I usually go to litfests to sit in the audience, not on the stage, so my recent trip to North Cornwall Book Festival was a little nerve-racking – though as it turned out there was nothing to fear, and everything to enjoy. I was involved in two events: first off I talked about my books to bestselling novelist and tirelessly hospitable festival host Patrick Gale, and then I hosted his talk about his latest book, A Place Called Winter. I also taught my first ever creative writing workshop.
There was a super-speedy blogging team from Falmouth Uni headquartered in the farmhouse – they wrote lots of great posts about the various author events and I’ve linked to several of them below – their NCBF blog is a really good whistle-stop tour of the whole experience. There are also loads more brilliant pics (thank you Dan Hall) on the NCBF FB page.
North Cornwall Book Festival: authors and music galore
These are the events I went to:
Dr Who expert Moray Laing on a roll-call of monsters old and new – the Weeping Angels are my scariest (just don’t blink…)
At my event, I learned that Patrick Gale and I are both childhood fans of Mary Stewart, and talked about genre (one of the themes of the weekend) – here’s a bit more about it. As for Patrick, well, he must be the world’s easiest interviewee.
The music at St Endellion Church was a revelation. I had to work seriously hard not to blub when Tom Hickox sang The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (a song with associations and let’s face it, it’s a weep-inducer.)
Wild Willy Barrett’s French Connection was irresistibly foot-tapping and got me in the mood for a hoedown. Missed my old cowgirl hat…
My workshop: handling romance in fiction
At my workshop we talked about the archetype of the hero’s journey, with Cinderella as an example.
We also looked at three key scenes from stories about love, and discussed how love stories are always also about something else: whatever it is that is coming between the lovers and creating dramatic tension in the story (and is the reason for the story to exist). These are the novels we looked at:
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale
These are the books I recommended on storytelling, writing and becoming a writer:
The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler
Negotiating with the Dead – Margaret Atwood
On Writing – Stephen King
On Becoming a Novelist, The Art of Fiction – John Gardner
The Writer’s Voice – Al Alvarez
Wild Mary – Patrick Marnham
And here are some of the characters and places we came up with for our meet cute exercise, just in case someone wants to give it a go (five minutes, take two characters and a place and write their meeting). It’s amazing what it’s possible to come up with in such a short space of time and reading what you’ve written out loud is always useful (turns out Patrick Gale does this a lot when he’s working on a new book).
Someone who missed last train
Single parent on benefits
Soldier with PTSD
Santa (someone dressed as)
Depressed Hollywood star
American yoga teacher
Fancy dress party
Camping site in the rain
The moor at dawn
Edge of a cliff
Therapist’s waiting room
Ferry to a Greek island
Billiard table (full-size)
All good things must come to an end (till next time), and come Monday morning I was spirited away from the magic of NCBF to the much more familiar (but suddenly novel) magic of home. It was lovely to get back and have a big group hug, but the festival has stayed with me and so it will remain through the winter as this treasure trove sees me through the dark, the fog and the gloom:
If you’re in Cornwall next October half-term – do go! It will set you up for the winter. Oh, and did I mention the pasties and the cakes? No? A terrible omission. NCBF is a feast of all kinds, as you’ll see when you get there.
Thanks to the festival team for exemplary organisation, Patrick Gale for inviting me and Neel Mukherjee for suggesting me.
Stevie Smith said differences between male writers and female writers were more obvious if the writing was bad. I’m a big fan of Stevie Smith, but I’m not sure that’s true. Reading blurs and breaks down boundaries and allows us to access the imagined unknown, and to experience many different lives (to paraphrase a line from one of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones books, the man who reads has many lives, the one who does not lives only once). When I’m reading a book I love, I could be anyone, and so could the writer; there’s only the story. (Perhaps that’s what Stevie Smith meant.)
So why single out male writers for a list like this? Pretty much, to redress the balance – I’ve already blogged about women writers who changed my life (parts I and II – III will come at some point), so it seems only fair.
The male writers who have changed my life
This is a list of writers rather than of books, so the writers I have included have written more than one novel that has made a big impression on me. Hence some major omissions, of which the biggest is The Catcher in the Rye, which I discovered at the perfect time, as a lonely teen in the school library. Also, Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which features one of my all-time favourite heroines.
I haven’t touched on non-fiction (Al Alvarez would definitely be on that list, and Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy – ‘f*** the begrudgers’ is a useful mantra) or poetry (that would be a long one, with a starring role for T S Eliot and, of course, my OH Ian Pindar).
Douglas Adams. Hitchhiker’s Guide and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe have soaked into my unconscious. I still often find myself thinking about the uniquely biroid lifestyle, or the first ten thousand years being the worst, the second ten thousand being the worst too, and after that, going into a bit of a decline. Or it being too late to worry that you left the gas on when you’re about to watch the universe boil away into nothingness. Or the mark of civilisation being the question, ‘Where shall we have lunch?’ Or about how you might feel safe on an alien spaceship if only you could see a small packet of cornflakes amid the piles of Dentrassi underwear. And so on.
William Gibson. Discovered mid-90s, browsing in a bookshop. The inventor of cyberspace, no? The kind of cyberspace we’re still evolving towards – a virtual simulacrum of the world we live in, with criminals, hustlers, defended power bases and ghosts. And Molly with the retractable claws… I often think of William Gibson when I see a wasp’s nest, or read about the hyper-rich – he’s brilliant on the dehumanising effect of immense wealth.
William Gibson introduced me to Cornell boxes – years later I saw some for myself and was stunned by how beautiful they were. Sometimes when I see my son, who has autism, set out his toys, I think of those Cornell boxes. There’s something very precise about the spacing and arranging, something numinous, even if I don’t understand it.
I once tried to write an imitation William Gibson story. It wasn’t very good, as my boyf at the time reluctantly, but rightly, pointed out.
