Books for February – wind, rain and ghosts

Rain, rain, go away. Yes, February wouldn’t be February without some rainy days. But at the moment, if I walk to certain areas of Oxford, it’s like entering a surreal, almost apocalyptic landscape. Strange lakes besiege the city. And we’ve got off relatively lightly, I know. Not like these poor folks.

Water, water, everywhere

If you’re a sucker for pathetic fallacy like me, and sometimes like the novelty of reading books that chime with the seasons, it feels apt right now to choose books where characters do battle with the elements and struggle to survive in what often seems a bleak, grey, inhospitable England (no, I’m not in the mood for reading about exotic foreign climes at the moment – it’ll just remind me how far away summer is).

Offshore

I confess to always feeling a bit underwhelmed by Penelope Fitzgerald, even though she’s a doyen of British literature and I should probably try more of her books. I found Offshore, her Booker winner, rather bizarre tonally and I don’t like the way she does children – Tilda and Martha just don’t sound like children, unless that’s the point. BUT her descriptions of this liminal little society living in houseboats on Battersea Reach in the 60s (‘creatures neither of firm land nor water’) and the river, the way it moves and looks, and the constant battle against the rising tide, storms and other threats to leaking crafts, are evocative and memorable. Fairweather people are adrift here, and even the most hardy barge-dwellers are at the mercy of the river’s whims. You could even say that water wins out in the end…

The Elements vs Woman. Elements 1, Woman 0…

However much the constant rain is driving you to distraction, just thank your stars you’re not the narrator of Joanna Kavenna’s Come to the Edge. Think you’re battling the elements? You know nothing! Welcome to life aboard the ultra-eccentric Cassandra White’s farm in Cumbria. Wind! Rain! Cold! Back-breaking physical labour! And all that still isn’t as bad as…the Thunderbox!!

Come to the Edge cover

You’ll have to read the book to see what I mean – and please do read it, because it is an absolute scream.

The hapless, nameless narrator, sick of her suburban lifestyle, dull office job, endless rounds of IVF and philandering husband, answers an ad to help a widow with a ‘sprawling property’ in the ‘idyllic’ Lake District. Ho hum. She is quickly put to work on the maniacal White’s entirely sustainable farm (because Cassandra is opposed to paying for utilities, which would be propping up the commercial conduits of the nouveau riche aka ‘the perverts’, in her view). I loved the way Kavenna hilariously skewers any eco-ideals about sustainable living and all it involves (ever tried actually living on quinoa? Or milking a goat?). Our nameless, pliant narrator (not unlike the one in Rebecca – and the similarities don’t end there) then becomes embroiled in White’s mad, bad, bonkers social enterprise scheme – breaking into holiday homes and resettling locals in them. Kavenna is pitch-perfect in her send-up of so many things: the banality of office jobs (‘No RSI for you, you sinner’), the type of people who own holiday homes, and Cassandra’s anarchical plans for the revolution. Through Cassandra, the book enters the have-and-have-nots debate (anyone sceptical of George Osborne’s claims that we are ‘better off’ would enjoy this book; it’s even been hailed as a ‘state-of-the-nation’ novel) but this is no political manifesto – as others have identified, Kavenna does not come down on any one side. Enjoy the anarchical black humour and merciless satirising of the way we live now.

Stories for the dark and the cold

Here in my corner of Blightly, snow has been forecast a few times and has yet to make its appearance. But snow is nothing compared to the dark. In the Arctic, when winter descends, you know about it – we’re talking months of endless darkness. On these dark nights, with the promise of spring and lighter evenings still miles off, I can’t think of a better ghost story than Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, which I read roughly around this time last year.

