So I was somewhat surprised when, only two-thirds through the year, I passed it. Now, as I approach the year-end, it seems I’ll have read – gulp! – 96 books at around 29,000 pages. Even knowing that monitoring behaviour can bring about a change in the desired direction, an increase of over 50% seems rather a lot. I’m wondering if, in the process of becoming a book blogger, I’ve turned into an addict.
Ever since I’ve been writing seriously, I’ve made a list of the novels I’ve read across the year, highlighting those that particularly impressed me. Halfway through 2013, I was seduced by the lovely book-cover icons on Goodreads into doing it electronically. At the beginning of this year, they invited members (?) to register for a reading challenge. Although I don’t need a challenge to motivate me to read, I signed up on the basis that their software could calculate my reading total more rapidly than I could. I set my target at 60 books, this being a rough average of the numbers read in recent years.
In 1845, a British expedition to traverse the final section of the Northwest Passage led by Sir John Franklin became icebound in the Arctic and the entire crew lost. The Admiralty launched a search, popularised by Franklin’s prestige and the offer of a reward, to the effect that, in 1850, thirteen ships were patrolling the area. The Surfacing fictionalises the hope, hardship, and heroism of the men – and the one female stowaway – on-board one such ship risking their own lives in an attempt to locate the missing expedition.
Like Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, this is a story of people in extremis, dredging up their last reserves of strength to survive:
He knew this must be their last stop. He could see they were spent, almost. They had courage enough for only one more start. He was almost relieved. There was no more need for heroics, no choice to make. (p170)
What can I say to attract you to a novel that starts and ends with a funeral and mines a deep well of sadness in between? Academy Street is one of the most honest and heart-breaking accounts of fictional grief I’ve come across, as well as one of the most beautifully written.
Tess Lohan is marvelling at a blackbird that has flown in through the window to peck at the wallpaper in the family farmhouse as a coffin is carried downstairs. Seven-year-old Tess finds herself intermittently forgetting that her mother has died, that she won’t be able to run and tell her what she’s observed.
We stay with Tess over the next six decades as she follows her sister to boarding school, moves to Dublin to train as a nurse and then to New York to spend the bulk of her life on Academy Street until, echoing the opening chapters, she returns to her beloved Easterfield for the funeral of her elder brother. Tess finds moments of intense joy in the little things, but she’s often lonely: her deepest loves are ephemeral, her losses profound*. Like Dear Thief, Academy Street addresses the pain of attachments, whether it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
I’m not exactly sure why moving house is such a stressful life event, up there with death of a spouse and divorce. It might have something to do with the fact that, like a marriage, we invest a lot of ourselves in our homes. When we leave, we take with us what we can, but some of the essence of what we had and what it meant to us is fixed in that place, embedded in the floorboards, the bricks and mortar, the grouting between the tiles.
My last house move, nearly 15 years ago, was pretty stressful but I remember how reassured I felt when friends from where we’d previously lived came to visit and could see the fit between the new place and me. Although the houses were radically different in style and layout, both were mirroring some of my character. When Hildy Good, the estate-agent narrator of The Good House by Ann Leary, says that she only has to walk through a house once to understand the psyche of its occupants, she may be exaggerating, but not very much.
Moving house can have different meanings at different points of the lifespan: a young adult might need to flee the parental home to unleash their creativity; for an older person, moving might present risks to their health. In my short story, Spring Cleaning, a daughter and granddaughter’s attempts to give an older woman’s home makeover while she’s in hospital proves to be disturbing enough. In Emma Healey’s debut novel, Elizabeth Is Missing, Maud is confused and disorientated when she gives up her home, despite her daughter’s attempts to smooth the way.
One of the joys of fiction is its capacity to let us sample alternative lives. But even in fiction, a character can follow only one path. Or can they? Some writers have played with our human desire to know what would have happened had we chosen that route rather than this by following both. In The Post-Birthday World (described in a mini review here from Safia Moore) Lionel Shriver shows us the consequences of the main character Irina’s decision to both give into and resist the temptation to have an extramarital affair. My Real Children follows a similar structure, with alternate chapters focusing on the Tricia who marries Mark and the Pat who doesn’t.
The novel begins with Patricia reviewing her life. Nearing ninety and resident in a care home, she is often described by the staff as “very confused”. But her confusion has an extra layer to the usual fictional dementia: she has vivid memories of two separate selves with two distinct sets of children.
