So here are the books I have been reading in January. Poum and Alexandre, A Paris Memoir by Melbourne writer Catherine de Saint Phalle was a revelation.
Despite the clear statement that it is a memoir I felt as though I was reading a deeply, imaginative novel. The characters are so compelling and drawn so vividly and their circumstances revealed so elliptically that it seemed to me to be like a perfectly realised work of fiction. And this feeling persisted, even though I knew it was the author’s own family history being told. It’s written from a child’s point of view, first focussing on the mother; on her appearance, her moods, her relationships. She appears to be largely confined to the family apartment, and even within that, to her bedroom. Spending much of the time reading. Her life appears mysterious to the daughter. The second half of the book relates to the daughter’s relationship with her father. Some of the same events described in the first part of the book are now seen from the father’s point of view, as told to the girl. He refers often to the classics to explain things to his daughter; what is going on in the world, what is going on in his business affairs, how he is feeling. All quite wonderful. Gradually a more complete picture of this family, which just consists of the three of them, is built up. Although it is never completely filled in. This is not a memoir that describes chapter and verse a family’s antecedents. It’s much more magical, imaginatively so, than that. The child’s viewpoint is perfectly maintained throughout. She doesn’t understand why things happen, why her father disappears every week-end, what this situation that the adults speak of means. Gradually it all becomes clear to the reader, and over time to the girl as she gets older. Very beautiful language. Beautiful book.

My next favourite was Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett.

This has been described on Twitter as a throbbing mash of language. Quite the perfect description really. This is more elliptical story telling. A short book. Short chapters, some very short. You are not sure where you are, what you are even reading about to start with. There’s a memory of a house. A memory of living in a city and discovering a hidden plot of land and commencing a garden. Then we are in the country and she is living in what seems to be an isolated spot on some sort of estate with a number of cottages. None of this is made completely clear. But it doesn’t matter. This is a book about the everyday and bits and pieces that make up a life. There are descriptions of what she eats which meander into how best to store different foodstuffs. She describes places, like an alcove, and you don’t know whether it is an actual place. She provides other personal insights about how to do this or that. And personal asides. It is all a bit higgledy piggledy. Just like life. We eventually get to a pond, although it doesn’t seem very special. Perhaps this book is just like a pond; about the flotsam and jetsam of life? The random events and people described don’t come together into a narrative of any sort. They don’t build to any great climax or resolution. Feelings are described. Lessons learned from different experiences. Contact with neighbours and others recorded. She holds a small party. Nothing much happens. It has a dreamlike quality. What’s it about? It’s not clear. And it doesn’t matter. The language is beautiful. I’m going to read it again.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney was a diverting read.


Very different from the previous two. Marketed as America’s hottest new bestseller, this is a plot driven story with a beginning, middle and end; rather than a showcase for beautiful language. But it’s a rollicking plot with interesting characters that you feel for and for whom you hope everything works out. A father leaves his children a modest nest egg (the nest of the title) that they will inherit when the youngest reaches a certain age. The story revolves around the impact this has on the lives of the now adult siblings. The characters are all warmly drawn; warts and all. There are complications in all of their circumstances; lovers, children, hopes and aspirations, strengths and weaknesses. There’s a bit of a focus on the publishing industry including literary magazines and web-based publishing (there’s money to be made out of click bait). All highly entertaining. And, unusually for many novels, an entirely satisfactory ending.

The author of Goodwood, Holly Throsby, is a successful musician. On the strength of the book I bought her latest single, What Do You Say? and it’s great. She is very talented because her book is a delight. The small country township that gives the book its title is perfectly realised. All of the townspeople and their relationships with each other are vividly brought to life. The interplay between people living in such a a small community is accurate and authentic. I come from one, so I know! Holly must have too. A girl disappears, and then another person from the town. The narrator is a fifteen year old girl and we see everything through her eyes. She lives with her mother, whose brother is the town policeman. Our heroine is on the case from the start; listening in on her mother and uncle talking about it, overhearing other conversations, observing people closely and making some interesting discoveries on her own. In addition to the detective story this is a lovely depiction of adolescence. The kids mosey about doing what kids do; going to school, checking out the new kid, hanging out, drinking, exploring sex. Really well done. I strongly recommend.

I quite enjoyed Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, although not as much as I enjoyed her previous novel, Where’d You Go Bernadette.

It’s set in the same place, Seattle, amongst the same upper middle class milieu and about the same sort of woman having a mid life crisis. But not as successful as the previous novel. It’s an easy and enjoyable read. About a woman with issues that need to be resolved. It is set in just a single day with flash backs to various incidents regarding her family and in particular her sister. But in the meantime she is looking for her husband who has gone AWOL. The lead up is quite good, but the ending was anti climactic and not convincing.

 

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