Dark matter cover

Centred on an expedition to the remote island of Gruhuken in the Arctic, the story follows Jack, a penniless, aspiring explorer who signs up for the trip of his life. But once the team have reached Gruhuken, circumstances cause all Jack’s fellow explorers to leave the island, one by one, until Jack is left to man the research station alone. Which would be fine – except it seems he’s not alone on the island. OH! This a masterly ghost story. It’s a slip of a book; sparsely, tightly told and rightly ambiguous about what Jack is experiencing on the island, surrounded by frozen sea and darkness. The clues are there, but everything is understated and slipped in so softly and insidiously as to create a growing sense of dread. The Arctic landscape, as you can imagine, is hugely important to the story and its sense of place – interestingly, Paver herself has visited the Arctic several times. If the promised snows do come, and the streets acquire that kind of hushed, deathly calm that only comes with a heavy snowfall, I’ll reread this. But you should read it anyway. With the lights turned off, if you’re well hard. PS. And oh my, there’s going to be a film.

Paris in fiction – my top reads

I love Paris, me. I embrace all its clichés – I don’t care. I am the starry-eyed tourist who still feels a squirm of excitement every time the Eiffel Tower looms into view. I am the pasty-faced Brit revelling in an espresso in a pavement café, blinking in amazement to be actually sitting outside (outside!) in the sunshine on a busy boulevard while the traffic zooms past. I wave back gleefully to children passing by in bateaux-mouches. I have sat on the Pont des Arts at dusk with a picnic and friends, pretending to do the whole nonchalant French student thing while all the while thinking, WOOHOO I’M IN PARIS! And hey, isn’t this the spot where Big tells Carrie she’s ‘the one’ at the end of Sex and the City?

Me in Paris

Winter shopping in Paris. My dear, is that a bag from Shakespeare & Co you’re carrying?

People tell me that since I have actually lived in Paris, I should be more relaxed and even jaded about the famed City of Lights. Ok, so I’ve been a frazzled tour guide trying to herd a bunch of hyperactive preteens on and off the metro. I’ve picked my way through the throngs (and the thongs – bikinis, that is) on the anti-climax that was Paris Plage on a sizzling day in August when all you wanted to do was dive into the Seine (not recommended). I’ve gasped and gaped at the price of renting a shoebox-sized studio. But it’s hard to be cynical about Paris for too long.

Stamp in book

…why yes, now you mention it, and here’s the stamp to prove it. And in a Hemingway too. Told you I didn’t mind cliches.

I’ve been suffering from a major bout of Paris-induced nostalgia recently. These cold grey days make me want to hotfoot it to the Eurostar terminal and escape for a while. (Not that Paris doesn’t have cold grey days, of course. They just seem less grey when you’re in Paris. And people still sit outside in pavement cafes. Pavement cafes are a tonic.) So I got to thinking, this being a book-themed blog and all, about visiting Paris in other ways. Here are some of my favourite depictions of Paris in fiction, in no particular order:

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Sometimes the best descriptions of place are incidental. A small section of Eugenides’ novel is set in Paris, where protagonist Mitchell spends some time at his friend’s girlfriend’s apartment. The whole episode is a gentle send-up of fairly privileged young people trying to do the bohemian student thing. This little passage nails the particular aesthetic appeal of Paris for many:

The window gave onto a view of dove-grey roofs and balconies, each one containing the same cracked flowerpot and sleeping feline. It was as if the entire city of Paris had agreed to abide by a single understated taste. Each neighbour was doing his or her own to keep up standards, which was difficult because the French ideal wasn’t clearly delineated like the neatness and greenness of American lawns, but more of a picturesque despair. It took courage to let things fall apart so beautifully.

The Marriage Plot cover

Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. Enjoyed it way more than The Virgin Suicides (but that’s a whole other blog post!)

Le Chapeau de Mitterrand (The President’s Hat) by Antoine Laurain. Here is an exuberant, 80s Paris tinged with a kind of technicolour, fairytale nostalgia, from the red awnings of exclusive bistros on the Champs-Elysees to a bench in pretty Parc Monceau and the scandale of the newly-erected modern art adorning the exteriors of the Palais-Royal and the Louvre. Oh, and oysters. Lots of oysters. Heck, there was so much I loved about this book.

