Tag Archives: Ian McEwan

A Few Bizarre Backlist Reads: McEwan, Michaels & Tremain

I’ve grouped these three prize-winning novels from the late 1980s and 1990s together because they all left me scratching my head, wondering whether they were jumbles of random elements and events or if there was indeed a satisfyingly coherent story. While there were aspects I admired, there were also moments when I thought it indulgent of the authors to pursue poetic prose or plot tangents and not consider the reader’s limited patience. I had to think for ages about how to rate these, but eventually arrived at the same rating for each, reflecting my enjoyment but also my hesitation.

 

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987)

[Whitbread Prize for Fiction (now Costa Novel Award)]

This is the second-earliest of the 13 McEwan books I’ve read. It’s something of a strange muddle (from the protagonist’s hobbies of Arabic and tennis lessons plus drinking onwards), yet everything clusters around the title’s announced themes of children and time.

Stephen Lewis’s three-year-old daughter, Kate, was abducted from a supermarket three years ago. The incident is recalled early in the book, as if the remainder will be about solving the mystery of what happened to Kate. But such is not the case. Her disappearance is an unalterable fact of Stephen’s life that drove him and his wife apart, but apart from one excruciating scene later in the book when he mistakes a little girl on a school playground for Kate and interrogates the principal about her, the missing child is just subtext.

Instead, the tokens of childhood are political and fanciful. Stephen, a writer whose novels accidentally got categorized as children’s books, is on a government committee producing a report on childcare. On a visit to Suffolk, he learns that his publisher, Charles Darke, who later became an MP, has reverted to childhood, wearing shorts and serving lemonade up in a treehouse.

Meanwhile, Charles’s wife, Thelma, is a physicist researching the nature of time. For Charles, returning to childhood is a way of recapturing timelessness. There’s also an odd shared memory that Stephen and his mother had four decades apart. Even tiny details add on to the time theme, like Stephen’s parents meeting when his father returned a defective clock to the department store where his mother worked.

This is McEwan, so you know there’s going to be a contrived but very funny scene. Here that comes in Chapter 5, when Stephen is behind a flipped lorry and goes to help the driver. He agrees to take down a series of (increasingly outrageous) dictated letters but gets exasperated at about the same time it becomes clear the young man is not approaching death. Instead, he helps him out of the cab and they celebrate by drinking two bottles of champagne. This doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the rest of the book, but is the scene I’m most likely to remember.

Other noteworthy elements: Stephen has a couple of run-ins with the Prime Minister; though this is clearly Margaret Thatcher, McEwan takes pains to neither name nor so much as reveal the gender of the PM (in fear of libel claims?). Homeless people and gypsies show up multiple times, making Stephen uncomfortable but also drawing his attention. I assumed this was a political point about Thatcher’s influence, with the homeless serving as additional stand-ins for children in a paternalistic society, representing vulnerability and (misplaced) trust.

This is a book club read for our third monthly Zoom meeting, coming up in the first week of June. While it’s odd and not entirely successful, I think it should give us a lot to talk about: the good and bad aspects of reverting to childhood, whether it matters if Kate ever comes back, the caginess about Thatcher, and so on.

 

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)

[Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize for Fiction)]

“One can look deeply for meaning or one can invent it.”

Poland, Greece, Canada; geology, poetry, meteorology. At times it felt like Michaels had picked her settings and topics out of a hat and flung them together. Especially in the early pages, the dreamy prose is so close to poetry that I had trouble figuring out what was actually happening, but gradually I was drawn into the story of Jakob Beer, a Jewish boy rescued like a bog body or golem from the ruins of his Polish village. Raised on a Greek island and in Toronto by his adoptive father, a geologist named Athos who’s determined to combat the Nazi falsifying of archaeological history, Jakob becomes a poet and translator. Though he marries twice, he remains a lonely genius haunted by the loss of his whole family – especially his sister, Bella, who played the piano. Survivor’s guilt never goes away. “To survive was to escape fate. But if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into?”

The final third of the novel, set after Jakob’s death, shifts into another first-person voice. Ben is a student of literature and meteorological history. His parents are concentration camp survivors, so he relates to the themes of loss and longing in Jakob’s poetry. Taking a break from his troubled marriage, Ben offers to go back to the Greek island where Jakob last lived to retrieve his notebooks – which presumably contain all that’s come before. Ben often addresses Jakob directly in the second person, as if to reassure him that he has been remembered. Ultimately, I wasn’t sure what this section was meant to add, but Ben’s narration is more fluent than Jakob’s, so it was at least pleasant to read.

Although this is undoubtedly overwritten in places, too often resorting to weighty one-liners, I found myself entranced by the stylish writing most of the time. I particularly enjoyed the puns, palindromes and rhyming slang that Jakob shares with Athos while learning English, and with his first wife. If I could change one thing, I would boost the presence of the female characters. I was reminded of other books I’ve read about the interpretation of history and memory, Everything Is Illuminated and Moon Tiger, as well as of other works by Canadian women, A Student of Weather and Fall on Your Knees. This won’t be a book for everyone, but if you’ve enjoyed one or more of my readalikes, you might consider giving it a try.

 

Sacred Country by Rose Tremain (1992)

[James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Prix Fémina Etranger]

In 1952, on the day a two-minute silence is held for the dead king, six-year-old Mary Ward has a distinct thought: “I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.” Growing up on a Suffolk farm with a violent father and a mentally ill mother, Mary asks to be called Martin and binds her breasts with bandages. Kicked out at age 15, she lives with her retired teacher and then starts to pursue a life on her own terms in London. While working for a literary magazine and dating women, she consults a doctor and psychologist to explore the hormonal and surgical options for becoming the man she believes she’s always been.

Meanwhile, a hometown acquaintance with whom she once shared a dentist’s waiting room, Walter Loomis, gives up his family’s butcher shop to pursue his passion for country music. Both he and Mary/Martin are sexually fluid and, dissatisfied with the existence they were born into, resolve to search for something more. The outsiders’ journeys take them to Tennessee, of all places. But when Martin joins Walter there, it’s an anticlimax. You’d expect their new lives to dovetail together, but instead they remain separate strivers.

At a bare summary, this seems like a simple plot, but Tremain complicates it with many minor characters and subplots. The story line stretches to 1980: nearly three decades’ worth of historical and social upheaval. The third person narration shifts perspective often to show a whole breadth of experience in this small English village, while occasional first-person passages from Mary and from her mother, Estelle, who’s in and out of a mental hospital, lend intimacy. Otherwise, the minor characters feel flat, more like symbols or mouthpieces.