Ian Fleming. Mary Goodnight is the reason I wear Chanel no 5 (though Marilyn Monroe also has something to do with it.) A couple of years ago I wrote a short story called What would a Bond girl do? The story probably wasn’t up to much, but I still like the title.
Around the same time I read the Bond books (early to mid teens) I read a lot of Dick Francis novels, but all I really remember from them is the description of a hungry jockey griddling himself a steak. Also, that 80 hours into learning to be a pilot is the most dangerous time, because you begin to think you can do it and forget to be afraid, which maybe applies to a certain stage of learning in other areas too.
Raymond Chandler. Especially The Big Sleep. Love those slangy, cynical, man-of-the-world cadences – the beaten-up toughness of it. Love the old rich man with the orchids, the sharp dialogue, the ending. When I first read it I didn’t really get a lot of it, but it didn’t matter. And now I’m thinking of Bogart and Bacall. Btw, there is a brilliant essay on how Humphrey Bogart became Humphrey Bogart in a collection of essays by Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood (if you read the book, look out for Charlie Chaplin and the jolly orgy involving paint).
Ernest Hemingway. My dad likes Hemingway and once told me The Old Man and the Sea was his favourite novel. Hemingway was also on an improving reading list that my English teacher gave me, and I read a fair bit aged 16 to 18 and loved it – For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises. The short story Hills Like White Elephants has stayed with me – it catches so clearly the sterile feeling of being with a lover when there is almost nothing more to say. Read The Killers recently – eerily brilliant.
Patrick Gale. I read my first Patrick Gale (Notes from an Exhibition) last year and could happily spend the next working through everything else he’s written. Look out for A Place Called Winter, out next month – I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy.
Patrick Gale’s novels give me a feeling of space and light: new people, new territories, illumination. He’s also a damn good storyteller. When his characters do unexpected things, or have unexpected and sometimes terrible things happen to them, you’re left thinking – yes, that’s how it is, that’s the truth of it. He knows what makes people tick.
Raymond Carver. Bought mid-90s, collected short stories, after Short Cuts came out. Shining example of what can be achieved by being lean and spare. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love stays with me – an inspired sideways glance at the question of what love is, up there with James Joyce’s The Dead. Also the one about the three men who go fishing and find a body. And Cathedral.
James Ellroy. How do you find writers you love? Movie adaptations don’t hurt. I bought LA Confidential after seeing the film. Read the first page, thought what’s a shiv? Soon found out, read a load more. Big, ambitious books with amoral heroes – he shares some qualities with George RR Martin: an eagle eye for the workings of power; a desire to tell stories about bad people with a bit of good in them, and good people with a bit of bad in them; and an interest in twisted families.
George R R Martin. Nearly at the end of season 4 of Game of Thrones as I write. George RR Martin has a spectacular ability to create real people in a fantasy world. Intensely believable and often terrifying. Grim to think that pretty much any of the dark stuff in the books has really happened sometime, somewhere – and a relief when humanity’s more redemptive qualities come through: courage, integrity, resourcefulness, self-sacrifice, a sense of humour in the face of overwhelming odds, loyalty, vision, love.
Neel Mukherjee can do it all – his fiction is funny, profound, vivid, sweeping, and revelatory about how and why people do the things they do. After I’d read The Lives of Others I felt I understood more about why terrorist atrocities happen than when I started – it was an education. I’m very much looking forward to his next. The extract that appeared in January’s Granta was startlingly, shiver-inducingly spooky.
D H Lawrence. I read lots of DHL aged 16-21. (He was on the improving reading list too, and, later on, the degree syllabus.) The end of Sons and Lovers is one of my favourite endings of any novel – more affecting, to me, than the arguably more celebrated ending of The Great Gatsby. One of the endings of Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others hits the same note: poignancy and exile, moving on and out into the world. And I like Ursula at the beginning of Women in Love, like a daffodil with all the growth going on underground, before the shoots come up for everybody else to see – and Mrs Morel with the lilies in the moonlight, her brute husband left behind indoors.
OK, so that’s my list. I know as soon as I post this I’ll be troubled by omissions – other names and books are occurring to me as I type, clamouring for inclusion – but you have to start somewhere…
Swift homage to Tolkien, in passing – The Lord of the Rings had pride of place on the bookshelf in my mum’s house and we painstakingly taped the radio adaptation. My OH recently acquired a bit of the recording and it’s still brilliant.
As a girl in the 70s I had dungarees with workmen’s tools embroidered on them and Richard Scarry books illustrated with all the primary colours. If I was a kid these days, I’d have been much more likely to spend my days in a pink fairy costume reading a pink book about pink princesses. I really, really wanted to be a fairy, ideally called Lavinia – I definitely wasn’t a tomboy – so probably I would have been quite happy with this, at the time anyway.
Looking back, I’m glad that my 1970s childhood didn’t indulge my pink princess tendencies, and that I read Richard Scarry as well as Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton and Edith Nesbit.
Over the last year, I’ve travelled in time and space from Calcutta in the late 1960s to Canada in the 1900s. I’ve witnessed the sinking of a Thames houseboat (the cat escaped, but only just), the lifting of beet on a struggling Yorkshire hill farm and the smoking of Sobranies at a Hungarian party in a tiny London flat (‘Dar-link! Von-dare-fool!’) I’ve witnessed the invasion of a strip club, a miscarriage at a baby shower, people being abused and betrayed and drawn into relationships with those who have misused them; painters at work, alcoholics in recovery, and, from the perspective of the afterlife, a woman trying to get over her still-living husband.
I’ve encountered villains, lovers, rescuers, torturers, aliens and a whole host of heroines. I had the chance to get to know Penelope Fitzgerald and George Eliot, and I observed a Brush with Greatness: (fictional) artist Rachel Kelly bumping into Dame Barbara Hepworth on a booze run.
