May was an interesting month in reading terms. I tried a mix of new and familiar authors and read a lot of good books, but despite their quality there were few that I actually loved. None I think that will make my end of year list.
Before I go into those, looking back at the past few months it’s interesting to note which books have stayed fresh for me. For example, Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow is lasting in memory better than I thought it would.
Some of the books that have stuck with me are by authors I’ve known and loved for a while now – Penelope Fitzgerald, Irmgard Keun, Matthias Enard and Elizabeth Taylor. Others are by authors new to me but who I fully expect to return to – Claire Keegan, Tessa Hadley, and Chris Powers. Somewhere in between is Annie Ernaux, whose The Years I liked and respected but whose A Girl’s Story and Happening I found much more emotionally powerful (perhaps inevitably given the scope of Years compared to the narrower focus of those two).
There’s lots else I’ve enjoyed this year, but those are the authors I’ll be making a point of returning to. All that said, on to May!
Seesaw, Carmel Doohan
Seesaw uses a young woman’s relationship crises as a lens through which to examine the wider issues of the refugee crisis. That might sound a bit absurd, but it’s similar in that sense to Madeleine Watt’s The Inland Sea which uses a young woman’s self-destructive impulses and mistreatment of her own body as a mirror through which to examine wider issues of climate change and humanity’s mistreatment of the natural world.
Seesaw’s parallels are a little less on the nose than Inland Sea, but there is still a common theme of miscommunication and impasse. It also struck me as capturing something of how many of us actually navigate these issues. The protagonist cares about the refugee crisis, she volunteers and tries to get involved, but the rest of her life doesn’t stop for it and her impact is minimal next to the scale of the challenge.
There’s been a piece trending online recently arguing that nobody is writing state of the nation novels, that it’s all interior fiction. It’s an absurd argument. Seesaw is a state of the nation novel. As it closes Trump is on tv praising ’very fine people on both sides’. It’s also an interior novel. The one doesn’t preclude the other.
Minutes from the Miracle City, Omar Sabbagh
I can’t now recall how I discovered this. It’s set in contemporary Dubai and is something of a love letter to the city. It shows various people – a Pakistani taxi driver, a Ugandan waiter with dreams of becoming a writer, a Moroccan beautician, an Emirati journalist recently returned home from London and more – and how their lives intersect and impact each other in small ways and large.
It’s an interesting book, but given Dubai’s fairly awful record on treatment of non-natives I was left a bit unpersuaded by its portrayal of Dubai as melting pot. Of course, I may simply be projecting my own prejudices on a city I’ve not been to and if you do have connections with the city I suspect you might want to check this out.
A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood
Apparently this is seen by many as Isherwood’s best novel, though I preferred his Berlin novels (though I understand he had doubts about them). George is a middle aged Englishman living in 1960s California. His lover has died leaving George bereft, awash with grief. The novel traces a day in his life.
It’s superbly well written and beautifully observed, capturing much of the pain and the rewards of life. In fact, for a novel overshadowed by death it’s suffused with life.
If you’ve read any other Isherwood you should read this too, even if it did leave me a little cold on this occasion. If you haven’t I’d still probably start with the Berlin novels.
Murder at the Savoy, Sjöwall and Wahlöö (translated by Joan Tate)
Number six in the series and by this point they’re getting much more openly political. This one opens with a rich businessman being murdered while dining at the Savoy. His killer escapes, but seemingly through luck rather than plan. It looks like a professional hit, but what hitman would carry out a killing in such a public place and with apparently no escape route in mind?
Beck and the team are under huge political pressure here to find the culprit quickly, not least because senior political figures may have turned blind eyes to the murdered man’s illegal arms dealing.
This wasn’t my favourite of the Beck sequence, but they’re never less than solid and this again has memorable characters, a satisfying plot and yet again a tremendous portrayal of police work as actual hard work. A ten novel series is a fair commitment, but I’m not regretting this one at all.
Slow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds is a hard sf writer I’ve long loved. This is one of his more recent and shorter novels. After a ceasefire between two interstellar societies, war criminals from both sides (plus a few people accidentally caught up with them) are being shipped in suspended animation to a prison planet. Disaster hits the ship and the prisoners wake up to find themselves badly off course. Worse, it appears they’ve been asleep for a very, very long time and there’s no home to go back to.