To give a flavor of the book’s many random elements, here’s a decoding of the extraordinary cover on the copy I picked up from the free bookshop:

Crimson background and oval shape = female anatomy, menstruation

Central figure in a medieval painting style, with royal blue cloth = Mary

Masculine muscle structure plus yin-yang at top = blended sexuality

Airplane = Estelle’s mother died in a glider accident

Confederate flag = Tennessee

Cards = fate/chance, conjuring tricks Mary learns at school, fortune teller Walter visits

Cleaver = the Loomis butcher shop

Cricket bat = Edward Harker’s woodcraft; he employs and then marries Estelle’s friend Irene

Guitar = Walter’s country music ambitions

Oyster shell with pearl = Irene’s daughter Pearl, whom young Mary loves so much she takes her (then a baby) in to school for show-and-tell

Cutout torso = the search for the title land (both inward and outer), a place beyond duality

Tremain must have been ahead of the times in writing a trans character. She acknowledged that the premise was inspired by Conundrum by Jan Morris (who, born James, knew he was really a girl from the age of five). I recall that Sacred Country turned up often in the footnotes of Tremain’s recent memoir, Rosie, so I expect it has little autobiographical resonances and is a work she’s particularly proud of. I read this in advance of writing a profile of Tremain for Bookmarks magazine. It feels very different from her other books I’ve read; while it’s not as straightforwardly readable as The Road Home, I’d call it my second favorite from her. The writing is somewhat reminiscent of Kate Atkinson, early A.S. Byatt and Shena Mackay, and it’s a memorable exploration of hidden identity and the parts of life that remain a mystery.

Recapping the Not the Wellcome Prize Blog Tour Reviews

It’s hard to believe the Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour is over already! It has been a good two weeks of showcasing some of the best medicine- and health-themed books published in 2019. We had some kind messages of thanks from the authors, and good engagement on Twitter, including from publishers and employees of the Wellcome Trust. Thanks to the bloggers involved in the tour, and others who have helped us with comments and retweets.

This weekend we as the shadow panel (Annabel of Annabookbel, Clare of A Little Blog of Books, Laura of Dr. Laura Tisdall, Paul of Halfman, Halfbook and I) have the tough job of choosing a shortlist of six books, which we will announce on Monday morning. I plan to set up a Twitter poll to run all through next week. The shadow panel members will vote to choose a winner, with the results of the Twitter poll serving as one additional vote. The winner will be announced a week later, on Monday the 11th.

First, here’s a recap of the 19 terrific books we’ve featured, in chronological blog tour order. In fiction we’ve got: novels about child development, memory loss, and disturbed mental states; science fiction about AI and human identity; and a graphic novel set at a small-town medical practice. In nonfiction the topics included: anatomy, cancer, chronic pain, circadian rhythms, consciousness, disability, gender inequality, genetic engineering, premature birth, sleep, and surgery in war zones. I’ve also appended positive review coverage I’ve come across elsewhere, and noted any other awards these books have won or been nominated for. (And see this post for a reminder of the other 56 books we considered this year through our mega-longlist.)

 

Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth & The Remarkable Life of the Skin by Monty Lyman: Simon’s reviews 

*Monty Lyman was shortlisted for the 2019 Royal Society Science Book Prize.

[Bookish Beck review of the Ashworth]

[Halfman, Halfbook review of the Lyman]

 

Exhalation by Ted Chiang & A Good Enough Mother by Bev Thomas: Laura’s reviews

 

Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson & War Doctor by David Nott: Jackie’s reviews

*Sinéad Gleeson was shortlisted for the 2020 Rathbones Folio Prize.

[Rebecca’s Goodreads review of the Gleeson]

[Kate Vane’s review of the Gleeson]

[Lonesome Reader review of the Gleeson]

[Rebecca’s Shiny New Books review of the Nott]

 

Vagina: A Re-education by Lynn Enright: Hayley’s Shiny New Books review

[Bookish Beck review]

Galileo’s Error by Philip Goff: Peter’s Shiny New Books review

 

Mother Ship by Francesca Segal & The Lady Doctor by Ian Williams: Rebecca’s reviews

[A Little Blog of Books review of the Segal]

[Annabookbel review of the Williams]

 

Chasing the Sun by Linda Geddes & The Nocturnal Brain by Guy Leschziner: Paul’s reviews

[Bookish Beck review of the Geddes]

 

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Pérez: Katie’s review 

*Caroline Criado-Pérez won the 2019 Royal Society Science Book Prize.

[Liz’s Shiny New Books review]

 

The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg: Kate’s review

[Lonesome Reader review]

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan: Kate’s review

 

Hacking Darwin by Jamie Metzl & The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa: Annabel’s reviews

*Yoko Ogawa is shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize.

[Lonesome Reader review of the Ogawa]

 

The Body by Bill Bryson & The World I Fell Out Of by Melanie Reid: Clare’s reviews

[Bookish Beck review of the Bryson]

[Rebecca’s Goodreads review of the Reid]

 

And there we have it: the Not the Wellcome Prize longlist. I hope you’ve enjoyed following along with the reviews. Look out for the shortlist, and your chance to vote for the winner, here and via Twitter on Monday.

Which book(s) are you rooting for?

My (Not the) Booker Prize Reading

A week from today, on the 14th (my birthday, as well as Susan’s – be sure to wish her a happy one!), this year’s Booker Prize will be announced. The Prize’s longlist didn’t contain much that piqued my interest this time around; I read one book from it and didn’t get on with it well at all, and I also DNFed another three.

 

Read

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson

Winterson does her darndest to write like Ali Smith here (no speech marks, short chapters and sections, random pop culture references). Cross Smith’s Seasons quartet with the vague aims of the Hogarth Shakespeare project and Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last and you get this odd jumble of a novel that tries to combine the themes and composition of Frankenstein with the modern possibilities of transcending bodily limitations. Her contemporary narrator is Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor sponsored by the Wellcome Trust who supplies researcher Victor Stein with body parts for his experiments in Manchester. In Memphis for a tech expo, Ry meets Ron Lord, a tactless purveyor of sexbots.

