Holiday reading in the South of France, May 2018

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I’ve just got back from the South of France, where a friend and I spent five days travelling through Toulouse, Albi, Cordes-sur-Ciel and Carcassonne – I travelled straight from another friend’s wedding in London last weekend. Over the past week or so, I’ve had a run of reads that didn’t quite satisfy me for one reason or another, bookended by one very good novel, and one that I thought was outstanding.

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First, I finished off Pachinko, Min Jin Lee’s saga of a Korean family in Japan, which spans most of the twentieth century. In many ways, it felt familiar – a multi-generational story with fairly broad-brush characterisation that focuses on engaging the reader’s emotion through a series of hardships and tragedies. However, Lee has the knack of writing irresistibly readable prose, and her light handling of the complicated history of an oppressed minority compared favourably to the more indigestible lumps in Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma. Unlike Craig, Lee also knows when to fast-forward and when to linger; Pachinko can hop years in a page or spend two chapters on a single day, but never feels too quick or too slow. The simple metaphor of pachinko – a kind of Japanese pinball – is both obvious and effective. The two upstanding Korean brothers at the centre of this story, Noa and Mozasu, both end up running pachinko businesses, despite their links with the criminal underworld, because of the difficulty of finding other kinds of work as Koreans in Japan. Mozasu explains how he keeps his pachinko parlour profitable: he fine-tunes the little rods in the machines at the end of every day, for shifting them only slightly to the left or right will alter the path of the ball and hence the fate of the player. In short, Lee explores how this holds true for the destinies of the human characters in her story as well.

 

Next, I finished Sugar Money, Jane Harris’s third novel, which is based on the true story of a group of slaves on a mission to smuggle back a group of fellow slaves from Grenada to Martinique in 1765. I liked Harris’s debut, The Observations, and loved her second, Gillespie and Ibut although Sugar Money has a number of the same virtues – most notably her facility for vivid voice – I couldn’t get on with it. Harris seems to have been so concerned with the real historical facts she’s following that she sacrifices depth for accuracy. Much of Sugar Money becomes simply this-happened-and-then-this-happened, despite the initially engaging narrative of its young narrator, Lucien. Leone Ross has an interesting take on it in the Guardianwhile I don’t agree with everything she says here (I think Harris was rightly concerned about lingering on black pain, hence her carefully limited but still hard-hitting descriptions of the horrors of slavery), it’s certainly a review worth reading.

Equally disappointing, though for very different reasons, was Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, his Pulitzer-prize winning novel about three generations of a Dominican family, set between Santo Domingo and New Jersey. Packed with slangy Spanish, Diaz’s prose is sparkily experimental, but I only really fell into the novel in the brief first-person sections that were free of footnotes, asides, or ironic sub-divisions. And while I’d been planning to read this for some time, it was unfortunate that I picked it up in the wake of reports of sexual harassment on the part of Diaz, which made me extra-alert to the misogyny evident in Diaz’s handling of his female characters, who all seem obsessed with their own bodies.

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I picked up Pages for You, Sylvia Brownrigg’s 2001 novel about a love affair between two women, after reading the coverage of its more recent follow-up, Pages for Her. This would have felt ground-breaking to me as a fourteen-year-old in 2001, but now feels frustratingly cliched. I found myself scribbling a list of irritated questions as I raced through that apply to far too many novels about women who are sexually attracted to each other:

  • Why are one or both of the women usually young/at university/lacking agency?
  • Why always presented as accidental desire rather than as part of an identity? ‘I did it because I want her’ rather than ‘I did it because of who I am’?
  • Why always heightened and erotic? Why not about ordinary life, taking out the bins, etc.?
  • Why always about realisation rather than familiarity [wrt sexual identity]?
  • Why do they have to be original and bohemian?
  • Why does it always have to end badly?
  • Why do they always end up going back to men? [This is not a complaint about women who are explicitly presented as bisexual in the course of the novel, but about women who seem to be lesbians and yet refuse to use the word or to exclusively pursue relationships with women.]

In the case of Pages for You, I also felt uncomfortable with the unquestioning depiction of a relationship between an university tutor and a student, something which hasn’t aged well.

