I’ve been in dire need of distraction this year. I tend to keep politics out of this blog but ours is a very political household. It’s what we talk about over supper but this year we both decided, for the sake of our mental health, we needed to rein it back. Books, as ever, have been a solace. Far too many favourites for one or even two posts so there will be four, all with links to full reviews on this blog.
January began with a book that was published in the previous December and as a result may not have made the impression it deserved which is why it’s popped up two weeks running here. Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability. Written from Audrey’s point of view, Down’s debut is a masterclass in elegant understatement steered neatly away from the maudlin. It’s about the way in which friendship can help you through the darkest of times, about resilience and learning when to reach out, and it ends on a note of hope which brought me to tears. A very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely.
Nathan Hill’s The Nix is a big novel in every sense of the word. Through the story of a mother and the son she left when he was eleven, it explores the panorama of American life from the heady idealism of the ‘60s to 2011, the world still reeling from the global financial crisis. The writing is striking from the get-go and it’s very funny: Hill hurls well-aimed barbs at all manner of things from social media to advertising, publishing to academia to mention but a few. Careful plotting ensures that each piece of the puzzle slots neatly into place until both Faye and Samuel’s stories are told. It ends with fresh starts, a much-needed reminder that despite all that’s gone before there will always be both redemption and hope somewhere in the world, albeit personal rather than political.
Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack comes packaged in the perfect jacket. It’s the story of a marriage spanning sixty years, contracted in 1952: Jack is about to playfully pull the laughing Milly into what they hope will be the nice warm swimming pool of married life. In many ways they’re an ill-matched couple, neither of them quite what the other expected or thought they were, but they stick it out, always finding some love left no matter how close they are to the bottom of the barrel. Jones’ narrative is a little fragmented in the way that memories are but it’s all beautifully done, anchored by recurring motifs. An engrossing, utterly gripping novel, beautifully bookended by the repetition of Jack and Milly’s first meeting.
February also delivered three novels that hit the spot, each very different from the others, starting with Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. This elegant novella is a book of memory, the story of a teenage girl in the ‘70s which unfolds when a chance meeting after her father’s funeral catapults August back into her past. It’s a gorgeous book – deeply moving, peopled with vividly drawn characters and beautifully expressed. Woodson is known for her young adult and children’s books but I hope she’ll find time to write some more for us grown-up readers.
Comprising eight stories written over a period of twenty years, The Refugees is by an author who fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. It explores the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. Viet Thanh Nguyen considers themes of memory, love, family, identity and belonging – or not belonging – from a variety of points of view in a collection which combines a thoughtful distance with first-hand experience lending it a quiet power. Every refugee – from Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or any of the many conflicts that afflict our world – has their story which will continue to reverberate for many decades.
At which point you may be wondering about books as a distraction from politics but my next February choice has that in spades. Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree is a rip-roaring tale of thieves and whores, love and folly, corruption and redemption, much of it told in flash – gloriously vivid eighteenth-century thieves’ slang. It’s the story of Edgeworth Bess who is in Newgate Gaol, awaiting trial for possession of stolen goods which may well lead her to Tyburn’s gallows. Alongside Bess’ tale, Billy – petty thief, scribbler and molly – tells his own, intertwining his narrative with hers as each moves towards a decisive conclusion. I have a feeling that Arnott had a great deal of fun writing this book, delving into the lives of spruce-prigs, twangs and buttock-brokers.
That’s it for January and February’s favourites. Goodies were thinner on the ground in the following three months but they did include one which should have won all this year’s prizes, as far as I’m concerned, but didn’t…