Their interactions alternate with chapters narrated by Mary Shelley in the 1810s; I found this strand much more engaging and original, perhaps because I haven’t read that much about Shelley and her milieu, whereas it feels like I’ve read a lot about machine intelligence and transhumanism recently (To Be a Machine, Murmur, Machines Like Me). I think Winterson’s aim was to link the two time periods through notions of hybridness and resistance to death. It never really came together for me.

 

DNFed

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – I read the first 76 pages. The other week two grizzled Welsh guys came to deliver my new fridge. Their barely comprehensible banter reminded me of that between Maurice and Charlie, two ageing Irish gangsters. The long first chapter is terrific. At first these fellas seem like harmless drunks, but gradually you come to realize just how dangerous they are. Maurice’s daughter Dilly is missing, and they’ll do whatever is necessary to find her. Threatening to decapitate someone’s dog is just the beginning – and you know they could do it. “I don’t know if you’re getting the sense of this yet, Ben. But you’re dealing with truly dreadful fucken men here,” Charlie warns at one point. I loved the voices; if this was just a short story it would have gotten a top rating, but I found I had no interest in the backstory of how these men got involved in heroin smuggling.

The Wall by John Lanchester – I lost interest in it and wasn’t drawn in by the first pages.

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy – I read the first 35 pages. There’s a lot of repetition; random details seem deliberately placed as clues. I’m sure there’s a clever story in here somewhere, but apart from a few intriguing anachronisms (in 1988 a smartphone is just “A small, flat, rectangular object … lying in the road. … The object was speaking. There was definitely a voice inside it”) there is not much plot or character to latch onto. I suspect there will be many readers who, like me, can’t be bothered to follow Saul Adler from London’s Abbey Road, where he’s hit by a car in the first paragraph, to East Berlin.

 


There’s only one title from the Booker shortlist that I’m interested in reading: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I’ll be reviewing it later this month as part of a blog tour celebrating the Aké Book Festival, but as a copy hasn’t yet arrived from either the publisher or the library I won’t have gotten far into it before the Prize announcement.

 

As for the other five on the shortlist…

  • I’m a conscientious objector to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I haven’t appreciated her previous dystopian sequels, and I’ve never really understood all the hype around The Handmaid’s Tale.
  • I don’t plan on reading Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport – unless some enterprising soul produces an abridged version of no more than 250 pages.*

Ducks, Newbury

  • I didn’t rate The Fishermen highly enough to give Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities a try.
  • I forced myself through Midnight’s Children some years back. What a pointless slog! Lukewarm reviews of his recent work mean I’m now doubly determined to avoid Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte.
  • Although the setup appeals to me (a prostitute’s whole life spooling out in front of her in the moments before her death) and I enjoyed her previous novel well enough, I’ve not heard enough good things to pick up Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World.

 

*However, I was delighted to find a copy of her 1991 novel, Varying Degrees of Hopelessness (just 182 pages, with short chapters often no longer than a paragraph and pithy sentences) in a 3-for-£1 sale at our local charity warehouse. Isabel, a 31-year-old virgin whose ideas of love come straight from the romance novels of ‘Babs Cartwheel’, hopes to find Mr. Right while studying art history at the Catafalque Institute in London (a thinly veiled Courtauld, where Ellmann studied). She’s immediately taken with one of her professors, Lionel Syms, whom she dubs “The Splendid Young Man.” Isabel’s desperately unsexy description of him had me snorting into my tea:

He had a masculinity.

His broad shoulders and narrow hips gave him a distinctive physique.

He held seminars and wore red socks.

To hold seminars seemed to indicate a wish to develop a rapport with his students.

The red socks seemed to indicate testosterone.

I swooned in admiration of him.

Unfortunately, the Splendid Young Man is more interested in Isabel’s portly flatmate, Pol. There’s a screwball charm to this campus novel full of love triangles and preposterous minor characters. I laughed at many of Ellmann’s deadpan lines, and would recommend this to fans of David Lodge’s academic comedies. But if you wish to, you could read this as a cautionary tale about the dangers of romantic fantasies. Ellmann even offers two alternate endings, one melodramatic and one more prosaic but believable. I’ll seek out the rest of her back catalogue – so thanks to the Booker for putting her on my radar.

 

 

In the meantime, I did a bit better with the “Not the Booker Prize” (administered by the Guardian) shortlist, reading three out of their six:

 

Flames by Robbie Arnott

This strange and somewhat entrancing debut novel is set in Arnott’s native Tasmania. The women of the McAllister family are known to return to life – even after a cremation, as happened briefly with Charlotte and Levi’s mother. Levi is determined to stop this from happening again, and decides to have a coffin built to ensure his 23-year-old sister can’t ever come back from the flames once she’s dead. The letters that pass between him and the ill-tempered woodworker he hires to do the job were my favorite part of the book. In other strands, we see Charlotte traveling down to work at a wombat farm in Melaleuca, a female investigator lighting out after her, and Karl forming a close relationship with a seal. This reminded me somewhat of The Bus on Thursday by Shirley Barrett and Orkney by Amy Sackville. At times I had trouble following the POV and setting shifts involved in this work of magic realism, though Arnott’s writing is certainly striking.

A favorite passage:

“The Midlands droned on, denuded hill after denuded hill, until I rolled into sprawling suburbs around noon. Here’s a list of the places I’d choose to visit before the capital: hell, anywhere tropical, the Mariana Trench, a deeper pit of hell, my mother’s house.”

 


My thanks to Atlantic Books for the free paperback copy for review.

See Susan’s review for a more enthusiastic response.

 

 

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James: A twisty, clever meta novel about “Daniel James” trying to write a biography of Ezra Maas, an enigmatic artist who grew up a child prodigy in Oxford and attracted a cult following in 1960s New York City, where he was a friend of Warhol et al. (See my full review.)

 

Supper Club by Lara Williams: A great debut novel with strong themes of female friendship and food. The Supper Club Roberta and Stevie create is performance art, but it’s also about creating personal meaning when family and romance have failed you. (See my full review.)

 

The other three books on the shortlist are:

  • Skin by Liam Brown: A dystopian novel in which people become allergic to human contact. I think I’ll pass on this one.
  • Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin: A debut novel by a Norwegian author that proceeds backwards to examine the life of a woman struggling with endometriosis and raising a young daughter. I’m very keen to read this one.
  • Spring by Ali Smith: I’ve basically given up on Ali Smith – and certainly on the Seasons quartet, after DNFing Winter.

(The Not the Booker Prize will be announced on the Guardian website this Friday the 11th.)

