Amy Sackville’s debut novel, The Still Point, had been on my radar ever since I read her follow-up, Orkney. I finally put it on my wish list and got a copy for Christmas. In the meantime, I’d also acquired a copy of Emily Rapp’s memoir The Still Point of the Turning World as part of a big secondhand book haul at the start of the first lockdown.
Both books take their title from the eminently quotable T.S. Eliot*, specifically his poem “Burnt Norton.” I couldn’t resist the urge to review them together (along with Rapp’s recent sequel) – although, unlike with my dual review of two books titled Ex Libris, I won’t pit them against each other because they’re such different books.
That said, they do share a dreamlike quality and the search for people and places that might serve as refuges in a shattered life. All:
The Still Point by Amy Sackville (2010)
I am not heroic, I prefer
not to conquer
polar regions, my
gardens in July
serve for me.
~from “emperor’s walk” by G.F. Dutton
A sweltering summer versus an encasing of ice; an ordinary day versus decades of futile waiting. Sackville explores these contradictions only to deflate them, collapsing time such that a polar explorer’s wife and her great-great-niece can inhabit the same literal and emotional space despite being separated by more than a century. When Edward Mackley went off on his expedition in the early 1900s, he left behind Emily, his devoted, hopeful new bride. She was to live out the rest of her days in the Mackley family home with her brother-in-law and his growing family; Edward never returned. Now Julia and her husband Simon reside in that same Victorian house, serving as custodians of memories and artifacts from her ancestors’ travels and naturalist observations. From one early morning until the next, we peer into this average marriage with its sadness and silences. On this day, Julia discovers a family secret, and late on reveals another of her own, that subtly change how we see her and Emily.
This is a highly fluid and sensual novel, but somehow so sinuous as to be hard to grasp. I took in its interlocking story lines just a few pages at a time; floating on the gorgeous prose, basking in the alternating heat and chill. Sackville’s greatest stylistic debt must be to Virginia Woolf, but I was also reminded of Lucy Wood’s Weathering and Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock – two similarly beautiful books in which a house and its ghosts are major characters – and of how some of Sarah Moss’s work braids the past into the everyday. I suspect this won’t be for every reader, but if you can find the right moment and mood, you might just be entranced.
One of Sackville’s research sources was Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, a work I recently skimmed for a winter post. Two passages that stood out to me apply equally well to Rapp’s books:
“The literature of nineteenth-century arctic exploration is full of coincidence and drama—last-minute rescues, a desperate rifle shot to secure food for starving men, secret letters written to painfully missed loved ones. There are moments of surreal stillness, as in Parry’s journal when he writes of the sound of the human voice in the land. And of tender ministration and quiet forbearance in the face of inevitable death.”
“The continuous work of the imagination, I thought, to bring what is actual together with what is dreamed is an expression of human evolution. The conscious desire is to achieve a state, even momentarily, that like light is unbounded, nurturing, suffused with wisdom and creation, a state in which one has absorbed that very darkness which before was the perpetual sign of defeat.”
The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp (2013)
In 2011 Rapp’s baby son Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a degenerative nerve condition that causes blindness, deafness, seizures, paralysis and, ultimately, death. Tay-Sachs is usually seen in Ashkenazi Jews, so it came as a surprise: Rapp and her husband Rick both had to be carriers, whereas only he was Jewish; they never thought to get tested.
This memoir was written while Ronan was still alive, and the rapid, in-the-thick-of-it composition is evident: it rides the same rollercoaster of feelings over and over again, even repeating some of the same facts. I put this down to the brain fog of anticipatory grief. “The constant push-pull: here but not for long. What will come next?” Rapp quotes extensively from other writers who have grappled with bereavement, especially poets, as if building an inner library to bolster herself against what is to come (“it wasn’t consolation I needed or desired, but the tools to walk through this fire without being consumed by it”).
Rapp puts her son’s life into context through memories of growing up disabled (she had a rare condition that necessitated the amputation of a leg as a child, and wore a prosthesis) in the conservative Midwest, contrasting the Christian theology she grew up in and studied at college with the Eastern and New Age spiritualities that prevail in Santa Fe, where she and Rick then lived with Ronan. She ponders the worth of a life that will be marked by no traditional achievements.