The survivors split into four factions – the two sides from the war, the small number of civilians being transported and the handful of crew survivors. The question for them all is can they find a way to live together given the terrible things so many of them have done? It’s a good premise, brought further to life by the main character being obsessed with hunting down one particular war criminal who left her for dead, her conflict a microcosm of the larger one.
This is a solid Reynolds for me rather than a great one – I preferred his recent and very good time travel thriller Permafrost in which the consciousnesses of a handful of scientists are sent back to the present day to avert an apocalypse. Still, I enjoyed it and I can imagine rereading it at some point.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Alan Sillitoe
One of the earliest reviews on this blog is Alan Sillitoe’s excellent Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. It’s taken me almost 14 years before reading more by him.
Loneliness is of course famous from the film and is the longest story here (almost a novella really). Along with the other stories we’re in territory that’s familiar from Saturday Night with northern working class lads out to screw the world and taking no prisoners as they do so.
The trouble is, it’s a little one-note. Saturday Night is brilliant, but these didn’t add a lot to it for me. I recommend that, not sure I recommend this. By contrast, Stan Barstow’s short story collection The Desperadoes also explores northern working class life but with a far richer palette ranging from comedy to tragedy to everything in between. Go read The Desperadoes is what I’m saying here.
The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, Mariana Enriquez (translated by Megan McDowell)
My second Enriquez collection. She’s an Argentinian writer and her stories blend horror and social comment, but what surprised me is the extent to which they work as pure horror. These are not stories for the squeamish. I grew up reading horror fiction, much of it pretty lurid, and Enriquez can give any of them a run for their money.
As ever, the Argentinian dictatorship looms large. The ghosts, curses, returned dead are nothing against the real life terrors of the disappeared or those trapped in abusive families. It’s dark stuff, but very good.
Tirra Lirra by the River, Jessica Anderson
An Australian classic. Tirra Lirra explores the life of Nora Porteous who has returned in old age to her childhood Australian home after long years in London. We see her growing up, her suffocating suburban marriage, her later independence in London and now her return to where it all started. It’s a short book, under 200 pages, but as so often with memory it takes a while for everything to come into focus as Nora intersperses the present with the past and initially skirts round some of the less appealing bits.
Anderson is brilliant on the constraints Nora faces, going from the limits imposed by family to the far greater strictures of marriage where her husband tries to control her by withholding even the meagrest allowance. He seems a dull monster, but the book subtly undermines some of its own messaging with Nora at times wondering if she can still see the real man past the caricature he became for her afterwards. Similarly, Nora reflects on the limits put on her artistic talent, but on her return home she discovers that some of her childhood works done before she escaped to London were actually good and remain much admired, while she has nothing particular to show from the period when she had actual artistic freedom. It’s a clever book that makes its points about women’s lives well without ever being didactic. I can see why it’s a classic.
Guy Savage did a great write-up of this here which inspired me to read it. I agree with Guy by the way that it’s not a depressing book – it contains much that could be depressing, wasted years and lost opportunities, but it contains a lot more too. I’ve read a couple of novels recently which portray a whole life from cradle to grave and generally they’re bleak affairs, too much so to be entirely credible. Here Anderson shows not only the disappointments and frustrations, but also the joy, humour and resilience.
A World of Love, Elizabeth Bowen
I bought this ages back, before Bowen’s The Hotel, but never got round to reading it. It’s the story of a young woman, Jane, growing up in a crumbling Irish estate (are there any other kind in fiction?). The family dynamic is complex and claustrophobic. Jaded and fashionable Antonia owns the estate, but doesn’t know how to work it. Maud’s mother, Lilia, is married to Antonia’s half-brother Fred but years ago was in love with Antonia’s brother Guy who died in the war. Meanwhile Jane’s younger sister Maud runs half wild about the place. Among it all, Jane without realising it has become ‘a beauty’ leading to change when she’s noticed by ageing English neighbour Lady Latterly…
This is a novel in which in a sense nothing happens, yet it’s full of tension and drama. Early on Jane discovers some love letters clearly written by Guy, but perhaps not to Lilia. Lilia lives with Antonia because Antonia long ago felt responsible for her, and because Antonia needs Fred to run the estate, but Lilia has no ownership rights of her own and lives effectively as Antonia’s guest. It’s a situation that’s lasted years, inherently unstable yet unchanging.
While I preferred The Hotel, this is very well written and I do plan to read more Bowen. I’ll likely try her A House in Paris next. Heavenali did a really good write-up of this one here which I’d recommend reading as she has a much better grasp of Bowen’s work than I do.
And that’s it!