The Lost Horizon by James Hilton

Reading The Lost Horizon is a bit like being transported into a grown-up version of a boy’s adventure story. There is a touch of Conrad, a feeling of Greene. It’s all secrets, conspiracies, the aftermath of war and how that impacts upon a person.

Told within the framework of two school friends speaking of another, the narrator tells his friend’s account of Conway’s story. Rutherford met Conway on a ship. Conway had lost his memory but Rutherford’s memory of him reawakens Conway to himself and allows him to tell Rutherford his unusual tale.

Conway was being evacuated from Baskul to Peshwar but his plane was high-jacked and crashed somewhere in the Tibetan mountains. The surviving passengers were met by an old monk who takes them to the hidden valley and monastery of Shangri-la under the beautiful shadow of the Blue Moon Mountain. As their stay at Shangri-la is prolonged, Conway begins to unravel the mystery of this hidden vision of utopia.

I’m not sure if I would embrace the moderate lifestyle of Shangri-la but it is exciting to believe there could be secret places unbound by poverty, hunger and war, carefully maintaining human achievement without the fierce bias of self-defence.

The Lost Horizon is a clear-headed account of human nature and endeavour that combines mystery, ambition and adventure. The handed down nature of the story beautifully conveys the development of myth making The Lost Horizon a great telling of a great story.

Next week I’m reading The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing, followed by The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler which has been longlisted for the Man Booker. I look forward to more of your comments and reading suggestions.

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner is a novel of a life, a supposedly unremarkable life whose telling shows the beauty of a quiet every day lived in love. The protagonist, William Stoner, is the son of a farmer who is the first in his family to go up to university to study agriculture and make more of their arid patch of land. Whilst there, Stoner discovers literature and never turns back. He becomes a literature professor, turning away from worldly pursuits in favour of the academic. The careful turn of words earns his love and passion in a way that occasionally lives in his personal life. He never amounts to anything but a teacher academically and his marriage is a difficult one, but there is such beauty in this life of principle that none of these things matter. To live, to love to live, even for a little, is enough.

Stoner is a beautiful novel that stands in the face of the Great American Novel and calmly, gently, with delicate precision, sticks its fingers up and asks what really matters. Brilliant. I don’t want to say more than that because I urge you to read it for yourself.

Next week I’m reading The Lost Horizon by James Hilton, followed by The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing and The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills. Do keep your comments and suggestions coming.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

Set in rural Ireland after the housing bubble burst, The Spinning Heart takes individual voices and blends them into a story of loss and despondency. The stories spin around the heart in Bobby Mahon’s childhood home, around living hearts that struggle to push through hardened arteries or nervous dispositions, around the family, the hearth that is the true heart of generations grown on father’s anger, God’s anger, or on motherly cowardice or resentment. There isn’t a tale that escapes some kind of family cruelty, every person trying their best to make it one day more.

The craft the novel displays is artful and well-conceived, though I would argue at times a little sentimental. Bobby Mahon is the local hero against whom other men measure themselves and Donal Ryan allows the law of tragedy that rips through lives with an unfounded chaos, driving men mad, to tear up this community with Bobby as their scapegoat. Someone has to pay for the scams of the boom years. It can’t be the man who made off with everyone’s money because he is long gone. The desire to kill one’s father becomes enough to condemn Bobby, and over it all hangs the question of what now. Amidst the chaos what really matters?

The Spinning Heart is a beautiful, powerful novel and deserving winner of the Guardian First Novel Award last year, but it wasn’t quite for me. I’m not sure if it was Bobby’s father’s dead voice that lost me, or simply my corresponding despondency in the face of the well-described listlessness of recession. I read the novel almost as if it were a dream that is all too easy to wake from. That may say more about me than the novel. There can be no doubt this is a novel worth reading, it’s just simply not my favourite so far this year.

Next week I’ll be reading Stoner by John Williams, followed by The Lost Horizon by James Hilton and The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing. Please do comment and send in suggestions for future reading.

In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

In Great Waters is set in a world reminiscent of the time of the Tudors, ruled by royals who are half-human, half-deepsmen (mermen). One of their ancestors saved Venice from attack by communing with the deepsmen – who easily destroyed the armies invading by sea – and showed the tactical advantage of such interbreeding. As it is strictly forbidden for all but royals to interbreed, over time the bloodline inevitably weakens. Interbreeding creates mad or disabled royals and many kingdoms suffer, particularly England where the novel is set.

Though the King’s eldest son married a healthy foreign royal and produced two daughters, his other son is considered an idiot. When his eldest son dies without creating any male heirs and the King himself grows weak, the country fears its crown will be seized by foreign hands. Anne, the youngest princess, whose face glows with the phosphorescence of the very deep, feigns stupidity as a means for survival, but when there are sailors’ bastards, foreigners and idiots threatening the English throne, she’s forced to come out of hiding.

Whistle is one of the bastards. A product of illegal interbreeding – his mother slept with a sailor – he sees himself as pure deepsman, the intensity of daily survival always at the forefront of his mind. But his split fin makes him weaker than the others and when he can no longer keep up with the tribe, and he gets too big for his mother to drag along at speed, she forces him onto the shore and abandons him there. A nobleman takes him in, calls him Henry, tries to teach him to walk with sticks – his flexible fins aren’t easy to walk on – and cowers under the knowledge of Henry’s potential for the thrown.

This is bloody and naked fantasy of the kind that would make a fantastic film or television series not unlike The Game of Thrones. The novel fully understands the highs and lows of human nature. A gripping read, In Great Waters explores the wild heart of our human history. I thoroughly recommend it.

Next week I’m reading The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan followed by Stoner by John Williams and The Lost Horizon by James Hilton.

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

Set in Western Australia, The Light Between Oceans is a heart-wrenching story. Tom Sherbourne, an Australian WW1 hero turns to lighthouse keeping on his return from the war and meets and marries a local girl, Isabel, who breathes life back into his heart. Though happy, they suffer three miscarriages. When a boat washes onto their island with a dead man and a tiny baby inside, their simple lives become awash with moral and emotional dilemmas.

Such a story is gripping enough but no summary can do justice to how well M. L. Stedman explores the complexities of human experience. It’s the kind of novel that gets you weeping, but in empathy rather than for sentiment. The language of the novel flows with an ease many writers would like to achieve. It is beautiful but clear, adept but not showy. There is great subtlety of feeling and expression. Even though lighthouses allow for all those beautiful plays of light and metaphor – no man is an island, though several of the men in the novel do their best to stand as beacons to others in treacherous waters – Stedman never takes it too far.

In a way, marooning a family on a lighthouse island, not much more than a rock, allows Stedman to explore the family unit in isolation. It gives the novel a feeling of timelessness, a relevance that ripples out over the oceans. Families, individuals, often like to imagine their private lives owe nothing to society, that private decisions have no impact on others but The Light Between Oceans magnifies the falsehood of such imaginings.

Through all of the emotional drama, the landscape, the flora and fauna, the wildlife, the weather of that corner of Western Australia is depicted with a precision that takes you there. And all of these aspects – character, story, setting, language, social commentary – create a book with very wide appeal. It is an impressive achievement.

Though you may well have read this novel – it has been on bestseller lists for some time and was Richard and Judy’s summer read last year – if you haven’t, I urge you to give it a go. The Light Between Oceans works on the beach as well as in the library. I can’t wait to read her next one.

Next week I’m reading In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield and following that, The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan. Do keep your comments and suggestions coming.