Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist review #2
The first thing to note about a novel with “Conversations” in the title is that there are no quotation marks denoting speech. In a book so saturated with in-person chats, telephone calls, texts, e-mails and instant messages, the lack of speech marks reflects the swirl of voices in twenty-one-year-old Frances’ head; thought and dialogue run together. This is a work in which communication is a constant struggle but words have lasting significance.
It’s the summer between years at uni in Dublin, and Frances is interning at a literary agency and collaborating with her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi on spoken word poetry events. She’s the ideas person, and Bobbi brings her words to life. At an open mic night they meet Melissa, an essayist and photographer in her mid-thirties who wants to profile the girls. She invites them back for a drink and Frances, who is from a slightly rough background – divorced parents and an alcoholic father who can’t be relied on to send her allowance – is dazzled by the apparent wealth of Melissa and her handsome actor husband, Nick. Bobbi develops a crush on Melissa, and before too long Frances falls for Nick. The stage is set for some serious amorous complications over the next six months or so.
Young woman and older, married man: it may seem like a cliché, but Sally Rooney is doing a lot more here than just showing us an affair. For one thing, this is a coming of age in the truest sense: Frances, forced into independence for the first time, is figuring out who she is as she goes along and in the meantime has to play roles and position herself in relation to other people:
At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all, and only afterwards think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am.
I couldn’t think of anything witty to say and it was hard to arrange my face in a way that would convey my sense of humour. I think I laughed and nodded a lot.
What will be her rock in the uncertainty? She can’t count on her parents; she alienates Bobbi as often as not; she reads the Gospels out of curiosity but finds no particular solace in religion. Her other challenge is coping with the chronic pain of a gynecological condition. More than anything else, this brings home to her the disappointing nature of real life:
I realised my life would be full of mundane physical suffering, and that there was nothing special about it. Suffering wouldn’t make me special, and pretending not to suffer wouldn’t make me special. Talking about it, or even writing about it, would not transform the suffering into something useful. Nothing would.
Rooney writes in a sort of style-less style that slips right down. There’s a flatness to Frances’ demeanor: she’s always described as “cold” and has trouble expressing her emotions. I recognized the introvert’s risk of coming across as aloof. Before I started this I worried that I’d fail to connect to a novel about experiences so different from mine. I was quite the strait-laced teen and married at 23, so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to relate to Frances and Bobbi’s ‘wildness’. But this is much more about universals than it is about particulars: realizing that you’re stuck with yourself, exploring your sexuality and discovering that sex is its own kind of conversation, and deciding whether ‘niceness’ is really the same as morality.
With its prominent dialogue and discrete scenes, I saw the book functioning like a minimalist play, and I could also imagine it working as an on-location television miniseries. In some ways the dynamic between Frances and Bobbi mirrors that between the main characters in Paulina and Fran by Rachel B. Glaser, Friendship by Emily Gould, and The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker, so if you enjoyed any of those I highly recommend this, too. Rooney really captures the angst of youth:
You’re twenty-one, said Melissa. You should be disastrously unhappy.
I’m working on it, I said.
This is a book I was surprised to love, but love it I did. Rooney is a tremendous talent whose career we’ll have the privilege to watch unfolding. I’ve told the shadow panel that if we decide our focus is on the “Young” in Young Writer, there’s no doubt that this nails the zeitgeist and should win.
Reviews of Conversations with Friends:
From the shadow panel:
Annabel’s at Annabookbel
Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books
Dane’s at Social Book Shelves
Eleanor’s at Elle Thinks
Let’s hear it for the ladies! In 2016 women writers accounted for 9 out of my 15 top fiction picks, 12 out of my 15 nonfiction selections, and 8 of the 10 runners-up below. That’s 73%. The choices below are in alphabetical order by author, with any full reviews linked in. Many of these have already appeared on the blog in some form over the course of the year.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: Atwood looks more like a good witch every year, and here she works her magic on The Tempest to produce the most satisfying volume of the Hogarth Shakespeare series yet. There’s a really clever play-within-the-play-within-the-play thing going on, and themes of imprisonment and performance resonate in multiple ways.
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church: In Church’s debut, an amateur ornithologist learns about love and sacrifice through marriage to a Los Alamos physicist and a relationship with a Vietnam veteran. I instantly warmed to Meri as a narrator and loved following her unpredictable life story.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge: The Freemans are raising Charlie, a chimpanzee, as part of their family for a Toneybee Institute experiment and teaching him to communicate via sign language. This is a rich and unsettling story of human–human interactions, even more so than human–animal interactions; it’s a great first novel and I will follow Greenidge’s career with interest.
