Review of the Year 2013: Fiction
Umbrella, Will Self
This is my favourite Will Self novel by far. I liked it because it was demanding, intricate, heartfelt and masterfully delivered. The reader is asked to traverse three complex, esoteric and interrelated sub-plots that are split over the 20th century. Despite this challenge, Self’s canny prose makes the story accessible. Umbrella is also a very enjoyable read – its stream of consciousness narrative is peppered with compassion and humour. All in all, I was left thinking very differently about time and its relationship with human memory, ageing, infirmity and care.
Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively
Among a host of wonderful books read this year, Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively haunts me the most. We meet our narrator, Claudia Hampton, as a formidable elderly woman, who decides to write ‘a history of the world … and in the process my own’ from her hospital bed. So we learn about Claudia’s remarkable life – her career, her family, her love affairs, and, at the heart of it all, there is a powerfully affecting romance in Egypt during the Second World War. (So powerful that it left me weeping over my lunchtime sandwich!) Lively experiments deftly with narrative form, using multiple viewpoints to emphasise the inherent unreliability of memory and the impossibility of writing anything other than a subjective history. It is a phenomenal novel – inspiring in its portrayal of emotions, and also in its posing of more cerebral questions.
Read Emily’s post about Moon Tiger here.
Platform, Michel Houellebecq
This was my first Houellebecq novel and it felt like a baptism of fire from start to finish. Houellebecq forces you, for 300-odd pages (careful now), to view the world from his proto-existentialist perspective, and it’s a fairly traumatic experience. However, the breathtaking intensity of the ride means that you long for more as soon as you put the book down, which left me wondering what the world would look like if more of us adopted Houellebecq’s take on the human condition.
Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter
This made me long for the sun of LA and the Amalfi coast.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn
The best book I’ve read this year was also the first ‘proper’ book I ever read. I was eleven and subsisting on the Hardy Boys and Undersea Adventures borrowed from a library in the next village when I – hampered by my parents’ unwillingness to drive me there – chose a book from their shelves on the grounds that it was slim. It was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Without knowing what the Gulag was, who Stalin was, what political prisoners were, I was struck more deeply even than I understood by this account of bread and cold and labour in a snowbound prison camp. (Its effect on my own life was far from positive. On day one of big school, a few months later, the English teacher, a dead ringer for Hagrid, asked the class what was the last book everyone had read. After my classmates’ ‘Biff and Kipper go to the Park’ or ‘The I Can Sing a Rainbow Book’ or ‘Nothing’ I piped up with what I had just re-read for the first time: ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Hagrid, not realising I had just sentenced myself to my own four years of penal servitude, lent me The Gulag Archipelago, impressing in the soft wax of my adolescent mind the image of a KGB interrogatrix stamping her stiletto heel through a detainee’s testicle.)
Fifteen years later, I have just read it again and can appreciate the strangeness of the inscription: From [my father] to [my mother], Merry Christmas. Perhaps that was because my mother was learning English and the book was again chosen for its slimness. After a little giggle at ‘Merry Christmas’, I read it straight through, as firmly gripped after only a few lines as I had been that first time. Solzhenitsyn had done his research or rather, it had been done to him. He was sent to the Gulag for referring to Stalin by a derogatory nickname in a letter to a friend. Eight years of it, from the age of 27 to 35. And then internal exile in Kazakhstan, with cancer (cf. a novel as cheery as The Gulag Archipelago: Cancer Ward). He shows us a good day in the camp for Ivan, when luck favours him and he is happy. He earns an extra slice of bread and works satisfyingly at laying bricks. We see the paradox that he, a once free man, is so degraded that he takes pleasure, pride even, in obeying his captor’s commands, and yet that pride is what may save his spirit, because it is in work done well, in skill employed, in the brotherhood of labour.
Reading it now, when the twentieth century and its unending coils of barbed wire already seem distant and our novels and newspapers are full of the concerns of a comfortable, affluent society habituated to comfort and affluence, it reminded me that writing can be far more than entertainment or even the art of the gallery and the connoisseur; it can be what Denisovich is, a great cry of incarcerated humanity, so loud and so real that it shattered its cage.
Cocktail Sticks, Alan Bennett, The National Theatre
The play captured the eccentricities of the English in such a subtle, multi-layered way and had me laughing out loud. I could watch it every week and never tire of the character’s habits and perspectives for they represent how all of us feel at some point, alienated from society but in this alienation very much together as a people.
The Blind Man’s Garden, Nadeem Aslam
A stylistically accomplished and lyrical account of a young man in Aghanistan uncovering imploring letters written by a young woman to the UN for help. Asleem is writing about Aghanistan for the second time, and he consistently portrays History as a force with which people must contend, and does not commit himself to a particular political cause.
The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
A wonderful book about female anger amongst many other things. The narrator, a teacher called Nora who decides to follow up on a long suppressed ambition to be an artist, and develops an important relationship with the woman with whom she shares a studio.
See this interview in Publishers Weekly on the likeability of her characters.