I’ve grouped these three prize-winning novels from the late 1980s and 1990s together because they all left me scratching my head, wondering whether they were jumbles of random elements and events or if there was indeed a satisfyingly coherent story. While there were aspects I admired, there were also moments when I thought it indulgent of the authors to pursue poetic prose or plot tangents and not consider the reader’s limited patience. I had to think for ages about how to rate these, but eventually arrived at the same rating for each, reflecting my enjoyment but also my hesitation.
The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987)
[Whitbread Prize for Fiction (now Costa Novel Award)]
This is the second-earliest of the 13 McEwan books I’ve read. It’s something of a strange muddle (from the protagonist’s hobbies of Arabic and tennis lessons plus drinking onwards), yet everything clusters around the title’s announced themes of children and time.
Stephen Lewis’s three-year-old daughter, Kate, was abducted from a supermarket three years ago. The incident is recalled early in the book, as if the remainder will be about solving the mystery of what happened to Kate. But such is not the case. Her disappearance is an unalterable fact of Stephen’s life that drove him and his wife apart, but apart from one excruciating scene later in the book when he mistakes a little girl on a school playground for Kate and interrogates the principal about her, the missing child is just subtext.
Instead, the tokens of childhood are political and fanciful. Stephen, a writer whose novels accidentally got categorized as children’s books, is on a government committee producing a report on childcare. On a visit to Suffolk, he learns that his publisher, Charles Darke, who later became an MP, has reverted to childhood, wearing shorts and serving lemonade up in a treehouse.
Meanwhile, Charles’s wife, Thelma, is a physicist researching the nature of time. For Charles, returning to childhood is a way of recapturing timelessness. There’s also an odd shared memory that Stephen and his mother had four decades apart. Even tiny details add on to the time theme, like Stephen’s parents meeting when his father returned a defective clock to the department store where his mother worked.
This is McEwan, so you know there’s going to be a contrived but very funny scene. Here that comes in Chapter 5, when Stephen is behind a flipped lorry and goes to help the driver. He agrees to take down a series of (increasingly outrageous) dictated letters but gets exasperated at about the same time it becomes clear the young man is not approaching death. Instead, he helps him out of the cab and they celebrate by drinking two bottles of champagne. This doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the rest of the book, but is the scene I’m most likely to remember.
Other noteworthy elements: Stephen has a couple of run-ins with the Prime Minister; though this is clearly Margaret Thatcher, McEwan takes pains to neither name nor so much as reveal the gender of the PM (in fear of libel claims?). Homeless people and gypsies show up multiple times, making Stephen uncomfortable but also drawing his attention. I assumed this was a political point about Thatcher’s influence, with the homeless serving as additional stand-ins for children in a paternalistic society, representing vulnerability and (misplaced) trust.
This is a book club read for our third monthly Zoom meeting, coming up in the first week of June. While it’s odd and not entirely successful, I think it should give us a lot to talk about: the good and bad aspects of reverting to childhood, whether it matters if Kate ever comes back, the caginess about Thatcher, and so on.
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)
[Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize for Fiction)]
“One can look deeply for meaning or one can invent it.”
Poland, Greece, Canada; geology, poetry, meteorology. At times it felt like Michaels had picked her settings and topics out of a hat and flung them together. Especially in the early pages, the dreamy prose is so close to poetry that I had trouble figuring out what was actually happening, but gradually I was drawn into the story of Jakob Beer, a Jewish boy rescued like a bog body or golem from the ruins of his Polish village. Raised on a Greek island and in Toronto by his adoptive father, a geologist named Athos who’s determined to combat the Nazi falsifying of archaeological history, Jakob becomes a poet and translator. Though he marries twice, he remains a lonely genius haunted by the loss of his whole family – especially his sister, Bella, who played the piano. Survivor’s guilt never goes away. “To survive was to escape fate. But if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into?”
The final third of the novel, set after Jakob’s death, shifts into another first-person voice. Ben is a student of literature and meteorological history. His parents are concentration camp survivors, so he relates to the themes of loss and longing in Jakob’s poetry. Taking a break from his troubled marriage, Ben offers to go back to the Greek island where Jakob last lived to retrieve his notebooks – which presumably contain all that’s come before. Ben often addresses Jakob directly in the second person, as if to reassure him that he has been remembered. Ultimately, I wasn’t sure what this section was meant to add, but Ben’s narration is more fluent than Jakob’s, so it was at least pleasant to read.
Although this is undoubtedly overwritten in places, too often resorting to weighty one-liners, I found myself entranced by the stylish writing most of the time. I particularly enjoyed the puns, palindromes and rhyming slang that Jakob shares with Athos while learning English, and with his first wife. If I could change one thing, I would boost the presence of the female characters. I was reminded of other books I’ve read about the interpretation of history and memory, Everything Is Illuminated and Moon Tiger, as well as of other works by Canadian women, A Student of Weather and Fall on Your Knees. This won’t be a book for everyone, but if you’ve enjoyed one or more of my readalikes, you might consider giving it a try.
