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!

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