I wasn’t at all sure about Strange Labyrinth when it turned up – it looked like a book that didn’t quite know what it was supposed to be about – but once started I was hooked, enchanted even. It tells the story of Epping Forest, the six thousand acres on the edge of London saved for the nation in 1878, but that description barely scrapes the surface of this intensely personal, magpie’s jewel box of a book which introduces its readers to a diverse and colourful cast of characters who’ve inhabited this patch of ancient woodland.
Like so many of the middle-aged and privileged, Will Ashon finds himself in something of a crisis. He’s published two novels which have passed largely unnoticed, enjoyed a career as a music journalist and walked away from the prize-winning record label he set up fifteen years ago. He loves his wife and children but there’s something he can’t quite put his finger on. Dante’s ‘dark forest’ comes to mind as he fills his days wandering around Epping Forest, engaging in desultory research into the history of the woods and those who’ve lived there while telling his friends and family he’s writing a book. Eventually he stops ‘pretending’ and gets stuck in. What he finds is both extraordinary and entertaining. From sculptor Jacob Epstein and his endlessly patient wife who finds ways to tolerate his constant infidelities to Old Mick, a legendary protestor with an elaborately embroidered past, from Ken Campbell, the actor dubbed by Mike Leigh ’the outsider’s outsider’ to Penny Rimbaud, the polymath best known as founder member of that archetypal anarcho-punk band Crass, Epping Forest seems to have been a magnet for eccentric characters. Ashon walks the woodland paths, spotting strangely graffitied trees, assessing them for overnight potential and nervously avoiding dogs while pondering on the fear of authority that seems to be the root of his own malaise.
Impossible not to use the phrase mid-life crisis when talking about this book, a tired, overused, sitcom cliché which Ashon neatly avoids, but while it may have been the trigger it’s a quiet theme which underpins his research rather than a hammer with which he beats his readers over the head. Many of the denizens of Epping, both past and present, are anti-authoritarian figures to whom Ashon is drawn but although his admiration is clear he determinedly steers himself away from hero-worship. It’s a splendidly erudite but engaging book. Ashon is a self-deprecating and discursive guide, often very funny: ‘words dribbled out onto my laptop with all the force and confidence of an old man peeing into a cup’; ‘I watched two crows involved in a tussle which, as with drunks in a club, could’ve been dispute or courtship’. It ends with Ashon – after a good deal of nervous procrastination – climbing his favourite tree, determined to spend a night out in the forest, then experiencing an epiphany. A little too neat and tidy for a book which begins with its author’s angst, you might think, but it works. A wonderfully idiosyncratic, somehow very British book which delighted me from start to finish. And if you’d like to read about another man’s tangle with mid-life crisis and how he set about dealing with it you might like to pick up a copy of Andy Miller’s entertaining The Year of Reading Dangerously.
Looking back over the year for these three posts it seems that many of my favourite reads were crammed into the first two months of the year. March, however, saw only one, Shot gun Lovesongs, but that may well turn out to be my book of the year. Nickolas Butler’s American smalltown gem is a gorgeous, tender novel which retains enough grittiness to steer well clear of the sentimental while wringing your heart. I hope there’ll be another Butler on the horizon soon.
After the remarkable Burnt Shadows I had been looking forward to April’s A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie as soon as I spotted it in the publishing schedules and it didn’t disappoint. Shamsie takes complex universal themes and humanises them through the lives, loves and passions of her characters. It’s a towering achievement as is Look Who’s Back in an entirely different way. Timur Vermes’ very funny satire 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.
Having started this with a prime candidate for my book of the year, I spotted another in May’s posts. With its unusual thematic structure Charles Lambert’s With A Zero at its Heart could have been too tricksy for its own good but instead it turned out to be one of the finest books I’ve read this year. Its beauty lies in Lambert’s language – his skewering of a particular sentiment with a pithy phrase, his evocation of an experience in a few striking words. Also in May was Louisa Young’s sequel to the heartrending My Dear I Wanted to Tell You – The Heroes’ Welcome. Young’s sympathetic characterisation draws you immediately into this powerful novel which looks at the aftermath of war, deftly avoiding all sentimentality. You don’t have to have read My Dear I Wanted to Tell You to enjoy The Heroes’ Welcome but you’d be missing a treat if you didn’t.
Nothing in June or July but in August I was reminded of my bookselling days by Andy Miller who I’d worked with briefly at Waterstone’s head office many years ago when the apostrophe was present and correct. The Year of Reading Dangerously in which Andy gets his reading mojo back is touching, honest and very funny indeed. Lots of sniggering in this house, and not just me. You might think ‘she would say that wouldn’t she’ but if Twitter’s anything to go by Andy seems to be having a lot of success helping people rediscover their inner reader. I’m going to leave you with another August title: The Miniaturist. Might as well get all my book of the year contenders into one post. Set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, it was inspired by. Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house in the Rijksmuseum. I’m sure you can’t have failed to notice all the brouhaha around it but believe me, it’s justified. It’s a love story, a mystery, a portrait of a great city in which greed, betrayal and corruption seethe beneath a pious Calvinist surface – altogether a very fine book indeed. I’ll leave you with that. Third post to follow soon and if you missed the first you can catch up here.