In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr advises seven years between the events and the writing about them, but Rapp explains her strategy of instant reaction thus:
grief, this extreme experience, forces a writer to draw on her deepest resources, and such a dive demands so much work that what comes up must be heaved onto the page almost immediately; otherwise it might eat the thinker alive, drown them … Or at least that’s how I felt. You can eat fire for only so long, and then you’ve got to spit it out in another form or risk the burn.
She felt that “rendering loss was a way of honoring life,” which even with this death sentence hanging over the family had its times of pure joy: “there existed inside this helpless, frantic sadness exquisite moments of pristine happiness and an almost-perfect peace.” The title perfectly captures the necessity of finding this calmness of soul amidst a tumultuous life.
Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black (2021)
Things got worse before they got better. As is common for couples who lose a child, Rapp and her first husband separated, soon after she completed her book. In the six months leading up to Ronan’s death in February 2013, his condition deteriorated rapidly and he needed hospice caretakers. Rapp came close to suicide. But in those desperate months, she also threw herself into a new relationship with Kent, a 20-years-older man who was there for her as Ronan was dying and would become her second husband and the father of her daughter, Charlotte (“Charlie”). The acrimonious split from Rick and the astonishment of a new life with Kent – starting in the literal sanctuary of his converted New Mexico chapel, and then moving to California – were two sides of a coin. So were missing Ronan and loving Charlie.
Sanctuary is a similarly allusive text, with each chapter prefaced by a poem, and it is again full of flashbacks, threading all the seemingly disparate parts of a life into a chaotic tapestry. Rapp Black questions the sorts of words that she and her experience got branded with: “brave,” “tragic,” “resilient” – “I unwittingly became the poster child,” she wryly reports. In the same way that she’d been praised for “overcoming disability,” she saw that she was now being trotted out as an example of coping with unimaginable loss. But she didn’t want to be someone’s model; she just wanted the chance to live her life and be happy again. Her wisdom isn’t what makes it onto inspirational stickers, but it’s genuine and hard-won:
“It has little or nothing to do with bravery. Nobody is charging into warfare here. No gold stars are given because none are earned. I am no warrior of love or anything else.”
“Time doesn’t heal anything; it just changes things—reshapes and reorients them.”
“resilience is not always a function of the desire to survive. Either you survive, or you don’t. There’s no fault, no moral judgment, assigned to either outcome.”
“Isn’t it true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? No. What doesn’t kill you changes you, and those who chose to love you. That is what it means to bear witness, a unique and salvific form of resilience.”
Although I was glad to have read both, to have experienced both the in-the-moment and the after-the-fact, I think Sanctuary could easily function as a standalone memoir because of how much of Ronan’s illness it relives. For being that bit more measured and wrought, I think it’s the better book by a hair’s breadth. It tames the fire and just radiates the light and warmth.
I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley. Thanks to John Murray Press for the approval.
When she read my review of As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths, Liz Dexter suggested Wendy Perriam’s books as readalikes and very kindly sent me one to try: The Stillness The Dancing – a title whose lack of punctuation confused me until I discovered that it’s taken from a line of T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker”: “So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” It took me nearly a year and a half to get around to it, but I’ve finally read my first Perriam (fairly autobiographical, it seems) and found it very striking and worthwhile.
The comparison with the Griffiths turned out to be apt: both are hefty, religion-saturated novels dwelling on themes of purpose, mysticism, asceticism, and the connection between the mind and body, especially when it comes to sex. Perriam’s protagonist is Morna Gordon, a 41-year-old translator. The end of her marriage was nearly as disorienting for her as the loss of her Catholic faith. Occasional chapters spotlight the perspective of the other women in this family line: Morna’s mother, Bea, who’s been a widow for as long as Morna has been alive and finally finds a vocation at an age when most people are retiring; and Morna’s daughter Chris, who’s tasting freedom before starting uni and settling down with her diver boyfriend, Martin.
