An epistolary novel - done well - appeals to my liking for order and neatness. The form involves a degree of focus, often on a smallish scale; it invites the succinct making of a point and a coherent response; it requires the development of a theme or a line of plot in a rhythmic and cohesive manner, and if all those strands are held together with the right degree of tension, the weave of the story is smooth and the pattern of the finished piece is pleasing.
Anne Youngson's debut Meet me at the Museum shows she has mastered the skills. It's a quiet book, a picture of middle life in muted colours, a study of how we come to know ourselves through our own narratives. I found it engaging, moving, and satisfying, and I was sorry to reach the final page.
Tina is an East Anglian farmer's wife. The death of her great friend Bella prompts her to write to a Danish archaeologist with whom she and her schoolfriends corresponded about the Tollund Man some fifty years earlier. She is preoccupied with "plans never fulfilled" - specifically but not exclusively the wish she shared with Bella to visit the Silkeborg Museum to see the famous bog man. She writes to make sense of her thoughts, to try to move forward after many years of being held back. In truth she doesn't expect a reply.
The archaeologist, it turns out, is long dead, but Anders the museum curator writes back to Tina. He patiently answers her factual questions, and she responds with more about the history of her intention to visit Silkeborg and the exhibit, but perhaps because her correspondent is a stranger she is unlikely to meet she is unusually frank, confiding details of her "buried" life, bogged down on the farm, an existence which circumstances had forced her into accepting. Anders in turn reveals his own sadness and regrets, and as their letters move them further from the general and the impersonal, their correspondence nurtures an intimacy, an organic relationship which grows in value to surprise them both.
As they write to one another Tina and Anders try to make order out of chaos, consider chance and fate and choice, and how the past has led to the present. As Tina says, "I thought I knew where [my life] was roughly darned and where neatly patched, but despite all the flaws in the fabric, I believed in the essential wholeness of it"; as an unravelling occurs so there will be a reworking, a making new.
A touching book, beautifully, intelligently written, profound in its way. I look forward to seeing what Anne Youngson does next.
I've just finished La Belle Sauvage and I'm exhausted - the suspense, the strain of 'hanging on' with our heroes 'til the end, the emotion of it ... It was almost all too much, but the book is terrific.
I shall be sparing with the details so as not to spoil anything, but as you may well know by now, it is set around 10 years before His Dark Materials when Lyra is a baby. As her role in the new book, though crucial, is thus limited, the principal character this time is a young boy called Malcolm Polstead. If you've read Lyra's Oxford you'll have met the older Malcolm, but in this book he's "a bright boy with a canoe" who lives on the Thames at Godstow where his parents run The Trout Inn*. Malcolm's a steady lad with a sharp brain; quick to pick things up, helpful and willing, shrewd for his age. He's knacky and workmanlike, and tends more to the quietly plodding than the flashy, characteristics which stand both him and the plot in which he features in good stead.
Across the river from the pub stands the priory whose nuns know Malcolm well. He pops over to do odd jobs for them, helps in the kitchen, and is thus privy to their news. When an infant is suddenly put in their care, Malcolm gives a hand and finds himself captivated by the child. His part in her immediate future will be central to her fate.
Suffice to say that an adventure begins, and its tightly linked episodes follow one another like beads on a string until on the final page the cord is cut, and ...
What more can I say? It's supremely inventive, of course, for Philip Pullman is a master storyteller, and the rhythm of his writing is absolutely sure, from sentence level up. He gives every phrase, paragraph, and scene such a clear beat that when he does draw a chapter to its close it requires a moment's pause for the necessary step-change from the reader, almost like the break between movements of a symphony, say. The pulse of the book will quicken or slow, and we must adjust along with it, but look out for the allegro con fuoco of the final pages, and the ending itself which couldn't be more perfect.
