The best novel I’ve read this year?

Yes, I do, I really do think that Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor might just be the best novel I’ve  read so far this year – which is a longer time and more books than you might expect. It has just come out here but I read an advance copy back in January and nothing else has stacked up since… I have been waiting for it to appear so I can share it. It is quite amazing, the slow, beautiful telling of many lives in a small town nestled in a landscape in which, one day, a young girl disappears.

It begins on the day of her disappearance, and explores how life nevertheless just goes on. Animals still need tending, trolley loads of groceries need to be bought and cooked, school years wax and wane, people marry, die, are born, are hateful to each other, experience moments of quiet grace and hope. Leaves fall from trees, foxes have many litters, badgers do violent things to hedgehogs, the earth keeps turning and the girl is still disappeared.

The writing is so very beautiful, the observations of precious everyday lives so acute and meaningful you are pulled into the small dramas and important details that such lives are made up of, and then you remember: but a girl disappeared. What happened to her? who knows what? and then the leaves are falling again and the family down the road is splitting up and it is time for the carol singers to get organised, the leafhoppers are hibernating and dear life asserts itself again…

Read this – you need to, really, and I am sure you will love it.

 

4 3 2 1…

… GO!
Paul Auster’s new novel 4 3 2 1 is just fantastic – inventive and thought-provoking, just deeply pleasurable. It’s another big book – 866 pages – but there is a lightness of touch that makes it a surprisingly quick read. I had an advance copy to read, so I just started it, without reading any blurbs or reviews, and was deep into the 3rd chapter before I realised what was going on, what Auster was doing: Here are the four different lives of Archie Ferguson, born to Rose and Stanley, all significantly different yet eerily similar, as their protagonist reacts (or doesn’t) to important world events and domestic everyday life.

There are four versions of each chapter: 1.1; 1.2, 1.3 etc. I read the book right through, quite liking the confusion of having to remember who had died in which life, when so-and-so got kissed – and who by, and the growing sense of how tiny, tiny, tiny moments can change the course of a life, how exploring one path over another, or wanting to follow both, creates different histories, different people.

I did think I’d read it again, in about a year, and read all the first Ferguson chapters, 1.1, 2.1, 3.1… then maybe all the third Ferguson chapters, 1.3, 2.3, 3.3, 4.3… and see what that was like. I wonder if it will pack the same emotional punch as reading them in leapfrog format: you become more attached to some Fergusons than others and when devastating things happen to one and then immediately you are reading about the ‘same’ person carrying on with their life, it slightly tilts your world.

One of the charms of the book – beyond the enjoyably elegant and seemingly effortless writing – is that Auster resists getting all meta and too clever and having any characters in any of the lives be at all aware of the other lives. In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s wonderful reincarnation tale, Ursula also lives multiple lives but it is always her living them, and she becomes aware of the process and what she can do with it – which works in this book.
Auster’s four Fergusons resolutely live their own lives – or perhaps forms of Auster’s too, many of the incidents he describes are similar to those in his own life, some of which he has explored in earlier works. Perhaps he is playing as ‘what if?’, considering what paths another Auster may have taken or overlooked.

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Feathered Things

The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley is a rather lovely novel based on the life of Elizabeth Gould, wife of the 19th century British ornithologist and bird artist, John Gould. Being a good Victorian scientist, he killed and collected thousands of specimens – and Elizabeth, an outstanding artist, gave them rather wondrous life in a number of monographs and plates.
The purpose of her work was to show the scientific points of difference and interest between all the ‘new’ bird carcasses – and occasional live specimens –  flooding into England from collectors in South America and Australasia, all engaged in the great project to name and catalogue the world – exciting stuff at a moment when Darwin’s preposterous theory was beginning to be taken seriously. But Elizabeth’s birds also have a liveliness and charm that lifts them above scientific usefulness. The novel explores what her life may have been like, engaged fully with the great project but still expected to take a backseat to the great men and be a proper Victorian lady, stoically birthing and losing children, and creating a family life, while deeply enjoying her art.
Beautifully written, this is a quiet but fascinating book, and Elizabeth springs from the page like one of her pretty birds. Have to say, this may be the most exquisite cover on a novel this Christmas – the palest blue dust jacket is attracting people in the shop and then, when you show them what is on the cream cover underneath the dust jacket… and the endpages also feature her work… it makes you feel all fluttery!

birdmans-wife02birdmans-wife-04

 

Captivating twists and turns…

There are quite a few in Sarah Perry’s new novel The Essex Serpent which is being described as Dickens meets Stoker. It is a clever read, refreshing and unexpected and very satisfying.

In 1669, a pamphlet was published in Saffron Waldon. Strange News out of Essex or pamphlet_2The Winged Serpent informed the horrified public that a beast, wettish, serpentish, deathly – and with wings! – was on the prowl in the soggy and mysterious Essex marshlands. The pamphlet was re-printed in the late nineteenth-century by Robert MiIller Christie, when the snakey creature was once more rumoured to be abroad.
Truely. You can see the pages in the Saffron Walden Museum.

