August Superlatives

All men this month, or almost all! And almost all pretty heavy—both literally and figuratively. Not quite sure what happened to the idea of “summer reading” being light (not that I actually subscribe to that much anyway). Two Man Booker longlisters this month have given me hope for the prize’s future, and one absolutely dreadful reading experience has resulted in one of my rare negative reviews, which was delightfully good fun to write. One needs reminding, sometimes, of what Hazlitt so rightly called “the pleasures of hating”.

most utterly heart-rending: This would have to be William Golding’s Neanderthal-meets-human novel The Inheritors. The story of one species’ demise and another’s ascent is bound to be at least a little bit moving; this story plants a foot squarely in tragedy. The scene where the last Neanderthal curls up alone by the hearth in the tribal cave and waits to die is one of the saddest images of loneliness I know.

most unabashedly comforting: Pen and Ink, a collection of tattoos and the stories behind them. Isaac Fitzgerald collected and transcribed the stories, while Wendy McNaughton did the drawings (there are no photographs; each tattoo is recreated as it appears on the subject’s body). Some of the stories are sad, some are ridiculous, some are delightful (one of my favorites is Cheryl Strayed’s “divorce tattoo”, which she and her now ex-husband got to commemorate their breakup.)

most thoroughly engrossing world: This is definitely a tie between the Jamaica (and Bronx) of A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James, and the eleventh century Lincolnshire of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake. The former is a novel about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and the subsequent infiltration of the East Coast crack market by Jamaican gangs, written almost entirely in patois, and that vocabulary really gets into your head. If I could count the number of times, over the week I read this, that I nearly muttered “bombocloth” in response to some vexation… The latter is a fictionalization of the English resistance efforts to William the Conqueror, but told through the eyes of an obsessive, reactionary, somewhat megalomaniacal farmer named Buccmaster. Most reviews dwell heavily on its use of a faux Old English; what I found most interesting, by contrast, was the subtle relentlessness with which Kingsnorth destabilizes the reader’s ability to trust Buccmaster as a character. The slow reveal of his past is masterful and creepy as hell.

dishonorable mention: I stopped reading Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. I can’t remember the last time I straight up refused to finish a book. In fact, I’m not sure it’s ever happened in precisely this way. But the protagonist was an irritating asshole and the book engaged with its genre trappings the way a lot of bad “literary sci fi” does, which is to say that it didn’t engage with them at all, and frankly I would rather reread The Sparrow, which covers much of the same ground with more aplomb, humour and sensitivity.

most frustrated potential: After dropping the Faber like a hot potato, I picked up This Perfect Day by Ira Levin, which is an Orwell/Huxley-esque dystopia (an accurate usage of that word, for once!) about a future Earth that’s run by one ginormous supercomputer, named Unicomp (or Uni for short). There’s a lot of excellent stuff in here: messianic tech-head fantasies, controlling a populace through calculated hormonal alteration, the kind of culture that might exist under a global government (Jesus Christ, Karl Marx, “Wood” and “Wei” are the four major—well, deities is the wrong word; “fucking” isn’t an obscenity, but “fighting” and “hate” are.) But there’s also a curious erasure of women (there are two or three major female characters, but they are, respectively, a nymphomaniac, a childlike doormat, and a fuck-up), and a graphic rape scene which left me baffled as to its utility in the actual plot. I didn’t get around to reviewing this in part because I didn’t know what to make of that at all.

most impressive debut: The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma, has a gravitas to it that is completely belied by its primary-colored dust jacket and its relative slimness. A story about four young brothers in 1990s Nigeria whose bonds are remorselessly torn apart by a madman’s prophecy that the eldest will be killed by one of his brothers, it takes in elements of classical tragedy, as well as being imbued with the rhythms of oral storytelling and possessing a flavor of colonial fable. Its structure is beautifully controlled, its use of flashback elegant and restrained, and its author is only twenty-nine.

most personal: The song “Hallelujah” was written by Leonard Cohen, but its most famous performance is probably the one on Jeff Buckley’s 1994 album Grace. Subsequently, it’s entered into the cultural bloodstream in a big way. The Holy or the Broken, by Alan Light, is a history of the song; it was a late Christmas present from Red to me, and it resonated especially deeply because “Hallelujah” is a song that means a lot to me. I still haven’t figured out how to sing it right.

most publicly upsetting: Of all the reviews written of Sara Taylor’s Baileys Prize-longlisted The Shore, no one mentioned how traumatic it was to read. Sexual violence in books isn’t exactly new, and sometimes the impact feels dulled, but one of the scenes in The Shore made me sob openly in a coffee shop. The whole novel was significantly more affecting than I had expected it to be—possibly it’s time for some slightly less heavy books in September?

up next: Further to starting the month with what my mum used to call “a safe book”, I think I’ll pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, the Duchess’s birthday present to me. I’m going to Glasgow later in the month, so I’ll need something rather heavier for the plane…perhaps A Suitable Boy will come into its own at last!

4 thoughts on “August Superlatives

  1. If it’s any consolation, I had exactly the same reaction to the Faber and I am another reader who rarely gives up on a book. I am also a tremendous fan of ‘The Inheritors’. The way in which Golding echoes the difference between the two peoples in his use of syntax is one of the most masterful pieces of writing I know.

    1. Faber appears to have seriously disgusted a good many people with this book, which is something of a comfort! And yes, 100% with you on the Golding syntax thing–it’s a brilliant instance of form echoing content. That’s something I tend to see more in mid-20th-century writers than contemporary ones, so maybe it’s considered out of fashion, but I think what he does with it in The Inheritors is extraordinarily clever and well integrated.

  2. I’m scared to read Faber’s new one because I loved The Crimson Petal and the White so much and I don’t want to ruin the good feelings, having heard such mixed reviews.

    Ooh A Suitable Boy! That sat on my mom’s nightstand for years. I don’t think she ever made it past page 100.

    1. If I were you I would avoid this one. It made me really sad because I loved Under the Skin so much–I still do, and I still want to try The Crimson Petal.

      Am seriously leaning towards bringing A Suitable Boy on the Glasgow long weekend! Sounds like a challenge…

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