Since I was last here, I’ve read a lot of books but haven’t said very much about them. It occurred to me that they represented most categories on the reading spectrum, so I thought I’d pick out a few highlights.
Some really good fiction:
Euphoria, Lily King – someone somewhere, and I have to apologise for not being able to credit where credit is due, said about this that it’s one of those really good pieces of writing that makes you want to go away and read more about the non-fictional inspiration for the fictional story. Having finished it, I wholeheartedly agree. Euphoria is based (loosely, I understand) on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead and given that truth is often too unbelievable for fiction, I’d love to know where the boundaries lie between Mead and her fictional counterpart, Nell Stone. The story centres on the events of a few months in the jungle of New Guinea, where Stone, her husband Fen and a third party, and fellow anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, become entangled in a complex web of professional and personal interactions, interwoven skillfully with the preoccupations of the indigenous people they are at once a part of and set apart from. There are actually boundaries all over this novel and King poses some lovely meaty questions about the lines between scholarly observation and true understanding, as well as the idea of how we change something by being a part of it, thereby potentially destroying forever our hopes of witnessing something as it truly is. I loved that King managed to be smart about both the intellectual ambitions of her characters and their emotional cores.
The Still Point, Amy Sackville – it’s interesting when you write about books together in an arbitrary way how often you discover links between them that you might not otherwise have noticed. As I set out to describe Sackville’s debut, it strikes me that it too explores the reconciliation of human ambition with human emotion, as well as the potential pitfalls of human nature. The setting couldn’t be more different though. Her beautifully crafted narrative jumps from a rambling Victorian house on a searing summer’s day to the splintering cruelty of an Arctic winter a hundred years earlier. It’s a story about Edward Mackley, charismatic polar explorer, Emily, the young wife he left behind, and his great-great-niece Julia, who is now living in his house with her husband Simon, while attempting to make sense of Mackley’s legacy: a legacy that includes not just dusty boxes of possessions to be itemised, but the meaning of his failed attempt at the pole, and the idealised love that kept Emily waiting until waiting turned into a life to be endured. I loved this book, for its evocative settings and descriptions as much as for the way it muses on the nature of relationships. But I think what most stood out was its narrative voice, which jumps out at you in the opening lines. Rather than listening to a distant omniscient voice, it’s a little like sitting in one of those observational rooms with a two-way mirror, watching over the people in the novel, while the narrator sits next to you, arm around your shoulder, lots of friendly ‘we’s’ to draw you in. I wasn’t sure whether Sackville would manage to sustain it for the whole book but somehow it becomes like listening to a friend and the first book I picked up afterwards with a more conventional authorial voice seemed a little strange and distant in comparison.
And before I wrap up, I thought I’d give a quick shout-out to Martine Bailey’s An Appetite for Violets, a historical novel with a pleasing foodie slant. I probably won’t still be thinking about this one in a few months – as I more than likely will in the case of The Still Point – but this 18th-century tale of aspiring cook Biddy and her journey across Europe in the wake of a mistress who, from the off, is clearly embroiled in a ‘plot’ of some sort, is an absorbing read. I really want to use the word ‘rollicking’…you know what, I just will. It’s a touch rollicking. While some bits are very much on the darker side, there’s a sense of adventure about the whole thing that keeps you turning the pages.
Hmmm. On the subject of unexpected links, it’s just occurred to me that all three of these books present their stories from the point of view of more than one of their main protagonists. Both Bailey and King use letters and diaries to present viewpoints. And both King and Sackville jump around in time (although only a little in the case of King). I do like unexpected links. Anyway, tomorrow night – non-fiction!