It has been a terrific year’s reading, mainly of novels, almost all by writers who were new to me. Some were published this year, others some time ago; one – Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter − is due out in 2015. Some were recommendations; others I looked up because I’d come across the writers on Twitter or heard about them online. Twitter has played a part in my reading this year as never before – it’s a great medium for fandom.
The other novelty for me was that it was the first year I started reading on Kindle – though I’ve read most of these titles in paperback, which I still prefer. I was talking to a reader at a book group recently who said she read everything on her Kindle and had no idea what the books were called – if people asked her what she’d been reading, she had to look it up. She had started making a point of checking what the covers looked like. I’m still getting my head round this brave new ebook world… I don’t feel like I really own a book unless I have it on paper, and I don’t feel like I engage with a story as closely unless I’m actually turning the pages. OK, so we have severe book storage problems in our house, but as far as I’m concerned that is the only real advantage of the ebook. Also, I quite like reading in the bath. So chances are that 2015 will mean yet more demands on our limited shelf space…
Here are the books I read in 2014, which, in a rare fit of nerdiness, I’ve put in alphabetical order by author. (Check out the links to see their Twitter feeds).
Hephzibah Anderson: Chastened. What happens when you give up sex for a year in the hope that it will improve your chances of finding love – or at least make romantic disappointments a bit less heart-wrenching? Does treating ̕em mean keep ̕em keen, or is it just the route to a different kind of loneliness? This candid, witty, elegantly written study of sexual politics in and out of the bedroom is also a paean to the freedom of single-girl city living. It took me right back to my own London days and made me hanker to visit New York. (Should have gone in my twenties. Have still never been.)
Hannah Beckerman: The Dead Wife’s Handbook. The narrator of this novel is dead and grieving, existing in a nebulous afterlife from which she is permitted occasional glimpses of her husband, young daughter, mother and best friend. But as time moves on and their lives begin to change, can she find it in her heart to let go – especially when her husband is eventually coaxed into starting to date again? A smart, tear-jerking and expertly realised portrayal of the frustrations, sadness and joys of playing witness to your own life after the event, and coming to terms with your loved ones’ slow recovery from your loss.
Amanda Brookfield: A Family Man. This is the story of a man whose wife suddenly vanishes, leaving him to learn how to juggle work, childcare and the confusing possibility of new romance as a single parent. A warm, sympathetic account of a dad who finds that what looks like disaster is actually a chance of a different kind of life. Originally published in 2001, now available in ebook.
Julie Cohen: Dear Thing, Where Love Lies. Gosh, it has been a year of weepy reading! Dear Thing, Julie Cohen’s tale of a tug-of-love between two women who both come to want the same man and the same baby, got my tear ducts going. It’s crisply written, artfully structured and beautifully observed – the scene where Claire has a miscarriage at a baby shower is all the more heart-rending for its restraint. Julie has an acute eye for how people behave in extremis and how even good, kind, likeable people can be brutal when circumstances pit them against each other.
Where Love Lies is a lush, mysterious, time-travelling love story that sends its narrator back to her first experience of romance and then pulls her back into her present. Felicity is at the mercy of her senses, overwhelmed by flashbacks to her past and tempted to act on the old feelings that she is experiencing afresh; so who does she truly love – the old boyfriend who she feels impelled to seek out, or the long-suffering husband who has no idea what she is going through?
Tamar Cohen: The Broken. I *had* to peek at the end of this one – I literally couldn’t bear not knowing how it turned out and I had to get some sleep! It’s a study of conflicting loyalties, jealousy, rivalry and anxiety about doing the right thing. When their friends Sasha and Dan break up, Josh and Hannah find themselves sucked in to the fallout: is it wrong for them to meet Dan’s hot new model girlfriend, and is Sasha really as terrible a mother as Dan believes? The story is laced with dark humour and sharply-observed details of the insecurities and self-destructive impulses tucked away behind the shiny facade of North London domestic bliss. Wraps up with a mean twist. (I read Tamar Cohen’s The Mistress’s Revenge last year – there’s a bit about it in my round-up of my books of 2013.)
Rowan Coleman: The Memory Book. This is one to be read with the tissues at the ready, though it’s also very funny – one of my favourite scenes involves a mother and grandmother invading a strip club in order to retrieve the daughter they have found out is working there. This is a novel all about a matriarchy, and Claire, the mother, is at its heart, seeking to record her life in her memory book in a race against time, as she begins to lose her knowledge of who, when and where she is. However, the stories from the past are far from finished, and an intrigue unfolding in the present threatens to wreak havoc on the family as everybody struggles to come to terms with Claire’s worsening condition. Claire’s other half, Greg, is the love of her life, and yet she is meeting someone in secret, despite her increasing confusion. Is she putting herself in danger, and will she be able to help her loved ones make sense of their shared past before it’s too late?
Jenny Colgan: Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe. A super-sweet comic confection that’s as much about getting your business dream off the ground as it is about choosing Mr Right, though it’s about that too. Published in 2011, it’s the story of how Issy Randall uses her redundancy pay-off to set up a charming café – but will her venture survive the interest that her property developer ex-boyfriend decides to take in it, and will Issy be taken in by him? I saw Jenny at an author event with Lisa Jewell and Rowan Coleman at Henley Literary Festival back in October, and Jenny explained that she was inspired to write Cupcake after moving to France and realising that she was going to have to learn to cook from scratch if her children were ever going to have anything to eat other than carrots, apples and crisps. I’m a baker of Bridget Jones-like incompetence myself, but reading Cupcake did inspire me to dig out my one and only truly reliable cake recipe.
