February 2019 Reading: The Only Story, Bitter Orange, An American Marriage, Asymmetry, Feel Free, Florida, Immigrant, Montana, A Grain of Wheat

1.The Only Story by Julian Barnes (2018)

When I started this novel, and realised it was about a rather unlikable young man, Paul, who lives in a posh part of London and is just back from university, beginning an affair with a bored housewife, I may have let out a little groan. Barnes’ style is quite impersonal, and I was not looking forward to spending time with these characters and their irritating habits. However, the story, which shifts from first to second to third person as the narrative progresses, changes into something quite different after Paul and Susan’s initial “first bloom” of romance, taking a turn that I did not see coming. Susan’s descent was painful and emotional to read, relentlessly sad in its agonising detail, and it left me with a feeling of despair.

2.Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller (2018)

Another very English novel – Frances, a 39 year old woman who seems far younger in terms of life experience, finds herself spending a long, hot summer at a dilapidated country estate along with worldly couple Peter and Cara. I thought it was quite clever to subvert the gothic tropes of cold, stormy nights by setting this sinister novel in bright sunshine, although I didn’t particularly warm to any of the three main characters. Cara’s fanciful stories are told with a level of detail that make them seem like a side-novel all of their own, rich with biblical overtones. The horror touches – eyeless peacocks on the wallpaper, the hare in the library – give an unsettling feeling that builds to a crescendo in the novel’s dramatic ending.

3.An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018)

It was a relief to fictionally depart good old Blighty and head across the pond – after reading Barnes and Fuller, Jones’s novel felt fresh and modern. Little Roy and Celestial are 18 months into their marriage when he is wrongly accused of rape (the perpetrator also happened to be a black man, and thus Roy’s fate is sealed) and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Finally I came across characters I could fully engage with, helped by the first person narratives of Roy, Celestial, and, later in the novel, Andre.

The middle section of the novel consists of letters between Roy and Celestial while he is incarcerated. I loved the sense of Roy in particular fumbling to express himself in this unfamiliar, old-fashioned medium. The central focus is not on the prison experience, but on the relationship between Roy and Celestial, which, though never perfect to start with, is unavoidably altered by his long absence. The book raises a lot of questions, but doesn’t provide any easy answers.

4. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday (2018)

This brilliant debut novel manages to ask hugely intelligent and thought-provoking questions about the nature of “the novel” itself without being too annoyingly postmodern about it. It consists of three sections – the first, ‘Folly’, details aspiring writer Alice’s affair with a much older, very distinguished writer, Ezra Blazer (based on Philip Roth). We aren’t given much insight into Alice’s thoughts and feelings – it reads like a series of vignettes, interspersed with extracts from other books – but it builds up a picture of an unusual relationship, from its romantic apprenticeship origins to Alice assuming more of a care-giver role.

The second section, ‘Madness’, is a seemingly unconnected story about Amar, an American-Iraqui who is being detained at UK border control. His present dilemma is broken up with flashbacks to his life in the States and his time spent with his family in Iraq. He is a more rounded character than Alice, which poses some of the most interesting questions of the novel once the hints about his origins are understood.

The final section is an eerily convincing transcript of Ezra’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ interview – it is quite something to finish a novel with Kirsty Young’s voice ringing in your ears.

I was blown away by this novel, and a tiny bit jealous that students of contemporary fiction will get to write essays about it. Yes, I miss writing essays.

5. Feel Free by Zadie Smith (2018)

I’m never quite sure how I feel about Zadie Smith. I think I’m intimidated by her. I adored White Teeth (written so young!) admired bits of her other novels, and whenever I have read interviews or essays by her, been humbled by her intellect.

This ferocious intellect is certainly on display in this collection of essays, but it is coupled with a sympathetic outlook that is not a million miles away from the Lorrie Moore book I read last month. Like Moore, Smith covers a wide range of topics, and is not afraid of delving into popular culture. A Guardian review described the book a bit sniffily as “cultural thought experiments from her desk” – that may be, but the results of the experiments make for fascinating reading.

6. Florida by Lauren Groff (2018)

I’m probably going to gush about this one, because discovering this collection of stories made me want to immediately seize and read anything else Groff has written, so I will keep my fan-girling brief. Fierce, furious, full of ominous weather, green swamps, dangerous nature that threatens to overwhelm humanity while being indifferent to it, these stories (not exclusively set in Florida, by the way) are urgent with a kind of ‘state of the world’ panic. There is a woman who seems to reappear in several stories, the mother of two young boys, but it was the story of Jude, ‘At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners’ that genuinely made me exclaim out loud: “THAT’S how you write a short story!” to my bemused husband. A whole life is perfectly encapsulated in a beautiful, moving short story, so that when I finished it I felt as if I had read an entire novel about the character. That’s writing.

7.Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar (2018)

To be fair, had I read the reviews comparing Kumar’s novel to the work of W.G Sebald, I would have known this probably wasn’t really for me. I remember struggling through a book by Sebald for my MA – it left me cold. The ‘non-fiction novel’ is not my thing, apparently. This book, in which Kailash (known as AK) arrives in New York for grad school from a village in India, has various relationships, lots of intellectual discussions, and a few internal addresses to an imaginary judge, adheres to the view that plot is far less crucial than Important Ideas, and I think I’m just not clever enough to entirely agree.

8. A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1967)

For me, this novel provided a much more enaging way of exploring complex political ideas – in this case, Kenya’s independence. The ‘present’ timeline of the novel takes place in the days leading up to independence, and it focuses on a group of characters from the village of Thabai, all of whom have been impacted by the uprising.