My re-read of His Dark Materials continues well. I'm now far on in volume 2, The Subtle Knife, and marvelling once again at Philip Pullman's use of parallel worlds, the portals between them, and the metaphysics which govern them. Gripping stuff.
I hope you're reading something similarly engaging this weekend.
In advance of publication of La Belle Sauvage, the first volume of Philip Pullman's long-awaited Book of Dust trilogy, I am re-reading His Dark Materials. I'm well on with Northern Lights and loving it as much as I did first time around, 20 years ago, and I'm currently in the Arctic with Lyra, the gyptians, Iorek Byrnison the armoured bear, balloonist Lee Scoresby, the despicable Mrs. Coulter, and the witches led by Serafina Pekkala.
It's a marvellously imaginative and thoughtful page-turner which, whether you read it for its wider philosophical commentary, for its use of the very clever concept that is the daemon*, for the breadth and depth of its world-building, or for its action adventure plot, makes rich and satisfying reading.
"Focusing on Henry and Laura Broad and their daughter Carrie, this is a minute - but in true Nicholson style, extraordinarily empathetic - dissection of relationships and what keeps them going. It is an acute and compassionate look at male mid-life crises, female sexual desire, death and the fear of it, children and the trouble with them - all the things we battle with every day."
"Marriage is a useful arrangement for having children, it has all sorts of economic advantages, but once the children have grown up and left home, and the mortgage has been paid off, what's left? I take the view that our time of life is a time of reinvention. The hard slog is over. We can be young again."
Many of us are fans of Sarah Moss's work and will be glad to know that she has a new novel - The Tidal Zone - out on 7th July. Here's the gist:
"Adam is a stay-at-home dad who is also working on a history of the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He is a good man, and he is happy. But one day, he receives a call from his daughter's school to inform him that, for no apparent reason, fifteen-year-old Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing. In that moment, he is plunged into a world of waiting, agonising, not knowing. The story of his life and the lives of his family are rewritten and re-told around this shocking central event, around a body that has inexplicably failed.
In this exceptionally courageous and unflinching novel of contemporary life Sarah Moss goes where most of us wouldn't dare to look, and the result is riveting - unbearably sad, but also miraculously funny and ultimately hopeful. The Tidal Zone explores parental love, overwhelming fear, illness and recovery. It is about clever teenagers and the challenges of marriage. It is about the NHS, academia, sex and gender in the twenty-first century, the work/life juggle, and the politics of packing lunches and loading dishwashers. It confirms Sarah Moss as a unique voice in modern fiction and a writer of luminous intelligence."
For anyone not acquainted with Sarah Moss's novels, there's a post on Night Wakinghere and one on Bodies of Light here. I've yet to read Signs for Lost Children, the third book in that excellent 'series'.
"Had the dogs not taken exception to the strange van parked in the royal grounds, the Queen might never have learnt of the Westminster travelling library's weekly visits to the Palace. But finding herself at its steps, she goes up to apologise for all the yapping and ends up taking out a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, last borrowed in 1989. Duff read though it proves to be, upbringing demands she finish it and, so as not to appear rude, she withdraws another. This second, more fortunate choice of book awakens in Her Majesty a passion for reading so great that her public duties begin to suffer. And so, as she devours work by everyone from Hardy to Brookner to Proust to Samuel Beckett, her equerries conspire to bring the Queen's literary odyssey to a close."
That's Alan Bennett's delightful novella The Uncommon Reader, one of today's Kindle bargains; if you haven't already had the pleasure of reading it I suggest you take a look - it's a treat.
"In 1999 a programmer is trying to fix the Millennium Bug, but can't shake the sense he's been chosen for something.
In 1888, five women are brutally murdered in the East End by a troubled young man in thrall to a mysterious master.
In 1777 an apprentice engraver called William Blake has a defining spiritual experience; thirteen years later this vision returns.
In 1666, poet and revolutionary John Milton completes the epic for which he will be remembered centuries later.
But from where comes the feeling that the world is about to end?"
