CategoryWood Naomi

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 40-31

Welcome to the second part of my countdown of 50 bookish memories from the 2010s. The first part went up last week, with the rest to follow each Sunday.

Compiling this list has made me realise just how idiosyncratic a personal reading history is. I read quite a lot of debuts, especially at the start of the decade, and didn’t begin reading works in translation seriously until about 2014. Both of those factors have helped shape my list. When I looked through some other ‘best of the decade’ lists, I was surprised at how few matches I saw with mine. But perhaps that’s how it was always going to be. Anyway, on to the next set of books…

Continue 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.

Fiction Uncovered 2014

This year’s list for Fiction Uncovered (now the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize has been announced. The judges – writer Matt Haig; journalist Arifa Akbar; Greg Eden of Waterstones; Sam Jordison of Galley Beggar Press; and Julia Wharton of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation – selected eight novels by established British writers. I had a preview of the winning titles, and have read most of them; so let me give you a run-down…

Ben Brooks, Lolito (Canongate)

Lolito

We start with one of the two books I haven’t read. Ben Brooks is the youngest author on the list, at age 22. Lolito is the story of a teenage boy who goes to meet in reali life an older woman whom he first encountered online.

Bernardine Evaristo, Mr Loverman (Penguin)

Mr Loverman

The tale of septuagenarian Barrington Walker, who’s in a secret relationship with his old friend Maurice. I reviewed Mr Loverman on the blog last year.

Lesley Glaister, Little Egypt (Salt)

Little Egypt

I reviewed an earlier book of Lesley Glaister‘s, Nina Todd Has Gone, for Laura Hird’s website back in 2009 (you can read the review here via the Wayback Machine). Little Egypt concerns the secrets of two Egyptologists and their children; I’ve reviewed it for the Fiction Uncovered website.

Cynan Jones, The Dig (Granta)

The Dig

I’ve previously reviewed Cynan Jones’s novel Everything I Found on the Beach; like that book, The Dig is a short, stark character study. It focuses principally on two characters: Daniel, a sheep farmer somewhere in Wales, who’s trying to cope with the loss of his partner; and “the big man”, who clears farms of rats and tops up his income with badger-baiting.

The Dig is an intensely physical and visceral book. Daniel is preoccupied with the processes of his farm; there’s a sense throughout that this is a kind of ritualistic displacement activity. The big man carries on his badger digging in the knowledge that he’s only a step or two ahead of the police. Jones describes the activities of both men in vivid detail, because that is what’s important to his characters. The resulting novel is unflinching and powerful.

Gareth R. Roberts, Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? (The Friday Project)

Billy Parks

Appropriately enough for the season, Gareth Roberts’s second novel is about football. Billy Parks was a star player left on the bench when England failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1973. Forty years on, he’s an alcoholic (though he won’t admit that to himself), estranged from his daughter, and getting by on tales of his glory days. But now Billy finds out that “the Service” has given Alf Ramsey and his colleagues on the Council of Football Immortals the chance to relive ten minutes of that fateful match. Sir Alf will be able to choose someone else to go on the pitch; that could be Billy, if he can pull himself together long enough to prove his worth.

I have to say: I’m not a great fan of football, but I really enjoyed this book all the same. I don’t need to like football to engage with a novel about it; I just need the novel to make me understand what it means to the characters, and Roberts absolutely does that. For the young Billy Parks, playing football is the thing that comes naturally to him, the thing that can help him transcend his circumstances; time and again in the novel, we feel how vital this is.

I was expecting Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? to be mostly a romp, and it does have its fair share of amusing moments. But it’s also bittersweet, with a real gravitas: Billy never really appreciates how deeply his father was scarred by his experiences building railways in Burma, nor how much his mother depended on him. It’s the cutting reality of Billy’s personal life, set against the headiness of his success on the pitch, that gives Roberts’s novel its power.