 

Have you read something from the (Not the) Booker shortlist(s)? Any predictions for next week?

Book Serendipity Strikes Again

Only two months since my last Book Serendipity entry, and already another 17 occurrences! I post these occasional reading coincidences on Twitter and/or Instagram. I call it serendipitous when two or more books that I’m reading at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once – usually between 10 and 20 – I guess I’m more prone to such incidents. What’s the weirdest one you’ve had lately? (The following are in rough chronological order.)

 

  • Characters with lupus in The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff and Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid [I also read about one who features in Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger] PLUS I then read Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, who died of lupus

 

  • Daisy’s declaration of “I am not a muse. I am the somebody. End of fucking story” in Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid reminded me of Lee Miller’s attitude in The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer
  • Mentions of old ladies’ habit of keeping tissues balled up in their sleeves in The Girls by Lori Lansens and Growing Pains by Mike Shooter

 

  • (A sad one, this) The stillbirth of a child is an element in three memoirs I’ve read within a few months, Notes to Self by Emilie Pine, Threads by William Henry Searle, and The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

 

  • A character’s parents both died in a car accident in The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff and Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

 

  • Two books open on New Year’s Eve 2008 and comment on President Obama’s election: Ordinary People by Diana Evans and Rabbits for Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum
  • Three novels in which both romantic partners are artists and find themselves (at least subconsciously) in competition: The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer and Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson

 

  • There’s a Czech father (or father figure) in The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl and The Girls by Lori Lansens

 

  • I’d never heard of 4chan before, but then encountered it twice in quick succession, first in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson and then in The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James

 

  • (Another sad one) Descriptions of the awful sound someone makes when they learn a partner or child has died in Hard Pushed by Leah Hazard and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

 

  • Alan Turing is a character in Murmur by Will Eaves and Machines Like You by Ian McEwan
  • Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (a pioneer of microscopy) is mentioned in Machines Like You by Ian McEwan and The Making of You by Katharina Vestre

 

  • A woman is described as smelling like hay in Memoirs of a Book Thief by Alessandro Tota and Pierre Van Hove and The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

 

  • An inside look at the anti-abortion movement in Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood and Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer

 

  • The attempted adoption of a four-year-old boy who’s been in foster care is an element in The Ginger Child by Patrick Flanery and Machines Like You by Ian McEwan

 

  • The loss of a difficult father who was an architect is an element in All the Lives We Ever Lived by Katharine Smyth and The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch (and in last year’s Implosion by Elizabeth Garber)
  • The improv mantra “Yes, and…” is mentioned in No Happy Endings: A Memoir by Nora McInerny by Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come: An Introvert’s Year of Living Dangerously by Jessica Pan

My Most Anticipated 2019 Releases, Part I

The past two years I’ve done biannual roundups of the 30 or so new releases I’m most interested in reading in that half of the year. I’m a bit behind on this year’s preview, so in the interest of not missing my moment I’m giving it in pictorial format, and cheating a bit by not including in the 30 these books that I already own in print.

The 2019 (UK) releases I already own in print and will be looking forward to reading.

Plus a few ARCs I brought back from America. The Leung stories came out in Canada last year.

For a complete list of my 30 most anticipated titles, from which you can access full publication details by clicking on any cover image or title, see my dedicated Goodreads shelf.

Not pictured below but well worth mentioning are new novels from Elizabeth McCracken and Ian McEwan. THE book I’m most looking forward to, after so loving The Invisible Bridge over the summer, is Julie Orringer’s Flight Portfolio, another doorstopper that brings Holocaust history to life (coming from Knopf on May 7th).

Some of my most anticipated titles.

Beyond these, I have another nearly 100 titles on my radar for the first half of 2019!

Plus some additional 2019 releases that are worth looking into simply for the terrific covers!

 

Other lists of enticing 2019 releases that might give you some ideas:

A Little Blog of Books (UK)

Book Riot (general) & Book Riot (mostly nonfiction, through February)

Guardian (UK, nonfiction and fiction)

Lit Hub

The Millions

 

Which 2019 books are you looking forward to? Do any of my choices interest you?

The Shortest of the Short: Four Novellas of under 50 Pages

 

Outside Stamford Library.

It’s a tradition now in its third and last year: I spend one day at the New Networks for Nature conference with my husband, and then (to save money, and because I’ve usually had my fill of stimulating speakers by then) wander around Stamford and haunt the public library on the other day.

This past Saturday I browsed the charity shops and found a short story collection I’ve been interested in reading, but otherwise just spent hours in Stamford’s library looking through recent issues of the Times Literary Supplement and The Bookseller and reading from the stack of novellas I’d brought with me. I read four in one sitting because all were shorter than 50 pages long: two obscure classics and two nature books.

 

Fiction:

 

The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono (1953)

[Translated from the French by Barbara Bray; 46 pages]

Trees have been a surprise recurring theme in my 2018 reading. This spare allegory from a Provençal author is all about the difference one person can make. The narrator meets a shepherd and beekeeper named Elzéard Bouffier who plants as many acorns as he can;  “it struck him that this part of the country was dying for lack of trees, and having nothing much else to do he decided to put things right.” Decades pass and two world wars do their worst, but very little changes in the countryside. Old Bouffier has led an unassuming but worthwhile life.

There’s not very much to this story, though I appreciated the message about doing good even if you won’t get any recognition or even live to see the fruits of your labor. What’s most interesting about it is the publication history: it was commissioned by Reader’s Digest for a series on “The Most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met,” and though the magazine accepted it with rapture, there was belated outrage when they realized it was fiction. It was later included in a German anthology of biography, too! No one recognized it as a fable; this became a sort of literary in-joke, as Giono’s daughter Aline reveals in a short afterword.

 

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville (1853)

[40 pages from my Penguin Classics copy of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories]

You probably know the basic plot even if you’ve never read the story. Hired as the fourth scrivener in a Wall Street office of law-copyists, Bartleby seems quietly efficient until one day he mildly refuses to do the work requested of him. “I prefer not to” becomes his refrain. First he stops proofreading his copies, and then he declines to do any writing at all. (More and more these days, I find I have the same can’t-be-bothered attitude as Bartleby!) As the employer/narrator writes, “a certain unconscious air … of pallid haughtiness … positively awed me into my tame compliance with his eccentricities.” Farce ensues as he finds himself incapable of getting rid of Bartleby, even after he goes to the extreme of changing the premises of his office. Three times he even denies knowing Bartleby, but still the man is a thorn in his flesh, a nuisance turned inescapable responsibility. A glance at the introduction by Harold Beaver tells me I’m not the first to make such Christian parallels. (This was the first Melville I’ve read since an aborted attempt on Moby-Dick during college.)

