It’s February and as often happens at this time of the year I’ve been feeling a little sorry for myself – life’s a bit dull, I’m in one of my periodic energy dips and winter seems to have dragged on too long despite the fact that we’ve been spared the wet miseries of last year. Reading Anna Lyndsey’s eloquent memoir put the kibosh on that little whingy outbreak of self-indulgence: she suffers from a form of dermatitis so extreme that long periods of her life are spent in a blacked out room, unable to tolerate any kind of light.
It opens with a particularly vivid chapter as she frantically tries to light-proof a room in the house she shares with her partner, Pete. Even the smallest sliver will burn her skin. A sensitivity which began when sitting in front of computer screens, then extended to fluorescent light now includes sunlight. She must confine herself to this single room, only venturing downstairs when Pete has taken the elaborate precautions necessary for them to eat together. Despite the blackout she must dress in many protective layers so that no light penetrates her clothing. Once an ambitious civil servant with ten years in Whitehall under her belt, Lyndsey is now dependent on Pete to help her navigate this devastating condition. Her days are spent listening to talking books – she discovers a surprising predilection for SAS novels although she’ll listen to anything except James Patterson or Miss Read. Radio 4 provides a much-needed alternative but music is to be avoided. It taps too deeply into her emotions dissolving the ‘careful stoicism’ needed to cope with her illness and all that entails. Girl in the Dark is Lyndsey’s account of the ways in which she has learned to deal with her disability and what it’s like to live a life so narrow. It’s also a quiet testament to love: Pete, practical and down to earth, takes each development in her condition as it comes, helping to solve seemingly intractable problems, only occasionally expressing his annoyance when one of the wackier therapists Lyndsey turns to in desperation starts hiding the food.
Lyndsey tells her story at first in a series of impressionistic snapshots – often vivid, sometimes funny – taking a more chronological approach in the second half when remissions are on the horizon. As she points out in her note at the end, time is somewhat elastic when you live much of your life in the dark. One of her strategies for dealing with boredom is playing word games which seems entirely appropriate given her facility with language. Her descriptions of the natural world which she and Pete explored in ‘the life before’ are quite beautiful, making them all the more poignant given what comes after. Her explorations of therapies – some conventional, some downright bonkers – are often very funny, and she’s entirely honest about the misery and suicidal thoughts that lurk at the back of her mind bursting out when left unsaid for too long. It’s impossible not to be awed by Lyndsey’s resilience, endurance and humour: at one point she writes ‘In the end we have one choice: to suffer well or to suffer badly’. She calls the quality she reaches for ‘grace’, and she has it spades.
Those lovely people at Shiny New Books have been busy again, putting together another issue for your delectation packed with features, interviews and reviews by some of my favourite bloggers. My own contribution is a review of Peter Walker’s Some Here Among Us which mixes the personal with the political on a grand scale, taking its characters from their youthful student days in 1967 to their more sober late middle age in 2010 by way of New Zealand, Washington and Beirut. Why not pop over and take a gander.
I’ve been meaning to read Thomas E. Kennedy’s Copenhagen Quartet for some time and was sent a copy of the final instalment recently. This might seem an odd place to start a series but I’d been assured that all the novels stand alone, as indeed this one did although I am left wondering if I’ve missed lots of connections by leapfrogging the first three. Kennedy is an American writer who like Patrick Bluett, the main protagonist of Beneath the Neon Egg, is a New Yorker who has spent many years living in Copenhagen. Apart from a deep love of jazz which clearly Kennedy shares with his character I hope the resemblance ends there.
The novel opens with Bluett on his way to an assignation. It’s the coldest winter he’s known in his twenty years of living in Copenhagen and he’s heading north. He knows this is a risky venture – Benthe is the wife of an important business contact – and when he arrives it seems that things are more complicated that he had thought: rather then one woman there are two, both of whom expect to sleep with him. Now in his forties, Bluett has recently left a rancorous marriage. His life consists of translating five pages a day – just enough to keep himself – listening to jazz, drinking, trawling music bars and trying to build bridges with his two children, both young adults. His best friend Sam thinks himself in love with a beautiful young Russian but things take a very dark turn when Sam is found dead. This isn’t a crime novel, however, more an exploration of loneliness and longing.
