Reading Diary: oh dear, part one

I have read eighteen books since last posting here. EIGHTEEN. This is a ridiculous backlog to deal with, so I will have to do it in chunks, and without spending too long on each book. This post will deal with what I read from mid- to end of August.

s-l225A Dark-Adapted Eye, by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell): Terrific creepy murder mystery that isn’t, quite; we know who killed whom right from the start. Vine’s narrator, the niece of the murderer, takes us back through her family history in a way that carefully, delicately unwraps the layers of respectability, self-delusion, silence and manipulation that led to violence. It’s not only a fantastic novel about a murder, but a fantastic exploration of the sheer strength of social mores, a strong Exhibit A for the argument that the recent past is more alien than science fiction. Genuinely disturbing without ever once being less than decorous. Magnificent.

9781408898017All Among the Barley, by Melissa Harrison: Another entry in the category of recently published books described as “timely”, “relevant” and “resonant”. Edie Mather is a farmer’s daughter in 1930s Suffolk. Her knowledge about farm work and rural traditions is eagerly sought by Constance FitzAllen, who is collecting information about Olde Englande for a project whose politically-tinged dubiousness the reader will spot from a mile away. I could have done without the very end, which establishes where Edie is now and explains a few comments earlier on in the book; it felt slightly tacked-on. But Harrison’s writing about the countryside is tactile and unsentimental, and her characterisation is spot-on. Very good indeed.

9780008264314Elefant, by Martin Suter: This is an extremely adorable novel about a Swiss vagrant named Schoch who awakens one morning to find himself faced with a small pink elephant. Initially convinced that the elephant is a manifestation of DTs, he soon finds that it’s real and the product of an unethical biological experiment by a glory-hunting scientist, whom he must thwart at all costs. The beats of the story are hardly unfamiliar, and it’s not high-brow (it reminded me a lot of Jonas Jonasson), but it’s good cute fun.

rachel-kushner-the-mars-roomThe Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner: Man Booker-nominated for good reason, Kushner’s third novel follows Romy Hall, currently in prison for murder, as flashbacks reveal the story behind her crime. Amazingly, none of the reviews I’ve read have compared The Mars Room to Orange Is the New Black, which might be because, despite indulging in melodrama, the latter is often also very funny. The Mars Room isn’t, although the bleakness of its setting in the neon-lit, cigarette-reeking, rain-streaked concrete underbelly of San Francisco is relieved by an ending that suggests, not miraculous deliverance, but the possibility of discovering a good reason to keep living when you don’t have any other choice. Kushner’s also great on dialogue and thumbnail character sketches. Better than The Flamethrowers.

31944750The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, by N. West Moss: Short stories, all of them centered on Bryant Park in New York City and its immediate environs. Moss’s characters are doormen, recently bereaved women, street sweepers, elderly immigrants, research librarians. They may be peripheral to wider society, but they’re central to their neighborhood. It’s a love song to New York, and each story is polished but without preciousness or self-consciousness. I didn’t know Moss’s work before now, and I don’t think she’s available in the UK; this was a birthday present from Literary Uncle.

dear-evelyn_high_rgb-823x1231Dear Evelyn, by Kathy Page: Kathy Page, like Sue Gee and other writers who’ve perhaps been longlisted once or twice for the Women’s Prize, has flown largely under the radar of publishing journalism while also writing damned good books. Dear Evelyn is a novel that takes as its form the study of a marriage, from the bride and groom’s childhoods in post-war south London to their eventual deaths in nursing homes. Page is a magician at evoking a sense of past-ness, and her characterisation is extraordinarily skillful and tender: both Evelyn and her husband Harry can be extremely difficult, but the reader understands and feels for them both. Exceptional work.

a1v3v7j-lzlThere, There, by Tommy Orange: A multi-POV novel whose climactic incident is the Oakland Powwow, where a tragedy occurs (no spoilers; you can guess as much from the jacket copy). As the book proceeds, it becomes clear that every one of the characters we care about will be involved with the Powwow – and are connected to each other – in some way. Orange interleaves sections narrated by none of the characters, or perhaps by all of them, which deal overtly with the painful legacy of Native displacement in America. His writing is so assured, so poetic and so graceful, that these sections don’t feel clunky or shoehorned in, but rather constitute an integral part of the book, articulating clearly what each character’s story can only suggest. Powerful and beautiful, even if there are sometimes too many characters to keep track of.

