John Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things was rejected by publishers 44 times before being picked up by Duckworth Press and going on to win the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. I can see why Spurling’s novel garnered so many rejections – which is not at all to say that it is utterly bad. More truthfully, this tale of the real-life artist Wang Meng, a renowned painter in fourteenth-century China who was considered to be one of the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty, wasn’t my sort of thing. I only made it through a third of the novel, I’m afraid, and while the plot synopses online seem to promise a lot of excitement and intrigue, there was little evidence of this in the meandering tale of Wang’s travels as a minor bureaucrat, meeting fellow artists who also struggle to capture the ‘ten thousand things’ that nature has to offer. This kind of travelogue, with a series of seemingly unconnected incidents linked only by a deliberately simplistic character, is one of my least favourite fictional forms, I have to confess (I disliked Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant for similar reasons). The novel has been praised for recalling the style of the Chinese scroll paintings that Wang admires, but for me, these limitations were part of the problem; it distanced the reader from the reality of fourteenth-century China, falling into stereotypes while failing to engage with the true complexity of the society it describes. I can’t comment on the authenticity of the story, but this made me a little uncomfortable. As for the Walter Scott Prize, in my view there were many worthier contenders – especially Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests, Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, and yes, even Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (which suffers from many of the same issues!)
In contrast, I’ve recently been raving about Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief, longlisted for the Baileys Prize (but, foolishly, not shortlisted). A women writes a long letter to her estranged friend, Nina, also nicknamed Butterfly, musing on their shared past, her singular future, and the losses incurred by time. In a striking passage which I’ve already shared, she reverses the usual logic; it is not our future that is full of possibility, but our past. Harvey recognises an important psychological truth; despite the fact that the events of our past are technically fixed, we still assign great freedom to our past selves and the much ‘better’ people that they were. Marooned in an eternal present, it is easier to believe that the myriad worlds of our past are still open to us than to rely on our seemingly limited power to alter the future. Dear Thief, however, is absolutely not a novel full of abstract musings. Harvey’s brilliance lies in the way that she marries her beautiful writing with the raw material of her characterisation. Both the narrator and Nina felt absolutely real to me, and although Nina’s portrayal verges on the irritating, or on the unbelievable, at times, she is saved by the obvious veil of fiction that surrounds the composition of the narrator’s letter. We know that she is making stuff up, or making her memories more glamorous, and the larger-than-life figure that Nina cuts on the page is obviously a distorted invention of her former friend.
Finally, I’ve been enjoying Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which, like Dear Thief, has been such good company I’ve been eking it out as slowly as possible. This guide to writing fiction has an inevitably limited audience; you’ll either understand precisely where Lamott is coming from, or you’ll think she’s lost the plot. The grace of her prose is such, however, that I’ll definitely be checking out some of her novels. For a taste, here’s the explanation for the title: ‘Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”‘
So, three books that demand to be read slowly, but in my opinion, only two that reward the slow reader. What has everyone else been reading recently?