The Promise, by Damon Galgut
Like I often say with the Booker – read the shortlist.
I didn’t find any joy in this novel. It is set in South Africa in the 1980s as apartheid falls apart, but we don’t venture out into the country much. The action, such as it is, concerns a white family who live on a farm. The characters are all unlikeable. The only one with any shred of decency is the youngest daughter, Amor, who cannot stand up for her beliefs and opts out, not only of the family but also, by being so damn wet, pretty much out of her own life as well. To call her uncharismatic is being kind. She is moderately interesting because she was struck by lightening as a child and lost a toe, but that’s about it. She’s absent for most of the book.
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Prianesi, by Susanna Clarke
“When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule.” As a first sentence that’s a big turn off for someone jaded by fantasy. But the book was recommended by my friend Tess, who is a sensible woman and a journalist and unlikely to send me off to some hokey warring kingdoms where women with shining braids and medieval gowns face boy warriors with superpowers who are battling some evil psycho. Happy to say this turned out to be one of the most original novels I’ve read since…oh, lets go back a lifetime to John Fowles’s The Magus. But without the horror.
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We are all completely beside ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
Second time round for this book. I read it when it first came out in 2013 and it took a while to recognise it because the title sounds too frivolous for the book it becomes, and the story starts on a bit of a side note. A couple of girls in a canteen meeting and becoming friends. But then our narrator mentions her sister, Fern, and it all came flooding back and made me very uncomfortable all over again.
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The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn
They’re not old. Early fifties is not old. But after sleeping rough on the trail for a few weeks they are often mistaken for a pair of old tramps. True, they have lost their house and are living hand to mouth, sleeping in a tent on waste land and often going without meals. Ray talks of her birds-nest hair and filthy clothes and Moth’s illness makes him frail and tentative. They kind of are tramps. Don’t judge the homeless, is a refrain throughout the story.
This is the journey of a couple who find themselves homeless. It’s a six hundred and thirty mile journey. Unable to secure a flat and with no income (their home-stay business lost with the house), they pick up a copy of Paddy Dillon’s guide to the South West Coast Path and decide to walk through the summer, freedom camping, a burden on no one. They have £115 topped up with a small weekly benefit, a cheap tent and thin sleeping bags, a copy of Beowolf. Not much else. Oh, and the complication that Moth has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness and been told to get lots of rest, take occasional gentle walks, not too far, and be careful on the stairs.
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All our Shimmering Skies, by Trent Dalton
Like the gorgeously lush cover, this book is almost too sumptuously overgrown with luxuriant succulents to be true. If that sounds a mouthful, you should read Dalton’s descriptions of the Australian outback.
Molly, our spunky but naive child heroine, walks away from the bombing of Darwin and I was expecting Australian desert. But she walks through many variations of the cover picture. “… a stand of black wattles and soap trees with flat round black fruits and then down an avenue of trees with mottled cream-grey bark and stiff leaves exploding with small ripe red fruits. These tree clusters are all canopied by a dense climbing vine with orange-yellow flowers shaped like starfish …” I’m wondering what to make of this dreamy psychedelic landscape and the vividness of the descriptions, which are offered in stark contrast to the city in the background. The voice is often passive: “Seen from the orange-red sky above and looking down and closer in and closer in, they are three wanderers crossing a vivid floodplain cut by sinuous rivers and wide freshwater channels dotted with lily-fringed waterholes. The sun low and honeyed.” (Love that repetition and the honeyed sun.)
It seems a strange response to trauma. Unexpected, perhaps intriguing.
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Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell
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.
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