Readings and Watchings 2018
I have read some absolutely fantastic novels this year, all of which have been recent publications. Unusually I am also going to write about two films ("Radiator" and "Blade Runner 2049") because both have stayed with me and that’s relatively rare for me.
“Reservoir 13” by Jon McGregor begins as a novel about a girl who disappears, and I have to confess this is what caught my eye. I have read plenty of thrillers about exactly that but none that have been major prize-winners so I was interested. In the end, it is not a novel about a girl who disappears but about the village from which she disappears. Although the missing girl is a constant throughout the novel, she comes and goes, reappearing at certain moments when we have forgotten about her. The author seems to have chosen a major event as a way of framing a story about ordinary, non-heroic, people told over 13 years; descriptions of the natural world are interspersed throughout in a repetitive but never boring way. In many ways it is a novel about our place in the world itself; what great and what little impact we have on the landscape and the people around us. It is beautifully written; breathtakingly so.
Marilynne Robinson’s work has been recommended many times. Perhaps I just needed to find the right moment because her novels are slow, patient reads, requiring pauses to absorb. “Gilead” is the one to start with: it is a sort-of-letter written by the Reverend John Ames for his young son to read. Ames knows he is dying and would like something of his life’s story to be understood by his unnamed son. It is set in 1956, and Ames moves back and forth in his life, and includes an account of his grandfather in the American Civil war and the meeting of his second wife Lila. There is a fair bit of theology in the novel as he explores his faith, but it never feels intrusive; rather, it is exploratory and creative. I was constantly moved by the writing; its deceptive simplicity and its profound observations. “Lila” was written afterwards and is told from the viewpoint of his young wife and I was in tears for most of it. Both are stories of people I can’t imagine meeting from a world entirely remote from me, and yet I was totally drawn into their accounts and believed every word. And they are novels that are difficult to write about because there isn’t really a central narrative which propels the novels forward: in the case of “Gilead” we know that the novel will end when John Ames dies or has nothing more to say; and with “Lila” we already know the story, we already know that she will, in fact, marry Ames and have a son, and that Ames himself will die. The story is given a structure by the wondering of how she feels about such things, and how such things fit into the world she inhabits which is so different in origin to that of Ames. I found them wise novels and beautifully written; they made me think about mortality; about our place in the world, in history and the landscape; they were strangely uplifting for all the questions they both posed. And there is another novel yet awaiting me: “Home” deals with the ‘same story’ from another character’s view point.
“Barkskins” by Annie Proulx is a much bigger novel. It is very long indeed and covers four hundred years. “The Guardian” described it as “an ambitious saga” and “an environmental epic”, the former phrase being a little damning, but I do think that one can describe the novel as a story more about trees than about people. It begins with two men who emigrate to North America, to what was then called “New France”, and follows the lives of their offspring over a number of generations, and perhaps more importantly the story of their relationship with the trees they chop down. I have always been interested in the settlement and colonisation of North America, particularly Canada, and this was a powerful story told by lots of different characters including native Americans who become part of these two enormous families. Again it requires a certain kind of reading: when the initial protagonists were replaced by the next generation I was disappointed and irritated, resenting the fact that I had to get to know a whole load of new characters, but gradually I understood that this was one of the actual points of the novel: presenting an endlessly shifting set of players on a stage that we are in the process of destroying. There was no way that in the seventeenth century anyone could have understood the impact of the mass deforestation of what are now Canada and the USA and this is perhaps the central irony of the novel. Like the other authors on this top reads list, Proulx writes incredibly. There is a sparseness in her writing, interspersed with powerful lyricism. This perhaps does actually describe all three writers and because I like their mode of composing phrases, I trust they will take me somewhere worthwhile.
