CategoryRobinson Ray

Reflections: 'more than real'

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.

My favourite books read in 2014

As I write this, I’ve read 158 books in 2014, which is probably a record for me, and certainly more than I intended. I’ve already talked on the blog about taking stock of my approach to reading; I have been thinking about that further, and you’ll see some changes fairly soon. But let’s wrap up this year first.

2014 was going to be the year when I read more translations, which I did; though I didn’t manage to stick to the elaborate plan I had. I may as well report back on the goals I set myself. The idea was that two-thirds of my reading would be ‘non Anglo-American’ (including Anglophone writing from outside the UK and US). I achieved 43% on that score, with 35% of my reading being in translation. I also aimed for gender parity in my reading this year, but didn’t quite get there: not counting anthologies, 41% of the books I read were by women.

Already, though, I can feel the limitations of this sort of number crunching. Don’t get me wrong: as a reader, it’s valuable to me to know what I read (and all too easy not to pay attention). But the essence of reading is individual responses to individual books.

On that note, here’s my list of favourites for the year. All books I’ve read for the first time this year are eligible, regardless of when they were first published. I traditionally limit myself to twelve, so naturally some very good books have been left off. I compile this mostly by instinct, so the countdown is just for fun – all these books are warmly recommended.

Matthewson12. Janina Matthewson, Of Things Gone Astray (2014)

A novel of fantastical losses: lost buildings, lost ideas, lost selves. Matthewson achieves a careful balancing act: the novel is dream-like without being too whimsical; and fantasy reflects reality without being reducible to simple metaphors. Of Things Gone Astray creates a world all of its own, one that takes time to shake off.

11. Yoko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2008)

I read three of Ogawa’s books this year; the one that makes my list is a departure from the others, but its measured wistfulness really worked for me. It’s the story of a woman who goes to work for an elderly professor, and how they bond through mathematics even though he has little short-term memory. Ogawa contrasts the transient human world with the eternal web of numbers.

10. Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)

Oyeyemi is always a skilled sculptor of the fantastic; this may be her subtlest work to date. She draws on the iconography of Snow White to tell the story of a girl named Boy, and a black family passing as white, in 1950s America. The use of the fairytale changes the rhythms of Oyeyemi’s novel, highlighting the complexities of the real world.

9. Ray Robinson, Jawbone Lake (2014)

This is a novel of disruption: a Land Rover disturbing the tranquillity of an English lake; a father’s abrupt suicide shattering his family’s world; the language of a gangster thriller intruding on realist prose. Jawbone Lake is a study of grief and a thriller that treats ‘thrills’ as strange and unknowable. After Forgetting Zoë, it’s also a fine demonstration of Robinson’s versatility as a writer.

Price

8. Angharad Price, The Life of Rebecca Jones (2002)
Translated from the Welsh by Lloyd Jones (2010)

A novel about Price’s great-aunt, and the valley in which she spends her long life. This is a meditative study of the passing of time and a life that’s ultimately well lived. Though Rebecca’s life may be limited geographically, it’s shown to be intellectually rich – which is just as valid to her as any other sort of experience.

7. Nina Allan, The Race (2014)

Allan has become one of my favourite science fiction writers over recent years, and this – her first novel – is the single best piece of her work that I’ve read. The Race begins as a tale of genetically enhanced greyhounds, then mutates into a broader novel of thwarted lives. It exhibits Allan’s keen eye for landscape, and is finely calibrated enough to know the weight of all its fantastic words.

6. Naomi Wood, Mrs. Hemingway (2014)

Two novels into her career, Wood is developing an intriguingly stylised approach to historical fiction. The Godless Boys placed her characters in the distorting world of an artificial alternate history; this time the distorting factor is marriage to such a larger-than-life figure as Ernest Hemingway. Wood creates an intricately patterned dance from the chaos of her subjects’ lives.

5. Joanna Kavenna, Come to the Edge (2012)

Kavenna gives free rein to characters without inhibitions in this dark comedy of rural apocalypse which begins when a woman decides to ‘resettle’ some evicted locals in the often-unoccupied second home of a banker. Come to the Edge has a relentless, driving energy, and is very much concerned with the sound of its prose.

The Dig4. Cynan Jones, The Dig (2014)

Jones’s novels tend towards the short and stark; this tale of a grieving farmer and a badger-baiter is no exception. It’s an unflinching and very physical tale, whose imagery continues to haunt me.

