Reading really is a strange and unpredictable business, isn’t it? This week I began two books, which you can see displayed in the currently reading section of the side bar. You by Joanna Briscoe I saw in the bookshop and pounced upon. The story of a young woman’s adolescent obsession with her English literature teacher, told twenty years later when she returns to her old home to deal with her estranged mother and the aftermath of that illicit relationship. I thought it sounded right up my alley, and a friend of mine had already recommended Joanna Briscoe to me as a good novelist. The Tea Lords by Hella S. Haase I bought online for a penny plus postage and packing. I noticed it was one of the readalong books for Dutch Literature Month, and thought I’d join in for no better reason than I already own one Hella Haase novel with a truly gorgeous cover that I ought to get around to reading one day. There were a few mutterings of uncertainty in the blogs about Hella Haase generally, not much really to encourage me to pick it up, but I thought I would anyway.
And of course, it turns out that I’m thoroughly enjoying The Tea Lords whilst feeling somewhat ho hum about You. Both would be classified as literary novels, but there is a notable difference in style. I’m finding You a bit overwritten, although you could equally call the prose rich or lush or some such term. There’s a lot of description that strains for effect, freighting the sentences with a heavy burden of emotions. One step further and it’s at risk of being purple, although in all fairness there are some lovely turns of phrase and the author works the slender story for all it’s worth. The Tea Lords, by contrast, is written in the sort of cool understated prose I personally enjoy. I’d call it elegant, although I wouldn’t be surprised if others found it dry. But set in the late 19th century and focalised through the consciousness of a young and quite uptight man, desperate to fulfil his ambitions of a successful tea plantation in Java, it feels perfectly in keeping with the period for me. And I’m really enjoying the story of his entry into the colonial lifestyle and a large and powerful family full of secrets he has yet to uncover.
I would never have guessed it. I was expecting to race through You and plough through The Tea Lords and it’s the other way about. It still strikes me as odd that despite all my years of reading I can’t tell which book is going to really please me and which will be an also-ran. And things could change again, depending on how these two novels unfold. It is such a strange and yet fascinating dynamic, the interaction between reader and story, constantly shifting, constantly transforming. What motivates our attachment to one story and not another? It feels to me as if voice is all, that what actually happens falls a distant second to the way that the story is told.
One other slightly strange thing: when I was idly looking around the internet for reviews, You by Joanna Briscoe had pretty much a full crop of the main national papers. Now I also happen to be reading The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan, which I’ve put to one side for the moment as it wasn’t quite what I’ve been in the mood for. Stylistically, I’d probably put it alongside the Joanna Briscoe. Although it doesn’t go in for outmoded expressions to evoke the 16th century, the cadences of the prose are distinctly old-fashioned. I thought it was quite cleverly done, in fact. But there are no newspaper reviews for it at all that I could find online, only reviews from bloggers. So does this mean that this novel is considered genre, whereas the Joanna Briscoe is considered literary? I suppose it must. Ah well, back at the start of the 20th century, the Russian Formalists tried to define what constituted literary language by close analysis of poetry. They never really managed it, which goes to show what a thorny problem it is, deciding stylistically what creates a literary effect.