I did, during that month, begin a post on George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo and Ali Smith's Winter. That is, I uploaded a photo and I drafted a title. Four weeks ago, that was, however, so today I was determined to write that post, and I got four paragraphs written. Progress, right? But four paragraphs does not, sadly, a post make, and I can see it will take me a few more days to say anything meaningful about these two brilliantly imaginative novels.
As I fiercely wish to catch up here before I'm off travelling in two weeks (when I started writing this post, the travel was two weeks away; now it's only one!), I'm going to take another tack for now and list some titles. Here goes:
Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere. The trouble with being able to borrow books from the library and then not writing anything about them until weeks and weeks later is that the details begin to fade and I can't go back to check the source. However, I will say that this novel engages the reader from the outset, that it presents some strong, likeable, characters, that it captures many aspects of setting (bourgeois suburbia, very comfortable, very settled) well. I also thought Ng caught aspects of teenage exuberance and angst together very well, and offered some solid perspectives on the challenges facing the creative individual living in a conventional community. What I didn't enjoy, what actively irritated me, in fact, was the tendency to caricature certain characters -- the bourgeois suburban mother, in particular. I found it tough to reconcile the mother's intelligence and sometime generosity, her ability to juggle family and career (however much the narrator might sneer at the safety of the kind of small-town journalism the woman settled for in deference to family life) with the appalling attitude -- and actions -- she displays and takes toward her younger daughter. Still, I'd be happy enough to pass on a copy if I had my own, knowing another reader would pass a few hours caught up in the story -- and then we might grumble about it together . . . Have you read it? Agree or disagree with me?
Sara Baume's A Line Made By Walking. You know I loved Baume's Spill Simmer Falter Wither, so you'll know I came to her latest book with high expectations. And at the level of style, of imagery, and of engaging and thoughtful content, an exposure to new ideas, new knowledge, the novel doesn't disappoint. But this is a bleaker novel, no question. The protagonist is a young woman who has retreated to her deceased grandmother's very rural cottage. Besides mourning her grandmother, she's experienced some kind of breakdown -- there are hints throughout of some kind of trauma, perhaps a romantic disappointment, perhaps something more sinister.
As an experiment in rendering the prolonged depression of a young woman, the novel is very effective, but it's tough to keep reading although there's so much spare beauty in Baume's lyrical descriptions of the countryside, even through her depressed character's eyes. The protagonist has always thought she'd be an artist, went to art school, but has become paralysed by the fear that she won't be able to transcend mediocrity. Throughout, she rouses herself from her depression through a project she's set herself, with her camera (but oh, it's a morbid project), and also by regularly -- rhythmically, even -- setting herself the task of recalling contemporary works dealing with a particular topic or theme. Conceptual art. I found this part of the novel both fascinating and, ultimately, a bit tedious, I have to admit. And yet . . . something about it hooked me, and again, if I had my own copy of the novel (I read it as an e-book, borrowed from the library, so there was a time limitation as well), I think I'd have lingered, and probably would go back to reread sections.
This one might read well with Eimear MacBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, another novel about a troubled young woman, also by a female Irish novelist. Also difficult to read but worth the challenge.
And while we're in Ireland, I'll tell you quickly about Bernard McLaverty's award-winning A Midwinter Break. . . A long-married retired couple whose only son has moved with wife and child to Canada embark on a short trip to Amsterdam -- with very different goals in mind, although the husband doesn't realize this. His quiet, contained, but undeniable alcoholism has his wife mulling her options.
The writing is so precise, and the observation so apt, exquisitely so. The novel is rich in setting, in the careful pacing, the unrolling of this couple's backstory, in their respective private ruminations and expectations and assumptions. The way a couple can be so much more than either of them know, individually. . . The way that a crisis can threaten even at a stage when it might look as if a couple is in a last, settled, copacetic state. In some ways, the novel reminds me of the Roger Michell/Hanif Kureishi film Le Week-end, but its palette is more muted and arguably more effective for that.
Here, two pages that give an idea of the unexpected range the novel claims (accurately, in my experience with longterm marriage) a couple might experience. Note that we only go from page 158 to 161 to see this shift -- Not only do they "ma[k]e love again," but they talk about it, about how she "take[s] the notion more often when [they]'re away" not having to think of dinners, the "bane of [her] life." And she says, "sometimes I wonder if that [lovemaking] was the last time," and her husband teases "Wonder or hope?" . . and he says, "I would have loved to have known you when you were younger. . . . you and me at the same primary school. . . . I feel I've missed a lot of you." Such tenderness.
Marriage is complicated, says McLaverty, or his narrator, longterm ones not excepted. . . And the novel poses complicated questions about what loyalties we owe, to our partners or to ourselves. . . especially in the dwindling numbers of our last decades. Highly recommended, this one, but only if you want a book that will make you think and feel.
Not sure when I'll post again, but I have those four paragraphs on Saunders' and Smith's books, so I might surprise us. . . Meanwhile, as always, I'd love your comments about any of these books, if you've read them, and I'm always interested in hearing what you're reading these days.