Samantha Ellis: How to be a Heroine. Anne of Green Gables, Lizzie Bennett, or the ladies in Lace? This book, a re-reading of the formative novels that helped shape Samantha’s ideas about what makes a heroine, sent us all back to the fiction we read as children and teenagers to see how different it might look from the perspective of experience. It sparked a zillion conversations and got me thinking about my own personal canon of the women writers I’ve loved the most. Samantha’s book is a nostalgia-inducing book-lover’s approach to the questions that trouble all heroines: how to find love, happiness, yourself. Pure pleasure – and thought-provoking, revealing, brave, frank and funny, too.
Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop. Also Hermione Lee’s Life of Penelope Fitzgerald. I came to Penelope Fitzgerald through the reviews of Hermione Lee’s Life. I was struck by the details that conveyed the indignities of not having enough money and trying to find ways to make do, sometimes with disastrous results: the affordable but leaky and decrepit Thames houseboat that ended up sinking, the attempt to dye her hair with tea-bags. I read the biography and then read my first of her novels, The Bookshop. It’s short, succinct, devastating and brilliant, and the sucker-punch ending floored me and made me howl as few books have done (the ending of Notes from an Exhibition also caught me by surprise by making me bawl like a thwarted baby.)
Patrick Gale: Notes from an Exhibition and A Place called Winter. (A Place Called Winter is out spring 2015 – I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy.) My work book group read Notes from an Exhibition some time ago; I missed it at the time (writing deadline – writing does sometimes interfere with my reading) and decided to catch up on it later. It’s set largely in Cornwall, so was great to read in the run-up to our first ever family holiday and my first visit to Cornwall in more than a decade. I admired and enjoyed it very much and it made me cry hopelessly. Some brief notes on what struck me: the portrait of the painter at work – so well realised, the physicality of the paint, the messiness of it; the Quakers; the relationships between the siblings, maternal and marital and filial love; and the pure storytelling – the movement from one point of view to another, revealing one surprise and then another until the last page goes over and you realise there isn’t any more. I’ve been in the process of moving from writing in the first person for my second novel back to the third person for my third, and it was a liberating reminder of just how much you can do with the third person.
A Place Called Winter – this is a historical novel about Harry Cane, a gay man in the 1900s who is forced by a scandal to leave England and settle in Canada. He embraces a new life as a farmer, but any chance he has of finding love and happiness is always attended by terrible jeopardy. It’s a profoundly romantic story – love stories need opposition, and if Harry is to be lucky enough to find a man to love and be loved by in return, their relationship will always be under threat, always required to remain a secret. There are some harrowing scenes of violence, and their consequences are explored with great truthfulness and insight. This is a novel with a sweepingly vivid sense of place, brilliant on the challenges and satisfactions of working on the land in different seasons and on the search for a place to call home and someone to share it with. It feels like a story that was crying out to be told.
Matt Haig: The Humans. A couple of years ago I read Moondust by Andrew Smith, which describes his mission to track down all of the surviving astronauts who walked on the moon and record their memories of it. It seemed that what was really remarkable about going to the moon was the perspective it offered on the Earth; how beautiful and precious it appears from a great distance, surrounded by blackness. Matt Haig’s wise and funny novel pulls off a similar trick. There’s no place quite like home and the people that make it so – and how better to arrive at a full appreciation of what it is to be human than by adopting the perspective of an alien who has fallen to earth, with a mission that is in jeopardy as soon as he begins to learn what it is to love?
Amanda Jennings: The Judas Scar. Amanda’s second novel is a dark, suspense-filled page-turner that explores the guilt felt by a man who failed to protect a childhood friend from a brutal history of boarding-school bullying. It’s also a tale of a marriage that is at risk from secrets on both sides, as well as being under attack from the treacherous intentions of apparent friends. When someone Will never thought to see again unexpectedly begins to play a part in his life once more, the consequences are potentially deadly – but who for? There is plenty that Will hasn’t told Harmony, his wife, and by and by Harmony will have reasons of her own to feel guilty… Amanda’s first novel, Sworn Secret, came out on the same day as my first, Stop the Clock – publication day twins! Amanda wowed a packed-out Henley Town Hall at Henley Literary Festival this year and I’m looking forward to her third novel.
Harriet Lane: Alys, Always. The scheming, shrewd, manipulative narrator of Harriet Lane’s debut novel is one of my favourite antiheroines ever. A dark twin of the narrator of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, she has no compunction whatsoever about trying to step into a dead woman’s shoes, and is dauntlessly predatory as she hunts down the highly-regarded widower she has set her heart on. A sense of something unseen, or something bad about to happen lurking around the corner, permeates this book. Will the schemer be exposed? Has she ventured out of her depth? It’s also a darkly funny account of what it takes to get ahead in the literary world, which might aptly be subtitled (with a nod to Tamar Cohen’s debut) The Sub’s Revenge.
Rebecca Mead: The Road to Middlemarch. One of my most vivid memories of reading this year is of turning to this book after a car breakdown on the road to Abingdon one hot summer afternoon, while waiting for the RAC to come and sort me out. It’s a personal appreciation of George Eliot and an exploration of her work and life, and it’s wry, witty, sharply observed and ultimately profoundly touching. I finished it filled with admiration for George Eliot, both for the brilliance of her writing and the courage it took to live her life as she did, on her own terms, flouting convention by cohabiting with a married man. Rebecca’s tribute to George Eliot was an excellent diversion from my roadside predicament, which was, thankfully, soon resolved.
