20 Books of Summer, 2018: the final score

20-books-of-summer

Technically, it ain’t over til Monday (the 3rd), and I’m still reading my 20th book. But I’m only a few dozen pages in, and I’m out all day Sunday, so we might as well call it now: I read (and reviewed!) 19 of my 20 Books of Summer this year. Actually, that’s better than it looks, because I only properly chose 19; my 20th was always going to be a wild card, decided upon once all the others were finished. (It’s The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.)

I also read 35 other books that weren’t for 20BoS, so, you know, I’d say this has been a pretty good reading summer by any count.

Here’s my full list:

  1. Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan: review
  2. Neuromancer, by William Gibson: review
  3. The Madonna of the Mountains, by Elise Valmorbida: review
  4. The Waters and the Wild, by DeSales Harrison: review
  5. The Stopping Places, by Damian Le Bas: review
  6. A Station On the Path to Somewhere Better, by Benjamin Wood: review
  7. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller: review
  8. Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan: review
  9. Transcription, by Kate Atkinson: review
  10. Wilding, by Isabella Tree: review
  11. Chopin’s Piano, by Paul Kildea: review
  12. May, by Naomi Kruger: review
  13. A Jest of God, by Margaret Laurence: review
  14. Goblin, by Ever Dundas: review
  15. Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms, by Gerard Russell: review
  16. This Rough Magic, by Mary Stewart: review
  17. Empire of Things, by Frank Trentmann: review
  18. Collected Stories, by John Cheever: review
  19. The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley: review
  20. Wild card! EDIT: The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

Time for prizes, as Kimbofo calls them:

The worst of these 20, or at least the less enjoyable, were The Waters and the Wild, A Station On the Path To Somewhere Better, and Chopin’s Piano. I might also throw Empire of Things to the wolves simply for its deadening length; if a non-fiction writer doesn’t construct a compelling through-line, either narratively or argumentatively, it’s a lot harder to justify 880 pages.

The best of these 20 were, without a doubt, Elise Valmorbida’s The Madonna of the Mountains, Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, Ever Dundas’s Goblin, Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, and Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks. I refuse to choose between them.

Closely following the top tier of excellence: Mary Stewart’s novel This Rough Magic and John Cheever’s Collected Stories. They’re both fantastic works, and I would say top-tier material themselves; they just had a fraction less emotional resonance.

Then we come to an interesting category that I like to think of as the Not-For-Me: they’re not dreadful books, but they struck me somewhat obliquely, not full-on as they seemed to be intending. In some cases, that was down to weaknesses in structure, tone or editing (or all three): in others, I suspect they were simply Not My Cup Of Tea. In this category I’d include Neuromancer, The Stopping Places, A Station On the Path To Somewhere Better, May, and A Jest of God.

And the rest are simply good, solid books. They achieve what they set out to do, and I will be/have been selling and promoting them most assiduously: Washington Black, Transcription, Wilding, and Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms.


Have you been attempting, or following along with, 20 Books of Summer? How far did you get? Have you read anything from my list?

19. Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms, by Gerard Russell

x1080-v0qYou might have heard of the Yazidis—they’ve been having some trouble, these past few years, from IS militiamen. You might even have heard of Zoroastrians, whose traditional burial rites involve leaving their dead in “sky towers” to be devoured by vultures (neither earth nor fire may be used to dispose of a body). But the Kalasha, or the Kam? The Copts of Egypt? The Samaritans? Ever heard of any of those? If not, don’t fret: Gerard Russell’s fantastically accessible and engaging book on minor religious traditions of the Middle East will tell you all about them. Russell is a former diplomat who has worked in Kabul, Cairo, Baghdad, and Jeddah, amongst other places; he doesn’t make many appearances in his own book, so that the impression the reader receives is of a pleasant, somewhat diffident man. (A photo of him partaking of local drinks with some Kalasha men seems to bear this image out.) Although each chapter involves him visiting an area of the Middle East where the religion in question is still practiced—the book therefore constituting a travelogue as well as a theology and history text—Russell’s personal experiences are rarely foregrounded. Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms is about the heirs of its title, the men, women and children who still practice arcane, even archaic, religious observances, and about what their lives are like.

