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.

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