January and February 2017, 1

For the first year since records began, I’m well ahead with one of my reading resolutions, having read 20 books so far in 2017. Here’s the first of two posts summarising my thoughts.

27213208The difficult second novel?

I failed to fall under the spell of Jessie Burton’s super-selling debut The Miniaturist, feeling that it was an awkward series of gestures towards a more magical, interesting take on a familiar historical setting, ultimately leaving the reader unsatisfied. Funnily enough, reading Burton’s second novel, The Musehas made me understand better why so many readers were captivated by The Miniaturist. Burton is an excellent storyteller, and her prose is totally absorbing. The Muse also picks up a pretty familiar historical novel plot; it switches between London in 1967 and Spain in 1936, linking the two time periods with a mysterious painting. The 1936 sections, while well-told, and vivid in their descriptions of rural Andalusia, feel plodding, and none of the cast really come to life. However, Odelle Bastien, our first-person narrator in 1967, who has been living in London for five years but grew up in Trinidad, is genuinely captivating, and lifts the entire novel. Burton’s musings on being a female artist are obviously drawn from her own recent experience, and are refreshingly different from the usual take on creation. Odelle’s two versions of English – the RP she learnt at school and uses in public, and the vernacular she slips into with her Trinidadian friend Cynthia – also enrich her characterisation. It’s a shame, actually, that Burton didn’t trust Odelle’s voice more, because the novel ends with an odd Afterword that spells out not only the twists and turns of the plot, but the psychological lessons that Odelle has learnt (‘As we looked at the painting… in its uniqueness, I read multiple stories. Through its technical brushstrokes, I experienced metaphysical sensations.’). I often feel that the idea that a writer should ‘tell, not show’ is too rigid, and the opening pages of The Muse are a fantastic example of good telling, but this conclusion made me feel that Burton was trying to tie up this otherwise thought-provoking novel too tidily.

9781447286394the-last-act-of-loveBrain surgeons and patients

Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir The Last Act of Loveabout the illness and death of her brother, Matty, after a head injury, deserves all the attention it’s been getting; it’s genuinely heartbreaking. I read it at the beginning of January and there’s a passage in the Afterword that has haunted me ever since. Rentzenbrink deals so beautifully both with the genuine pain of what-ifs and the way we have to try and square with them. Here it is in full.

I was talking at an event in Bristol about how, possibly because I read too many novels, I often feel I’m stuck in the wrong narrative… I quite often feel that not only am I a character in a book, but also that there’s a parallel universe out there – in life or on a shelf – where an undamaged version of me is living a joyous life.

Someone in that Bristol audience asked if I ever considered whether life could have been worse, that perhaps I am in some way a stronger person because of Matty’s accident.

“Oh,” I said. “You see, in the other universe – the one that was taken away from me – my brother is a brain surgeon rather than being operated on by one; I’ve already written lots of books; our children are friends…”

I couldn’t carry on. The thought of the little cousins my son might have had was too painful. Suddenly I was desolate… On the train home… I realised that most of what I have to do now is about committing to the storyline I’m in, rather than continuing to pine for the lost narrative.

Rentzenbrink’s wish that ‘my brother is a brain surgeon rather than being operated on by one’ reflects Paul Kalanithi’s thoughts in his equally moving posthumous memoir, When Breath Becomes Air. Having spent his life in brain surgery, he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in his mid-thirties, and found himself having to negotiate this very transition from doctor to patient. Kalanithi’s stunning conclusion to his book has already been widely shared on social media, but if you haven’t read it, you really must.

After so much incredible writing about illness, I found that neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s follow-up to his excellent Do No Harm, Admissions (out May 2017), fell a little flat. Marsh is a perfectly competent writer, and I zipped through Admissions, but as he strays away from brain surgery and into more general musings on ageing, I found his reflections less thought-provoking than the emotion channelled into Rentzenbrink’s and Kalanithi’s memoirs. Nevertheless, he’s good on privatised medicine, providing an arresting image of a group of homeless people clustered outside the huge Texas Medical Center with its skyline-high series of blazing glass windows.

4627425830The Wellcome Book Prize longlist

This is one of my favourite book prizes, partly because, as the above indicates, I’m fascinated by medical themes, and partly because it mixes non-fiction and fiction (I love the fact that the new Jhalak Prize is doing the same). Kalanithi is on the longlist, and I’ve also read two of the other candidates. Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent seems to have received near-universal praise. For me, it was a novel that I gradually sunk into, rather than being won over from the start. Our heroine, Cora, is recently widowed, and seeking to recover her life after the blackness of her marriage. Unconventional to the core, she takes her maid, Martha, with her to the Essex coast after she hears reports of a mysterious serpent, which she hopes might be a relic of an older geological age. Luke, an experimental young doctor, secretly pines after Cora, but after she meets the local vicar, William Ransome, she is swept up in emotions of her own. My major problem with The Essex Serpent was Cora herself; I have simply read too many books about rebellious Victorian women, and I am always more interested in how characters in historical novels negotiate and respond to convention, rather than simply abandoning it. Martha’s working-class socialism felt a rather fresher way to explore resistance, and I found myself wanting to hear more about her and about Luke, rather than the rehash of evolutionary debates playing out between William and Cora. However, The Essex Serpent is seductive; Perry’s writing is beautifully captivating. By the final third, I was gripped.

Finally, Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone was always going to be a hit for me; I’ve read all of her novels, as well as her non-fiction Names for the Sea and The Frozen Ship. It focuses on Adam, a part-time history lecturer and full-time dad, after his daughter Miriam collapses mysteriously at school. As Adam’s wife, Emma, is a GP, it picks up on the theme of suddenly becoming a patient/patient’s relative when you are used to possessing the authority of medical expertise, but this being Moss, it thinks about so many other interesting subjects, including childhood, parenting, architecture and war. Moss’s work fascinates me because it always feels so flawed, working despite the often quite large problems I have with her plots or characters; however, The Tidal Zone is an exception. I think it’s wonderful just the way it is.

Unravelling

615to7q8gil-_sy346_‘The best maps are not published, are not accurate or even sensible, but are the maps we make ourselves about our cities… Here’s the corner I realised I was in love, there I was happy, here I lost my bike, and over there, I caught the scent of an ex-lover, then had to sit down and cry.’

Alys Fowler’s beautiful Hidden Nature starts with a familiar kind of nature-writing goal: she plans to paddle all the canals of Birmingham in her bright red pack raft. Rather than seeking out wild spaces, like the Hebridean island she visits later in the narrative, she wants to see what she can find near to where she lives. Fowler is known for her work on gardening, a subject I know nothing about, and so I wondered if I would find her paragraphs on plants a little too complicated and technical. As it turns out, Fowler can effortlessly take a topic you had no idea that you were interested in, like feral pigeons, moss or water-lilies, and make it fascinating. Here she is on the migration of eels: ‘The glass eels are known to climb out of the water and will flatten themselves to look like a blade of grass to hide from herons, who pluck them out of the water for tea. Weirs and flood barriers pose a threat to glass eels… The Thames now has a number of eel passes, bristled brushes that allow the eels to climb out of the water and wriggle along to the next stage.

east_portal_brandwood_tunnel_birmingham_-_geograph-org-uk_-_1726040As Fowler traces out her routes in green on an old map of Birmingham, she happens upon canals that have been closed or abandoned, or which are rarely open to the public. Her journeys through the subterranean tunnels she can access are rather creepy. The Dudley Trust allows her access to the Dudley Tunnel, a two-mile long tunnel with no towpath where bargees would have had to push thirty tons of boat through by pressing their feet against the roof. ‘It felt utterly otherworldly,’ Fowler writes, ‘as if we were travelling along the Styx.’ The tunnel is full of ‘white… black, blue and sulphur yellow’ limestone deposits, and fragile straw stalactites. In a more accessible tunnel, the Brandwood Tunnel [above], ‘great stretches glowed with a muted Parma violet pearlescence… the violet hue began to turn green’. In her little boat, she can travel around the city in a way that was closed to her before, even venturing into places that might be dangerous for a lone woman at night, but where she is safe in the middle of the water.

But Hidden Nature is not simply another work of nature-writing. Interspersed with this wonderful work on the canal network are fragments of another story; how Fowler uprooted the life she knew when she realised that she was a lesbian. Although the catalyst for this upset was falling in love with another woman, Fowler is clear that this was only a catalyst; that her own hidden nature was always present, that she had always felt that there was a ‘rage’ inside her that wouldn’t be satisfied until she was honest with herself. She writes incredibly well about the guilt of leaving her chronically ill husband, the frustration with herself as she wonders why she hadn’t realised sooner, and the fear of claiming a new identity. ‘I felt too queer for my straight world and too straight for a queer one.’  Coming out later in life (Fowler is only 37, so I don’t feel her phrase late in life’ is really appropriate!) is rarely dealt with by fiction or non-fiction, which tends to focus on the experiences of teenagers or very young adults, despite the fact that this is a story that many women share.