Naomi Wood, Mrs. Hemingway (Picador)

Mrs Hemingway

I’ve already reviewed Naomi Wood‘s novel about Hemingway’s wives, here. It’s still one of the highlights of my reading year so far.

Gerard Woodward, Vanishing (Picador)

Vanishing

This is another one I haven’t read, but I gather that its protagonist is an artist and camouflage officer in World War Two – and an unreliable narrator.

Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (Jonathan Cape)

Finally, one of my favourite books from last year, the tale of a woman who;s run away from the past only to find that the present may be under threat.

"Ernest, the great writer, standing in the middle of the story"

Naomi Wood, Mrs. Hemingway (2014)

Mrs HemingwayI find it intriguing when an author’s second novel is very different in subject from his or her first makes me want to look for the deeper connections that point to what the writer’s key concerns may be. Naomi Wood’s first novel, The Godless Boys (2011), concerned an alternate history in which atheist rebels had been exiled to an island off the coast of a theocratic English state. What does any of that have to do with Ernest Hemingway’s wives?

Ah, but it’s not the subject that counts: it’s the treatment. The Godless Boys could be seen as a ‘what if?’ character study: place a set of characters in an unusual situation, and explore how they might react. Wood does a similar thing in Mrs. Hemingway; it’s just that the unusual situation is real, as are the characters.

(I should say at this point that I don’t know much about Hemingway’s life or work, or the women concerned; so I approach Mrs. Hemingway very much as a work of fiction; I believe that Wood’s novel isn’t meant to be taken as entirely historically accurate in any case.)

What makes the situation of Hemingway’s wives particularly unusual is there in the book’s first sentence: ‘Everything, now, is done à trois (p. 3).’ The scene is the Hemingways’ villa in the French coastal town of Antibes, 1926: Ernest’s marriage to his first wife, Hadley, is on the ropes. She invited his mistress, Fife, to the villa in the hope of stopping the affair in its tracks; instead, Fife has effectively become part of the Hemingway household, and Hadley comes to realise that it’s only a matter of time before she loses Ernest to the other woman (when Ernest and Hadley leave the villa one morning, trying not to wake Fife, ‘it feels, to Mr. and Mrs. Hemingway, as if they are the ones who are having the affair,’ (p. 5).

This is the structure of Mrs. Hemingway: each of its four sections begins with one of Hemingway’s wives approaching the end of her relationship with him; we go back to see how that relationship developed; and past alternates with present. The thing is that each wife knows Ernest is having an affair, and with whom; the mistresses become a part of the relationship. When Martha (Ernest’s third wife), learns of his infidelity, she goes to meet her husband’s new lover, Mary; and she’s resigned to the knowledge that her marriage will soon come to an end:

They walk down the Élysées together, Mrs. Hemingway and Mr. Hemingway’s mistress…They stop off at the tobacconist to see if they can get more cigarettes. Martha holds out the door for her and lets the other woman in (p. 184).

The idea of an affair and subsequent divorce has gone from something to be fought against, to the price that one pays for loving Ernest Hemingway. Some of the wives even keep in touch with each other down the years.

So the title of Mrs. Hemingway is just that: a title, not an individual; almost an office, to be held for a finite term. Wood delineates the different ways in which Hemingway’s wives perceive that title, also showing how the women change as they move from mistress to wife (and beyond), and how the way others perceive them may not be how they actually are. For example, Hadley sees Fife as the kind of modern, confident young woman that she is not; when the story is told from Fife’s viewpoint, we see that she’s not quite so self-assured; but Fife’s glamour returns when Martha meets her some years later.

There’s another interloper in all these relationships: Hemingway’s writing. It is so often what brings Ernest and his lovers together; and so often what ultimately drives them apart. When Hadley meets Hemingway, his writing is one source of his charisma, and something he wears lightly (‘I’d rather be read by crooks than critics,’ he says at a party in Antibes [p. 58]). By the time he’s living with Fife in Key West, Ernest has become rather more concerned with what the critics think; his relationship with his writing grows more troubled as the years go by, and he sometimes turns violent. When we meet the widowed Mary at the Hemingways’ Idaho home in 1961, there’s a rueful double irony: all that’s left of Ernest is his writing, and his papers are now what feed the fire.