647121Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor: Essentially, Angel is a study of a terrible person. Angelica Deverell is supremely confident, utterly humourless, and entertains the grandest of delusions about her own importance. From Angel’s first novel, written at the age of fifteen, through her highly lucrative career as an author of popular romantic fiction, to the decline of her popularity and her death unmourned by any but her much-abused companion, Elizabeth Taylor takes us deep into the mind of a character exquisitely uninterested in social niceties. Angel is a writer above all else: not a Booker prize-winning one, by any stretch of the imagination, but one who gets the work done. (To complete a deadline, she has herself locked into her bedroom for a month.) In its black humour and its merciless dissection of an individual, Angel actually reminded me quite forcefully of Muriel Spark.

 

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Reading Diary: reviews in brief

I’ve read eight books in between the most recent few #20BooksofSummer entrants, and, frankly, though I want to say something about each of them, I also don’t have much time. So here are some tiny reviews.

41ytm2ralil-_sx331_bo1204203200_Blackfish City, by Sam Miller

The premise: In a post-climate change world, a floating city is visited by a mysterious woman riding an orca and accompanied by a polar bear, seeking someone she lost decades ago,  .

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Blade Runner meets Philip Pullman.

The good bits: Lots of gender diversity, including a non-binary teenage main character. Extremely atmospheric. Wears its influences elegantly.

The bad bits: Somewhat awkwardly written, particularly in the dialogue. Plot uneven: front-loaded with contextless information, conflict resolved in haste and without giving this reader a strong sense of emotional connection to the characters.

Verdict: Three stars (worth reading, but won’t keep a hard copy).

31h4vpzmjvl-_sx321_bo1204203200_Glass and God, by Anne Carson

The premise: Well, it’s poetry, so there isn’t really one, but the book is divided into several sections, the first of which (“The Glass Essay”) explores the end of a love affair through the lens of Emily Bronte’s life and work.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Maggie Nelson for heteros, if she was also a professor of classics.

The good bits: The images, and the phrasing, of “The Glass Essay” are some of the starkest poetry I’ve ever read. You remember too much,/my mother said to me recently.//Why hold onto all that? And I said,/Where can I put it down? 

The bad bits: The other parts of the collection are diffuse to the point of incomprehensibility, although I suspect there’s meaning in them; it’s just hard to break through to.

Verdict: Five stars (I’ve read this before, and I loved it then too.)

61lyilc0sfl-_sx305_bo1204203200_Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

The premise: The lives of Becky Sharp, a sexy, penniless governess on the make, and her friend Amelia Sedley – a fatally naive young gentlewoman – provide a frame through which to view English high society during the early to mid-nineteenth century.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Well, it’s a classic, so the comparisons should go the other way round really, but the toxic female friendship around which the book revolves is echoed in popular culture from Mean Girls to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”; plus, Becky’s strange positioning (partly an antagonist, partly a protagonist) is reminiscent of Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel.

The good bits: Very funny. Total lack of purple-ness; you never have to wade through Thackeray’s syntax to get to his meaning, as you sometimes do with Dickens or Eliot. Every character drawn with merciless clarity, but also with pity or compassion for their weakness.

The bad bits: Very long. But that’s only really a drawback if you don’t like long books on principle; Thackeray needs it to be long because his plot needs decades.

Verdict: Five stars (this is my favourite book of all time, so that one was a gimme.)

