February to April Books
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In the Distance by Hernan Diaz
This is easily one of my favourite novels I’ve read this year. It is a beautifully rendered reimagining of a Western that also interrogates coming-of-age and journey narratives, too. When a young Swedish boy named Håkan loses his brother in the crowds upon arrival in America, he must try and find his way back to him without speaking a word of English. He tries desperately to get to New York in search of him but finds himself driven back West again and again, in the meantime making a reputation for himself on account of his mysterious origins. This is a subtle, quiet novel that creates an atmosphere of foreignness (Diaz himself has said that "foreignness is part of the American experience"), of being out of place and alone in a landscape that seems to stretch unstoppably into the distance. I wrote in my notes that this novel 'spoke to my soul'; and indeed the sense of loneliness and strangeness is deeply moving.
Along his journey, Håkan encounters all the types that populate the frontier, one of the most important being John Lorimer, a botanist and zoologist who teaches Håkan about the land and plants, as well as giving him vital surgical skills that serve him well for the remainder of the novel. It’s in this part of the novel that Diaz gives space to some of the novel's more theoretical subjects:
Having understood and experienced this marvellous congruity, man can no longer examine his surroundings merely as a surface scattered with alien objects and creatures related to him only by their usefulness. The carpenter who can only devise table tops while walking through the forest, the poet who can only remember his own private sorrow while looking at the falling snow, the naturalist who can only attach a label to every leaf and a pin to every insect - all of them are debasing nature by turning it into a store house, a symbol, or a fact. Knowing nature, Lorimer would often say, means learning how to be; And to achieve this we must listen to the constant sermon of things. Our highest task is to make out the words to better partake in the ecstasy of existence.
Håkan had been converted.
This is an epic work that manages to remain understated while still keeping the action moving forward, simultaneously creating a myth out of Håkan and also allowing us to see his humanity and his pain. The quote above is didactic in Lorimer's (free indirect) style, but there are subtle shifts throughout between simple, heartbreaking prose and more dreamlike, hallucinatory sections, all handled with ease by Diaz. If you can't already tell, I love this book and I want you to read it.
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
This book was a really pleasant surprise, because for some reason I really thought I was going to hate it. In it, three sisters live on an island with their parents, who have explained to them that men are toxic to women, and that they live isolated here for reasons of safety. It begins with the death of their father, King, the only man the girls have ever encountered and their protector and ruler. When three men wash up on the beach, everything they know is called into question, and even at the end of the novel the reader is unaware as to whether this "toxin-filled world" is real or a very effective metaphor or if it's just all a complete lie, blurring the boundaries between dystopia and reality.
The claustrophobic and nightmarish atmosphere of the novel, where the girls all too easily can 'blur where the I ends and the sister begins' reminded me of The Virgin Suicides, and Mackintosh certainly includes all the weirdness that is coming-of-age as a woman, layered with her central ideas. I liked that this novel did not shy away from the grey areas of gender relations, that whilst her idea seemed to be about the experience of being a woman in a man's world, Mackintosh nonetheless also seemed interested in the relationships between power, love and violence, “taking what you can just because you can”. The mother figure is therefore particularly interesting in this regard; is she a victim too? Complicit in King's dominion over them? Or the mastermind? As she continues to inflict King's strange and violent rituals upon the girls even in his absence (rituals that are supposed to make them stronger and suppress their emotional selves), her role becomes ever more complex.
This novel may irritate some readers just because it is so vague, and you are required to search for your own answers and interpretation of the story, but I found it to be an accomplished piece of work, and would definitely recommend it.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Never in my life have I laughed so much at a book. It’s highly unusual for me to even laugh out loud once at something, so the fact that I was cackling away whilst reading this is testament to Batuman’s writing. Freshman Selin arrives at Harvard in the 90s where she must start to figure out life and relationships. She is naturally extremely intelligent, but rather helpless socially and romantically, leading her into all sorts of comic situations. Beyond this more personal narrative, this novel is also interested in language and how it informs everything about our lives. The inclusion of some more academic themes meant that I enjoyed all parts of the book, both the comic and the thoughtful, and really elevated it for me over similar narratives. The style is colloquial and open, making its length easily manageable, and although some readers might be frustrated with Selin as she fails to find much drive (leading the novel to feel aimless at times), I found it to be a natural choice by Batuman, and ultimately there’s more than enough story to satisfy you in the end.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
Here’s a novel that has been billed as the African Game of Thrones, but I would warn anyone about to attempt the first instalment of James’ Dark Star Trilogy that the way is much more difficult than the fairly straightforward GOT, and it requires a lot more work to reap its benefits (though there are many of those). It’s the kind of work I’m willing to do as a fan of James’ writing, but I think that this book will not appeal to as many people as it’s been marketed to.
