubt.

“My, you’re in a hurry, Mrs H. No books today, then?” Joseph, the caretaker commented as she spiralled through the doors of the building. “You’ll be pleased to see that your New Monthly magazine arrived in the post. I left it on your bureau,” he called as Mrs H brushed by without saying a word. He stopped sweeping the steps and looked at her with a frown about his bushy eyebrows, but Mrs H really didn’t care that she had offended him by failing to stop for a word as usual; she couldn’t wait to get to the peace and quiet of home. She needed to steady herself, to think, to prepare for what she had done, for what her future may hold.

The hot breath Mrs H imagined she had held in all day streamed out of her as she locked the old oak door behind her and waited for her eyes to become accustomed to the dark of her hallway. But the silence she had craved all day suddenly oppressed her, filling her with an urgent desire to speak to someone just to assure herself she was real. She had been married once, in her nineteenth year, to George Henning, a Captain of the 3rd Regiment. She had never loved her husband, nor had she given birth to any child. The Captain was much older than her and as his health had become impaired by Foreign Service, he had become a permanent resident in Italy only nine months after their wedding. Since then she had lived in solitude, with only the companionship of books, for so long that the only person she could think of was her dear brother, and Harold was long since gone.

The embers in the grate had lost their blush and the untouched mug of cocoa had formed a skin, but Mrs H’s milky eyes stared at the benevolent shadows of the books dwarfing her bedroom. Even with her eyes closed, she could smell their company.

No enjoyment of extraordinary stimulous. Little evidence of accumulation of time to bring perfection, she recited to herself. Mrs H closed her eyes and drifted. It was the right thing to do, the right time to do it, she repeated through the treadmill of unwelcome thoughts as the second night droned on. She must have slept at some point as her pillow was wet at daybreak with the evidence of sleep—saliva, she supposed, or perhaps even tears. It wasn’t until much later, when enough daylight cheated its way through the gap in the heavy curtains that Mrs H noticed the stain was a shining deep crimson.

“You alright, Mrs H? You look like death!” Joseph called as she hurried up the sodden steps of the library. “You’re early, even for you. I haven’t opened up yet.”

Although her chest hurt and she needed to cough, she smiled at Joseph. Her need to get to the literature library an hour before the general public made the effort worth her while. “Open up will you, Joseph. I have so much to do today and I’m not feeling so good.”

For a few minutes Mrs H stood soundless as a statue in the huge domed room; she looked all around it, then closed her eyes and breathed deeply to take in the smell. She then hurried to the section she was looking for, not even bothering to take off her hat and coat, and slipped into a chair at the vast oak central table. For a moment she held the book, the original illustrated copy, to her chest and then carefully laid it on the table, automatically opening the cover to check whether anyone had borrowed it recently. But as soon as the page was open, a drop of liquid spilled onto the page, landing in a perfect pear shaped bubble before dispersing into the absorbent old paper. Mrs H immediately put her hand to her mouth, drawing it away slowly, and then inspecting the palm of her shaking hand. There was no doubt about it, she was still bleeding. Someone might notice and make a fuss, the thought of which was unbearable. Mrs H hadn’t taken a day’s illness for over thirty years at all the different libraries she’d worked, but she knew that today there was no alternative but to go back home.

“That was quick, Mrs H. You’ve left before you’ve arrived,” Joseph chuckled at her departing back. “Tell them you’re not well, shall I?” he added, as Mrs H and her bag full of books disappeared towards the tram stop beyond the willow tree.

As the day drew on and evening emerged, Mrs H toyed with the idea of writing another letter asking The New Monthly to discard the first. She had spent so many years in the comfort of the shadows that she was fearful of notoriety, of attention even. She was aware that many people found her uncommunicative and eccentric, yet the distance it had created suited her. But now the truth was bound to come out and Mrs H had no idea of how her fellow workers might react to her carefully concealed secret.

After sporadically pacing the floor boards over several hours, Mrs H sat down at her bureau, and put ink pen to parchment. Dear Editor, she wrote, but by then her coughing had become so severe that she could do little else but lie on her bed, head slightly raised on the pillow with a bundle of rags held to her mouth.

As Mrs H fell in and out of consciousness her mind seemed to recover some of the clarity she was once famous for. She held up the article in her mind’s eye. Very popular in her day but archaic, antiquated and no longer relevant to modern times, she read. Her sensibility has long been out of fashion, her technique deplorably bad. Her popularity set a most unfortunate precedent for women.

Mrs H felt warmed by her outrage once again. A lamentable excess of original gush, she continued to read through closed eyes as the night fell away. Her work suffered from her restricted experience. She relied too much on the influence of others and often used stereotypic images.

In delirious dreams Mrs H rose from her bed to open the bureau and search for her letter to The New Monthly. A beautifully composed missive in her best long hand, she recalled. A vitriolic letter, responding with vigour, putting them straight. She could remember that much, but the rest of her words were a fog. Try as she might, her recall was poor, her memory dim. Had she really told them she wasn’t finished or dead but working at a library in Slough? Had she really walked all the way to the post office in the rain and placed the letter in the gloved hand of the post mistress?

Mrs H reached the bureau in stockinged feet and found the unopened letter on the desk. With fumbling fingers she tore open the seal but when she peered at the parchment, the page was blank.

As Mrs H’s breath became shallow, she remembered that her husband, the Captain, had once written to her brother: “Dear Henrietta has such a young enthusiastic nature and I wish her the best. My fear is that one day her dreams of happiness will be overtaken by sad realities”. Mrs H had disagreed with this sentiment at the time, thinking she would write forever and be happy, but she now felt that perhaps the Captain had seen something she had been unable to see.

Mrs H lifted her head and gazed towards the pile of books neatly stacked in the open trunk as her light began to fade. The first editions of all twenty volumes were there, in pristine condition in the main, permanently borrowed from libraries over the years. Some of the cheap editions, without plates, were still in the library. She fleetingly wondered if she would have the strength to go back into work and bring the final few copies home.

Mrs H shook her head almost imperceptibly, smiled and sighed. Her soul was poetic, but it was not a hardy one and it neglected to follow what star it had. Perhaps they were right, but Mrs H didn’t think so. She could no longer focus on the top cover title but she knew what it said: POEMS BY MRS HENRIETTA HENNING WITH ILLUSTRATIONS, cloth edition 2s. 6d.
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Not well known for her pyrotechnics, Caroline’s had some stuff published in magazines—Transmission, Parameter, Pipeline, Chimera, Lamport Court, Peace and Freedom Press, nr1, This Zine Will Change Your Life, Recusant, Succour, Pen Pusher, Positive Words, Twisted Tongue, The Text, White Chimney and The Ugly Tree. She is currently working on a novel. E-mail: caroline[at]englandc.fsnet.co.uk