When Morna accompanies Bea on a week-long religious retreat in the countryside, she meets David Anthony, a younger man she initially assumes is a priest. Here to deliver a lecture on miracles, he’s a shy scholar researching a seventh-century Celtic saint, Abban, who led an austere life on a remote Scottish island. Morna is instantly captivated by David’s intellectual passion, and in lieu of flirting offers to help him with his medieval translations. Still bruised by her divorce, she longs to make a move yet doesn’t want to scare David off. After 14 years of Neil telling her she was frigid, she’s startled to find herself in the role of sexual temptress.
Staid suburban England is contrasted with two very different locales: Saint Abban’s island and the outskirts of Los Angeles, where Morna and Chris travel for a few weeks in January so Chris can spend time with her father and meet his new family: (younger) wife Bunny and Chris’s four-year-old half-brother, Dean. California is “another world completely,” a fever dream of consumerism and excess, and Morna does things that are completely outside her comfort zone, like spending hours submerged in a sensory deprivation tank and breaking down in tears in the middle of Bunny’s women’s consciousness-raising circle.
The differences between England and California are exaggerated for comic effect in a way that reminded me of David Lodge’s Changing Places – but if for Chris it’s all about hedonistic self-expression, for Morna America is more of an existential threat, and she rushes back to be with David. There are several such pivotal moments when Morna flees one existence for another, often accompanied by a time of brain fog: alcohol, sleeping pills or grief disrupt her normal thought processes, as reflected in choppy, repetitive sentences.
I bristled slightly at the melodramatic nature of the final 60 pages, unsure to what extent the ending should be seen as altering the book’s overall message: Morna is denied a full transformation, but it seems she’s still on the spiritual path towards detachment from material things. Though still a lapsed Catholic, she finds some fresh meaning in the Church’s history and rituals. As her mother and daughter both embark on their new lives, her ongoing task is to figure out who she is apart from the connections that have defined her for so many years.
My favorite parts of the novel, not surprisingly, were Morna’s internal monologue – and her conversations with David – about faith and doubt. Perhaps I wasn’t wholeheartedly convinced that all the separately enjoyable components fit together, or that all the strands were fully followed through, but it’s an exuberant as well as a meditative work and I will certainly seek out more from Perriam.
Some favorite lines:
(Morna thinks) “If one had been exhorted all one’s girlhood to live for God alone, then how could one have purpose if He vanished?”
David: “I know our society shies away from any type of self-denial, regards it as neurotic or obsessional, but I disagree with that. Anything worth having is worth suffering for.”
Morna: “Are you still a Catholic? I know you said you believed in God, but that’s not the same, is it?” / David: “I’m still redefining all my terms. That can take a lifetime.”
Author note: Wendy Perriam’s name was completely new to me, though this was her 11th novel. Now in her 70s, she is still publishing fiction, with a crime novel released in 2017.
Page count: 536
“Launched in 2009, the Wellcome Book Prize, worth £30,000, celebrates the best new books that engage with an aspect of medicine, health or illness, showcasing the breadth and depth of our encounters with medicine through exceptional works of fiction and non-fiction.” I was delighted to be asked to participate in the official Wellcome Book Prize 10th anniversary blog tour. For this stop on the tour I’m highlighting a shortlisted title from 2010, a very strong year. The winning book, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, along with Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, turned me on to health-themed reading and remains one of my most memorable reads of the past decade.
Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks
Tim Parks, an Englishman, has lived and worked in Italy for over 30 years. He teaches translation at the university in Milan, and is also a novelist and a frequent newspaper columnist on literary topics. Starting in his forties, Parks was plagued by urinary problems and abdominal pain. Each night he had to get up five or six times to urinate, and when he didn’t have fiery pangs shooting through his pelvic area he had a dull ache. Doctors assessed his prostate and bladder in tests that seemed more like torture sessions, but ultimately found nothing wrong. While he was relieved that his worst fears of cancer were allayed, he was left with a dilemma: constant, unexplained discomfort and no medical strategy for treating it.
When conventional medicine failed him, Parks asked himself probing questions: Had he in some way brought this pain on himself through his restless, uptight and pessimistic ways? Had he ever made peace with his minister father’s evangelical Christianity after leaving it for a life based on reason? Was his obsession with transmuting experience into words keeping him from living authentically? During a translation conference in Delhi, he consulted an ayurvedic doctor on a whim and heard words that haunted him: “This is a problem you will never get over, Mr Parks, until you confront the profound contradiction in your character.”
