The Sea by John Banville 2005. Pub. Picador ISBN 0330483292 MY TOP PICK OF 2012
Max’s wife, Anna, has died following a year of intense treatment for cancer. The house has been put up for sale, and Max feels a strong pull to return to the seaside town where he spent many childhood holidays with his parents. Strongest of all is the almost magnetic force of The Cedars, the holiday house rented by the exotic Grace family for a few weeks one year when Max and family were based at the more down-market chalets.
As Max allows his memories to surface once more he relives that summer and the brief encounter that has affected so much of his subsequent life. Voiceless Miles, voluptuous Connie and manipulative Chloe each bring their eccentricities to bear on an impressionable Max who is on the turbulent brink of adolescence. The disquieting bear-like presence of Carlo Grace, the touring map of France in the back window of his shabby black car suggesting a lifestyle far beyond the constraints of Max’s own, does nothing to put the boy at his ease.
From the outset there was always the feeling that something momentous had occurred that summer, something that Max had never been able to forget and perhaps something that had coloured his subsequent emotional life. Banville cleverly keeps us in suspense until the very last moment when a shocking sequence is finally revealed and all the parts of the jigsaw puzzle fall into place. The Sea must go into my top ten novels of all time (should I ever compile it).
This novel won the Booker Prize in 2005 and I immediately saw why; the sentences are beautifully constructed and suffused with a poetic language at once unique and astonishingly luxuriant. And not just the odd phrase, but line after line, paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter. I have referred to my dictionary on more than one occasion! I like that.
Finally, a musing from the protagonist, Max.”I have ever had the conviction, resistant to all rational considerations, that at some unspecified future moment the continuous rehearsal which is my life, with its so many misreadings, its slips and fluffs, will be done with and that the real drama for which I have ever and with such earnestness been preparing will at last begin. It is a common delusion.”
The Travelling Hornplayer by Barbara Trapido Pub. Penguin ISBN 9780140260137
The chapters in this book deal with each of three characters: Ellen, whose sister Lydia is tragically killed at the age of 18. Jonathon, the writer of novels and secret crush/mentor of Lydia, and Stella, aka Nuisance Chip, daughter of Jonathon, player of the cello and sometime flat-mate of Ellen. It transpires that the three characters have all had parts to play in the life and death of Lydia, whether they know it or not.
The Hornplayer of the title is a character in one of Jonathon’s novels until the penultimate chapter when we discover a whole new real-life hornist. The book takes us on a whirlwind journey through teenage giggles, smothering parenting, infidelity, university bohemia, HIV, genius and even sometimes mediocrity, all through the eyes of the various main characters.
Finally they all end up in the same place at the same time and are confronted with the truth about their pasts and futures. Some will bear their new responsibilities better than others.
I will definitely be looking out for more by this author.
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh 2011. Pub. John Murray ISBN 0719568893
This book is the second part of the Ibis Trilogy; the first was 2008’s Sea of Poppies. It has almost 600 pages, hence the delay in getting much written here. Set in the nineteenth century, the book documents the lives of various sea-faring folk from India, China, Britain and beyond. There are botanists looking for an elusive golden camellia, indentured slaves on the island of Mauritius and opium merchants trying to make a fortune in Canton while the Chinese emperor is desperate to wipe out the trade that has almost brought his country to its knees. The writing is beautiful; like lyrics to an enchanting song. Ghosh has obviously done a huge amount of research as there seems to be not one detail of life in the Cantonese Hongs (merchants’ enclaves) that remains a mystery.
When the Emperor dispatches a new commissioner to Canton to enforce his anti-opium laws the fanqui (foreign) traders are unsettled but arrogant and self-righteous enough to assume that they are above the law and their pay-offs to border officials to turn a blind eye will continue as before. But this new envoy is different to all who came before him; he is not to be corrupted and threatens to put an end to the fanqui’s despicable exploitation of his countrymen.
The story is told mainly through the eyes of two characters: an Indian/British artist in letters to his childhood friend in Hong Kong; and a Parsi opium trader who is beginning to realise that his riches have been amassed on the back of human misery on a grand scale. The ranks of British merchants are split as some support the new edict from the Mandarins while others hypocritically apportion the blame for the crisis of opium dependency squarely on the shoulders of the Chinese themselves.
