It's that time again when I do a round up of the books I read in a particular month, this one being June. As usual I'm running late with the reviews but we've got there in the end. Because I was finishing up various books from May at the beginning of the month once again we did *not* hit my targets, but here goes.
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
This book explores the relationship between a young anthropologist, Sofia, and her mother, Rose, who is beset by mysterious leg problems. Before the beginning of the novel, the two of them have travelled to Spain to a specialist clinic to try and diagnose and treat Rose's legs, though the nature of the problem (whether it is mental or physical) remains obscure. Naturally one of the major themes of the novel is medicine and illness, filtered through the lens of a complex mother/daughter relationship and the interchangeability (or not) of their bodies. It is about the (in)accessibility of another's pain, or a mother's pain, and I found this to be extremely interesting and comprehensively explored throughout Levy's novel. Over the course of the book Sofia must decide how to approach and overcome her mother's illness and slowly comes to a better sense of herself as an individual, partially fuelled by a number of romantic encounters. This is all set against a backdrop of anxiety surrounding the medical-industrial complex and also austerity and capitalism in general. These explorations add another interesting dimension to the more personal elements of the novel and elevate it further.
Onto the style of the book, which is relatively unique. It is strange and dreamlike, I think partially because of the defamiliarisation inherent in Sofia's position as an anthropologist. She is inclined to interrogate those things we would take for granted, and is distanced from the world herself because of it. As a result, the characters and plotlines often edge into the absurd and also the language becomes almost poetic in its alien quality. Together with this, the setting of the sleepy Spanish seaside town and the ultramodern hallways of the specialist clinic create quite a heady and hypnotic atmosphere. Whilst it is still quite readable, I think this book might not be for everyone because it isn't heavy on action or plot (though things do happen throughout); instead it is interested in feeling out this sense of creeping unease that is felt both in chronic illness and austerity measures. In general I really enjoyed it and thought that Levy explored the relevant topics in an accomplished way, marrying style with substance and not trying to fit too much in.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
How to begin a review for this classic American novel? Though the novel is narrated by a John Wheelwright, it mostly concerns his relationship with and the life of his best friend Owen Meany. The vast majority of the novel details their lives growing up in New Hampshire in the 1950s and 1960s, though it does also follow the two of them into adulthood, too. Owen considers himself to be God's instrument from an early age, and feels he has special visions in which he can see his future, therefore solidifying a sense of his own fate. Famously, Owen believes this in part because he kills John's mother in a freak accident at a Little League baseball game aged ten or eleven. He is a remarkably charismatic character that jumps off the page (not least because his unique voice requires that all his dialogue be written in capital letters), and his idiosyncrasies endear the reader to him throughout. Naturally religion is one of the major themes of this novel, and although it typically isn't my favourite theme because it can tend into the repetitive, I found it to work well.
Ultimately this is a solid, well rendered and moving novel with excellent character development and a winding but gripping plotline that kept me reading even though it is a long book. It does have a tendency to ramble a little bit, and the middle part was a bit slow after the first few years of the boys' lives, and I think its repetitive nature has irked some readers. I will say I think this is part of a kind of iterative and cumulative style which makes more sense when you get to the ending, which is very moving and had me crying like a baby. My favourite novels have the best characters, and Owen Meany is one I will not forget in a hurry. Plus I found the descriptions of New Hampshire life in the 50s and 60s quite interesting in and of themselves. It had its flaws in the descriptions of women sometimes, which I was almost expecting considering it was written in the 80s, but I don't think that this detracts from the book's qualities too much. I think this is kind of one of those novels where you will enjoy the painstaking detail and slightly mad happenings or you won't, but I’d urge you to give it a try for its heartwrenching qualities alone.
