April 2019 Reading: Let the Great World Spin; The Outlander; Home Fire; Day; The Moons of Jupiter; Fates and Furies; Vinegar Girl

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (2009)

This novel spirals out from a central image: the illegal tightrope walk between the Twin Towers performed by Philippe Petit (who remains unnamed in the book) in 1974, though the main cast of characters have only tangential connections to the act. I have to admit, the opening chapters, set in Dublin, didn’t thrill me – the first narrator and his brother, Corrigan, are both rather dour company. But, after both relocate to New York and a terrible accident occurs, the novel springs into life, and a cacophony of lively voices won me over. The female characters in this novel are particularly strong, from Lara, the artist who is involved in the accident, to Tillie, a middle-aged prostitute, to Gloria and Claire, whose bond is that their sons were both killed in Vietnam. The connections between the characters are complex and organic, growing and changing as the novel progresses. There is also a beautiful interlude describing the funambulist’s training, which has a poetic, timeless quality.

The book is bold, beautiful, experimental, and, as in all the very best fiction, it feels like it really gets to the heart of life.

The Outlander by Gil Adamson (2007)

I’ve had this book on my shelf for ages, and, in a frugal effort not to spend too much money on Kindle books, I added it to my pile of unread paperbacks for this month. It appears I have forgotten how to read ‘real’ books – I fumbled with the pages, dropped it on my face, lost my place several times, but despite such millenial incompetence, it was an entirely pleasurable experience. Mary Boulton, referred to almost exclusively as ‘the widow’, is on the run in the Canadian wilderness after murdering her husband. The thing that struck me most about this novel was the meticulous description, so detailed it felt cinematic. Each episode in her (mis)adventures is thrilling, from finding refuge with a bird-like old woman to living in the wilderness in a strange kind of domestic harmony, to the mining town of Frank, pursued, always, by the malevolent twin brothers of her dead husband. This pursuit is what drives the story forward, so that even when the widow ‘beds in’ to a situation, we know it can’t last.

The characters are wonderful – William Moreland, the Rev ‘Bonny’ who shelters her in Frank, Mac the dwarf, Giovanni the cat skinner – they are vivid and funny and compelling, and the widow herself is the kind of complex, flawed protagonist you can’t help but root for. I did find myself wishing that her psychosis, which haunts the first part of the novel, was more fully explored in the later stages – but this is a minor quibble. I loved this book. A review from the Guardian sums up what is so brilliant about this novel: “The Outlander is that rare delight: a novel that is beautifully written yet as gripping as any airport page-turner.” (As long as you are capable of actually turning pages.)

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017)

This is a modern retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, but it wears its source material lightly, especially at first. The novel begins with Isma leaving behind her sister, Aneeka, to travel from London to the States to study. Their brother, Aneeka’s twin, Parvaiz, has recently disappeared, suspected to have joined Isis, in a worrying echo of their now deceased jihadi father, whose shadow looms large over the family. Isma faces an entirely expected airport interrogation, which leads to some surprisingly funny lines.

I wasn’t overly sold on this novel at first – Isma is an admirable but rather dreary character, and the recruitment of Parvaiz, detailed later on, seemed too easy, but it made more sense when followed by his immediate realisation that he had made a terrible mistake. He is only 19, after all, and Shamsie is clever to make him a relatable character. At the heart of the book, though, is Aneeka, whose fierce, independent nature grows in scale until, by the novel’s climax (cleverly witnessed through the medium of TV, a visual, extremely powerful ending), she has reached the truly tragic proportions of her Sophoclean ancestor. This book stayed with me for a long time after I finished it, and made me radically (excuse the pun) rethink my initial indifference to it.

Day by A.L. Kennedy (2007)

As soon as I finish a book, I like to read reviews of it and compare them with my own opinion. I don’t know if this is a kind of insecurity, making sure I’ve ‘got it right’, but I am noticing more and more that my own view does not necessarily match up with that of the illustrious critics. Perhaps I am starting to think for myself (shock, horror)? Anyway, it seems that the high wizards of literary criticism weren’t too impressed with this offering, and I thoroughly disagree with them. So there.