Things are going to get messy.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes 2011. Pub. Vintage ISBN 0099564973
I found this a powerful and somewhat discomfiting novel. At only 150 pages it is brief but that takes nothing away from its impact. The book is narrated by Tony Webster, a retired sixty-something year old, recounting his schooldays as part of a close knit gang of four, his time at university where he has his first encounter with the opposite sex, and his subsequent marriage and experience of fatherhood. Tragedy strikes Tony’s world at a young age, but it is only decades later that he fully understands the true causes and effects. When Tony is informed that he has been named as a beneficiary in the will of someone he met only once, he remakes an acquaintance he thought he was well rid of. However, Tony is forced to face the fact that his memory of events is not always accurate, or maybe it’s that he has chosen to remember a slightly warped version of the truth.
The Casual Vacancy by J.K.Rowling 2012. Pub. Little, Brown ISBN 1408704202
The sudden and unexpected death of Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother is a tragic shock to some, but an open door of opportunity to others. In the village of Pagford there are characters desperate to keep the distance between themselves and the nearby council estate, The Fields, while others are working towards uniting the district. Meanwhile, obese Howard runs the local delicatessen and sits on the Parish Council, supported in the wings by his wife, uber-tanned busybody Shirley. Arch bully, Simon, relentlessly belittles his sons. Adopted Fats takes inverse snobbery to the extreme. Terri struggles to keep her family together after a lifetime of abuse and poverty. Gavin regrets ever agreeing to his so-called girlfriend moving to the neighbourhood. Gaia despises her mother for landing her in this provincial hell-hole. Samantha barely even attempts to conceal anymore the contempt she feels for her husband and in-laws. Parminder is unaware that her daughter is self-harming. All in all, a seething mess of humanity about to boil over. Three candidates vie for the vacant seat on the council; all will have to face serious adversity from within their inner circles where they would perhaps expect to find their strongest advocates. Hugely enjoyable so far (half way): it’s bound to end in tears!
…well it did of course; they were tears from many of the characters as well as my own. I was truly impressed by this, JKRowling’s first novel for adults. Her writing is vivid and suspenseful, her characters well-formed and believable. The ones who started out with swagger have been humbled; the tortured found a peaceful escape; the tormented became heroine. And after all that, some kind of tranquility may have descended on the maelstrom of life in Pagford.
Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake 1959. Pub. Methuen ISBN 0749300531
Titus Groan, Seventy-seventh Lord of Gormenghast, has struck out alone, leaving behind the crumbling castle of his boyhood and the only world he has ever known. This is the third part of the Titus Books and follows on from “Titus Groan” (1946) and “Gormenghast” (1950).
Having experienced untold trials and horrors we re-encounter Titus just before he is plucked to safety from his boat, and taken to the violently crazy world of Muzzlehatch and his zoo.
Titus travels through a strange and dangerous world, both under and overground, with plenty of risky encounters and near misses and invariably benefitting from the timely arrival of his knight in shining armour. All the while he has trouble convincing people of the truth of his previous life at Gormenghast, and also struggles with terrible guilt at having left his mother and his responsibilities without a word.
Though there were moments of brilliant story-telling and surreal situations, I felt that Titus Alone never reached the dizzy heights of total enjoyment that the previous books had. I have realised what it is that this book is missing….. Steerpike! Titus continued to be a mystery to me, and though he undoubtedly loved Muzzlehatch I never really felt that we discovered any of what made him tick. He was running away from everything; the past, his family, love. In fact the only time he did stick around was when he really shouldn’t have, and so brought about the tragic end for his loyal friend.
The fourth and final book in this series, “Titus Awakes”, is in my To Read pile. Update – Titus Awakes appears on Librarium 2013 page.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan 2007. Pub. Vintage ISBN 0099512790
Edward and Florence have just got married and are both terrified of the pressures of their Wedding Night. We find out their very different family circumstances and what has made them both fear the inevitable intimacy they are dreading. Set in the early sixties, the couple can feel that they are on the brink of something new and unknown; the old social order is being left behind and new freedoms are being demanded. Where Edward feels optimistic about embracing new philosophies and moral attitudes, Florence is maybe not so sure.
A silly mishap in the bedroom, something every sexually inexperienced person has surely come across, escalates into an overwhelming disaster with devastating consequences for Edward in particular. And it could all have been resolved with words (as is so often the case). At only 166 pages, this is a slim book and a quick read. However, such is the quality of McEwan’s writing, the intense focus on only two characters paints such a clear picture there is nothing more we need to know. This is comedy and tragedy rolled into one.
