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.
In January 2018 I had the wonderful opportunity to have a free bibliotherapy session at the School of Life in London with Ella Berthoud, one of the authors of The Novel Cure. I wrote about the experience in this post. I quickly got hold of all but a couple of my prescribed reads, but have been slower about actually reading them. Though I’ve read five now, I’ve only written up four, two of which I only managed to finish this week. (These 250-word reviews are in order of my reading.)
Heligoland by Shena Mackay (2002)
(CURE: moving house)
Heligoland is a Scottish island best known from the shipping forecast, but here it’s an almost mythical home. Rowena Snow was orphaned by her Indian/Scottish parents, and a second time by her aunt. Since then she’s drifted between caring and cleaning jobs. The Nautilus represents a fresh chance at life. This shell-shaped artists’ commune in South London houses just three survivors: Celeste Zylberstein, who designed the place; poet Francis Campion; and antiques dealer Gus Crabb. Rowena will be the housekeeper/cook, but she struggles with self-esteem: does she deserve to live in a haven for upper-class creative types?
The omniscient perspective moves between the Nautilus residents but also on to lots of other minor hangers-on, whose stories are hard to keep track of. Mackay’s writing reminded me somewhat of Tessa Hadley’s and is lovely in places – especially when describing a buffet or a moment of light-filled epiphany in a garden. There’s not much to be said beyond what’s in the blurb: Mackay is attempting to give a picture of a drifter who finds an unconventional home; in the barest sense she does succeed, but I never felt a connection with any of the characters. In this ensemble cast there is no one to love and thus no one to root for. While I didn’t love this book, it did inspire me to pick up others by Mackay: since then I’ve read The Orchard on Fire, which I liked a lot more, and the first half of Dunedin.
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry (2002)
(CURE: worry over ageing parents)
Retired professor Nariman Vakeel, 79, has Parkinson’s disease and within the first few chapters has also fallen and broken his ankle. His grown stepchildren, Coomy and Jal, reluctant to care for him anyway, decide they can’t cope with the daily reality of bedpans, sponge baths and spoon feeding in their large Chateau Felicity apartment. He’ll simply have to recuperate at Pleasant Villa with his daughter Roxana and her husband and sons, even though their two-bedroom apartment is barely large enough for the family of four. You have to wince at the irony of the names for these two Bombay housing blocks, and at the bitter contrast between selfishness and duty.
Perhaps inevitably, Nariman starts to fade into the background. An increasingly speechless invalid, he only comes alive through his past: italicized sections, presented as his night-time ravings, tell of his love for Lucy, whom his parents refused to let him marry, and the untimely end of his arranged marriage. I enjoyed time spent in a vibrantly realized Indian city and appreciated a chance to learn about a lesser-known community: Nariman and family are Parsis (or Zoroastrians). There’s also a faint echo here of King Lear, with one faithful daughter set against two wicked children.
As to ageing parents, this is a pretty relentlessly bleak picture, but there are sparks of light: joy in life’s little celebrations, and unexpected kindnesses. Mistry’s epic has plenty of tender moments that bring it down to an intimate scale. I’m keen to read his other novels.
Maggie & Me by Damian Barr (2013)
(A supplementary prescription because I love memoirs and didn’t experience Thatcher’s Britain.)
Like a cross between Angela’s Ashes and Toast, this recreates a fairly horrific upbringing from the child’s perspective. Barr was an intelligent, creative young man who early on knew that he was gay and, not just for that reason, often felt that there was no place for him: neither in working-class Scotland, where his father was a steelworker and his brain-damaged mother flitted from one violent boyfriend to another; nor in Maggie Thatcher’s 1980s Britain at large, in which money was the reward for achievement and the individual was responsible for his own moral standing and worldly advancement. “I don’t need to stand out any more,” he recalls, being “six foot tall, scarecrow skinny and speccy with join-the-dots spots, bottle-opener buck teeth and a thing for waistcoats. Plus I get free school dinners and I’m gay.”
There are a lot of vivid scenes in this memoir, some of them distressing ones of abuse, and the present tense, dialect, and childish grammar and slang give it authenticity. However, I never quite bought in to the Thatcher connection as an overarching structure. Three pages at the start, five at the end, and a Thatcher quote as an epigraph for each chapter somehow weren’t enough to convince me that the framing device was necessary or apt. Still, I enjoyed this well enough as memoirs go, and I would certainly recommend it if you loved Nigel Slater’s memoir mentioned above. I also have Barr’s recent debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here, on my Kindle.
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (2008)
(A supplementary prescription for uncertainty about having children.)
I enjoyed this immensely, from the first line on: “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” Twenty-eight-year-old Willie Upton is back in her hometown, pregnant by her older, married archaeology professor after a summer of PhD fieldwork in Alaska. “I had come home to be a child again. I was sick, heartbroken, worn down.” She gives herself a few weeks back home to dig through her family history to find her father – whom Vi has never identified – and decide whether she’s ready to be a mother herself.
We hear from various leading lights in the town’s history and/or Willie’s family tree through a convincing series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents. Groff gives voice to everyone from a Mohican chief to a slave girl who catches her master’s eye. Willie and Vi are backed up by a wonderful set of secondary characters, past and present. Groff wrote this in homage to Cooperstown, New York, where she grew up. (If you’ve heard of it, it’s probably for the baseball museum; it’s not far from where my mother is from in upstate New York.) Templeton is “a slantwise version” of Cooperstown, Groff admits in an opening Author’s Note, and she owes something of a debt to its most famous citizen, James Fenimore Cooper. What a charming way to celebrate where you come from, with all its magic and mundanity. This terrific debut novel cemented my love of Groff’s work.
I also have Ella to thank for the inspiration to reread a childhood favorite, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, last year; the experiment formed the subject of my first piece for Literary Hub. I also worked my way through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, another of my prescriptions, over a number of months in 2018, but failed to keep up with the regular writing exercises so didn’t get the maximum benefit.
My husband and I made a start on reading a few books aloud to each other, including Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman, but that fell by the wayside after a handful of weeks.
(Incidentally, I had forgotten that Cutting for Stone turns up in The Novel Cure on a list of the 10 best books to combat xenophobia.)
Still to read: Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins (CURE: horror of ageing)
And one I still have to get hold of but haven’t been able to find cheap secondhand because it’s a Persephone classic: The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski (a supplementary prescription because I love Victorian pastiches).