11076123Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

The premise: Hiero Falk had more raw talent than any other jazz trumpeter of his generation. In occupied Paris, he was taken away and interned, never seen again, presumed dead. Now, his former bandmates – Sid, who believes that he betrayed Hiero, and Chip, who believes Hiero is still alive – set out to find him again.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: The Time Of Our Singing with classical music stripped out and World War II injected into the space where it had been.

The good bits: Emotionally compelling. Characters believably weak and vulnerable. Evocation of Paris under occupation, and of the essence of jazz playing, is exceptional.

The bad bits: Perhaps it could have been more emotionally compelling. Sid does a lot of processing in the modern-day sections, and some of his self-awareness seems to have been arrived at with convenient rapidity.

Verdict: Four stars (have already recommended to many).

9780008146221The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Christopher Wilson-Lee

The premise: Partly a biography of Hernando Colon, son of Christopher Columbus and his father’s first biographer; partly an account of Hernando’s attempt to build the first truly universal library.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Fans of Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, as well as people who get nerdy about the history of information technology, might like this.

The good bits: Some great analogies drawn between the idea of the universal library and the Internet. Hernando Colon’s life also happens to have been rather colourful: he first went to the New World as a teenager, and inherited a lot of his father’s personal drama (and lawsuits).

The bad bits: Not nearly enough about the intellectual connection between universal libraries and the Internet. To me this was the most interesting element of the book, and it felt very under-developed.

Verdict: Three stars (I’ve been sending it out steadily, but haven’t kept my hard copy).

71agbivj1slSigns of Life, by Anna Raverat

The premise: A young woman has an affair with a man in her office; her relationship ends badly; her affair ends badly; as she recounts this eventful history, is she telling us the truth?

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Glass and God as prose fiction.

The good bits: I can’t get enough of writing like this: material about destructive relationships, relayed in prose like a recently cleaned window (and, also, like a broken bottle).

The bad bits: I didn’t dislike any of it. You’ll either love this sort of thing or you’ll hate it.

Verdict: Five stars (bought with my own money, now on the shelf of Books To Save From Fire).

revelation_space_cover_28amazon29Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds

The premise: The Amarantin civilisation were wiped out nine hundred thousand years ago, just as they were on the cusp of discovering spaceflight. Dan Sylveste is determined to find out why, and forges an unholy alliance with the cyborg crew of the Nostalgia For Infinity to do so – but the Amarantin were crushed for a reason…

How I’d (cynically) sell it: A beguilingly written and plotted classic space opera.

The good bits: It’s funny, it’s engaging, the mystery is excellent, and most of the main characters are women (at least one is also of colour).

The bad bits: It’s longer than it needs to be, although the scenic route lets Reynolds write some fun worldbuilding stuff. Also, despite the presence of many female characters, Dan Sylveste is still written as an Asshole Genius Deserving Veneration.

Verdict: Four stars (I raced through it and had a great time. It’s also very well written. Just, ugh, men).

coverThe Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

The premise: The end of the Trojan War – Agamemnon’s quarrel with Achilles, the death of Patroclus, etc. – told through the eyes of Briseis, the slave girl over whom the former two famously fall out.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: I’m so tired of people comparing every book that glances at misogyny to The Handmaid’s Tale. This does, however, have the virtue of actually also being a book about sexual slavery. (I wouldn’t compare the two in any other way, though.)

The good bits: Very competently written, as you’d expect from Pat Barker, and absolutely merciless in the way it draws back the veil on ancient societies, war, and the vulnerability of women in those contexts. Hard to read the way Ghost Wall is hard to read (which is to say, in the best possible way).

The bad bits: WHY. ARE THERE SO MANY CHAPTERS. DEVOTED TO THE PERSPECTIVES. OF MEN. At least half the book is through Achilles’s eyes. I understand the need to create variation, but why couldn’t we have had a different female perspective to fulfill that requirement, instead? I was hoping for a panoply of women’s voices.

Verdict: Four stars (it’s still bloody good).

 

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.

Reading Diary: Moll&Sarah&Alfred&Rupert

…and Grace and Lia and Sky. Herewith, the last few weeks of reading, not including #20booksofsummer titles.

51y5ybibh4l-_sx320_bo1204203200_Sometimes I just miss the eighteenth century. Not in a way that can be assuaged by contemporary historical fiction; in a way that can only really be dealt with by reading a novel rife with variant spellings like “chuse” and the persistent Capitalisation of every Noun, for Reasons. Daniel Defoe and I have a vexed history – the first of his novels that I ever read was Robinson Crusoe, which bored me almost to tears, although possibly this was because I was eight years old and not equipped to find interest in Crusoe’s devotion to the Protestant ethic through list-making, material culture, and stewardship of resources. Moll Flanders, though, I’ve always got on well with. She narrates her own story with vim, and an almost total lack of shame: her initial fall from grace, a seduction by the son of a woman in whose house she lives as a companion, is something about which she expresses regret, but mostly because she doesn’t “manage” the affair well and fails to get a promise of marriage and security. “Management” is essential in Moll’s world; the word crops up again and again. It’s interesting to consider its use as set against the idea of household management as a married woman’s primary duty; for Moll, “managing” is also a matter of maximising efficiency, but in her case it is the efficiency of graft, or theft, or of the socially approved form of prostitution that constitutes the marriage market. It’s also interesting to see how long it takes her to fall to actual crime: for most of the novel, she might be considered immoral (making various marriages for money and advantage, including the notorious incestuous one), but she doesn’t do much that’s illegal. The career of thieving comes much later, at a point where she’s not sufficiently sure of her own youth and beauty to try marrying again. The other delightful thing about the novel, of course, is that she ends up all right, with a husband she likes and a large, regular income from a plantation in Virginia. Roxana, a later Defoe novel, explores the darker and more realistic consequences of being a fallen woman, but Moll Flanders is like a glorious fantasy of transgression. I’ve always rather liked it for that.

the_reading_groupfrontpanelfinalThe Reading Party is set in the 1970s, not my favourite decade to read about but in this case made interesting because it was the time at which previously all-male colleges in Oxford and Cambridge began to admit not only female students, but female dons. Sarah Addleshaw is Fenella Gentleman’s protagonist, a social historian who becomes the first female don in the history of Wadham College. She’s selected to help an older, crustier colleague with the college’s annual reading party, in which a handful of students are chosen to go off with two tutors to a house in Cornwall for a week before their exams, to revise. (This tradition doesn’t exist in all Oxford colleges – it didn’t in mine – and I can think of many, many more pitfalls to it than advantages, but that’s by the by.) Her instinctive attraction to a Rhodes Scholar, Tyler, must be balanced against her constant awareness of being a test case, and her professional role as an academic mentor. On occasion, Sarah’s innocence about the subtlety of male belittling almost feels disingenuous; we’re so aware of it now that it feels remarkable that it was ever so widely accepted. And there’s a little too much in the way of non-dialogue exclamation points and quotation marks (the latter, I imagine, intended as signposts for readers not familiar with Oxbridge slang, but jarring.) It’s a fascinating view, though, into a time relatively near my own but which seems to have been governed by rules and convictions so vastly different that it might as well be alien. Is there any time more exotic than the recent past? And Sarah, frustrating though she sometimes is, is a doughty heroine; you want her to do well without losing her spark, and on that score, the epilogue satisfies.

