Here are some books that I have recently read and enjoyed to some degree. Others will have loved them. They miss the cut of my recommended books because something is lacking: elegant writing, spirit, a character to love or simply they don’t add up. Or they may be just too weird for your regular group of bookies. If you see a book you love here, please tell me what I missed.
Matt Haig is an extremely popular modern writer and I can see why. He writes about the idiosyncrasies of being human and what makes us tick. What is normal, what are other people’s lives like, what are we here for, what’s the point? And he covers these big, existentialist questions in a blithe, chatty way to disguise where he is taking you. I’ll be slammed for suggesting that he diminishes important ideas to the level of pop culture, but there we are. If you want to spark a deep conversation when you’re sitting with your mates on sofas and pouring out the chardonnay (and that’s a yes from me), this book might start you off.
SPOILERS FOLLOW (not because I want to spoil the story but because the book is not a light as it looks).
Here we have a miserable girl, Nora, who is so unhappy with her life she decides to end it. There is not one specific thing, just a general meh that she doesn’t amount to much and nothing worked out the way she planned. (A delicate subject and I wonder if Haig knows his potential audience and is qualified to write this story? Anyway, moving on…). Apparently, when you attempt suicide (another term which rings alarm bells) and are hanging between life and death (not sure how you hit that fine balance), you get to go to a fantastical library (not in real life, you don’t), where someone in your past who you have respected and trusted will offer you the chance to explore all the permutations of what you could have done with your life and you can choose which one you’d like to go on with.
Rock star, glaciologist, academic with an adorable husband and child, motivational speaker and Olympian, dog handler with a sweet but dim boyfriend who lets the dogs sleep on the bed. Anything you want. So our suicidal girl explores every possible thing she could have done with her life and … you guessed it.
There’s a lot of philosophy here, well pitched for non-philosophers. In one life Nora discusses Schrödinger’s cat being, like her, both alive and dead. (I assume she is in hospital but that’s all a bit hazy and there is no concern for the people watching her life support machines). God gets a look in, as does physics (not scarily): “If I was religious,” [this is said by another person also exploring other lives; watch out for them, there may be millions of us in all our parallel universes] “I’d say it was God. And as God is probably someone we can’t see or comprehend then He—or She—or whatever pronoun God is—becomes an image of someone good we have known all our lives. And if I wasn’t religious—which I’m not—I would think that the human brain can’t handle the complexity of an open quantum wave function and so it organises or translates this complexity into something it understands…”
So Haig has translated this complexity into a librarian offering books in a library. Little bit of mansplaining here?
We get to the crux near the end, though we’d worked it out way back. “She realised that she hadn’t tried to end her life because she was miserable, but because she had managed to convince herself there was no way out of her misery.” Again, I don’t offer this as a spoiler but a suggestion that this light look at suicide might not be appropriate for all readers. It has the slight tinge of a bloke saying to a young woman, “Snap out of it, love, could be worse.”
The end is simple and cosy and even has the suggestion that Nora might invite the handsome doctor out for a coffee. A man doesn’t always have to make the first move, right?
I don’t know why I feel so guilty about not liking The Famished Road. I’ve been out of step with public opinion before and usually I stick to my guns and send everyone to hell, but in this case I’m inclined to think perhaps there is something missing in me. Booker Prize winners are often experimental — I’ve said before the runners-up usually make better reading. This novel has brilliant narrative technique perhaps, but all those spirit people wandering around, the myths and dreams never coalesced into anything I could make sense of. It’s not Okri, it’s me. My dreamier friends loved it.
Stephen Taylor’s The Calaban Shore is the story of the wreck of the East Indiaman (and don’t you love the imperiousness that goes with the ship’s type?), the Grosvenor in 1782. She wrecked on the coast of Pondoland, East Africa and 123 survivors made it ashore. Many, including the women and children, were abandoned (nice work, captain), others wandered off and died. A handful made it through to Cape Town and back to England. The story is in three sections: an introduction to the character’s lives India; the voyage and the wreck; and the centuries of investigations afterwards tracing the ship’s booty and the strange sightings of white women and their descendants in what is now East Cape province of South Africa.
There’s masses of technical details and years of very thorough research. I haven’t included this in the Books I Love section because the slightly patronising writing style has dated — the handling of race/women/class feels inappropriate in 2020 and the book needs to be read with the attitudes of 2004 in mind (which is fine, that’s part of history, too). But also because, like other books I’ve reviewed that are heavy on the research (eg The Hell Ship), Stephen Taylor has linked gaps in the facts with choppy fiction and a medley of quotations from various sources so we’re left with a book not one thing nor the other.
Shipwreck enthusiasts — go for it.
