I’ve been busy reviewing a non-fiction book this week as well: A Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney exploring the hidden or misinterpreted literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. You can read my review on the Byte the Book site here. A Secret Sisterhood is one of those books from which you absorb information without realising it. With a forward from Margaret Atwood, it’s a manifesto for female literary friendship and is out 1st June. You can preorder the book here.
Sonja is forty and wants to learn to drive. The instructions of the title represent all those automatic functions through which our lives are meant to pass: learning to drive, getting a job, getting married, having children etc. etc. But Sonja moved from the countryside – Balling, Jutland to be specific – to come to college and though she is now a translator working mostly on the crime novels of one author (she doesn’t even like crime fiction), she struggles to translate her country self into her town self and vice versa. She feels as if she doesn’t fit in either place.
To top it off, she’s fallen out with her sister who still lives in Balling, and her positional vertigo is playing up. Technically, anyone with positional vertigo probably shouldn’t even be allowed a driving license so she’s hiding the condition from her driving school.
When she was a child she hid in the fields, she ran off to look at the whooper swans and her mind keeps returning to the fields, to her ability to spot rogue stalks of wheat in the rye, to the necks and calls of the swans.
Her life is not as she expected. All those intimate connections are missing. Her sister avoids speaking to her and even the friend she moved to Copenhagen with has changed her name and used Sonja to cover for her marital indiscretions. So instead Sonja has a massage therapist to touch her and driving instructors she hopes will help her learn to change gear.
The story, perhaps, may not appeal to all, but the writing is so beautifully married to the darting, connective, fluctuations of consciousness in which current experience is responded to, challenged, influenced and ignored by memory, conjecture and nuanced interpretation, that the small moments of Sonja’s life are truly evocative and such a joy to read. Reading Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is like stepping into Sonja’s mind. This single woman in her forties may be depressed but her thoughts are multifaceted gemstones that sparkle under the light. Sometimes, someone needs to stand to the side of what it expected and ask why. Sometimes, someone needs to remember. Sonja is just that person. So even though the novel feels mundane, it is everything but. Not every journey requires a rite of passage. Not every person should learn to drive…
Those of you who know me will laugh at the last sentence, so I’ll come clean and admit I’m 40 and can’t drive either. I stand by my response to the book though. Driving represents a step on the ladder of life’s expectations. Just like the fortune teller Sonja meets at a party, this sense of having a future already laid out for you, is one Sonja deeply struggles with.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.
Next week I’m reviewing Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone.
Reservoir 13 begins with a search for a missing thirteen-year-old girl, visiting the village with her parents.
It’s easy to imagine where the novel will go. There is the possibility of a murder mystery or a crime thriller. You read on eager to take slow steps further into the lives of the villagers, the parents, perhaps even the young girl, Rebecca Shaw, but as the seasons pass and the press move back to the towns, as the mating cycles of the local birds, the foxes and badgers are described with the accompanying change in weather, that closer, deeper, more personal step never quite happens.
This overarching distance is what makes Reservoir 13 so unusual. You can see the changes in the countryside and its inhabitants at the same pace from the same perspective. This is not to say that we don’t swoop in and follow small intimate moments in each villagers life, moments that provoke reader reflection and interpretation, but we don’t stay focussed in for long. We watch the village from a distance, always returning to the memory of the missing girl, Rebecca, Becky, Bex, whose absence marks the landscape and provides a refrain for the passage of time. Continue reading Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
This is a very popular and highly-acclaimed novel, which I have really struggled to review. Set in the Victorian era, Cora Seaborne is a woman of means freed from her abusive marriage by her husband’s death. She embraces her freedom by pursuing the science of fossil-hunting, marching through the countryside in men’s boots and coats, searching for the Essex serpent, hoping to uncover its connection to the beasts or dinosaurs of Mary Anning. Continue reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Lincoln in the Bardo is a strange and remarkable book. Set against quotations from documents written in the time of Lincoln’s presidency – quotations which privilege the elusive nature of fact and truth in the face of multiple perspectives – are excerpts of the voices of the dead residing in the cemetery in which Willie Lincoln, President Lincoln’s son, is interred. We see the Lincolns hosting a party while their son lies sick upstairs. We watch the funeral. And we witness Willie Lincoln rise up from his grave, missing his father.
There is something delightful, playful, about the mixture of fact and invention, especially when both are shown to be questionable. The President’s eyes change colour depending upon the account and most of the ghosts think themselves merely sick, despite having to return to their rotting bodies every night. Continue reading Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders