I’m feeling quite pleased with myself having pared back this year’s list to twenty books, a first for me, although I’ll have to guard against more sneaking in as I look back over 2023. As usual, I’m planning four posts, one per quarter, beginning with a remarkable piece of writing which got my reading year off to a brilliant start.
The pitch for Dawn Raffel’s Boundless as the Sky was such an intriguing one, I couldn’t resist although I wasn’t at all sure it would work for me. I’m usually more circumspect about accepting books for review published by small presses such as Sagging Meniscus Press, the book’s wonderfully named publishers, mindful of wasting their time and resources. The first part, billed as Raffel’s response to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, is made up of a series of fragments, some telling a brief story, others describing cities – some fantastical, others real. The second tells the story of one afternoon at Chicago’s A Century of Progress exhibition, all eyes trained on the sky for the ‘air armada’, a company of twenty-four planes led by Italo Balbo, commander of the Italian Air Force, on July 7th, 1933, sent from Rome by Mussolini. Raffel’s writing is gorgeously poetic, singing off the page in its lyricism. Not one for fans of linear narrative, but I loved it.
Sarah May’s chunky Becky, her twenty-first century take on William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, got me through some dark chilly January evenings with its story of a young woman who works her way up the tabloid press ladder, determined to get to the top whatever the cost to herself and others. Her Becky follows a similar trajectory to Thackeray’s, although she tells us her own story making it all the more immediate, threading her backstory through the adult Becky’s career, small details drip fed to us helping to explain how she has come to be so ruthlessly ambitious. It’s all deftly done, the grubbiness of tabloid journalism laid bare. Such is May’s skill, that despite Becky’s appalling behaviour, I still felt some sympathy for her.
February was once my most hated month but since discovering a heronry on one of my regular walks, I look forward to spotting nest repairs in the first few weeks knowing that I’ll see parents feeding their chicks soon.
As for reading, two of February’s books hit the spot beginning with Victoria MacKenzie’s, For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain, one of those books I suspect I wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t been sent it. MacKenzie’s debut reimagines the lives of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, alternating the stories of these two very different women told through their own voices in simple but often beautiful language. I found this a riveting piece of fiction, a celebration of the resilience and determination of women. Extraordinarily ambitious for a first novel but MacKenzie carries it off so well I included it on my Women’s Prize for Fiction wish list. Proof that stepping outside your comfort zone often reaps rewards.
Which could also be said of February’s second book, Douglas Bruton’s brief novella, With or Without Angels described by the blurb as ‘a response through fiction’ to ‘The New World’ an artwork by the late artist Alan Smith, itself a response to the eighteenth-century artist Giandomenico Tiepolo’s ‘Il Mondo Nuovo’. Bruton structures his novel around Smith’s response which takes the form of eleven pictures, beginning with the artist and his wife, each one reproduced at the end of a brief chapter of narrative that explores many themes, not least love and creativity. Such an impressive piece of fiction: thoughtful, imaginative, erudite, and beautifully written. Published by Fairlight Books, a small indie, it’s the kind of book that often slips through the review cracks.
We’re into March when spring is most definitely on my horizon, with thoughts turning to holidays and days out, but not just yet. Only one book on the list for the month, but it’s an extraordinarily good one. Sebastian Barry’s Old God’s Time follows a recently retired police officer whose ex-boss has been told to reopen a cold case which involved two priests, both child sex abusers, one of whom had been brutally murdered while the other was moved on to another parish. Tom’s narrative reflects a confusion which may be memory loss or the aftereffects of trauma, slowly unfolding a story the details of which he has been hiding from himself for thirty years. There’s a beauty in Barry’s telling of this desperately sad story which makes its ugliness all the more stark. I was delighted to see his novel on the Booker longlist although disappointed not to see it make the shortlist.
Spring’s favourites shortly and, after a decidedly melancholy end to my reading winter, there’s a rollicking good read in the frame for April which took me back to my bookselling days.