Inevitably, Russell must discuss diasporas, and the relative ease or difficulty of maintaining the practice of a very small religion outside of its native land. Several of the belief systems he discusses are characterised by their secrecy. Only priests or elite members of the religious hierarchy of the Druze, for instance, are allowed to know what the whole thing is actually about: their followers are not required to read holy books or to keep any particular form of observance in dress, diet, abstinence, or really any other way. What is required of a lay Druze is the willingness to say “I am a Druze”, and to accept that the full meaning of that allegiance will probably remain forever closed to you. One woman recalls moving to America as a child and trying to explain her suspiciously lax religion to her teacher, who assumed she was lying. Only when her mother was asked, and confirmed that indeed their faith required absolutely nothing of them, did the teacher (apparently, though I’m sure she still didn’t really) believe her. But, as Russell notes, this also means it’s very hard to maintain a community of Druze outside of Lebanon. How do you protect and cultivate an identity which has no identity markers?

Some of the oldest of these religions are dead ends of Christianity or Islam, versions of those religions that stayed put when the majority of believers moved on to different, centralised, or officially sanctioned forms of worship. The creed of the modern-day Mandaeans, for instance, bears a strong resemblance to that of the early Christian sect the Marcionites, as well as to the beliefs of the highly popular and influential Manichaeans (Saint Augustine was one, before becoming a Christian). To an extent, these likenesses seem unremarkable: all of these versions of belief were developing around the same times, and around the same places. It should not strain our credulity that the two opposing forces of good and evil, light and darkness, appear in multiple different belief systems. But the idea that watching a Mandaean rite gets you closer to the experiences of Christ’s early followers than going to Mass does is an extremely enticing one. Moreover, it clarifies just how much major world religions have changed over the centuries, or millennia, of their existences. It’s hard to believe in the immutability of doctrine after reading Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms.

18. Empire of Things, by Frank Trentmann

cover2This is not my usual sort of book at all. 880 pages of global economic history, nearly 200 of which are taken up by endnotes and bibliography? Gosh. But I put it on my #20BooksofSummer pile for a few reasons: we had sold a lot of it in the shop last summer, there was a damaged copy going, the front cover is utterly beautiful, and I am kind of interested in material culture: how people’s stuff relates to the way they treat themselves and each other, how self-fashioning is so often bound up with what you own and how you use it.

Since this is so enormous, I posted updates to Goodreads while I was working my way through it. They’re fairly indicative:

page 136 (15.45%): “So far, I’m impressed by Trentmann’s scope: he deals with consumerism in Ming China and in East African kingdoms, as well as in Britain, France, the Netherlands, etc. (There were big differences. Ming elites wanted antiques with provenance, not the new and shiny.) The focus of any given section is often unclear, though I’m willing to believe that this is the fault of a reader unaccustomed to reading economic history.”

page 370 (42.05%): “I’ve a better handle on the focus and structure now: part one is basically a chronological overview of global consumption trends (fun!!) Almost finished that section now and especially impressed with the analysis of consumption in the GDR and Soviet Russia. (Socialism doesn’t stop people wanting stuff. It’s not news, but the details on things like car ownership and food shopping are interesting and engaging.)”

page 735 (83.52%): “Covered lots of ground last night. Part 2 deals with present-day consumption issues, using historical examples to contextualise: the current chapter is on fair-trade movements. Interestingly, Trentmann’s analysis of the effects of state spending merely glances at contemporary austerity policies. He implies they only really affect the already-poor and disadvantaged, which is demonstrably untrue, at least in the UK.”

The very last bit was a short chapter looking into the future of consumption, which – obviously – is a tenuous one, given that if human civilisations continue to consume resources at the current rate, or anything like it, we’ll be in deep trouble very shortly. Trentmann has some interesting things to say on short-term strategies, like various municipal waste-management policies, but he stops short of advocating a real crackdown on waste or consumption. He keeps his own politics out of the narrative, mostly, as a good historian should, but globally we’ve reached a point where to be politically neutral is to make a political statement, so it doesn’t wash in this section, though it does in the earlier chapters.

It’s also too long, but then, any book of 880 pages is too long.

 

17. Goblin, by Ever Dundas

41wf6v2bt7dl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Goblin is a phenomenal book. There.

