Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

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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

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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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

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

LITBLincoln 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

White Tears by Hari Kunzu

whitetearsThis is quite some novel. The quote that prefaces White Tears ends with the line ‘I didn’t know right from wrong’ and somehow the story of Seth, a recording engineer obsessed with sound, who makes his own recording equipment sensitive enough to pick up voices from the past, unfolds into a tale that brings history into the present forcing old wrongs out into the light in a way that offers no redemption. What has happened is always happening, remnants of old sound waves reverberating around us, waiting for us to tune into their frequency. Continue reading

House of Names by Colm Tóibín

HouseofNamesThe story of the fall of the house of Agamemnon that begins with the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, is an old one given a new interpretation in the House of Names. The lineage of this story allows for a dramatic turn of phrase that brings blood, despair and suspicion into the language of the characters Tóibín chooses to tell the story. This makes the novel pleasingly operatic.

Clytemnestra is full of vengeful anger. She sees the world as a place deserted by the gods whose care for the affairs of men has waned, and whose influence therefore is fading too. To pray for guidance is useless; to fear acting without the favour of the gods is pathetic: the gods do not care. Continue reading

How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza

CocozzaIf you’ve ever wondered about the patterns of human relationships, the way couples move towards children and the defined domesticity of houses, gardens, socialising with friends and alcohol. If you’ve ever wondered what wildness still remains in our increasingly urban society, this might be a book for you.

How to Be Human explores the boundaries between the human, the domestic and the civilised and the animal, the untamed and the wild all within one area of East London where a cluster of houses surround a small area of wasteland some consider woodland.

In among the dumped wardrobes and mattresses grown over with blackberry bushes, surrounded by ivy-covered trees, on a small patch of land that sits between the fenced-in human gardens, lives a fox. This is his territory. He moves between the gardens and houses, the woodland, under the fences, leaving his mark, scenting what belongs to him. Continue reading

The Illiterate by Agota Kristof

TheIlliterateI was meant to be reading a different novel this week, but when I picked up The Illiterate, by chance, I found myself unable to turn away.

The Illiterate is a short memoir that tells the story of Agota Kristof’s journey into writing and storytelling. It is not surprising that she was a child who read voraciously, who insisted on telling stories. But when she is forced to move away from her country of birth, to travel from Hungary and seek refuge, eventually, in Switzerland, the description of her battle to learn French is very moving and the reason she considers herself an illiterate. She writes:

I have spoken French for more than thirty years, I have written in French for twenty years, but I still don’t know it. I don’t speak it without mistakes, and I can only write it with the help of dictionaries, which I frequently consult.

It is for this reason that I also call the French language an enemy language. There is a further reason, the most serious of all: this language is killing my mother tongue. (p20)

You can feel her passion for what was once the only language for her, Hungarian. You see her frustration with communicating and writing literature in another language, one she has to labour over. And yet, it is partly her struggle with French that creates such interesting prose. Continue reading

Blind Side by Jennie Ensor

BlindSideAfter feeling abandoned as a child when her mother left to elope with a Spanish lover, and a failed love-affair in her early twenties, Georgie has hardened her heart to love. At least, that’s what she thought.

Friendship is fine. She’s been friends with Julian for years. He has always had her back, hasn’t he? Continue reading