I am greatly enjoying writing these ‘Blast of the Past’ posts. At the start of June, I showcased my Best Books of 2010.
Now it’s time to focus on the next year. As I was perusing the novels I read in 2011, I realized what a super bumper year it was in terms of the number of amazing novels I read. Quite a few have already become firm all-time favourites.
I was introduced to many superb writers for the first time. I discovered the wonders of NYRB Classics. And I also read quite a few novels set in the boarding house.
I eventually wound up with a list of 22 books that I wanted to highlight. Not wanting to tone this down any further, I was not keen on dedicating one post to all of them either.
So I have broken the Best of 2011 list in two parts. This is Part One where I will focus on 11 books.
Amongst Women – John McGahern
Ireland is never short of incredible writers. And John McGahern that year was an absolute find. I started off with his most well-known and acclaimed novel, Amongst Women.
Amongst Women is a drama centred on patriarch and IRA veteran Moran and his dominance over his family. Here’s how it begins:
As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters.
When the novel begins, Moran’s family has gathered together to bolster his spirit in his twilight years. His family consists of his saintly wife, and three daughters, plus a son who is estranged. Steadily but surely, the novel rewinds to the past fleshing out the characters and events leading upto this moment. It quickly becomes apparent to the reader that Moran is a moody, unpredictable man, a tyrant in other words. But his relationship with his family is increasingly complex. On one hand, his oppressive actions take an emotional toll on them, and yet, they share a bond that is hard to dismiss.
Amongst Women is a quiet masterpiece. McGahern’s writing is eloquent and understated and yet the tension simmers in the dynamics between the cast.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – Brian Moore
Brian Moore is remarkable in his portrayal of women at moments of a crisis. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a prime example of this.
Judith Hearne is an unmarried woman of a certain age who has come down in society. With barely enough income, she is compelled to stay in a boarding house, stuck in a rut with people who are judgmental. The one outing she looks forward to every week is a tea invitation to the O’ Neills’ house every Sunday, in order to break the tedium of the other days. But while she enjoys the cakes and sherry, she is silently the object of ridicule in that home painted in scenes that are truly heartbreaking. To add to it all, Judith has a dark secret which will prove to be her undoing.
Judith Hearne is a marvelous book. It is a compelling depiction of the plight of women in their middle age who had neither the financials means nor the skills required to live a healthy, independent life. Moore’s writing is incredibly sensitive and astute, which ensures that the book is not a bleak, miserable read despite Judith’s heartbreaking plight.
Fifth Business – Robertson Davies
Fifth Business is the first book in the Deptford Trilogy, and it is a wonderfully absorbing read making me wonder why I never got around to reading the next two books in the trilogy. I need to correct that.
The story begins when Dunstan Ramsay is ten years old and living in Deptford. He and his best friend (and worst enemy) Percy Boyd Staunton have been sledding and have quarreled. On the way back to town Percy throws a snowball at Dunstan, who jumps aside. The snowball strikes passerby Mary Dempster, the pregnant wife of the town’s Baptist minister. The shock of the snowball hitting her head causes her to go into labour and deliver prematurely: the baby boy is Paul Dempster. It also means that the incident affects Mary Dempster’s mental faculties.
It is an accident that affects Ramsay greatly and he is tortured with feelings of guilt in subsequent years that refuse to go away. More importantly, it develops into an obsession prompting Ramsay to become an expert hagiologist (study of saints), take an interest in psychology and become enamoured by Mrs Dempster.
And I have barely scratched the surface of the novel here.
This is a rich novel boasting of an incredibly layered narrative and multiple plot points well executed. We are given a glimpse of rural Deptford, the high society life of Percy Boyd Staunton, the world of illusion and conjuring tricks (a theme that will continue in the subsequent books), and sprinklings of Jung and Freud. There is a lot of depth in character development making Fifth Business an absorbing and immersive read.
Light Years – James Salter
Light Years made me fall in love with James Salter’s writing. I have devoured most of his work since then barring his last novel All That Is.
From the blurb – “Nedra and Viri are a couple whose enviable life is centred on civilized pleasures, their children, a variety of friends, and days lived to the utmost, be it skating on a frozen river or summers by the sea. It is a world solidly built on matrimony, and its details – the one moment, one hour, one day – recapture everything. But fine cracks are beginning to spread through the shimmering surface…”
A marriage disintegrating is a theme that has been covered endlessly in literature. But Salter’s prose takes it to a whole new level. His writing is unique, lush and poetic. He crafts exquisite phrases that are second to none. It’s his ability to conjure up the essence of his characters and their situations in just a few sentences that really stand out.
The Shawl – Cynthia Ozick
The Shawl comprises a short story and a novella. The short story also called ‘The Shawl’ is barely eight pages. The rest of the book is the novella called ‘Rosa’.
‘The Shawl’ is a harrowing but powerful read based in a Nazi concentration camp. It begins with the mother Rosa walking with her baby Magda at her breast, and with her elder fourteen-year old daughter Stella. It is deathlessly cold. Rosa is using her shawl to cover Magda, a shawl which Stella longs for because she is freezing too. All are hungry and in great despair. And then a terrible incident occurs.
In ‘Rosa’, the mother of the same name, appears thirty years later, ‘a madwoman and a scavenger’ in a Miami hotel.
In both the stories, the shawl is a recurring motif that highlights the horror of the Holocaust and the unfillable emptiness of its aftermath. Powerful stuff.
Asylum – Patrick McGrath
What a wonderful novel by Patrick McGrath this turned out to be.
