A few years ago when I was running the reviews section of a magazine which included children’s books, YA novels were awash with vampires. Then suddenly dystopian fiction seemed to be the thing – as if teens don’t have enough to angst about. It seems that publishers find bandwagons hard to get off, no matter how overcrowded they become. Two current well-trodden paths in adult fiction are post apocalypse (closely related to dystopian) and the demented protagonist.
The first has a long history – lots of it around in the Cold War years, for instance, including what’s now come to be a classic of the genre: Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road seemed to spark off a new post apocalyptic trend with the likes of Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse not far behind and now we have Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, both longlisted for the Baileys.
Not hard to see what’s triggered either of these trends – climate change and the financial crash seem to have contributed to the first while we’re all terrified of the dementia spectre – but they feel a little over-exposed to me. I’m sure you can think of other well-worn themes, not to mention many books I’ve failed to include. Let me know what your pet likes or dislikes are.
Spring really does seem to have sprung in the March publishing schedules, stuffed to overflowing as they are with both hardback and paperback goodies. I’ve reviewed all but one of the paperbacks already so I’ll start with those. Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation featured in a multitude of ‘books of the year’ lists last year although I know opinion was divided in my part of the Twitter woods. The story of a marriage told in fragment, it’s Offill’s second novel and was quite some time in coming – her first was published in 1999. It won’t suit those wanting a plot but the writing is superb.
Probably best skip on a little if it’s linear narrative you’re after – Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World is a collection of documents relating to artist Harriet Burden all collated by I. V. Hess who introduces the book. From the start Hess warns us that Harriet is a self-confessed trickster, telling us that she had shown her installations pseudonymously, hiding behind three male ‘masks’ while planning to reveal her female identity to the resolutely masculine New York art world once the exhibitions were over. Such a short summing-up hardly does the novel justice: it’s erudite, cerebral and challenging but well worth the effort.
Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone made it on to my own ‘books of the year’ list as did several other novels out in paperback in March. Opening in 1914 it interweaves the stories of Qayyum Gul, who lost an eye at Ypres fighting in the British Indian Army, and Vivien Spencer who is working as an archaeologist in Peshawar. Just as she did with Burnt Shadows, Shamsie takes complex universal themes and humanises them through the lives, loves and passions of her characters.
Timur Vermes’s Look Who’s Back, another of my books of 2014, is very funny satire which sees Hitler waking up with a terrible headache in August 2011, more than a little bemused but soon all too plausibly back in the frame. Satire can go horribly wrong but Vermes is right on the button. Not surprisingly, it caused a bit of a stir in Germany when it was published, storming up the bestseller charts and staying there for seventy weeks.
Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I read in 2014. On New Year’s Eve in 1965 Eileen meets Ed Leary on a blind date and when they kiss at midnight she is sure that this quiet, thoughtful man is the one she’ll marry. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.
Just one title that I haven’t read already: Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music. I wasn’t amongst the many fans of Room, cleverly executed as it was, but Frog Music has a very appealing synopsis. Based on real events it’s set in San Francisco during the 1876 smallpox epidemic and is about three former stars of the Parisian circus now holed up in China Town: Blanche who dances at the House of Mirrors, her lover Arthur and his companion Ernest. We’re promised the unravelling of secrets, murder and intrigue in a novel which is ‘elegant, erotic and witty’.
That’s it for March paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a review on this blog for all but Frog Music and if you’d like to see which hardbacks caught my eye just click here.
The last of my ‘books of the year’ posts begins with one of my two September favourites, Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist which tells the story of the man who killed Houdini not once, but twice. Far from a straightforward reimagining of the Houdini story Galloway’s novel is a very clever bit of business which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. A very different kettle of fish, Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.
In October Daniel Kehlmann’s F told the story of a very different family: three brothers, all unhappy in their own way, and their father for whom a hypnotist’s performance turns his life upside down despite his emphatically professed scepticism. There are many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle all of which click snugly into place partly due, of course, to Carol Brown Janeway’s excellent translation. October also saw the second of my non-fiction titles, Phillipe Claudel’s sometimes smelly, often fragrant, Parfums, made up of vignettes of a life remembered through smells. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in and translated beautifully by Euan Cameron.
Surprisingly, the often dull November turned out to be an excellent reading month. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is another very fine debut written in that pared back elegant style that I admire so much. Suffused with melancholy, it’s a heat-wrenching, beautifully written book in which Tess Lohan lives an attenuated life, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’. Delighted to see this one on the Costa First Novel shortlist. A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920. It ends in the Cold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written and I’m fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020. And finally Favel Parett’s When the Night Comes surprised me with its captivating story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for an Antarctic research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government. A beautifully expressed book, far more moving than I expected and one I hope won’t be overlooked.
I have to confess that my heart sank when this novel thudded onto the doormat. I’d been looking forward to it very much but it weighs in at just over 600 pages which for a first novel, or any novel come to that, is quite an undertaking. It’s just the kind of book that appeals to me, though, one which reflects and refracts society through the experiences of a single family. In this case it’s a small one – Eileen and Ed Leary, and their son Connell – beginning in 1951 with ten-year-old Eileen and ending in 2011 with thirty-four-year old Connell inhabiting an entirely different world. In between, Matthew Thomas tells their story in such a quiet, considered yet compelling manner that you find yourself completely immersed in it.
Eileen is the daughter of Big Mike who holds court in the bar every night gently putting young men right but gambling the family money away, and Bridget who deals with the fallout, taking to drink herself when a miscarriage puts an end to all hope of more children. She’s bright, restless and determined to get away, becoming a nurse rather than joining the secretarial pool along with so many of her contemporaries. On New Year’s Eve 1965 she meets Ed Leary on a blind date and when they kiss at midnight she is sure that this quiet, thoughtful man is the one she’ll marry. Passionate about his neurological research, Ed turns down dazzling offers from Merck and NYU deciding instead to teach under privileged kids. These two build a life together – establishing their separate careers, eventually having a child after many years of trying – until Ed’s behaviour begins to change in puzzling ways. Eileen explains it away to herself until it becomes clear that something is seriously wrong. The consultation they both attend reveals that Ed has early onset Alzheimer’s. The rest of the novel charts Ed’s slow diminishment, Eileen’s painful acceptance and Connell’s inability to do so. Not a cheery read, then, but a very fine one that I found hard to put down no matter how wrenching Thomas’s descriptions of Ed’s decline.
Much of the beauty of this novel lies in Thomas’s compassionate characterisation: Eileen’s restless discontent, her constant need for betterment are in counterpoint to Ed’s quietly idealistic dedication to his work, subtly conveying the tensions running through what is essentially a fine marriage. Connell’s adolescent self-absorption and denial in the face of his father’s illness is entirely credible. The social change that rips through the latter half of the American twentieth century is mirrored both in the lives of the Leary family and in the changes in their neighbourhood. Thomas is a master of ‘show not tell’, quietly drawing his readers into his story. If I have one complaint it would be the inclusion of the epilogue. The beautifully crafted ending with its family meal, emblematic of so much of what has come before, seemed to me the perfect conclusion to this richly textured, ambitious novel.