Toby Litt says this is "one of the most exciting novels I've read in recent years. Michael Hughes writes like a brilliant cross between David Mitchell and Hilary Mantel," while the acquiring editor at publisher John Murray says, "It’s very rare that a debut both has this much ambition and also delivers on that ambition; it’s dizzying, genre-blending, polyphonic and one hell of a ride."
"I always feel like my books are inspired by my books. Bel Canto was a novel that took place outside of linear time. I got so frustrated writing a book in which nobody knew what day it was that I decided my next book, Run, would take place in twenty-four hours. In Run I had a character who was an ichthyologist, and I enjoyed writing about science so much that in my next book, State of Wonder, pretty much all the characters are scientists. I was nervous about publishing my essay collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage* because it was so personal, but as it turned out no one seemed to care. It made me wonder about writing a novel that was closer to home, something that had more to do with families and less to do with the Amazon, opera, or fish, some of the far-flung subjects I'd been tackling. I wanted to approach the novel more in the way I'd approached the essays: instead of the story coming from research it would be built from the material I had at hand. Which isn't to say the book is true, it's not, but it's made from things I knew and understood. I love doing research but I have to say this was a lot of fun too."
That's Ann Patchett talking about the genesis of her latest novel Commonwealth which will be out here in September. It's the story of a family, told over fifty years and offers "a window into how we change from the children we were, and how we are always ourselves." I'm greatly looking forward to reading it.
*I've no post as such on that one, but as with Bel Canto and State of Wonder (I've yet to read Run), I warmly recommend it.
Good news for all of us who are fans of the late Mary Stewart: to mark the centenary of her birth this year Hodder are to be reissuing her entire backlist with new covers. I haven't seen any of the designs yet, but I hope that putting her work centre stage in this way will bring in new readers and perhaps remind old ones that her books are well worth revisiting. I've linked to this video interview with Mary Stewart many times, but if you haven't already seen it do take a look.
Unveiled today is this year's Books Are My Bag limited edition book bag designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith (who needs no introduction). The bags will be available at independent and chain bookshops around Super Thursday, which this year is October 6th..
Many of us will know Natalie Fergie as the talent behind The Yarn Yard, purveyors of hand-dyed yarn and embroidery thread*. Well now Natalie has turned her creative hand to writing and she's penned a novel called The Sewing Machine. You can read all about it - and hear from Natalie herself - over on the book's Unbound page, and if you like the sound of it (as I do) you might consider giving it your support. To find out more about Unbound and how it works, click here.
*Unsurprisingly, the shop's empty just now as Natalie has been giving her writing her full attention.
Another Kindle bargain for you, this time The Messenger of Athens, the first book in Anne Zouroudi's Greek Detective series:
Hermes Diaktoros is no ordinary investigator.
For a fat man - that's how he's referred to throughout - he's surprisingly fleet of foot, though it's tennis shoes he favours rather than wingèd sandals, and although he's been sent from Athens to look into the death of a young woman on the island of Thiminos, he's not a policeman but works, as he puts it, "for a higher authority". If I tell you also that he is something of an avenging angel, a man who sees deep into the hearts of others, who has a knack for knowing what ails a person and what might cure their ills, then you'll perhaps appreciate that this 'messenger', this 'intermediary' is not as other men; that said, it's an all too real world in which he finds himself when he steps off the ferry with his capacious holdall on a chilly Spring day.
Hermes is such an original character and one whose particular gifts will afford his creator great possibilities, but in case you think this book is some kind of myth or fable, let me correct that impression. It's a gritty tale of passion and lust, of jealousy, vengeance and corruption, and of the harsh treatment of women; it's like the picture postcard image of a Greek island but taken in the off-season, with the dilapidation and decay - both physical and moral - which would normally be kept strictly 'out of shot', very much in the frame. So the book works both as morality tale and detective story and makes compelling reading.
