The Anchoress by Paul Blaney

It took me a couple of pages to get into The Anchoress by Paul Blaney, but as soon as I found my bearings, oddly just as the main character, Maggie, did, I was hooked. I wanted to read until I’d read it all.

This is the story of a woman who crawls into her walk-in wardrobe one day, turns off all the lights, and doesn’t stray beyond her bathroom until she has figured out why she crawled in there in the first place. The novel begins with a dream of the past and ends with dreams of the future, a future unclouded by delusions Maggie created for herself when her mother died.

Not only is The Anchoress touching and believable it is also full of beautiful gems about the reason for reading in the first place. ‘Storytellers, writers,’ Maggie says, ‘they all use bits of their lives, stitch them together. You don’t ask which parts are true and which are made up. Stories aim at a higher truth, whatever serves the story best, whatever works.’ As she struggles to figure out her own story, so are we encouraged to question the truths we allow to dominate our own lives.

This is a beautiful little book. What a shame that Independent publishers, who are the ones usually brave enough to publish work like this, have such an upward struggle when it comes to getting their books out there. We need to help them and get books on bestseller lists through word of mouth alone. The Anchoress is only available as an e-book, so if you don’t have an e-reader of some kind, get one and read The Anchoress. You won’t regret it.

The Medici Mirror by Melissa Bailey

The Medici Mirror is Melissa Bailey’s first novel and it is a gripping one. Hidden in the basement of an abandoned Victorian shoe factory is a sixteenth-century mirror, cursed by the Black Queen, Catherine of Medici. When Jonny, a twenty-first century architect charged with renovating the factory, stumbles across the mirror his life is threatened by its dark reflections. Will he unravel the past before it unravels him? Will his love life end in triumph or murder?

Catherine of Medici’s story is a compelling one and I would have liked to hear more from her. With the added history of the factory and its hidden love affairs, sometimes there is almost too much past. Without the mirror, these other histories remain unfettered to the present-day characters making me question what, ultimately, the book wants me to go away thinking about. But I am driven by the plot and despite wishing there were slightly fewer sex scenes, the characters are connected through a curse that turns desire into possession making The Medici Mirror a sexy, scary ride that stays with you long after the book has been put down.

If you like spooky, sexy mysteries with a historical flavour then The Medici Mirror is for you. Melissa Bailey’s is undoubtedly a name we will all become familiar with.

Look out for my review of The Anchoress by Paul Blaney, which I hope to post at the end of this week.

My current reading list – please send in suggestions

This last week I read The Medici Mirror by Melissa Bailey (I will post the review tomorrow) and I am currently reading The Anchoress by Paul Blaney. Next week I will be reading Good to Be God by Tibor Fischer and following that, Light by M John Harrison. If there is a certain book you would like to add to my reading list, please send in suggestions. Just comment on this post!

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

As I was in the process of reading this novel, it was announced to be the winner of this year’s Mann Booker Prize. Whilst I still wish that We Need New Names had won I am nevertheless pleased with this alternative. The Luminaries is an impressive volume, in size, style and intrigue. It is a tale about numerous characters experiencing life in the New Zealand gold rush in the nineteenth century. Written with a nineteenth century cadence, embracing an era in which the novel was at its height of popularity and influence, and the novelist was unquestioned in their authority, the book has a nostalgic charm, quite apart from the fact that the particulars of the story make for a page-turning frenzy in the reader. It really is a joy to read.

I like the chapter summaries, again so reminiscent of earlier forms of the novel, and I love the careful, and slightly formal, construction of the language. From the beginning I am keen to unravel the mystery of Francis Carver, a scarred ex-conman who has seemingly involved other New Zealand dwellers in crimes they did not intend to perpetrate.

I would have liked to find out more about Walter Moody – the character who introduces us to the gold town of Hokitika and the criminal machinations of Francis Carver – and what happened to him after he helps to bring Carver to justice. In fact, there are many character ends that are left to our speculation in favour of the astrologically twinned young characters, Anna Wetherall and Emery Staines whose first intended romantic encounter ends the novel. I assume they are the luminaries around which events are influenced, but it isn’t quite as straightforward as that – indeed all the characters are people of influence somehow destined to interact.

I do not follow astrological charts and perhaps I would get more from the novel if I did, but I think it is testament to the writing that I can enjoy the book without knowledge of astrology.