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey: Ivey’s intricate second novel weaves together diaries, letters, photographs, and various other documents and artifacts to tell the gently supernatural story of an exploratory mission along Alaska’s Wolverine River in 1885 and its effects through to the present day. I can highly recommend this rollicking adventure tale to fans of historical fiction and magic realism.
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell: Spreading outward from Ireland and reaching into every character’s past and future, this has all O’Farrell’s trademark insight into family and romantic relationships, as well as her gorgeous prose and precise imagery. I have always felt that O’Farrell expertly straddles the (perhaps imaginary) line between literary and popular fiction; her books are addictively readable but also hold up to critical scrutiny.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: This deep study of blended family dynamics starts with an early 1960s christening party Los Angeles policeman Fix Keating is throwing for his younger daughter, Franny; we see the aftermath of that party in the lives of six step-siblings in the decades to come. This is a sophisticated and atmospheric novel I would not hesitate to recommend to literary fiction fans in general and Patchett fans in particular.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith: Jessie Burton, Tracy Chevalier and all others who try to write historical fiction about the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, eat your hearts out. Such a beautiful epoch-spanning novel about art and regret.
Shelter by Jung Yun: A Korean-American family faces up to violence past and present in a strong debut that offers the hope of redemption. I would recommend this to fans of David Vann and Richard Ford.
I Will Find You by Joanna Connors: By using present-tense narration, Connors makes the events of 1984 feel as if they happened yesterday: a blow-by-blow of the sex acts forced on her at knife-point over the nearly one-hour duration of her rape; the police reports and trials; and the effects it all had on her marriage and family. This is an excellent work of reconstruction and investigative reporting.
Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge: Younge built this book by choosing a 24-hour period (November 22 to 23, 2013) and delving into all 10 gun deaths of young Americans on record for that time: seven black, two Latino, and one white; aged nine to 18; about half at least vaguely gang-related, while in two – perhaps the most crushing cases – there was an accident while playing around with a gun. I dare anyone to read this and then try to defend gun ‘rights’ in the face of such senseless, everyday loss.
Best Discoveries of the Year: Apollo Classics reprints (I reviewed three of them this year); Diana Abu-Jaber, Linda Grant and Kristopher Jansma.
Most Pleasant Year-Long Reading Experience: The seasonal anthologies issued by the UK Wildlife Trusts and edited by Melissa Harrison (I reviewed three of them this year).
Most Improved: I heartily disliked Sarah Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood. But her second, The Essex Serpent, is exquisite.
Debut Novelists Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Stephanie Danler, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Francis Spufford, Andria Williams and Sunil Yapa.
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer, Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, and Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Here’s hoping 2017 doesn’t bring any letdowns from beloved authors.
The Worst Book I Read This Year: Paulina & Fran (2015) by Rachel B. Glaser. My only one-star review of the year. ’Nuff said?
The 2016 Novels I Most Wish I’d Gotten to: (At least the 10 I’m most regretful about)
- The Power by Naomi Alderman
- The Museum of You by Carys Bray
- The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
- What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell*
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
- The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky
- The Inseparables by Stuart Nadler
- Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst*
- The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney*
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead*
*Haven’t been able to find anywhere yet; the rest are on my Kindle.
Which of these should I get reading on the double?
Coming tomorrow: Some reading goals for 2017.
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline. Meanwhile, I’ve done my first review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – exciting!
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: “Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” Through a fictionalized biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, Barnes questions how art can withstand political oppression. Knowing Barnes’s penchant for stylistic experimentation, this was never going to be a straightforward, chronological life story. Instead, as he so often does, he sets up a tripartite structure, focusing on three moments when Shostakovich has a reckoning with Power. The book is full of terrific one-liners (“Integrity is like virginity: once lost, never recoverable”), but there are not many memorable scenes to latch on to.
Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo (& interview) by Michael Pronko: Pronko’s third collection of essays about his adopted city is an eloquent tribute to a place full of contradictions and wonders. Compared to his earlier collection, Beauty and Chaos, I sense Pronko is now more comfortable in his surroundings, perhaps happier to include himself in ‘we’ rather than looking on passively at ‘them’. For instance – inspired by Japanese women’s perfect outfits – he consciously tries to dress better, and he’s taken to eating ramen and sleeping on a futon, just like a native. The highlight is a set of pieces written in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake / tsunami.
