Now we come to the top 10 books in my list of memorable reading moments. I wanted to say a bit more with these, so I’ve split the ten in half. The top 5 will be up next Sunday, but for now, please enjoy numbers 10 through to 6. These are all books I have never forgotten, and doubt I ever will.Continue reading
When I love a book, I love it strongly: my favourite books have all, in their own ways, made the experience of living that bit more intense. One thing I’ve been trying to do through the blog this year is to come up with a way of encapsulating just what it is in books that makes me respond that way. This hasn’t been an easy task, because it needs to encompass some ostensibly very different types of books: I started off as a reader of fantasy and science fiction, but increasingly find myself drifting away from them; most of my favourites these days come from the ‘General Fiction’ shelves, yet I still tend to find straightforward realism lacking. I perceive a continuum across the books I love, and I’ve long had an idea in the back of my mind as to what unites them; but any description I tried – ‘postmodern’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘speculative fiction’ – would always seem to leave out something important.
The other day, however, the phrase ‘more than real’ popped into my head. What I mean by this is a sense that the conventional frame or form of a given book can’t contain the reality of what’s being written, so it has to push or twist. This feels right to me in terms of describing my favourite books. It covers some obviously fantastical material: Christopher Priest’s equivocal realities; Helen Oyeyemi’s collisions of story; Adam Roberts’s laboratories for testing sf. It takes in writers who take a non-realist approach to ‘the real world’: Eleanor Catton’s living sculptures; Jon McGregor’s unearthing of the strangeness in everyday experience; the mirage of coherence in Hawthorn & Child (‘more than real’ might be another way of saying ‘not real at all’). But there’s also room under that umbrella for writers like Ray Robinson and Evie Wyld, apparently realist writers who, to my mind, are shaping their work in subtler ways. One thing I’ve learned over time is that even the most mundane subject matter can be ‘more than real’.
It’s interesting to me that, though my taste in fiction hasn’t suddenly changed, just having that phrase ‘more than real’ has enabled me to think about these things in a different way. because I can see what I mean more clearly. I have a better idea of what I’m really looking for in fiction, so I should be better placed to find it and explore the experience. I’m excited to begin searching once again.
Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.
This year, Fiction Uncovered have been inviting various people to act as Guest Editor of the site, each posting four opinion pieces over the course of a month. So far, the Guest Editors have been my fellow book blogger Simon Savidge; my fellow Desmond Elliott shadow juror Kaite Welsh; and the journalist Anita Sethi. I’m excited to announce that this month, it’s my turn.
My brief for the four columns was fairly open, apart from that they should have a British focus (which I’ve mostly stuck to, with a tiny bit of fudging). I won’t reveal exactly what my pieces are about just yet, but I will say that I’ve aimed to cover my main reading interests in them. I’ve also created a page on the blog where I will linking to the columns as they appear.
The first column is up now. It’s called ‘Uncovering the Reader‘, and is about how we change as readers – how, sometimes, you don’t appreciate a book unless you read it at the right time. I use my own experience as an example, talking about some of the ‘milestone’ books where I think I changed as a reader.
If you’re interested, here are some links to where I’ve written more about the books mentioned in the column:
- The Prestige by Christopher Priest (and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, ed. John Clute and John Grant)
- Gold by Dan Rhodes [link via the Internet Archive]
- Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway
- Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
- Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro
- The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
It’s that time of year again, for looking back over what I’ve read and picking out the highlights. In previous years, I’ve limited my list to books published in the year in question, or split it equally between old and new titles. For 2012, I’m just doing a straightforward list of my favourite twelve reads of the year, regardless of when they were first published.
So, in alphabetical order of author surname, here they are:
Adrian Barnes, Nod
Telling of a battle of words and perceptions in contemporary Vancouver, this is a dystopian novel with the nervous energy of a new world still being negotiated, and a keen sense of its own precariousness. It never feels as though it’s about to settle.
M. John Harrison, Viriconium
Possibly the ultimate anti-escapist fantasy (and almost certainly the only major work of fantastic literature to be set partly in my home town of Huddersfield). In this collection of novels and stories, it’s fantasy that does the escaping, leaving readers and characters alike scrabbling at mirrors.
Katie Kitamura, The Longshot
The tale of a mixed martial artist heading for one last shot at glory. This short novel is as taut and focused as a winning fighter; it’s a brilliant unity of form and subject.
Jonathan Lee, Joy
A fine character study of a successful young lawyer who attempts to take her own life in front of her work colleagues, and of other key figures in her life. Lee has superb control of voice and tone, and the whole novel is a great pleasure to read.
Simon Lelic, The Child Who
Here, by coincidence, is another incisive character study focusing on a lawyer – this time the solicitor defending a twelve-year-old accused of murder whom he (and everyone else) knows is guilty. This unusual angle enables Lelic to give certain key scenes an unexpected texture, and to give a complex picture of the issues he raises.
Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo
A Senegalese folktale spliced with quantum physics. A morality tale whose only moral is that the reader should decide on one for herself. An examination of choice wrapped up in a glorious piece of storytelling that knows just when to turn on itself.
Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
A chorus of narrators tells the story (and stories) of a group of Japanese ‘picture brides’ who go to the US at the start of the last century, and their descendants. Otsuka’s short novel is a beautiful composition whose focus shifts elegantly back and forth between a wider and more individual view.
Keith Ridgway, Hawthorn & Child
An anti-detective novel in which any semblance of narrative or coherence dissipates as soon as you look. Its pieces are brought together into a whole by superb writing and Ridgway’s distinctive aesthetic.
Adam Roberts, Jack Glass
Read during my ongoing semi-hiatus, this novel brings together Golden Age detective fiction and science fiction, and interrogates them. It is very much alive to the limitations and shortcomings of those types of fiction, but still plays fair with the reader. (See Jonathan McCalmont’s masterful review for more on the book.)
Zadie Smith, NW
A collage of a novel that examines the connections between several characters’ lives in north-west London. Smith goes through several different styles and approaches in NW, but all combine successfully in this insightful read.
Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat
A deeply unsettling piece of work that turns the concept of the murder mystery on its head and – perhaps even more effectively – puts a dark twist on the notion of a character study. This is the sort of novel that makes me want to explore the rest of its author’s œuvre.
Lucy Wood, Diving Belles
My favourite debut of the year, this collection brings Cornish folklore into the present day. These stories are by turns amusing, mysterious and evocative; I can’t wait to see what Wood writes next.
This will be my last blog post of 2012. Wherever you are, I’d like to thank you for reading and wish you well for the coming year. See you again in 2013.
Reading this book carried with it a certain sense of entering another blogger’s territory. John Self and I don’t share much in the way of reading tastes (though he does appreciate Christopher Priest); but he is one of the best, most insightful book bloggers around. One of the authors he’s always enthusing about is Keith Ridgway; so, when the opportunity arose to read Ridgway’s latest novel, I went for it.
Hawthorn & Child is just the sort of book I had in mind when I talked last month about coming to appreciate different literary aesthetics; its incoherence would have left me cold a few years ago, but now I can see more clearly what the book is doing. The title characters are police detectives, and therefore characters whom we would generally expect to bring coherence to the world – but Ridgway creates a study of lives refusing to cohere.
Structurally, the novel is fragmented: a series of story-chapters linked primarily (sometimes solely) by the presence of Hawthorn and Child, who even then are sometimes only minor characters. The first chapter sets the tone: the detectives investigate the shooting of Daniel Field a young investment bank employee, though Hawthorn’s mind is clearly wandering, and he behaves oddly enough that one has cause to question whether he’s up to the job (when he and Child visit the victim’s home, Hawthorn even ends up climbing into Field’s bed). Hawthorn makes notes, but of seemingly random things (such as ‘pools of light/pools of shadow‘ [p.19], describing street lights shining on the ground), and his other attempts at ‘detection’ also come across as empty rituals. The victim says he saw a car when he got shot, but the search for it comes to nothing, and there’s a strong suggestion that the car exists only in recollections and interviews (‘Just a shape,’ one character remembers seeing. ‘The back of a car. You know. The idea of a car’ [p. 20]). Ultimately, anything on which the investigation may be able to hang evaporates when looked at more closely.
For the second chapter, we shift to the viewpoint of a gangster’s driver, and it comes as quite a shock to see Hawthorn appear competent and efficient to the outside world. It creates a nagging sense that we can’t really rely on anything in the novel; for example, perhaps Child (whom we only ever see externally) is putting up a front as much as Hawthorn – we’ll just never know.
Throughout Hawthorn & Child, possibilities and realities are glimpsed, then disappear. Attempts to impose some sort of shape on the world – such as one narrator’s paranoid political conspiracy theory, or a manuscript purporting to describe a wainscot society of wolves in the interstices of the city – come to nothing. Even a character like the gangster Mishazzo, who’s in the background of several chapters and whom we see more clearly, is still ultimately elusive. Ridgway tells all in dextrous prose that consists largely of grimy details and sentence-fragments, occasionally bursting into more flowing narratives which evoke different kinds of character.
Hawthorn & Child is a tale of mysteries – and lives – unsolved. Its final vision is of the two detectives breakfasting in Child’s house:
They ate in silence and the windows rattled as a bus went by, and in the time they shared there was no time. No time at all. [Hawthorn] could remember nothing of what had gone before, and he could think of no possible future. (p. 282)
No moment of triumph here, but the world petering out into stasis. It’s a fitting end to Ridgway’s novel – whilst also, of course, being no end at all.