 

Nonfiction:

 

The Company of Swans by Jim Crumley (1997)

[Illustrated by Harry Brockway, who also did the wood engravings for the Giono; 39 pages]

Crumley is an underappreciated Scottish nature writer. Here he tells the tale of a pair of mute swans on a loch in Highland Perthshire. He followed their relationship with great interest over a matter of years. First he noticed that their nest had been robbed, twice within a few weeks, and realized otters must be to blame. Then, although it’s a truism that swans mate for life, he observed the cob (male) leaving the pen (female) for another! Crumley was overtaken with sympathy for the abandoned swan and got to feed her by hand and watch her fall asleep. “To suggest there was true communication between us would be outrageous, but I believe she regarded me as benevolent, which was all I ever asked of her,” he writes. Two years later he learns the end of her story. A pleasant ode to fleeting moments of communion with nature.

Favorite passages:

“Swans this wild let you into only a certain portion of their lives. They give you intimate glimpses. But you can never have any part in the business of being a swan. You can offer them no more than the flung tribute of your admiring gaze.”

“I think there is nothing in all nature that outshines that lustrous lacing of curves [of swan necks], nothing in all theatre that outperforms its pivotal tension.”

 

Holloway by Robert Macfarlane (2013)

[Illustrated by Stanley Donwood; 39 pages]

In 2011 Macfarlane set out to recreate a journey through South Dorset that he’d first undertaken with the late Roger Deakin in 2005, targeting the sunken paths of former roadways. This is not your average nature or travel book, though; it’s much more fragmentary and poetic than you’d expect from a straightforward account of a journey through the natural world. I thought the stream-of-consciousness style overdone, and got more out of the song about the book by singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson. (Her Book Songs, Volume 1 EP, which has been one of my great discoveries of the year, is available to listen to and purchase on her Bandcamp page. It also includes songs inspired by Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Sarah Hall’s Haweswater, and Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann.) The black-and-white illustrations are nicely evocative, though.

Lines I liked:

“paths run through people as surely as they run through places.”

“The holloway is absence; a wood-way worn away by buried feet.”

 


Have you read any of these super-short novellas? Which one takes your fancy?

Novellas in November, Part 1

This is my second year of joining Laura (Reading in Bed) and others in reading mostly novellas in November. I’ve trawled my shelves and my current library pile for short books, limiting myself to ones of around 150 pages or fewer. First up: four short works of fiction. (I’m at work on various ‘nonfiction novellas’, too.) For the first two I give longer reviews as I got the books from the publishers; the other two are true minis.

 

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg

(translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak)

[146 pages]

I heard about this one via the Man Booker International Prize longlist. Quirkiness is particularly common in indie and translated books, I find, and while it’s often off-putting for me, I loved it here. Greg achieves an impressive balance between grim subject matter and simple enjoyment of remembered childhood activities. Her novella is, after all, set in Poland in the 1980s, the last decade of it being a Communist state in the Soviet Union.

The narrator (and autobiographical stand-in?) is Wiolka Rogalówna, who lives with her parents in a moldering house in the fictional town of Hektary. Her father, one of the most striking characters, was arrested for deserting from the army two weeks before she was born, and now works for a paper mill and zealously pursues his hobbies of hunting, fishing, and taxidermy. The signs of their deprivation – really the whole country’s poverty – are subtle: Wiolka has to go selling hand-picked sour cherries with her grandmother at the market even though she’s embarrassed to run into her classmates; she goes out collecting scrap metal with a gang of boys; and she ties up her hair with a rubber band she cut from an inner tube.

Catholicism plays a major role in these characters’ lives: Wiolka wins a blessed figure in a church raffle, the Pope is rumored to be on his way, and a picture of the Black Madonna visits the town. A striking contrast is set up between the threat of molestation – Wiolka is always fending off unwanted advances, it seems – and lighthearted antics like school competitions and going to great lengths to get rare matchbox labels for her collection. This almost madcap element balances out some of the difficulty of her upbringing.

What I most appreciated was the way Greg depicts some universalities of childhood and adolescence, such as catching bugs, having eerie experiences in the dark, and getting one’s first period. This is a book of titled vignettes of just five to 10 pages, but it feels much more expansive than that, capturing the whole of early life. The Polish title translates as “Unripe,” which better reflects the coming-of-age theme; the English translator has gone for that quirk instead.

A favorite passage:

“Then I sat at the table, which was set with plates full of pasta, laid my head down on the surface and felt the pulsating of the wood. In its cracks and knots, christenings, wakes and name-day celebrations were in full swing, and woodworms were playing dodgeball using poppy seeds that had fallen from the crusts of freshly baked bread.”


Thanks to Portobello Books for the free copy for review.

 

A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg

[126 pages]

Written somewhat in the style of a bird field guide, this is essentially a set of flash fiction stories you have to put together in your mind to figure out what happens to two seemingly conventional middle-class families: the Harrisons and the Hungates, neighbors on Long Island. Frank Harrison dies suddenly in 2008, and the Hungates divorce soon after. Their son Gabe devotes much of his high school years to drug-taking before an accident lands him in a burn unit. Here he’s visited by his girlfriend, Lacey Harrison. Her little brother, Tommy, is a compulsive liar but knows a big secret his late father was keeping from his wife.

The chapters, each just a paragraph or two, are given alphabetical, cross-referenced headings and an apparently thematic photograph. For example, “Entertainment,” one of my favorite stand-alone pieces, opens “In the beginning was the Television. And the Television was large and paneled in plastic made to look like wood. It dwelled in a dim corner of the living room and came on for national news, Cosby, Saturday cartoons, and football.”

This is a Franzen-esque take on family dysfunction and, like City on Fire, is best devoured in large chunks at a time so you don’t lose momentum: as short as this is, I found it easy to forget who the characters were and had to keep referring to the (handy) family tree at the start. Ultimately I found the mixed-media format just a little silly, and the photos often seem to bear little relation to the text. It’s interesting to see how this idea evolved into the mixed-media sections of City on Fire, which is as epic as this is minimalist, though the story line of this novella is so thin as to be almost incidental.

