We’re on the last lap, you’ll be pleased to hear, with a surprising number of gems in November, an indication of the way the publishing year has shifted since so many sales migrated online. I remember when October was the big publishing month.
That month’s only stand out title for me was Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea, Lucy Barton’s third outing, the second in a year, and a pandemic novel, all of which made me a bit wary. Lucy and her ex-husband spend the first year of the pandemic in Maine where Lucy’s life, like many others, is changed in surprising sometimes shocking ways. William is quick to see which way the wind is blowing as Covid grips Europe, whisking the sceptical Lucy off to the coastal town of Crosby. Things are a little scratchy at first, but they settle into a routine, Lucy making some surprising friends while William finds an unexpected contentment. As ever, Strout’s writing is empathetic and insightful, vividly summoning up the introspective, claustrophobic bubble of lockdown before vaccinations offered us freedom. Any doubts were quickly dispelled for me. If anything, I found this a more interesting novel than the Booker shortlisted Oh, William! and My Name is Lucy Barton.
I’ve been a huge fan Robbie Arnott’s since Flames, his debut. A coming-of-age story set in 1940s Tasmania with the Second World War a distant hum, Limberlost follows fifteen-year-old Ned who spends his summer hunting rabbits, saving his earnings in the hopes of buying a boat. He’s a lost boy without his brothers, longing for the approval of a father and sister whose thoughts are often far away from home. I loved both of Arnott’s previous novels but Limberlost feels more assured, the work of a novelist whose writing continues to mature in a way that many never achieve.
I’m not one for Christmas books but Lynn Steger Strong’s Flight fits that bill well even if I did read it in November having not yet gone anywhere near a mince pie. Set in snowy New York state, it follows three siblings and their families facing their first Christmas without their beloved mother. Over the next few days, the family’s dynamics take a different shape, their relationship to each other brought into sharp focus by a crisis involving another family less fortunate than their own. This quietly absorbing novel portrays a middle-aged family brought face-to-face with its privilege with a perceptive empathy. That may not sound very exciting, but I found myself thinking about Strong’s book for quite some time after finishing it.
Rather like Strong, Meg Howrey was a name new to me but a blurb promising a novel set in ‘80s New York together with a resounding recommendation from Ann Patchett caught my eye. They’re Going to Love You explores themes of love, betrayal and dedication against a background of the dance world as Carlisle is faced with visiting her dying father after a schism of nineteen years. She’s the daughter of a dancer and a ballet festival director but by the time Carlisle is ten, her father is living with his gay lover in a Greenwich Village apartment where she spends her summers, becoming closer each year to James, if not to her father, until a chasm opens between them. Howrey unfolds her deeply involving story in a plain, unadorned narrative making its emotional complexity all the more powerful.
My last book of 2022 is Jonathan Coe’s Bournville which I began expecting to be disappointed. Set in the eponymous model village built by the Cadburys, it tells the story of post-war Britain through one extended family. Coe structures his novel around seven occasions that apparently united the country, from the opening V.E. Day to its muted commemoration in 2020. It’s a clever idea and Coe executes it well. There are some enjoyable set pieces – the 1966 World Cup final is lovingly described as are the Bond movies – and there’s humour to enjoy but this is also an elegiac book. As the touching, funny and angry author’s note makes clear this is a work of fiction, but the main protagonist is based very much on Coe’s mother who died during the pandemic, the family unable to have the funeral they would have wanted for her. A thoroughly enjoyable, engrossing novel which makes me hopeful for Coe’s next one. A good note to end on.
For those who’ve stuck with me throughout all four posts and to all who’ve read and commented on my blog this year, thanks so much. Always a pleasure to hear from you! There will be a couple more reviews this year but mostly I’ll be looking forward to 2023 which is shaping up nicely. Meanwhile, if you missed my first three books of the year posts and would like to catch up, they’re here, here and here.