Mrs. Hemingway explores the characters of four women united by an experience that places them in opposition to each other, yet is also something only they can ever share. As in her debut, Wood depicts lives and individuals shaped by an extraordinary external force (in this case, their encounters with the person of Ernest Hemingway), and creates a fine work of fiction in the process.

Elsewhere
M. Denise C. interviews Naomi Wood.

A selection of 2011 favourites

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?

Faith, Love, and Hatred: Chris Beckett and Naomi Wood

Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine (2004)
Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys (2011)

The two books I’m discussing today revolve around small atheist communities in worlds dominated by religious belief. Though they take their stories in different directions, both examine what kind of role faith may play in someone’s life (and what may fill a similar role in its absence), and offer fascinating studies of characters caught at the intersection of faith and non-belief.

Chris Beckett’s 2004 debut The Holy Machine is narrated by George Simling, a translator in the Balkan city-state of Illyria, a nation founded on the principles of rationalism after the rest of the world was taken over by religious extremists. George’s only company is his mother Ruth, a former scientist who has retreated from the world and now spends most of her time in the virtual reality of SenSpace. As a result, for all the material comforts in his life, George is missing true human contact (‘I spoke eight languages fluently, but I had no one to talk to and nothing to say’, p. 3).

George finds himself getting involved in radical groups who feel that, in its hard-line take on rationalism, Illyria is becoming as oppressive a place as the world’s fundamentalist states (and, indeed, the Illyrian government begins to persecute its foreign ‘guestworkers’ purely because they are uneducated). But even this does not provide him with what his is seeking; instead, George falls in love with Lucy, a syntec (a robot designed to be indistinguishable from a human) programmed for sex. Slowly, Lucy is becoming self-aware, and when the authorities announce plans to reprogram syntecs every six months to prevent their going out of control, George decides that he must escape from Illyria with the robot, even though syntecs are considered blasphemous (and therefore to be destroyed) in the outside world.

The Holy Machine examines several complex issues, and refuses to draw neat conclusions about them. One such issue is the relative merits of religion and science, and Beckett creates no simple opposition between the two; I’ve already described how Illyria is shown to be pretty much as intolerant and repressive as the religious nations of the book, but the issue is also explored through the character of George Simling himself. George is not religious, and his conversations with some of the believers he meets show how shaky the foundations of their beliefs really are. Yet George’s reaction to Lucy has a similarly flimsy basis, and his journey through the world beyond Illyria increasingly takes on the character of a pilgrimage, as he searches for the ‘Holy Machine’ of the title, a robot which is said to have a soul. ‘You’re actually just like an Illyrian atheist!’ George shouts at one priest. ‘You look at the appearance and not at what’s inside!’ (p. 221) Neither faith nor rationalism can entirely give George what he is looking for, but aspects of both are important to him.

Another key question posed by Beckett’s novel is that of just what it is that makes us human. The whole way in which George falls in love (or believes he does) and decides to run away with Lucy is clearly impulsive; he knows that Lucy is really an ‘it’ rather than a ‘she’, that the syntec will never belong to the natural world however much it comes to comprehend – but he can’t bring himself to admit this, and becomes shocked and angry when forced to confront the fact of Lucy’s mechanical nature. Contrasting with this, we have the character of Ruth Simling, who in a sense is the opposite of Lucy; whilst the syntec is a machine which at least appears to be turning more human, Ruth is a human merging with a machine – she spends so much time in SenSpace that her body wastes away and her consciousness has to be wired directly into the virtual reality. What is it, then, that makes characters human in The Holy Machine? Body? Sentience? The ‘human spirit’ championed by George’s radical associates? The question is left open.