However, despite all of these accolades, I still think We Need New Names is the true book for our age. Giving We Need New Names the prize would have been a more radical choice, would have forced more of us to contend with a novel whose subject matter and delivery is more forward thinking, more challenging. As much as I enjoyed The Luminaries and feel its creation does indeed need to be praised, it is the more sentimental choice. But perhaps a choice the panellists were more likely to make given a heavy interest in nineteenth century literature: Chair, Robert Macfarlane, did a PhD on George Eliot, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde; Robert Douglas-Fairhurst specialises in the nineteenth century as his books make clear, Becoming Dickens (2011) and Victorian Afterlives (2002); Martha Kearney presented a documentary on Jane Austen; Stuart Kelly wrote Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented A Nation. The only panellist with an obvious love for another period is Natalie Haynes who loves the classics. It’s not really a surprise then that they favoured Eleanor Catton’s novel. Ah well. At least it’s a great rip-roaring tale.

Harvest by Jim Crace

I enjoyed Harvest, one man’s tale of the end of a village and a way of life. It is full of all the quiet beauty I expect from Jim Crace’s prose but I wouldn’t have chosen this as the winner of the Booker. It is where I would like my more mature writing to go – not narrowed by fame and comfort, not sent scurrying for something more dramatic to write about or desperately writing about something I feel I ought to write about (really I’m thinking of Ian McEwan here – how I loved his early work), but emboldened to give merit to the realities of the small world we sense around us. It makes me want an old student of mine, David Strickland (though student implies he might have had something to learn from me, which certainly he did not), to finish his novel and get it published because this quiet attention to the world we breathe is something he is also excellent at.

Harvest is not my favourite work by Jim Crace, but he remains one of my favourite writers and I admire him deeply. If you want to feel what a rural England without fences and hedges might have been like, an England where the lord of the land is the law, then this book is for you.

Only one more short-listed novel to go! Of course I knew, as I started to read it that it was likely to be the winner simply because I hadn’t read it yet and only had three days to read it. How right I was!

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Here is my review of We Need New Names, written and read, before the Booker prize was announced.

I’m really glad this book is on the shortlist because it feels like a book that really has something to say, that isn’t covered in academic dust. Not to say that it isn’t beautifully written and bursting with intellectual conflicts, but those conflicts just happen to breathe.

Darling is a young girl living in a Zimbabwean shantytown. She lives the troubles of her country until she is “lucky” enough to go to America where she is imprisoned by the luxury because to leave would mean not returning. She misses home. She is accused of abandoning the burning house of her falling apart country but what choice does she really have? She is safe and not hungry in America, even if she is forever foreign now, not American but also marked and separate from her family and friends back in Zimbabwe.

I am a great fan of Dambudzo Marechera and there are echoes of his turmoil and his anger at the tensions of a forked tongue. To fit in, Darling has to learn an American English that her friends from home do not recognise – she is severed from the land that bore her – using the language of privilege is a kind of betrayal.

It is the first time I have read a story about children living in hunger and civil war since I’ve had my own children and I had nightmares imagining them having to live with that level of fear and hunger, that lack of shelter from all the worst parts of being human, and for that, and for what we expect immigrants to undergo to live in our privilege, this is a book I feel we should all be reading even if, at the very least, all we do is appreciate our luck for once.

This book is relevant and interesting and I would be very pleased if it won the Booker but I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t because it is almost the antithesis of the western male contemporary realism prizes like the Booker seem to value. Just read it, that’s all that really matters.

I’ll be posting my review of Harvest, by Jim Crace in a couple of days, after which I’ll be reviewing the Booker prize-winning, The Luminaries and then I’ll be starting the blog in real time – that’s to say one review a week – with Melissa Bailey’s The Medici Mirror.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I really enjoyed this Booker short-listed novel, but I have not found it easy to write about. Still, here is the review written before the Booker prize-winner was announced.

The lowland is a few acres of ground set behind two ponds in a neighbourhood of Calcutta, India, around which the lives of four generations revolve, even when they move abroad. It starts as the playground for two brothers, Udayan and Subhash, beginning their lives in a post-Independent India. Facing a country still divided by privilege, they make different choices that separate but entwine their lives in ways they could not have imagined (look away if you haven’t read the novel): Udayan becomes a Naxalite revolutionary and is shot by the police; Subhash emigrates to America and chooses to take responsibility for the wife and child his brother leaves behind. The historical facts around which the characters stories unfold are revealed as part of their lives, not as mini history lessons, but I come away knowing a great deal more about that period of Indian history as well as caring for the characters very deeply.