Both threads begin with a little girl called Patsy, playing on the beach with her father and brother. They also include Patty evacuated with her school at the outbreak of the Second World War which kills both her father and brother. Patty makes it to Oxford University where she almost crosses paths with Wittgenstein and Alan Turing and, only a few days before graduation, falls for the somewhat intense Mark. After a two-year separation and countless passionate letters, Mark phones her to ask her, somewhat hopelessly, to marry him.
Young Russian immigrant Slava Gelman’s writerly ambitions stretch far beyond his post among the pondlife at a New York magazine. Following the death of his beloved grandmother, his grandfather commissions him to build upon their sketchy knowledge of her escape from the Minsk ghetto to submit false claims for reparations from the German government on behalf of various inhabitants of “Soviet Brooklyn” who don’t quite fit the strict criteria of experience of ghettos, forced labour and concentration camps. Initially reluctant, Slava discovers in these accounts, not only way to reconnect with his own cultural history, but also the perfect outlet for his literary skills.
I was looking forward to reading this novel both for yet another oblique perspective on the second world war and its aftermath and for the sheer audacity of the premise, reminiscent of Shalom Auslander’s fictionalisation of an elderly Anne Frank in Hope: a Tragedy. Unfortunately for me, the novel failed to deliver the promised humour; nor, given that Slava was required to invent the survivor narrative, his grandmother having shared little of her trauma with her family, did I learn as much as I’d hoped. I also found the flashy prose slowed the pace, especially in the first two-thirds of the novel. However, I became more engaged towards the end with the appearance of Otto, German civil servant and amateur sleuth, raising moral questions about whether, and if so under what circumstances, it’s ethical to lie.
Transferred from blogger to blogger like a virus, the blog hops and awards go round and round. If they enter your circle without touching you, you start deluding yourself you’re immune. Then you get clobbered by several simultaneously; it’s enough to keep you in bed. Some discover creative ways of declining but, like those childhood illnesses that confer adult immunity, there’s a lot to be said for getting them out of the way when you can.
Of course I’m flattered by the nominations, but there’s no denying that responding eats into your writing time. So, as I did a couple of months ago with my backlog of blog awards, I’ve decided to condense the four blog hop doo-dahs into a single post.
Lisa Reiter nominated me for the “my writing process” blog hop way back in June (hence the Sweet Williams on my desk). This involves answering four questions about the what, why and how of one’s writing and passing on the baton to another three writers whose work you admire. Easy: but I still hadn’t paid my dues when, almost three months on, Tricia Orr invited me to be her nominee for the same blog hop. Meanwhile, another mutation raised its head, focusing on the single question of “why I write” in greater depth, which came my way via Ruchira. Finally, a brand-new blog hop from #writingwithoutworkshops, again concentrating on the importance of why (via the tag #importantbook) infected me by one of my Liebster nominees, Juliet O’Callaghan. Let’s hope I can do justice to these lovely ladies’ confidence in me by providing some answers that aren’t as rambling as this introduction.
When Stella hears the doorbell one dark winter’s afternoon, she ignores it. After all, she isn’t expecting anyone to call and she herself never leaves the house. But her visitor, inadequately dressed for the blizzard conditions, is persistent. Reluctantly, Stella lets her in.
Torn between suspicion and compassion, Stella is ill-equipped to handle the duplicitous teenager who wants to see her husband. Does Blue need protection or is she out to do the couple harm? How much of what she says can be believed and is Stella strong enough to face the truth?
Moving back and forth between Stella’s present dilemma, a series of undated therapy sessions, and a complex case at the Grove Road Clinic two years earlier, the reader gradually realises what’s at stake. We come to appreciate the depth of fear that has led to her withdrawal from the world and the danger that still lurks at the heart of Stella’s supposed safe haven. This is an engaging psychological thriller about vulnerability, trust and webs of deceit, in the manner of How to Be a Good Wife.
At college in 1996 California, Rosemary has grown accustomed to other people finding her a little odd. But she reckons they’d find her even odder if they knew about the unusual circumstances of her childhood. So, despite having been a chatterer since she knew how to speak, she tends to keep quiet. There’s also much that goes unspoken in her family home back in Bloomington, Indiana, especially regarding the whereabouts of her sister, Fern, who she hasn’t seen since she was five years old, and of her older brother, Lowell, who left suddenly ten years ago. It’s only when she is arrested after a fellow student runs amok in the university canteen that twenty-two-year-old Rosemary dares to look back at her past, beginning with when she was sent to stay with her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.
SHORT STORY COLLECTION COMING NOVEMBER 23rd
BOOK BLOGGERS CAN REQUEST A REVIEW COPY HERE
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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