There are a few other literary novels I want to mention. “Macbeth” by Jo Nesbø was published this year as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. I have really enjoyed those I have read before, particularly “Hagseed” by Margaret Atwood. This was brilliant, and a great way of rethinking Shakespeare’s play. The challenge for all these authors is to bring Shakespeare’s often bizarre and intense stories, with their equally complex themes, into the present day, to see if they can be made ‘relevant’. Of course, they can, otherwise we wouldn’t be reading or seeing his plays as often as we do: Shakespeare touched a few nerves and has continued to do so. But the story of “Macbeth” really is both absurd and hideously possible: Nesbø relocates Macbeth’s madness into an unnamed Scottish city run by a corrupt policing system in the 1970s and instead of the trances of witchery we have the hypnotism of drugs. It really worked for me and helped me enrich my understanding of the play, which I continue to teach and continue to love. Finally, I got round to reading “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan. This is a novel more experimental in form than the others I have read: it is effectively a series of short stories with interlinking themes and with recurring characters, all of which add up to a funny, often moving, and sometimes rather dark account of modern-day life. It is a clever novel in the way that the others aren’t, signalling its consciousness of being a literary text but it works in the way that sometimes these kinds of novels do not; indeed she won the Pulitzer for it in 2011. As with the change of narrators in “Barkskins”, I often felt disappointed when one narrative came to a close but the knowledge that they were all linked somehow allowed me to feel there was a point to the collection, and indeed the point is made well.
To call Jane Harper a detective novelist is perhaps not fair. While her first two novels (“The Dry” and “Force of Nature”) could be described as crime fiction, her most recent novel, “The Lost Man", is absolutely not despite the fact that a suspicious death triggers the narrative. She is Australian and writes about the bleakness of the outback in a way that is quite chilling: all her novels convey space and time in a way I can’t begin to imagine. I have spent time in the desert in Egypt but always for a limited period, each time knowing that I could leave and be back in a city within a day. In “The Lost Man” Harper tells the story of a family whose land stretches over hundreds of kilometres; whose children are home-schooled because even the nearest town, many hours away, is not big enough to warrant a school; and where you can die from heat exhaustion and dehydration within hours. It reminded me a little of Jane Smiley’s awesome “A Thousand Acres” which recounts the hidden stories of a large farm in the United States (with more than a nod to Shakespeare’s “King Lear”). Harper’s writing is not particularly cheerful but the ending provided some hope.
William Shaw has been writing detective novels for a while. I came across him via the relatively recently published “The Birdwatcher”, a story of a former policeman from Northern Ireland, living in the Kent salt-lands. This is a ‘stand-alone’ but it provides the backdrop to a new series, starting with “Salt Lane” and featuring one of the main characters from “The Birdwatcher”. I find, more and more, that good descriptions of landscape and its significance, draws me into a novel. Good detective novelists often use landscape or setting as one of their characters – Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh is a good example – and Shaw conjures the remoteness and the hidden dangers of the Kent coastline evocatively. His stories are believable, his characters interesting and I am waiting for the next in the series. I also discovered and read all of the novels by Swedish crime writer Åsa Larsson who has written five novels featuring a strong yet complicated female lead called Rebecka Martinsson. The first one is “The Savage Altar”. I loved them - and once again we have rich portrayals of northern Sweden - and read them too fast. They are great and I highly recommend them for compulsive reading. Meanwhile, I have enjoyed the new releases of some of my go-to detective novel authors (Ann Cleeves, Val McDermid, Robert Galbraith, Elizabeth George, Peter May); and loved “In a House of Lies” by Ian Rankin and “Dark Sacred Night” by Michael Connolly both of whom always pull a few punches with their disaffected heroes.
I have read lots of other really interesting novels and in other years these might have made my favourite list. I recommend the bizarre but incredibly compelling “The Parentations” by Kate Mayfield which portrays a series of characters who have found the secret to eternal life. Once you allow yourself to believe in the premise of the novel (like “The Time Traveller’s Wife”) it really works and I loved it. I finally got round to reading Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow”. This novel has had a lot of hype and was recommended to me by several different people. I was not as wowed by it as others but it was a good book and despite myself I was drawn in; I am not sure I liked the central character very much and I occasionally found the writing too self-consciously clever; but I had a weep at the end which is a fairly good sign. I enjoyed Simon Mawer’s series about a spy (specifically a player in Special Operations Executive) during the Second World War, beginning with “The Girl who Fell from the Sky”. It’s been done before but having a female lead was refreshing. Unfortunately this meant that when I came to read the much anticipated new novel (“Transcription”) by one of my favourite novelists, Kate Atkinson, which deals with a similar theme, I was a bit disappointed, simply because the idea of a female spy and the use of this character to question our identity felt a little done-already. Like many others I read the witty and moving “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman; I loved it at the time but unlike some of the other novels I read this year it hasn’t stayed with me. The same goes for the beautifully written “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr.
