The reading month was a tale of two parts: a blissful vacation week, non-stop reading, each book as strong as the last, followed by two weeks teaching a workshop on writing personal statements. Fun, but tons of work and although I read a lot it was all med school and Fulbright applications. In non-reading life, the weather remained surprisingly agreeable, and the COVID situation in Arkansas hadn’t yet deteriorated as it has since (though the mask-less signs were there). I was doing okay at the time, but now that feels like a century ago. I worry about my job, my health, my loved ones’ health, the planet’s health. Let’s talk books instead.
Tessa Hadley, The Master Bedroom (2007)
Not as terrific as Late in the Day but still pretty damn terrific. Kate Flynn leaves London and her academic career behind and returns home to Wales. Cardiff is small—it’s not long before she runs into the brother of a childhood friend and falls for him. David’s marriage is not falling apart exactly, but something’s going on, his wife has new friends, disappears for days at a time. David is drawn to Kate—or maybe to her childhood home, a ramshackle mansion grandiosely named La Firenze where Kate’s delightful, increasingly senile mother potters about while Kate practices chamber music. Before long, Kate meets Jamie, David’s 17-year-old son from his first marriage, and before she knows it finds herself involved, in different, complicated ways, with both men.
This could be a farce, but poignancy is more Hadley’s thing. But so is passion, with its messy and violent challenge to decorum. By the end of the novel, a lot of things get broken; some new things get made from the pieces. Hadley’s really doing it for me at this stage in my life.
Sarah Moss, Signs for Lost Children (2015)
I’m usually impatient with novels that switch between two perspectives. Just when I’ve fallen into scenario or point of view, I’m jarred by having to return to the other. And I’m usually more interested in one of the stories. But Moss, really hitting her stride as a writer in this, her fourth novel, a sequel to the very fine Bodies of Light, avoids these traps. At the end of the previous novel, Ally Moberley, one of Britain’s first female doctors in the 1880s, married an engineer named Tom Cavendish. Here the newlyweds find themselves separated when she takes on a job as a doctor in an insane asylum in Falmouth and he travels to Japan to build lighthouses. We learn a lot about Ally’s work and almost nothing about Tom’s—the sections in Japan focus on his secondary task of buying fabric and art objects for an English collector (this makes him basically a personal shopper, and part of the way the novel feminizes him, to use Moss’s own description). Moss’s research is impeccable but lightly worn, even oblique—I think Rohan said something about these being modernist Victorian novels. Moss evokes with equal skill Tom’s feelings of foreignness (which turn to admiration for Japanese society) and Ally’s struggles to challenge the norms of a medical world in which she is as much on sufferance as her mentally-ill patients. There’s even an intriguing plot element: will the couple survive the geographic and psychological distance between them?
Above all, though, Signs for Lost Children, like its predecessor, is Ally’s book. For Moss’s main subject is how easily, terribly, and insidiously we internalize the bad emotions other people, often those closest to us, direct at us: whether jealousy, anger, disparagement or contempt. Ally’s struggles to overcome those voices hit me in the gut.
Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Deaths, and Hard Truths in a Northern City (2017)
The northern city of Toronto Star reporter Talaga’s title is Thunder Bay, Ontario, but it could be almost anywhere in Canada, a country where indigenous lives matter less than anyone else’s. Which isn’t to deny the particularity of Talaga’s subject. The fallen feathers are seven indigenous teenagers who went missing and were later found dead, mostly pulled from one of the city’s many waterways. The police, Talaga shows, were never too interested in investigating: another missing Indian, probably drunk and careless. In fact it’s likely some of these young people were murdered—indigenous people are regularly attacked and abused in Thunder Bay: the podcast Canadaland, in a powerful series(featuring Talaga), explored this possibility—but Talaga’s interest here is on a whole system built on broken promises, especially when it comes to education. After the terrible legacy of the residential school system, indigenous people were supposed to have more say in their children’s education, and more money to help them build a new system. But if young people in small northern settlements want to continue to high school they need to fly south, which, in Ontario anyway, usually means going to Thunder Bay. Billeted with foster families paid to take them—some good, some not—living in a place many times bigger than anywhere they’ve known before, missing loved ones themselves damaged by generations of abuse, they struggle. Even though organizations, some indigenous-led, exist to help them, resources and cultural will are lacking.
Talaga’s prose is workmanlike, and her choices in structuring the book sometimes confused me. (A moving section on residential schools could have been the basis of a separate book.) But this powerful book should be read by all Canadians, and everyone who idealizes the place. I cried reading the last pages. The prejudices instilled in me growing up white on the prairies in the 1970s an 80s haven’t been uprooted from reading this book, but they’re more obvious to me now.