Alfred Day, a former RAF bomber, is taking part in a reconstruction of a German POW camp for a film being made in 1949. He isn’t sure why he has agreed to come, he knows it will trigger traumatic memories, but something in him couldn’t resist. Through his fractured stream of consciousness, hints of his past emerge, passing through shifts in register and accent (his Staffordshire roots are betrayed by his use of dialect in moments of extreme emotion). Alfred is a fascinating character, by turns sympathetic and repelling, and the extreme circumstances he has lived through give him a chance to show every facet of himself. I am always impressed by a novelist who can inhabit their first person protagonist so fully, creating an entire consciousness with words, and even more so when the character’s experiences are so far removed from the writer’s own.

The best parts of the novel involve Alfred’s reminisces about his crew: the banter, the intense friendships, the sense of ‘family’ more real to him than his own. If I were to succumb to the critical reviews, I might grudgingly agree that the withholding of key details in order to create suspense betrays the artifice somewhat, detracts from the stream of consciousness – if Kennedy had resisted the lure of plot, it may have elevated the novel even further. And it is true that Day’s mother and his lover are both presented as a kind of ‘ideal’, never really developed beyond paradigms of female perfection, but then we are embedded in Alfred’s point of view, so if this is how he sees them, perhaps fair enough. I certainly didn’t nitpick at the time of reading – I just enjoyed the ride.

The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro (1982)

Why, oh why, has it taken me so long to get around to reading Munro? I have been missing out – but at least I can now look forward to reading her many other works. I picked this collection of her short stories at random, figuring the important thing was to start somewhere, and from the first story I was hooked.

There is a deceptive simplicity to her stories; they seem small in their scope, but they contain so much truth and quiet beauty that it is impossible not to be moved by them. The opening two stories, the two-part ‘Chaddeleys and Flemings’, describe the aunts on both sides of the narrator’s family, drawing powerful contrasts and exploring the narrator’s sense of connection (or lack thereof) with her family members. ‘Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd’, set in a care home, is a beautifully nuanced and detailed depiction of forming friendships in old age, and seemed to me to be something I hadn’t seen before. The ending of my favourite story, ‘Labor Day Dinner’ is stunningly effective – endings are something I struggle with when I attempt to write short stories: here is a masterclass in how to do it perfectly.

The level of detail in these stories is astounding. Even seemingly trivial things like the descriptions of the clothes worn by the (mostly female) characters help you to see them in your mind so clearly, as if these snapshots of their lives have been captured on film. At their heart, the stories are about trying to understand oneself, and each other, and I was struck by the many examples of characters showing respect for the differences between them. These ‘small’ tales articulate such achingly beautiful truths about love and human interaction that each one has the depth of a novel. I can’t wait to read more of Munro’s work.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (2015)

I was blown away by Groff’s short story collection, Florida, earlier this year, and this full-length (and then some) novel had me similarly impressed. Divided into two sections, it tells the story of the marriage of Lotto (short for Lancelot) and Mathilde, who meet in college and get married within weeks. The first half, ‘Fates’, focuses on Lotto, who is born in Florida. His father dies when he is young, and after some delinquent behaviour, he is sent to boarding school, where he is miserable. At college, he discovers acting and meets Mathilde, and they move to New York for him to pursue his ill-chosen career. Eventually he discovers that his true talent lies in play-writing, and success finally follows.

This first section is inventive, surprising and uplifting, full of the bright shining light that seems to emanate from Lotto. He is flawed, but he is also endearing and mesmerising, and I fully understood Mathilde’s protective attitude towards him. Groff’s language is fierce and beautiful – her prose is so luminous and delicious, it feels edible, making my mouth water with her dazzling turns of phrase and linguistic acrobatics. She moves between poetic and natural registers with ease, and I was left breathless by some of her sentences.

I wasn’t quite as taken with the second section of the novel. Mathilde deserves her turn to be heard, hovering in the wings as she is during Lotto’s gorgeous performance in the first section, and I can see what Groff was trying to achieve by showing the two sides of the marriage. However, the heaped-on revelations that are catapulted towards the reader by Mathilde’s much darker narrative, thick with tragedy and secrets, overpowers the realist mode in which the first half of the novel mostly operates, and threatens to tip the novel into melodrama. We know there are secrets to be aired, but there are touches of heavy-handedness, including the hiring of a cartoonish private detective, and the unbelievable uniqueness of Mathilde’s own personal story detracts from what could have been a deeply insightful exploration of the ‘two sides to every story/marriage’ theme.

