Friday, 21 August 2009

holiday reading... novels for a change

Picture the scene. Yorkshire Dales. Three miles to the nearest village and no car. A fridge full of food. A pile of books. Rain.

I did actually venture out of the cottage everyday, but a good amount of time was spent with my nose buried in books. I rarely read novels. With work being so busy and a hundred other things (like my love of short fiction, which dominates my reading time). So, this week, I ventured into the countryside with only novels, wanting to indulge myself in that almost forgotten thrill of truly immersing myself in a story and not emerging until I've turned the last page.

I picked four very different novels.

This was a wonderful freebie from dovegreyreader that I was lucky enough to win in one of her prizedraws. A beautiful hardback edition. I'm afraid I could gush about Sarah Waters for a very long time, oh how I love her writing. She has to be one of the most exciting novelists around. I need to try and summarise, otherwise I will talk about this book all day.

It's set post-second world war. Dr Faraday is a local doctor just before the onset of the NHS. Hundreds Hall is a crumbling old Georgian house, that the eccentric Ayres family can't afford to keep but are clinging onto. Imagine a few war injuries, weird unexplained happenings in the house, a dog bite, a bit of madness, a creeping kind of unrequited love, the loss of a child, tradition vs the modern way, 1940's medicine and lunatic asylums, and you might get a hint of what might occur as the novel progresses. As with every Sarah Waters novel, the tension is pitched perfectly. Her characterisation is wildly authentic so it feels as though these people are real and the events unfolding are actually happening. Her attention to historical detail is, as expected, intricately researched (medicine at the time, the life of landed gentry, the decaying of the aristocracy, post-war politics, the planning for the National Health Service). I was drawn in, haunted by this novel, completely taken in every way.

There were echoes from other novels - the ghostly side reminded me of the spiritualism in Affinity, the way she writes about maids/servants and their place in these families, reminded me of Fingersmiths. But even with these slight echoes, the material is vastly different. She creates an authentic sense of place, in a particular period in time. I was transported there. The voice, the immediacy, my involvement in the book meant, I didn't want to stop reading, but at the same time had a sense of dread at turning the pages as I had no idea what was going to happen next. A thrilling read. I certainly hope The Little Stranger wins the Booker.

A difficult act to follow The Little Stranger. I felt only a writer like Ian McEwan could measure up. I've read all his books, apart from On Chesil Beach. A very slim book, a novella perhaps. Set in Dorset in 1962, Edward and Florence are spending the first night of their married life in a hotel overlooking Chesil Beach. On the surface, this is a very simple novel. It focuses mainly on their wedding night, with backstory about both characters and how they met.

After reading The Little Stranger, this book felt somewhat 'distant'. I felt like an observer rather than feeling involved (partly by the third person narrative, I'm sure). At the time I read it, it felt very credible, but I was always conscious that this was a story and that I am reading it at some distance in time. I didn't feel as inhabited by the characters. This story was more outside of me.

Saying that, On Chesil Beach has stayed with me over the whole week, wondering about it, asking myself questions. I loved the small details within the relationship between Edward and Florence, the nuances captured between two people still getting to know eachother, very nervous about their wedding night, with different expectations and ideas of how it will be. It captured the moment in time brilliantly. This pre-sexual revolution era, when men and women could not talk about sex. At all. The fears. The role of women.

I was nagged afterwards by thoughts about what I would have done in their situation, trying to understand how it might have been like this, why it turns out as it does. For me, the real power of this book lies in the ending, where we are transported through subsequent years to when Edward is in his sixties, so that we know the longer term impact of this intense night/this love affair. That was the brilliance for me, in this novel.

Next book, I wanted a very different read. The Mermaid and the Drunks has been sitting on my bookshelves for a very long time. It was my third book in a three for two offer. I have no idea why I chose it, I didn't like the title, and it has a Daily Mail quote on the front cover.

But, I was surprised. It is a complex, interesting novel. The book has two narratives, one following Fresia, a Chilean exile who has lived her whole life in England, and the other focuses on Joe, a Scottish academic researching Chilean political history. They meet on the plane to Santiago and become friends. There is a potential love interest, marred when Fresia gets involved with a much older Anglo-Chilean rich intellectual. There is tension from the search for Roberto's missing nephew, the politics of his disappearance are much more complex than I imagined (this book taught me more about the impact of Pinochet, torture, the disappeared in Chile, than I have read before.)

There is always a danger with split narratives that a reader will favour one or the other, but even though my favouritism swayed in Fresia's direction, I was interested in both characters stories. It was funny, moving, immersed in the art, political and social culture of Chile, particularly Santiago, and gripping. Yes, a surprise find.

Lastly, Megan Taylor's How We Were Lost. I've been meaning to read this for some time. Megan is one of my online writer friends (We have never met, but I feel as though I know her from reading her blog).

I sat up until the early hours of this morning finishing this book, absolutely refusing to put it down, and greedily wanting to know the ending. This is a special book in several ways, especially because of my not-so-secret love of child narrators. Janey is a gifted teenager. She has taken a few GCSEs early, gets bullied at school and has a wonderful heightened imagination that can become feverish. She is haunted by 'my missing girls', two girls who have gone missing in the British seaside town where she lives. She is on the brink of adolescence, just as her family are in crisis: Her older sister Diana is pregnant, her cold Aunt Rene is getting back together with violent Uncle Pete, and she is asking too many questions about the disappearance of her mother when she was a baby. Glandular fever, a sweltering summer, a town full of tourists, a dodgy ice-cream seller and the tension of police and media reports of the missing girls, send Janey into a dizzying state of torment, fitful nightmares, and discovering truths.

The language is dripping with teenage imagination and tension. There is a breathless feel to the writing, and sometimes I found myself rushing rushing rushing, not because I wanted to reach the end or skip parts, but because the pace is so fast, and Janie is filled with a hundred thoughts and questions all clammering into the prose so that sometimes I had to stop just to take 'a moment'. Of course, what we discover is that the truth is dreadfully sad, but not as dramatic and crazy as Janie imagines. I was surprised that this didn't feel like an anti-climax, but felt very apt, very real. Such a wonderful read.

So, Gosh.

Four very different books, all of which I thought had brilliance about them, all of which I loved reading. There was something wonderful for me about re-discovering my enthusiasm for the novel, and I've been very greedy. I have been disappearing for hours at a time and getting lost in stories. I've enjoyed it. But, oh what to read next...


Michelle said...

A fabulous post, Annie. I've been picking up The Little Stranger and putting it back down every time I walk into a bookshop. I have so many books on my reading pile already that I'm trying to discipline myself not to buy any more until I've made some progress through them. Your post has convinced me that I really do need the book now!

Another one I want to read is A S Byatt's The Children's Book.

Have you read The Scent of Cinnamon yet? I remember you saying you had it on your shelf. I'm reading it at the moment. Sumptuous writing.

Megan's book sounds great. Another to add on the list.

And Chesil Beach too. Could anything beat Atonement though? It's one of my very favourite novels.

Megan said...

AAaaarrrggghhh- Annie! Thank you so much for this fab and understanding review. What a wonderful surprise after returning from my hols. I am grinning madly - especially to be reviewed in the same space as Ms Waters. I've also just read 'The Little Stranger' and totally loved it too.
Thank you, thank you,

Michelle said...

I'm loving The Little Stranger, Annie, savouring every page, not wanting to finish it too quickly.