No, I know, I can’t just leave it there. So: Goblin has flown under the radar a bit. It turned up in places where such books do turn up – in reviews by interesting book bloggers, on the Not the Booker Prize longlist, the occasional mention in a year-end best-of roundup – but there was never, as far as I can tell, much mainstream coverage, apart from a Guardian book-of-the-day review and some pieces in the Glasgow Herald and the Scotsman. I’m here to tell you that the neglect of this book was a travesty. It’s a novel set in WWII, during the Blitz, but it’s utterly unlike any other such novel I’ve ever read: scarier, fiercer, and infinitely more successful at conveying how completely and utterly the world has changed over the past seventy years. Like The Madonna of the MountainsGoblin allows the reader to inhabit the essential strangeness of the past.

The title is our protagonist’s name: she has never known another. Her mother hates her, calling her “goblin-runt born blue” and other, less savoury names. Her father is kinder, but ineffective. Goblin finds sanctuary with her older brother David – cool in her eyes, but viciously bullied by neighbourhood toughs – her friends, Stevie and Mac, whom she tyrannizes without much difficulty, and her dog Devil. The great pet massacre – a mass culling of domestic animals that really happened – results in Devil’s death, and David disappears. Goblin articulates her loneliness and her mental distress through intense, surreal, sometimes horrifying imaginative play: the story she invents for David is charming (he has gone, she believes, to be a pirate, and to marry a mermaid), but the voodoo-like creature she constructs to help with her grief over Devil is, if harmless, disturbing: a doll with a shrew’s head, a pigeon’s wings, one clawed foot, and arms made of dried earthworms, whom she names Monsta. She also has visions of various London “characters”: Queen Isabella, who carries her husband’s heart pinned to her dress; Miss Amelia, locked up in Newgate for murdering the orphans in her charge; and the Lizard King, who wept tears of acid for his dismembered wife and took horrible revenge on humans.

It’s extremely difficult to disentangle Goblin’s imaginative capacities, and what we would now call her socioeconomic disadvantages, from the possibility that she has a form of mental illness. In fact, I think that is exactly Ever Dundas’s point. Goblin‘s literary pedigree includes ancestors like Lanark and Gormenghast, books whose magical worlds are composed in roughly equal parts of menace, fertile chaos, and a sense of having been constructed somehow out of the raw materials of consensus reality. The wartime England of, let’s say, Atonement, or of Bletchley Park, did exist, somewhere, but so too did experiences like Goblin’s. Self-sufficient, confident to the point of arrogance, so frequently muddied and tousled that she lives for months as a boy: there is joy in the chaos that surrounds her, but there’s also the gaping hole left by the neglect of parents and by David’s abandonment.

Evacuating herself from London (she hops on a train with children from various schools; the ruse is never discovered), she experiences another form of neglect when chosen to work on a farm run by a couple whose behaviour towards their refugee children moves from distasteful to abusive. But the countryside is also where she finds love, with a beautiful girl named Angel, and friendship, with a piglet that follows her around and whom she names Corporal Pig. Goblin’s queerness is a permanent point of contention throughout her life, but especially in this context: the farmer and his wife attempt an exorcism that looks very much like the torture suffered by Sierva Maria in Of Love and Other Demons. She survives, and escapes back to London, but the experience reinforces her love and trust of animals above humans; her later life as the adopted daughter of two circus performers helps to restore some of that balance, but it can’t make up for what wasn’t there at the beginning.

The crisis of the book is precipitated by the need to look back at the past. In sections set in 2011, Goblin is living in Edinburgh, very elderly but apparently all right. Her best friend, Ben, is a homeless man with a dog of his own, whom she adores because he reminds her of Devil, and they get along together until Goblin is contacted by a Met detective: they need her to return to London and give testimony regarding a crime that they think she witnessed seventy years ago, during the Blitz. Readers will piece together the nature of this crime, probably, fairly quickly, but it’s testimony to the sheer strength of Goblin’s voice, her conviction in the rightness of her own made-up stories, that the crime seems slightly incredible until the very end. It explains much of the preceding book, but it doesn’t hold much weight on its own; in another novel I would say that it feels rushed or underdeveloped, but here I think that’s exactly what’s intended. Ever Dundas has built a character whose own world may be part coping strategy, part untutored brilliance, but whose imaginative strength so far outstrips the reader’s own rationality that we are pulled with her, wherever she goes: even, at the very end, to acknowledging the real nature of her history.

16. Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan

9781781258972Looking at that cover, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Washington Black was a sort of steampunk adventure, perhaps a kind of abolitionist The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It’s not, though; apart from the dubious legitimacy of the flying machine on which Washington Black effects his escape from plantation slavery in Barbados (and, to be honest with you, it’s hardly a deus ex machina given that it promptly crashes mid-storm), everything about Esi Edugyan’s second novel is straight historical fiction. What’s remarkable about it is the sense of constant slight peculiarity that pervades the novel’s atmosphere: this is the nineteenth century and the slave trade and the racism that we know, but there’s more to see, more to experience, than hackneyed literary tropes. Like Washington, anyone reading this book must prepare to be surprised, not just once but repeatedly: by the way people can be so simple and yet so complicated; by the curious twists of fate.

Washington is lifted (quite literally) out of his life as a Barbadian slave by the brother of his sadistic master. Christopher, or Titch, as he insists that Wash call him, is a gentleman but also an amateur naturalist. An amateur does things for love. The pain and the irony of Titch’s and Wash’s relationship is that Titch, though intelligent and far more humane than his vile brother, still sees Wash as a tool or a means to an end. That Wash happens to have artistic skills, and a scientific mind, does not make him less of an object; he’s just an object that Titch respects. Wash is young, though, and because he’s been removed from the rough love of Big Kit, the slave woman who raised him, he is desperate for something to fill that empty place of affection. When the two of them are separated, in an Arctic snowstorm (long story; there’s a lot of travelling), it’s the idea that Titch has abandoned him that haunts Wash for decades. Much of the rest of the story involves his attempts to find his former master, and his struggles to find a place in the world, while remaining permanently haunted by a particular episode of violence just before he left the plantation and by the reward his former master placed on his head.

Love comes in the form of Tanna Goff, a mixed-race young woman whose father is an eminent marine naturalist. Wash becomes Goff’s artist and assistant in an attempt to get to know Tanna better. The complex implications of everyone’s racial identity in this household are left unspoken but profoundly acknowledged. There’s an ambiguity to Wash and Tanna’s relationship, too: she’s strong and clever and loving, and he loves her, but can they ever be enough for one another?

That Edugyan packs all of this in to a novel that is also an adventure story is testimony to how carefully she picks and chooses what to depict. An encounter with an octopus that takes a shine to Wash isn’t just a natural history caper; it’s another instance of the interplay between affection and power. Titch’s determination to construct his flying machine comes – despite his progressive thoughts – at the expense of his brother’s slaves, who are diverted from their regular labour to carry materials at his whim. There’s always a sense that there are two levels to the book: the signifiers, if you will (plot events, character actions), and the signified (what those events and actions reveal, or represent). Edugyan avoids heavy-handedness by having an inherently interesting story and by creating Washington Black himself, a boy it’s impossible not to feel for. It’s an excellent piece of work.

15. Collected Stories, by John Cheever

51f8igl7ngl-_sx323_bo1204203200_John Cheever has a reputation, an enormous one, as a giant of post-war American fiction. There is a particular social atmosphere surrounding his work. His men mix drinks and travel into New York every weekday morning on the eight-four; his women wear furs and are quietly, desperately, suicidally bored; everyone plays tennis at the club. The sea is never far away. To a large extent these descriptions hold true when you read the actual stories, but there is a surprising extent to which that is not all they are, or not all that Cheever can do. He can, and does, write about poverty: Christmas Is a Sad Season For the Poor, for instance, which features an apartment building elevator operator who spends the entirety of Christmas morning telling everyone he ferries in his elevator how depressing and lonely his day is likely to be. He succeeds in exciting Christian charity in the hearts of virtually all the families in the building, ending up with seventeen hot dinners and mountains of presents. Unable to distribute them all to his children, he gives most of this bounty to his neighbour, who rouses herself and her family to take them, in turn, to an even poorer family. The moral of this story – even whether there is a moral at all – is unclear, although I think the point here is less any particular moral than it is an overwhelming sense of irony, maybe even of futility, not just in this context but of all human endeavour.

