January 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.
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.
I 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.