Elephant and Other Stories by Raymond Carver
I enjoyed this collection of stories; they are excellent pieces of writing that build tension and intrigue in subtle ways. They mostly concern relationships between husbands and wives (all from the POV of the husband, of course), and the inevitability of miscommunication along with the precarity of intimacy and vulnerability. The collection is in my highs for this month because I think they are worth a read by everyone mostly because they are good examples of stories that say a lot by saying very little; every line counts in Carver's simple but taut style. However, they are limited in subject matter and are mostly focused on that enclave of white American suburban life, so there isn't absolutely loads to be gleaned from them if you have read similar literature before. Worth a read though nonetheless.
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
One that will surely split the crowd is Mike McCormack's Solar Bones. Let me start by saying that this novel has not one single full stop. Yes, it's really one long sentence which never ends. Although it is a bold style that challenges the reader and I'm sure will drive many to distraction, I can see why McCormack chose to do it so at least it isn't totally just a pretentious choice to make the novel seem more literary. The novel is narrated by a man who has returned from the dead for a few hours on All Soul's Day, reminiscing about his life and death. The long sentence seems to speak to the ways in which everything about his life seems to collapse into everything else; for example his career and everyday life as a civil engineer in County Mayo speaks to greater political systems which seem to be tipping into a global culture which is just a tiny meaningless speck compared to the vast reaches of outer space. Continuously the novel zooms in and out of Marcus' life and the systems that surrounded him, teetering somewhere between order and chaos, simultaneously seeming to be extremely specific to small-town Ireland whilst at the same time globally relevant. In addition to this, it also explores masculinity and Marcus' role as father, husband and son, and becomes quite heartbreaking at times because of it. The unceasing flow of the language heightens this, and creates a very believable and well rendered sense of one man's life. The stylistic choices sometimes made me want to hate this book but ultimately I couldn't. The ideas are all there, and it follows through on its literary promises.
A Natural by Ross Raisin
This book describes the experiences of a young professional football player who has been kicked out of his boyhood Premier League club and finds himself in a team in League Two in a nameless town miles away from home. Protagonist Tom struggles with his sexuality which alienates him from the other players, but he is also generally an introverted soul that finds it difficult to connect with others. Also Raisin includes a number of chapters concerning Leah, the put upon wife of the captain of Tom's team, and occasionally the captain himself. This is a subtle novel that painstakingly alternately describes the intensity and boredom, the camaraderie and utter loneliness of professional football. There is some symbolism and inner workings going on in this book, but much of it seems *so* subtle that it verges on pretty boring, at least for a reader like me who knows little about football. Indeed, much of the novel is given over to descriptions of the games and strategies of the football itself. Personally I feel that up to half of this book could have been cut and Raisin could still have effectively explored the struggles of being gay in the world of football, as well as the other flaws of the hypermasculine lifestyle, but at least the worldbuilding is certainly there. These are messages that are undoubtedly urgent and important, and they are hidden in a book that often seems more concerned with the game itself than its floundering protagonist. For me, it was just too much of a slog. Perhaps it would appeal to diehard football fans more, I'll try it out on Zak maybe.
Everything in Between
Autumn by Ali Smith
It's been just a few short weeks since I finished this book and I can hardly remember one thing that happened in it. Most of my notes describe Smith's style of writing, which I'm realising now is not very helpful. Written in response to Brexit, this work does not actually cover much that seems directly related to it, instead focusing on the relationship between a young woman and her elderly neighbour as he lies dying in a care home, describing some of her childhood memories of him and the things he taught her. It is mystical and fairytale-like, and though it is fragmented and sometimes poetic, it still makes for fairly straightforward reading. There is certainly beauty to some of Smith's phrases and I liked it more than the first book I read of hers (Like), but I still found it forced and too on the nose at times; pretentious for no reason, though that makes it ripe for analysis (particularly I think in its natural images). There isn't much here, really, but the elderly Daniel is definitely a highlight; he is drawn sympathetically and you can't help but feel a warmth towards him. This isn't a must read for me, but I reckon Smith maybe just isn't for me and you might enjoy it more if you do like her style.
So that's it for June! I will be back next month with more good reads so keep an eye out.