Thanks to February kindly having an extra day in this Leap Year, I’m just able to reach my target of a blog post per month. So far, 2016 has been all about editing and reading for me. I haven’t submitted any fiction to journals or competitions in the first two months of the year and instead, have been concentrating on a re-structuring of my first novel (new title and all) and editing chapters as I go. When I’m writing new stuff, I find my reading drops off, but when I’m editing my own work, I read voraciously, no doubt in the hope that some of the deft prose of renowned authors will somehow embed itself in my psyche and help me produce the best work I can. So, here’s what I’ve read so far in 2016, with comments constituting mini-reviews. I pledged to read more from ‘diverse’ authors in 2016 and I’m happy to say that 50% of the books I’ve read comply with that. I haven’t achieved the same ratio of male to female authors with 5 of the 8 books penned by women, but there’s plenty of time to sort that out from March onwards! Any recommendations or suggestions in the comments section would be very welcome.
- Marlon James: A Brief History of Seven Killings
The 2015 Man Booker Prize winner had me hooked early on because of the multiple voices and their intriguing, bit by bit reveal of the story. James draws some of the most vivid and complicated characters you are likely to come across in literature, some of them a long way from ‘likeable’ but that’s the point. I loved the Jamaican dialect (that holiday in Barbados in the 1980s helped) even though the exact meaning of some terms of abuse weren’t always clear, but the gist was obvious and very often amusing. I felt the book is overlong, lost its way a little in the middle when some of James’s research on the CIA in the 1970s seemed to dominate for too long, but he pulled it all back together in time for me to forgive him and the ending was just wonderful. It’s a gritty, hard-hitting story about the community which produced Bob Marley and which he never disowned, with some really moving and engrossing writing amongst the gangland violence, plus a scary look at the USA’s involvement in other countries’ affairs.
- Hisham Bustani: The Perception of Meaning (Translated by Thoraya El-Rayyes)
This is a book I was sent for review purposes and my review is out there being considered for publication (so I did submit something this year!). It’s a bi-lingual (Arabic/English) collection of prose poems which some have described as flash fiction or short stories, but I’m sticking to my guns and saying that Bustani is a poet. There’s a lot of surreal stuff in the volume but running throughout the imagery is a thread of realism and the ugly truth that humans are destroying the earth and have lost all sense of what matters in life. The finger is pointed at technology, greed, capitalism, industrialisation, but mostly man and his base desires, so often satisfied by technology. If you worry about our world and how reliant we have become on computers, being online and linked up via social media, etc, you’ll find much to applaud here. I’ve thanked Hisham for my copy and told him I didn’t find it an ‘easy’ read to get into. He replied his main aim is to make people contemplate the modern world and it certainly is successful in that respect.
- Kate Atkinson: Life After Life
I blogged about Atkinson’s ‘A God in Ruins’ and this earlier novel is described as a companion piece, also dealing with World War II and the same family. All I can say about this standard of writing and storytelling is that it’s a privilege to be able to have access to a writer so obviously at the peak of her craft. The novel takes a central character, Ursula, and follows her life from birth, but there’s a twist. We are not only privy to one life, the author also explores alternative lives, alternative choices and circumstances for Ursula, the ‘what-ifs’ that none of us ever get to live other than in our minds, come alive in this book. It is a tricky and intricate strategy for a novelist to adopt but Atkinson pulls it off admirably and I was page turning, looking for the small differences, the happenstances of life that would take Ursula in a new, often surprising direction.
- Jhumpa Lahiri: The Lowland
This is a slow-burning, gently unfolding story of two brothers from Bengal who go their separate ways in the 1960s, one moving to Rhode Island and eventually a career as a university lecturer, the other staying at home and getting involved in political activism. Lahiri’s beautifully descriptive prose takes the reader right into a Bengali village through all the senses and adeptly reveals the pressures on sons (and daughters) in such traditional communities. In the other story thread (she jumps about in time in order to fill in backstory and gradually reveal the full plot) we are immersed in the reality of life in the USA for the brown-skinned immigrant, who although at home in academia, doesn’t easily fit in elsewhere or ever truly feel integrated. There is much sadness in this book with themes of loneliness, parenthood, feminism, loyalty, responsibility, exile, but also much beauty in the writing. This was my first book by Jhumpa Lahiri, but I’ll look out for more.
