So here are the novels I’ve read this year and enjoyed. Best was the first volume of A Transylvanian Trilogy, named They Were Counted by Miklos Banffy. I came across this via The New York Review of Books. A foreword by Patrick Leigh Fermor notes that the characters described here are the forebears of the people he encountered on his great walk across Europe in the 1930s. (Recorded in his wonderful books: A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water and, posthumously The Broken Road).
I was totally drawn into the lives of these people – family conflicts, love affairs, business dealings and political manoeuvring. I was completely immersed in the story – caught up in the main characters hopes and dreams – and devastated at their disappointments. I’ve only just noticed the blurb on the front cover but I agree with it completely – it was as compelling to me as War and Peace. It had the same set pieces – parties and balls where, beneath the gossip and polite society chat, characters’ fates are being sealed. Choosing a life partner is a serious business – the future of family estates, family honor, and, in extremis, life itself – is dependent on the right choice. A day at the races, a promise made but not kept – has devastating consequences. The final chapter takes us to Venice and a week of grand passion before a death and a compelling final image of silk curtains enclosing our heroine, who’s standing at the window having renounced her lover, like a shroud. Along the way we’ve been educated about the political manoeuvring that determined the fate of nation states in the dying stages of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Transylvania, Romania, Hungary. The author was a politician active in trying to preserve an independent Transylvania. The different political interests and strategies they pursue are described really well without getting bogged down in internecine detail. A lot of it – how to give minority groups a say in their own affairs without destroying the whole empire – is surprisingly pertinent to our own times. There are wonderful descriptions of the woods and mountains of Transylvania as well. Many of these reminded me of scenes from the film The Hour of My Death. One incident in the book in particular – Romanian peasants trekking through the woods in the dead of night intent on revenge against usurious money-lending – recalled a bit in the film where villagers stood in the deepening gloom observing a beast being carved up. Wonderful. I found the experience reading this first volume so intense I have taken a break before continuing on with the second and third volumes – a treat in store for January.
Coming second and third for best novels in 2014 were The Signature of all Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert and Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent.
I loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and Committed so was interested in this – which it turns out is nothing like the other two! But I loved it all the same. Dickensian in scope, a great female protagonist, an interesting story and beautiful writing. Our heroine, Alma, is an independent minded young woman who by virtue of an unconventional upbringing and particular set of circumstances ends up shadowing Darwin’s pursuit of evolution. She studies mosses – apparently based on the life’s work of a real woman. There is an interesting portrayal of early American life, a ‘rags to riches’ back story and inter- meshing of English (Father’s) and Dutch (Mother’s) backgrounds. I particularly liked how, although we see the world through Alma’s eyes and from her point of view, at critical points in the story we discover that this is deeply flawed. She has misinterpreted events and people along with motives and consequences. Due, in part, to her egoism. She is an entirely believable character – good and bad, heroic and deeply flawed. Her thwarted desire for a satisfying sexual partnership is heart breaking. But leads to an interesting foray following her father’s footsteps exploring the far regions of the globe. I’m not sure that her semi- mystical experience there worked exactly but it was interesting. And was followed by an entirely satisfactory ending – finding her Dutch roots and mixing in some fact with the fiction which was nice.
I circled round this book for a while, noting the rave reviews and awards but fearing disappointment. No need for that. A wonderful read. Beautifully realised location and period – Iceland in the nineteenth century. An imagined account of the back story – the characters and circumstances- surrounding the bare facts recorded of a real event. The murder of a man. The conviction by a court of a woman for that murder. A stay of execution whilst legal formalities are undertaken. The impact of the woman as she awaits execution on the lives of those who are charged with caring for her in the meantime. Along with a description of the lives and circumstances of the characters and events leading up to the death. Suggested motivation for murder. Further, a suggestion of false witnesses. A great portrayal of austere lives of people living in a harsh environment. Claustrophobic living quarters, a resultant lack of privacy and enforced intimacy. Alongside an austere religion that strictly enforces social mores of taciturn propriety. Beautifully spare but quite poetic writing. I loved it. Deserving of all the rave reviews and awards.