They told me Mantel had sorted out the pronoun problem that killed Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She hasn’t. I got to page seven, got lost trying to work out who was speaking seven times and thought: the book is 882 pages long. Not this time, Hilary.
Recommended by a good friend who knows I love a well-written yarn but obviously doesn’t know my absolute belief that every book need to be uplifting in some way. Even Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is the most miserable stretch of dismal apocalyptic reading, was more hopeful than this story.
Here we have the surprisingly articulate Romy Hall telling her life story. I say surprisingly because although she apparently did OK at school, in early teens she headed for a life of drugs and prostitution and abuse. If she was as clever and insightful as her character appears, maybe she would have had the smarts to see some of this shit coming. She fights back and ends up in jail with no hope of being reunited with her young son. Still, she tells a good yarn with lots of interesting characters, also tragically fallen and nothing much good happens to any of them. The future is bleak. End of story.
Once again, I fine myself applauding Martha Jane Kelly for her research and her passion and railing against a poorly edited book (can’t believe I just said that. Who am I to criticise Penguin? And yet, here I go.) This could have been a great read. It has all the elements: a fascinating period in history with the Bolsheviks being bolshy and the White Russians fleeing their palaces. A cliffhanger at every chapter end. There are interesting characters with some power to change their lives and a workable plot line. But there are easily fixed flaws that spoilt the read for me. Just me, perhaps, so don’t worry, Penguin. You’ve got a million other readers for this.
The story is of three young women. Two are friends: a New York socialite, her Russian friend who is a cousin of the Tsar, and her child’s nanny. War comes, the Russians are too slow to leave, there are the inevitable heads on spikes and the nanny steals the Russian’s child. The action moves to Paris where all three women regroup with their various crises, and the resolution ends up back in upstate New York.
So what’s wrong with it? The child is stolen. I’m a mother. They may be in the middle of a revolution but if your child is stolen there is nothing else in your life until you get your child back. But the woman’s not frantic. Her first thought is to pray her captor wont find the rucksack. Hang on (an editor should have said), what about the baby?
And there is this seedy relationship with the Russian nanny and her guardian. It’s sexually threatening and she’s kind of complicit in a detached way but ‘knows’ he can’t go too far. Why not, is he her brother or something? Turns out he is. Sorry, that’s a spoiler, but what difference does it make? Just as creepy either way and withholding this information doesn’t work. The girl is telling the story—we are in her head and hear her thoughts, but she teases us with this information. Nope. Editor, where are you?
Three women tell the story in first person, plus a fourth at the close. Often I returned to the chapter heading to remember who “I” was this time. The three very different characters all had very similar voices. It’s a hard trick to pull off and Kelly doesn’t manage it.
This latest John Boyne doesn’t make the cut of wonderful books (though I know many will disagree), because there is no character to like. Not one, in the entire book. It’s kind of clever, the way there are various people telling their stories about the one man to show how his psychopathic behaviour repeats until it forms a improbably nasty pattern. The opening narrator is weak and bleak and takes a whole chapter, with no indication that there is any relief to follow. The twist at the end of this (too long) chapter sets up the book as the opening narrator is cut away and passes on the baton. There follow more characters telling their stories about our man. Some of the other characters are marginally more interesting. Gore Vidal has a role which is plausible. Our man gives his narcissistic point of view.
But the big hiccough with this story is that there is no need for the baddie to be quite so bad. He’s a real cold-hearted monster, one of the worst, but with no real motive. We’re repeatedly reminded of his splendid looks and charm and his undeniable talent. He seems to need a co-worker. Not sure why he doesn’t just ask someone?
Feel a bit bad dissing this book as John Boyne ‘s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a favourite of mine. But not this one. Too clever by half.
McEwan must be the most inconsistent writer in the English language. I love him and hate him in different books. Sometimes I love and hate him in the same book. There are breathtakingly wonderful passages in his novels (like the opening scene in Enduring Love with the balloon taking off trailing the boy)—passages that I can read over and over for the feeling they give me—but reading on, find them absolutely unfulfilled. The rest of the book has nothing to match. I keep waiting for him to give me another Atonement. Or On Chesil Beach. Poignant, classy writing, right in the heads of the characters, confused and misunderstood by themselves. Saturday I liked very much and will review later but it was McEwan playing with a narrative device, challenging himself to set an entire book within 24 hours. Like someone made him a bet. The Child in Time was horrible and I so wish I’d never read it (it haunted me every time I took a child to the supermarket), but it was brilliant. The Children Act is another deeply disturbing story where adults struggle with their power over children; again the book is brilliant. Is Nutshell brilliant? Or merely clever, another narrative device gone mad? Hey Ian, bet you can’t do an update on Hamlet with a foetus as the narrator and the womb as a kind of symbolic arras! Turns out he can. But why?