He can, and does, write about adultery and cruelty. (Mostly, in Cheever’s world, it’s wives who are abusive to their husbands. Every now and then, as with The Music Teacher, the position is reversed, but Cheever never seems to be on the side of patriarchy at the expense of justice. He rarely appears to take sides at all, but he generally reserves tenderness for those characters who are baffled, vulnerable, or weak, whether they’re men or women.) Many of his stories revolve around a man who takes a mistress. None of his first-person narrators are women, though he writes some stories in the omniscient third person that focus on female perspectives. He was a closeted bisexual, which, although not the only lens through which to read his dissection of middle- and upper-class American sexual mores, is an interesting one. He is frank and fascinated by the hypocrisy of family values, the liberating effect of post-war European travel, the terrible anxiety about mortality and obsolescence that the act of adultery, in this world, is an attempt to assuage.

Philip Roth is quoted on the back of my edition as saying that Cheever writes “enchanted realism”; it’s an interesting expression because it so explicitly repudiates the implications of how I’d say it, which is that he writes a kind of materialist fabulism or fantasia. Frequently, at the end of these stories, miraculous or inexplicable things happen; time shifts and blurs; people appear and disappear. There’s a sense of the uncanny about all of it. This manifests most famously, perhaps, in the late story The Swimmer, whose protagonist Ned Merrill decides to make his way home from a party by swimming in the pools of all the neighbours between the two houses, and discovers when he returns home that he has aged by decades, his fortune has evaporated, his house is shuttered and empty, his family is gone. But there’s also that twinge of eeriness in earlier work: The Sutton Place Story, for instance, which revolves around a little girl who goes missing. When, eventually, she is recovered, she mentions a mysterious lady who gave her bread, but is either unwilling or incapable of saying more. I think it is a story about the moment you first realise that a child is not an extension of yourself, a realisation that strikes the little girl’s parents especially hard precisely because they have been so neglectful of her.

Most significant, though, is that Cheever’s writing is, quite simply, beautiful. He can write a sentence as simple and declarative as Hemingway; he can spin out a string of subordinate clauses as lush and proliferating as (though more dexterous than) anything of Henry James’s. He is profound and superficial at the same time; he can capture frivolity and desperation in the same breath, and follow it up with genuine, foolish, heart-felt love. And his work is suffused, for me, with this sense of light: suburban light, golden light, American light. I’ve wanted to read his Journals for some time, and on the strength of the short stories, his novels are also about to go on my TBR. Marvelous.

14. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller

isbn9781444784671Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is set in 1809, just after the Spanish campaign of the Peninsular War. We first meet our protagonist, John Lacroix, being carried into his family home in Somerset: feet badly wounded and hearing severely damaged, he is on the edge of death, though his housekeeper Nell nurses him back to health. Meanwhile, we meet two other characters: an English soldier named Calley who witnessed English troops on the retreat committing an atrocity in a Spanish village, and a Spanish officer named Medina. Calley, after giving testimony identifying the man in charge of the raping and murdering troops, is charged by a shadowy superior to find the individual in question and kill him; the Spanish want proof that someone has been punished, but the English government’s position is sufficiently precarious that it needs to be done extrajudicially. Medina is assigned to keep Calley on track and to witness the murder as a representative of Spain. The juxtaposition of the two narratives suggests strongly to the reader that Lacroix – whom we know, so far, as a gentle and quiet man – was the officer named by Calley. As he sets out on a journey that will take him from Somerset to Bristol to Glasgow to the Outer Hebrides, and from frozen guilt and shame to redemption and love, suspense comes not merely from wondering whether Lacroix’s psychological scars will heal, but from the reader’s disbelieving anxiety: surely we know him, but could it be that he’s less than the man we think he is?

In fact, he is, but not in the way that we’ve been led to think. This is the first of Miller’s books I’ve read, but if its impressively nuanced characterisation is anything to go by, the rest of them must be worth reading too. The community that Lacroix eventually finds in the Hebrides (on an island that he reaches on the back of a cow, after a voyage narrated with such dry wit that I found myself grinning periodically throughout) consists of three siblings, two women and a man. This is the last remnant of a quasi-pagan cult led by a charismatic man called Thorpe, or sometimes Phyrro. (We actually meet him, in passing, when the narrative is with Calley and Medina.) Thorpe has left one sister pregnant; the other, Emily, with whom Lacroix falls in love and whose sight is failing, seems to have unfinished emotional business with their absent leader. Emily’s interior landscape is complex – at one point she reproaches Lacroix for referring to her as “free”, listing the many ways in which she is not at liberty at all – and Miller renders it very delicately. There aren’t really any minor characters in this novel; even William Swann, Lacroix’s Bristol merchant brother-in-law, and Nell, the housekeeper, who only appear in one or two chapters each, feel like fully rounded people, with hopes for the future that have nothing to do with Lacroix or his journey. And Miller’s settings are the same: his early nineteenth century harboursides, crofting communities, hospitals and rural estates have lives of their own; you can imagine them carrying on quite happily when Lacroix or other point-of-view characters leave the scene.

In short, then: an excellent historical novel; a moving exploration of guilt and love; beautifully written; very highly recommended.

11, 12 and 13: A Jest of God; Wilding; This Rough Magic

I’m less behind with #20booksofsummer than it looks, but I’m way behind on reviews.

41xly8j7thl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Margaret Laurence is one of the unsung giants of Canadian fiction. The afterword to this edition of A Jest of God is by Margaret Atwood, who acknowledges her own artistic debt to Laurence. The novel concerns Rachel Cameron, a primary-school teacher who has found it impossible to follow her older sister’s lead and flee small-town Ontario for marriage and the city. Tethered to an aging, passively demanding mother, and rapidly approaching middle age and spinsterhood, Rachel’s only real friend is Calla, a fellow teacher. When a man she remembers from childhood comes back to town for the summer, they embark on an affair that, although it doesn’t end happily, gives Rachel the courage and self-confidence she needs to change her life for good.

The interesting thing about Rachel is that her defining characteristic is a terror of embarrassment. She’s not even generally embarrassed by the things she does; she’s too much in control of herself; but other people’s weaknesses, humanity, foolishness, lack of control or inhibition, can bring her to tears of shame. It is as though she’s emotionally stuck at thirteen, consumed by humiliation at the slightest imperfection. It’s a perfect metaphor for her life: still living at home, still at the whim of a parent, she might as well be a teenager. It threatens her relationships before Nick, her lover, comes to town; her shame after attending an evangelical meeting at Calla’s church nearly destroys the friendship between the two women (and Calla, we know, is a woman not without courage in facing her own life). Although Rachel has to face a crisis of a nature which I tend to find irritating in fiction (no more for fear of spoilers, but go read my review of The Illumination of Ursula Flight), in her case the need to make a decision is removed by fate, or rather by plotting. In a way, this was frustrating; in another, it felt necessary, because the romance with Nick, although positioned as being central to the book, really isn’t. It is simply the tool that Rachel needs to lever herself out of one life and into another, which, by the end, she does, an effort described in prose that is both moving and beautiful.

240060

Isabella Tree’s husband, Charlie Burrell, is the owner of Knepp Castle, in Sussex. Up until the year 2000, Isabella and Charlie were still attempting to make the estate profitable through traditional farming methods. But in that year, they spoke to a tree expert about the state of the Knepp Oak – a tree so old it was likely fully grown when Elizabeth I visited the park – and his advice, together with the steeply declining profitability of traditional farming, even when subsidised, pushed them into the idea of rewilding their land. (“Rewilding” is a contentious term. The aim is not to have an aim at all, but rather to cease the intensive human management of a landscape and see what happens. Because Tree and Burrell did retain a certain amount of control by introducing old native species, or approximations thereof, like Tamworth pigs and Dartmoor ponies, and because the “original state” of the historic English landscape is not at all certain, Tree is not very comfortable using the word, but she admits it is probably the best one we have at the moment.)

Wilding is an excellent book: richly informative not only about what we do and don’t know about English landscape (very little; evidence for heavy forest cover in prehistoric and medieval Britain, Tree demonstrates, is at best partial, and has often been interpreted partially, by historians and archaeologists with ideological axes to grind), but also about the characteristics of particular species in a landscape (she explains the benefit of the Tamworth pigs rooting in rich soil by the side of their drive, the incalculable long-term effects of leaving low-lying land uncultivated to create aquatic habitats, even the virtues of the humble dung beetle). She is also never less than honest about the hard pushback that these schemes generally receive from the neighbours. Most of the land surrounding theirs in Sussex is farmed, and English farmers in particular tend to be strongly antipathetic to “wasting” good land; there is a national narrative about being an island, and the hazard of food shortages, and the need to make every inch of ground productive in some way, which she unpicks with skill and sympathy, if also frustration. But what she also conveys is the utter shortsightedness of this approach, the dead end into which English and European farming in general is running at full speed. Above all, she is passionately specific about the benefits of rewilding schemes to land health, biodiversity, and the health (and economies) of the humans who live around rewilded areas. Wilding is a seriously important book on an urgent topic, and it is also highly readable. It ought to be put into the hands of agriculture ministers and rural funding bodies, as well as those of interested civilians.

51pyv2bpvkl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Sometimes the circumstances under which you read a book are so flawlessly matched that the book and the environment meld together in your memory, and you know you’ll never be able to remember one without remembering the other. I’m so pleased to have read my first Mary Stewart under such circumstances: prostrate on a Saturday in the middle of a heatwave, window wide open, spooning raspberry sorbet into my gaping mouth, refusing to move from the bed except to go make more iced coffee. This Rough Magic, which is set on Corfu and involves a witty, spirited failed actress, a ruggedly handsome grumpy man, attempted and actual murder, smuggling, currency market inflation, abduction, and a dolphin, could not have been a more perfect read for that particular day. Our heroine, Lucy Waring, is the aforementioned failed actress, a failure about which she is quite sanguine: she knows she’s barely third-rate on the stage, though she turns out to be an excellent dissembler when it comes to enticing a known murderer on a day trip.

Any initial skepticism I might have had about Mary Stewart dropped away within minutes of starting to read: she’s very funny, an effect mostly achieved through use of pitilessly accurate similes, and the liberal sprinkling of references to The Tempest throughout the book adds a lot of charm. The mystery, and the villain, are genuinely chilling and villainous; so often in books of this vintage the stakes feel absurdly low, the evil underdeveloped, but here Stewart conveys a sense of real menace and cruelty, while keeping the melodrama under control. An excellent introduction to her work; I look forward to continuing with The Ivy Tree and The Gabriel Hounds. (This is much to the satisfaction of my colleague Faye, who wrote her PhD on Stewart and is probably the world expert on her work.)

10. Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

36991825A new Kate Atkinson novel is An Event. Transcription, forthcoming in September, is her first since A God In Ruins, which (at least for me) tore up the WWII novel playbook and should have been on the Women’s Prize longlist that year. This is also a WWII novel, at least in part, and also approaches the conflict sidelong, in the character of Juliet Armstrong, who is recruited by MI5 at the age of seventeen. She is a typist, seconded to a mission that aims to ferret out fifth-columnists and divert their pro-German sentiments into a harmless channel. To that end, Godfrey Toby, an agent whose interwar activities no one knows much about, is assigned to pose as an undercover Gestapo officer, a flat in Pimlico’s Dolphin Square serving as a base for his “informers”, most of them lower-middle-class people motivated by ignorant anti-Semitic resentment. Juliet’s job is to sit in the flat next door, transcribing the conversations that are recorded through the wall. During the course of her mission, something appalling happens, and after the war ends – as Juliet takes a job in Schools programming at the BBC – a series of coincidences makes her begin to wonder whether what she did in the war is coming back to haunt her.

The mystery of what happened is not the most compelling part of Transcription, which some readers are going to see as a weakness. I don’t. By far the most interesting aspect of the book is Juliet, whose completely unflappable exterior doesn’t so much mask desperate paddling under the surface as it does a sense of extraordinary detachment. She loses her mother young (just before her recruitment, in fact), and her father has never been a presence. Although it’s not dwelt on, Atkinson reminds us every so often that Juliet has been, amongst other things, a chambermaid; she has done hard, physical work, and been unsure of where the next meal might be coming from. Being swept up by MI5 doesn’t seem to make her star-struck, or eager to please: she views the situation more as a turn of the wheel of fortune, something that has happened to her and which she might as well be doing as anything else. In her initial interview for the typist job, she does nothing but lie, apparently uninterested in making the sort of “good impression” a young woman in the ’40s might be expected to prioritise. It’s the speed and thoroughness of the lying, we infer, that gets her the job. The other fascinating aspect of Transcription is the glimpse into the post-war BBC; it’s not quite W1A, but the institution has clearly always had one foot in the realm of pure absurdity. (A delightful problem arises when a voice actor on a brief educational segment meant to showcase a “day in the life” of a medieval village is caught on air uttering, quietly but distinctly, “fuck fuck fuck fuckity-fuck”.)

