Category: Lee Jonathan

My favourite reads of 2012

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.

Jonathan Lee, Joy (2012)

Joy Stephens would appear to have everything to live for – she’s a successful City lawyer, about to be made a partner at the age of 33 – but she is planning to commit suicide before the day is out. When we first meet her, we get an insight into the sorts of fractures that riddle Joy’s ostensibly perfect life, as she arrives home in the early hours to find Dennis, her husband of five years, with the couple’s regular Thursday-night call girl, whom Dennis was supposed to cancel this week.

It soon becomes clear that Joy fell from the platform at that evening’s ceremony announcing her promotion, and now lies in a coma. The novel alternates between chapters following Joy through her final day, and the first-person interviews given to the law firm’s counsellor by four other characters: Joy’s colleague Peter; her academic husband, Dennis; personal trainer Samir; and Joy’s PA, Barbara.

Joy is Jonathan Lee’s second novel (following 2010’s Who Is Mr Satoshi?), and it’s a quite superb piece of work. Take the characterisation, for example: Lee uses four first-person voices, and sharply differentiates them all; their respective owners come right off the page (as does Joy herself). Moreover, though they may seem easy enough to categorise at first, all the main characters reveal a subtle complexity as the novel goes on: Dennis may come across as just a long-winded eccentric, but his reaction to Joy’s fall suggests a steelier side; Barbara may be an unpleasant gossip-monger, but we also see how she has been frustrated by circumstance. Even the loathsome Peter, who has very few redeeming qualities, elicits a certain amount of empathy as Lee portrays a man who found his niche and then has it taken away.

Lee’s book is also simply a great pleasure to read: its prose is a finely-tuned instrument, discursive and sharp by turns, but always with an irresistible flow. Its plot takes unexpected turns which undermine some of the assumptions one has likely been forming about what is going to happen and why. As a result, the pages turn ever more furiously, no matter how much the ending is supposedly pre-ordained.

Perhaps more than anything else, Joy strikes me as a novel about ambition, finding a place in life, and dealing with what happens when that place proves unstable. So, Joy has achieved success, but not without sacrifice; and now various factors combine to make her question whether everything has been worth it. Peter might be said to have played the career game more cannily than Joy, but even he is insufficiently prepared when life moves on. Samir has tried to make something of himself, but ends up caught in his own ritualistic behaviour patterns. The book’s title becomes a pun, as joy proves a quality as elusive (though nonetheless glimpsed occasionally) as Joy the person is to the other characters considering her personality. But the strengths of Joy the novel are far from elusive, and this fascinating patchwork character study signals that Jonathan Lee is a name to follow.

Elsewhere
Jonathan Lee’s website
Some other reviews of Joy: Bookish Magpie; Alex Aldridge for the Guardian (with interview).

Jonathan Lee, Who is Mr Satoshi? (2010)

At forty-one, Rob Fossick is drifting through life, his glory days as a photographer behind him. Some years previously, Rob’s wife died in an accident – and, as the book opens, his mother, Alice, dies in a fall whilst Rob is visiting her care home. Just before she went out on to the patio where she fell, Alice showed Rob a shoebox and said, ‘The plan is to deliver it to Mr Satoshi’. Talking to one of his mother’s friends at the home, Rob discovers that ‘Mr Satoshi’ was a nickname for a man named Reggie, with whom Alice was in love before she ever met Rob’s father, and now apparently resident (if, that is, he’s still alive) in Japan.

This man now becomes the focus of Rob’s life. Having mentioned Japan in passing to his agent, Rob finds himself travelling there, ostensibly to take the photographs that will re-ignite his career, but really to track down Reggie/Satoshi and hand him Alice’s package. Rob falls in with a student named Chiyoko, who also works as a receptionist at a ‘love hotel’ in Tokyo; and, together, they set about trying to find out the truth about the mysterious Mr Satoshi.

What strikes me in particular about Jonathan Lee’s first novel is that, for all that the question posed by the title is central to the novel – really, it’s the very engine that drives the story – in some ways it is one of its less interesting aspects. The answer to ‘who is Mr Satoshi?’ is less important, I think, than what the mystery represents to Rob Fossick – it doesn’t just promise the truth about his mother’s life, it also brings purpose to Rob’s life (though he might not recognise or admit the latter). Lee is particularly good at showing the changes in Rob’s character: his reclusiveness and reliance on pills make it hard for him to deal with the bustle and noise of Tokyo at first; but the eye of the photographer is still there, though it takes the ups and downs of Rob’s relationship with Chiyoko to bring it to the fore.

Thy mystery of Satoshi itself is quite interesting, but I don’t think it would have pulled me through the book if it hadn’t been bolstered by the deft characterisation of Rob. And I do feel that the novel concentrates on the mystery to the extent that some of the broader detail that could have rounded the book out more is pushed out. But Who is Mr Satoshi? is a welcome debut, and it will be interesting to see what Lee does next.

Elsewhere
Louise Laurie reviews Who is Mr Satoshi? at The Bookbag

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