Summer saw a return to more serious reading after spring’s escapism, perhaps because we were experiencing a little respite from the pandemic in the UK. Coincidentally, both June choices overlapped in terms of their unusual theme, exploring the repercussions of nuclear fission. The first was Stuart Evers’ The Blind Light, a little daunting in its length but written with such a pace I practically inhaled it. Spanning six decades, Evers’ novel tells the story of post-war Britain through two families, both from opposite ends of the social spectrum, beginning with the friendship between Drummond and Carter formed during their National Service training in 1959 and ending in 2019 when the consequences of compromises made come home to roost. It’s a richly textured, immersive novel, full of convincing characters whose stories echo that of their changing country. The Cold War’s background hum is particularly well done.
Andrés Neuman’s Fracture complements that Cold War theme, following Yoshie Watanabe, an elderly man who finds himself exploring his past in the wake of the tsunami which triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011. Yoshie is a Hiroshima survivor who narrowly escaped the destruction of Nagasaki in which his remaining family perished. His work took him first to Paris, then New York, Buenos Aires and finally Madrid, where he explored his adoptive countries’ culture and language, embarking on relationships with four women each of whom are contacted in 2011 by a journalist keen to track down this man who has seen two forms of nuclear disaster in his lifetime. Themes of war and its aftermath, interconnection, dislocation and memory overarch this satisfying, intelligent and humane novel whose quiet tone creates an affecting intimacy.
Shortly after July began, Covid restrictions were loosened and we were able to see friends again taking my focus away little from reading although there was still time enough for two excellent books. The first, Kirstin Innes’ Scabby Queen, explored over three decades of political protest through the story of Clio Campbell, firebrand and erstwhile rock star, who takes her own life just three days before her fifty-first birthday. Clio’s appearance on Top of the Pops displaying her politics to the world as she unbuttons her shirt to reveal a close-fitting T-shirt bearing an anti-poll tax slogan, is the zenith of her career, enshrined in popular culture. While her musical influence wanes her passion for justice continues to shine brightly until she chooses the ultimate political act. Written with wit, humour and sharp observation, this long, sprawling novel is the antithesis of the pared back, tightly disciplined writing I so admire, but I loved it.
July’s second standout was Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary in which a young woman, interning for the publisher of an unfinished encyclopaedic dictionary, fields the threatening phone calls made with monotonous regularity to its office. After three years of answering the daily torrent of abuse, Mallory is asked by her boss to track down the dictionary’s ‘mountweazels’- deliberate falsities – prior to digitising it. Meanwhile, in 1899 Peter Winceworth, regularly jeered at by his colleagues, is slyly slipping those falsities into Swansby’s dictionary. Williams’ book was an absolute joy for me, pressing a multitude of my literary buttons. A dual narrative peppered with lots of discursive etymological nuggets, witty and occasionally slapstick, it’s also a glorious piece of storytelling, full of colourful characters and striking scenes.
August brought a little more relief from the pandemic gloom although I’d managed to scupper my chances of enjoying any freedom by breaking my dominant wrist in late July. Three books, each good enough to appear on my Booker Prize wish list, went some way to make up for that. I included the first more in hope than anticipation but to my amazement and delight it won. Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain follows the eponymous Shuggie over a decade from the age of five, ceaselessly bullied for his fastidious ways and devoted to his alcoholic mother. Agnes is a proud beauty whose superiority makes her no friends, given to angry self-pity once the booze sets in. When his father moves them into the house he’s promised for years then promptly disappears, Agnes is appalled to find herself living in a neighbourhood where unemployment is the norm and substance abuse rife. Given its themes and synopsis, you might be forgiven for thinking this is a story of unremitting misery but Stuart delivers it with a great deal of sharp, dry wit, leavening the pathos.
I was more convinced that Sarah Moss’ Summerwater would appeal to the Booker Prize judges but it didn’t even make it on to the longlist. Set over a single drenching day, Moss’ elegantly slim novella takes us into a set of chalets in a remote Scottish park where the hoped-for peace and quiet is shattered by the partying of one renegade family. Moss structures her book almost like a set of tightly linked short stories, dipping in and out of the chalet occupants’ long wet day, exploring their preoccupations through the thoughts running through their heads. Beneath it all runs the low hum of xenophobia, each of the holidaymakers giving the nosy chalet’s inhabitants a different eastern European nationality having not bothered to find out for themselves. Another superb slice of fiction from Moss, sharply observed and delivered with characteristic insight.
Donal Ryan’s beautifully expressed Strange Flowers, also failed to catch the Booker judges’ eyes. Beginning in the early ‘70s, Ryan’s novella is about the Gadneys whose daughter leaves home one morning with no explanation. Molly returns, upset but as close mouthed as ever, throwing crumbs of information about her life in London to a patient Kit and Paddy. Shortly after her return, the priest and sergeant pay a visit, telling tales of a stranger heard asking about the Gadneys in a local pub. Molly is distraught, talking of the man who has been stalking her in London, but when Paddy meets Alexander a different story emerges which will change the Gadneys’ household irrevocably bringing joy, love, division and grief. Each book Ryan delivers seems to be more elegantly lyrical than the last, whether it’s his descriptions of landscape or his compassionate exploration of love in its many forms and its consequences.
With autumn on the horizon, very little in our daily lives had changed since the pandemic was declared but there were already tentative mentions of a Covid vaccine raising hopes, not to mention a few books to relish including one by a favourite but much underrated author which I was please to see snag a little social media attention.
A click on a title will take you to my review if you’d like to know more. If you’ve missed the first two parts of 2020’s books of the year and would like to catch up, they’re here and here. Final part next week…