By novel’s end, the principal characters have found a peace of sorts, and George might even have filled the gap he felt in his life. A search with a more concrete objective provides the impetus for Naomi Wood’s first novel, The Godless Boys. The Church gained political power over its alternate England in 1950, and a series of riots led to members of the Secular Movement being sent to ‘the Island’, where they and their children now live in isolation. The Malades, a gang of boys born and bred on the Island, have taken it upon themselves to root out any English spies or believers; they’ll attack the houses and persons of anyone they suspect.

In the last week of November 1986, a girl named Sarah Wicks stows away on the last boat of the year bringing supplies from England; she intends to find her mother Laura, who was involved in a church-burning ten years previously, and may have been deported to the Island. Sarah is discovered by Nathaniel Malraux, one of the Malades, who falls in love with her, and tries to keep her existence a secret from his fellow gang-members; inevitably, though, he can’t do so forever.

Wood creates a wonderful sense of place in her novel. Cut off from the technological advances of England, the Island feels like a community out of time, one that’s almost hermetic (an impression reinforced by the fact that we don’t actually see life on the mainland, nor even hear mention of the other countries in our British Isles). It’s a community where the glorious optimism of independence has been replaced by inertia (‘Now the Islanders were free to do what they wanted, and they did very little,’ p. 189). Wood evokes the drabness of this place through the detail in her prose; and her careful use of dialect words (all the Islanders speak a north-eastern dialect; as a rebellion that would have been at least as much political as religious, the Secular Movement appears to have been a largely regional phenomenon) also goes a long way towards constructing the novel’s atmosphere, in a nicely subtle way.

The issue of religious faith itself impinges on The Godless Boys in a different way than on The Holy Machine; we see much of Wood’s novel through the eyes of characters who don’t truly understand what religion is, but they do know that their parents were against it; for those young people, it’s as much a political issue as anything, or even a matter of tradition. Nathaniel emphasises to the Malades the importance of knowing their history (‘You have to go [to the Island’s museum] often…so you can ken your past…You’ve got to go so you can understand who you are,’ p. 17); but one of his fellow young Islanders, Eliza Michalka, finds the letters INRI in the Island’s ruined church, and doesn’t know what it signifies.

The only truly religious character in the novel is John Verger, one of the original exiles, who later found God whilst wandering through the remains of the very church he helped to burn down. Verger’s faith is shown to be a guiding hand and source of comfort in his life, which is elastic enough to hold, whatever the circumstances. To the Malades, in contrast, what religion really represents is the opposite of the wild freedom offered by the Island; as one of them, Jakob Lawrence, reflects:

Jake had felt sick when he’d first seen these paintings of Christ. To be so coddled, he thought, with blurry distaste, to be so watched, was as abhorrent to him as his rare imaginings of what went on in England, with its damp and girlish God, and its feeble, pandering folk. (p. 209)

As with The Holy Machine, there are pairs of characters who may be seen as opposites: Sarah comes to the Island in search of answers; Eliza yearns to leave it for the life that she wants. Nathaniel’s love for Sarah and fondness for John Verger (who brought his parents together) leads him to feel conflicted over the gang’s activities; Jake, on the other hand, takes a much firmer stance. All these matters come to a head in the finale of The Godless Boys, which is brilliantly tense.

Both Wood and Beckett create worlds through which their characters negotiate with some difficulty. Some find their way, others don’t; some get what they wanted, others don’t even know what that is. It all makes, though, for a pair of very interesting and compelling novels.

Links

The Holy Machine
Chris Beckett’s website
An extract from the novel at Infinity Plus.
Other reviews: Michael Levy for Strange Horizons; Niall Alexander at The Speculative Scotsman; Paul Graham Raven at Velcro City Tourist Board.

The Godless Boys
An extract from the novel at Litro.
Metro interview with Naomi Wood.
Other reviews: Harry Slater for Libri Populous; Karen McCandless for Bookmunch; Mary Fitzgerald for The Observer.

© 2020 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: