“Plato says that the unexamined life is not worth living. But what if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?”
― Kurt Vonnegut,
I have spent January reading only fiction. Not deliberately – it just worked out like that. Perhaps it is that time of year when hunkering down with a good story, while it is damp and chilly outside, is a cracking option. Perhaps reality needs escaping from at the moment.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can see a common theme across these books: the meticulous examination of lives where, in each case, we see how the extraordinary impacts on the ordinary.
There is also a sub-theme across three of the books: the consequences of, and involvement in, different aspects of the second world war. Again, this is happenstance, but nevertheless engaging, particularly coming along so soon after my reading of Anne Frank’s diary. Will we ever tire of learning about such events? I hope not.
The Wonder, Emma Donoghue
I enjoyed immensely Donoghue’s book Room, so was keen to try something else by her. The Wonder is the story of Lib, an English nurse returned from service with Florence Nightingale and sent to review the case of a young girl in 1850s rural Ireland who has stopped eating. It is described as a thriller in many reviews and I can see why, even though it did not come across in this way to me. The novel’s pace is very slow, giving the reader plenty of time to absorb the very strange unfolding tale. As expected of Donoghue, the writing is careful and considered, with a beautifully concise tone which enhances the overall atmosphere of secrecy, isolation and fear. The story is heavily steeped in the religious practices and beliefs of the time, so this might not be for everyone. But this did not bother me, and I was pleased to have read this unusual drama.
Read this if: you enjoy historical intrigue, loosely based on real accounts.
My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
I seem to be going through a phase of enjoying books where nothing much happens. This is another example, and one which I absolutely loved. Beautiful and profound, the writing is so absorbing as to give the reader a sense that the book is not a work of fiction, but a real-life memoir. As such, it very much reminded me of Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful Gilead. I felt as if I was in the hospital bed beside Lucy, listening to her talking and could happily have gone on reading for ever.
Read this if: you love lyrical, touching and embracing writing.
The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain
“We can’t know..until the moment arrives what choice we are going to make”.
This is another stunningly beautiful story, about the difference between love and friendship. It is also about nature and nurture. We follow Gustav back and forth through different episodes in his life, gradually coming to understand their impact on him and his relationships with family and friends. Set in the middle years of the 20th Century, the fear caused by and horrors of the second world war are at times distant and close up, creating a somewhat melancholic undertone, which frames perfectly the main storyline. I was utterly hooked and did not want it to end.
Read this if: you enjoy stories which examine meticulously the pain and joy of close relationships.
The Reader, Bernhard Schlink
This was my book club read for January. I saw the film several years ago and can’t remember much about it, apart from the very strong performance by Kate Winslet. Even so, I was surprised to find that, apart from one key aspect of the narrative, I had forgotten what ultimately happens to the characters. Told by a grown-up Michael looking back on the events of his life, and in particular his relationship with Hanna, this story reminded me in many ways of The Go Between by L P Hartley. Dealing with moral, behavioural ethical challenges arising from actions in and after the Second World War, it was a captivating read.
Read this if: you like to engage with a thought-provoking read about a relatively unusual aspect of a difficult subject.
Everything I Never Told You, Celest Ng
Another beautifully written, breathtaking read. This is the story of an American-Chinese family in the 1970s struggling to cope with the death of Lydia, the eldest child (no spoilers here – this is known right from the start). As the book progresses, it peels away layer by layer the different facets and back stories of the characters so that we gradually get to the tragic heart of the matter. On the one hand it is a real page turner. On the other, the writing is so thoughtful that I found myself actively having to slow down and, in some cases, flick back a page or two to take everything in. Stunning.
Read this if: detailed character exploration and inter-relationships is your thing.
The Tobacconist, Robert Seethaler
I was keen to read this, having enjoyed Seethaler’s previous novel, A Whole Life. I was not disappointed. We read about 17-year-old Franz, who finds himself taking up a job in a tobacconist shop in Vienna – a far cry from his rural Austrian upbringing. It is 1939 and the German annexation of Austria is just around the corner. The way in which Franz, his friends and fellow countrymen are affected by these events is skilfully portrayed. The writing is cleverly understated, and all the more powerful for it.
Read this if: you enjoy stories about displacement and tests of character.
On The Other Side, Carrie Hope Fletcher
This is a much lighter read than the books I normally pick up. But I can never resist a time-travel story. One of my favourite books is Replay by Ken Grimwood (said to have been the inspiration behind the film Groundhog Day, although I have also heard this said about Nietzsche’s The Gay Science). Anyway, Fletcher’s book is a charming story about Evie, who, upon her death, is presented with the necessity of facing the burdens she has acquired through life. I enjoyed skipping through this one, with its engaging characters and unusual plot.
Read this if: you fancy a nice romance to distract you from listening to the news.
There is nothing quite like a good book to provide a welcome distraction from life’s challenges. Role on the next batch of reads! 🙂
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
~ Jorge Luis Borges