53d8a8d0f1a13adde9ec4476a1b570bbI saw the film of The Prestige, based on the novel by Christopher Priest, years before reading the book. Christopher Nolan takes some liberties with plot and structure, which is, to be honest with you, a pretty good thing; Priest’s ideas work on their own, but they work slightly better when Nolan tweaks them. The heart of the story is still the rivalry between Victorian stage magicians Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden, and their achievement of a trick that appears to involve teleportation. Priest includes a framing story that features Angier’s and Borden’s descendants in the present day (which, if we assume it’s contemporaneous with the book’s writing, is the mid-1990s). It’s a further angle on the rivalry, but it doesn’t really go anywhere; the tantalising hint of resonance established by the report that sends Borden’s descendant in search of Angier’s (a potential news story about someone being in two places at once) is never resolved. The science-fiction element of the story is represented by Nikola Tesla, who makes a brief appearance as the inventor of a machine that harnesses electrical energy in the air; much as in The Bedlam Stacks, the time period of The Prestige muddies the waters about whether what’s happening is science as we’d understand it, or an illusion resulting from the limitations of Victorian knowledge. This is the first of Priest’s books I’ve read, but checking out his back catalogue after finishing it, it seems obvious that he has an artistic obsession with twins and duplicates; several of his other novels, including The Affirmation and The Separation (which won the Arthur C Clarke Award), use twinning as a device. Ideas of illusion, deception, and truth are so closely bound up with notions of identity that, at least in The Prestige, Priest carries it off, but it makes me wonder where he can possibly go with the same themes in other books.

81j4lg4hk8lMisogynistic dystopias are kind of where it’s at with culture both high and low at the moment. I think we’re either rapidly approaching saturation point, or got there some time ago (we sure as hell have passed the station where we should all have been given a collective run-down on the differences between “dystopic” and “post-apocalyptic”, two different concepts whose frequent and inappropriate blurring is the ridiculously petty hill I am prepared to die on.) Sophie Mackintosh’s entry in the genre is better than the text on the hardback back cover would lead you to believe (it reads as though it’s quoted directly from the novel, which it isn’t; Mackintosh’s prose is better, if not very interesting.) Her take involves three sisters—Grace, Lia, and the little one, Sky—and their parents, King and Mother. They live on an island off the mainland of somewhere that’s probably North America. They have been taught from a young age that the world beyond the horizon is poisoned, that their bodies and minds must be trained for assault by sickness as well as by the actions of men. It’s implied that they used to run some kind of cult there, one that appealed mostly to vulnerable women, but that no one comes for cures anymore; it’s just the girls and their parents. King vanishes without trace one day, and shortly afterwards, three men appear on the island. These two events precipitate a crisis in the girls’ worldviews, particularly that of Lia, who embarks on an affair with one of the newcomers.

There’s enough misogyny floating around that I’m never going to say we don’t need a book like this, but The Water Cure partakes of a vagueness that makes it feel generic, and therefore less urgent than many of its kind. Perhaps we’re truly not meant to know whether to read it as a speculative fiction or as disturbing realism, but the material about controlling one’s body and emotions, turning to self-harm as a form of release, and the manipulation of young women by older men is all stuff that’s been done before. What can make a book like this intensely compelling is the voice in which it’s told, but that doesn’t happen here, firstly because the narration is parceled out to three separate characters—for no readily apparent reason, like for instance a plot point where interpretation can be altered by different points of view—and secondly because none of those voices are differentiated from one another. Another way of injecting freshness into a story of this type is narrative structure, or a radical social approach (both of which are present, for instance, in Naomi Alderman’s The Power), but The Water Cure, for all its baton-switching, is a linear story, and its (tiny) social world is nothing we haven’t seen before in documentaries about cult leaders and in our own experiences with controlling men. The question with a book like this is whether holding up a mirror to experience is enough; does The Water Cure need, necessarily, to be Saying Something or Making A Statement? Perhaps not, at least not in a moral sense; but aesthetically, as a piece of art, it’s fatally weakened by bringing little new to the table.