Favorite lines:

Depending on parent genotype, the crossbreeding of a Bad Habit and Boredom will result in either Chemistry or Entertainment.”

Though hardly the most visible member of its kingdom, Love has never been as endangered as conservationists would have us believe, for without it, the Family would cease to function.


Thanks to Vintage Books for the free copy for review.

 

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

[100 pages]

This is the earliest McEwan work I’ve read (1981). I could see the seeds of some of his classic themes: obsession, sexual and otherwise; the slow building of suspense and awareness until an inevitable short burst of violence. Mary and Colin are a vacationing couple in Venice. One evening they’ve spent so long in bed that by the time they get out all the local restaurants have shut, but a bar-owner takes pity and gives them sustenance, then a place to rest and wash when they get lost and fail to locate their hotel. Soon neighborly solicitude turns into a creepy level of attention. McEwan has a knack for presenting situations that are just odd enough to stand out but not odd enough to provoke an instant recoil, so along with the characters we keep thinking all will turn out benignly. This reminded me of Death in Venice and The Talented Mr. Ripley.

 

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

[167 pages – on the long side, but I had a library copy to read anyway]

Neve tells us about her testy marriage with Edwyn, a Jekyll & Hyde type who sometimes earns our sympathy for his health problems and other times seems like a verbally abusive misogynist. But she also tells us about her past: her excess drinking, her unpleasant father, her moves between various cities in the north of England and Scotland, a previous relationship that broke down, her mother’s failed marriages, and so on. There’s a lot of very good dialogue in this book – I was reminded of Conversations with Friends – and Neve’s needy mum is a great character, but I wasn’t sure what this all amounts to. As best I can make out, we are meant to question Neve’s self-destructive habits, with Edwyn being just the latest example of a poor, masochistic decision. Every once in a while you get Riley waxing lyrical in a way that suggests she’s a really great author who got stuck with a somber, limited subject: “Outside the sunset abetted one last queer revival of light, so the outlook was torched; wet bus stop, wet shutters, all deep-dyed.”

Other favorite lines:

“An illusion of freedom: snap-twist getaways with no plans: nothing real. I’d given my freedom away. Time and again. As if I had contempt for it. Or was it hopelessness I felt, that I was so negligent? Or did it hardly matter, in fact? … Could I trust myself? Not to make my life a lair.”


 

Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?

Two Mother–Daughter Author Pairs for Mother’s Day

This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day in the USA. (Mothering Sunday generally falls in March here in the UK, so every year I have to buy a card early to send to my mother back in the States, but I still associate Mother’s Day with May.) Earlier in the year I got over halfway through a Goodreads giveaway book, Beyond the Pale by Emily Urquhart, before I realized its author was the daughter of a Canadian novelist I’d read before, Jane Urquhart. That got me thinking about other mother–daughter pairs that might be on my shelves. I found one in the form of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees plus an advance e-copy of her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor’s upcoming debut novel, The Shark Club. (I’ve previously reviewed their joint memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates.) And, as a bonus, I have a mini-review of Graham Swift’s novella Mothering Sunday: A Romance.

 

The Whirlpool, Jane Urquhart

From 1986, this was Urquhart’s first novel. Overall it reminded me of A. S. Byatt (especially The Virgin in the Garden) and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Set in 1889 on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, it features characters who, each in their separate ways, are stuck in the past and obsessed with death and its symbolic stand-in, the whirlpool. Maud Grady, the local undertaker’s widow, takes possession of the corpses of those who’ve tried to swim the Falls. Her creepy young son starts off mute and becomes an expert mimic. Major David McDougal is fixated on the War of 1812, while his wife Fleda camps out in a tent reading Victorian poetry, especially Robert Browning, and awaiting a house that may never be built. Local poet Patrick sees Fleda from afar and develops romanticized ideas about her.

Each of these narratives is entertaining, but I was less convinced by their intersections – except for the brilliant scenes when Patrick and Maud’s son engage in wordplay. In particular, I was unsure what the prologue and epilogue (in which Robert Browning, dying in Venice, is visited by images of Shelley’s death by drowning) were meant to add. This is the second Urquhart novel I’ve read, after Sanctuary Line. I admire her writing but her plots don’t always come together. However, I’m sure to try more of her work: I have a copy of Away on the shelf, and Changing Heaven (1990) sounds unmissable – it features the ghost of Emily Brontë! [Bought from a Lambeth charity shop for 20p.]

My rating:

 

Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes, Emily Urquhart

In December 2010, the author’s first child, Sadie, was born with white hair. It took weeks to confirm that Sadie had albinism, a genetic condition associated with extreme light sensitivity and poor eyesight. A Canadian folklorist, Urquhart is well placed to trace the legends that have arisen about albinos through time and across the world, ranging from the Dead Sea Scroll story of Noah being born with blinding white skin and hair to the enduring superstition that accounts for African albinos being maimed or killed to use their body parts in folk medicine.

She attends a NOAH (America’s National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation) conference, discovers potential evidence of a family history of albinism, and even makes a pilgrimage to Tanzania to meet some victims. It’s all written up in as engaging present-tense narrative of coming to terms with disability: to start with Urquhart is annoyed at people reassuring her “it could be worse,” but by the end she’s ever so slightly disappointed to learn that her second child, a boy, will not be an albino like his sister. [Goodreads giveaway copy]

My rating:

 

The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

It’s hard to believe it was 15 years ago that this debut novel was an It book, and harder to believe that I’d never managed to get around to it until now. However, in some ways it felt familiar because I’d read a fair bit of background via Kidd’s chapter in Why We Write about Ourselves and Traveling with Pomegranates, in which she and her daughter explored the Black Madonna tradition in Europe.

It joins unusual elements you wouldn’t expect to find in fiction – beekeeping and the divine feminine – with more well-trodden territory: the Civil Rights movement in the South in the 1960s, unhappy family relationships, secrets, and a teenage girl’s coming of age. Fourteen-year-old Lily is an appealing narrator who runs away from her memories of her mother’s death and her angry father, peach farmer T. Ray. You can’t help but fall in love with the rest of her new African-American, matriarchal clan, including their housekeeper, Rosaleen, who scandalizes the town by registering to vote, and the bee-keeping Boatwright sisters, August, June, and May, who give Lily and Rosaleen refuge when they skip town.

