I’ve noticed there’s a hidden law of physics that decrees that once a Best-Of list has been published for the year, you are bound to come across a number of books subsequently that you wish you could have included in it. I’m now trying to figure out if there’s a flaw in my plan to post my Best of 2012 next September, thus ensuring myself an autumn of excellent reading.
In the last few days before Christmas I read The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin. How I wish I could remember on which blogger’s site I’d seen a mention of it! The cover has one word reviews from four national publications, and the words read: ‘Haunting’, ‘Stunning’, ‘Heartbreaking’ and ‘Wonderful’. I have to say that I completely agree. On the inside back cover, my paperback copy holds a picture of Olga Grushin and she looks lovely: a smooth cap of brown hair, sparkling dark eyes, a big smile, hands crossed under her chin. I can’t tell you how much I wanted her to be my friend, but instead, I rushed out and bought her second novel.
The Dream Life of Sukhanov begins in a state of deceptive calm. We meet the eponymous Anatoly Sukhanov as he arrives at a prestigious retrospective exhibition of his father-in-law’s paintings, beautiful wife Nina and his two grown-up children in tow. Sukhanov is a highly respected art critic, who lives in a sumptuous apartment in Moscow and has his own chauffeur. Everything in his life seems to suggest a man at the apogee of his talents and achievements. But as the evening progresses, indications arise that his self-satisfaction comes at the cost of strenuous denial. Nina leaves early with one of her headaches, and while Sukhanov waits outside the state university, wondering how to get home without his chauffeur, he has a disturbing encounter with a figure from his past, the underground artist Lev Belkin. Over the course of the next few days, Sukhanov’s tidy existence begins to unravel, a host of memories, some welcome, some distinctly troubling, start to surface in his mind, and despite his resistance, Sukhanov finds himself on the brink of losing all he holds dear, obliged to confront the truth of his life.
This is such a beautiful and clever book, delicately paced, whose episodes stretch out effortlessly to encompass a vivid tapestry of details bringing Sukhanov’s hidden conflicts to poignant life. The novel is written entirely from Sukhanov’s perspective, and as he begins to make contact with the dark underside of his existence, so the prose shifts subtly from third person to first person narrative. Grushin also has fun playing with the uncertainties between dream and reality, as Sukhanov’s troubled state of mind worsens, his mental clarity deteriorates, and he finds himself with increasing frequency in places and situations that he can barely comprehend. He must find out what really happened to his father, a man he believed had been spirited away to one of Russia’s many prisons, only to return to commit suicide in front of his wife and young son. He must consider what really happened to his own career as an artist with a taste for the sort of Surrealist painting that was strictly forbidden by the state. And he must confront the reality of his marriage to Nina, a woman who loved genuine artistic talent as much, unfortunately, as she loved money and comfort. Although most of these quests offer only disturbing answers, the effect on Sukhanov is ultimately liberating. But this brilliant book ends with the most ambiguous conclusion I think I’ve had the pleasure of reading, one that is wholly appropriate for its sustained tussle between dream and reality.
That outstanding read was followed by Gifts from the Sea, which you already know I love, and then Nora Ephron’s humorous essay collection, I Feel Bad About My Neck. This was also a treat and just so funny. I’ve become all interested in Ephron now, and have decided to watch Sleepless in Seattle when I next feel like a movie (I saw When Harry Met Sally many years ago). So, more about her another time.
The other novel I must tell you about is The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller, one of the books I was given for Christmas. This was another excellent read, although to be strictly accurate, it was the first book I finished in 2012 and so not viable for any end-of-year lists. It is, I suppose literary crime fiction. It’s set a few years after the end of the First World War and focuses on Laurence Bartram, a man who has survived the fighting only to end up alone and feckless, unsure of the direction his life should take. Interest comes in the form of a family friend, Mary Emmett, who has been stunned by the recent suicide of her brother, John. John and Laurence were boys at school together, and when Laurence’s parents died, he was offered warm welcome and a surrogate family life in the holidays with the Emmetts. At university their ways parted, however, so Laurence feels little more than common soldierly solidarity with his old school friend. For Mary, however, he feels more than he should, and so in order to please her he takes over the enquiry, aiming at first to find out more about John’s state of mind before his death. Before long, however, he has uncovered the bones of a terrible tragedy surrounding the execution of a deserter. Compelled to get to the truth of the matter, Laurence is horrified to discover that in wartime, the worst atrocities are not always committed by the enemy.
This was another gorgeously written novel, very rich in both information and atmosphere. Subplots abound about life in mental institutions in the 1920s and wartime poets, as well as the summary justice of the trenches. What I loved about it was the way that each witness that Laurence talked to had a full story to give him, one bursting with details about the time period as well as pertinent information to the enquiry. Each part of the jigsaw, if you like, was well-structured and satisfying, leaving the reader with much to consider. I can’t bear those investigations where the detective never asks the questions that seem blindingly obvious, and hedges about with the suspects, getting nowhere fast. I loved this, and will be watching out for the next in what I suppose will become a series, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton. I thought Speller’s name was oddly familiar, though, and it turns out I have a memoir by her that was written much earlier, The Sunlight on the Garden: A Family in Love, War and Madness. The way that reading spawns even more reading is at once a delight and a frustration! Not that I’m complaining, really. With Olga Grushin’s next novel, Speller’s memoir, Anne Morrow Lindburgh’s diaries from the library and more essays by Ephron, not to mention her films to watch, I am actually a very happy woman indeed.