Charlotte Mendelson: Almost English. Marina longs only to be inconspicuous at her super-snooty English public school, but her outspoken, glamorous, elderly Hungarian relatives have other ideas, and are not inclined to be discreet about them. They are ever ready to judge the appearance and behaviour of all and sundry – Marina included – with their favourite epithets, Von-dare-fool! and Tair-ible! And yet there is no doubting their love for her and the sincerity of their desire to see her succeed – and the weight of the responsibility she feels towards them in return. Includes an acidly funny portrait of Marina’s mother’s dangerous yearning for romantic escape, or, at least, a life that involves a modicum of privacy, a decent duvet and some labour-saving devices; an account of an almost-romantic reunion; a tragicomic tale of miscommunication between mother and daughter; a sly debunking of a smug male authority figure; and a hilariously liberating conclusion. All the joys of the school story set against the perfect foil: Marina’s Sobranie-smoking, silky-bloused great-aunts and their Hungarian expatriate community. And oh, the food! Made me so long to be invited to one of the great-aunts’ parties in their tiny London flat.
Lorrie Moore: Birds of America. I got this so I could read the short story People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk. SO GOOD. If you’ve ever spent any time in hospital with a child – or in hospital, full stop – or just want to read a miracle of storytelling packed into 39 pages, this is for you.
Liane Moriarty: The Husband’s Secret. This was recommended to me at a book group I went along to talk to about After I Left You. It’s a masterclass in how to build tension by moving between different points of view and raising the reader’s suspicions: just how dreadful is the husband’s secret, and what is the wife going to do when she finds out? It also explores a classic moral dilemma: what would you do if you found out the person you’d shared your life with had done something terrible before you even met? Cleverly structured and psychologically acute, plus every chapter is as well crafted as a stand-alone short story.
Neel Mukherjee: The Lives of Others. Neel’s second novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and is now on the shortlist for the Costa and nominated for the Folio Prize. So many scenes stick in the mind, from the act of sabotage involving nail varnish and special clothes to the bitter, tender ending. It is a brilliant novel, and a devastating account of the violent and terrible consequences of great inequality.
Alice Peterson: One Step Closer to You and Monday to Friday Man. Monday to Friday Man knocked Fifty Shades of Grey off the kindle no 1 spot; it’s a touching romance about how meeting fellow dog-walkers and taking a weekday lodger might just get you over heartbreak and change your life, with a moving back-story about a much-loved sibling. Alice is brilliant at weaving together heartwarming love stories with explorations of experiences that bring her characters into conflict and put them to the test. Her new novel, One Step Closer to You, is about addiction and its impact on family life and relationships; its heroine’s recovery is threatened when the father of her child seeks to come back into their lives. The AA scenes are brilliantly done and I found the scene from Polly’s childhood when her brother Hugo leaves home for a residential school absolutely devastating. Polly is left feeling that she can never make up for how much her parents miss Hugo, and the novel shows how this and other losses add to her vulnerability when looking for love.
Geoffrey Robertson QC: Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK: The Case for Overturning His Conviction. I’m distantly related to Stephen Ward, which doesn’t make me feel any closer to his story than anybody else, but did add an extra frisson of curiosity to the experience of reading this spirited defence of a man who seems to have been a charming, hedonistic chancer, well and truly hung out to dry by the Establishment. I hope I’m still around in 2046 when they finally release the records relating to the Profumo affair – my hunch is that there may yet be some interesting stuff to come out… (Here’s a recent Guardian article by Geoffrey Robertson about the Profumo affair, written following the death of Mandy Rice-Davies.)
Barbara Seaman: Lovely Me: Life of Jacqueline Susann. I always approach books that touch on autism with both curiosity and wariness – will they be upsetting? Infuriating? Enlightening? I was appalled to learn that Jacqueline’s son, her only child, was given ECT at the age of three in an attempt to treat his autism. (He was institutionalised soon afterwards.) It’s a devastating book, but an inspiring one too – Jacqueline was nothing if not a grafter. Her Valley of the Dolls is, apparently, one of the ten most widely distributed books in history – along with the Bible, Mao Tse-Tung’s Quotations and the Guinness Book of World Records.
Susie Steiner: Homecoming. This debut novel about a Yorkshire farming family introduced me to a tight-knit world where old livelihoods are increasingly hazardous, and making the wrong decision about how and when to lift the beet is to incur the risk of financial ruin. But what happens when the capable prodigal son returns? The characters are beautifully and lovingly evoked, from the pub vamp to the daughter-in-law-in-waiting who loves nothing better than to be left in peace with her wiring. An illuminating depiction of the horrors of lambing gone wrong and the satisfaction of seeing new life brought into the world, sibling rivalry, the settling of scores and the dawning joy of finding love you don’t want to live without.
Rebecca Wait: The View on the Way Down. Rebecca is an honorary Abingdonian and I’d heard this debut novel spoken about admiringly by mums and grandmothers in my children’s school playground. It’s about a family that has fallen apart after the death of one child and the disappearance of another: is there any hope of reconciliation? Painful family mealtimes, brotherly bonding over computer games, the awfulness of girls at school and the edgy, forceful positivity of the mother who’s trying and failing to hold it all together are all brilliantly summoned up in this tender, bold and poignant novel. A terrific debut.
Polly Williams: Husband, Missing. Gina fell in love hard and married fast. Six months later her husband, Rex, goes on a trip to Spain with his brother and some friends, and disappears. As Gina investigates Rex’s disappearance and begins to uncover the secrets he has been hiding, she is forced to confront the possibility that the charismatic, successful man whose spell she fell under so quickly was an illusion. But what became of him – and what is his brother not telling her? And was there something crucial that she had failed to tell him? A cracking tale of marital mistrust and how falling in love can blind you to truths you don’t want to acknowledge.
So, what’s on my reading list for 2015? I’m currently reading Lisa Jewell’s The House We Grew Up In, and I want to read the new Louise Douglas, Your Beautiful Lies, and Sarah Vaughan’s The Art of Baking Blind. I’ve dipped into the autobiographies of Dame Stephanie Shirley and Margot Harris and will revisit them to read them more closely. My Christmas list included Daughter by Jane Shemilt, Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty and My Policeman by Bethan Roberts. I’ve bought Rachel Hore’s The Gathering Storm and Santa Montefiore’s The Butterfly Box as gifts but I think I’ll be able to borrow them by and by – so, plenty to keep me going!