The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje 2011. Pub. Vintage ISBN 0099554424
Three young boys, travelling independently on a sea voyage from Colombo to England, experience a different type of voyage from the regular passengers. The writing is some of the most poetically beautiful I’ve read and I was not surprised to see that the author is possibly better known as a poet than a novellist. The story is told from the perspective of Michael, nicknamed Mynah, one of the three boys travelling to England for their education who get up to all kinds of mischief often aided and abetted by various adult characters.
The Cat’s Table of the title is where the boys are seated for their meals on board, along with the singles and eccentrics each of whom has something to offer the boys, ranging from gossip to an education in the art of burglary.
Michael maintains his friendships with several of the other passengers during his subsequent life in England, continuing into adulthood, and we find how some of his more harrowing experiences and close friendships on the voyage have a real bearing on his adult life, and how some mysteries are never wholly unravelled.
It’s a beautiful book that had me laughing out loud then crying later on.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson 2011. Pub. Vintage ISBN 0099556091
A memoir. Billed as a companion volume to “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit”, this is not only an autobiography, but also a social and cultural history of the area of Lancashire/Cheshire where Winterson grew up, and a story about love.
In the book, we learn a lot more about the facts of Jeanette’s adoption and pre-school days, and also how she fared as a teenager discovering her sexuality, leaving home at sixteen and enduring interviews at Oxford University. Probably the most touching passages describe Jeanette’s search for her birth mother and her very real fears and anxieties are so vividly described as to be physically felt by the reader.
My overriding feeling is that this is a book about love. The loss of it, lack of it, yearning for it, discovery and sharing of it. The end of the book comes suddenly, but I hope readers will use their imagination to reach a satisfying conclusion should they need one.
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst 2011. Pub. Picador ISBN 0330483278
Privileged Cambridge under-graduate and aspiring poet, Cecil Valance, stirs passions in more than one member of an Edwardian family. Several years later, after his death during WWI, many of those who knew him are brought together by his biographer, researching for a new book. Skipping forward again, we find that family fortunes have drastically altered, and new characters come to the fore, each with a link, however tenuous, to Cecil.
The book comes to a close nearly 100 years after Cecil’s death, and we see great changes taking place in culture, tastes and attitudes, particularly towards homosexuality, civil partnership and gay marriage. Daphne, one of the main characters, is introduced to us as a sixteen year old, totally smitten by Cecil, her brother’s friend and fellow student. We follow Daphne’s fortunes and misfortunes until, as an octogenarian, she gradually comes to the realisation that most of her adult life was spent in a fug of drunken partying and the men who wooed her were often not quite what they seemed.
This is one of those books whose imagery will stay with me for a long time. From the grand stately pile to the disheveled chaos of hoarded memories, from lust’s first stirrings to the excitement of furtive caresses, the reader finds him/herself living every moment and feeling each excruciatingly vivid encounter.
I’ve been a fan of Hollinghurst since I read the sublime “The Line of Beauty” a few years ago. His characterization is second to none. Whether it be man, woman or child every player in his tales is fully formed, believable, often flawed, but then most of us are.
Snowdrops by A.D.Miller 2011. Pub. Atlantic ISBN 1848874534
This is a first novel and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. It’s narrated in the first person by Nicholas, an English lawyer, and takes the form of a lengthy and comprehensive confession to his fiancée, coming clean about the years he had previously spent as an ex-pat corporate lawyer in Moscow.
Nicholas, or Kolya as he comes to be known, is involved in a professional capacity with some shady dealings of the Russian equivalent of the mafia. But it is in his personal relationship with the beautiful Masha that we see the first signs of moral decay, as he is blindly dragged into matters of which he has no real comprehension. Indeed, it seems he will do anything to convince himself theirs is a deep and meaningful relationship with the promise of a future.
The snowdrops of the title are corpses buried under the Moscow snow and ice, and which only come to light during the spring thaw. They are tramps, beggars, homeless, or maybe people without families to look out for them who happen to get in the way of the selfish desires of the ruthless.
The bleak snow-covered Russia and its corrupt society is described to us through the cynical eyes of the jaded ex-pat: everyone can be bribed; women are a cheap commodity; everything can be faked; questions are better left unasked.
The writing style is excellent; the story rollicks along at quite a pace and put me in mind of one of those Private Investigator/crime thriller films. Nicholas starts out as a seemingly sophisticated professional in his thirties, enjoying the good life as a high-earning suit. By the end of the book he seems like a deflated, grey character devoid of any previous glamour, regretting fragments of his past life, but still unable to fully face up to it’s reality. “Of course when I think about it there is guilt, there is some guilt. But most of all there is loss. That is what really hurts…… I miss Masha. I miss Moscow.”
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More books are featured on Librarium 2013 page