The new series of The TV Book Club is underway, which means there’s another selection of ten ‘Best Reads’. Here’s my look at the first three.
S.J. Watson, Before I Go to Sleep (2011)
The TV Book Club list begins with one of the breakout hits of last year, the debut from Steve Watson. It’s the story of Christine Lucas, who has an unusual form of amnesia which causes her to lose her memory every 24 hours. As the novel begins, Christine wakes up and, as ever, must discover that she is older than she thinks, and meet her husband Ben for the first time. Later that day – and unbeknownst to Ben – she is contacted by and goes to see a Dr Nash, who gives Christine a journal she has been keeping, which will allow her to unravel what led to her present situation.
When I started Watson’s book, I was concerned that narrative momentum might be compromised by the protagonist’s having to start from scratch each day. Well, the journal format takes care of that, as Christine can take what she’s already written into account, which smoothes out the flow. But, more than this, Watson uses the structure to create tension: even as Christine is reading her journal and discovering the truth, we’re aware that it won’t be an end to her problems (and I’m not talking about her amnesia). I also appreciate the way that Watson takes a fairly ‘high concept’ idea but grounds the action in a domestic reality. All in all, a fine thriller.
Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers (2011)
From a big seller to a Booker nominee. Patrick deWitt’s second novel is an introspective take on the Western: in 1851, hired killers Eli and Charlie are sent from Oregon City to San Francisco by the Commodore, to do away with one Hermann Kermit Warm, a prospector who has stolen something from him. Eli, our narrator, has been pondering whether he wants to carry on in this business, and the current job will bring matters to a head.
On the very first page of The Sisters Brothers, Eli describes the death of his old horse (and his subsequent visions thereof) in a cool, collected fashion; thus establishing what, for me, is the most effective aspect of the book – the contrast between the innate violence of the brothers’ world and the measured elegance of deWitt’s prose. The latter has a distancing effect, and as a result it comes as quite a jolt when brutal action irrupts into the narrative, particularly when it’s perpetrated by Eli, about whose capacity for violence it is deceptively easy to forget (because one has built up a certain amount of empathy for him). There’s also a strong sense in the novel of a world whose formation is in progress: in the lawless country through which the brothers travel, yes; but also in the mannered dialogue, and the half-sketched-in feel of the setting. It’s as though the world is being remade alongside Eli’s character.
Essie Fox, The Somnambulist (2011)
The East End of London, 1881: when her beloved aunt Cissy, a music-hall singer, dies, it becomes increasingly difficult for Pheobe Turner and her mother Maud to make ends meet. A way forward comes in the form of Nathaniel Samuels, an old acquaintance of Cissy’s, offers Phoebe a job as companion to his wife at the Samuels’ Herefordshire house – but the girl has no idea what secrets are set to be revealed.
I’m ambivalent about The Somnambulist. On the one hand, Phoebe’s narrative voice is great at bringing her character to life and driving the novel forward; and Essie Fox weaves historical detail in skilfully. On the other hand, the secondary characterisation feels a little broad-brush; the short third-person chapters from Samuels’s viewpoint slot in awkwardly; and the plot doesn’t sparkle for me in the same way as the narration.