It was a definite case of judging a book by its cover: I saw a photo of Fiona Melrose’s debut novel, Midwinter, on Twitter and – without reading much about it at all – sent off a quick request e-mail to the publisher. All I knew was that it was about a father and son, that it was set in Suffolk, that a fox featured somewhere, and that Zambia was involved somehow. But that was enough to convince me that this was a book I wanted to read.
I had assumed the title would refer to the novel’s setting; although it does take place during the colder months of the year, Midwinter is also the main characters’ last name. Landyn Midwinter and his twenty-year-old son, Vale, are farmers in the Suffolk countryside. They’re both joined and divided by the memory of Vale’s mum Cecilia’s violent death ten years ago in Zambia, where the family had gone to seek their fortune after money troubles on the English farm. Vale blames Landyn for Cessie’s murder, and the past still fuels explosions between them in the present day.
The novel opens with Vale and his best friend, Tom, who were raised like brothers, stealing a boat and going for a drunken nighttime sail. This scene reminded me of the cataclysmic maritime sections of Wyl Menmuir’s The Many and ends in near-disaster. Vale is fine, but as Tom spends the next weeks in hospital it becomes clear that he will not escape undamaged. Vale and Landyn don’t see eye to eye about what Vale owes his friend; they also disagree about Landyn’s sentimental attitude towards animals: farm dogs and chickens, as well as a vixen he is thrilled to see on his land, thinking of her as an emissary from his lost wife.
Vale and Landyn narrate the book in alternating first-person chapters. It’s their country voices and the father–son theme that drive the story. “It could never be the end for me and Vale,” Landyn says. “I didn’t have a choice in it. Been like that how many times since Cessie passed, all beaten and tired and nothing left.” And yet Vale “cut me right where he knew there was fresh meat, the type that doesn’t knit.” Landyn’s voice worked better for me, but I liked how the same themes crop up for both men as they go through the motions of everyday farming life: guilt over bad decisions, a hot temper, and awkwardness around women.
Past and present coexist stylishly through flashbacks to the Midwinters’ brief time in Africa, and there are several climactic scenes of animal deaths, one quite gruesome – something to keep in mind if you are sensitive to such things.
At a certain point, though, the novel started feeling repetitive to me. Some incidents are recounted from both points of view, but the repetition doesn’t add anything. I thought the book could stand to lose 40–60 pages – page 224 would have served as a perfectly good ending, for instance. In fact, the whole thing feels like an early draft: it’s surprisingly poorly edited in terms of punctuation, typos and compound words.
In all, I think this edition of Melrose’s debut novel doesn’t do her justice. Luckily, I was impressed enough by her elegant treatment of fraught relationships and ongoing guilt that I will still be looking out for her future work.
Other books (all by women!) this reminded me of:
- Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
- The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop
- Shame by Melanie Finn [U.S. title: The Gloaming]
- The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
Midwinter was published in the UK by Corsair on November 2nd. My thanks to Helen Upton of Little, Brown for the free review copy.
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.
2015 was a great year for fiction, largely dominated by doorstoppers (like Death & Mr. Pickwick and City on Fire, in addition to the Franzen and Yanagihara listed below) and Harper Lee. I’ve decided to pass on Go Set a Watchman, but I’ve read plenty of the year’s big-name fiction, as well as some more obscure titles I’d like to bring to your attention.
As difficult as it is to pit books against each other and come up with a numbered list, I’ve given it a go and come up with my top 15 fiction works of the year. To keep it simple for myself and straightforward for potential readers, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
Let the countdown begin!
- The Shore by Sara Taylor: Gritty and virtuosic, this debut novel-in-13-stories imagines 250 years of history on a set of islands. Every region needs a literary chronicler, and I reckon Taylor – channeling David Mitchell with her cross-centuries approach – is it for the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia’s islands.
- Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins: Gold, fame, citrus: reasons people once came to California; now, only a desperate remnant remains in the waterless wasteland. As a smart, believable dystopian with a family at its heart, this trumps any of last year’s efforts (like Station Eleven or California).
- Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish: Like West Side Story, this debut novel is an updated Romeo and Juliet narrative – a tragedy-bound love story with a grimy contemporary setting and a sobering message about racism and the failure of the American dream. The matter-of-fact style somehow manages to elevate the everyday and urban into an art form. (Reviewed for Third Way magazine in August.)
