I’m trying to draw a line here. For the past seven or eight days I’ve compulsively fiddled about with the two chapters I’ve been writing and now I absolutely have to let go. And yet it’s so difficult when every time I think of them, I think of a sentence that needs to be altered, or a step in the exposition that isn’t sufficiently clear. But I really must let it all settle for a while – before I decide that the whole tone is wrong, that is, and I start hacking about in them with even greater intent. No. Enough already. Well, at least for the next few days.
So, one thing I must do is catch up on the books that have been keeping me company and providing some much-needed respite. First up is Simon van Booy’s short story collection The Secret Lives of People in Love. Isn’t that a great title? It’s a beautiful book, too, an unusual size with a ghosty sepia photo on the cover. Talking of photos, Simon van Booy himself appears on the back looking like a male model with his dark-rimmed spectacles perched on his Johnny Depp-alike face. I am instantly mistrustful of young men who wear three-piece suits, however. Call me shallow as a teaspoon but I did wonder what on earth his writing would actually be like, and feared a degree of pretension. In fact it is a little pretentious but it is so sweetly and charmingly done that it barely hurts at all. I found myself repeatedly appreciating the premise of his stories, which are mostly bittersweet, featuring people dealing with the loss of loved ones or aching disappointments in their lives. His settings are markedly international, and I admired enormously his capacity to conjure up an exotic setting, whether it be the Paris metro, a Greek island, a Russian shoemaker in exile in New York, a rusting hulk of a car, overgrown with brambles. The stories read to me like adult fairy tales, which is to say like passages through grief or danger wrapped up in slightly magical circumstances. Van Booy is very good at making you care about his odd characters, and the best of his stories are profoundly touching. ‘Where They Hide Is A Mystery’ was one of my favourites, the story of the young boy, Edgar, whose mother has recently died and whose father has closed in on himself with grief. Alone in the park where his mother used to take him, Edgar meets a strange Indian man with a gift of compassionate prescience. Discerning the boy’s state, he takes him on an unusual tour of New York in order to refind his mother in unexpected but familiar places. I also liked ‘Some Bloom in Darkness’ about a man who falls in love with a waxwork in a shop window. There’s a distinct theme to the collection of the eccentric and the bizarre bound up with very authentic and piercing human emotions. But I will take a tiny bit of issue with van Booy’s experimental use of language. Given that van Booy strives continuously for unusual descriptions and ways of phrasing, his success rate is admirably high, but every so often I found myself longing for a simple, direct sentence. And occasionally some of his experiments produce strange results. Some I really appreciated, for instance: ‘The curling limbs of the tree were studded with apples, and children grew within the branches, laughing and hanging upside down.’ Some I thought were daring and just about okay: ‘Although the day’s heat was still settling, dark bruises drifted across the sky, stopping above the river to admire themselves.’ And some made me think, Eh? ‘Like people, all rivers are falling.’ ‘Night unravels the day and reinvents it for the first time.’ What do these sentences actually mean? Still, you have to admire a writer who strives so hard to be original and who succeeds with admirable frequency and I would certainly recommend this collection as a bold and unusual debut.
Next up is Clare Chambers’ wonderful new novel, The Editor’s Wife. I’ve long been a fan of her work, and I know the delightful Danielle is also an admirer. I think Clare Chambers is like an English Anne Tyler; she has the same kind of easy writing style, pervaded with humour, the same kind of all too human characters, mired in their eccentricities, and the same gift of making the impossibly happy resolutions of their dilemmas seem like the most natural outcome in the world. She’s comfort reading, yes, but she’s also class. In this story, the narrator, Christopher Flinders, is a middle-aged man in something of a rut, but twenty years ago he was an aspiring novelist with the most wonderful mentors a young man from an uninspiring family background could possible hope for. Despite his upbringing in unlovely suburbia with gently embarrassing parents and a bitter case of sibling rivalry with his eccentric brother, Gerald (the most lovable unsympathetic character I have had the pleasure of reading in a long time), Chris finds himself being swept up into the social circle of literary editor, Owen Goddard, and his perfect wife, Diana. Clare Chambers is brilliant at describing the kind of infatuation with another family that grips adolescents who are ill at ease in their own. Unfortunately, and inevitably, Chris becomes too close to one member of the family and before long his association with the Goddards ends in tragedy. When the novel begins, two long, dull decades have passed, his literary career and his love life are both in the doldrums, and a young academic researcher seeking information on Owen Goddard is about to turn his life upside down. What can I say? I loved it. I didn’t want it to end. When it had finished I couldn’t find another book to replace it for some time. This is the kind of book you need to read when you’ve been in a reading slump, or when the world seems a cruel and thankless place, or when you need the kind of distraction that nurtures hope in your heart.
It did take quite a while to find the next book to read, but eventually I settled on The Wedding Officer by Anthony Capella. It’s described on the cover as a cross between Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Chocolat, and I think, in terms of the story line, that’s really quite accurate. Only be warned that whilst both of those novels could be classified as literary reads, Capella’s book is smoothly, untaxingly, competently written. It’s comfort reading again, and not quite so classy as Clare Chambers, but I would hate to do it a disservice. Joanne Harris and Louis de Bernières are both, in their way, significant modern writers and to be brought into the same subset as them is an honour which Capella’s book deserves. Set towards the end of the second world war, in Naples and the countryside surrounding Vesuvius, it tells the story of Livia Pertini, a talented young Italian cook who finds that the war brings intolerable hardships to her family and its restaurant business. At the same time, twenty-two year old James Gould arrives in Naples to try to help smooth the transition from German occupation to Allied-led freedom. The city is a hotbed of corruption, from the scavenging children who dismantle the army jeeps as soon as they come to a halt, to the mafia black market in penicillin. James, uptight, inexperienced and hopelessly polite, is somewhat out of his depth as he tries to bring law and order to his environment. But eventually he masters the language, makes sense of the Neapolitan way of doing business, falls in love and learns to cook. The descriptions of food are some of the best parts, and I don’t suggest you read this when you’re hungry. It’s a very good story, lots of plot, a broad and detailed picture of what Italy went through during the war and it has a very moving ending. A very good holiday read.
And finally, I’m going to attempt to upload the two chapters I’ve written as pages on the blog, and I would be very grateful indeed if anyone found the time or inclination to let me have some feedback. Well, grateful doesn’t quite cover it: my undying affection is what’s really on offer.