Starting her story in 1893, Sarah Perry sends her unusual heroine, her odd child and his socialist-activist nanny off to Essex to chase the beastie, after quickly dispatching her ill husband in the first couple of chapters. Cora is frankly relieved that he is dead (there are enough darkly alluded to sadistic and nasty moments between them that we are quite pleased too), and being a modern woman of enquiring mind, excited by the new ideas of Darwin and the discoveries of fossils on the English coasts, she is determined to see whether the animal is perhaps a living fossil, perhaps an ichthyosaur, or just a folktale frightening benighted marsh-dwelling peasants. There is a brilliant, envelope-pushing surgeon, in thrall to her since he was doctoring her husband and his wealthy doctor friend who fancies the socialist nanny and tries to impress her by crusading against London’s noisome slums. There is a fun member of parliament and his wife who introduce Cora to an Essex vicar and his fairy-like wife, and their charming children, who are all trying to live in a world threatened by both serpents and science.

There is lots of love, perhaps the most touching between the two medical friends, who support each other through thick and thin, a touch of desire and much sparkling playing with ideas and clever talk.The ending is not what you expect yet it is exactly right. Cora is great: charming, intelligent, fierce and real. Her son is unusual and fascinating. I do hope that there is a sequel sometime, I’d really like to see what happens to everyone.
It was lovely to read, it felt quite unusual and special, and it has the most beautiful cover, you can feel the embossed scales under your fingertips as you read…
Essex Serpent

 

 

Deep in the forest…

Annie Proulx’s latest novel Barkskins is just wonderful. At 736 pages it is a very satisfying and surprisingly quick read, charting the lives of two families from the 1660s to 2013. One of the reasons it is fast-paced is the brutal reality of life without modern medicines – if you are hurt or sick in the morning, for many of the 400 years this tale spans, you are usually dead by tea-time; and so the story jumps to the next person and place.

Both families begin with two men who leave France to go to work as indentured foresters in the seemingly infinite forests of New France (later Quebec). One has a family with a local indigenous woman, this family continues to live close to the land, working as foresters and fishermen. The other man runs off and taking full advantage of the risks and opportunities that come his way becomes a grand old timber baron, his employees and family cutting their way through huge, unimaginable swathes of new world timber – including the fabled Kauri forests in the far north of New Zealand. Members of the two families orbit one another, sometimes meeting, sometimes passing each other by, all unaware of the common start their patriarchs shared. From this end of the 400 years, the hubris of the squandering of the resource these enormous forests were seems sad and short-sighted, and a little like a warning for our own reckless times. Even thinking of them as a resource, a useful thing, seems wrong in light of the way Proulx evokes their presence as a living kind of a creature, earthbound but vital and full of meaning – their loss is hard to comprehend.

The research underlying the story is sound, Proulx apparently spent years gathering information  and tales about forestry and the lives of the people engaged in it. The descriptions about how to cut down the different trees are fascinating – it was only when I saw the image on the cover (below) that I understood the scale of the trees that they were dealing with, in the previously untouched forests of North America. The writing is beautiful: spare and elegant, dark, mysterious but alive, like a forest…

Barkskins1

Dry as bones…

Feeling like a bit of dark crime fiction but slightly over Nordic noir? I have found the DryAntipodean antidote: The Dry by Jane Harper is a really good crime story set in the umpteenth year of Australia’s cruel and unusual drought. The sun is shining all the time, the air is shimmering with heat, the glare hurts your eyes and people are getting fed up. This debut is tightly plotted and compelling, I thought the characters were very believable, and I want to read her next one…

When a young man, the golden boy of his small rural town, breaks and kills his family and himself an already fragile calm is shattered. When the funeral brings a face from the past back to town things and people start to come unstuck as old mysteries are revisited, wounds reopened and secrets revealed.
Harper captures the long-held tensions of life in a small town where everyone pretty much knows everything but no-one speaks about any of it, layered with the merciless drought which threatens lives and livelihoods. The drought hangs over the land and the people like a magnifying glass over ants and the dust covers everything.

So very not Nordic then.

 

Classics revisited…

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld is a really good re-visit of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. PPWCUsually I am not keen on such re-tellings – although the odd one is unusual and original enough to work – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is one that springs, like a hungry zombie as it were, PPZto one’s mind. Eligible is not so zeitgesity, pop-culture-moment-seizing but it is still fun, a bit shocking and funny, and feels fresh and clever. The plot is what you already know and love but the modern twists and interesting characters set in Cincinnati work – it’s a good read whether you know P&P, and will enjoy the parallels and echoes or will enjoy shouting about how wrong Sittenfeld has got it, or whether you’ve never read it and don’t care where the inspiration has come from…

Eligible

… for something slightly more literary the new collection of short stories inspired by Jane Eyre’s powerful and assertive statement “Reader, I married him” is very interesting. I didn’t love every story in Reader, I Married Him edited by Tracy Chevalier but they were all Janeinteresting and well written. There are twenty-one tales, by turns romantic, funny, tragic, bold and shocking. Some of them have ago at re-telling Jane Eyre from other character’s viewpoints, others jump off the celebrated and iconic phrase without a backward glance at, or reference to,  Jane, Rochester, Bertha, the Hall or indeed the eighteenth Widecentury. Only one has a go at telling Bertha’s story, a brave thing to do when Jean Rhys’s brilliant and breathtaking Wide Sargasso Sea – perhaps the very best ever of such sequels – exists. I very much liked the stories that played with Jane a bit, exploring how annoying and goody-two-shoes she might have been, and perhaps even calculating and manipulative – these did feel a bit transgressive and exciting. And, the cover is gorgeous…

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