The good news is: some things helped. One was the book A Headache in the Pelvis, which teaches a paradoxical relaxation technique that Parks used for up to an hour a day, lying on a yoga mat in his study. Another was exercise, especially running and kayaking – a way of challenging himself and seeking thrills in a controlled manner. He also started shiatsu therapy. And finally, Vipassana meditation retreats helped him shift his focus off the mind’s experience of pain and onto bodily wholeness. Vipassana is all about “seeing things as they really are,” so the retreats were for him a “showdown with this tangled self” and a chance to face the inevitability of death. Considering he couldn’t take notes at the time, I was impressed by the level of detail with which Parks describes his breakthroughs during meditation.
Though I was uneasy reading about a middle-aged man’s plumbing issues and didn’t always follow the author on his digressions into literary history (Coleridge et al.), I found this to be an absorbing and surprising quest narrative. If not with the particulars, I could sympathize with the broader strokes of Parks’s self-interrogation. He wonders whether sitting at a desk, tense and with poor posture, and wandering around with eyes on the ground and mind on knots of words for years contributed to his medical crisis. Borrowing the title phrase from T.S. Eliot, he’s charted an unlikely journey towards mindfulness in a thorough, bracingly honest, and diverting book that won’t put off those suspicious of New Age woo-woo.
With thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review.
Wellcome Book Prize 2010
Winner: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Shortlist: Angel of Death by Gareth Williams; Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson; So Much for That by Lionel Shriver; Medic by John Nicols and Tony Rennell; Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks
Judges: Comedy writer and television presenter Clive Anderson (chair); novelist and academic Maggie Gee; academic and writer Michael Neve; television presenter and author Alice Roberts; academic and writer A.C. Grayling
The 2019 Wellcome Book Prize longlist will be announced in February. I’m already looking forward to it, of course, and I’m planning to run a shadow panel once again.
Elif Shafak, award-winning author, is the chair of this year’s judges and is joined on the panel by Kevin Fong, consultant anaesthetist at University College London Hospitals; Viv Groskop, writer, broadcaster and stand-up comedian; Jon Day, writer, critic, and academic; and Rick Edwards, broadcaster and author.
See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon as part of the Wellcome Book Prize 10th anniversary blog tour.
I’ve been reading a feminist memoir set on Cape Cod, a subtle novel about the inner life and outward experiences of a writer, a soapy literary thriller about a troubled mother and teen daughter, and a slightly melancholy reminiscence of an aged mother succumbing to dementia.
A Walk on the Beach: Tales of Wisdom from an Unconventional Woman by Joan Anderson (2004)
This is the third volume in a loose autobiographical trilogy about Anderson’s experiment with taking a break from her marriage and living alone in a Cape Cod cottage to figure out what she really wanted from the rest of her life. Specifically, this book is about the inspirational relationship she formed with Joan Erikson, who moved to the area in her eighties when her husband, the famous psychologist Erik Erikson, was admitted to a care home. Joanie was a thinker and author in her own right, publishing books on life’s stages, especially those of older age. She encouraged Anderson to have the confidence to write her own story, and to take up challenges like a trip to Peru and learning to weave on a loom. Joanie’s aphoristic advice is valuable, but there’s a fair bit of overlap between this book and A Year by the Sea, which I would recommend over this.
Some of Joan Erikson’s words of wisdom:
“Doing something with your hands, rather than your head, is often the best route to clarity.”
“wisdom comes from life’s experiences well digested. Stop relying so much on your mind and get in touch with experience.”
“The struggle is to try and obtain a sense of participation in your life the whole way through. We must treasure old age, but not wallow in nostalgia.”
Transit by Rachel Cusk (2016)
I finally made it through a Rachel Cusk book! (This was my third attempt; I made it just a few pages into Aftermath and 60 pages through Outline.) I suspected this would make a good plane read, and thankfully I was right. Each chapter is a perfectly formed short story, a snapshot of one aspect of Faye’s life and the relationships that have shaped her: a former lover she bumps into in London, a builder who tells her the flat she’s bought is a lost cause, the awful downstairs neighbors who hate her with a passion, the fellow writers (based on Edmund White and Karl Ove Knausgaard?) at a literary festival event who hog most of the time, the jolly Eastern European construction workers who undertake her renovations, a childless friend who works in fashion design, and a country cousin who’s struggling with his new blended family.