However, and this is partly the fault of the kindle, where a percentage isn’t the same as holding a real book with the weight of unread words felt in your hand, I was often surprised that the novel went on. I kept thinking it must be ready to end yet it kept unfolding into its eight parts and extending further into the voices of new generations. Strangely, it was the female voices of Gauri, the brothers’ wife, Bela, their daughter, and their mother, that I responded least well to. They seemed like diversions, but it’s true that they carried a lot of the narrative and without them the novel would have needed an alternative – perhaps more of Udayan’s voice, a voice that could have filled in many of the gaps left by Gauri and Bela? Perhaps I’m merely responding to a sense that the female characters mentioned here are more reactive that active – even Gauri who forges an independent and successful academic career for herself in America, albeit at great cost? Or, what I’m really saying is that this is fundamentally a story of two brothers and I wish the novel had focused on that a little more. I think I would also have liked it to focus more on a particular period of their lives. I’m not sure I needed to know about Gauri and Subhash’s old age, but then perhaps I’m missing the point.

Despite wanting a more condensed version of the brother’s lives  – and yes, this might have been more impactful – the need to encompass a body of people, to follow a family feels very Indian (think Vikram Seth and A Suitable Boy). The weaving of individual narratives into a family whole is a way in which individual life is valued but shown to be such a small and often insignificant part of the wider story; Udayan’s life is worthless to the authorities, to the revolution even, but essential to himself and his family. It is perhaps a slightly more depressing take on the family narrative, but it is a take nonetheless, perhaps a brave one that harks back to my first post about the hunger artist.

As I say, I enjoyed the novel, but I leave it weary and sad, not ready to embrace life’s mistakes but to prepare for defeat. Would Jhumpa Lahiri have wanted that? I doubt it. The possibility of opting out, of suicide, is again a part of this Booker short-listed novel and I wonder what that says about the panels’ tastes…

I would recommend this book, but I would not give it a prize.

My review of We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo will follow in a few days.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Here is the next of my reviews of the Booker Short List. As you will remember I read this before the winner was announced.

It’s not really a surprise that it took me a little longer than planned to read this book. Partly – and it seems sad to mention length again so soon after the last blog – it is because the book is a long one, but that’s not really an excuse for my taking a long time to read it. Perhaps I could play along to the novel’s themes and say that I was trying to give it enough time, my real time matching its own. But that’s just me pretending to be smart and really it is exactly in this book’s conflation of novel, diary, philosophical tract, religious meditation, fact and fiction that left me needing time between readings. I like its multifaceted genre. I like its interest in grappling with what it means to live, and how we might be able to stretch and play with the narratives of our own and others lives. I enjoy the inclusion and importance of dreaming – something non-European modern realism usually avoids because the North American and English writers we seem to venerate are so obsessed with the real that can be witnessed that they are nervous of straying into the real as we really experience it. However, once again, I come away unsure as to whether this is a prize-winning novel.

The narrative is divided between Ruth, a writer with writer’s block (another reason for writing about the self?), who finds the diary of a Japanese girl, Nao, washed up on her beach; and the diary of Nao, who is a very depressed Japanese school girl struggling with a suicidal father and serious bullying at school. Nao’s diary wasn’t meant to be a diary, it was meant to be a book about her grandmother, Jiko, a feminist writer turned nun, and she is really the lynchpin of the novel. Not only do I enjoy reading about Jiko and empathise with her more than with the other characters, but she pulls the two other women’s narratives together, eventually dragging them into each other’s worlds. I think, however, that I would have been happier if this had happened without Ruth, her partner, Oliver, and their friend, Muriel, trying to tease out explanations for this. Suddenly Buddhism meets Quantum Mechanics with totem animals thrown in for good measure. I’m not saying I don’t like thinking about the possibilities of all of these things working in a world we have often lost wonder in, I’m just not sure I want it all spelled out.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this did win the Booker. And in some ways I’d be pleased, but for my tastes, the intellectual questions of the book, about how to author our own lives, are too overt. This is backed up by the pages of appendices, acknowledgements and endnotes. This is a PHD thesis, with notebooks and diary, rolled into a novel. I know, of course, in a way every book requires the time and focus of a Phd, but did we need the extraneous material around the text? I’m just not sure, in the end, that I enjoyed the construction of the book, that I was keen to move from Nao’s narrative to Ruth’s, especially as Ruth’s moved from being a close third person to a distant third person narrative in a way that I occasionally found distracting. Perhaps I’m very old-fashioned and want the story to tell me everything I need to know to begin to ask questions for myself; I’m bored by post-modern cogs. No, maybe not bored, just unmoved.