Perhaps it’s because Kennedy has lived for so long in Denmark that his book reads very much more like a Scandi novel than one written by an American. Taking its structure from John Coltrane’s jazz symphony, A Love Supreme, with each section named after one of the four tracks, it’s saturated in music – an essential element in Bluett’s life. Bluett is a man yearning for intimacy: when he meets a woman he wonders what she’s like in bed but when he’s presented with that clichéd male fantasy – sex with two women – it leaves him empty, unable to boast about it to Sam as he’d anticipated with relish. A deep yearning and loneliness permeates the novel – brief moments of ecstasy are followed by long introspective passages full of longing. I found it surprisingly moving, and was relieved that it ended on a note of optimism. The proof of the pudding is that I’ll being buying a copy of the first instalment very soon.
I met up with a friend in Salisbury last week, a city of which I’m very fond although it feels more like a town to me. It’s a lovely train journey from Bath but the countryside was swathed in murk and so a book was needed, one that wasn’t too demanding given that there’s no quiet carriage on that route. Elizabeth Day’s Home Fires looked a possibility. It explores the effects of war across the generations through a single family so hardly a piece of escapism but it’s more in Joanna Trollope than Siri Hustvedt territory, engaging but not taxing – just the thing for a rackety train and an appropriate choice for a trip that was taking me through Warminster along the edges of Salisbury Plain, military training heartland.
It opens in 1920 with Elsa, aged six, frightened by the strange, angry man who’s invaded her happy childhood. Clearly suffering from shell-shock, Horace flinches at the slightest noise and beats his small daughter for the smallest infringement. Cut to Caroline in 2010, Elsa’s daughter-in-law drugged into a state where she can cope with her soldier son’s death, but unable to accept it. The stories of these two are interwoven with flashbacks to Caroline’s difficult relationship with the exacting, snobbish but deeply damaged Elsa, Andrew’s stoicism at his son’s death and Max’s determination to make a difference in the world no matter what it takes. When it becomes clear that ninety-eight-year-old Elsa can no longer cope on her own, Andrew moves her into the family home. Relations between the two women – one much diminished but still finding a way to best her daughter-in-law, the other faced with a lifetime of never measuring up while becoming obsessed with military casualties – become strained to breaking point. The relationship between Elsa and Caroline is painfully well drawn and Day’s portrayal of a couple trying to deal with the loss of their beloved son is both convincing and moving. It’s a perceptive novel, not one that’s likely to find itself on any literary prize lists, but absorbing and thought-provoking for all that.
Last week it was announced that Hodder & Stoughton was to buy Stieg Larsson’s publisher, Quercus, an independent started by Anthony Cheetham back in 2005. For several years it was the book trade’s darling, its success no doubt helped along by Cheetham’s many years of publishing experience combined with his legendary entrepreneurial nous. Finding itself cash-strapped, it had put itself up for sale a few months ago and I had been anxious about who might buy it. It came hard on the heels of the announcement that Little, Brown was buying Constable & Robinson, another independent
I’m very fond of independent publishers – they’re more likely to produce books that are a little out of the mainstream rather than staying on a bandwagon for rather too long. They keep the big boys and girls of the publishing world on their toes but sometimes find themselves swallowed up by the conglomerates as happened to Fourth Estate who caught HarperCollins’ eye. As is often the case with independents their very inventiveness results in a huge success – in this case Dava Soebel’s Longitude which opened up a whole new genre of niche history – attracting the attention of the publishing behemoths. That particular acquisition was accompanied by the appointment of Victoria Barnsley, whose baby Fourth Estate was, to CEO of HarperCollins which ensured that it didn’t entirely lose its personality. Sadly, since her surprise departure last year, Barnsley is longer holding the reins.
