Not that this is about big books; I promise I haven’t suddenly taken to reading atlases and oversize childrens picture books. No, this is a big round-up of some of the wonderful books I’ve read this year but haven’t reviewed. 2010 has been very light on reviews for this blog, mostly because the middle of the year found me briefly tired of writing them. I never thought such a thing could be possible, but there it is: too much of anything turns out, eventually, to be just too much. But of course, when I wasn’t reviewing I was naturally reading some fairly outstanding books.
First of all I have to mention The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters. Set across WW2 and into its stunned aftermath, the novel follows the fortunes of a small group of people, linked by love or chance. Most people will be aware that it’s chronologically backwards, beginning when the war is over, then heading back into the past to understand what life has done to the characters. Waters uses this device quite brilliantly, so that when I finally reached the last step back in time, I was actually wincing in anticipation of finally uncovering the trials and traumas that lie at the origin of the characters’ malaise. The writing of this book is perfect: economical and elegant, emotionally intense and fiercely evocative. It’s strong stuff but be warned, other books may look insipid by comparison for a little while afterwards.
Also brilliant, but in a completely different way is Ali Smith’s Booker-shortlisted novel, The Accidental. It’s the story of a dysfunctional family on holiday in Norfolk, who are unexpectedly joined by a young woman, Amber, who breaks down in her car outside their rented house and who they let into their lives under the misapprehension that she is known to one of them. The story is recounted from a shifting perspective that passes through all four members of the family as Amber works her black magic on them; the best voice by far is that of Astrid, 12-year-old daughter of the house who has a video camera and is obsessed with taping all the nothingness that isn’t happening in her life. A clever, witty, inventive tale that gives a lot of pause for thought.
Salley Vickers’ novel, Dancing Backwards isn’t a big production, or a particularly dramatic story. But it is pure, well-observed, insightful enjoyment. It’s essentially the story of Violet Heatherington, a woman of a certain age, who is crossing the Atlantic on a cruise ship in order to visit a very significant old friend who fell out of her life many years ago. As the ship sails on, so we learn Vi’s back story, as well as following the curious relationship she develops with Dino, the dance host on the ocean liner. Reading the book was much like going on a cruise – I joyfully lost myself in it, swept up in the story and the loveliness of Vicker’s prose and allowed myself to be transported to intriguing locations.
Comedy award of the year has to go to David Nicholl’s coming of age story, Starter for Ten. It’s the story of university student, Brian Jackson, a spotty, clever and socially challenged English student, who meets the love of his life (or so he reckons) the beautiful but distant Alice Harbinson. Partly to woo her, and partly because he’s a geek, he inveigles himself onto the University Challenge team, but really that’s only the start of his troubles. This was such a funny book, just hilarious about boys of a certain age, but with some rather pithy things to say about class and education, too. I read it, Mister Litlove read it and then – shock! – our son read it. And we ALL loved it.
Earlier in the year I had a bit of a Persephone-fest. I read two Dorothy Whipples and can only agree with everyone who says that she is an outstanding writer. Someone At A Distance and They Were Sisters both displayed her stellar talents for domestic tragedy. Simple family stories, one might say, but packed with a profundity of emotion and penetrating psychological insight far greater than you’d find in any so-called clever novel. Take tissues though; Whipple makes you care about her characters and then she does terrible things to them. Not so at all the other two Persephones I read, which were much more interested in soothing and reassuring their readers. Greenery Street by Denis Mackail is a charming tale of a young couple in the first year of their marriage. Nothing much happens, apart from everyday occurrences, mishaps, misunderstandings and a lot of froth. I did enjoy it, but the book suffered from coming directly after The Night Watch. Also a sugary but delightful confection is Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson, about the eponymous Miss Buncle and her direct translation of village life into a bestselling novel. When her neighbours realize (as inevitably they must) that they have been transformed into fiction, some find it enraging, some find it amusing and all, one way or another, submit eventually to the literary fate that Miss Buncle has imagined for them.
Right, how are we all doing? Are you flagging yet? Take a deep breath because we’re heading off into non-fiction territory now. The food critic, Ruth Reichl’s memoir, Tender At The Bone, is a perfect example of a certain kind of autobiographical writing that reads like a novel. Reichl’s difficult relationship with her domestically-challenged mother is portrayed hilariously, without covering up the sense of abandonment and isolation that Reichl felt as a child and young woman. Her mother once poisoned twenty-two guests at a party intended to celebrate Ruth’s brother’s marriage, but which she commandeered as a benefit for her latest fund raising cause. You don’t have to be Freud to spot the origins of Reichl’s love of food, or understand the pain it assuages.
Equally brilliant on troublesome family relationships is Vivian Gornick in her memoir Fierce Attachments. Gornick grew up in the Jewish ghettos in New York, part of a vibrant community of troubled but striving individuals. The story focuses on Gornick’s mother, a drama queen of outrageous proportions whose reaction to her husband’s death (when Gornick was barely a teenager) was an avalanche of grief that drowned out the feelings of the young Vivian and clearly terrified her. Gornick is not quite so kind to her mother as Reichl is to hers, but she is more honest and upfront about the feelings that bind her, even if negatively, and unwillingly, to her mother still. This book was so incredibly well written. One that I really want to read again and savour.
It’s always the eccentrically abusive parents who make for the best memoirs. I also read and enjoyed Cheaper By The Dozen, by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, two of the twelve children suffering at the hands of their economist father. This book is written for the laughs and does its best to smother any nascent discontent that might quite justifiably be aroused in the breasts of children whose father’s dominant parenting trait has been to turn them into a long-term time-and-motion study. Mister Litlove recommended the book to me because he’d never forgotten the anecdotes about the children being made to listen to French and German records whenever they were in the bathroom, with the idea being that they would all learn to speak the language. I taught French for many years and I can promise you that this method does not work. One might be able to parrot a few phrases, but one will never understand a native speaker’s responses. Anyhow, it was a lot like that all the way through; crazy ideas put into practice by a single-minded father, who somehow they all loved and respected. Well, it’s a nice fantasy.
Finally, the biography of the year was The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson. An excellent study of Dorothy Wordsworth and her brother, William, this book is brought alive by the extraordinarily vivid portrait that Wilson manages to paint of her subject. I really admired this because it was not that it read like a novel, which is the sort of easy way out of doing the spade work of biography, but it nevertheless remained constantly informative and entertaining. I came away from it feeling like I had actually got to know Dorothy and William, and been up close to them as three-dimensional people. I’m not quite sure how Wilson did it, but I was most impressed.
Phew! Well, that will teach me not to keep pace with my reviewing in 2011. But it’s certainly been a year of rich and delightful reading. On Friday I’ll post my list of best books of 2010 – probably the one ritual that really marks the start of the festive season for me!