Sacred Country by Rose Tremain (1992)
[James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Prix Fémina Etranger]
In 1952, on the day a two-minute silence is held for the dead king, six-year-old Mary Ward has a distinct thought: “I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.” Growing up on a Suffolk farm with a violent father and a mentally ill mother, Mary asks to be called Martin and binds her breasts with bandages. Kicked out at age 15, she lives with her retired teacher and then starts to pursue a life on her own terms in London. While working for a literary magazine and dating women, she consults a doctor and psychologist to explore the hormonal and surgical options for becoming the man she believes she’s always been.
Meanwhile, a hometown acquaintance with whom she once shared a dentist’s waiting room, Walter Loomis, gives up his family’s butcher shop to pursue his passion for country music. Both he and Mary/Martin are sexually fluid and, dissatisfied with the existence they were born into, resolve to search for something more. The outsiders’ journeys take them to Tennessee, of all places. But when Martin joins Walter there, it’s an anticlimax. You’d expect their new lives to dovetail together, but instead they remain separate strivers.
At a bare summary, this seems like a simple plot, but Tremain complicates it with many minor characters and subplots. The story line stretches to 1980: nearly three decades’ worth of historical and social upheaval. The third person narration shifts perspective often to show a whole breadth of experience in this small English village, while occasional first-person passages from Mary and from her mother, Estelle, who’s in and out of a mental hospital, lend intimacy. Otherwise, the minor characters feel flat, more like symbols or mouthpieces.
To give a flavor of the book’s many random elements, here’s a decoding of the extraordinary cover on the copy I picked up from the free bookshop:
Crimson background and oval shape = female anatomy, menstruation
Central figure in a medieval painting style, with royal blue cloth = Mary
Masculine muscle structure plus yin-yang at top = blended sexuality
Airplane = Estelle’s mother died in a glider accident
Confederate flag = Tennessee
Cards = fate/chance, conjuring tricks Mary learns at school, fortune teller Walter visits
Cleaver = the Loomis butcher shop
Cricket bat = Edward Harker’s woodcraft; he employs and then marries Estelle’s friend Irene
Guitar = Walter’s country music ambitions
Oyster shell with pearl = Irene’s daughter Pearl, whom young Mary loves so much she takes her (then a baby) in to school for show-and-tell
Cutout torso = the search for the title land (both inward and outer), a place beyond duality
Tremain must have been ahead of the times in writing a trans character. She acknowledged that the premise was inspired by Conundrum by Jan Morris (who, born James, knew he was really a girl from the age of five). I recall that Sacred Country turned up often in the footnotes of Tremain’s recent memoir, Rosie, so I expect it has little autobiographical resonances and is a work she’s particularly proud of. I read this in advance of writing a profile of Tremain for Bookmarks magazine. It feels very different from her other books I’ve read; while it’s not as straightforwardly readable as The Road Home, I’d call it my second favorite from her. The writing is somewhat reminiscent of Kate Atkinson, early A.S. Byatt and Shena Mackay, and it’s a memorable exploration of hidden identity and the parts of life that remain a mystery.
A diagnosis of motor neurone disease; a father’s dispiriting experience of censorship trials. An illustrated history of fonts; an essay on grief; a cold weather-appropriate record of geese-watching. I gear up for Nonfiction November by catching up on five nonfiction review books I’ve been sent over the last couple of months. You can’t say that I don’t read a variety, even within nonfiction! See if one or more of these tempts you.
A Short History of Falling: Everything I Observed about Love whilst Dying by Joe Hammond
Hammond, a playwright, takes a wry, clear-eyed approach to his diagnosis of motor neurone disease (ALS) and the knowledge that his physical capacities will only deteriorate from here on out. “New items arrive almost daily and I am unexpectedly becoming the curator of the Museum of my own Decline.” Yet he also freezes funnier moments, like blowing his nose on a slice of bread because he couldn’t reach a tissue box, or spending “six hours of my fiftieth birthday sat on this hospice toilet, with a bottle of good Scotch wedged between my knees.”
Still, Hammond regrets that he’s become like a third small child for his wife Gill to look after, joining his sons Tom and Jimmy, and that he won’t see his boys grow up. (This book arose from an article he wrote for the Guardian in 2018 about making 33 birthday cards for his sons to open in the years after his death.) Although I wasn’t as interested in the details of Hammond’s earlier life, or his relationship with his narcissistic father, I appreciated his quiet acceptance of disability, help and impending death.
“I’ve waited all my life to know this peace. To know that I am nothing more than this body.”
“my place in all of this is becoming smaller, historic and just the right size of important.”
With thanks to 4th Estate for the free copy for review.