Like in Outline, the novel is based largely on the conversations Faye overhears or participates in (“I had found out more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible”), but I sensed more of her personality this time, and could relate to her questioning: Why do her neighbors hate her so? How much of her life is fated, and how much has she chosen? I doubt I’ll read another book by Cusk, but I ended up surprisingly grateful to have gotten hold of this one as a free proof copy of the new paperback edition from the Faber Spring Party.
Some favorite lines:
“we examine least what has formed us the most, and instead find ourselves driven blindly to re-enact it.”
“Without children or partner, without meaningful family or a home, a day can last an eternity: a life without those things is a life without a story, a life in which there is nothing – no narrative flights, no plot developments, no immersive human dramas – to alleviate the cruelly meticulous passing of time.”
White Oleander by Janet Fitch (1999)
Man, that Oprah knows how to pick ’em! This was a terrific read; I’m not sure why I’d never gotten to it before. I read huge chunks during my travel to the States and then slowed down quite a bit, which was a shame because it meant I felt less connected to Astrid’s later struggles in the foster care system. It’s an atmospheric novel full of oppressive Los Angeles heat and a classic noir flavor that shades into gritty realism as it goes on, taking us from when Astrid is 12 to when she’s a young woman out in the world on her own.
Astrid’s mother Ingrid, an elitist poet, becomes obsessed with a lover who spurned her and goes to jail for his murder. Bouncing between foster homes and children’s institutions, Astrid is plunged into a world of sex, drugs, violence and short-lived piety. “Like a limpet I attached to anything, anyone who showed me the least attention,” she writes. Her role models change over the years, but always in the background is the icy influence of her mother, through letters and visits.
Fitch’s writing is sumptuous, as in a house “the color of a tropical lagoon on a postcard thirty years out of date, a Gauguin syphilitic nightmare.” I might have liked a tiny bit more of Ingrid in the book, but I can still recommend this one wholeheartedly as summer reading.
Some favorite lines:
The knock-out opening two lines: “The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blossoms, their dagger green leaves.”
“I couldn’t imagine my mother in prison. She didn’t smoke or chew on toothpicks. She didn’t say ‘bitch’ or ‘fuck.’ She spoke four languages, quoted T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, drank Lapsang souchong out of a porcelain cup. She had never been inside a McDonald’s. She had lived in Paris and Amsterdam. Freiburg and Martinique. How could she be in prison?”
The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle (1974)
L’Engle is better known for children’s books, but wrote tons for adults, too. In this second volume of The Crosswicks Journal, she recounts her family history as a way of remembering on behalf of her mother, who at age 90 was slipping into dementia in her final summer. “I talked awhile, earlier this summer, about wanting my mother to have a dignified death. But there is nothing dignified about incontinence and senility.” L’Engle found herself in the unwanted position of being like her mother’s mother, and had to accept that she had no control over the situation. “This summer is practice in dying for me as well as for my mother.”
One of the reasons L’Engle was driven to write science fiction was because she couldn’t reconcile the idea of permanent human extinction with her Christian faith, but nor could she honestly affirm every word of the Creed. Hers is a more broad-minded, mystical spirituality that really appeals to me. (Her early life reminds me of May Sarton’s, as recounted in I Knew a Phoenix: both were born right around World War I, raised partially in Europe and sent to boarding school; a frequent theme in their nonfiction is the regenerative power of solitude and of the writing process itself.)
Some favorite lines:
“I said [in a lecture] that the artist’s response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, not to impose restrictive rules but to rejoice in pattern and meaning, for there is something in all artists which rejects coincidence and accident. And I went on to say that we must meet the precariousness of the universe without self-pity, and with dignity and courage.”
“Our lives are given a certain dignity by their very evanescence. If there were never to be an end to my quiet moments at the brook, if I could sit on the rock forever, I would not treasure these minutes so much. If our associations with the people we love were to have no termination, we would not value them as much as we do.”