The deliciously named Stella Raphael is elegant, headstrong, and intelligent. She is married to Max Raphael, a psychiatrist, but quite staid and unimaginative. But then Max takes up a position in a maximum security mental hospital in the English countryside. There Stella becomes dangerously attracted to Edgar Stark who has been confined for murdering his wife.
To what extent will this impact Stella’s sanity and how will this affect those around her?
Asylum is superb and has everything – intense and hypnotic storytelling, great characters and an unreliable narrator. It’s claustrophobic but gripping and very well-written.
Stoner – John Williams
The re-issue of Stoner has become a hit with the result that it is well reviewed novel now.
This is the story of an ordinary, quiet and private man born in a simple rural family. Harbouring a passion for literature and language, he refuses to follow in his father’s footsteps choosing a life of professorship and study instead. This, then, is an account of both his personal and professional life.
Professionally, we learn of the crippling politics that mar university life and how Stoner is not spared from it either. Of his personal life, we are given a glimpse of his marriage to Edith, the subsequent unhappiness in this union accentuated by lack of communication, an awkwardness also present in his relationship with his daughter Grace. And then comes along a passionate affair which has ramifications for Stoner both professionally and personally.
I absolutely loved this novel and it remains one of my all-time favourites. John Williams’ writing is gorgeous and sensitive ultimately making the story of this ordinary man quite extraordinary. Recently, different viewpoints have emerged related to elements of misogyny in Stoner. But this is not something I noticed when reading the novel, and in no way marred my enjoyment of it.
The True Deceiver – Tove Jansson
Tove Jansson is reputed for her Moomin stories, but her novels are brilliant as well. The True Deceiver, in particular, won the Best Translated Book Award in 2011 and deservedly so.
As can be gauged from the title, deception – the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we tell others – is the focal point of this novel. Things are not necessarily what they seem.
Katri Kling is an outcast, and her only love and ambition is for her simpleminded younger brother left in her care. She does not care much for the white lies that sometimes form the foundation of social interaction.
Anna Aemalin is a successful illustrator of children’s books and lives alone in a large house. Even if aloof, she is well respected in the village.
Prompted by her ambition to ensure her brother’s security, Katri fakes a robbery of Anna’s house in order to make her afraid to live alone. In the process, she pushes her way into Anna’s service and confidence. But Anna is not necessarily the pushover that she is projected to be.
This is a marvelous, dark novel with enough tension to make it unpredictable and riveting. Another strong offering from the NYRB stable and a reminder that I must read more Tove Janssen.
The Slaves of Solitude – Patrick Hamilton
This is another brilliant boarding house novel.
The backdrop is England in the middle of World War II, a war that seems to show no signs of ending.
Meanwhile, the main setting is the boarding house located in the suburban town of Thames Lockdon. The central character is Miss Roach, a middle aged woman, who is renting a room in this boarding house run by Mrs Payne. Here on a daily basis she has to deal with mind numbing boredom and the bullying at the dinner table by the nasty Mr Thwaites.
Miss Roach is savvy and sensible but to escape from her drab surroundings, she starts going out drinking with a wayward American lieutenant, a relationship based on rather shaky grounds. And then comes along Miss Roach’s friend Vicki Kugelmann, whose presence makes the proceedings in the boarding house only livelier.
Hamilton is great at portraying London at the time of war, the great uncertainty permeating daily living, and the drab and dull existence of its inhabitants. And his depiction of the claustrophobic confines of a boarding house – the politics, the nastiness, the excruciating boredom – is spot on. In addition to this, there are also some wonderful comic scenes in the novel, all of which make The Slaves of Solitude a heady cocktail not to be missed.
Sexing the Cherry – Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson is such a wonderful and assured writer. I have read just two – The Passion and Sexing the Cherry. Both are great and an excellent entry point into her oeuvre.
Sexing the Cherry is a dazzling and inventive novel that brims with fairy tales and history, dancing princesses and singing toads, at the centre of which is the mother Dog Woman and her boy Jordan.
Here’s the snippet from Wikipedia – Set in 17th century London, Sexing the Cherry is about the journeys of a mother, known as The Dog Woman, and her protégé, Jordan. They journey in a space-time flux: across the seas to find exotic fruits such as bananas and pineapples; and across time, with glimpses of “the present” and references to Charles I of England and Oliver Cromwell. The mother’s physical appearance is somewhat “grotesque”. She is a giant, wrapped in a skirt big enough to serve as a ship’s sail and strong enough to fling an elephant. Her son, however, is proud of her, as no other mother can hold a good dozen oranges in her mouth all at once. Ultimately, their journey is a journey in search of The Self.
I am not sure I can add more to this other than to urge you to read it.
Of Love and Hunger – Julian Maclaren-Ross
This is another one of my all-time favourites.
The central character is Richard Fanshawe who is struggling to lead a decent life. He has managed to secure a dreary job selling vaccum cleaners during the day. The nights he has to spend in a tedious boarding house under the watchful eyes of the landlady, Mrs Fellows.
Until one day, his friend Roper asks him to look after his wife Sukie when Roper has to go go away for three months to the sea. Fanshawe is unsure at first but as he interacts with her more, he finds himself falling in love with her.
In real life, Julian Maclaren Ross was considered to be quite the raconteur and even appeared as a character in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series. His story telling abilities are well in display in this novel; his writing is lyrical, slangy and crisp.
To quote from the blurb – Of Love and Hunger conjures up his world of smoky pubs, prying landladies, unpaid debts and seedy love-nests with brilliant wit and acuity.
That’s it as far as the first part is concerned. I will put up a Best of 2011 (Part 2) post in the coming days. Stay tuned!