This is a surreal, hallucinatory experience that is written in James’ characteristic style; his sentence structure can be extremely complex and sometimes almost completely opaque, though also a thing of real beauty. Our main character, Tracker, is known for his heightened sense of smell which makes him extremely useful to people across the ancient Africa that serves as the setting to find philandering husbands, or missing children. After a hundred pages or so of sheer surreal back story for Tracker himself (one of the most difficult sections also because it simply takes some time to get into the rhythm of this book), he is hired to find a child that went missing three years prior with a group of others, including a witch, a goddess/mermaid and leopard man. In the process, he uncovers a conspiracy. The novel draws on African tradition, but it is also reminiscent of much other epic fantasy if you look closely, though James interprets many of its tropes in a wholly new way. Tracker is a queer character, for example, and though he is the surly loner you might expect of a (kind of? Nothing is quite so simple for James) detective character, he also repeatedly questions himself and his manhood; there is no easy ‘macho’ in this world, despite its violence. Indeed, there are many themes in this novel, including gender, inheritance and motherhood, hybridity, journeys, space, and how power and love interact.
Be warned, all James’ books that I have read so far are immensely violent (like, probably some of the most violent books I’ve ever read), so if it bothers you then I would steer clear. But ultimately the novel as a whole is a powerful experience that is well worth the time put into it, and it will undoubtedly be an iconic fantasy series going forward.
Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina
This is a book that simultaneously focuses on James Earl Ray - the man who assassinated Martin Luther King - in the days following the murder and also serves as a memoir for Muñoz Molina as he looks at the process of becoming an author and his failed first marriage. This kind of non-fiction novel/memoir crossover could’ve been interesting, except it wasn’t. First of all, it completely glamourises Ray’s life and barely even mentions the racism that surely guided his actions. Many of Muñoz Molina’s sections are self-indulgent not to mention sexist. Although we get a little bit of King at the end (and the occasional spot of self-awareness from the author with regard to his attitude to women), it’s not nearly enough to justify recreating Ray as a Bond-like figure. Is the novel about how non-fiction novels and memoirs can be dangerously misleading and revisionary? I doubt it, but even if that’s the case it’s so subtle it barely warrants the above.
Flights by Olga Tokaruszek
I couldn’t finish this one. It’s a collection of snippets - some essays, some short stories, some short meditations on an idea - about travel and journeying. The narrator who fades in and out of view (a young itinerant woman) is immensely irritating mostly because of her penchant for saying apparently profound things (that are more arbitrary observations), and much of the writing seems slapdash (for example some of the facts presented as deeply meaningful are actually just wrong). On top of all that, it was super boring. Not for me.
Everything in between
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Sparks
For me this is one of those books I’m happy to have ticked off my list (I don’t know how I managed to go four years as a literature student in Edinburgh without reading it) but it was a bit of a nonevent for me. It follows the title character, a schoolteacher (and notorious spinster) who surrounds herself with a group of young girls that she imparts wisdom to (including, rather worryingly, fascist ideals). Whilst Brodie talks continuously about being in her ‘prime’, the reader begins to question what a prime might be for a woman like Brodie and whether she is indeed in it. It’s the kind of novel that has never particularly interested me, but could be useful to anyone looking at gender in the 1950s, the art of characterisation, or novels that depict Edinburgh.