The President's Hat cover

Loving the jaunty cover art used by Gallic Books

Mrs Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico – a witty, cosy little tale and an awful lot of fun. An impossibly glamorous, twinkling Paris, seen through the eyes of an ever-so-‘umble London cleaning lady who makes the trip of a lifetime to buy a Dior dress. You’ll want one too by the end of the book.

'Mrs Harris Goes to Paris' cover

Pretty in pink: my copy of Mrs Harris.

A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke. The first book in this hilarious and shrewdly-observed series following the exploits of Paul West, a young English bloke transferred to Paris for work. Includes Clarke’s now-legendary observations on dog poo, the way the French serve tea and suppositories.

A Year in the Merde cover

Get some Merde into your life.

Le système Victoria (The Victoria System) by Eric Reinhardt. Reinhardt’s thriller traces the downfall of construction project manager David through his entanglement with the enigmatic Victoria. The blood, sweat and stress of the building site and the listlessness of suburbia combines with a secret Paris of daytime hotel rooms, swanky bars and seedy cinemas. No postcard-pretty Paris here, but a city that acts as both host and silent witness to a destructive affair. I’ve praised this book before and I won’t hesitate to recommend it again. Chilling.

Le Père Goriot (Old Goriot or Father Goriot) by Honoré de Balzac. I’ll be shot for saying it: Balzac can be a bit of a slog. But he chronicled nineteenth century Paris like no other French writer and it’s worth diving into one of the novels from his epic series La Comedie Humaine (the Human Comedy) – try Lost Illusions (Illusions Perdues) or La Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Ass’s Skin). In Goriot, meet the rag-tag inhabitants of a poor Parisian boarding house, including an ex-convict and an ambitious young chap named Rastignac who’s out to better his fortunes no matter what the cost. Nowadays he’d be a City banker or a wolf of Wall Street. Don’t miss the book’s iconic final chapter set in the Père-Lachaise cemetery.

Le Pere Goriot cover

Goriot’s looking a bit worn…appropriately…

One Day by David Nicholls. Ok yes, I know it only takes up a small bit in the book, but I just love it when Dexter comes to visit Emma, who’s now made it as a writer and is forging her own glorious writerly lifestyle just off the Canal Saint-Martin. Even her apartment’s got that picturesque Parisian scruffiness about it.

L’élegance du hérisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) by Muriel Barbery. If you ever wondered how the other half live in Paris in the twenty-first century, this is it. More importantly, this is how their concierges and maids and other overlooked people, live. Here’s what I made of it all.

Elegance of the Hedgehog cover

Hedgehog en français. I read the English too, though – fab translation.

Les faux-monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters) by André Gide. Last but not least, this wonderful novel takes a pluralist, almost Cubist view of Paris as we follow multiple characters in their journeys around the city and beyond. A bit metafictional, damn clever and moving to boot, I’ll make a note to expound on this in a future post. Gide, you rock.

Les faux monnayeurs cover

Les f-m complete with straggly post-its. Yes, I first read this at uni.

Have realised that I’ve shot myself in the foot a bit with the title of this blog post, as it excludes excellent journalistic essays and non-fiction – for these, see Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (pretty much compulsory reading if you want to do the whole arty, penniless writer thing in Paris), Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon and David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Clearly, my list is highly personal and not exhaustive. I haven’t mentioned Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer or Proust or Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro or Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London – and if you don’t, other Paris-loving readers will flay you

I’ll update this list when I’ve made some more discoveries. Now off to St. Pancras…

Stoner – the best novel you’ve never read. No, really.

Well hello, 2014. You’ve started well, on the reading front, at least (not on the flooding front. Heartfelt sympathies to all flood victims…). So far there’s been the very funny and hugely enjoyable Mutton by India Knight (nothing like some clever chick-lit-type comedy to brighten the January nights), the wonderful La liste de mes envies (The List of my Desires) by Grégoire Delacourt (which I’ve reviewed for MyFrenchLife so can’t say too much about it here) and my onward quest with George R. R. Martin’s soaringly brilliant and utterly addictive A Song of Ice and Fire.