An Author on Trial: The Story of a Forgotten Writer by Luciano Iorio
The author’s father, Giuseppe Jorio, was a journalist and schoolteacher who wrote an infamous novel based on an affair he had in the 1930s. Using italicized passages from his father’s diary and letters to Tina, who was 19 when their affair started, Iorio reconstructs the sordid events and unexpected aftermath in fairly vivid detail. Tina fell pregnant and decided to abort the baby. Meanwhile, Giuseppe’s wife, Bruna, got the truth out of him and responded with more grace than might be expected. Giuseppe was devastated at the loss of his potential offspring, and realized he wanted to have a child with Bruna. He bid Tina farewell and the family moved to Rome, where the author was born in 1937.
Giuseppe’s novel inspired by the affair, Il Fuoco del Mondo (The Fire of the World) was rejected by all major publishers and accused of obscenity in a series of five trials that threatened his reputation and morale. It’s a less familiar echo of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, and a poignant portrait of a man who felt he never lived up to his potential because of bad luck and societal disapproval. I enjoyed learning a bit about Italian literature. However, inconsistent use of tenses and shaky colloquial English (preposition issues, etc.) suggest that a co-writer or translator was needed to bring this self-published work up to scratch.
With thanks to the publicist for the free copy to review as part of a blog tour.
ABC of Typography by David Rault
[Translated from the French by Edward Gauvin]
From cuneiform to Gutenberg to Comic Sans, this history of typography is delightful. Graphic designer David Rault wrote the whole thing, but each chapter has a different illustrator, so the resulting book is like a taster course in comics styles. As such, I would highly recommend it to those who are fairly new to graphic novels and want to see whose work appeals to them, as well as to anyone who enjoyed Simon Garfield’s book about fonts, Just My Type.
I found it fascinating to explore the technical characteristics (serif vs. sans serif, etc.) and aesthetic associations of various fonts. For instance, I didn’t realize that my mainstay – Times New Roman – is now seen as a staid choice: “Highly readable, but overexposed in the early days of the Internet, it took on a reputation for drabness that it hasn’t shed since the ’90s.” Nowadays, some newspapers and brands pay typeface creators to make a font for their exclusive use. Can you name the typeface that is used on German road signs, or in Barack Obama’s campaign materials? (You’ll be able to after you read this.)
With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.
Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley
What Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill” does for sickness, this does for bereavement. Specifically, Riley, whose son Jake died suddenly of a heart condition, examines how the experience of time changes during grief. “I’ll not be writing about death, but about an altered condition of life,” she opens. In short vignettes written from two weeks to three years after her son’s death, she reflects on how her thinking and feelings have morphed over time. She never rests with an easy answer when a mystery will do instead. “What if” questions and “as if” imaginings proliferate. Poetry – she has also written an exquisite book of poems, Say Something Back, responding to the loss of Jake – has a role to play in the acceptance of this new reality: “rhyme may do its minute work of holding time together.”
Max Porter provides a fulsome introduction to this expanded version of Riley’s essay, which first appeared in 2012. This small volume meant a lot more to him than it did to me; I preferred Riley’s poetic take on the same events. Still, this is sure to be a comfort for the bereaved.
“I’ll try to incorporate J’s best qualities of easy friendliness, warmth, and stoicism, and I shall carry him on in that way. Which is the only kind of resurrection of the dead that I know about.”
“I don’t experience him as in the least dead, but simply as ‘away’. Even if he’ll be away for my remaining lifetime. My best hope’s to have a hallucination of his presence when I’m dying myself.”
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
Wintering: A Season with Geese by Stephen Rutt
Rutt’s The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds, one of my favorite recent nature/travel books, came out in May. What have we done to deserve another publication from this talented young author just four months later?! I didn’t enjoy this as much as The Seafarers, yet it does a lot of the same things well: it provides stunning word portraits of individual bird species, explores the interaction between nature and one’s mental state, and gathers evidence of the cultural importance of birds through legends and classical writings.
Here the focus is on geese, which the author had mostly overlooked until the year he moved to southern Scotland. Suddenly they were impossible to ignore, and as he became accustomed to his new home these geese sightings were a way of marking the seasons’ turn. Ethical issues like hunting, foie gras and down production come into play, and, perhaps ironically, the author eats goose for Christmas dinner!
Rutt’s points of reference include Paul Gallico (beware plot spoilers!), Aldo Leopold, Mary Oliver and Peter Scott. The writing in this short book reminded me most of Horatio Clare (especially The Light in the Dark) and Jim Crumley (who’s written many short seasonal and single-species nature books) this time around.
A favorite passage (I sympathize with the feelings of nomadism and dislocation):
“I envy the geese their certainty, their habits of home. I am forever torn between multiple places that feel like home. Scotland where I live or Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk: the flatlands of golden evenings and reeds, mud and water and sand. The distant horizon and all the space in between I grew up with, which seems to lurk somewhere, subconsciously calling me back.”
[Neat aside: My husband and I both got quotes (about The Seafarers) on the press release for this book!]
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the free copy.