As to the plot, Irini Asimakopoulos has been found dead on an island hillside, and while the local police are content to sign off her death as suicide, Hermes takes a different view. In his questioning of the locals, of the victim's husband and others who were close to her - and his methods here are certainly unorthodox - he builds a picture of betrayal and brutality in a society where love and marriage seem rarely to go together. Behind the white-washed façades of the simple village houses, secrets are kept, shame and dishonour are hidden, and piety cohabits with cruelty. But Hermes is in Thiminos to see justice done and this deus ex machina is nothing if not effective, so that by the time he leaves the island many wrongs have been righted in stylish fashion, and the reader will close the book with a sigh of satisfaction.
One of today's Kindle deals is Ann Patchett's novel State of Wonder. I recommend it strongly, as you'll see from my original post:
If, when discovering an author for the first time, you're drawn to read more of their work - not straightaway perhaps, but later - then they've passed a test of sorts. With Ann Patchett's State of Wonder that test was passed for me after only three or so pages, and reaching the end of the novel, the question isn't 'whether' I'll read more but 'when': how soon can I get hold of the rest of her books? Never before have I looked up all an author's published work with a view to buying everything in one go, but so taken am I with this book that I do want all the others, and as soon as is practicable.
While I've read a number of excellent novels recently, State of Wonder is unsurpassed. It's a book of integrity and clarity with compassionate intelligence behind it; it's a story which holds the reader long after the final page has been turned, and it poses questions of ethics to exercise the intellect. I suppose it has everything I unconsciously look for in a book.
It is set largely in the Amazonian rainforest where the maverick scientist Dr. Annick Swenson is conducting revolutionary research into female fertility. Funding for the drug she is developing comes from the Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company Vogel, but as Dr. Swenson refuses to report on progress and remains frustratingly out of contact (even her precise whereabouts are unknown), the CEO has sent one of his own team to find out what's going on. Anders Eckman was despatched from Eden Prairie to deepest Brazil, but little was heard from or about him until a curt note arrived to say that he had contracted a fever and died.
Anders's wife needs to understand exactly what happened to him, and Vogel still want a definitive indication of how soon the drug can move to clinical trials and thence to market, so Anders's colleague and friend Dr. Marina Singh undertakes the mission to the Rio Negro and the Swenson camp to try to bring back answers to their questions. She was once a student of Dr. Swenson's, and it was her tutelage that was to directly determine the course of Marina's career; her visit to the jungle is thus no small undertaking, either professionally or personally.
The plot is, I think, brilliantly and beautifully devised, and set into it are very clearly drawn characters, not least the imperious Dr. Swenson, a woman of "brio [...], utter assuredness [...] indefatigably right". The work being carried out in the jungle is fascinating and raises many questions and matters of conscience, both at universal and individual levels, and some very careful, creative thought has gone into this aspect of the book. In this short clip you'll hear Ann Patchett say that in writing State of Wonder she wanted to make the reader think about different issues, not just to be entertained "but sort of stirred up by this book", and that would be her best case scenario, she says. She has certainly achieved her aim.
Judith Kerr, still going strong at 92, is surely a role-model for us all; in case you didn't see it, here's my report of her appearance at last year's Edinburgh International Book Festival where she took the stage with her son Matthew Kneale to explore creative heritage.
Back to books now, and in other news, the Costa Book Awards shortlists have been announced, and I'm pleased to see Melissa Harrison's At Hawthorn Time in the novel category. It's a story of contemporary rural life set over a spring month, but it's an original and unsettling piece, beautifully done, and it deserves its place on the list.
Lastly today, as a PLR Twitter advocate I'm reminding UK writers to ensure that ALL your books are registered at www.plr.uk.com. Paperbacks and audiobooks - anything with a different ISBN - should be listed along with hardbacks so that they qualify for payment under the PLR scheme. Illustrators and translators should check, too. If you have writer friends, please nudge them to make sure their registration is up to date.