Books of the Year 2017: Part Two

Cover imageJanuary and February boasted six reading treats for me but things were spread a little more thinly over the following three months. March began with what I knew would be a favourite author’s last book. Helen Dunmore’s, Birdcage Walk, is set in her home town of Bristol against the backdrop of the French Revolution raging across the Channel while Britain looks nervously on. It’s the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge. Politics, both national and domestic, runs through Dunmore’s novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling. Dunmore quietly delivered some of the finest writing produced by her generation. Even when writing of facing her own death she was gracefully, elegantly restrained. An enormous talent – how I will miss that frisson of delight that greets the announcement of a new book from her.

April’s favourite is by another writer whose work seems underrated to me. Although longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 was omitted from the shortlist much to my – and many other readers’ – amazement, then it missed the Goldsmiths Prize. It traces the effects of a young girl’s disappearance from a village in the north of England over the course of thirteen years, one for each of her life. The rhythms of the natural world hum through its pages, a background to the small tragedies, joys, disappointments and achievements that make up the villagers’ lives. Beneath it all there’s a consciousness of the missing girl and what may have happened to her. Deeply compassionate, written in quietly lyrical prose and peopled with astutely observed, well-rounded characters, this is a superb novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Fingers firmly crossed that the Costa judges see sense.Cover image

Three books stood out for me in May, the first of which was all about storytelling. Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell sees two people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. Disoriented and lonely, Marc begins to let slip information which Josephine weaves through the stories she tells him until they become more real to him than his own predicament. Lowe draws you in with his extraordinarily ambitious structure, frequently pulling the rug from under your feet. The result is utterly immersive and the epilogue is a masterstroke, throwing all the cards up in the air. A very clever, subtle piece of fiction.

I’ve no idea how I managed to miss Duncan Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos when it was first published here in 2016. Three timelines run through this tightly plotted, inventive novel: Sara’s 17th-century narrative, the theft of her painting from the de Groot family in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000 when its curator is faced with a youthful indiscretion which could destroy her reputation. Smith juggles his narrative stands with admirable deftness, linking all three neatly and satisfyingly together. His writing is elegantly crafted and there’s a nice thread of suspense running through the novel. It’s that rare though often promised thing – a literary page-turner, both entertaining and illuminating.

Cover imageI wasn’t at all sure about Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From which looked distinctly dystopian, not the kind of distraction I was looking for in a year spent trying to escape the real world, but she’s a poet and in my experience poets often write beautifully crafted novels. A mere 140 pages long – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence –  it’s the story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives. This is a highly ambitious first novel but Hunter carries it off beautifully – flashes of humour shine out, her use of language is captivating, the risky structure tackled with great confidence and it ends on a ringing note of much-needed optimism.

The next three months kick off with another bumper selection in June, including one often described as a Brexit novel. Can’t seem to get away from it…

All the above are linked to full reviews on this blog and if you missed my January and February favourites, they’re here.

23 thoughts on “Books of the Year 2017: Part Two”

  1. I’m reading Reservoir 13 at the moment. The writing is indeed beautiful but I must admit that I’ve struggled at times to keep track of who’s who with such an extensive cast of characters.The tiny details of the seasonal changes are very poetic.

    1. I do know that not everyone shares my zeal for this one! It’s the writing plus the device of throwing the stone of Rebecca’s disappearance into a pool and observing the ripples over the years that I so admire.

  2. I still need to get around to reading Reservoir 13, I must find some time to do that (somehow). I’ve always found Jon McGregor to be a subtle and poetic writer. Interesting selections; I’m looking forward to part 3 🙂

  3. Jon McGregor may not have made the prize lists, but I’ve noticed a lot of people reading his book lately. Maybe it’s you he has to thank for that. 🙂
    My daughter recently read a trilogy written by Dunmore for children that I didn’t know existed until we came across it in the library – she loved it!

    1. Ha! I think I may be responsible for one or two in my own circle, too afraid not to read it after my insistent proselytising! My partner loves it, I’m relieved to report.

      Oh, how lovely. She was such a versatile writer, excelling at fiction, poetry and children’s literature.

  4. I think the McGergor is going to crop up on a book group list next year, so I shall postpone reading it until then. The Dunmore, probably not since we have just read Exposure. I wonder if I can fit it in over Christmas.

  5. Although I wouldn’t ordinarily give Reservoir 13 a second glance (honestly, the cover doesn’t appeal and I would have assumed it was not a genre I would like), so many bloggers have it in their ‘Best of’ lists that I think I have to try at least a sample chapter.

  6. I’ve been on the shelf about picking up Resevoir 13, such mixed reviews, but at least it IS on my shelf, may have to pick it up soon and see what I make of it. Many on the lists I’m not familiar with, not having read too much new fiction in 2017.

    1. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is very much a Marmite book, Claire, and I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp as I’m sure you’ve gathered. Several reviewers have been frustrated that the mystery of Becky’s disappearance is never solved but that’s to miss the point, I think. It’s about the way her disappearance affects the community over time, like throwing a stone into a pond and charting its ripples. The writing is beautiful, too. I hope you like it when you get around to it.

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