- Bernie McGill: The Butterfly Cabinet
I’ve been meaning to read this novel since I reviewed McGill’s short story collection, ‘Sleepwalkers’ for The Incubator journal. Storytelling in the Irish tradition is at the heart of this book as an old woman in a nursing home reveals secrets from the past to her young, pregnant visitor. The setting is the wild Atlantic coast of the north west of Ireland and the irony is that the old woman, a former nanny at the ‘big house’ resides there in 1968 as an inmate, the landowning family long gone. But their memory lives on vividly in Nanny Maddie’s mind and she is the last witness able to reveal details of how her former mistress was imprisoned following the death of her young daughter. The plotline is very well teased out by McGill and there are lots of colloquial details and period contexts which make for an intriguing read. I did feel, as with Marlon James, some of the research could have been dropped (in McGill’s case some of the local, twentieth century references to the town cinema, dances etc because I craved the nineteenth century story) but overall, this was a page-turner and a beautifully written novel exploring the darker side of motherhood. I loved McGill’s short stories and will also look out for this author in the future.
- Toni Morrison: God Help The Child
Since I was editing my own work whilst reading these novels, I was very aware of what I would cut. When it comes to Morrison’s ‘God Help The Child’ that would be nothing. This is short for a modern novel at 178 pages, but it is absolutely lean and mean storytelling. As you read, growing to know the characters and piecing together their histories, you realise you are in the presence of a great in the world of contemporary novelists. It’s a heart-achingly involving book which deals with abuse in many forms but more importantly, (through the character of beautiful, black, Bride) the human will to not only keep going, but to partly re-invent oneself in spite of the most fundamental setbacks in childhood. I have seven of Toni Morrison’s eleven novels on my shelves and I would say they all ultimately deal with love and hope. Some of the incidents she writes about are disturbing and graphic and cruel, but in the end, Morrison’s work always leaves a glimmer of hope fuelled by love. If you haven’t read her work before, give this a go.
- Sebastian Barry: On Canaan’s Side
I do wonder how many novels by Irish writers deal with the life of a girl leaving Ireland and heading off to the USA, or alternatively, coming back from the USA to Ireland after a long absence. This comes under the first category and is written from the point of view of an old woman whose grandson has died. The 17 chapters are 17 ‘days without Bill’ and this structure works really well. Likewise, Barry’s quality of prose and the intriguing and often exciting details of Lilly’s life and loves over many decades, make amends for any sense of déjà vue plotwise. Barry is good on historical detail and it was interesting to have the viewpoint of a loyalist Catholic family for once, but some of his descriptions are overburdened with similes (‘like’ such and such) and a feeling that he was trying too hard to be ‘poetic’. Still, it hasn’t done him any harm and who am I to fault one of Ireland’s holy trinity of male novelists (Colm Toibin and John Banville being the other two)? Seriously, it is a lovely book and an engrossing read.
- J K Rowling: The Casual Vacancy
This was the biggest surprise of my reads to date. Like Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’, I devoured this novel, all 568 pages of it. There was a lot of hype about this at the time of publication in 2012 and I avoided it, but that was my mistake. The setting is a small south of England town complete with all its snobberies and social deprivations, represented by a roll call of brilliantly drawn characters, some of them quite vile, all of them believable and ultimately worthy of our sympathy to some degree. There is heartache and unexpressed suffering, child abuse, drug taking, corruption, nepotism and all the other problems that bubble under the surface in a small town in so-called ‘Broken Britain’. It’s a breath-taking novel and my only criticism is that Rowling tends to go over the top with her physical descriptions of characters – yes, she’s got a fake tan, we get it, no need for more than one mention! Having said that, this aspect of her writing for adults made me think of Charles Dickens and that’s how I’ll leave this mini-review – A Casual Vacancy feels like what he would have written had he been born when Rowling was.
Have you read any of these books? I’m looking for a good read by a male author next, so do you have any suggestions? Thank you.