I also predict that, in 2015, somebody will write an article bewailing the state of women’s commercial fiction. (To echo Mandy Rice-Davies – they would, wouldn’t they?) This year Julie Bindel had a bit of a go in a blog post for The Spectator, coining the phrase ‘sick chick lit’ (others have talked about ‘chick noir’ or ‘domestic gothic’ when attempting to highlight the publishing trend Julie was getting at). There was then a set-to on Twitter which gave rise to my phrase of the year (another Julie Bindel coinage): Chick Lit Lout. I’ll have that on a t-shirt please, in glittery pink.
I’ll sign off with a quote from one of George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones books: ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.’ Merry Christmas one and all, and all the very best for 2015. And happy reading!
Revenge, injustice, unreliable narrators, psychic powers, power in hands that are good or bad or hapless or downright sadistic; not being able to remember how you got where you are, not being able to find a man because none of them can cope with your son, and having the chance to live your life over and over again. My 2013 has been filled with good books, and as it’s the season of lists and round-ups, I thought I’d return to some of them here.
This isn’t an exhaustive or particularly scientific list and I’m sure that as soon as I’m done I’ll be troubled by what I’ve left out, but over the past year these books have kept me gripped, made me smile, taken me out of myself, shown me the world as I never thought to see it before, and kept me up turning the pages because I just have to see what happens next…
The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman. Oh! What a weepie. Beautiful, lyrical, elemental, epic. I believe it’s being filmed. A thing of beauty with a small and much-beloved child at its heart.
The Mistress’s Revenge by Tamar Cohen. This was the year I was introduced to the concept of ‘domestic gothic’, which I guess you could argue this and the next four books belong to. Home life isn’t all cupcakes and Mr Right; in this twisty tale of a woman scorned, it’s all about Mr Wrong. Darkly funny, acidic and obsessive, and one for anybody who’s ever been bitter or angry about the end of a relationship.
The Playdate by Louise Millar. How well do you really know your friends and neighbours? A paranoid glimpse of what can happen if those close to you aren’t as benign as you assume. The central character is a single mum trying to get back to work, with a really infuriating ex and a vulnerable child. If you’ve ever had to run to make the pick-up, you’ll find plenty here that’s familiar as well as a few of your worst fears.
Just What Kind of Mother Are You? by Paula Daly. So your friend’s child was meant to come to yours for a sleepover… and you forgot, and now she has disappeared. An edgy drama with a heroine who is warm but not always wise, played out against the backdrop of a small community in Cumbria. Expect some jaw-dropping surprises – including a startlingly excruciating dinner party scene – and plenty of menace.
Sworn Secret by Amanda Jennings. A dead teenage girl had a secret – and uncovering it will take her grieving family to the edge in this intense and suspenseful tale of the aftermath of loss. The vulnerability of adolescence is in the spotlight as her sister discovers love for the first time and struggles to make sense of the past. Who can she really trust, and who knows more than they are telling? The family’s ordeal is far from over, and as long as the truth is in doubt, it can’t be the right time to let go.
Before I Go to Sleep by S J Watson. The heroine looks in the mirror and sees a middle-aged woman; where did all those years go? She can’t remember, because she forgets each day as soon as she sleeps… unless she writes it down. Can she trust the husband who seems to care for her so patiently? Includes one of the most unsettling sex scenes I’ve ever read.
This Boy by Alan Johnson. I’m not one for political autobiographies – but this isn’t at all the kind of book you would expect a politician to write. It’s really a story about women – in particular a mother struggling in a rotten marriage, doing her best to survive, and her resourceful teenage daughter, who later manages to keep herself and her brother out of care. It’s a tribute to women’s staunchness and resilience in the face of the odds, and a glimpse of a London of another time.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. She is such a good writer. This is one that will keep you on your toes – and up late. The prose is lucid, the people are opaque, and there is no predicting what may be revealed next.
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld. Twin psychics with very different attitudes to their shared gift. When there are intimations of an earthquake, are they right? A deliciously observed character study of two very different women who just can’t escape their interconnected fates (but can anyone?)
The Round House by Louise Erdrich. A brilliant study of the aftermath of a brutal crime on a Native American reservation, exploring what happens when justice loses its way on the border between cultures. Evocative and beautifully written.
The Boy Who Fell to Earth by Kathy Lette. Hats off to Kathy Lette for writing a funny, romantic, truthful novel about a single mum who is looking for love, struggling with an awful ex and trying to do her best for her son, who has autism and can’t help but tell her suitors what she really thinks of them.
Anything by George R R Martin. You know nothing, Jon Snow… I’m down to the last couple of hundred pages of the most recent book in the series. I’ll be bereft when I’ve finished. A monumental (and sometimes brutally gory) work of fiction, with a terrific cast of characters. A fully realised world that has plenty of parallels in the history and geography of our own.
The Lessons by Naomi Alderman. Begins with a louty food fight, but will it end with redemption? They say you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer, but sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. An Oxford novel that definitely does not romanticise the dreaming spires.
Harriet by Jilly Cooper. My editor suggested I read this when I was working on After I Left You. It starts with an Oxford student whose randy tutor gets her to write an essay on which Shakespeare character would be best in bed. (You’d want to give Hamlet a miss, but Mercutio would be fun for a fling, or perhaps Benedict for a keeper?) After that I read Riders and Polo in quick succession. Robust, naughty fun.
Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell. Sensuous and sensitive character study of an unravelled family drawn back together by a mysterious disappearance, against a background of simmering heat.
