I wonder how long other bloggers leave it before reviewing a book they have read? There is definitely an optimum time for me, which is no more than a couple of days. Once the critical period has passed, my enthusiasm for a lengthy review falters, and there really has to be something I want to say if I still manage to write about a book several weeks after I’ve finished it. But on the other hand, I hate good novels to fall by the blogging wayside because of my own laziness. About ten days ago I finished two novels in quick succession and I enjoyed them both; in the spirit of catching up I thought I’d post a couple of brief reviews.
The first was Between Each Breath by Adam Thorpe. He is a British author who is often placed in the same kind of category as William Boyd, but Boyd has become a far better known name. That’s not fair because the one thing I really learned during the course of this novel is that Thorpe is an extraordinarily gifted writer. He sticks in my mind because of an incident that occurred years ago when I was working in the bookshop. He had just published his first novel, Ulverton, to huge critical acclaim. I was on the till when a customer, an elderly-ish lady, came up to me and slapped a copy of the book down on the counter between us. ‘That’s my son-in-law who wrote that!’ she declared triumphantly. ‘You must be very proud,’ I returned, in the conventional manner. I couldn’t help but wonder how many bookshops she had gone into and how many copies of the novel she had purchased, enjoying her reflected glory. I have a copy of Ulverton and must read it. It is the story of a village over 500 years in time, each chapter based in a different historical era and each written in a different narrative style, including an exchange of letters, a diary entry, a stream-of-consciousness monologue and a film script.
Anyhoo, Between Each Breath is a far more conventional novel altogether. It’s the story of contemporary composer, Jack Middleton, who goes to Estonia to seek inspiration for a piece of music he is writing and falls unexpectedly into an affair with a waitress he meets there. It’s a holiday romance, ending to Jack’s mind when he returns home to his rich and pregnant wife, Milly. But disaster strikes and Jack’s past comes back to haunt him in destructive ways. I can’t say much about the plot of this book without giving away spoilers. Suffice to say, the reader can see what’s coming from early on, but that doesn’t mean I should tell you. The strength of the novel is in the writing, which is outstanding, despite a little Nick Hornby-esque blokishness in Jack’s narrative that I could personally have lived without. What made me slightly uneasy was the way that Jack’s work as a composer and Milly’s as an expert on green living were somehow equated and placed high and dry above the run of everyday concerns. They both seemed somehow outdated or irrelevant, passionate about causes that verged upon irrelevance in modern life. I guess novels that have an element of social commentary are always struggling not to put across mixed messages. Still, I will read Adam Thorpe again and am keen to get hold of his novel The Rules of Perspective, which is set in the Second World War and brings together a young GI in love with a piece of art and four Germans huddled in a museum basement during an Allied bombing attack. I’d like to see him let loose on some richer material.
The other novel I read was Barbara Vine’s A Dark-Adapted Eye. This is again a story that I can tell you very little about, for fear of spoiling the tension. No, I’ve been thinking about it for five minutes now and I can’t even begin to explain what happens in this novel. But it is extremely good and I will certainly be reading her again. It’s a curious thing but I never got on with the Ruth Rendell novels; there was something queasy and unsatisfying about Inspector Wexford. But Barbara Vine has a classy spareness to her writing, and an unerring instinct for the place where festering emotions turn pathological. It’s also a wonderful book for me being all about mothers and children, in dark, twisted and disturbing ways. I had hoped to bring you news today about my motherhood project. I’ve been writing for a while now and had found on line a provider of writing coaches who will work one-to-one in correspondence. Having totted up the money I’d earned this term I thought I could afford to try a ten-week course and duly signed up. However, nothing in this writing venture seems to go straightforwardly at the moment and the 48-hour response window elapsed with perfect air silence being maintained. No writing coach got in touch with me. I contacted the writing site again to check I’d filled the forms in right, and was assured that I had; they were just waiting to hear back from the tutor. And so I’ve reached the end of the week and still I’ve heard nothing. What can be going on? Naturally, I’m assuming that the tutor has read my application and loathed the sound of me and is refusing to comply. Sometimes I despair; still, looking on the bright side I used my credit card and can easily get my money back if this falls through. Hey ho, I do have some more good reading ahead. I’ve become interested in Hungarian authors recently in translation and picked up a cheap copy of Peter Esterhazy’s Celestial Harmonies (it’s enormous) to add to Magda Szabo’s The Door and Antal Szerb’s Journey into Moonlight. But this weekend I’m intending to finish The Women’s Room and Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. I’ll be reviewing them both, hopefully within a few days of reading the closing pages when inspiration is still fresh.
Update: Well, would you believe it. At 9.30 on Friday evening, when I certainly was not expecting to get an email, I heard from the writing course people to say they had assigned me a tutor. I’ve looked her up online and like her work very much, so yay! I’m not expecting to begin work before April so this is a story I’ll return to later on.