In a world where we’re asked to make bold, assured statements about ourselves, admitting halfway through that I’d been on the wrong track was a mighty strange thing,’ writes Fowler, but she also makes it clear why she had to do this: ‘I don’t think coming out brings happiness. I know it can result in a lot of sadness. It isn’t a guarantee of anything other than perhaps not letting yourself down.’ But how much is that worth? As Fowler puts it, ‘What coming out brought me, though, was a peace I hadn’t known you could possess… It’s worth it all.’ Hidden Nature jumps between Fowler’s careful descriptions of nature and these intense, painful passages on her inner struggle, and for that reason, some readers might find it disjointed. However, this didn’t bother me at all; the structure seemed to mirror Fowler’s own thought processes, in that she could only dwell on what she had done for so long at a time, and also gave respite to the reader, allowing them to understand her unhappiness without being overwhelmed by it. At times, a particular paragraph will seem to bring her internal journey to a close, then the next time she returns to the subject, there is more to say. This seems to me to reflect perfectly how we navigate such big life changes. As Fowler puts it herself, after one afternoon of ‘howling’, she didn’t ‘expect more tumbling’, but: ‘I didn’t know that you often have to unravel completely before you can start to work your yarn back into something solid to carry on.’ Hidden Nature matches the prose of such nature-writing stars as Kathleen Jamie, but its true narrative is this process of unknitting.

I received a free proof copy of this book to review. It’s out on 6th April.

‘At midnight when the year turned’

41s7qebpn3l-_sx317_bo1204203200_Jon McGregor’s latest novel covers thirteen years in a northern village, beginning at the turn of the twenty-first century. The novel begins when a teenage girl – ‘Rebecca or Becky or Bex‘ – goes missing, and the locals, who join the search for her, feel the loss, even though they barely knew her. Thereafter, each chapter, always beginning with the phrase ‘At midnight when the year turned‘, covers a year in the life of the village, as the thirteen-year-olds who befriended Becky grow into young adults and leave for university, marriages break up, older residents die, and new villagers arrive.

McGregor is keen to fit human lives into the natural landscape, and so his prose places as much weight on animal or meteorological events than on human unhappiness or joy. This smoothes events seamlessly into the march of the writing, so often it is difficult to notice that something significant has happened. In chapter five, for example: ‘His mother’s front door was unlocked and they walked in together. His mother was lying on the kitchen floor… It took the two of them to pick her up and get her into a chair‘, then, in the same long paragraph: ‘A fog came in and lay heavy for a week and even at noon the only colour in the street was the buttery light spilling from house windows‘. Paragraphs tend to be huge, swallowing up whole pages, so McGregor can juxtapose events in this way. He also spares lots of space for the cycles of wild lives: ‘The woodpigeons built their nests in the trees by the river. The thin frame of sticks seemed barely enough to take the weight of one fat bird. But it was assumed they knew what they were doing.’

As these quotations (and his previous novels) suggest, McGregor’s prose is always clean and clear, and there are often touches of light humour. However, even trying to reconstruct what he’s aiming to achieve in Reservoir 13 in the most sympathetic way possible, I’m afraid that I wasn’t won over. Inevitably, I found myself making comparisons to his wonderful debut, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, and these comparisons seemed to illuminate why Reservoir 13 wasn’t working in the same way. If Nobody Speaks also takes a panoramic view of a large cast of characters, but by centring itself around one first-person account, as well as making space for us to get to know each of the cast individually, it achieves a wonderful sense of a living neighbourhood, where people are both separate and apart. In Reservoir 13, the characters are much flatter, and I found it very difficult to get much sense of them. To take a few examples, the ‘teenagers’ Sophie, James, Lynsey and Rohan probably get as much page-time if not more than any other group, yet by the end of the novel I found it impossible to say much about any of them, or how they were different from each other. Perhaps it is McGregor’s aim to try and make human life seem more like the lives of woodpigeons, or of pheasants – but in that case, it wasn’t a device that made me warm to this novel.

Finally, I don’t think that Reservoir 13 showcases the best of McGregor’s writing. If Nobody Speaks, Even the Dogs, and a number of his short stories have demonstrated his ability to create character and to interrogate a landscape. Despite the pages and pages of description scattered throughout Reservoir 13, I rarely encountered a really vivid line or phrase. The writing is precise and accurate, but not very imaginative, as this description of August in the village demonstrates: ‘August was hot and slow. The seed-heads of cow parsley and thistle blackened in the field margins, collapsing in the early dew. The river was clear and slow and the sun struck it hard. There were brown trout teeming thickly through the water.’ I read this alongside Sarah Perry’s wildly creative The Essex Serpent, and I’m afraid it suffered for it.

And in all these words, Reservoir 13 still doesn’t have very much to say about the loss of a child, or the psychological impact of a person gone missing for a long time. Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex lingers in the novel but has little impact upon it. Readers hoping for a missing-person plot, or even an exploration of its aftermath, will, like other readers, be disappointed.

I received a free proof copy of this novel for review. It’s out in the UK on 6th April.