Anita Brookner, Look at Me (1983)
Justly famous. This novel provoked many responses when I tweeted my love for it, mostly similarly enthusiastic. Many readers seem to think this, Brookner’s third novel, is her first great one. (Her debut was pretty terrific; I’ve yet to read her second.) Frances Hinton works in a medical library, the kind of sleepy, not especially oppressive job that doesn’t seem to exist anymore (and maybe never did, outside books). She lives with her mother’s former servant in a sepulchral apartment she inherited on her parents’ death. She writes, a little, a story is published and admired. Her life is quiet without being desperate. Yet desperation runs through Frances, as suggested by Brookner’s marvelous title, a phrase Frances regularly howls onto the page. “Look at me” could be self-deprecatory, or coquettish, or rebuking. But in France’s narration it’s a demand—for visibility, legibility, intelligibility. A demand kindled when she is taken up by the dashing physician Nick Fraser and his glamorous wife, Alix. Suddenly Frances is eating out and meeting people, including a kindly doctor whom she gets involved with, but in a detached way, until the relationship that blows up in a surprising way. The WASPs are horrible, it’s the beginning of the rise of the City and all that 80s excessive consumption stuff, the kindliest character is a disabled Jew. All strange and marvelous, and offered to us in less than 200-pages. The most marvelous bit of all, the scene everyone on Twitter mentioned, is a hallucinatory walk through nighttime London, incredibly menacing. There’s a lot of menace in this book, in fact (Frances’s previous lover has been cruel, perpetrated some Jamesian obscure hurt alluded to darkly but firmly.) Brookner is often compared to James or Bowen, but the novel’s last line reminded me of the end of Beckett’s Molloy. Brookner is icier, though, and less funny. Icy domesticity? Yes, please! I’m going to read the rest of her books on my sabbatical.
Sybille Bedford, Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education (1989)
Book of the month! The year? The century?!? Oh who knows but damn this is good. I saw it was shortlisted for the Booker and, amazed that it didn’t win, took a look at what did. (Remains of the Day: worthy for sure and hard to pick but might take Jigsaw.) Clearly some people appreciated it at the time, but I think it reads less strangely now than it might have then—reviews could call it autofiction and have a way to pigeonhole it. Although pigeonholing is everything this book is not. A fictionalized version of Bedford’s extraordinary life, what she called her unsentimental education. From her first memory (being wheeled in a too-small pram through the streets of Copenhagen, then parked outside the apartment of a writer her mother had come to seduce) through her childhood with her father in a chateau in Baden (which sounds amazing, but post WWI the once-noble family was so poor that father and daughter nearly froze to death in the place, with hardly any clothes and little to eat, only a fabulous cellar to console them), on through life with her mother and her mother’s kind younger lover, first in Italy and then on the Côte d’Azur, with interregna in England, all on her own, a teenager making her way in the world, and back to France where she ran with a crowd that included Aldous and Maria Huxley—the whole thing is so incredible. Not glamorous, mostly she was poor and hard done-by, but amazing.
The book belongs to Bedford’s mother: titanic, careless, insecure, lordly, in the end tragic. But there are a ton of other great characters too. Most delightful of all, though, is Bedford’s narrative voice. You get aperçus:
Are all young children unregenerate creatures? Incapable of moral responses? responses of the heart? Can these be awakened? Mine were not. I was unregenerate and self-absorbed.
You get loose-limbed syntax:
He [her grandfather] had died in his nineties at Voss Strasse before the end of the war – I was there: a death in the house.
And you get both at once:
When I am trying to think of those years in NW1, and I haven’t thought of them for a very long time, they seem to have been all of a piece, a uniform round. It can’t have been wholly like that. There must have been some process of growing up, at whatever rate; life does widen and not only by visits to the British museum, the Tate and Winchester Cathedral. Yet the only thing that remains vivid is the physical feel of living in London, young and on very little though sufficient money. The buses—one was always running after, catching or just missing a last bus; the queuing for a play in Shaftesbury Avenue; the Lyons’ Corner House afterwards (poached egg on toast); Bovril at a coffee stall very late at night; the elegance of Mayfair streets at lunch time; how splendid the men, how pretty the girls, how well dressed everyone was, how en fête; the smell of the cheaper Soho restaurants (upholstery, grease, spice, trapped air); my digs.
Susie Steiner, Remain Silent (2020)
Third Manon Bradshaw novel isn’t as suspenseful as the first, but its character development is even better. Such a range of registers: I laughed aloud and wanted to cry. An Eastern European subplot is handled with much more thoroughness than usual. But more important than the book is the news that Steiner is gravely, perhaps terminally ill. It is so terrible, I send a prayer for her healing.