- Circling the Sun by Paula McLain: Before she ever thought of flying solo across the Atlantic, aviatrix Beryl Markham was just Beryl Clutterbuck: raised in Kenya, one of Africa’s first female horse trainers, its first professional female pilot, and the other side of the love triangle featuring Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Denys Finch Hatton. McLain describes her African settings beautifully, and focuses as much on the small emotional moments that make a life as she does on its external thrills.
- Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal: One of my favorite debuts of the year: a culinary-themed collection of short stories loosely linked through the character of Eva Thorvald, a young chef with an unfortunate past and a rare palate. Read it for a glimpse of how ordinary, flawed Americans live – no fairytale endings here.
- Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum: This arresting debut reads like a modern retelling of Madame Bovary, with its main character a desperate American housewife in Zurich. Watch Anna’s trajectory with horror, but you cannot deny there is a little of her in you.
- The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett: In this impressively structured, elegantly written debut, Barnett chronicles the romantic lives of two Cambridge graduates through three-quarters of a century, giving three options for how their connection might play out. There is no one perfect person or story: unsentimental this may be, but it feels true to how life works. (Reviewed for Third Way magazine in July.)
- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: An incisive study of a marriage, beautifully written and rich with allusions to Shakespeare and Greek mythology. Groff makes it onto a short list of women I expect to produce the Great American Novel (along with Curtis Sittenfeld, Jennifer Egan, and Hanya Yanagihara).
- Purity by Jonathan Franzen: East Germany, Bolivia and Oakland, California: Franzen doesn’t quite pull all his settings and storylines together, but this is darn close to a 5-star Dickensian read. It’s strong on the level of character and theme, with secrecy, isolation and compassion as recurring topics.
- You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: Kleeman’s first novel is a full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on consumerism and conformity. Think of her as an heir to Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland, with a hefty dollop of Margaret Atwood thrown in.
- The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Kiefer’s second novel contrasts wildness and civilization through the story of a man who runs an animal refuge to escape from his criminal past. A tough opening sequence establishes themes that will be essential to the novel: the fine line between instincts and decisions, the moral dilemmas involved in environmentalism, and the seeming inescapability of violence.
- The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: A collection of tightly linked short stories giving an intimate look at Russia and Chechnya in wartime and afterwards – revealing how politics, family, and art intertwine. Just as he did in his first novel, Marra renders unspeakable tragedies bearable through his warm and witty writing.
- Girl at War by Sara Nović: This pitch-perfect debut novel is an inside look at the Yugoslavian Civil War and its aftermath, from the perspective of a young girl caught up in the fighting. The way Nović recreates a child’s perspective on the horrors of war is masterful: Ana’s viewpoint is realistic and matter-of-fact, without the melodrama an omniscient narrator might inject.
- Adeline by Norah Vincent: Set in 1925–1941 and structured like a five-act play, the novel revolves around Virginia Woolf’s philosophical conversations with Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and his lover Carrington, T.S. and Valerie Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and her doctor, Octavia Wilberforce. Vincent has produced a remarkable picture of mental illness from the inside.
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Jude St. Francis: Dickensian orphan, patron saint of lost causes, Christlike Man of Sorrows, and one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. This novel is an attempt to tackle the monolithic question of what makes life worth living; among the potential answers: love (though it doesn’t conquer all), friendship, creativity, and the family you create for yourself.
Debut Novelists Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Jessamyn Hope (Safekeeping – reviewed here in June) and Carmiel Banasky (The Suicide of Claire Bishop – reviewed for Foreword’s Fall 2015 issue).
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper; Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks and Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving (both rehash the authors’ familiar themes; I couldn’t make it past 15% in the latter).
Novels I Most Wish I’d Gotten to in 2015: Nell Zink’s Mislaid, Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither, and the final two volumes of Jane Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years” trilogy.
What are the best novels you read this year? Any new favorite books or authors? Your comments are always welcome.
I’ll be back tomorrow with my top 15 nonfiction books I read this year (most of them not published in 2015, however – I seem to have been a nonfiction slacker!)
