This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.
I have the BBC to thank for introducing me to Haruki Murakami’s work. Someone picked A Wild Sheep Chase for Radio 4’s A Good Read way back in my bookselling days and I was intrigued by their description of it, as were many other listeners: we sold shed loads of this wacky novel by a writer hardly anyone in the UK had heard of at the time. It was actually published in Japan in 1982 but not translated into English until 1989.
A Sherlock Holmes-obsessed, chain-smoking advertising executive is pursuing a sheep with a very particular birthmark after pinching an image from a postcard sent by a friend to illustrate some copy. The sheep has been spotted in the photograph by a shady character called ‘The Boss’ who has threatened our unnamed narrator with some very nasty consequences if he fails to track it down. Things become increasingly surreal as the narrator fixes the sheep in his sights on a trail that leads him from Tokyo to the snowy peaks of Hokkaido where he comes face to face with his quarry. There’s a good deal more to it than that but this is a book impossible to encapsulate in just a few words which is part of its charm. I read it with increasingly delighted astonishment. Funny, gripping and wonderfully odd, it’s excellent.
It’s well over twenty years since I read A Wild Sheep Chase but I can still remember the excitement of discovering Murakami, gobbling up everything I could find by him. As for A Good Read, it’s still going strong and still well worth listening to for recommendations.
What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?
This collection is an unusual one: it was written for radio rather than print. The BBC commissioned Jon McGregor to write a set of stories that together comprise a prequel to the sublime Reservoir 13 which won the Costa Novel Award earlier this week, much to my delight. Unsurprisingly, given that was my book of last year, I was eager to both hear and read them. For those who haven’t read the novel, it explores the effects of the disappearance of a young girl on a small rural community over thirteen years – one for each of her life – rather like throwing a stone into a pool and following its ripples.
The collection opens with a reporter interviewing Becky’s mother. We only have one side of the interview and so must fill in Charlotte’s part for ourselves. What follows are fourteen stories – vignettes from the Shaws’ previous holiday in the village and the days around Becky’s disappearance – each told from the perspective of a different character. They range from a woman who once worked as a prostitute in the area watching the news and recognising a client to a young boy bullied by Becky, from a man who remembers another missing girl found almost by chance to a woman who recognised her own daughter in Becky’s demeanour. As McGregor says in a brief BBC interview, there’s no attempt to solve the mystery of Becky’s disappearance.
McGregor kicks his collection off brilliantly with the reporter’s interview in which we can almost hear the tearful, faltering, sometimes angry responses from Becky’s mother despite their absence from the page. Each piece has a distinctly individual voice: an elderly man, lonelier that he’ll admit, answers the police tersely becoming more garrulous in the hope that they’ll stay; the reporter’s insinuating, subtly judgemental false sincerity when interviewing Charlotte; a woman’s memories of being rescued from alcoholism by kindness. McGregor’s acutely observed characters all have their own stories – often interconnected – offering a nuanced portrait of a small community with its secrets and history, and the writing is all that fans like me would want it to be:
There were bees buzzing fatly in the foxgloves by the wall vividly summons up the summer heat
Sometimes you’d break things just to see what would happen thinks a character trapped in early parenthood
They’d seen her realising what kind of woman she would be, and playing with the part thinks a mother, remembering her own precocious daughter
For those of us who loved McGregor’s novel this is an additional treat to be enjoyed two ways. If you have access to it, the stories will be available through BBC iPlayer for a further nine months.