After last year’s surprisingly sunny visit to Manchester we decided we’d probably used up our Northern spring good weather luck, heading off to St Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex for a short break to see family in April.
The month’s reading got off to a brilliant start with ex-bookseller Alice Slater’s Death of a Bookseller which took me so vividly back to my own bookselling days I felt I’d been restocking the shelves only yesterday. Set during the run up to Christmas, Slater’s hugely enjoyable novel follows Roach, who’s worked in the dingy Walthamstow branch of Spines for nine years, and Laura, one of three seasoned booksellers parachuted in with the aim of saving it from closure, on whom Roach becomes fixated, convinced she’s hiding something. Slater alternates Roach’s and Laura’s narratives, Roach’s obsessive behaviour providing much of the tension as Laura’s careful control begins to crumble. This was such a nostalgic read for me, although I should point out nothing nefarious happened in my branch of Waterstones, at least while I worked there.
Liminal is the second novel by Roland Schimmelpfennig to make it on to my books of the year list. His smartly structured One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century was one of my books of 2018. Set in Berlin’s underworld, Liminal is very different but also explores the darker side of modern Germany, following a cop whose life has been shattered by a tragic event. Tommy’s awaiting trial on corruption charges when at a May Day rave he spots the body of a woman in the river. As he searches the city for clues to her identity, fuelled by a cocktail of drugs, a picture emerges of a woman desperate to escape the person who thought he was protecting her, finding love, friendship and fulfilment only to lose it. Schimmelpfennig’s vividly cinematic writing is often dreamlike, hallucinatory, so that we, like Tommy, sometimes have difficulty in knowing what’s real and what’s not.
May’s reading began with Caleb Azumah Nelson’s achingly beautiful Small Worlds which proved to be even better than his Costa First Novel Prize-winning Open Water. Opening in 2010, Nelson’s novel is an eloquent exploration of love, loss and finding a place of safety for a person of colour in a white world. It follows Stephen, the youngest son of a Ghanaian couple living in Peckham, whose ambitions to study music are stymied resulting in dashed hopes of love and a chasm opening up between him and his father. Nelson writes with such poignant tenderness for his characters. I had hoped this moving, quietly heartfelt and accomplished novel would be on the Booker longlist.
Sheila Armstrong’s Falling Animals, May’s second favourite, spans a year in which the authorities try to trace the identity of a corpse found on an Irish beach one August morning, within sight of the shipwreck that had caught fire some time ago, some say the work of the shipping company wanting to hurry along their long drawn-out insurance claim. Witnesses come forward but details are sketchy. A year to the day after the man’s death, a memorial is unveiled filled with names of those who’ve perished at sea. Armstrong’s novel is a mosaic of often strikingly poetic narratives from those who had connections to the man. A very fine debut which reminded me a little of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 in both its structure and the quality of its writing. High praise indeed.
In June, we took ourselves off for a week to first Leeds then Glasgow where I finally visited the Burrell Collection, which I loved, and where we were struck by a surprising heatwave. My first book when we got back was Daniela Krien’s The Fire which more than lived up to expectations raised high by Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything back in 2015 and Love in Five Acts, one of my books of 2021. The Fire explores a long marriage at a point of crisis over three summer weeks spent housesitting in the countryside during which the question of paternity which has long haunted Rahel looms large. Nothing much happens in this novella which lays bare our need to know who we are and our interconnectedness with those with whom we share our lives but by the end much has been resolved. All three of the novels I’ve read by Krien have been characterised by a quietly perceptive understanding of human nature and relationships, each of them expertly translated by Jamie Bulloch.
Coincidentally, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos explores similar themes of identity through a love affair which begins in 1986 between Hans, a successful writer born in 1933, and Katharina, born in East Berlin in 1967, the same year in which Erpenbeck herself was born. They meet often and are besotted with each other but then something happens that irrevocably changes their relationship which becomes increasingly abusive and dysfunctional. Ostensibly the story of an affair between two people unable to let each other go despite the increasing harm inflicted by their relationship, Erpenbeck’s novel is an allegory which explores the history of her native country, a country that no longer exists. All three of the books I’ve read by Erpenbeck have been impressive, particularly The End of Days, but with Kairos she’s excelled herself. Her fiction offers much food for thought on the events that have shaped modern Germany.
We came back from Glasgow all primed for long, warm, dry days, and, perhaps, reading outside. I had an Irish literary thriller all ready to go, wondering if it was going to live up to all the brouhaha surrounding it. More of that soon but in the meantime, if you missed the first part of my books of the year and would like to catch up, it’s here.