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Posts tagged ‘Tartt’

Review of the Year 2014

Fiction: Part 1

Welcome to Don’t Read Too Fast’s review of the year 2014.

For those who have yet to experience our yearly extravaganza, our approach is not to give a list of the best books published this year, but rather to share some of the best of what we’ve actually managed to read, whether 21st century offerings or tomes from the Dark Ages. With that said, please sit back and enjoy the first instalment.

Hannah Joll

The Dig, by Cynan Jones

This is very short and very good by a fairly new writer, I think. The length and intensity of language (like Ted Hughes or Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist collection his ear is poetic and rough at the same time e.g. describing a badger’s nose hanging from ‘a sock of skin’). It’s about badger baiting but also farming, briefly. The physical descriptions, (knowingly) brilliant attention to detail, and its address to grief make the book tender as well as frightening.

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi

I’d looked at this book on other people’s shelves and skipped over it for years (also vaguely mixed it up with Italo Calvino). The whole thing is great but a story like ‘Iron’ I’d recommend to anyone, anytime and feel confident. It’s about friendship and bear meat as a euphemism for experience. ‘Nitrogen’, a story about the author sifting through chicken shit with his new wife on their honeymoon to try and synthesise the factor that makes the better post-War lipsticks stay on is also tip top. He’s so thoughtful and excited, it’s good to read.

Alexander Starritt

Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis

I’m pleased to say I’ve read lots of good books this year, but the best I think is Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44. Lewis was a population liaison officer in the War and for this book has basically written up his diary, taking out the boring bits. It is still in the form of entries a page or two long, and each of them is fantastical. Naples seems only half-real, only half-European, starving, oriental, in thrall to sex and superstition. Lewis reports that the Neapolitans raided the aquarium for food, sparing only a baby manatee they could not bring themselves to kill; it lived a few short weeks more before the American commander in chief demanded it for his table. A prince comes to Lewis to find a position for his sister at a military brothel. The populace anxiously awaits the annual liquefaction of a vial of San Gennaro’s blood. The volcano erupts. The mafia seize control. The warped and the monstrous gather in caves. Each diary entry is the most astonishing short story you’ve ever read.

Olivia Hanson

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I’ve never read such a long book that is so compelling. A well-written page-turner! I have now totally forgiven Donna for The Little Friend on this basis. (Eds: we agree)

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

This, plus The Corrections, are two of my favourite novels ever. Beautiful turns of phrase and highly believable characters. Perfect reflections of the human condition.

The Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Beautifully written, one of Fitzgerald’s best. If only it were complete!

Tender Shoots, by Paul Morand

A jewel-like collection of short stories, set in Paris at the turn of the century. Such a find.

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

Wonderfully written, sympathetic narrator, startling insight into 80’s life for gay people.

World War Z, by Max Brooks

What a revelation.

Imogen Lloyd

Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Chosen for the scene with the tailor and all the other bits I wanted to underline and remember forever but was too greedy to.

A Girl is Half Formed Thing, by Eimar McBride

Because once I found a rhythm, it became the most ferocious and intimate thing.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

I got there in the end. Because every scene felt intricately painted (like those tiny Dutch rooms ), not just the characters but their surroundings, as if she’d been spying on them inhabit that world before she started writing, and that richness and made all the tricksy twists and turns easier to navigate.

There but for the, by Ali Smith

It was a bit like if all the best, weirdest characters from legendary sitcoms have been told to hang out, and the master of ceremonies is an unassuming genius who has never watched TV and has no clue who they are. I loved it so much but can’t really explain why!

This list seems a bit sexist now, I did read men too but they didn’t cut the mustard this time.

Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch

donnatarttDonna Tartt, the Southern writer who produces a book a decade and politely avoids interviews aside from those necessitated by book tours, gave a reading from The Goldfinch in St. James’s church recently.

She was interviewed by Kirsty Wark of Newsnight, whose questions came just above “Where do you get your ideas?”* but seemed very pleased with herself to have finished the book, as well she might be. The Goldfinch is over 800 pages long, and sprawls over much of the United States and Europe over several decades.  It shares certain commonalities with The Secret History: alcohol and drug dependency depicted with an uncomfortable level of accuracy; central protagonists who observe and derive pleasure from historically aesthetic objects to the extent that they are hampered by the past, and a tangible desire to be taken and accepted by an elitist group. In both cases, the drawback is that once you enter these clubs – an exclusive Classics undergraduate group, or in the case of The Goldfinch, a privileged New York family – there is a cost, of course you can never really get out again.

Theo, the debatable hero, loses his mother to a terrorist bomb attack when they are admiring the picture of the entitled Goldfinch at the Met, shortly after he falls in love at first sight for the first time. He steals the picture amid the ensuing chaos. Initially housed with a school friend’s family, he is a changeling in their WASP life who fits in rather too well, and yearns to emulate their wealthy veneer. Tartt described her fascination with the claustrophobia of Park Avenue, and the cloying sense of gentility that comes with that world. Theo escapes by contacting his beloved’s family, and gains entry to their world, which is the antiques trade of reptilian gentility and skilled but naïve restorers. There he sees enough to be smitten with every aspect of the trade, before his father yanks him across the country to Nevada. The desert holds nothing for him besides the friendship of the chaotic, romantic and self-destructive Boris. Neglected and undernourished, they smoke, drink and snort their way around Vegas as they cement their friendship over several years of smeared, surreal time keeping. And all the time Theo holds the picture secretly to him as a talisman.

After his father’s demise Theo heads back to New York where he fails to get the girl, but masters the antiques game.  He swindles his way to becoming a master of the trade and affianced to the daughter of the house who took him in years before, numbed by narcotics and fuelled by the fear that the picture will be discovered after the news shows more works looted in a similar way appearing on the black market. It is at this moment that Boris reappears in Theo’s life, and the murmurs of disquiet for the reader become a klaxon of mishap, careering over to Amsterdam and ending in No Good.

Tartt is an immaculate suited figure with a dark bob like a harebell, and an endearing way of rushing through sentences in an earnest fashion. Her diplomacy came through when describing the blighted fate of the film version of The Secret History, where she pronounced Hollywood ‘complicated’. She describes writing everywhere in small notebooks in script as thin as an eyelash, and her consciousness as ‘a rag and bone shop’. In her approach to research, choosing what to leave out is reminiscent of Penelope Fitzgerald, and teaching herself to write convincingly about a skill such as woodwork from books like Nabokov, who taught himself to drive by reading.  She describes writing a long book as a sea voyage, where a tiny boat is tossed about in the faith that the facing shore is still there. There are moments when reading her work feels like as if you are a tiring swimmer on the point of being subsumed by dirty money and empty bottles, but it is worth reaching the far shore. Tartt’s world was moulded by the South – shadow, tall tales and charming manners – but never refers directly to it. Her characters turn from erudite chameleons to dysfunctional brawlers and liars who never get the girl. I can’t decide if I like them so much because I only meet them once a decade, like interesting relatives who you are secretly pleased live clean on the other side of the world.

*Easily the biggest heart-sinker of the questions asked by a member of the audience was who killed Bunny in The Secret History. Tartt’s response that the answer was in the book, and failing that on internet forums, made up for it.

The Editors