My Year in Books: 66-70

I’m beginning to think that this is one of the better Man Booker longlists in quite some time. I’ve read six from the list and only hated one. That’s impressive for me. I’m slightly exhausted from it all though. I’ll take a short break from the longlist. Find my bearings in stuff I’m more familiar with. One can only take so much contemporary literary fiction.

I continued with the Man Booker longlist with my first Elizabeth Strout novel. I first encountered My Name is Lucy Barton (2016) on a table in my local Waterstone’s which proclaimed it to be the book of the year. Kill me if you ever catch me listening to a table’s opinion.

Lucy is in hospital.Her mother has flown to visit her and sits by her bed every day. This all happened a long time ago. Lucy views her brief period in hospital as an important chapter in her life. She sits in her hospital bed, looking at the Chrysler Building outside her window, and ponders. This is a very short novel. My ebook edition was 99-pages long. And yet, it took me a while to read it. The whole book is incredibly fragmented, something which is used in order to reflect Lucy’s life. We jump from story to story, some make up the overall narrative while some are just brief memories or meditations.

I enjoyed My Name is Lucy Barton. I understand why some are hailing it as a ‘great’ novel because it manages to pack a lot of story and emotion into a tiny package but for me it was lacking in an overall point. Its brevity reminded me of two similar novels about women eulogising their lives, Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Strout doesn’t reach the same levels of brilliance as Tóibín or Offill but they would make an interesting unofficial trilogy.

Some have found confusion and annoyance in the aforementioned fragmentation. I personally think it works quite well. It’s hard to get super short chapters to work correctly, the only other novel I can think of in which fragmentation is successful is Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. I applaud Strout for taking this risky approach with Lucy Barton. A lot of the novel works because of it. I feel if this book was just a straight narrative I would have been bored out of my mind. My Name is Lucy Barton takes a well-worn storyline and puts a postmodernist twist onto it. However, if one strips back the embellishments and the examines the plot, are we just left with another Jodi Picoult story? Yes and no.

On the back of my disappointment with Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You I went to Twitter and meditated on the state of the gay novel. My friend Conrad said I should try out Edmund White. So I did.

A Boy’s Own Story (1982) is a novel about a gay teen’s coming of age in 1950s America. White holds nothing back. Within the first 20 pages we are already reading about our narrator’s rendezvous with a younger boy, Kevin. Kevin is 12 and our narrator is 15 but Kevin already knows the ropes when it comes to ‘cornholing’. These first couple of pages act as an admonition to the reader, you can hear White tapping at his keys, ‘I am not going to hold back’. The unabashed portrayal of teenage sexuality is so wonderfully refreshing. This novel is far more than just sex however.

Our narrator faces genuine struggles. Throughout the novel he chastises himself for being homosexual. At times he wishes he wasn’t. His father sends him to boarding school in order to straighten him out (pun intended). His life is a series of unfulfilling encounters and perpetual self-hate. The novel rejects the conventional bildungsroman narrative. We jump around the narrator’s life because that seems to be the only thing that he’s able to control, us. In her original review for the NYT, Catherine Stimpson described A Boy’s Own Life as The Catcher in the Rye meets Wilde’s De Profundis. It’s a fair comparison but White recedes into depths that Salinger could only dream about.

While I will admit that the novel can get boring in some parts I overall really admired A Boy’s Own Life. It acts as a reminder to me that for every middling book you read there’s always a great one to counteract it. I will most definitely be continuing on with Edmund White’s oeuvre.

I looked at the cover of Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk (2016) and thought, oh great a popular fiction novel has made its way into the Man Booker longlist. A big blue sea, a woman lounging in a bikini, did the cover designer even read this novel?

Rose is paralysed. Or at least she thinks she is. Her daughter and narrator, Sofia, has brought her out to the south of Spain in order to attend the Gomez clinic. However, the clinic may be as fraudulent as Rose’s sudden paraplegia. Sofia writes about her mother’s penchant for hypochondria but yet she plays along and obeys. She has even put her PhD on hold in order to appease her mother’s ‘illness’. Hot Milk is a strange novel. The prose is dream-like but compulsive. It’s hard to put down this wandering novel.