So apologies for the belatedness of this post. Too much readin’, not enough writin’. I’ll endeavour to be a more reliable little blogger throughout the rest of the year (and beyond)…

Firstly, a shocking admission: I’m not great at keeping up with the bestseller charts. The books hailed as the hot new reads often take a while to creep on here, if they creep on at all. I subscribe to writer Alison Mercer’s feelings about these things: I like to let the idea of a book grow on me. I try not to feel pressured to keep up with the whimsical Kardashians of book publicity.

But having said all that, sometimes you can be seduced by hype. And that’s fine too.

Hype is how I came by what has to be one of the best novels I read last year – in fact, one of the best novels I’ve read, like, ever. Ladies and gentleman, I give you John Williams’ Stoner.

John Williams photo

John Williams

The scene: Waterstone’s in Middlesbrough, a week before Christmas. My mum admits that she hasn’t bought me a book for Christmas. Sacrilege. She usually does, and I treasure the witty little dedications she writes. Do I have any in mind, she wonders? We’re standing right by a small table piled with copies of Stoner and a sign proclaiming it to be the Waterstone’s Book of the Year. At the back of my mind I also recall a sign in Blackwell’s calling it ‘the best book you’ve never read’. Yes, I said, this one. The fact that it was about an English academic helped. I had seen a pull quote from the book somewhere:

English literature troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before…

Stoner had me instantly. There have been lots of excellent reviews that have tried to pinpoint what it is about John Williams’ prose that makes it so compelling. The book has a strange intensity about it – some critics say it’s the clarity with which Williams writes. I think Adam Foulds comes to the heart of it when he admits in his piece for the Indy that Williams’ skills are ‘hard to demonstrate in a review’ but that

Stoner’s narrative rhythm, its spacing of event, is flawless…The novel flows like a river, calm and smooth at the surface of its unruffled prose, but powerful and deep.

I think it was this sense of calmness – of quiet sobriety, that seemingly untrendy thing – that I most responded to. Stoner himself undergoes traumatic experiences – the sad reality of his marriage; his entanglement with departmental politics. But there is a prevailing sense of calm about this novel and its protagonist – of surety, of the value of stolidly going about one’s work. This is felt, as Foulds recognises, on a formal as well as a thematic level. This is the message that Stoner has inherited from his rural upbringing, it seems, and it’s his application to his work that helps him to keep calm and carry on. Work, as John McGavern explains in the very good introduction to my edition, is an important theme in the book. For Stoner, work is often synonymous with love, too.

Stoner cover

My copy of Stoner. Thanks Santa.

I did find elements of Stoner distressing though. Is he too placid? Is he to be admired for how he handles his wife Edith – does his endurance of her have to be placed in its socio-historical context? Am I modern and naïve to even be asking this? Characters are often described as expressionless, as lacking animation – people’s faces are often ‘masks’ or ‘mask-like’. Just count the number of times this word/phrase is used. It begins with Stoner’s mother and father. These ‘humble’ country people never betray their emotions: when Stoner tells them of his decision not to return to the farm, ‘his father’s face…received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist.’ All this piling up of references to masks and lack of animation seems to culminate in Stoner’s daughter, Gracie. Her natural, contented calmness and studious quietness – her affinity with Stoner – is corrupted into a kind of soulless passivity and indifference by Edith. By the time she’s grown:

It was a passive beauty she had, like a mask; her light blue eyes looked directly at one, without curiosity and without any apprehension that one might see beyond them; her voice was very soft, a little flat, and she spoke rarely.

I’d love to see what a feminist reading of Stoner makes of it all. I kept longing for Grace to rebel, for her father to rebel, but it never comes.

And that’s perhaps the point. Stoner asks to be reread and not necessarily understood but experienced, just as the whole novel proceeds to subvert the bleak view of Stoner’s life that is announced in its two opening paragraphs.

Believe the hype.

