After a stonking start to my reading year, the second instalment of 2016 favourites covers the four months from March to June with just eight books, beginning with a rediscovered American classic. First published in 1967, Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog requires a strong stomach to get through the first page but the rest of this wrenching novel makes the effort well worth it. Written in straightforward yet cinematic prose it tells the story of the Burbank brothers, owners of one of Montana’s biggest ranches and rich beyond reckoning yet still sharing the same room they’ve slept in for all but the few years they were at university. The publisher’s comparison with John Williams’ celebrated Stoner may seem extravagant at first but Savage’s novel proves itself to be more than worthy of it.
My second March novel seemed a little overlooked at the time – I hope the paperback publication has put that right. Opening in 1999, Guillermo Erades’ Back to Moscow follows a young PhD student as he parties his way around a city in the midst of transforming itself. Erades vividly evokes Moscow awash with people on the make while others look on in dismay, charting the changes from the invasion of expats – welcomed everywhere with open arms – to the rise of the oligarchs, Putin and the war in Chechnya. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this debut. What could easily have been a cheap and lurid hedonistic tale turns out to be very much more than that.
Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier was April’s surprise success for me. It took some persuasion to get me to read it – its structure seemed too tricksy by half. Parker, a veteran of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, tells the story of Captain Tom Barnes who steps on an improvised explosive device – just as Parker did – from the point of view of forty-five objects, ranging from the tourniquet tied around what’s left of Tom’s leg to his occupational service medal. Parker carries this off beautifully, managing to be both objective and extraordinarily vivid in his descriptions of what happens to Tom. It’s a thoroughly impressive and inventive piece of work. Not an autobiography but it’s impossible not to think of the author’s own experience when reading it.
If Anatomy of a Soldier’s structure sounds a little too unconventional for you best steer clear of May’s favourite. Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower is an extraordinarily inventive, idiosyncratic interpretation of Sri Ramakrishna’s story, the avatar with whom she became fascinated as a child. It has two narrative strands running through it – neither chronological – with a multitude of diversions and devices, from recounting dreams to imagining the goings-on in the temple through the eyes of a swift equipped with a tiny camera. Barker frequently pulls the rug out from beneath her readers’ feet, contradicting and questioning what has gone before.
June made up for April and May’s sparse favourites with four winners for me, starting with one of the most talked about British novels of this year, at least in my neck of the Twitter woods. Set in 1885, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is the tale of a small group of people each of whom comes to their own conclusions about a winged serpent, first seen in 1669 and now thought to be roaming the marshes around Aldwinter. A novel of ideas all wrapped up in a riveting bit of storytelling and gorgeously vivid prose, it focuses on the passionate friendship between the recently widowed Cora, fascinated by the emerging theories about the natural world, and Will Ransome, Aldwinter’s pastor, determined to ignore the titular serpent’s effect on his parishioners. A very fine book indeed.
My second June favourite is Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer which sprang from her self-confessed addiction to Patricia Highsmith’s novels. It’s based on Highsmith’s sojourn in Suffolk where she set herself up to be close to her married lover. Dawson divides her narrative between first and third person, making Highsmith the quintessential unreliable narrator, further unsettling her readers with her protagonist’s ceaselessly questioning, claustrophobic inner monologue. Dawson has a talent for working historical figures into her fiction – most notably Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover – but The Crime Writer is the ultimate in literary fan fiction. Absolutely engrossing even if, like me, you’re not a Highsmith aficionado.
Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter caught my attention for June’s preview when I speculated that it might merely be an entertaining piece of fluff but it turned out to be much better than that. It shares a restaurant backdrop with a January favourite, Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, this time in New York where Tess has fetched up having turned her back on smalltown Ohio. After proving her mettle, Tess catches the eye of both Simone, the restaurant’s expert sommelier, and Jake, its rakish bartender, and is drawn into the orbit of these two damaged personalities. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, hard to put down, and an acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.
The first half of the year was rounded off for me by the discovery of Icelandic author Sjón’s writing through Moonstone. Set in 1918, this fable-like novella follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni Steinn over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through Reykjavík. Mani funds his expensive movie habit by turning tricks, always on the lookout for Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, the very image of Musidora, the star of Máni’s favourite movie. There’s a gorgeously poetic, dreamlike quality to this book whose ending is extraordinarily beautiful – both fantastical and moving. Kudos to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing.
A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review of each of the books should you be interested. The third books of the year post will cover July and August, two months whose splendours rival those of January and February.