3. Agota Kristof, The Notebook (1986)
Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (1989)

There are some expressions that it’s easy to use without thinking when describing books – such as ‘spare prose’. Well, the prose of The Notebook is so spare that it hurts. In what may be wartime Hungary, twin boys describe their project to harden themselves physically and emotionally, and the cruelties they inflict on themselves and others in the process. Their account becomes a timeless nightmare, and I’ll be looking out for Kristof’s two sequels next year, to find out how it continues.

2. Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013)

I was a latecomer to reading McBride, which was my loss (or was it just the right time?): I found her novel every bit as powerful as it promised to be. This is a book whose form and style are integral to its project (a quality I’m coming to value more and more in fiction): its shifts in language are part of what the book means. As a character study, t’s remorseless – and all the better for it.

Elizabeth

1. Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing (2014)

To say that Healey’s debut works is both a promise and a warning. Its protagonist has dementia, and searches for her friend in a constantly renewing present; while a thread set seventy years earlier fills the gaps in a picture that only the reader can see. Elizabeth is Missing inspired a rawer, deeper reaction in me than any other book I read all year; it’s a reaction that seemed to come out of nowhere, and I find that fascinating to contemplate. This is actually something I’d like to explore on here next year; but more about that later…

Want to know what I liked most in previous years? Take a look at my other ‘favourites’ lists: 2013; 201220112010; and 2009.

New Fiction Uncovered column: The Language of Fiction

This is it: my fourth and final column as guest editor of Fiction Uncovered. For this article, I decided to write about how tone and style can shape the world of a piece of fiction. I think it’s all to easy to overlook language and prose when reading and thinking about fiction (certainly I’ve overlooked them in the past) – when, actually, they’re fundamental to what fiction is. So I’ve chosen four novels with a distinctive use of style, and looked at what they do and how.

The new column is here, and you can find all of my reviews and columns for Fiction Uncovered here. And, if you want to read more from me on the books mentioned in the column, step this way:

Finally, I’d like to thank Fiction Uncovered for inviting me to be guest editor, and for hosting me this last month. I’ve really enjoyed it, and I can only hope that others have found my columns interesting, and maybe even discovered a few new books that they’d like to read.

Shiny New Books and Jam

First of all, I need to tell you about a new book recommendation site: Shiny New Books. It’s the brainchild of four UK book bloggers (Annabel, Victoria, Simon, and Harriet), and features original and reprint reviews by contributors from all corners of the blogosphere. I’m in the first issue, with a revised version of my piece on Ray Robinson’s Jawbone Lake (think of this as the Director’s Cut of the original review). Have a look around the rest of SNB; there’s some great stuff on there, and I hope the site will go from strength to strength.

***

In another corner of the web, Fiction Uncovered (now the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize) is gearing up for another year, and I’ve reviewed for them the new novel by a Fiction Uncovered alumnus. Here are my thoughts on Jam by Jake Wallis Simons…

JamJake Wallis Simons appeared on the first Fiction Uncovered list in 2011 for The English German Girl, his novel about a girl sent to England on the Kindertransport in the 1930s. Following a thriller (2012’s The Pure, written as Jake Simons), the author returns with Jam, a novel which follows a varied cast as they experience one of modern life’s nuisances: being stuck in traffic.

Structurally, Jam resembles a disaster novel, insofar as it moves between the perspectives of multiple characters all affected by the same event – though here the event is not the end of the world, but a traffic jam on the M25; and Wallis Simons is less interested in the jam itself than in how his characters are changed by encountering each other. We begin with Ursula and Max, a couple not quite as firmly in love as they once were, and particularly concerned right now with letting their friends (whose daughter they’re bringing home) know about the delay. With no phone signal, Max heads out to find someone who will let him make a call; he gets talking to Jim, a supermarket delivery driver who makes clear that he can’t give away the stock in his van – though he does have some crisps in the front, if Max wants some. Other characters see what’s going on, and Jim’s van becomes the locus of attention, not all of it welcome.

To an extent, the traffic jam works as a metaphor for the characters’ life situations. Many of them feel stuck in some way – like Shauna, who’s looking for her dream man; or young Shahid, who rues his messed-up trial for Chelsea – and the night’s events enable at least some of them to move on. The way Wallis Simons orchestrates this is perhaps his novel’s key strength: some characters make a central contribution to events, others are peripheral; but all take their place as significant parts of the whole. By the end of Jam, we’ve seen a slice of life: some people win, some lose; one individual may be changed forever, while another just carries on as before. The vehicles start to move again, and those circumstances that brought everyone together become lost in the flow; but Wallis Simons has shown how extraordinary a mundane situation can be to those caught up in it.

(Original review.)

