Not a light-hearted book, this one. It’s a long, slow burn, perhaps a bit over-written, a 300 page story stuffed into a 400 page one. I did get into it, but at the start the writing felt contrived — quirkiness which missed authenticity by a beat.
At heart it’s the story of women coming of age through the 1900s and the long slow finding of their seat at the table. This much I loved. The men are kindly old academics but blind to their blindness and the women have an unspoken hunch that equality would be nice. They work as hard as the men with the brains of the men but get no credit for any of it and pretty much everyone accepts that. Rebellion is very much on the fringe which is spot on.
The Bright Side of My Condition, by Charlotte Randall
I’ve just spent a year writing a book about castaways on a remote, southern New Zealand island in the early 1860s and sent it off for consideration, when a friend told me about Charlotte Randall’s The Bright Side of My Condition, set about 50 years earlier on the Snares, with seals and storms and miserable conditions. I almost died. She’s already written my story – I wailed.
But of course, she hadn’t. There is more than one story set in the frozen southern oceans and many ways to tell ’em.
Randall’s is based on a true story of four convict men who have escaped Norfolk penal colony, without much planning or foresight, stowing away on a sealing ship. The captain drops them on a desolate island with a trypot and some basic necessities and tells them to collect a payment of seal skins. He’ll pick them up in a year. The felons are so pleased to be free of the jail that this seems a reasonable exchange. A decade passes.
Each story in this collection is a piece of sea glass: a tiny part of a much bigger story, hard edges worn away, polished and immediately recognisable as precious.
There are fourteen stories, mostly about family relationships and all very kiwi in place and culture, related by someone in their later years. In every story life has thrown up a glitch: dementia of a loved one, death of a child, a son travelling in a danger zone and out of touch, observations in a supermarket queue. I met Karen Phillips last night and asked her about her characters, who often seem to be peripheral to the main story going past at a faster clip and she agreed that she sees and wonders about the people on the edges.
Here’s one I strongly recommend as a Christmas present. It’s got a very wide appeal, it’s a mixed genre—mystery-ish, crime-y, survival, literary fiction—whatever category it falls into, it’s a gripping read, the sort of book you take on holiday to justify staying all day in the hammock.
The story starts horrifically with a car coming off the road and plunging through the trees into a river below. It has a real “there but the grace of God” feeling to it—who hasn’t taken a corner too fast on some remote bush road and put a hand to their heart when the tires held? John Chamberlain’s last hope, as they leave the road and he reaches for his wife and baby in the passenger seat beside him, is that his children in the back are still asleep.
The poor wean. There’s love, but it’s inconsistent and unreliable, a selfish love given up in tiny doses. There’s food, occasionally, perhaps a tin of custard. I’m thinking of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and realise Shuggie doesn’t even get off the ground floor. He can’t tick off a thing.
This is not so much a novel as a commitment. There are a lot of lives here and they all ask you to take the time to read, to listen, to understand. Don’t skimp on this book. Don’t try to squeeze it in with quick gulps when your mind is elsewhere.
I found the level of intimacy from strangers a bit overwhelming to begin with. These are straight talking and honest women sharing their experiences from a cross-section of black Britain. They take you right into the living room and sit you down. There are twelve main characters who tell their stories in separate chapters, up and down the generations and all loosely linked. The bunch is tied together at the end in a party.
Is there a genre called Atmospheric Historic? If so, Pure, by Andrew Miller must be near the top. Set in an overflowing Parisian necropolis in 1785 this novel is so packed with creepy images and smells and sounds you need to hold your nose as you submerge.
This is the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer given a government contract during an impersonal meeting at Versailles. He is tasked with clearing out the cemetery and church of Les Innocents, which is so ancient and in such bad repair it taints the air in Les Halles. A subterranean wall has collapsed and the stinking effluent of centuries of rotten things is leaking onto the streets, a metaphor if ever there was. They will clear the city of the stench of the past and pave the way for a grand new future. Jean-Baptiste takes a room adjoining the cemetery, where the breath of his hosts carry the smell of the dead.
This is the story of two people who meet on a bridge crossing the Thames in London. He is from Ghana, a speaker at a psychology conference. She’s an American biologist making a study of urban foxes.
Different disciplines, different backgrounds and different food preferences, but in everything that matters to the heart and soul, these two hum the same tune. Rather beautifully, as the reader can see, but it takes them a while to be aware of this, which of course is the achingly poignant crux of any great love story.
And this is a love story, though a slow burning one that branches out and back to previous loves, and encompasses a lot else besides.
Wake up and smell the sheep shit. Seriously. This book is so full of the smells of childhood I’m twelve years old again and on a farm holiday, awake before dawn in a drafty room excited about bottle feeding the lambs.
It’s different, of course, because this isn’t a holiday for Saunders and his family but their full-time lived experience; five generations on this land that they tend with deep affection and with a longevity that gives perspective to the everyday problems of farmers. There’s time. The budget can wait until after lambing. The planting will wait till the rain clears. The price for wool wont pay for the shearing this year and the crop prices are falling — these are long term problems they’ve faced before and they’re still here. They’ll sort it.
Yes, you should probably read this because it is lyrical and lovely and is the story of Shakespeare’s dying son Hamnet, who he (apparently) honours as Hamlet, in a round about way which may be stretching the truth somewhat.
O’Farrell writes passages of such amazingly close detail that I felt my heartbeat slow in the reading. She spends one whole page describing a woman walking two steps. It’s extraordinary.