What is interesting is that none of my top novels this year were fast reads; rather they were slow, lingering experiences which often required going back in order to go forwards. I started “Reservoir 13” again when I was two chapters in because I realised I had been reading it ‘wrong’: too fast and with certain expectations. All four occupied me in a way that usually only one novel a year manages to do and that is normally a nineteenth century novel, all-consuming partly because of its length. Looking at them now, I see there are a number of connections between McGregor’s novel, and those by Marilynne Robinson and Annie Proulx, most notably the smallness of our individual lives amidst the cycle of the natural world; perhaps this is my age, perhaps this is the fact that I live in the countryside and am more attune to seasonal rhythms, perhaps too it is my increased awareness of what we are doing to the planet and my deep sense of powerlessness. None of them have a traditional narrative push: there is not a big adventure, no murder to be solved, no big revelation; in fact, for all four I wondered how the novels would end because it was clear that none would offer any solutions or resolutions. I was pleased with all the endings.
I am going to conclude with two films I have seen this year because they both affected me enormously. I am not a film buff, nor indeed am a regular film watcher. I get impatient and am too easily torn out of the fictional world created by the director. I am, these days, better suited to reading and to 40-minute episodes of (good) television programmes. But these two films, both released before last year, have stayed with me since I watched them, something that rarely happens these days to me. The first is “Radiator” by Tom Browne. It was shown in festivals in 2014, received high acclaim and reviews in the national press, and was released the following year. The second is Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049”, released last year. I am not sure I could find two such different films to write about: one is small in focus, intense in vision, and incredibly powerful; the other is epic and powerful for altogether different reasons.
“Radiator” is about a son’s relationship with his parents, mainly with his father, a difficult demanding man who refuses to acknowledge his mortality and dominates his wife’s life. The son, the middle-aged Daniel (Daniel Cerquiera), goes to sort out his father (Richard Johnson), summoned by his mother (Gemma Jones), and is shocked to discover the state of the mouse-infested home in the Lake District. His father is refusing to get up and Daniel has little power to change his father’s approach; nor is he able to do much to convince his mother to live differently. The story centres on the way the relationship between child and parents shifts as all involved get older: the child at some point switches roles, but in a way that is so deeply complicated that it is almost impossible to untangle. For me, “Radiator” was a rare example of a truth told through film: there was a simplicity, an integrity and an authenticity that I simply haven’t seen in a film for a long time. But it wasn’t an unrelentingly ‘gritty film’; instead there was a wit, a beauty and a humour about it that lifted it out of dark realism. It reminded me of when my own parents were ill; it spoke to me about the choices that we make, have to make, in terms of ourselves and in terms of our parents; and it made me cry a lot and laugh quite a bit at unexpected moments.
“Blade Runner 2049” is a totally different cup of tea. I initially avoided seeing it because “Blade Runner” had had such an impact on me when I was younger. I am sure it is something to do with the original that I am so interested in Dystopian fiction today. I have seen all versions of “Blade Runner” itself, working my way through the various significations of the origami unicorn. And then, almost by accident, I found myself watching the sequel, not in a massive cinema but at home on a normal TV. At various points while watching I was vaguely aware I needed the loo, wanted a hot drink, was even getting a bit cold, but I didn’t leave the room the whole time, a rare thing for me. It did not disappoint me. To tell the story, requires too much of the backstory. I don’t recommend watching this until you have seen and thought about the original but the film, with its understated acting, its pared-down dialogue, its stunning soundtrack and beautiful cinematography, was wonderful. It made me think about big things: our place in the world, our futures, bigger choices than those which were explored in “Radiator” simply because this is a film about humanity, in a way, rather than humans.
Eh voila. An overly long account of how I have been imaginatively occupied in 2018: I hope it inspires some of you to go away and read the books or see the films.