Reading this shortly after Cressida Connolly’s After the Party was an especially constructive experience. Where Connolly’s British Fascists are county-set types, men who work in banking and their wives who throw themed dinner parties, Atkinson’s are grubbier and more depressing: women called Dot and Betty and Trude, men who work on the railways (probably more useful to a horde of invading Nazis). The appalling event is an accident, precipitated by carelessness; it’s almost bathetic, the realisation that although the fifth-columnists next door seem foolish and ignorant, it is possible to be simultaneously silly and dangerous. And, running under it all, there’s another thing that Juliet does for MI5, which the reader suspects is the real heart of the book; but our gaze is never directed there. Among the period details of dress and slang and food, Atkinson has placed a serpent of a plot point. You might have to read the book twice before you tread on it. But you’ll probably want to.

 

09. Chopin’s Piano, by Paul Kildea

cover-jpg-rendition-242-374It’s not really about Chopin’s piano.

Oh, it starts off adhering to its title well enough: Kildea gives some background information about Chopin and his lover, George Sand, an infamous female author who liked to scandalise Parisian salon society by dressing as a man. The two moved to the island of Mallorca for the winter of 1838-39, where Chopin’s lovely Pleyel piano got held up in customs and he was forced to make do with a pianino built by a local craftsman, Juan Bauza. That is the instrument on which he wrote his Preludes, “scraps” of music that have baffled listeners, players and critics ever since their premiere. Kildea’s idea, at least to begin with, is that tracing the pianino will shine some light not only on the circumstances under which the Preludes were composed, but on their vexed history of interpretation and performance. Since he also sees the Preludes as a symbol of Romanticism itself, the way in which pianists have approached them – from the ethereal stylings of Cortot to a later Romantic fad for greater attack and intensity, as befitted the larger halls in which public concerts could now be performed, and which publicly performed music now had to fill – is representative, for Kildea, of the history of the artistic movement in general.

None of that is particularly evident from the way he structures his book, though; I have come to the conclusion that this is what Kildea wants to explore because I’ve mentally winnowed the many, many pages of digression, distraction, tangent and plain irrelevance with which Chopin’s Piano is riddled. It’s not totally unenjoyable. If you have any interest in historical detail at all, some of it is great fun: descriptions of nineteenth-century Palma, the Mallorcan port town, are vivid (if too long), and the section set in the twentieth century doubles as a primer on the Nazi art-theft industry. (The pianino came into the hands of Wanda Landowska, a Polish pianist who had an affinity for Chopin and his music. Her instrument collection was scattered by the Nazi looting of great Parisian houses; some of it has been put back together, but the pianino has not been conclusively traced.) But there is just so much of it. Barely a few chapters into the book, Kildea launches into an explanation of how a nineteenth-century artist would produce a linocut. It goes on for some paragraphs. This has been prompted by the existence of a linocut of Palma as Chopin and Sand would have seen it. It’s interesting information on its own, but in a book like this, it’s vexing, an obstacle to the reader’s pursuit of the actual story.

Kildea does write evocatively about performance, which is historically his strength, given that his previous book was a biography of Benjamin Britten and that he was the artistic director of the Wigmore Hall from 2003-2005. He compares the various styles of the musicians who have attempted the Preludes with great thoroughness and erudition; it’s quite clear which side he comes down on (Cortot’s, and the gentler tradition’s), but he enables us to understand his partiality, because he can tell us what he hears. Nor is it his fault that the trail of the pianino goes cold, though it is narratively unsatisfying. The real issue, though, as Igor Toronyi-Lalic wrote in his Literary Review article on the book, is that one gets the impression Kildea is bored of being “a mere music biographer, and wants to be a Writer. Fatal.” I wouldn’t say fatal, but I would say it’s a waste of a good story.