08. The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley

51vdoyi9zgl-_sx331_bo1204203200_It’s really hard to sum up The Bedlam Stacks. We start in 1859. Merrick Tremayne used to smuggle plants out of colonial Asia for the East India Company, but now, thanks to a badly injured leg, he has been sent home to Cornwall. He is quietly stewing in the family manse, relegated to a bedroom at the top of three flights of stairs despite his injury and unable to do anything at all without the approval of his older brother, when he receives a letter: the East India Company wants him back. Malaria is on the rise in India, and it’s bringing down too many colonial administrators; there is a way of treating it, with quinine, but the supply is tightly controlled. Merrick’s job is to find a rumoured forest of cinchona trees, from which quinine is made, in the highlands of Peru; he is to take cuttings from the plants and bring them back to London, so that the East India Company can grow its own supply. Initially dubious, he is convinced to take the job by an old friend, Clem, and Clem’s wife Minna, both of whom will be accompanying him. But the situation in Peru is far stranger than Merrick imagines: his guide, Raphael, is a Catholic priest, but rumours swirl around him of stone saints and mysterious wild men, and an uncrossable border in the forest…

There’s also a city perched on a natural bridge spanning a river, the columns of stone criss-crossed with streams of obsidian from an ancient volcanic eruption, so that sunshine on the river is refracted by the glass, causing the water to boil. There’s luminescent pollen that infuses a whole rainforest. There’s irresistibly funny dialogue, first between Merrick and Clem and then between Merrick and Raphael; both friendships are fractious, but witty. In fact, the relationships between all of the characters are so convincing, and so endearing, that I kept imagining the book as a mini-series, something cast and shot with the same sort of mindset that produced the BBC’s adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Pulley excels at creating a sense of the alien, and because the book is set in 1859, there is a sense of slippage between the merely foreign and the truly supernatural; the mysteriousness of The Bedlam Stacks is that, for a long time, the reader is never sure whether the oddness Merrick encounters is just a result of the limitations of mid-Victorian knowledge. I described it earlier as part David Mitchell, part Haruki Murakami; like those writers, Pulley’s version of the fantastical is a kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it uncanniness. That her book understands the political ramifications of the phenomena it describes, particularly when its characters belong to an era and nation convinced of its own right to commit rapacious conquest, brings me back to comparisons with Strange and Norrell, though I think, like Clarke, Pulley could have committed herself more thoroughly to exploring the power dynamics that she draws attention to. Perhaps most to the point is the fact that I simply could not put The Bedlam Stacks down: it’s suspenseful, the writing is more than competent, the jokes land every time. Really marvelous.

07. The Madonna of the Mountains, by Elise Valmorbida

9780571336333One particular risk of having a reading list or challenge is that it’s easily possible to read several books in a row that, while fine, don’t really excite you; that you’re reading because there’s no reason to put them down and they’re doing their job, but which you don’t feel a pang parting from when you reach work, or the end of your lunch break. This has happened to me: MayA Station On the Path…, and The Waters and the Wild all ended up three-star reads, quite all right but not especially haunting, and not propulsive while I was reading them. (Actually, The Waters and the Wild was, but the structure did most of the work; I found that even as I was racing through the final pages, the relentlessly circuitous prose was frustrating.) The upside of a patch of average reading is that when you do find something emotionally compelling, it breaks upon you like a wave of delight. The Madonna of the Mountains is a book like that. It’s quiet, but it’s brilliant.

It starts in 1923, with a girl called Maria Vittoria embroidering sheets for her dowry trunk. She’s twenty-five, alarmingly old to be unmarried. Her papà has gone to find her a husband. He returns with a man – Achille Montanari, tall and strong and wrapped in glory as a result of vaguely-defined heroism in the last war – and they marry. From there, Elise Valmorbida spins the story of Maria Vittoria’s life: her marriage, her children, the ascent of Mussolini’s government and the onset of WWII. It finishes with her family’s eventual emigration to Australia in 1950. In between these events, Valmorbida demonstrates, life goes on: the war isn’t the point of the novel any more than the question of whether Maria Vittoria will have a husband, a question solved in chapter one. As a result of its refusal to be “about” any one particular event, The Madonna of the Mountains feels both universal (fears about infidelity, a child’s health, how to protect your family in uncertain times) and deeply, richly specific: Valmorbida is interested in process, whether that’s washing laundry in the stream, raising silkworms from eggs, or the arduous hunt for, and fiddly preparation of, snails to eat when there’s no other meat.