Small Talk by Nicola Lathey and Tracey Blake. Nicola is a brilliant speech therapist who has done lots of great work with my son, who has autism. This is a practical guide on how to help children learn how to communicate. A really useful parenting book, with expert tips presented in a friendly, accessible way.
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, with an introduction by David Mitchell. Just beautiful. The world seen through the eyes of a boy with autism and translated back to us. Listen: ‘Although people with autism look like other people physically, we are in fact very different in many ways. We are more like travellers from the distant, distant past. And if, by our being here, we could help the people of the world remember what truly matters for the Earth, that would give us a quiet pleasure.’
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Deserves to be showered with prizes. Elusive, stark, sharply observed, compelling tale of life, death and chances that are never quite missed, and keep coming around again.
So – what am I looking forward to in 2014? Well – by and by I will read Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs and Susie Steiner’s Homecoming. I’m also looking forward to Alison Jameson’s Little Beauty, Sarra Manning’s It Felt Like a Kiss, The Best Thing That Never Happened To Me by Jimmy Rice and Laura Tait, In Her Shadow by Louise Douglas, Julie Cohen’s Dear Thing and Tamar Cohen’s The War of the Wives. And I have to read Me Before You by Jojo Moyes; I bought it as a present for someone and after she’d read it she went straight off to the library to hunt for more.
I love a bit of Victoriana – see the above illustration from my first ever novel for proof! So I’m keen to get started on Victorian crime mystery Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square, described in The Scotsman as ‘fine, extravagant and thoroughly enjoyable’. It’s by William Sutton, who was a couple of years ahead of me at university.
Plus my friend Neel Mukherjee has a new book out in the spring, The Lives of Others, which I know is going to be brilliant. Here is the cover. Gorgeous!
Labels can be pretty annoying – I’m sure there’s many a female author who grits her teeth when she hears her fiction described as ‘chick lit’, or is simply perplexed, as I would be if anyone referred to me as a chick. (Chicks are young, cute, vulnerable and clueless, right? I guess any of us might fit the bill on the last two counts, but as for young and cute, well, now I’m 39 I think that boat has sailed.)
But… labels are also jolly useful; and perhaps we only really chafe under them when we begin to feel that they diminish rather than strengthen our appeal. And now that I’ve written one, I’m beginning to realise that the description ‘Oxford novel’ is rather handy.
In my last blog post, I explained that I didn’t originally intend to set my forthcoming novel, After I Left You, in Oxford at all… but that’s where it ended up, albeit a lightly fictionalised Oxford, just to stop ye olde dreaming spires from taking over and trying to make it all about them.
Here are five rules that all those who write about Oxford students are likely to find themselves up against, whether they choose to comply or not.
1. Thou shalt have read Brideshead Revisited, and Evelyn Waugh’s novel will engender more Anxiety of Influence than Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, though you’ll have that somewhere in the back of your mind as well.
You will also, more problematically, have vague memories of Antony Andrews and Jeremy Irons looking fetchingly pouty in cricket whites in the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. Which is still blooming brilliant if you catch an episode now, btw. Even after the great Age of the DVD Box-Set, and The Wire and Six Feet Under and Battlestar Galactica and everything.
Because they did make great telly back in the olden days, though not all the time, as you will realise if you ever catch any of old Poldark.
2. Thou shalt find thyself tackling at least some of the subject matter that the mention of Brideshead Revisited evokes.
In no particular order: youth vs experience, privilege, aristocracy, searching for a home and finding it and losing it, drunkenness, alcoholism, addiction, religion, sex, sexuality, the backwards glance, what the passing of time does to people, betrayal, friendship, responsibility for a friend who is self-destructive, love, art, and what it takes to make or recognise good or bad art, and to find the good and bad in both oneself and the people one loves.
What’s that you say? Oxford possibly can’t lay claim to all that territory for itself, because, come on, zillions of novels from all over the world touch on those themes? Quite so. The Oxford novel must always be more novel than Oxford. Otherwise it’s just a tour guide.
A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee is not an Oxford novel, but a novel about India and England with some early chapters set in Oxford, which it captures brilliantly. This is an Oxford of hit-and-miss socialising, institutional toad-in-the-hole, cold, rain, and cottaging at St Giles’. It is also where Ritwik, the Indian student who has come to Oxford after the funeral of his parents, begins to write his novel, and it is in words, as much as with anyone or in any place, that Ritwik finds fleeting comfort.
‘At the lit display window of Blackwells, a shy, uncertain Mary looks down from her home in the shiny open pages of a luxury art book at some unspecified spot near his feet.’ Mary-in-the-book looks as if she has just finished ‘doling out some grace’; but if so, where has it gone? Ritwik, who has just used a helpline to confess a terror from his past, ‘almost looks around him to see if it is still dispersed in the restless air.’
3. Thou shalt feature a home, maybe stately, maybe run-down, which the protagonist gains access to because of Oxford. (The stay is not quite free, but the true cost may be unclear.)
Brideshead’s wartime neglect and decline frames Brideshead Revisited and it is a visit to the house that tugs Charles from the present back into the past. ‘I have been here before…’
Nick Guest (and of course he is a guest) feels he can appreciate the beautiful things in the Feddens’ plushy place in Notting Hill rather better than they can – and I think of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty every time I catch the Oxford tube, and pass those white stucco-fronted houses with their secret gardens. (I’m including The Line of Beauty here as a post-Oxford novel that elides the student bit.)