James Alan McPherson, Hue and Cry (1968)
McPherson’s debut includes two terrific stories—“A Matter of Vocabulary” and “A Solo Song: For Doc,” the former about brothers who pick up after-school jobs at a grocery store and learn how much they differ (it’s going straight onto my short fiction syllabus); the latter about the end of the Pullman porter era—a couple of satisfactory ones, and several joyless and unpleasant ones. There’s not a single sensitively portrayed female character in the book and, although the scenarios occasionally reminded of Malamud I missed the sympathy that attends even Malamud’s most miserable characters. Sometimes I think the 60s were a happier time than our own unhappy one, but then I read something like this and think, nope, at least not for everybody. Even Edward P. Jones’s introduction—which I looked forward to, he’s a favourite of mine—feels dutiful. Did McPherson get better?
Dola de Jong, The Tree and the Vine (1954) Trans. Kristen Gehrman (2020)
More curiosity than masterpiece, de Jong’s novel of unconsummated lesbian love in 1930s Holland is given a sprightly translation by Kristen Gehrman. Bea meets Erica, they move in together as friends, Bea is more and more obsessed with her, to the point that her boyfriend leaves her, which Bea isn’t sad about, in part because she’s so sad or conflicted or unsure or something by Erica, who isn’t especially nice to her. Unhappy lesbian stories are pretty common in the first half of the 20th century, though this one has an intriguing frame in which Bea, writing from postwar life in the US, intimates that she has found happiness or at least contentment. But de Jong is pretty haphazard with that retrospection. I dunno, the book didn’t quite work for me; I wanted to like it more than I did. I’ve a hunch, though, that I might appreciate it more on a second reading.
Megha Majumdar, A Burning (2020)
Ostensibly about the aftermath of a sectarian terrorist attack in Kolkata (fictional, but modelled on a real one in Bangladesh), A Burning is really about how money and a sense of belonging and counting as a human being are connected—in other words, about the reality for most people in the world right now. The novel is structured around different first-person points of view. (Surely some Jameson-inspired critics are writing about how different-walks-of-life-that-get-connected narratives reflect our economic and social ties under late capitalism.) A young woman—who might have abetted the terrorists—posts a mild criticism of the government on Facebook and is arrested. Her former PE teacher happens upon a demonstration organized by a nationalistic political party—drawn there in the first place by the chance to see a movie star speak—and finds himself more valued than at the girls’ school where he has worked, even if that means becoming a fixer and a perjurer (he ends up a Minister, so who’s to say he was wrong?). A hijira—an intersex and/or transgender person—who had been tutored by the arrested woman overcomes obstacles on their way to stardom.
The teacher—called by his classroom nickname, PT Sir—is the most compelling character, but maybe that’s just because he is most developed according to the codes of realism (he does the most doing, incites the most complicated feelings, has the most developed interiority—he reminded me a little of the lead in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s story “Nawab Electrician”). But PT, like Lovely, the hijira, and Jivan, the accused woman, live in a world in which public spectacle and outcry drive success. Individuals only have meaning in relation to the mass (a more fitting term for the world of this novel than public or citizenry IMO). But this reality poses a dilemma for Majumdar. Because novels rely on individual agency, in a world in which such agency (fancy word for willpower), novels have to turn on themselves. Accordingly, the most compelling moments in A Burning are when characters both do and don’t decide something. Its most representative scene, then, shows Jivan’s lawyer being bribed to abandon his client. Gobind—note the suggestion of blindness in his name; to say nothing of the bind he is in—agrees to drop the case. The narration adds, “He is unsure if he chooses this.”
Reading A Burning I was reminded of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, a better because less schematic, more oneiric book, but similarly concerned with the compromises of success in contemporary India. Majumdar’s is a formidable debut; I’ll read the followup with interest.
Paulette Jiles, Simon the Fiddler (2020)
After News of the World I was eager to read Jiles’s new novel, which centers on Simon Boudin, a character who featured briefly in the earlier book. (Because I listened to an audiobook from the library I couldn’t go back to read that scene again—a source of repeated frustration to me as I read Fiddler.) In Texas in the last months of the Civil War, Boudin is conscripted into the Confederate Army, a fate the slight young man had avoided by pretending he was only a teenager. But he is a musician, not a fighter and at the end of the hostilities finds himself playing at a garden party for officers of both sides, a reconciliation event that is unsuccessful—except for Simon, who spots a beautiful young woman and immediately falls in love with her.
The object of his affection, Doris Dillon, an immigrant from Ireland, is an indentured servant to a Union Captain who is posted to San Antonio where he is meant to bring order to the lawless city when in fact he spends most of his time creeping on Doris. Simon the Fiddler is half love story, half picaresque, as Simon and some charmingly idiosyncratic fellow musicians form a scratch band and play their way across Texas. No, it’s not as great a book as News of the World, but Jiles’s descriptions are evocative and you get a happy ending despite some terrible events along the way. This won’t be on my end of year list, but I enjoyed every minute of it.
There you have it. The year’s more than half over (I’d say good riddance except I’m scared of what’s coming after it). Maybe I’ll look back on the first half, which, reading-wise, hasn’t been too bad, a damn sight better than everything else. Stay safe, friends.