Tag Archives: Thomas Savage

Books of the Year 2016: Part Two

Cover imageAfter 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 persuasionCover image 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.

Cover imageMy 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’sCover image 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.

Books Read (But Not Reviewed) in May 2016

Cover imageI seem to be adding one each month to my books read (but not reviewed) tally after March’s miserable single score. May saw three excellent novels added to the list, each very different from the other, starting with one that I wrote a post about well over a year ago, prompted by a friend’s experience of reading a review which revealed her current read’s dramatic twist, much talked about at the time on social media, albeit obliquely. The book was Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and I now realise how difficult it is to write about and not refer to that all important, much vaunted twist. If you’ve read it you’ll know what I’m talking about. So, all I’m going to say is that it’s told from the point of view of a woman whose brother and sister are both missing. She and her sister were particularly close – almost the same age but entirely different. The disappearance of her brother is linked to that of her sister. It’s both funny and heartrending but to do it proper justice I’d need to spill the beans which I’m determined not to do. All of which just goes to show that it’s very easy to sound off about things when you’re not in full possession of the facts.

I’d read and enjoyed both of Janice Galloway’s memoirs – This is Not About Me and All Made Up – but had not got around to any of her fiction until last month. Her first novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, was reissued under the excellent Vintage Classics imprint last year. They’re the publishers responsible for rediscovering both John Williams’ Stoner and Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog: they know their onions. Written from the point of view of a woman suffering a profound breakdown, Galloway’s increasingly fractured narrative reflects Joy’s unravelling as, failed repeatedly by her psychiatrists, she buckles under the weight of grief at the sudden death of her lover. It’s a harrowing, visceral read – utterly convincing.The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

Natasha Solomons’ The Gallery Of Vanished Husbands is a much more cheerful affair. Juliet sets off one day in possession of enough money to buy a fridge but finds herself wandering down her favourite street, the Bayswater Road, its pavements populated with artists. Throwing caution to the winds she commissions a portrait from Charlie Fussell, beginning a relationship which will eventually see her as a doyenne of the art world. Solomons’ novel takes her protagonist from the uncomfortable position of  an aguna – a Jewish woman deserted by her husband and considered to be neither a widow or a wife – into a very different world. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying journey. Great jacket too!

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage: Entirely deserving of its Stoner comparison

Cover imageFirst published in 1967 and now reissued as a rediscovered classic, Thomas Savage’s novel comes lauded to the skies by the likes of Nicholas Shakespeare, who claims it’s better than Stoner, and Annie Proulx, who rates it sufficiently to have written a lengthy afterword. It also came with a health warning from its publicist who told me I’d need a strong stomach for the opening paragraph – and that’s true – but given that I’d read The Son last year, perhaps the most gut-churning book I’ve ever read, I was more than well prepared. And it is only one paragraph – it would be a shame not to continue should you find it all a bit much. Set in 1924, Savage’s novel 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.

Almost forty, Phil still looks like a boy: not a line to be seen on his face although his hands are deeply scarred from hard work thanks to his refusal to wear the gloves he scorns. Sharp, educated and with a lively enquiring mind, Phil is in stark contrast to his younger brother George, a plodder who barely makes it through the local Saturday paper by the end of the week. These two are inseparable but where Phil despises everyone and everything, delighting in belittling others, George is kind and empathetic, quick to see the tiredness of the widowed owner of their nearest town’s restaurant which caters to the Burbanks’ ranch hands. Also a kind man, Rose’s husband liked a drink, holding forth to anyone who would listen at the town saloon until a cruel humiliation drove him to suicide. Their son Peter, quiet and bookish, knows all about that having suffered taunts and worse at the hands of the local schoolkids. When George brings Rose home as his wife, Phil sets about quietly undermining her until she no longer trusts her own judgement. Once winter is over, Peter comes to stay at the ranch and things take a different turn.

Savage unfolds his story in a straightforward unfussy narrative, occasionally and very effectively switching points of view throwing new light on a crucial event. His characterisation is sharp yet understated – Phil’s calculated cruelty contrasts with George’s open-hearted yet diffident kindness but Savage avoids the pitfall of making Phil a one-dimensional character, gradually uncovering his complexities. It’s left to the reader to infer what lies at the heart of his scornful contempt, although it’s clear to modern minds fairly early on. Rose’s disintegration is poignantly portrayed: ‘When she spoke of Phil her mouth grew dry, her tongue thickened. The thought of him scattered all pleasant and coherent thought and reduced her emotions to a child’s’. It’s a fine novel, entirely worthy of that Stoner comparison. Savage’s descriptions of the sweeping Montana landscape, gruelling winters and the daily business of ranching are all wonderfully cinematic. Given Annie Proulx’s afterword I couldn’t help thinking of Brokeback Mountain and hoping she might pass a copy of Savage’s novel to Ang Lee.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in February 2016: Part 2

Cover imageThe first batch of February paperbacks kicked off with one of my books of 2015 as does the second: Sara Taylor’s The Shore which I was delighted to see on both the Baileys Prize longlist and the newly resurrected Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist last year. The novel is made up of a set of interconnecting stories that span a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia. The Shore is the name given to the islands, all within a stone’s throw of each other, and Taylor’s novel focuses on the two families who dominate them – one impoverished the other prosperous – both intertwined through marriage. You need to keep your wits about you – characters pop up then disappear only to reappear again – but Taylor’s careful to tie in every loose end meticulously. I miss that gorgeous hardback jacket, though.

Oneworld is a small publisher who had a very good year last year. They’re the publishers of Marlon James’ Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings. They also publish my second choice, Julia Pierpont’s Among the Ten Thousand Things which sounds entirely different from James’ novel. An anonymously sent box of printed explicit emails, meant for artist Jack Shanley’s wife, is opened by their children, precipitating a crisis. In an attempt to repair their marriage, Jack and Deb decide to move away from New York, thrusting fifteen-year-old Simon and eleven-year-old Kay into different worlds. The synopsis reminds me a little of Jane Hamilton’s Disobedience published back in the days when email was still a bit of a novelty rather than the time-consuming annoyance it’s come to be for so many.Cover image

The next title was also shortlisted for the Man Booker, and appeared alongside Sara Taylor’s The Shore on the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist. Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is the story of thirteen young Indian men sharing a house in Sheffield, each with their own story and all in search of a better life. The publishers bravely compare Sahota’s novel with Rohinton Mistry’s superb A Fine Balance which makes the sceptic in me raise her eybrows but Kamila Shamsie rates it highly, apparently. Nothing would please me more than to be able to include a new novel by Mistry in one of these previews. It’s been such a long time that I wonder if he’ll ever publish one again.

The Power of the DogThis last title is here almost as an act of faith. Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog is published by the same imprint that brought us the wonderful Stoner and they claim that it’s in the same league thereby setting the bar extraordinarily high. Phil and George are brothers, owners of a large Montana ranch. They’re the antithesis of each other but have shared the same room for forty years since they were boys. When George marries a widow, overturning this lifelong arrangement, Phil sets out to destroy her. We’re promised a ‘devastating twist at the end’. Annie Proulx rates it enough to have written an afterword so I’m thrusting my cynicism aside.

That’s it for February paperbacks. If you’d like to know more, a click on the title will take you to my review for The Shore and to Waterstones for the last three. If you’d like to catch up with the rest of February’s new novels the first batch of paperbacks are here and the hardbacks are here and here.