Because we’re so deeply embedded in its physical world, The Madonna of the Mountains also feels effortlessly emotionally engaging, without resorting to either melodrama or apparent anachronism. Third-rate historical fiction forces us to care about characters either because we identify with them (often because they have political opinions much like our own, which are suspiciously progressive for their own time, as in The Burning Chambers), or because they’re forced to endure trial after trial, which requires a grudging sort of respect from the reader. Here, neither of those things occurs: Maria Vittoria is very much of her time, a God-fearing Catholic countrywoman whose husband hits her on occasion but whom she will never dream of leaving, who feeds her eldest son first, and who disinherits a daughter with pain but no regret when she brings dishonour to the household. The challenges she faces are both personal and political (indeed, in Fascist Italy, the two are often the same), and in every adversity, her responses are so consistent that it really feels as if you are peering into the head of, let’s say, your great-grandmother; someone whose world is not your world, whose socially conditioned responses are alien to your own. The Madonna of the Mountains is one of the most restrained, yet profoundly convincing, historical novels that I’ve read in years, perhaps ever. I’m delighted to have found it.

06. The Waters and the Wild, by DeSales Harrison

35576092I’ve always thought Benjamin Britten would have written great music for it, the Yeats poem that gives this book its title:

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

The poem appears in an envelope addressed to Daniel Abend, a psychoanalyst who lives in New York City. Along with the poem—handwritten, in the distinctive block capitals of the woman whom Daniel loved twenty years ago in Paris, who killed herself shortly after they ended their relationship—there is a photograph of Daniel’s former patient Jessica Burke, who died in her bathtub of a heroin overdose. She is supposed to have died alone, but the photograph suggests otherwise; someone else was there, someone who knows Daniel’s life and history, and who is bent on revenge.

Daniel reveals his story through a long confession written and sent to Father Nelson Spurlock, the vicar of the church in New York that conducts Jessica Burke’s funeral. Thus, as Spurlock reads the document, we too discover the secrets that Daniel has been living with, and keeping from his daughter Clementine. By its very nature, the confessional structure is a slow reveal; it takes almost the entire book for us to learn things that Daniel knows from the start. Sometimes it’s too slow. Harrison, like Benjamin Wood, wants us to see this story as somehow special or profound. He uses as many tricks as he can to imbue the narrative with weight: heavy foreshadowing, complex or inverted sentence structure that echoes biblical or poetic phrasing, introduction of religious themes (Daniel’s beloved is on track to become a nun), and of course that Yeats poem. Again, though, I don’t see that it works, and I don’t see why it’s even necessary to reach for it: the particular sins of Daniel’s life, his failures and his lies, are so commonplace and human. They have extreme consequences—a person’s death, a child’s life—but Harrison seems to want to introduce a metaphysical significance to the events of the plot that simply isn’t supported. There is a lot about shame and guilt and God, but these things can and should be invoked and felt deeply by the characters, without necessarily being a moral framework through which the reader ought to perceive the book.

The Waters and the Wild is helped, though, by that confessional structure: you want to read it all the way through because you do—even if frustrated by Daniel’s withholding—want to know what happened in the past, and how it is affecting the present. You want, perhaps most of all, to know his level of culpability: how much is he at fault? He is a thoroughly realised character, seemingly open but concealing much, perhaps because he is deceiving himself. That particular brand of unreliability makes a nice change from the other unreliable narrators of domestic noir, who tend to be alcoholic women. The Waters and the Wild is flawed in conception and execution, but it sets its sights much higher than most other books of its genre.