We’re now halfway through my list of reading highlights from the 2010s. I’ve really enjoyed compiling this list and reminiscing about some beloved books. Let me know if you’ve read any.Continue reading
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.
- Jawbone Lake by Ray Robinson
- A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
- Pub Walks in Underhill Country by Nat Segnit
- Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt
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.
On Thursday night, the good folks of Penguin General (the Fig Tree, Hamish Hamilton, and Viking imprints) hosted their second annual bloggers’ night, in the 5th View cocktail bar at Waterstones Piccadilly. This event was on a different scale from last year’s, with almost twice as many authors, and quite a few more bloggers – I don’t know if this was the largest-ever gathering of UK book bloggers, but I imagine it must have been close.
I was particularly pleased to get the chance to meet Nat Segnit, whose Pub Walks in Underhill Country was one of my favourite books from last year; he also gave one of the best readings of the night. But all twelve readings were good; so let’s go through them.
Naomi Alderman’s new novel is so new that there aren’t any advance copies yet, so she read from her laptop. The Liars’ Gospel is a retelling of the life and death of Jesus; Alderman read from the very beginning, which describes the ritual sacrifice of a lamb – and, if the rest of the book is as well-written as that, it’s one I want to read.
I already had a copy of Jennifer McVeigh’s debut, The Fever Tree, on the TBR pile. It’s set in South Africa in 1880, amid rumours of a smallpox epidemic in the diamond mines. There was some really good use of detail in the domestic scene which McVeigh read, and that bodes well for the rest of the novel.
Have I still never read anything by Marina Lewycka since A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian? (Answer: no, I haven’t.) I should probably rectify that, and Lewycka’s reading from Various Pets Alive and Dead was a good reminder of why. Her extract effectively sketched the four main characters in the novel, and included some sharp description of place.
Next up was Greg Baxter, whose first novel, The Apartment, was the second book from tonight already on my TBR pile. Baxter was a measured, precise reader, which went well with the spare style of his extract. I’m now still further intrigued to read the whole book.
22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson tells of a Polish family reuniting in England after the war. I’m not quite sure whether this is a book for me, but I found the particular extract Hodgkinson read to be a good character sketch.
Now on to the only non-fiction book and author of the evening. The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is about the ancient paths ofBritain, the stories intertwined in them, and how people have been shaped by them. Macfarlane read an extract concerning an the encounter with Hanging figure by the sculptor Steve Dilworth; fascinating stuff, and definitely a book I’d like to read.
The second half of the evening began with Elif Shafak’s reading from her latest novel, Honour, which focuses on a Kurdish-Turkish family who move toLondon. Shafak read from the beginning of the book, where the daughter of the family prepares to meet her brother on his release from prison (he was convicted for murder). This was a strong set-up for the rest of the novel, and I look forward to reading on.
Set in 19th-centurySomerset, Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk is the account of a girl named Mary, who is sent to work for the local vicar’s wife, where she has good reason to write down what happened to her. Leyshon’s excerpt gave a hint as to what that reason might be, and her reading brought Mary’s character vividly to life.
Then it was Nat Segnit’s turn to read from Pub Walks in Underhill Country – and it was just like discovering the book all over again. Segnit was an excellent reader (an audiobook of this read by him would be wonderful), and the extract he chose hilarious. Seriously, if you have not read this novel, you should.
From a novel I already loved to one of which I’d never even heard. Tom Bullough’s Konstantin is a fictional account of the life of the Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky; it was tricky to judge from the reading what the book as a whole might be like, but I started reading it on the train home, and it’s shaping up to be interesting.
The next author to take the stage was Nikita Lalwani, reading from her second novel, The Village. The set-up sounded intriguing – a documentary-maker travels fromEnglandto make a film about an Indian village which is also an open prison – and Lalwani’s reading only confirmed that view.
The evening closed with a reading from a Booker-winning author – James Kelman. Mo said she was quirky is a novel chronicling a day in the life of a single mother; on the evidence of Kelman’s reading, it’s also a novel very concerned with voice – it felt like a novel to be read out loud. I look forward to reading and finding out if that impression is correct.
And then, as Joshua Ferris put it, we came to the end. My thanks to everyone involved for such an enjoyable evening.
Wherever you are, I hope you’re enjoying the festive season. Now it’s time for my annual look back on my favourite reads of the year. I’m going to split 2011’s list in two: six books from this year, six published in previous years. The lists are in alphabetical order of author surname, and all links will take you to my reviews.
Without further ado, then, here are six of my favourite books that received their first UK publication in 2011:
Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
I love fantasy with structural elegance, and this book has it: it’s the tale of a girl who can taste the feelings of whoever made her food (and hence detects trouble in her family’s relationships); what I like most is that it works equally as well whether you read the protagonist’s ability literally or metaphorically.
Stuart Evers, Ten Stories About Smoking
Certainly the best-designed book I read in 2011 (it comes in a flip-top box made to resemble a packet of cigarettes, this is also a fine set of stories which use smoking as a metaphor in various ways; I look forward eagerly to Evers’ debut novel next year.
Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox
Variations on the tale of Bluebeard, embedded in the broader narrative of a writer and his muse, who is rather less imaginary than she appears. The sheer range of Mr Fox is impressive, but it’s a great read to boot.
Nat Segnit, Pub Walks in Underhill Country
The idea of a novel written as a ramblers’ guide might seem gimmicky, but what makes this book work is the way Segnit uses the structure as a means of characterisation: the protagonist’s wife has left him, and the walking-guide format is set against a more novelistic style as the narrator tries to keep a hold on his world.
Conrad Williams, Loss of Separation
A fascinating psychological portrait of a pilot who’s recovered from an air crash, only to find that his girlfriend has disappeared. Williams brilliantly plays creeping personal fears of decline and loss against grander horrors, and asks which is truly the most frightening.
Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys
A superb portrait of a divergent England ruled by the Church, where members of the Secular Movement have been exiled to a nearby island. Wood creates a vivid sense of place and character, and a subtle sense of how isolation has changed the Islanders’ ideas about faith.
And now half a dozen from previous years:
Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine
A translator in the world’s only atheist city-state falls in love with one of the city’s lifelike robots; when a new law raises the possibility that the android’s personality will be erased, the pair are forced to flee. Becektt’s complex examination of science, religion, and what it means to be human makes an interesting comparison with The Godless Boys, which I read in tandem with this.
Joe Moran, On Roads: a Hidden History
A wide-ranging and perceptive history of the British post-war road system. If that sounds dry, I can only emphasise that it’s quite the opposite, as Moran spins gold from such an everyday topic.
Sarah Salway, Leading the Dance
Another book which turns the ordinary into something more, this time in the form of short stories which reveal the significance of ostensibly mundane events to the people involved in them.
Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical
The single best book of short stories I read in 2011. Shearman combines the unremarkable and the fantastic to brilliant effect in a collection whose main subject is love, seen from various angles.
Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The story of how cancer cells taken from a poor African American woman played a vital part in modern medicine, though for twenty years her family didn’t even know a sample had been taken. Though this is a fascinating tale in its own right, Skloot’s orchestration of her material makes it all the more so.
Mike Thomas, Pocket Notebook
I didn’t know what to expect from this story of a police officer going off the rails, and it utterly blew me away. One of the best written books I’ve read all year, one of the sharpest character-portraits… I can’t wait to see what Thomas writes next.
So that’s my dozen picks from the reading year. What books have you most enjoyed?
Nat Segnit frames his debut novel as a walking guide by one Graham Underhill, a guide notable for the extent to which its fictional author’s personal life intrudes on the text. In the very first chapter/ramble, we learn how Underhill met his second wife, Sunita Bhattacahrya – fifteen years his junior – at Malvern Library, where he gallantly offered to pay her overdue fines; and so it continues. As the novel progresses, we discover under just how much strain the couple’s marriage was – not that Graham seemed to notice – until eventually Sunita goes missing, and the rambler turns searcher, setting out to look for her.
The voice of Graham Underhill as revealed in his guides is well-meaning but overly earnest and long-winded, with a tendency to digress into a personal anecdote or some less-than-relevant piece of trivia; one soon begins to see why Sunita might have begun to tire of him. Much of the humour in Segnit’s book comes from the incongruous juxtaposition of the rambler’s-guide and novelistic idioms, and Graham’s apparent inability to take a hint; even as early as the second chapter, when Sunita announces, ‘I’ve had enough,’ there’s an undercurrent which suggests she is not just talking about this particular ramble – yet Graham can’t see this or any of the other signs which become increasingly plain to the reader.
Amusing as all this is, it would wear pretty thin over the course of an entire novel if that were all there was to it – particularly as it’s intrinsic to the book’s affect that Graham’s narration tries one’s patience at times – but what carries Pub Walks in Underhill Country home for me is how Segnit uses its very structure as a means of characterisation. Graham’s framing of episodes from his life as walking routes can be seen as his attempt to impose order on the world; this is ‘Underhill country’, after all, and rambling is the fulcrum of his life. As the pages turn by and the life Graham knows falls apart, his insistence on retaining the stylistic conventions he has established – the maps, the trivia, noting the character and strength of every beer he samples along the way – stops feeling like an amusing joke and starts to seem increasingly desperate, the action of a man grasping for any kind of stability. Still, in later chapters, Graham‘s narration becomes more and more straightforwardly novelistic (his control of the world slips); by the end, the distinction between life and pub walk comes to the verge of collapsing altogether, with the result that…
Well, it depends on what kind of man Graham Underhill is. He comes across as a bumbling, rather naive, ultimately rather tragic figure; but then again, our impression of Graham is filtered through both his subjectivity and the structures of the rambling-guide format. There are enough hints peppered throughout that weren’t not seeing everything of the real Underhill, and that a darker interpretation of the novel might be valid. Pub Walks in Underhill Country could have been too one-note and gimmicky, but touches like that ambiguity transform it into something far richer.
Yet Pub Walks is more than a fine read – it’s also an intriguing start to a literary career, because it makes one excited to read whatever Segnit writes next, whilst leaving a sense that he could go in just about any direction. Start reading him now, I’d say.