Five of the books I’ve read recently (most of them while traveling to and from the States) have shared an overarching theme of loss, with mental illness, alcoholism, suicide, and dogs as subsidiary topics running through two or more of them. I hadn’t deliberately chosen these books for their commonalities, so it was uncanny to see the same elements keep popping up. I wanted to come up with some kind of impressively complex Venn diagram to show off these unexpected connections but couldn’t quite manage it, so you’ll have to imagine it instead.
The Archivist by Martha Cooley
Matthias Lane is the archivist of the Mason Room, a university collection of rare books and literary papers. One of its treasures is a set of letters that passed between T.S. Eliot and his friend Emily Hale (held at Princeton in real life). Matt is haunted by memories of his late wife, Judith, a poet incarcerated in a mental hospital for over five years. A reckoning comes for Matt when he’s approached by Roberta Spire, a graduate student determined to view the Eliot–Hale letters even though they’re legally sealed until 2020. The more time Matt spends with Roberta, the more similarities start to arise between her and Judith; and between his situation and Eliot’s when the latter also put his wife away in a mental hospital. The novel asks what we owe the dead: whether we conform to their wishes or make our own decisions.
The Summer without Men by Siri Hustvedt
Thirty years on, poet Mia Fredricksen’s husband Boris asks her for a pause in their marriage so he can explore his feelings for his young French lab assistant. First things first: Mia goes crazy and ends up in a mental hospital for a short time. But then she sucks it up and goes back to her Minnesota hometown to teach poetry writing to teen girls for a summer, getting sucked into a bullying drama. This is a capable if not groundbreaking story of the shifts that occur in a long marriage and the strange things we all do as we face down the possibility of death. There are also wry comments about the unappreciated talents of the female artist. However, compared to the other two novels I’ve read from Hustvedt, this seemed feeble. Still, a quick and enjoyable enough read.
The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
A delicious debut novel intellectual enough to bypass labels like ‘women’s fiction’ and ‘mystery’. One thing that sets it apart is how successfully Parkhurst writes from the perspective of a male narrator, Paul Iverson, who’s been knocked for six by the sudden death of his wife Lexy, a mask designer. While he was at the university where he teaches linguistics, she climbed to the top of the apple tree in their backyard and – what? fell? or jumped? The only ‘witness’ was their Rhodesian Ridgeback, Lorelei; in his grief Paul uses his sabbatical to research efforts to teach dogs to communicate, hoping one day Lorelei might tell all. Woven through are scenes from Paul and Lexy’s courtship and marriage; though Lexy occasionally struggled with her mental health, their dialogue is fun and zippy, like you might hear on The Gilmore Girls.
The Archivist by Martha Cooley & The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
A classic memoir that conjures up all the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of Africa on the cusp of a colonial to postcolonial transition. Fuller’s family were struggling tobacco and cattle farmers in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Malawi and Zambia. She had absorbed the notion that white people were there to benevolently shepherd the natives, but came to question it when she met Africans for herself. While giving a sense of the continent’s political shifts, she mostly focuses on her own family: the four-person circus that was Bobo (that’s her), Van (older sister Vanessa), Dad, and Mum (an occasionally hospitalized manic-depressive alcoholic who lost three children) – not to mention an ever-changing menagerie of horses, dogs and other pets. This really takes you away to another place and time, as the best memoirs do, and the plentiful black-and-white photos are a great addition.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
If you loved Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, pick this up immediately. It’s a similar story of best friends: one who dies and one who survives. Caldwell’s best friend was Caroline Knapp (author of Drinking: A Love Story, among other nonfiction), whom she met via puppy ownership in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were both single and childless, full-time authors with a history of alcoholism. Besides long walks with their dogs, they loved swimming and rowing together. In 2002 Caroline was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, inoperable and already metastasized. Despite all their proactive optimism, she was dead a matter of weeks later. In this moving and accessible short memoir, Caldwell drifts through her past, their friendship, Caroline’s illness, and the years of grief that followed the loss of Caroline and then her beloved Samoyed, Clementine, sharing what she learned about bereavement.
The Dogs of Babel, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight & Let’s Take the Long Way Home
Do you ever find coincidental thematic connections in your reading?