A deliciously gothic end to 2013 (the weather helped)

Oh, the weather outside is frightful. No really, it is. Raging wind and rain.

Good weather for bookworms.

I usually enjoy some of my best reads over the festive period. This is partly down to good fortune – I’ve always managed to take the period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve as holiday. There’s time to hunker down amidst the hustle and bustle and happy whirl of socialising and rediscover the quiet pleasure of reading.

Escapism and fantasy has served me well over the festive season. I remember exactly when I began The Lord of the Rings: Christmas Day 1999 in that sleepy post-dinner lull. The family snoozed; I trotted off to Mordor. For some reason, anything with a gothic tinge to it also appeals over the Christmas period. Is it the short days, the deathly hush of snow (if we get it), the sense that something mysterious and barely understood is happening out there in the darkness beyond the brightness of lamps and strings of Christmas lights? I like to think that this is why Carlos Ruiz Zafón chose to begin The Prisoner of Heaven, the third instalment in his Barcelona-set and neo-gothic-influenced Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, at Christmas time. (PS Charles Palliser explains how the unease that comes from the unknowable is part of the peculiar appeal of the gothic in this fab article for the HuffPost).

Carlos R-Z, the author

Carlos R-Z, Barcelona-born author of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series.

But back to Ruiz Zafón. What a feast his Cemetery of Forgotten Books series is. Blurb writers and reviewers fall over themselves to try to describe the number of genres the books sashay through. I’ll have a go: each is like an old-school, Wilkie Collins-type sensation novel meets historical drama (we are in Franco’s Spain) with a hefty dose of Grand Guignol. Oh, and LOTS of fun intertextuality. The Shadow of the Wind, the ‘first’ book in the series, paid homage to David Copperfield and other Dickensian bildungsromans, amongst other works. While The Prisoner of Heaven’s debt to The Count of Monte Cristo is writ large, other references are more playful: a priest who shelters the fugitive Fermín Romero de Torres catches him eyeing the silverware – “I’ve read Les Misérables too, you know.”)

In fact, apart from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, I’ve never come across an author who is so blatantly writing for readers who love reading; who love literature as ‘high’ and ‘low’ art; who know their classics, from Cervantes to Dickens, but who also revel in a meaty bit of genre fiction. In fact, in the universe of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, those who dismiss popular, ‘trashy’ fiction (like the crime thrillers the enigmatic character David Martín writes) inevitably turn out to be self-aggrandising villains.

Angel statue

An angel in Montjuic cemetery, Barcelona, an important place in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. Get me to Barcelona for the next bookish pilgrimage, I beg you.

The Prisoner of Heaven was in some ways a more satisfying (and certainly a pacier) read than the previous instalment, The Angel’s Game. I say ‘series’. It’s more a cycle of novels, which can ingeniously be read in any order – although apparently the fourth and final novel in the cycle (hurry up and publish it, Carlos!) will provide the key. The end matter in my copy of Prisoner (which was genuinely enlightening about the importance of Barcelona to Ruiz Zafón’s work) included an interview with the author himself in which he let slip this tantalising statement about the upcoming ‘final’ book in the series:

The fourth and final novel…is the place where the labyrinth of stories rearranges itself again and everything is put into yet another perspective. This is when we’ll really see the big picture and get to the very essence of the stories, of what is behind each of the books. Even if readers by the end of Prisoner feel that now they really know what this chess game is about, they don’t.

So don’t go into Prisoner expecting any resolution or dénouement, as I did (not knowing there was a fourth novel to come!) But there are plenty of surprises in store, and we do learn more about the Sempere family and the wonderful Fermín Romero de Torres, as well as other characters that have populated Shadow and Angel’s Game. I realised after finishing The Angel’s Game that the word ‘game’ is central to understanding what Ruiz Zafón is doing in these books,  and the above statement seems to back this up. Thinking about the implications of the author as God, as supreme creator (and manipulator) helps make the slippery and sub-plot strewn Angel’s Game a bit less disorientating and even more intriguing.