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie: Veblen, named after the late-nineteenth-century Norwegian-American economist, is one of the oddest heroines you’ll ever meet. She thinks squirrels are talking to her and kisses flowers. But McKenzie doesn’t just play Veblen for laughs; she makes her a believable character well aware of her own psychological backstory. I suspect the squirrel material could be a potential turn-off for readers who can’t handle too much whimsy. Over-the-top silly in places, this is nonetheless a serious account of the difficulty of Veblen and Paul, her neurology researcher fiancé, blending their dysfunctional families and different ideologies – which is what marriage is all about.
Weathering by Lucy Wood: This atmospheric debut novel is set in a crumbling house by an English river and stars three generations of women – one of them a ghost. Ada has returned to her childhood home after 13 years to scatter her mother Pearl’s ashes, sort through her belongings, and get the property ready to sell. In a sense, then, this is a haunted house story. Yet Wood introduces the traces of magical realism so subtly that they never feel jolting. Like the river, the novel is fluid, moving between the past and present with ease. The vivid picture of the English countryside and clear-eyed look at family dynamics remind me most of Tessa Hadley (The Past) and Polly Samson (The Kindness).
When We Were Invincible by Jonathan Harnisch: In this short novel, a young man wrestles with depression and Tourette’s syndrome, which together drive him to the point of suicide. A series of dreams and chance meetings, along with the possibility of romance and faith in God, pull him back from the edge. The book successfully introduces philosophical themes and gives a sympathetic picture of mental illness. However, it is weaker at filling in background and providing transitions, and there are many awkward, unlikely lines of dialogue. Recommended to fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North: The twisty, clever story of a doomed filmmaker – perfect for fans of Hausfrau. Who is Sophie Stark? A New York City-based indie director whose four documentary-style movies are “almost more like life than life itself.” Bisexual and with certain traits of high-functioning autism, Sophie is easily misunderstood. She’s a rebel who doesn’t conform to social niceties. The book is told through five first-person reminiscences from the people closest to her. In this respect the novel’s format recalls Kitchens of the Great Midwest. My favorite sections, though, are the reviews of her films, all by the same critic.
Casualties by Betsy Marro: A powerful, melancholy debut novel about how war affects whole families, not just individual soldiers. As in Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, which Casualties resembles in tone if not in style, a bereaved mother sets off on a journey. Ruth’s unlikely companion on the road trip east is a Gulf War amputee who appears little more than a conman but genuinely wants to clean up his act so he can reconcile with his teenage daughter. At times the road trip scenario felt a little far-fetched to me, and Casey too obvious a replacement son figure. Yet as both he and Ruth ponder how much they have lost and the small things they can try to put right, they together form a touching picture of the various ways war’s effects can linger.
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: “All stories are ghost stories,” Samantha Hunt proclaims in her quirky third novel about the crossover between motherhood and mysticism. In a dual storyline that takes in fundamentalist cults, unlikely mediums and a pregnant woman’s pilgrimage, Hunt asks whether one can ever believe in the unseen. Mr. Splitfoot has the offbeat charm of Scarlett Thomas’s work. While the plot ultimately feels like a bit of a jumble, its vision of unexpected love and loyalty remains compelling. “The End’s always coming,” but it is how one lives in the face of brutality and impending extinction that matters.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads:
Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett: A debut novel in which an Australian whaler’s daughter looks back at 1908, a catastrophic whaling season but also her first chance at romance. I felt that additional narrators, such as a whaleman or an omniscient voice, would have allowed for more climactic scenes. Still, I found this gently funny, especially the fact that the family’s cow and horse are inseparable and must be together on any outing. There are some great descriptions of whales, too.
Felicity by Mary Oliver: I was disappointed with my first taste of Mary Oliver’s poetry. So many readers praise her work to the skies, and I’ve loved excerpts I’ve read elsewhere. However, I found these to be rather simplistic and clichéd, especially poems’ final lines, e.g. “Soon now, I’ll turn and start for home. / And who knows, maybe I’ll be singing.” or “Late, late, but now lovely and lovelier. / And the two of us, together—a part of it.” I’ll definitely try more of her work, but I’ll look out for an older, classic collection.
Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser: Full of blunt, faux-profound sentences and smutty, two-dimensional characters. Others may rave about it, but this wasn’t for me. I get that it is a satire on female friendship and youth entitlement. But I hated how the main characters get involved in a love triangle, and once they leave college any interest I had in them largely disappeared. Least favorite lines: “Paulina. She’s like Cleopatra, but more squat.” / “She’s more like Humphrey Bogart” and “She craved the zen-ness of being rammed.”
Noah’s Wife by Lindsay Starck: I kept wanting to love this book, but never quite did. It’s more interesting as a set of ideas – a town where it won’t stop raining, a minister losing faith, homeless zoo animals sheltering with ordinary folk – than as an executed plot. My main problem was that the minor characters take over so that you never get to know the title character, who remains nameless. There’s also a ton of platitudes towards the end. It reminded me most of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend and Not Forgetting the Whale (another cozy environmental dystopia based around biblical allusions).
Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume: This sounded like a charmingly offbeat story about a loner and his adopted dog setting off on a journey. As it turns out, this debut is much darker than expected, but what saves it from being unremittingly depressing is the same careful attention to voice you encounter in fellow Irish writers like Donal Ryan and Anne Enright. It’s organized into four sections, with the title’s four verbs as headings. In a novel low on action, the road trip is much the most repetitive section, extending to the language as well. Even so, Baume succeeds in giving a compassionate picture of a character whose mental state comes into question. (Full review in March 2016 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Medium Hero by Korby Lenker: Lenker is an indie musician, and the 27 autobiographical stories in his debut collection are about the everyday challenges of being on the road versus trying to pay the bills. Many feature “Korby” or “Simon” as fictional stand-ins, and recurring locations include his hometown of Twin Falls, Idaho and his adopted home of Nashville. As the title suggests, Lenker has no illusions about being famous or out of the ordinary. Most of the time he just tries to be a decent guy, the kind who prays for family members in distress even though he’s not sure he believes in God. Lest that sound too serious, though, there are also stories about peeing his pants and the perils of being a metrosexual.
Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan: Slides down like ice cream. And I say that even though the whole basis for this memoir feels rather thin. Corrigan frames it around five months in the early 1990s when she worked as a nanny for two Australian kids whose mother died of cancer. For a young woman fresh out of college, it was like a trial run for being a mother, and also gave her a new appreciation for everything her own mother had done for her during her Philadelphia Catholic upbringing. If Corrigan’s father was the ‘glitter’ of the family, her mother was the ‘glue’ – holding everything together in the background. This is impressively reconstructed, dialogue and all, from letters, journals and photos.
The Ballroom by Anna Hope: This novel was inspired by the story of the author’s great-great-grandfather, an Irishman who was a patient at Menston Asylum in West Yorkshire from 1909 to 1918. The novel zeroes in on the long, hot summer of 1911, focusing through alternating close third-person chapters on John Mulligan, a new patient named Ella Fay, and Dr. Charles Fuller, who wants to put his mental hospital at the frontline of eugenics research. Ultimately I didn’t like this quite as much as Wake, but I think it cements Anna Hope’s reputation as a solid historical fiction writer. I hope with her next book she’ll move beyond the years around World War I to consider a less-chronicled era.
Life without a Recipe by Diana Abu-Jaber: The Jordanian–American writer reflects on how various food cultures have sustained her through a life that hasn’t always turned out as expected. Three marriages, a move from Portland to Florida, a winding path to motherhood in her forties, and her father’s death from leukemia are some of the main events. Like Sasha Martin’s Life from Scratch, this is more about family and personal history than it is about food (and there are no recipes). Still, food is the stuff of memories, and it is what binds her to two strong characters: her Jordanian father Bud with his stuffed grape leaves, and her maternal grandmother Grace with her frequent baking and the pastries they consumed together in Paris.
Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut: This fictionalized account of the life of E.M. Forster focuses on the drawn-out composition of A Passage to India, which he began in 1913 but wouldn’t complete and publish until 1924. In between he broke off to write his explicitly homosexual novel Maurice (only published posthumously), spent three years working in Egypt during the war, and served as a secretary to an Indian maharajah. As fictionalized biographies of authors go, I’d rate this somewhere between David Lodge’s A Man of Parts (H.G. Wells) and Colm Tóibín’s superior The Master (Henry James); all three share a heavy focus on the author’s sexuality. “Buggery in the colonies. It wasn’t noble” is one of my favorite random snippets from this novel, and sums up, for me, its slightly prurient aftertaste.