I like a spot of competition. Whether watching Olympic figure skating, playing board games like Scrabble and Boggle, entering a low-key Oscars pool, or rooting for my favorites in American Idol seasons and Miss America pageants, I’ve always loved trying to pick the best. This means that literary prizes are hugely exciting for me, and I follow the races closely.
I’m particularly devoted to the Man Booker Prize. I was delighted to see Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life on the recent longlist (catch up on it here), a truly interesting set of books, diverse in terms of their genres and authors’ nationalities and nicely balanced between male and female writers (6:7). I’ve read four of the longlisted titles so far:
- The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma (full review in May 2015 issue of Third Way): From a young Nigerian debut novelist comes a haunting tale of sibling rivalry and revenge. With sectarian riots afoot, the four oldest Agwu boys decide to make money by skipping school and fishing in the Omi-Ala River. Things get more complicated when Abulu, the local madman, issues a prophecy that seems bound to divide the brothers. The first quarter of the novel, especially, is drenched in foreshadowing (not always subtle, nor do the plot turns often rise above the predictable). Rich with prophecy and allusions, this owes much to biblical narratives and tragedies from Shakespeare to Chinua Achebe.
- Lila, Marilynne Robinson – reviewed at For Books’ Sake
- A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler – also reviewed at For Books’ Sake
- A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara – reviewed at Shiny New Books
Beyond the Booker, here are some of the other prizes I follow throughout the year, listed in vague chronological order:
- The Not the Booker Prize run by the Guardian. On this year’s shortlist is Shame by Melanie Finn, a book I loved when I reviewed it for Third Way’s April 2015 issue. It’s a powerful story of regret and the search for redemption. Though it has elements of a straightforward psychological thriller, the daring structure and moral complexities are more akin to Graham Greene. In alternating chapters, Pilgrim Jones contrasts flashbacks to her car accident and the subsequent investigation back in Switzerland with her present-tense African odyssey. This is Conrad’s Africa, a continent characterized by darkness and suffering. The question of culpability remains murky, yet the possibility of salvation shines through. [Voting will take place in October.]
- The Guardian First Book Award (open to both fiction and nonfiction): the shortlist will be announced this Friday, August 14th. One entry, Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume, has already been chosen by readers, and the other nine are selected from publishers’ submissions. [Winner announced in late November.]
- The Dylan Thomas Prize for young writers (under 39) went to Joshua Ferris for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour last year. [Longlist in September, shortlist in October and winner announced in November.]
- The Costa Book Awards give separate prizes for fiction, debut fiction, biography, poetry, and children’s books, and also choose one overall winner. [Category shortlists in late November, category winners in early January and overall winner on January 26, 2016.]
- The Folio Prize, only two years old, considers any work of fiction published in English; before the Booker expanded to include American entries last year, it was the most Catholic of the fiction prizes. Now it risks being considered redundant; especially since it lost its Folio Society sponsorship, it’s unclear whether it will continue. [Shortlist in February and winner announced in March.]
- The Wellcome Book Prize is for medical-themed literature, fiction or nonfiction. Last year’s winner, The Iceberg by Marion Coutts, meant a lot to me for personal reasons but was also one of the most unusual and impressive memoirs I’ve ever read. I reviewed it for The Bookbag here. [Shortlist in March and winner announced in April.]
- The Pulitzer Prize is America’s premier literary award. I confess I often feel a little out of touch with the winners and don’t necessarily make a conscious effort to seek out the nominated books. I’d like to be more familiar with Pulitzer winners. Next year marks the prize’s centennial, so there’s no better time! [Winners announced in April.]
- The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is for any book that has been translated into English and published in the UK in the previous year. I’ve found some great offbeat reads by browsing through previous longlists. As of next year, the prize is merging with the Man Booker International award, which previously recognized the life work of a foreign author every other year. [Longlist in March, shortlist in April and winner announced in May.]
- The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, the UK’s prize for comic literature, has run since 2000. Among the past winners are Paul Torday, Howard Jacobson, Terry Pratchett, Geoff Dyer, Gary Shteyngart, and (surprise!) Ian McEwan. I’ve read five of the winners, including Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn. [Shortlist in March and winner announced in May.]
- The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize). Ali Smith won the 2015 award for How to Be Both. [Longlist in March; shortlist and winner announced in June.]
Do you follow literary prize races? Do you make a point of reading the winner and/or the shortlisted books? All comments welcome!