My copy of The Prisoner of Heaven

My copy of El Prisionero del Cielo (original Spanish title). I was too chicken to read it in Spanish (though would have probably struggled with my just-about-AS Level Spanish anyway…)

What really makes Prisoner sing is its focus on the much-loved, wildly successful character of Fermín Romero de Torres and his backstory. At the end of the world there will be cockroaches and Fermín. Ebullient survivor and free-thinking philosopher, his wit, maxims and energy alleviate the melodrama and the often disturbing portrayal of life under the Franco regime. By only the second page, he’s back on form with his suggestion to save the bookshop from financial ruin:

“Perhaps if by chance I was seen arranging the shop window in my underpants, some lady in need of strong literary emotions would be drawn in and inspired to part with a bit of hard cash. According to expert opinion, the future of literature depends on women and as God is my witness the female is yet to be born who can resist the primal allure of this stupendous physique”.

(Credit must also be given to translator Lucia Graves for keeping Fermín’s voice so consistently…well, Fermínish.)

So it was a gothic-nuanced end to 2013 for me, but one with a comic touch. All in all, sounds like a pretty good finish to the reading year.

Wishing you a happy, prosperous and book-filled 2014!

No French stuff, please, we’re British

So, the BBC has produced a thoughtful take on what is, unfortunately, a depressingly familiar question: Why do modern French novelists struggle to sell to the English-speaking market? 

It’s not a new story: us Anglophones no likey French novels. Or rather, we don’t like modern, post-war French novels. While we revere a whole of bunch of France’s eminent dead, white, male, canonical writers (Flaubert, Proust and Voltaire regularly make it into top ten lists) we apparently have no interest whatsoever in reading modern French fiction.

Duras and Barbery books

Some French books I love

It’s an interesting conundrum. There are have been lots of theories advanced for why contemporary French writers don’t do well in the US and UK book markets. They seem to revolve around a question of image, as the Beeb’s article explains. There’s an impression that French writers are too cerebral, too overly philosophical and obsessed with theory and form over content. Our own writers think so too – even avowed Francophiles like the brilliant Louis de Bernières. The thing is, we Anglophones read for plot, and the pleasures of genre fiction, so we’re told. And there’s a perception that that’s scarce in France.

It’s true that France has produced some of the greatest (read: scarily difficult) literary theorists (hello, Barthes, Lacan, Saussure, Foucault…) the world has ever seen. Perhaps French writers are still paying the price for the experiments of nouveau romanciers like Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, who sought to dismantle features like linear narrative and traditional characterisation. (I confess that I didn’t get on with Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, but Duras I love…must write about her too in the future.)

It’s probably a whole lot more complicated than that. There must be French writers out there who write the kind of fast-paced, plot-driven narratives that would appeal to US and UK readers, we just don’t know about them. Maybe it is, as the Beeb suggests, due to the prejudices and wariness of Anglophone booksellers.

But there have been breakaway successes in the past – Gallic Books’ The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbéry was a bestseller a few years ago. Perhaps it’s a question of publicity, then. And beyond the alarmist headlines, there are small initiatives that are making headway and doing important work. Like Le French Book, a digital-first publisher, who have translated some brilliant thriller writers like David Khara and Bernard Besson. I heartily recommend exploring some of their other titles, like the very funny and warm Winemaker Detective series.

The President's Hat

My copy of Le chapeau de Mitterand (The President’s Hat). It’s done its rounds among my family and friends, all in the cause of showing that French Fiction Is Not Boring. Really, Gallic Books should employ me as their publicist…

I was also (hey, still am) rooting for Antoine Laurain’s The President’s Hat that came out earlier this year (you can read my review of it here). Come on, Antoine, I thought, surely this is the one to crack the Anglophone market. It’s got a quirky, zippy plot and projects that kind of picturebook, faintly whimsical image of France that somehow so appeals to Anglophone armchair travellers (myself included!). But there are ideas here too; there are other things to enjoy. Its intertextuality, for one: the whole book is like a cheeky little retort to Balzacian tales of Parisians finding fortune and misfortune. Its ending even seems like a correction to Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin. Or maybe I was reading too much into it. But isn’t that a mark of a good story – you know, that thing that modern French writers aren’t meant to do well?