Groff originally wanted to publish the two parts as two separate novels, and I think if she had, and I had only read ‘Fates’, or if she had dripped Mathilde’s story into the first section, marrying (another pun, sorry) the two ‘modes’ more seamlessly, I would be declaring this one of the best novels I have ever read. Even still, I am in awe of Groff’s immense talent, and am looking forward to the next few books of hers already loaded on the kindle.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (2016)

Warning: I am about to make one last terrible pun, this time about Vinegar Girl leaving a sour taste in my mouth. There. Done.

I’m still cross with this book. I have never read any Anne Tyler, but the woman has won a Pulitzer Prize, for crying out loud, so I was expecting great things. I should not have started with this novel, which was commissioned as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which eminent novelists retell the bard’s stories (Margaret Atwood’s version of The Tempest, Hagseed, is well worth a read, by the way). Tyler chose or was assigned The Taming of the Shrew, not a play I know well, and arguably one of the trickier ones to update, with its convoluted, misogynistic plot concerning a daughter being forced to marry against her will. How do you transplant this to modern day America? Tyler has the answer: greencard marriage.

I had so many issues with this book, it is hard to know where to start. Kate, the protagonist, is both unrealistic and utterly unlikeable, not so much defiant as an odd mixture of downtrodden and immature. She keeps the household ticking along, in the absence of her late mother, for her ‘brilliant scientist’ father, who takes advantage of her at every turn, yet despite her domestic competence, at work she is unprofessional, rude, and almost as childish as the four year olds she looks after (and there are far too many pointless scenes set at the preschool where she works). When her father suggests she marry his lab assistant in order to keep him in the country, she is all too briefly horrified before she reluctantly agrees. The whole farce that proceeds is, admittedly, mildly amusing at times, and the assistant, Pyotr, is quite endearing in his way (and provides the best jokes), but it is all just so implausible that I found myself scowling at the pages as I read. In all honesty, if you’re interested in a modern version of this play, you’d be far better off watching the film ’10 Things I Hate About You.’ (Don’t knock it, it’s a great movie.)

Fair enough, Tyler is doing the job she has been paid to do, using an old-fashioned plot and trying to fit it into a modern story, but it feels like hack-work, as if she is trying to get the commission out of the way as quickly as possible so she can get back to her ‘real’ work. Which I will read one day, but only when I’ve calmed down.


March 2019 Reading: There, There; The Largesse of the Sea Maiden; Warlight; The Toymakers; Lost Boy; A Man Called Ove; Eleanor Olifant is Completely Fine

1. There, There by Tommy Orange (2018)

This novel opens with a powerful essay on the history and depiction of Native Americans; urgent and moving, it sets up from the start why it is so important that the story that follows is told. The novel itself follows a large cast of Native American characters in Oakland, California. The connections between them are sometimes obvious, sometimes slowly revealed as the novel builds to its climax at a powwow. At its core, the story deals with what it means to be an ‘Indian’ in modern day America, and the struggles of keeping in touch with a culture that has been so brutally marginalised.

The characters wrestle with themes all too commonly associated with modern, urban Native Americans, such as addiction, violence and poverty, but the joy of this novel comes from the heart and humanity that shines through in characters such as the overweight man-child, Edwin, the earnest documentary-maker, Dene, and the boy Orvil, who secretly forges his own connection with his heritage. Despite the violent climax, which drives the narrative forward with the chugging inevitability of a freight train, there is a sense of optimism amid the struggle. I found this book satisfying, illuminating, entertaining and above all, real – upon finishing it, I was sad to say goodbye to my favourite characters.

2. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson (2018)

Published posthumously, this book of five not-so-short stories is quieter and more reflective than their subject matter (addiction, prison life, etc – themes familiar from Johnson’s most famous collection, Jesus’ Son) might suggest. The stories also contain ruminations on mortality, perhaps not surprisingly considering the author was dying of liver cancer when he wrote them. The prose is full of sentence-level beauty, and a careful, clear-eyed intelligence hovers behind the words. In ‘Doppelganger, Poltergeist’, about a poet’s obsession with a far-fetched conspiracy theory concerning the death of Elvis Presley, scepticism is balanced with a gentler suggestion of permission to let the imagination run where it may. For me, it is this mix of ‘sense and sensibility’, this admission that though we must interrogate and explore, in the end we can only guess at life’s mysteries, that makes Johnson such a master of the short story form.

3. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (2018)

In post-war London, the narrator of the novel, Nathaniel, is left as a teenager, with his sister, in the care of a mysterious man called The Moth. Abandoned by their parents, whose ‘work’ is soon revealed to have connections to some kind of espionage, they enter a shadowy, semi-legal world, full of doubts, nicknames, and events not quite understood. Ondaatje’s preoccupation with memory is at the forefront here, and the struggle we all face to understand our own lives through its faulty lens is exaggerated by the murky circumstances of Nathaniel’s upbringing. When his mother eventually returns, his attempts to recreate her history further this idea of memory as a kind of fiction itself, one that we can even impose on others. I have to admit, the deliberately slippery nature of the characters and plot of this novel created too much emotional distance for me to become fully engaged, and I found the gloom and mystery surrounding them too oppressive to penetrate in any meaningful way.

4. The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale (2018)

A much more ‘me’ book, this novel, which begins in the 1900s, takes you straight into the kind of magical realm that fiction is for, the gloriously detailed, wonderfully imagined world of the Emporium, a London toyshop filled with such exquisitely described toys that I actually got upset that such things don’t exist. Papa Jack and his sons are not magicians, but the toys they craft teeter on the edge of magic in a way which had my inner child clapping her hands and jumping up and down with glee. We follow the story of Cathy, a pregnant teenager who runs away from home and finds refuge in the Emporium, developing close but different relationships with the brothers Kaspar and Emil. Cathy’s point of view allows us to experience the wonders of the Emporium alongside her, as well as offering an outsider’s perspective on the complicated fraternal relationship she finds herself stuck in the middle of.

The considerable delights of the Emporium in its heyday gradually give way to the looming outbreak of the First World War, and without spoiling too much, the war’s effects on Kaspar in particular are movingly and tragically explored. In the post-war era the decline of the Emporium takes on touches of horror, but Dinsdale’s skill is in making this shift in tone feel natural and never overdone. All of the main characters are complex and intriguing, with even the petulant, occasionally sinister Emil eliciting some sympathy. The ending was a total surprise, worthy of such a magical book. I’m looking forward to reading more of Dinsdale’s work.

5. Lost Boy by Christina Henry (2017)

In another touch of ‘Kindle-blindness’, and evidently not paying enough attention to the opening of this retelling of the Peter Pan story, I didn’t actually realise until quite near the end that the protagonist, Jamie, is in fact a young Captain Hook (this is not a spoiler – the novel is subtitled ‘The True Story of Captain Hook’ – I am just a fool). The bonus of my stupidity is that I got a lovely little frisson when I realised, which readers who actually pay attention to things like titles and opening paragraphs will miss out on. So I (sort of) win.

I have to admit, I have never liked Peter Pan as a character. It may be that as a woman, the idea of a boy who never grows up lacks a certain appeal (possibly due to encounters with Pan’s non-fictional relations) – for whatever reason, I’ve never been a fan. I therefore felt slightly vindicated by this novel’s portrayal of Peter as a monstrous sociopath, utterly incapable of unselfish actions. His hateful behaviour also makes sense for someone who has never grown up or had to face consequences, and Henry does a very good job of pushing a fairy tale conceit to its logical, horrifying conclusion. Jamie, the first of Peter’s Lost Boys, is a fantastic character, and I was with him all the way as he gradually saw through Peter’s boyish charm to the sinister reality of his treatment of his ‘friends’. Jamie’s relationships with the other boys are touching and realistic, and I grew genuinely fond of him as the novel progressed. He is flawed, certainly, but as his backstory becomes clear, my sympathy for him only grew. The novel is violent and gory, Lord of the Flies times ten, but the violence seems realistic given the anarchic, adultless world the Lost Boys inhabit (pirates notwithstanding).

