2-am“It is dark, dark seven a.m. on Christmas Eve Eve.”

Two o’clock in the morning is a funny old time. Being the old git that I am (physically 27, mentally 72), I’m rarely around to see it these days, but I have certain hazy memories of it. Not only is it a time for drunks, insomniacs and truckers, it is also a time of magic, mystery and secrets. People let their guards down at that time of night and truths come out that are normally kept under lock and key in the light of day. People admit their true feelings and reveal their true ambitions on the wrong side of the clock. More of them pile out here in Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel.

This is the story of Madeleine, a prococious nine-year-old who has recently lost her mother and has no desire greater than to be able to sing in front of a crowd. It is the story of Sarina, Madeleine’s teacher, who wishes to rekindle something with an old flame who is now, as far as she knows, happily married. It is also the story of Lorca, owner of The Cat’s Pajamas, a popular jazz club in Philadelphia, who has just been handed a citation for breaking city law – one more transgression and his club will be closed. It’s also the story of the many others whose lives weave around these three figures, from cafe owner Mrs Santiago who looks after Madeleine, and the headmistress of Sarina’s school who longs for a more intimate form of human contact, and Pedro, a dog who has contracted wanderlust and loves nothing more than sniffing around the bins.

Madeleine is determined to sing on stage at The Cat’s Pajamas, obviously unaware that it is in serious trouble. Lorca has to rustle up thousands of dollars to save his club, as well as ensure it keeps to the rules, even if that means disappointing his son (again) by not letting him play guitar with the house band. Sarina has to struggle through a dinner party with people she realises she doesn’t really know (or like) and she begins to put her own life under the microscope. Their lives become entangled on this one particular day just before Christmas, all culminating at The Cat’s Pajamas at two o’clock in the morning.

So, the whole thing takes place over the course of twenty-four hours, each section headed by the time of day, alternating characters and their activities. Sarina is cute, and her struggles about how she feels about Ben, a man who clearly has broken her heart in the past, come through strongly, although there’s a suggestion that happiness can be found between them. You definitely get that of all the friends at the dinner party, he’s just about the only one who really seems to care about her. Even Madeleine, while having many traits I refuse to believe of a nine-year-old, is portrayed well, showing that she has only wrapped herself in such a hard shell because she is angry at the unfairness of the world and that, at heart, she just wants to sing and nothing more. She’s been through a lot and while some people notice this, others are too self-absorbed to give it much heed. Her protective shell is somewhat mimicked by her nemesis, Principal Randles, who is brusque and unfriendly for similar reasons of simply wanting to be accepted.

Lorca I find less interesting as a character, although he gets a redemption arc as he comes to realise that his son is struggling and implied to be taking drugs (a fact that Lorca has been oblivious too). He’s generally though simply not as keenly observed, I felt. Some of the minor characters, in particular Ben, and even Louisa (Lorca’s ex who only has a few scenes), are both more appealing to me.

The language is uncommonly beautiful and, particularly at the beginning, it read to me like it had been translated from a European romance language. I can’t properly explain why that was, because it isn’t. Perhaps it’s simply something other-worldly. The writing is smart, the repeated use of certain lines is very cleverly done and to just the right level. All in all, it’s a very accomplished novel and I hold certain affection for it and its easy construction. Bertino has a collection of short stories out now too, and I daresay after this, they will find their way onto my shelves.

If you’d like to read my debut novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, hit the link to go to Amazon to download it for any e-reader now, or pop over to iTunes or SmashWords to do the same!

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