Allez les Bleus! 

Bookish pilgrimages #2: Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico

The Indiana Jones in me had always had a vague ambition to see the Mayan ruins of Mexico. But my desire to see those places suddenly became more fervent when I read The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver in June last year.

I was drawn to this book not only because it was partly set in impossibly exotic Mexico, but because of its subject matter. The blurb promised the story of a young man, Harrison Shepherd, born to an American father and a Mexican mother. He observes and records everything about his itinerant life in Mexico with his social-climbing mother. He later goes on to work as a cook for the famous artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and their houseguest, the exiled Trotsky, before settling in the States and becoming a writer of bestselling novels about Aztec empire.

The Lacuna cover art

The Lacuna – first edition.

The blurb also referred to ‘the breach…between truth and public presumption.’ As Shepherd’s faithful stenographer Violet Brown remarks towards the end of the book, ‘The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know.’ Shepherd’s past – his associations with Mexican and Bolshevik revolutionaries and his ambivalent sexuality – comes back to haunt him as the book enters its third act. World War Two is over; McCarthyism is on the rise. Shepherd’s life is raked over by a bullish news media, backed by a political establishment made rabid by anti-Communist fervour. His every word is held suspect. Interestingly, Kingsolver chose to use extracts from contemporary news clippings in the book and includes forgotten but shocking events from US history, like the treatment of the Bonus Marchers.

I found these parts of the book – and the myriad clever ways in which Kingsolver explores her title (meaning, variously, an absence, a gap, a missing manuscript or a tunnel through time or substance) – captivating. We see how slippages of understanding can widen into a chasm, destroying someone. This struck a chord with me, as it was something which constantly preyed on my mind when I was a TV researcher working with other freelancers on current affairs projects – and it continues to play on my mind, now that I’m studying reporting. Are you sure you have the whole picture? Are you sure it’s not more complicated than that? I wanted to ask these questions daily. But in TV there never seemed to be enough time: at the end of the day there had to be a story, and no one is interested in what’s complicated and taxing, are they? The counsel in Shepherd’s trial by the House of Un-American Activities patronisingly announces at the beginning of the hearing that ‘this will not take all day, gentlemen, we should be out of here in time for lunch’ and forces Shepherd to give ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers to questions that ‘could take some explanation’. Not that different to Jeremy Paxman’s style of interviewing, then. Of course, we, the readers, know the real story – we have been privy to Shepherd’s diaries and his relationships, and we appreciate how fragile and nuanced it is.

So if this is the part of the book that really interested me, why the desperate urge to see its scenery – to see Mexico? Well, for one, another element of what makes this book BRILLIANT is Kingsolver’s writing on Mexico, which is vivid, colourful and evocative. As Kingsolver herself says:

I only set scenes in places I’ve been myself. When I create a world for the reader, I want to do it right, using all my senses.

And her descriptions of Harrison’s experiences in Mexico are very sensually fused. Fellow book blogger Fingers & Prose has identified a passage that also thrilled me – I love how Kingsolver hints at the beauty and complexity of this country in a series of little impressionistic vignettes.

Then there are the lacunas, the sinkholes or cenotes that are found in parts of Mexico: a young Harrison explores one in Isla Pixol and is fascinated by them:

Not a cave exactly but an opening, like a mouth, that swallows things… It goes into the belly of the world… Some of the holes are so deep they go to the center of the earth and you’ll see the devil at the bottom. But some only go through the island to the other side.

I too was captivated by cenotes, from both a geological and a poetical perspective. Swimming in one (we visited Cenote Samulà near Valladolid) was an amazing experience. And how clever of Kingsolver to find another way to explore the meaning of her title. The image of the cenote lingers in our mind throughout the text and raises its head again at a crucial moment.