Although this crams in a lot of happenings and emotional ups and downs, it’s a charming story that draws you into the brutal heat of a South Carolina summer and keeps you hoping Lily will forgive herself and slip into the rhythms of a purposeful life of sisterhood. [Secondhand purchase in America]

A favorite line: “The way people lived their lives, settling for grits and cow shit, made me sick.”

My rating:

 

The Shark Club, Ann Kidd Taylor

Dr. Maeve Donnelly loves sharks even though she was bitten by one as a child. She’s now a leading researcher with a Florida conservancy and travels around the world to gather data. Her professional life goes from strength to strength, but her personal life is another matter. Aged 30, she’s smarting from a broken engagement to her childhood sweetheart, Daniel, and isn’t ready to open her heart to Nicholas, a British colleague going through a divorce.

Things get complicated when Daniel returns to their southwest Florida island to work as the chef at her grandmother’s hotel – with his six-year-old daughter in tow. Maeve is soon taken with precocious Hazel, who founds the title club (pledge: “With this fin, I do swear. To love sharks even when they bite. When they lose their teeth, I will find them. When I catch one, I will let it go”), but isn’t sure she can pick up where she left off with Daniel. Meanwhile, evidence has surfaced of a local shark finning operation, and she’s determined to get to the bottom of it.

This is a little bit romance and a little bit mystery, and Taylor brings the Florida Keys setting to vibrant life. It took a while to suspend disbelief about Maeve’s background – an orphan and a twin and a shark bite survivor and a kid brought up in a hotel? – but I enjoyed the sweet yet unpredictable story line. Nothing earth-shattering, but great light reading for a summer day at the beach. Releases June 6th from Viking. [Edelweiss download]

My rating:


Mothering Sunday: A Romance, Graham Swift

If you’re expecting a cozy tale of maternal love, let the Modigliani nude on the U.K. cover wipe that notion out of your mind. Part of me was impressed by Swift’s compact picture of one sexy, fateful day in 1924 and the reverberations it had for a budding writer even decades later. Interesting class connotations, too. But another part of me thought, isn’t this what you would get if Ian McEwan directed a middling episode of Downton Abbey? It has undeniable similarities to Atonement and On Chesil Beach, after all, and unlike those novels it’s repetitive; it keeps cycling round to restate its main events and points. There’s some good lines, but overall this felt like a strong short story stretched out to try to achieve book length. [Library read]

My rating:

Six “Love” Books for Valentine’s Day

Starting in mid-January I began surveying my shelves, library stack and Kindle for books with “love” in the title. Here are the six I had time to try; I didn’t get to Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love on my Kindle, nor my paperback copies of Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine and Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank.

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You’ll notice that a number of the books I’ve read aren’t that optimistic about love; in several cases the use of the word in the title even seems to be ironic. As Lady Montdore exclaims in Love in a Cold Climate, “Love indeed – whoever invented love ought to be shot.” So I can’t offer them as particularly romantic choices. But let’s start positively, with some pleasantly out-of-the-ordinary love poems.

 

From Me to You: Love Poems, U.A. Fanthorpe and R.V. Bailey

from-me-to-youUrsula Fanthorpe and Rosie Bailey met as English teachers at the same Cheltenham school in their late twenties and were partners for nearly 40 years. None of the poems in this short volume are attributed, though I recognized a few from Fanthorpe’s Collected Poems. They’re not particularly distinguished as poetry, but I appreciated the simple, unsentimental examples of what makes up everyday life with a partner: “There is a kind of love called maintenance, / Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it; // Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget / The milkman” (“Atlas”) and “I’m working on a meal you haven’t had to imagine, / A house cleaned to the rafters” (“Dear Valentine”). [Public library3-star-rating

 

What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt

what-i-lovedThis 2003 novel could just as well have been titled “What I Lost,” which might be truer to its elegiac tone. Narrated by Professor Leo Hertzberg and set between the 1970s and 1990s, it’s about two New York City couples – academics and artists – and the losses they suffer over the years. With themes of modern art, perspective, memory, separation and varieties of mental illness, it asks to what extent we can ever know other people or use replacements to fill the gaps left by who and what is missing. Read it if you’ve enjoyed The Suicide of Claire Bishop by Carmiel Banasky, other books by Siri Hustvedt, or anything by Howard Norman. My favorite lines about love were “I often thought of our marriage as one long conversation” and “love thrives on a certain kind of distance … it requires an awed separateness to continue.” [Charity shop4-star-rating

 

Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford

mitfordI didn’t realize this 1949 novel is a sequel to The Pursuit of Love, so it took a while to figure out who all the characters were. Fanny Logan is a cousin orbiting around Lord and Lady Montdore and their daughter Polly Hampton, all recently returned from some years in India. Fanny marries an Oxford don, while Polly shocks everyone by eloping with her uncle by marriage, “Boy” Dougdale, a recent widower once known as the “Lecherous Lecturer” for interfering with little girls. (This hint of pedophilia is carelessly tossed off in a way no writer would get away with today.) Meanwhile, the heir to the Hampton estate, an effeminate chap named Cedric, comes over from Canada for a visit and wins Lady Montdore over. This amusing picture of aristocratic life in the 1930s marvels at who we love and why. [Bookbarn International3.5 star rating

 

Enduring Love, Ian McEwan

enduring-loveInteresting to consider this as a precursor to Saturday: both have a scientist as the protagonist and get progressively darker through a slightly contrived stalker plot. Enduring Love opens, famously, with a ballooning accident that leaves its witnesses questioning whether they couldn’t have done more to prevent it. Freelance science journalist Joe Rose – on a picnic with his partner, Keats scholar Clarissa, at the time – was one of those who rushed to help, as was Jed Parry, a young Christian zealot who fixates on Joe. He seems to think that by loving Joe, a committed atheist, he can bring him to God. In turn, Joe’s obsession with Jed’s harassment campaign drives Clarissa away. It’s a deliciously creepy read that contrasts rationality with religion and inquires into what types of love are built to last. [Charity shop4-star-rating

 

An Exclusive Love: A Memoir, Johanna Adorján

exclusive-loveThe author’s grandparents, Hungarian Holocaust survivors who moved to Denmark as refugees, committed suicide together on October 13, 1991. Her grandfather, an orthopedic surgeon who had been in an Austrian concentration camp, was terminally ill and his wife was determined not to live a day without him. This short, elegant memoir alternates Adorján’s imagined reconstruction of her grandparents’ last day with an account of their life together, drawn from family memories and interviews with those who knew them. She wonders whether, like Primo Levi and Arthur Koestler, theirs was a typically Jewish failure to fit in wherever they went, and/or a particularly Hungarian melancholy. “The answer is their great love,” the newspaper report of their death insisted. [Waterstones clearance4-star-rating

Note: That striking cover is by Leanne Shapton.