Dr. James Darke, the narrator of rare-book dealer Rick Gekoski’s debut novel, is of the same lineage as titular antiheroes like Hendrik Groen and Fredrik Backman’s Ove, or J. Mendelssohn, protagonist of the title novella in Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking: an aging widower and curmudgeon with an unforgettable voice.
As Darke begins, this retired English teacher is literally sealing himself off from the world. He hires a handyman to take out the door’s built-in letterbox, change the locks and install a high-tech peephole; he has all his mail redirected to an old colleague, George; he changes his e-mail address; and he compiles a thorough list of service providers who will come to him – everything from grocery deliveries to a doctor. Now, with any luck, he won’t need to set foot outside his London home while he writes this “coming-of-old-age book.”
For eight months Darke stays in self-imposed exile, his solitude broken only by visits from Bronya, a Bulgarian cleaner who engages him in discussions of his beloved Dickens. Although he’s only sixty-something, Darke sounds like a much older man, complaining of constipation and vision problems and launching a vendetta against the annoying neighbor dog. Ignoring the pile of adamant letters George guiltily delivers on behalf of Darke’s daughter, Lucy, he keeps up his very particular habits and rituals (I loved the steps of making coffee with an espresso-maker) and gives himself over to memories of life with Suzy.
The novel is tripartite: In Part I we meet Darke and get accustomed to his angry, hypercritical voice. In Part II we descend into a no-holds-barred account of his wife Suzy’s death from lung cancer. She’s another wonderful character: pessimistic, ungraceful and utterly foul-mouthed. Here Darke unleashes the full extent of his bitterness. He mocks the approach, advocated by Joan Didion (“that poor Joan D’Idiot,” he calls her!), of turning to sages of the past for comfort, instead insisting that literature – including W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and all the rest – was of no use to him in the face of his wife’s impending death:
We don’t have God, so we have literature, with its associated proverbs and allegories, its received wisdom. We quote and genuflect and defer and pay homage, as if in a holy sanctuary. But just as God failed us, so too will reading. We will turn against it as certainly, and rightly, as we did against Him. Nobody, and nothing, can explain life for us.
Luckily, Part III is something of a reprieve, as Darke starts to come out of his temporary retreat and resume life. He has a rental car delivered and sets out for Oxford, where he revisits his and Suzy’s old university haunts and hesitantly reopens a connection with Lucy and her young son, Rudy.
Sebastian Barry astutely notes the novel’s debt to Dante, but the component parts of the Divine Comedy are reordered, with the purgatory of the house-bound months broken by the hellish narrative of Suzy’s dying, which is then lifted by Darke’s return to life.
Each section has a different tone and is enjoyable in its own way, but for me there was no getting around the fact that Part I is the most entertaining. I was surprised to read in the Acknowledgments that Gekoski toned down this first dose of Darke considerably, on the advice of his wife and his literary agent; I think he could have hammed him up a fair bit more. Also, Lucy didn’t ring true for me as a character, which detracted from what’s meant to be an alternately volatile and poignant relationship; I preferred Darke’s scenes with Bronya.
In any case, the novel makes great metaphorical use of light and darkness. Not so subtle, maybe, but it works:
witnessing a protracted and horrible death infects the soul, the images implant themselves, root and flourish, you can never look at yourself or others in the innocent light – you are tarnished, uncleanably darkened.
And of course, look to literature and you find nothing but “shitslingers – Kahlil Gibran, Mr Tolstoy, the dreaded Eliot – all of them. Just wandering in the dark with flashlights.”
With lots of memorable scenes and turns of phrase, Darke is a rewarding glance at loss, literature and the sometimes futile search for salvation. It’s inspiring to see Gekoski, an American-born academic and literary critic (he’s been dubbed the Bill Bryson of the book world), turn his hand to fiction at age 71. I knew of him through his nonfiction, including Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoir, which I read in 2010, and have also enjoyed a couple of his articles that nicely presage this novel, on the subjects of reading through grief and turning against print books. I hope you’ll give his work a try.
Darke was published in the UK on February 2nd. With thanks to Becca Nice and Jamie Norman of Canongate for the free copy for review.
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!)