This book is not perfect – for me, the ending was too rushed, and I felt that some of the revelations about Peter could have been dripped in throughout rather than coming out in one long expository info-dump. However, I was deeply engrossed both in Jamie’s story and in the world of the island, so fantastically detailed that it becomes a character in its own right.

6. A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman (English translation 2013)

First off, a shout-out to the translator, Henning Koch, who renders Backman’s novel so convincingly into English that if it wasn’t for the protagonist’s name and the mention of paying in ‘crowns’, the early chapters would have convinced me that Ove was British rather than Swedish. (Of course, this is also due to the fact that curmudgeonly old men are something we Brits do very well – I can neither confirm nor deny that I was reminded of my dear father at some points during the reading of this novel). Humorous books are hard to translate, and Koch does a brilliant job.

Ove ought to be immensely dislikeable – he is grumpy, old-fashioned, suspicious of new technology and of any kind of change, and his early interactions with other characters are almost entirely antagonistic. As the book progresses, however, you can’t help but develop sympathy with him, and even come to admire his strong moral code, which encompasses everything from remaining fiercely loyal to the car manufacturer Saab, to being unable to refuse help to his neighbours, despite their annoying habit of interrupting his various suicide attempts. The tragedies of his past (distant and recent), gradually revealed, serve to increase the reader’s emotional attachment to Ove. In the end, of course, it is the connections he reluctantly forges with members of his community, especially with the brilliant character of Parvaneh, his fierce, heavily pregnant new neighbour, that save Ove – which leads me neatly onto my last March read.

7. Eleanor Olifant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017)

Another novel with an unconventional, eponymous protagonist, whose way of looking at the world seems at odds with everyone else around her. This book has a lot in common with A Man Called Ove, but it is even funnier and simultaneously more profound. I felt a gentle affection for Ove as a character; I loved Eleanor fiercely. Ove is a take on a character we are all familiar with, albeit an idiosyncratic version, whereas Eleanor seems to me to be quite unique. I can’t remember reading a novel about a young woman with quite so many quirks, with such a specific take on the world. The first person narration, which emphasises her impressive, rather formal vocabulary, allows the reader to enter the character’s head more fully than in Backman’s novel, and I found it fascinating to be immersed in Eleanor’s world.

Eleanor offers an alternative viewpoint on everyday life – she is confused by social interactions, hyper-sensitive to the nuances that we might take for granted, but it is her take on what it involves to be considered an attractive woman which provides the most humour. Having developed an unrequited crush on a local singer, Eleanor decides to explore the world of beautifying; the scene in which she gets her first bikini wax shines a delightfully absurd light on the ridiculous lengths women are expected to go to in order to fit into society’s expectations.

Although there are plenty of laughs in this novel, the narrative is underlaid with hints about Eleanor’s past. What I particularly liked about the story was that we only get to explore the tragedy of her childhood when Eleanor herself decides that she is ready to speak about it with the therapist that she starts seeing in the second half of the novel – she hasn’t been hiding details in her narration, rather repressing them, and it is as much a revelation to her as to the reader when the full truth comes out. The fact that she has undergone this process makes the optimism of the ending more believable – I feel like it is quite rare to see successful therapy depicted in fiction.

Like Ove, Eleanor’s redemption comes about through connections with other people. Her loneliness at the start of the novel, her fixed routines, the pizza, wine and vodka rituals that see her through weekends when she doesn’t talk to another soul, are slowly replaced with tentative friendships, most notably with Raymond, the chubby IT guy from her office, who is a brilliant character. I liked that while there were subtle hints that their relationship might be more than platonic, Honeyman resists the urge to turn Eleanor’s story into a love story – Raymond helps her on her journey to self-acceptance, but she is the one who saves herself. I found this book poignant, hilarious and insightful – being such a success, I am sure most of you have already read it, but if not, I highly recommend it. I am also always pleased to find a debut author who isn’t ten years younger than me (Honeyman was 45 when the book came out) – there is hope!

As always, I’m eager for recommendations – what are your best reads of 2019 so far?