I did cry towards the end (I won’t tell you why just in case you haven’t read it), and I have come away wondering lots of things, but what’s wrong with a bit of Haruki Murakami? If you want to question how we author our lives from a Japanese perspective, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle might be another place to start. Or you could say that this is a more self-consciously literary Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M Pirsig, but I did read that years ago. Either way, reading that the author was also a Zen Buddhist priest left me feeling uncomfortable about the intentions of the text. And yes, please do note, that I can’t help referring to this book as text rather than novel. It is the book’s pedantically self-conscious and self-referential nature that most urks me and not because I dislike self-consciousness and self-referential work per se but because I want all of that to blend with the story in a way that says something more to me than the story alone and I’m not sure that A Tale for the Time Being pulls that off.

Next up, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

I started my year of reading with The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín. I confess, I picked this novel out of the Booker short list because it’s short. Really it’s a novella. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone. Not that I have anything against the novella, I’m very fond of the form in fact but only famous people get to publish books this short as novels, everyone else gets stuck with the novella label and is met with endless recommendations to expand it or include it in a collection of short stories (another potential non-starter as short story collections are just as hard to publish). However, I like stories that know when to end and I’m glad this didn’t extrapolate further.

I did enjoy the book, I did enjoy the writing. It is a well written book. But, and it is a big but, I did not find what I was looking for from a book re-telling Jesus’ story from his mother’s perspective. When I read I want not only to be pleased by the turn of phrase, not only to believe in the voice that speaks to me, not only to be inspired to think about certain things more deeply than I might otherwise, I also want to be moved. I don’t know if this is common, but for me the whole reason I’m interested in literature as an intellectual pursuit is that it is the only discipline which can truly represent the human experience. It can muddle the physical with the intellectual and the emotional. It can talk about philosophy whilst remembering the bowel or the distraction of the rain on the windowpane.

Perhaps I’m being mean. The Testament of Mary does not lack this multifaceted ability, it just doesn’t hit me in the gut. It doesn’t go far enough. When we eventually get to the crucifixion (skip this bit if you haven’t read it) I’m not surprised to read that Mary didn’t really stick by the body to the end, that she was afraid for her own life and ran off, that the meeting with a resurrected Jesus was in a dream and finally, that her testament to his disciples about his death redeeming the world was that ‘it was not worth it’. If you are going to retell one of the founding stories of our culture, this moment of whimpering, rather than banging, should have impact, portent, but we’ve heard it before. Where is the new significance for our time? Why haven’t we moved beyond all that the modernists were saying over a hundred years ago? We’ve heard it shouted better by another short listed author Jim Crace, whose Quanrantine (Whitbread Novel of the Year and short listed for the Booker in 1997) was a much more challenging exploration of biblical times. In fact, I just want to read it again to feel better about all of this.

I am of course being biased. I prefer books that meet the hunger for meaning with or without religion and really grapple with it, don’t just nod to it. We haven’t gone beyond something Paul Auster said in his essay ‘The Art of Hunger’ about Hamsun’s novel, Hunger (written in 1890):

            In the end, the art of hunger can be described as an existential art. It is a way of looking death in the face, and by death I mean death as we live it today: without God, without hope of salvation. Death as the abrupt and absurd end of life.

            I do not believe that we have come any farther than this. It is even possible that we have been here much longer than we are willing to admit. In all of this time, however, only a few artists have been able to recognize it. It takes courage, and not many of us would be willing to risk everything for nothing. But that is what happens in Hunger, a novel written in 1890. Hamsun’s character systematically unburdens himself of every belief in every system, and in the end, by means of the hunger he has inflicted upon himself, he arrives at nothing. There is nothing to keep him going – and yet he keeps on going. He walks straight into the twentieth century.

 We aren’t even in the twentieth century anymore. Come on. Let’s reach higher.

I’m hoping for more from the next novel on the list, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, whose title at least suggests more of what I’m looking for in a prize-winning novel.

The Booker Short List

To begin the book a year project I thought I should start with something big, so I planned to read the Booker Short List for this year. I managed to read five of the six before the announcement of the winner – which typically, I’m still finishing now. I wrote the blog as I finished each book, but due to technical difficulties have only just got the website back on line. So for the next week I will be posting my reviews of the Booker Short List.