"Silence upon silence, stones piled upon stones"

Ray Robinson, Jawbone Lake (2014)

Jawbone LakeRay Robinson was last seen on this blog in 2010 when I read Forgetting Zoë, his excellent novel about a young girl held captive in Arizona, in danger of losing her very self. For his new book, Robinson travels closer to home, with a tale which is more concerned with remembering, as its characters face life without loved ones whom they remember painfully well – although, in one case, they didn’t know him quite well enough.

We begin on New Year’s Eve, with a Land Rover driving straight into Jawbone Lake, near the Peak District town of Ravenstor. The driver of the vehicle was CJ Arms, a local businessman who’d built up a successful company in Spain. CJ’s son Joe returns home from London to a family who cannot explain the crash, clinging to the hope that, as long as CJ’s body is not found, he may still be alive. Joe’s grandfather Bill asks him to travel to Spain and find out the truth of CJ’s life there; what Joe discovers will challenge everything he thought he knew about his father.

The events of New Year’s Eve were witnessed by Rebecca Miller, otherwise known as Rabbit, a woman haunted by the sudden death of her baby son a year previously. She is developing an uncertain attraction for a colleague at work, but perhaps her main hope is for somewhere to hide from the world. And a third figure, Grogan – who pursued CJ down to the lake – is watching both Joe and Rabbit, waiting for the right moment to tidy things up.

For quite a way into Jawbone Lake, I was thinking that the character of Grogan didn’t seem to fit: he’s the type of sinister hard man who is a mainstay of Brit gangster thrillers, but seems out of place in what is generally quite a reflective portrait of families dealing with grief and loss. Then it struck me that this may be the point: the thriller elements of the novel are an intrusion on what appeared to be the reality of life. Perhaps this is most clear when Joe visits Spain, and learns about his father’s other life; it doesn’t square with the CJ he knew, but is nonetheless real, and Joe has to face up to that.

So, the loss of CJ leaves a hole in the Arms family’s life that gets harder to fill the more they learn about him. The situation is subtly different in Rabbit’s case: there’s a hole in her life caused by the death of her son (and that of her mother, who passed away some years before); but it’s only by reaching into and learning more about herself that Rabbit is able to find a way forward. The general theme of hidden truth is mirrored elegantly in Robinson’s use of landscape: Jawbone Lake is not a natural feature, but a reservoir with an old village at the bottom (I must tip my hat here to the superb cover design, which heightens the artificiality of a supposedly ‘natural’ scene, and is really quite eerie); every new environment in which CJ lived seems to have brought out a different side to him.

In Jawbone Lake, you have a novel that starts off as the mystery of why this man would drive into a lake; grows into an examination of how people may try to handle grief and uncovering secrets; and that knows how to thrill, even as it treats its thriller aspect as something strange and inscrutable. So that’s another intriguing book from an author whose work should not remain a secret.

Elsewhere
Ray Robinson’s website
Interview and review at Raven Crime Reads
Robinson writes about the places that inspired Jawbone Lake

The finding of lost children: Donoghue and Robinson

Emma Donoghue, Room (2010)
Ray Robinson, Forgetting Zoë (2010)

The two novels I’m reviewing here weave beautiful tales from ugly subject matter: namely, the abduction and long-term captivity of children. Both are less concerned with plot than with character – the key question is not, ‘will they escape?’ but ‘what effect do these events have on the people involved?’ Whilst the process of uncovering the answers may be harrowing, it has resulted in two powerful works of literature.

Emma Donoghue’s Booker-shortlisted Room is narrated by five-year-old Jack, who has lived his entire life in the 121 square feet of Room, the space in which his mother (‘Ma’) has been held captive for the past seven years by a man whom she and Jack call ‘Old Nick’. As far as Jack is concerned, this space is all that exists; the novel progresses from establishing the parameters of Jack’s mental world, through Ma’s (successful) escape bid, to Jack’s attempts to adjust to life in an outside world that he didn’t know was real.

Jack’s narrative voice is critical to the success of Room; though I’ve heard a few people say they felt it stumbled at times, it mostly held up for me; the main quibble I’d have is that Jack continues to call the sun ‘God’s yellow face’ throughout the book, which didn’t convince me given what else he knows, and the influence of astronomical concepts on Jack’s mental framework (he thinks of TV programmes as ‘planets’). I also have a general, vague sense that Jack doesn’t seem quite as disoriented by the outside world as I might expect him to be; but, to be fair, I can’t put my finger on any specific instances to illustrate that.

(As an aside, it strikes me that the success or otherwise of Jack’s voice depends on what one considers the first-person narrative to be. I can see that Jack’s voice may be problematic if the text is considered a straightforward spoken/written/thought account; but, unless they indicate otherwise. I tend to think of first-person narratives as ‘impressions’ filtered through the medium of prose, which leads me to allow more latitude than I otherwise might.)