Naomi Alderman’s The Lessons casts a less than flattering light on the posh and their property, suggesting that people are likely to be as careless with their belongings as they can afford to be. Mark is absolutely loaded, and uses his money to buy himself friends (though he likes to keep them a little bit insecure, too, and deploys sex to help with that). However, the Oxford house that he installs them in is rather grubby and unloved and unappealing. Also, the object d’art that comes James’s way because of Mark, the music box, is a rather hideous thing that no-one really seems to want. Mark’s flaws, and the effect he has on others, suggest that wealth may have a corrupting effect, quite possibly on a person’s good taste as well as the capacity for other kinds of judgement.
@AlisonLMercer thank you! and yes, Fifth Week :-). The week when you go “shit, I’m not going to get it all done”.
Mark’s funds are limitless, and prone to being wasted, as the brilliant opening scene, with a spoilt feast sinking in the swimming-pool of an Italian villa, makes clear. In Brideshead Revisited, by way of contrast, Rex Mottram points out that the Flytes are much less well-off than they appear, and are heading towards financial disaster – though in their different ways Cordelia, Sebastian and Julia all appear to be willing to renounce their riches.
‘Creamy English charm’… and the lack of it
In The Lessons, though his apparent generosity helps, it is Mark’s self-destructiveness that is his most seductive characteristic. He is in many ways a bit of a git, and knows it. From the yobby food-throwing opening onwards, he is generally lacking in the ‘creamy English charm’ that Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited tells us Charles Ryder’s paintings convey, even when Charles attempts to ‘play tigers’. (Charles agrees.)
Blanche describes charm as ‘the great English blight’. Nick Guest has creamy English charm in abundance, but in the end it is not enough to save him.
NB: where would British fiction be, without its great houses? What would Darcy be, without Pemberley? Or Rochester, without Thornfield? Which has to be razed to the ground before Jane can meet him as an equal.
That’s the problem with the property of the wealthy. The act of visiting may close the gap, and marriage can establish the right to remain, but even that falls short of the entitlement bestowed by inheritance.
Ownership can be undone, though. Rebecca does pretty much force the de Winters into exile from Manderley. Popular fiction can be enticingly subversive in fulfilling the fantasy of taking over from the old guard; take, for example, Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance, in which Emma Harte eventually gets her own back on the Fairley Hall lot after her time in service there ends in her apparent ruin.
4. Thou shalt also have read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
This demonically clever novel is a very different beast to Brideshead Revisited, though in some ways they are flip sides of the same coin.
Now, if you’re the kind of person who worries about spoilers, and you’ve never read Brideshead Revisited, The Secret History, or Antonia White’s novels Frost in May and Beyond the Glass, you’re going to need to skip the rest of this, because I’m going to talk about endings.
The Secret History is, to me, a truly terrifying novel, a horror story almost, that ends on a note of damnation rather than redemption. Its conclusion reminds me of the end of the film of Carrie, when Carrie’s dead hand reaches up from the grave to grab the penitent, remorseful schoolmate who has survived her.
And yet, how could the narrator of The Secret History have possibly avoided arriving at his final bleak vision? His loyalty is with the lost. His life has been saved – who could forget the scene in which he nearly freezes to death over the course of the university vacation? – but who has he really been saved by, and what for, and at what cost?
The conclusion of Brideshead Revisited is the inverse of this, a glimmer of salvation rather than a glimpse of hell. Brideshead Revisited strikes me as being at least as much a Catholic novel as an Oxford one – but does anyone talk about Catholic novels any more? Perhaps it is a label that has fallen into disuse, if it was ever much used in the first place.
5. Thou shalt consider redemption, though it is bound to be, at best, ambiguous.
In Brideshead Revisited, God is going to get you in the end whether you want Him to or not, however much you resist, and Charles, the narrator, does resist, as far as he possibly can, but in the end, it’s no use.
The conclusion, when Charles Ryder reflects on the lamp burning in the chapel – ‘it could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians’ – is despairing and sardonic and redemptive in quick succession, and ultimately, I think, cathartic; it certainly lingers in my memory just as much as Sebastian Flyte’s throwing up and teddy bear, and eventual strange fate. And I say that as someone who is not in the least devout, and who likes lighting candles in churches very much and does so rather superstitiously, but has not actually been to church, apart from on obligatory school visits, for a very long time.
Also, who could forget devout Cordelia fretting about her vocation, the deathbed scene of Lord Marchmain, Julia’s decision not to go with Charles, Sebastian with the monks? (NB – Cordelia is thrown out of her convent school for something she is writing, and the heroine of Frost in May suffers a similar fate for a story about a lurid bunch of sinners, though of course her intent in making them so lurid is only to make their eventual repentance the more powerful.)
Brideshead Revisited is a novel in which the religious faith of the characters shapes what they do, and what they choose to deny themselves. When Charles says to Sebastian that Catholics seem ‘just like other people’, Sebastian says, ‘My dear Charles, that’s exactly what they’re not – particularly in this country, where they’re so few.’
The rosary in the hand and the man in the mirror
So, Catholicism is written through Brideshead Revisited like Brighton through a stick of rock… and yet it manifests itself as a source of mysterious comfort as well as playing a part in Charles Ryder’s heartbreak. The conclusion of Brideshead Revisited reminds me of Clara Batchelor at the end of Antonia White’s Beyond the Glass, turning away from the darkness because of the rosary in her hand; faith is something to live for, a reason to carry on when it seems all else has been lost. (That is a heartbreaking novel, too.)
It is a very different matter in The Lessons, where Catholicism is associated with Mark’s mother’s rejection and attempted repression of his sexuality, and with the expectation of suffering. James is not in the least drawn to Mark’s faith, and concludes that there is ‘only one subject on which life’s lessons are in any way informative’ – the ‘man in the mirror’.
So who is the man in the mirror? At the end of The Lessons, James is free to be who? What? He hardly knows, although he has decided what he is not willing to be. Like Paul at the end of D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, it is in moving away from the past, alone, unmoored and insubstantial as a ghost, that he is finally able to save himself.