October 2011 Reading: This is How, The Empty Family, The Sense of an Ending, Anagrams

Disclaimer: these reviews are very late and very short due to my last-minute decision to take part in National Novel Writing Month and my laptop’s protest at this silly decision, which involved deliberately infecting itself with a disease (not a virus, because that has a real meaning with computers, apparently) that I call ‘stripy screen’.  So, between nanowrimo and the curse of the stripy screen, only my determination to review every book I read this year has ensured that these scrappy lines are here at all.  Be grateful (all three who enter here.) 
This Is How by M.J. Hyland (2009)
In our MA workshops with Hyland (warning: if this name drop annoys you, there’s another one to come in the next review.  Then that’s it, I promise) the emphasis is very much on editing.  As such, I wasn’t overly surprised that her third novel contains not a word more than necessary.  The bare, stark prose is an astonishingly effective vehicle for a story that refuses to conform to the conventions of the genres of ‘crime novel’ or ‘prison drama’ while containing elements of both.  The protagonist, Patrick Oxtoby, draws the reader uncomfortably close to his point of view (the story is first person, present tense).  The intensity of this relationship makes this book a fast, unsettling read, quite unlike anything I’ve read in a long time.
The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín (2010)
The Empty Family: Stories (Hardcover) ~ Colm Toibin (Author) Cover Art
Another MA tutor, and another advocate of pared down prose (my lavish use of adjectives and adverbs is taking a battering this term).  A lot of the stories in this excellent collection are concerned with leaving or, more often, returning, home, such as my personal favourite, ‘The New Spain’, in which a Catalan woman who has been living in London comes back to find, as people inevitably do, that everything and nothing has changed.  A friend of mine recently described one of Tóibín’s novels as ‘quiet’ (she meant it as a compliment), and that’s the best word I can use to describe these stories as well.  There is so much shouting and posturing in fiction, it is a relief to find a quiet voice.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011)

I haven’t read any of Barnes’s earlier work, and as the title suggests, this is probably not the most logical place to start.  However, I can’t quite shake the feeling each year that I ‘ought’ to read the winner of the Booker.  Reading something because you feel you should is usually a sure fire route to disappointment, and I have to admit, I began this novel with my lip curled in expectation of being underwhelmed (it’s not my best look).  And it did take a while for my lip to uncurl, but by the end (of which there was indeed a very good sense), it had.
Anagrams by Lorrie Moore (1986)
The thing that I like most about Lorrie Moore is that she quite clearly loves language.  She finds it interesting and quirky, and she does interesting and quirky things with it.  I am a sucker for a pun, and will be eternally grateful to Moore for introducing me to the ‘Tom Swiftie’ (my colleagues at the school I worked at in London may be less grateful – I was trotting them out every break time for weeks).  For those of you yet to be acquainted with the Tom Swiftie, look here, but be warned, they are addictive:


I’d read four of the stories that make up this novel in Moore’s ‘Collected Stories’, but here, with the final, novella-length piece, they work better, building up a picture of the complex, hilarious, desperate protagonist, Benna at the same time as Benna builds and rebuilds her own world.  Characters and plotlines reappear in slightly different guises, and the boundaries between what is real and what is imagined are pushed into shapes as interesting as the linguistic trickery.  I’m actually not really looking forward to discussing this book in our seminar – it is put together in such a unique and appealing way that I don’t really want to see it taken apart.  And I bet some people hated it.