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However, The Western Wind, Samantha Harvey’s fourth novel, was a fantastic way to finish my holiday reading, and appropriately atmospheric when surrounded by medieval architecture. Having read Dear ThiefI knew Harvey was an incredible prose writer, but here she demonstrates a breadth that goes beyond the relatively narrow confines of her previous novel (much as I loved it). The Western Wind, set in the small Somerset village of Oakham in 1491, is narrated by the local priest, John Reve. The novel opens with the confirmation of the death of one of the most prominent villagers, Thomas Newman: a man respected by his fellows as a wealthy benefactor, but who recently returned from a trip to Rome with new and strange ideas about religion. When the dean swoops in to investigate Newman’s death, Reve realises that to protect his flock he will have to find some answers of his own. Was Newman murdered? Did he fall in by accident, mirroring the fate of the last bridge that was supposed to connect Oakham to the outside world? Or – despite the stakes for his immortal soul – could he have committed suicide?

The Western Wind is especially impressive in its handling of time. The novel, like Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch, moves backwards; we start on the fourth day, when Newman’s abandoned shirt is discovered, and finish on the first day, when Newman is still alive. Harvey handles this incredibly well; the closer time frame means she has to be even cleverer than Waters to avoid unnecessary repetition and confusion, and she pulls it off with consistent grace, making brilliant use of seemingly throwaway details. The cold goose fat in Reve’s fireplace on the fourth day becomes a goose unhappily devoured on the third; milk trickling between cobbles on the third day becomes a milk-cart upset on the second. However, I think it would be a mistake to think of the book’s structure as linear in either direction. As the repeating chapter titles indicate, Harvey is exploring the different ways in which these late medieval villagers might have thought of time; it’s also circular, with each season leading to the next and the birth of Jesus leading to his death and then his birth. It’s only when the book comes full circle and we witness Reve’s last conversation with Newman that we understand what has happened. The two ends join together.

Harvey also makes adept use of the conceit of the confessional, newly introduced to Oakham at the time of Newman’s death after he brought back news of this novel practice from Rome (I’ve seen some quibbling about the accuracy of this from some readers, but it seems to me that Harvey isn’t thinking about a fixed, immovable confession-box but some form of structure in which to give confessions, rather than them being heard in public as was the previous practice.) In this limited privacy, Reve learns more about his fellow villagers than was the case before. And we too get a glimpse into a medieval village that seems entirely complete, with its own rituals and connections. Whatever the precise dating of confessionals, Harvey certainly does as well with the medieval mindset as could be expected in a modern novel, especially when exploring Reve’s faith and his fretting over Newman’s ultimate fate. For example, Reve frets over whether Newman saw St Christopher on the wall of the church before he died, as this was believed to provide some protection for the soul for those who died unshriven. The Western Wind requires some thought and time from the reader, but it definitely repays that effort.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

I’m now making a start on my 20 Books of Summer, beginning with Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies. Inspired by The Western Wind, I’m also re-reading another slow and patient novel about a man with pastoral responsibility for his flock, albeit almost four hundred years later; Peter Hobbs’s The Short Day Dyingnarrated by a Methodist lay-preacher. And I’ll have to find time to read my book group’s choice for June, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks!

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14 thoughts on “Holiday reading in the South of France, May 2018

  1. I felt similarly about Sugar Money: a very engaging voice, but far too long and saggy in the middle. Interesting to hear your thoughts about Oscar Wao, which I’ve had out from the library for months now and have been trying to force myself to pick up. I think it will have to wait another few months until the 20 Books of Summer challenge is out of the way. I’d been unconvinced about The Western Wind, but now that I’ve read your review I will definitely give it a try!

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    • I think my different reactions to Oscar Wao and The Western Wind pretty much encapsulate how much happier I am with structural experimentation than experimental prose – so how much you like them will probably depend on what you prefer, if either!

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  2. I’m really glad you liked The Western Wind – I found it absolutely required concentration and effort, but agree that it pays off. (Although I’m still not entirely clear on what happened to Newman. Perhaps I lost focus at a critical juncture.)

    I liked Oscar Wao much more than you did, but then I was about fifteen when I first read it and found the digressions and the nerdiness really fun. The female body descriptions won’t have aged well, though.

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    • I definitely think I’d have enjoyed Oscar Wao more when I was younger. (The nerdiness quotient was much less than I was expecting, though! Lots of Lord of the Rings references but not much more? Maybe I’m not nerdy enough…)

      I thought the reason for Newman’s fate was quite clear? But read it on a Kindle and might have missed something. I thought the more significant twist was what Reve does at the end/beginning of the book? I actually might buy a paper copy of this so I can study it and find the answers.

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      • Perhaps I’ve just forgotten – I’ve a vague memory of how the plot pans out but no more. Have a strong suspicion this is due to reading it on my phone in weird e-galley format. Details fall out of my head a lot faster if I’ve read them on a screen.

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