The point of view moves between characters to build up a collective sense of what these events mean to them as individuals, as villagers, and as a nation. The most intriguing character for me was Mugo, a reluctant hero of the resistance who just wants to be left alone. Another character who has returned from the detention camps, Gikonyo, comes home to find that his relationship with his beloved wife has irrevocably changed, in an echo of one of the themes of An American Marriage – how long does a woman have to wait?

Independence, for these characters, is as much an internal struggle as an external one, and the realism with which the author depicts their inner thoughts, coupled with the genuinely intriguing plot, had me feeling sad to say goodbye to Thabai when I finished the book.

I’m going to need to stock up on new fiction reading again soon, so any suggestions very welcome!


January 2019 Reading: Circe, The Needle’s Eye, See What Can Be Done, The Mars Room, Children of Blood and Bone, Gorilla, My Love

New year, new start, and I’m back on the books! Here’s a round-up of what I read in January 2019…

1.Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)

Being a self-confessed Greek geek, I do love a modern retelling of ancient mythology. This beautifully written novel gives voice to a ‘cameo’ goddess of Greek myth, she of turning Odysseus’s men to swine fame. The prose is simple but elegant, and the natural descriptions (in particular of the island to which she is exiled) are especially vivid. The level of detail and appropriacy of Miller’s metaphors completely absorbed me in the world she creates.

Circe as a character is complex and fully developed, and not always sympathetic, prone to the same jealousies and moments of pettiness as the other (both divine and mortal) characters. The motherhood section resonated particularly with me (unsurprisingly!) – it felt real and raw, and ever so slightly reassuring to know that even goddesses can have tricky babies!

Despite the harsh, often amoral nature of the Titan/Olympian/Mortal spheres that Circe inhabits, I found this novel oddly soothing.

2.The Needle’s Eye by Margaret Drabble (1972)

I can’t remember how this novel ended up on my reading list for 2019, but I hadn’t read any of Drabble’s work before, so I gave it a go. It is a detailed, intense character study of the two protagonists, Simon and Rose, although occasionally the narrative voice switches to the perspective of other characters.

There is minimal plot – and I have to admit that I found the constant psychological, analytical tone almost exhaustingly introspective. This is a novel of thoughts and emotions, and I did occasionally wish that something would just HAPPEN.

The characters are incredibly detailed in terms of their psyche, and as such highly realistic, although not necessarily sympathetic. Although I found this novel unsatisfying in some ways, as a technical study in character, it is undeniably admirable.

3.See What Can Be Done by Lorrie Moore (2018)

I have to admit, I started this excitedly thinking it was a new collection by one of my favourite short story writers (the dangers of speed-ordering on the Kindle), but luckily my momentary disappointment on discovering that it was (gasp) non-fiction was short-lived. This book of essays and reviews on everything from respected authors to TV shows like True Detective and The Wire is thoughtful, considered and well-researched. Moore reveals a broad range of interests and knowledge, that intense fascination with life that is such an important part of being a writer.

Her humour and generosity shine through here, and she is not afraid to admit to certain ‘low brow’ tastes (Titanic, anyone?). Even when being critical, her words are carefully balanced, and she is never malicious.

There are echoes of what I enjoy so much about her fiction – a piece about getting married is full of a delicious foreboding which reveals that Moore can turn her ironic humour on herself as well as her characters. Her writing is full of insights, unassumingly offered, and I came away with a long list of writers to try, which always pleases me.

4. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (2018)

This novel tells the story of Romy Hall, who is serving two life sentences for murdering her stalker. It explores a darker side of San Francisco to that often depicted, and shows how Romy never really had a chance.

I found Romy’s voice quite detached, and never really felt I was inside her head. Minor characters are given their own chapters, which I found a bit distracting, and some of Romy’s key relationships (with her son and with Jimmy) didn’t seem to be explored fully.

As much as it is certainly shallow to imagine that my beloved ‘Orange is the New Black’ has got the ‘women’s prisons’ thing covered, I have to admit that while Kushner’s portrait of life in detention is grittier and doubtless more realistic, it somehow didn’t feel as ‘full’ to me, in every sense of the word.

5.Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (2018)

One of the delights of my ‘one-click’ approach to stocking up on reading (and a small positive of my lamentable reading hiatus) is that I can start reading a novel with absolutely no knowledge or preconceptions about it. In the case of Adeyemi’s debut novel, the fact that I have evidently been hiding under a rock means that I am probably one of the very few people who didn’t know that this YA fantasy is The Next Big Thing, with film rights snapped up and massive advances paid.

The book does more than just draw on Nigerian folklore for its depiction of the fictional land of Orisha, in which magic has been recently wiped out – it transposes the whole western fantasy genre into an African setting and claims it for its own. Adeyemi creates a series of exciting, fast-paced set pieces that cry out for Parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy and, of course, for the big screen version. The three first-person narrators are all engaging characters, although Inan is arguably the most intriguing in his conflicted state as he wrestles with the question of whether or not magic should indeed be restored.

I read this in big, joyous gulps of childish glee, and will be gobbling up the rest of this franchise unashamedly.

6. Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade (1972)

Another sneaky retro entry in amongst the 2018 books I have mostly been reading, coincidentally written the same year as Drabble’s novel, although that is the ONLY thing the two books have in common.

These powerful short stories offer a view of black life in America, accessed via an idiosyncratic style that at one or two points I found hard to follow, but I enjoyed letting them wash over me nevertheless. The first couple of stories hooked me with the original, engaging voice of Hazel, and I found myself wishing she appeared more.

A particular strength was the opening lines of each story, which took me straight into that world. Cade Bambara does some amazing things with words throughout the stories – some of the language is just utterly gorgeous: “Days other than the here and now, I told myself, will be dry and sane and sticky with the rotten apricots oozing slowly into the sweet time of my betrayed youth.”

I’m thrilled to be back in ‘reading mode’, and always on the look-out for more suggestions. What have you read so far this year? Comment and let me know!