There is a moment in this novel where Sofia decides to set a dog free. Now, if this happened in any other novel it would have been an automatic one-star did-not-finish. It’s such a trite bit of narrative that’s used to portray a character as carefree and whimsical. But it works in Hot Milk. Sofia is a woman who can’t tell the difference between the words ‘beloved’ and ‘beheaded’, they look the same to her. She is constantly plagued by jellyfish (called medusas in Spanish) and she admires the welts they give her on her legs. Of course she sets a dog free. She is an aimless narrator. She weaves you along this novel in hopes that you’re taking the lead.

Hot Milk is never a dull novel. I found myself liking this novel more and more as I read on. I went in reluctant and it completely took me off guard. The novel culminates in its final chapters, which are so wonderfully fitting and perfect that I struggle to even think of a more satisfying ending in any recent reads. I feel Hot Milk is either going to be a novel that you get or you just don’t. It’s packaged as a beach read but in many ways it is the anti-beach read. Never has the sunny south of Spain felt so dark.

Every year in the Man Booker longlist we get our token book on masculinity. Ian McGuire’s The North Water (2016) is this year’s meditation. It left me asking the question, in a post Moby-Dick world, is there really any place for whaling novels?

Henry Drax has a penchant for murder, he joins the Volunteer expedition to the North Water in hopes of getting away from himself for a couple months. Patrick Sumner, an Irish-man who is two shillelaghs away from King Brian in Darby O’Gill and the Little People, is also on-board. He’s a surgeon who was wounded in the siege of Delhi. As the ship takes off on its voyage strange things begin happening. Someone is murdering people on the ship. I wonder who could be the cause?

The North Water is a tired tale. After it gets bored with being Moby-Dick it decides to try and become The Revenant with equally disastrous results. Whilst the overall plot was weak I have to admit that I did enjoy some passages of this novel. McGuire is able to save himself from his plot by employing wholly readable but violent prose. This novel does not swiftly pan to the doorway as the ear is being cut off. I hate using this word but The North Water is gritty. McGuire effectively puts you on the Volunteer and you can taste the sour salt water in the air.

However, The North Water cannot light a flare and be rescued by prose. The only thoughts I had throughout this novel were about how much I want to reread Moby-Dick. And that’s what I suggest you do as well. The North Water is never good but it middles its way along a plot that might have been interesting two-hundred years ago. It’s a Moby-Dud.

When Doris Lessing died in 2013 I decided to go out and buy a copy of her first novel, The Grass is Singing (1950). Since then it has sat on my bookshelf, almost forgotten. It wasn’t until last night, when I was just casually looking at my shelves that I spotted it and decided to give it a go.

Mary has been murdered by her house servant Moses. He has been found at the scene of the crime and just hands himself over to the police. The Grass is Singing is the story of how Mary got herself murdered. Mary seems like a normal white woman living in the postcolonial pressure cooker that is 1940s Southern Rhodesia. She marries Dick in her 30s because she thinks it’s time to settle. The Grass is Singing is the story of a marriage doomed before it even begins. Dick and Mary live on a farm which is toiled over by the native black Rhodesians who Mary thinks are utterly disgusting. She is tetchy around the natives who work as servants in their house. When one labourer on her farm stops for a drink of water she whips him in the face. The Grass is Singing is a novel about racism.

Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007 for her ‘scepticism, fire and visionary power [that] has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny’. Her writing is scrutinous. Lessing was living and working in Southern Rhodesia when she wrote this novel and it reads like a damning dismissal of the society in which she lives and aftermath of Cecil Rhodes in southern Africa. She plays on the irony of hating the native even though you are intruding on his land. Mary is utterly mystified when she discovers that her native labourers might hate her. At one point she complains about the smell of them, to which her husband retorts that they think she smells too. She dismisses his utter ridiculousness.

The Grass is Singing is a wonderful and incriminating insight into whiteness versus blackness in mid-20th century Africa. However it also works as a domestic drama and a whydunnit. I will say that it slightly loses its way in the final 50-pages but not enough to seriously affect the overall tone and aim of this novel. It’s astounding to think this is Lessing’s debut novel. I can’t wait to see what else she has in store.


One comment

  1. Your reviews continue to amaze me. Good job on these! You really got me interested in The Grass is Singing.

    Could I also ask what kind of kindle you own and would you recommend getting one?


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