The character revealed through Jack’s narration has a convincing mixture of precocity and naivety: his education through television and Ma has given Jack knowledge beyond his years in some subjects, but he still has many misconceptions about the real world; Jack’s little linguistic quirks (for example, he doesn’t go to sleep, he ‘switches off’) serve as jarring reminders that we view the world of Donoghue’s novel through a distorting lens.

But Room’s real power, I think, lies in its gaps. There’s a gap between what has happened to Ma and what Jack understands; it’s up to us as readers to fill in that gap; so, for example, Jack’s comment, ‘I think Old Nick put those marks on [Ma’s] neck’ carries much more weight for us than it does for the boy.

Even more poignant, I think, than the gap between the reality of events and Jack’s perception of them, is the gap between who Ma is and who she might have been. She was kidnapped by Old Nick as a nineteen-year-old student; at times, such as when she tells Jack her story, we catch glimpses of the independent young woman she would probably have been in her early twenties – but that life is forever lost to her, because she became Jack’s Ma instead (symbolically, we never do learn her name; even though Jack sees it written down, he doesn’t reveal what it is). Ma’s life, like the novel, revolves around Jack; it’s a struggle for him to comprehend what’s happening when she tries to assert her individuality in the outside world. By novel’s end, however, there’s a sense that both Jack and Ma are ready to move on.

If Room is focused relentlessly inwards on Jack, then Ray Robinson’s Forgetting Zoë faces outwards, reaching across vast landscapes and into the lives of not just its abductee, but also her mother and her captor. In 1999, Thurman Hayes takes his mother’s body to Canada, where she grew up; whilst there, he abducts ten-year-old Zoë Nielsen. For the next eight years, Hayes keeps her captive in his ranch in the Arizona desert and its underground bunker; by the time she escapes, the girl Zoë was is a distant memory.

Robinson’s prose and characterisation in this novel are exquisite. Here, for example, is Thurman reflecting on his father’s hands:

…to Thurman the hands only ever spoke one word and that was hurt. They contained bones that had fractured many times and reset, broken against walls and furniture, the skulls of cattle, Mom, Thurman. Hands so masterful at gripping axes and shovels and carpentry tools and soldering irons, the stock of his rifle and shotgun. So useful for overturning a table with a single, effortless flick, for giving a backhand so fast it was heard before it was felt, for grabbing a fistful of hair and smashing heads into walls.

The precision of the detail there is so vivid, and the way it illustrates manual ability sliding so easily into violence. The opening section of Forgetting Zoë shows brilliantly how the young Thurman is damaged and becomes the monster we see in the later parts of the novel. Growing up in a violent household, with feelings of inadequacy because he can’t be the man his father wants him to be, Hayes’s feelings bubble over and he ends up with a confused attitude to women that leads him to…

Well, that’s another striking thing about Forgetting Zoë: some of the key events take place ‘off-stage’, so there are gaps in our knowledge of cause and effect. For example, we never see the actual abduction of Zoë; whilst it’s readily possible to construct a theory of why Hayes kidnaps her, we don’t know the full story; when we meet him and Zoë again after the abduction, they are changed characters; we have to work to reach them once again, which adds another layer of richness to the novel.

Another lacuna in the narrative is the bulk of Zoë’s captivity. In 1999, we see the beginnings of Zoë the ‘true Canadian girl of big sky, big moon, of big sunsets and clouds’ slipping away in the bunker; but the contrast with her eighteen-year-old self when we jump forward to 2007 still carries quite an impact. The section covering the run-up to Zoë’s escape is perhaps the most powerful in the whole book, as Zoë is torn between her desire to escape and her reluctance to leave Hayes behind. With its uncertain passage of time, this section has a sickening ebb and flow, as one wonders if Zoë ever will gain her freedom – and the fact that we already know from the section title that she will does nothing to diminish that effect.

The title of Forgetting Zoë refers more than anything to Zoë forgetting herself. She starts to do that during her captivity, of course; but there’s a more positive interpretation of the title to be found at the end – that of being able to forget the past. As with Jack in Room, there is a sense of new beginnings for Zoë. And, as good a book as Room is, I think Forgetting Zoë may just be one of my reads of the year.

Links

Room
Emma Donoghue’s website
Video interview with Donoghue
Some other reviews: Adam Roberts; Farm Lane Books; Bookgeeks; Savidge Reads.

Forgetting Zoë
Ray Robinson’s website
Scott Pack interviews Robinson
Some other reviews: BookmunchFarm Lane Books; Scott Pack; Alison Flood for The Observer.

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