I’m a great fan of Quercus – good strong commercial fiction and crime coupled with the literary and translated fiction of Maclehose Press. I’m sure Hodder will take care of them – worries about the takeover of the illustrious John Murray, surely the most venerable of independents, proved unfounded – and that Little, Brown will look after Corsair, Constable & Robinson’s literary fiction imprint, long a favourite of mine. There are a multitude of independents out there, many of them publishing in enterprising and inventive ways: Persephone’s beautifully produced women’s lost classics, originally only sold from their own shop, filled the Virago Classic gap; Profile’s often quirky and original non-fiction is always worth a look; not to mention Alma’s short but carefully chosen list plus And Other Stories’ inventive crowd sourcing, publishing by subscription approach. Some of them have reserves to live off – Faber have a solid backlist of plays, poetry and William Golding while Bloomsbury still has the Harry Potter goldmine. These, along with Canongate who filled that Fourth Estate gap for me, Granta, publishers of the Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, and Atlantic are some of my favourite publishers. I’m sure many of you will have your own treasured independents – I’d love to hear who they are.
From the opening paragraph we know that things will end badly. Helen, now a writer, looks back to the summer of 1945 when she turned eleven. Her father has gone to work at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for what is later revealed to be the Manhattan Project, leaving Helen in the care of Flora, her mother’s cousin. After her mother’s death, Helen was brought up largely by her beloved grandmother who has died earlier that year. The older Helen portrays her younger self as a precocious self-regarding little girl, quick to judge all but herself. Flora’s easy tears are seen as a weakness, or worse, a needy affectation. When one of her best friends is struck down with polio it’s something of a nuisance, particularly as it results in her father confining both Flora and her to their house. She neglects her best friend and is treated to some very satisfying home truths when Annie rings to say she is moving away. When a handsome young war veteran delivers the groceries Helen is struck with a massive crush and is more than a little miffed by the attention he pays to Flora.
Gail Godwin cleverly constructs her narrative, scattering hints throughout and reminding us that her narrator is not entirely reliable in her reminiscences. Although we know that there will be no happy ending to Helen’s summer, Godwin’s skill is such that what happens still feels shocking and intensely sad. Had I not been prompted by both the book’s press release and the author’s website it wouldn’t have occurred to me that Henry James’ sinister ghost story The Turn of the Screw was the inspiration for Flora, although there’s a clue in the title. For me it brought to mind Ian McEwan’s Atonement which in turn reminds me of L P Hartley’s The Go-Between. Whatever the influence or inspiration, this exploration of remorse and regret is a quietly excellent novel in its own right. And something quietly excellent is just what I needed after yesterday’s Amazon rant which has sparked a much calmer post from a fellow book blogger entitled Changing my book buying ways. Has rather a nice C&W ring to it!
After a disappointing start, it seems I’m back on a reading roll this month – What in God’s Name, Lamb, The Small Hours, The Last Banquet and now, Ethan Hauser’s The Measures Between Us, have all hit the spot. Set against the backdrop of a storm-hit small town just outside Boston, it opens with a prologue: Cynthia and Jack share a couple of beers and a joint with two guys working the rides at the fairground where they’ve spent the evening. The couple have been together, on and off, since high school but Jack has been troubled by Cynthia’s unexplained absence. Cynthia’s father, the woodwork teacher at the local school, turns to an old pupil, now a psychologist, for help when his wife finds a frightening number of aspirins in Cynthia’s bedroom. Hearing this, Henry recommends a mental hospital where he believes Cynthia can find help. Hauser’s novel quietly explores the fragile intimacies and tangled relationships between the people around Cynthia, some known to each other, some not. Henry adores his pregnant wife but is sure that she will leave him one day, his behaviour sadly predictable when opportunity presents itself. Vince remembers Cynthia’s childhood with joy but Mary recalls the terror of parental anxiety, both beset with worry that they have betrayed her. Mary befriends a fellow churchgoer worried about his grandson whose mother has killed herself. Henry’s wife frets about her feelings for her unborn baby fleeing to a college friend in Texas. Over it all the New England sky lours, threatening to dump yet another deluge on Grover’s Crossing. So much sadness so eloquently expressed left me yearning for a flash of joy but none came, just a quiet acceptance for some and self punishment for others. The only jarring note was those louring skies – climate change or a rather unsubtle pathetic fallacy? A small criticism, however, of what is otherwise a compelling and memorable novel.
Time was when readers only got to hear about the Man Booker shortlist but now we’re treated to the longlist as well. I was absolutely delighted to see Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic on it – a very talented writer, much overlooked – but put out not to find Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life which should surely be garlanded in prizes. Well, that’s my opinion anyway.