I read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler because it was short listed for the Man Booker Prize (even though I’m disappointed the prize has been opened to American authors). I’d read and been charmed by her Jane Austen’s Book Club but I wasn’t overly interested in the subject matter of this one, which is meant to be a secret but is probably widely known now. You meet our heroine at college and understand her family has been rended apart by something but don’t know what until well into the book. I wasn’t sympathetic to that reason when I was reading it but then heard Karen speak at the Wheeler Centre. Her take on the subject matter was really interesting. All based on real life events. She described her research which was fascinating. And a personal family connection. Her father was a scientist. All of which made the book more interesting in retrospect. I still enjoyed it at the time I read it. I really liked the depiction of a good, happy family – no psychopaths in evidence! And of the portrayal of their life together and then each of them having to deal with a particular event / disappointment in their own way. Separately and together. I really liked the portrayal of relationships in this book – husband and wife, brother and sister, college friends. And I liked the fact that all of the people portrayed were nice! I don’t agree with the two blurbs on the cover here – I would have said something along the lines of “A moving portrayal of a family dealing with disappointment”.(Not very catchy!)
I also read and enjoyed very much JK Rowling’s two detective stories – The Cuckoo’s Calling, and The Silkworm, under her nom de plume Robert Galbraith. I only read them after she was outed as the author. I’m not generally a detective story reader but I enjoyed these. Formulaic and all as they are. Attractive, deeply flawed but heart of gold, down on his luck, private detective. Plucky, fish out of water, attractive, capable and loyal side kick. Both of whom are, after several successful detecting episodes, destined to fall for each other. Interesting, somewhat exotic backgrounds in which said detecting takes place. In these two – upper class nobs and the backstabbing world of publishing respectively. All good fun.
Now two e-books written by people I know. Modern publishing. First, The Foundation, by Steve Vincent (who I introduced to the Victorian public service and whose work I occasionally edited). This is a great, rollicking read. I said in my Amazon review that it is reminiscent of Matthew Reilly at his best. I used to say of Matthew it was like reading a James Bond movie. And so it is here. Plenty of action.
It’s certainly a page turner. And there are lots of contemporary references. Global tensions, the rising power of China, increasingly paranoid right wing think tanks, global media moguls etc. I wanted a bit more back story about several characters – and not just the main ones. So Steve has lots more writing in store for him.
I also went along to the launch of Husband Hunters, by Genevieve Gannon but this time as a friend of the mother of the author. Given the title of the book, a bit like being a friend of the mother of the bride. When Margy told me the title I ventured my hope that this book would have a feminist sub text. And I’m pleased to report it has! I haven’t done my Amazon review yet but I will Genevieve, I will!
It is a very enjoyable romp through the highs and lows ( admittedly mostly lows) of dating in the modern age. All very accurately observed. Characters nicely nuanced and circumstances all believable. As with the best such romantic romps – I mean Jane Austen – all the ends are nicely tied up, delivering a tidy package.
I rounded off the year by devouring half a dozen Georges Simenon stories (perfect for recovering from a wisdom tooth extraction). I’ve read a lot of these over the years but took the opportunity to download the recent Penguin reissues. They are really fantastic psychological portrayals of people and their responses to critical situations. Absolutely compelling. All devoured in a single sitting. I’ve been trying to work out which ones I liked best but can’t really separate them. Characters, locations and circumstances are captured sparingly but perfectly. I read ten Maigret stories, mostly in order of their publication: Pietr The Latvian#1, The Hanged Man of St Pholien #3, The Carter of La Providence #4,The Yellow Dog #5,Night At The Cross Roads #6, A Crime In Holland #7, The Grand Banks Cafe #8, The Shadow Puppet #12, The Saint Fiacre Affair #13, The Flemish House #14. All of them centred on a crime but it is the good detective’s perceptive reading of personality that solves each case. Incredibly perceptive books. And not in the least formulaic. I like how in some circumstances the good detective lets a suspect (or suspects) go free. Mostly because they have been more sinned against than sinning. I read one non-Maigret story, only recently translated into English for the first time, The Mahe Circle. About a man trapped in his bourgeois life – by his own weakness of character – deftly drawn, but excruciating!
Whilst in Paris I bought The Blessing, by Nancy Mitford at the famous Shakespeare and Co Bookshop and read it in situ (Paris). It was fun – about differences in English and French customs. Especially around monogamy and affairs – about which Nance had some experience. Enjoyable enough but not her best. I really loved, in addition to her famous family based Love In A Cold Climate, her biography of Madame Pompadour. Well worth a read if you can track it down in a second hand bookshop.