By March I’d usually have been talking about spring but even my perennial Pollyanna tendencies had been flattened by a pandemic winter, dank and dreary with few bright days to enjoy. One of the novels that kept my mind of things was Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground which explores the darker side of rural life through Julius and Jeanie Seeder, middle-aged twins whose lives are thrown into disarray by the sudden death of their mother. As the twins set about all that must now be done, shocking discoveries are made and the closely guarded lives they’ve led on the edge of society begin to unravel. I’ve read and enjoyed all four of Fuller’s novels, beginning with her debut, Our Endless Numbered Days, and suffice to say I think this is her best. Thoroughly deserving of its Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlisting.
How I would’ve loved to see the much-underrated Georgina Harding’s Harvest alongside Unsettled Ground on that list. Her third novel about the Ashe family, it echoes both The Gun Room and Land of the Living in its exploration of the legacy of war. Jonathan has been home for six months before he invites his Japanese lover to visit the farm his father took on after the Second World War. Kumiko decides to spend the summer in England after which they might travel together with what Jonathan earns from the harvest he’s promised to help his brother bring in. As the summer wears on, tension between the brothers tightens while Kumiko feels like an outsider. By the end of the novel, a revelation has been made which undermines the fragile structure of this family, built on half-truths and silence. Harding’s prose is eloquently spare, punctuated with gorgeous descriptions of the Norfolk summer reminding me of holidays past.
March saw my first 2021 short story favourite, Danielle Evans’ The Office of Historical Corrections which explores racism in America. There’s not one dud in this collection but the novella-length titular piece stood out for me, set in the Institute of Popular History, founded to correct the misinformation, inaccuracy and downright falsity endemic in Trump’s America. When Cassie is called in to calm the ruffled feathers in the whitest town in Wisconsin, thanks to a colleague’s correction concerning an apparent lynching, her investigations lead to a surprising, deliciously ironic discovery which has sober of results. A sharp but nuanced collection, delivered in a low-key deadpan style, often laced with a wry humour.
April’s reading got off to a delightful start with Katherine Heiny’s Early Morning Riser. Set in a small American town it follows Jane who meets the handsome Duncan when she locks herself out of her new home dressed in her pyjamas. They quickly become a couple but there’s a fly in the ointment: Duncan seems to have slept with every woman in Boyne City and beyond. Jane finds herself constantly faced with one of his exs. Over the seventeen years Heiny’s novel spans, Jane will continue to yearn for romantic love – although not always for herself – pick up a burden of guilt that leads to more happiness than she’d hoped for and, ultimately, experience a quietly joyous epiphany. I loved this novel. Undemanding and immensely enjoyable, it’s the perfect escape when times are tough, and the ending is a delight.
Regular readers will know that Jon McGregor is one of my favourite authors. He seems to outdo himself with each new novel as he did with Lean Fall Stand, which follows a man returning from his beloved Antarctica, irrevocably changed, and his wife who must find a way to care for him. Summoned to Santiago, Anna knows Robert has had a stroke but not the extent of its damage. Theirs is a marriage which affords her an independence she almost takes for granted. Robert’s return upends all that. When he’s persuaded to attend a support group, he’s reluctant but it proves to be the saving of him. The title of McGregor’s empathetic novel follows the trajectory of Robert’s stroke capturing the disorientation and disorder of the event, its aftermath and his slow recovery. A quietly powerful book, unafraid to explore the boundaries of language. I was convinced it would be on the Booker longlist, at least.
April’s third favourite is Anna Krien’s meticulously constructed Love in Five Acts which follows five very different women, all born in the GDR, whose lives are interlinked, sometimes in ways they’re not aware. These are women who, like Krien, were teenagers when the Berlin Wall fell. Now middle aged, they’re faced with a multitude of choices and pressures, each dealing with the freedom denied to their parents in their own way. An impressive piece of fiction, both absorbing and thought provoking not least in its ending. Always worth looking out for Jaimie Bulloch’s name. I’ve yet to read a novel he’s translated I’ve not enjoyed.
I’m at the halfway mark for these posts although not halfway through the year which began to look up for outings and socialising as restrictions were lifted here in the UK. Less time for reading, not something I ever thought I’d welcome, but still enough to fill a satisfying part three which includes three brilliant novellas. If you missed part one of my 2021 reading highlights and would like to catch up it’s here.