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
This is a novel that in other months might have made it into Highs, but ultimately it’s a complex read that is not without its flaws. However, you can certainly see the beginnings of James’ brilliance here, and it’s well worth a read if you want to see how he has developed as a writer. It follows Lilith, a slave on a plantation in Jamaica, and her attempts to improve her position in life. The novel runs the full gamut of slave life, depicting not only the brutality and violence but also the sticky grey areas that arise in interpersonal relationships between slave and master. James’ vivid characters never fail to capture me, but be warned it is an intense and upsetting read.
Tentacle by Rita Indiana
Again, this is a very accomplished book, and a close shave for a top read. It’s a time-travelling sci-fi set in post-apocalyptic Santo Domingo that explores gender, queerness and climate change across three timelines with a heady amount of Santería mixed in. It’s a slim novel but it really packs a punch in terms of its ideas (and the blunt tone of its language), and although I’ve read lots of literature from that part of the world, it struck me as new and unique at the same time as it made use of what came before it (for example the reference to Shakespeare’s The Tempest that is a common trope in Caribbean literature). Nonetheless, I felt that this wasn’t a novel you could really get ~into~ in the same way you might do Black Leopard, Red Wolf because it was very short, and was more about the ideas than the characters; no bad thing overall, but something to note.
The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun by N. K. Jemisin
And so it is with these last two books, I have finally finished reading all of Jemisin’s published novels (I believe there’s a novella relating to her previous trilogy that I’ll have to read on my Kindle but that’s pretty much it). As I suspected, I did think these were more structurally sound and well thought out than her first trilogy, though not quite reaching Broken Earth levels just yet. They have a quasi-Ancient Egyptian setting that is richly described, and the two books cover themes of religion, tradition, autonomy and gender. Worth a read as they are inventive and unusual, and Jemisin does an excellent job of creating atmosphere and tension throughout.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Something tells me this book just hasn’t aged that well. Surely one of the first ‘true crime’ works, it rather pales in comparison to the more sensitive presentations of violent crime that exist nowadays. There’s an enormous focus on the killers and a sympathetic portrayal of one of them in particular, whilst the depiction of the victims falls by the wayside. As a ‘non-fiction novel’ it does seem significant (how much is fictionalised and to what end?) but in general I found myself somewhat disappointed.
Smile by Roddy Doyle
An unusual book; appearing at first to be about a middle-aged man’s reintroduction to manhood in the wake of his divorce, a twist towards the end pushes it out of realism somewhat. However, at times it seems unfinished.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
A novel about a young boy removed from slavery early by an eccentric airship-manning master. At times it seems a fairly straightforward coming-of-age story but at others it becomes a more haunting meditation on inheritance and the burden of power. The ending was rather beautiful and I would recommend on the basis of this and some of its structural efforts.
The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan
This was a disappointing book that had great potential; set on a magical island in Scotland, a family faces tragedy and fraught relationships. It started off fairly gripping (even in the face of some frothy language) but ended up boring and a bit hollow.
Sabrina by Nick Drnaso
This was a great read (not in the Highs mostly because I didn’t find it long enough to really connect with it on ~favourite book~ level); it’s a graphic novel that looks at the murder of a woman. When her murderer publishes a video of the act, it explores the ways going ‘viral’ and internet sleuthing can effect the friends and family of the victims, not least the way the crime itself is interpreted. A worrying look at modern media.
There is an Anger That Moves by Kei Miller
An uneven poetry collection that looks at the Jamaican immigrant experience. Some poems, particularly those that were more humorous or focused on the family of the speaker were better, but some were disappointing.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Set in Dark Ages Britain, Ishiguro’s most recent novel is a strange and haunting look at memory, history and love. Two elderly Britons head out of the safety of their village to find their son, but a mist has fallen across the land that is making everyone forgetful, not of just the distant past but of events that happened only moments ago. Worth reading because it’s unlike many other books, though be warned it is written in quite a formal old-fashioned style, and the ending is incredibly frustrating (but beautiful nonetheless).
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
A well written and slick novel that nevertheless failed to ever really capture me wholly. Two teenagers are left in the hands of what seems to be a crew of underworld criminals in post-WWII England when their parents abruptly leave. It’s about inheritance and motherhood, as well as the long term effect of the war.
And that’s it! See you next month.