Cenote Samula

Cenote Samula.  Massive banyan tree roots stretch down through the cave to the water.

I had always wanted to visit Chichén Itzá, the ruins that were once the seat of the Mayan empire.

El Castillo

Me in obligatory tourist pose by El Castillo – once the ceremonial centre of Chichen Itza.

But reading The Lacuna opened up new perspectives on the place and made me think about what I was seeing more than any travel guide could. In the book, Harrison visits the ruins during the course of a research trip to the Yucatán. He’s seeking inspiration for his next novel, which is to be about the Maya, and returns to the ruins once more before departing for the States again. His thoughts on Chichén Itzá gave me much to chew over.

Today a story came up in relief from every surface, urgent and visible. Every stone was carved with some image: the snearing jaguar, the feathered serpent, a long frieze of swimming goldfish… In their time, all these buildings were brightly painted. What a shock to realise that, and how foolish to have been tricked earlier by the serenity of white limestone. Like looking at a skeleton and saying, “How quiet this man was, and how thin.” Imagine the place crawling with kings and slaves, I said. And mothers, wondering if their children had fallen down the well. We stayed a good while, reconstructing the scene.

Harrison writes historical romances, so he is reflecting on how history and fictional versions of history intersect. He realises his first impressions of the place were imperfect, faulty, reductive. He wants to get closer to the truth of what Chichén Itzá had really been like. And this in turn weaves into Kingsolver’s exploration of the importance of what gets lost, forgotten or purposefully deleted from official records.

El Castillo close-up

El Castillo, the pyramid that Harrison and Violet Brown gamely climb (unfortunately tourists are no longer allowed to).

Of course, I’m not saying it’s imperative to go to Mexico to enjoy Kingsolver’s book! But some of the most thought-provoking travel can start in unexpected places. For me, those places are often books. And going to Mexico made me pick up The Lacuna again, and find new things in it.

An Advent reading list

I never used to be the sort of reader who’d have more than one book on the go at any one time, but that seems to be the way of things nowadays. Here’s what’s on the pile at the moment:

My copy of Bel Ami.

My copy of Bel Ami. Discount sticker no reflection on content.

Bel Ami, Guy de Maupassant (1885). Thought it would be quite fun to read about a corrupt, sordid journo who rises through the ranks of the Paris hoi-polloi despite any manifest talent. Food for thought! I was also spurred on to read it after my vow to tackle more ‘classics’, especially ones in French…

The Cleaner of Chartres

The Cleaner of Chartres and its very pretty cover

The Cleaner of Chartres, Salley Vickers (2012). Another book set in France. I love everything Vickers has done, and I’m racing through this. There’s a kind of fabular feel to Vickers’ storytelling here: there’s moralising but she’s using a lighter touch than in previous books, which creates the sense that something almost mystic is at work. One of the things I love about her novels and short stories is that they are not afraid to deal in moral seriousness, nor weave in religious imagery and allegory.

Austerlitz by W.G.Sebald

Austerlitz by W.G.Sebald

Austerlitz, W.G.Sebald (2001; I’ve got the 2011 Penguin edition). A gift from a good friend (Merci, Maia!). Good to read some fiction in translation – need to read more of it. I haven’t made much headway with this yet, but so far I’ve been struck by Sebald’s narratology – it’s shifting, layered, and refuses any kind of straightforward account of the eponymous character and his life, a man who was sent to England on a Kinderstransport in 1939. Then there are the photographs interspersed throughout the text. I’ve never seen that before in something that’s ostensibly fiction. But is it fiction? Is it a historical account? Are the photographs ‘real’?

Mmm…nothing particularly festive in there, is there? I also fancy India Knight’s Comfort and Joy, too and Kate Mosse’s new spooky collection of short stories, The Mistletoe Bride, set in France and England.

When I was about ten I read an absolutely brilliant children’s book of short, Christmas-themed stories. I’ve been hunting for it ever since. It enchanted me then, and I’m sure it would now. If I manage to track it down, I’ll share it on here!

Happy festive reading.