 

And another nonfiction selection that I didn’t make it all the way through:

A Book about Love, Jonah Lehrer

book-about-love(Abandoned at 31%.) Although I can see why he starts where he does, Lehrer’s early focus on attachment and attunement – two psychological theories of how babies learn to relate affectionately to others – means the book gets bogged down in studies performed on mice and/or children and feels more like a parenting book than anything else. (If that’s what you’re after, read All Joy and No Fun.) A glance at the table of contents suggests the rest of the book will go into marriage, divorce and how love changes over time, but I couldn’t be bothered to stick around. That said, Lehrer’s popular science writing is clear and engaging, and with the heartfelt mea culpa at the start of this book I couldn’t hold a grudge about his earlier plagiarism scandal. [Kindle book from NetGalley.]


No overtly heartwarming love stories in that selection, then, but are there any you fancy reading anyway? Have you read any “love” titles recently?

See also: The Guardian’s list of Top 10 Authentic Romances.

Review & Giveaway: Hame by Annalena McAfee

hameAs I mentioned on Tuesday, I previously knew of Annalena McAfee only as Mrs. Ian McEwan, though she has a distinguished literary background: she founded the Guardian Review and edited it for six years, was Arts and Literary Editor of the Financial Times, and is the author of multiple children’s books and one previous novel for adults, The Spoiler (2011).

Well, anyone who reads Hame will be saying “Ian who?” as this is on such a grand scale compared to anything McEwan has ever attempted. The subtitle, “The Fascaray Archives,” gives an idea of how thorough McAfee means to be: the life of fictional poet Grigor McWatt is her way into everything that forms the Scottish identity. Her invented island of Fascaray is a carefully constructed microcosm of Scotland from ancient times to today. I loved the little glimpses of recent history, like the referendum on independence and a Donald Trump figure, billionaire “Archie Tupper,” bulldozing an environmentally sensitive area to build his new golf course (this really happened, in Aberdeenshire in 2012).

Narrator Mhairi McPhail arrives on Fascaray in August 2014, her nine-year-old daughter Agnes in tow. She’s here to oversee the opening of a new museum, edit a seven-volume edition of McWatt’s magnum opus, The Fascaray Compendium (a 70-year journal detailing the island’s history, language, flora, fauna and customs), and complete a critical biography of the poet. Over the next four months she often questions the feasibility of her multi-strand project. She also frets about her split from Marco, whom she left back in New York City after their separate infidelities. And her rootlessness – she’s Canadian via Scotland but has spent a lot of time in the States, giving her a mixed-up heritage and accent – is a constant niggle.

Mhairi’s narrative sections share space with excerpts from her biography of McWatt and extracts from McWatt’s own writing: The Fascaray Compendium, newspaper columns, letters to on-again, off-again lover Lilias Hogg, and Scots translations of famous poets from Blake to Yeats. We learn of key events from the island’s history through Mhairi’s biography and McWatt’s prose, including ongoing tension between lairds and crofters, Finnverinnity House being used as a Special Ops training school during World War II, a lifeboat lost in a gale in the 1970s, and the way the fishing industry is now ceding to hydroelectric power.

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The balance between the alternating elements isn’t quite right – sections from Mhairi’s contemporary diary seem to get shorter as the novel goes along, such that it feels like there’s not enough narrative to anchor the book. Faced with yet more Scots poetry and vocabulary lists, or passages from Mhairi’s dry biography, it’s mighty tempting to skim.

That’s a shame, as the novel contains some truly lovely writing, particularly in McWatt’s nature observations:

In July and August, on rare days of startling and sustained heat, dragonflies as blue as the cloudless skies shimmer over cushions of moss by the burn while the midges, who abhor direct sunlight, are nowhere to be seen. Out to sea, somnolent groups of whales pass like cortèges of cruise ships and around them dolphins and porpoises joyously arc and dip as if stitching the ocean’s silken canopy of turquoise, gentian and cobalt.

For centuries male Fascaradians have sailed in the autumn, at the time of the ripe barley and the fruiting buckthorn, to hunt the plump young solan geese or gannets – the guga – near their nesting sites on the uninhabited rock pinnacles of Plodda and Grodda. No true Fascaradian can suffer vertigo since the scaling of these granite towers is done without the aid of mountaineers’ crampons or picks.

“Hame” means home in Scots – like in McWatt’s claim to fame, the folk-pop song “Hame tae Fascaray” – and themes of home and identity are strong here. The novel asks to what extent identity is bound up with a particular country and language, and whether we can craft our own selves. Must the place you come from always be the same as the home you choose? I could relate to Mhairi’s feeling that there’s nowhere she belongs, whether she’s in the bustle of New York or “marooned on a patch of damp peat floating in the North Sea.”

A map of the island from the inside of the back cover.

A map of the island from the inside of the back cover.

Although the blend of elements initially made me think that this would resemble A.S. Byatt’s Possession, it’s actually more like Rachel Cantor’s Good on Paper, which similarly stars a scholar who’s a single parent to a precocious daughter. In places I was also reminded of the work of Scarlett Thomas, Sara Maitland and Sarah Moss, and there’s even an echo of Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks in the inventories of dialect words.

If you’ve done much traveling in Scotland, an added pleasure of the novel is trying to spot places you’ve been. (I thought I could see traces of Stromness, Orkney; indeed, McWatt reminded me most of Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown.) The comprehensive, archival approach didn’t completely win me over, but I was impressed by the book’s scope and its affectionate portrait of a beloved country. McAfee is of Scots-Irish parentage herself, and you can tell this is a true labor of love, and a cogent tribute.

Hame was published by Harvill Secker on February 9th. With thanks to Anna Redman for sending a free copy for review.

My rating: 3.5 star rating


Giveaway Announcement!

I was accidentally sent two copies of Hame, so I am giving one away to a reader. Alas, this giveaway will have to be UK-only – the book is a hardback of nearly 600 pages, so would be prohibitively expensive to send abroad.

If you’re interested in winning a copy, simply leave a comment to that effect below. The competition will be open through the end of Friday the 17th and I will choose a winner at random on Saturday the 18th, to be announced via the comments and a personal e-mail.

Good luck!