This is an interesting bunch. At a time when I was searching to find my own ‘voice’ in my writing, I turned to as many varied authors and narrative perspectives as I could. From DeLillo to Atwood, from a story that explored the entire basis of christianity (The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ) to childhood incest (The Cement Garden), I was on the hunt for as much exposure as possible. Even when I turned to ‘classics,’ or at least books that I felt I really should have read by now, the voices were always varied or unusual.
It didn’t always work out, at least in terms of enjoyment. A couple of books on this particular list did not fill me with enthusiasm, and one I finished out of sheer annoyance. It can be risky, getting out of your comfort zone with books. But it’s definitely worth it. If you don’t sample a few diverse and unusual books, there is no way you are going to be exposed to as rich a taste of human experience, and the possibilities of what a book can really offer. For that reason, my reviews focus mostly on the narrative perspective, and what I feel it brought to the book.
In fact, after this particular reading phase, I haven’t looked back. It got me into very good habits. Even when I’m a bit tired of an evening, I have managed to resist the urge to return to old familiar voices. Each book I’ve read since this point has been new, and, in most cases, something I wouldn’t have necessarily considered to be a ‘me’ book. The bedside pile tends to be a little easier going, while the ones that accompany me around London on means of transport can be anything from non-fiction, to experimental fiction, to books in French.
If you need something new to read, have a look at my list. Hopefully it will inspire you!
The Touch, Julie Myerson. From the point of view of structure and style, I thought this novel did some interesting things. The interweaving of the different narrative perspectives and voices allowed us to see situations from different character’s POV and allowed us to empathise with them. It was also interesting the way each chapter was cut up into chunks of prose. These became shorter as the novel progressed, increasing narrative tension and leading to a climax. This made it very readable as you were changing around so much, and characters and narrative were established through a series of short scenes, like looking through the keyhole into someone’s house to see what they’re like.
Life! Death! Prizes!, Stephen May. What is lovely about this POV is that it doesn’t reveal itself in a big way, it just gradually seems like things are not quite as the narrator is telling us, which I liked. We are in the head of someone who has a personality disorder which means they avoid things. The character keeps making bad decisions which the reader can see are damaging but the character is unaware, making it more compelling and tense to read.
Mating, Norman Rush. I finished reading this out of sheer annoyance. Personally I think that any character, real or imagined, that spends their time quoting Latin is a pretentious idiot. It was full of lots of high-minded ideas about society and feminism and matriarchy but, to me, was fundamentally a chick-lit novel that was slightly more self aware and used bigger words.
White Noise, Don DeLillo. Beautifully haunting prose. The rendering of mundane and bland elements of life into vivid and artistic imagery is lovely. His style if very jarring, with lots of jumps around subjects and ideas within paragraphs. As you go through the novel, you realise these are threads that are being carried deftly throughout the novel. The risk here is that it could get a little repetitive, especially the ‘asides’ that come in from the TV and the radio. It is managed well enough for this not to be a huge problem, although there were a couple of times I felt pulled out of the narrative and it felt al little more like an author’s trick than a necessary insertion. The characters manage to be interesting and engaging even though they are so susceptible to the whims of others, and clearly a product of their environment, they do come out as genuine characters rather than representations of a certain type of American, which could be a potential outcome of the way the book is written.
Atonement, Ian McEwan. Started off well, intriguing style, nice narrative ideas, definitely got drawn into the story. Then the twist about the writer being the person that has been telling the story all along. Which, for me, ruined it. I guess this comes in the vein of ‘classic’ British novels, which often have clever little tricks in them, and maybe that’s why, apart from objecting to all the posh people everywhere, I’ve never been a big fan. It was such an interesting and emotional story and then he just lost me completely.
Chocolat, Joanne Harris. A delightful book that has a lot of subtle touches. The rotating first is not always completely obvious, although the subject is usually an indicator, but because they are talking about the same people it is sometimes difficult to notice which voice we are hearing. There are some lovely touches of colour in the descriptions, especially about chocolate, which lends it more gravity and gives it more depth. The characters are conflicted and rounded, although as the story progresses they do tend to morph a little into overly caricatured good and evil characters
Black Venus, Angela Carter. I love this writer. She has such an amazing way with words. Theres also something refreshing about reading short stories for a change. No I can’t analyse them in quite the same way in terms of progression but there’s something to be said about looking at shorter works that really condense language down. That’s what really hit me when I first started reading these, I think because I have read so many novels recently. Also because of the content, we have a range of intriguing female characters, everything from Lizzie Borden to a black slave woman to a woman taken in by an indigenous Native American tribe at the time of the pioneers. What is wonderful about each of these women is the way she paints their complexity, in terms of their femininity and how others perceive that, the accepted ways of being a female in society, the way the body is treated, the dealings with motherhood or the desire to be a mother, along with more subtle ideas like race and culture and being neither male note female (in the imagined opening for A Midsummer Night’s Dream). I also love the audacity that she has, to take established texts, real people, and paint them in her own way, bringing them to life in the way she imagines them to be.
Life Before Man, Margaret Atwood. The prose is just brilliant. What I liked most about it was that it was so deftly insightful. There are such delicate brush strokes in her prose, little touches which tell us so much about a character and how they feel. The advantage of having the multiple POV is that we, in some cases, get to see the same day through all of their eyes, which really adds to the sense of otherness and misunderstanding that all of the characters have from each other. It also really toys with the reader’s sympathy, as we can look at one character through another’s eyes and feel the spite, anger, and bloody mindedness they’re showing, while then seeing the same thing (or at least similar) through their eyes personally, we then empathise with them instead.
Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson. Overrated. I’ve never been a massive fan of Jeanette Winterson. I find her parables clunky and her moral messages a bit too in your face. Despite that being my overall initial personal impression, there are some lovely touches here. Firstly in the voice of the main protagonist. She captures the innocence and innocuous nature of the main character well, the way she goes along with her surroundings without questioning them and the way the sexual encounters are so innocent fits fantastically with this voice. The ‘looking back’ voice allows her to capture that innocence but allow a sense of overall knowledge to pervade, as the protagonist is looking back from a further point, where she knows more.
Full Dark, No Stars, Stephen King. Gripping, really a lesson in how to create tense and exciting plots. Far too obvious in places in terms of emotions and not very subtle but compelling reading. These aren’t so much short stories as little novellas, that explore, through his only admission, the darker side of humanity. He takes a few unpleasant situations, and shows us what happens when things go wrong.
The Third Man, Graham Greene. First person, although this sneakily goes into third when the character is relating something that happened when he wasn’t there. Greene combines really compelling plot with subtle prose and description. Lovely. I guess the plot would fall into a typical ‘crime’ novel, although it does it with such elegance, it really feels like it’s doing far more than that.
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Philip Pullman. Very clever. Incredibly impersonal writing, very clever portrayal of an already very well known story. Ultimately allows an aspect of political wrangling and manipulation to be behind the function of the entire Christian religion. Looks at the way propaganda and hype are wanted by people and that a simple story about a good person is not enough for change. The utter simplicity of the storytelling is what is brilliant here. There are no fancy descriptions, no mood or atmosphere, it’s a very straight telling, which ultimately is what makes it so powerful.
The Road, Cormac McCarthy. Bleak, stark and compelling. Lyrical prose that in times feels more like poetry, especially when describing the setting they are walking through. Plot very subtle, does have key points and junctures in it even though it seems to be largely two people walking down a road for a really long time. The attention to detail forces the reader to imagine exactly how different life would be in this sort of world and how priorities would change. What’s interesting here is the amount that is captured between the two characters with very little dialogue and interaction.
The Behaviour of Moths, Poppy Adams. Interesting for both its treatment of old age (so often missed out in, well, everything) and the effect of a long-term autism sufferer who is unaware of their own condition. For some reason it reminded me of Atonement, probably because of the large house and the intimate description given to events leading up to a tragedy. The gap between what the narrator knows and the reader figures out is well handled, and I like the way that there are a lot of questions that are never really answered, even when we get to the end of the book. In terms of plot, we are basically being given a dual narrative, split between the current events when she is old and the growing up of her and her sister. There is also a nice balance between how much each character in the family takes advantage of the other, so we are never left with one particular character feeling like the victim.
Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk. Beautifully written but ultimately incredibly depressing look at middle-class suburbia. One of the main strengths is the shifts between the POVs and how well they are handled, in that we have characters who are arguably all the ‘same’ on the outside, whose subtle differences are revealed through each chunk of the narrative. The description is another area that is beautifully executed, although there were places when I got a little annoyed with the minute attention to detail and didn’t feel that it was necessary.
The People’s Act of Love, James Meek. A big, bold novel that deals with rather unusual subject matter. Set in Siberia, we follow various characters through their trials surrounding the second world war and the relationships they form with each other. Underpinning it is the threat of a cannibal in the wild. What the writer does is draw us into this erudite and strange world and reveal the humanity in the tiny actions of everyone. I haven’t read a book for a while where I’ve been so convinced by the characters, their motivations and desires. Most of them I didn’t like very much, but they were created with such deft touches that they felt truly alive on the page. It stayed with me for a while after reading, always a sign that a book is something special.
Waterland, Graham Swift. A touching book that is securely fixed in its own geography.
The Cement Garden, Ian McEwan. Remarkably odd. Manages to paint a minute picture of a family and their desires, and present utterly outlandish feelings and decisions in such a way that feels plausible and touching. Short yet impressive.
The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro. An example of how the truth can be more interesting than fiction. An account of growing up in Canada through the eyes of various members of her family, this is a sprawling book that manages to capture nuance and spectacle at the same time. Beautiful.
The Other Hand, Chris Cleave. We shift between a young Nigerian immigrant in a detention centre and a middle-class woman. Both are handled very well, and come across as very convincing. It’s a touching book that probes the issues around immigration, by making it a personal tragedy for a small group of people.
May We Be Forgiven, A.M. Holmes. An expansive, splurging and awful novel, that makes you at one and the same time despair for the human race and see a glimmer of hope for our redemption. A hyperbolic treatise on the foibles of modern American culture.
Larry’s Party, Carol Shields. Fascinating read. Very cleverly structured, manages a subtle shift in voice as the novel progresses, and manages to be touching and insightful through what is, on the surface, a rather prosaic series of events.
The Act of Love, Howard Jacobson. A novel of obsession and love, all from the POV of a middle-aged man. Got a little self-obsessed in places, but clearly a secure and profound writer.
Oryx abd Crake, Margaret Atwood. The level of her imagination baffles me. A complex and completely rounded future world, where technology takes us away from ourselves. The shifting POV from present to past is handled brilliantly, leaving us to identify with the last remaining human on the earth. Wonderful.
The Seas, Samantha Hunt. Haunting prose, well sculpted book. From the outset, this has a very distinct voice. The prose is flooded with (har har) metaphors for the sea and water, the style is quite childlike and innocent, and it is clear from the outset that the reader is seeing the world through a very distinct and warped lens. What’s interesting about this novel is that it also manages to put an interesting and compelling story together, without relying too heavily on the prose style to simply take us through and hold our interest.