Ending 2017 with a visit to Liverpool and a tough relevant read that repaid the perseverance – James Hanley: The Furys (1935) is a remarkable account of the family lives of Liverpool-Irish mariners and dockworkers caught up in a dock strike. The depiction of the closely-observed characters unrolls like a film, the heaping up of repeated expressions contributing a kind of soundtrack, swelling and subsiding with the emotional action, every scene visualised in a concentrated selection of familiar details seen close-up against a hazier background of political anger and frustrated anarchy. The characters are too human to be likeable, which creates a distance that gives the reader space to react and reflect.
Continuing a tour of all the fiction of George Eliot: Silas Marner (1861) demonstrates again her incomparable writing skills while making them look effortless. The plot is constructed of satisfying balances and echoes and entirely forgivable co-incidences that do not appear contrived. People are people, all having a propensity towards wrong as well as towards right, and possessing an innate sense of justice and fairness which sometimes quarrels with their innate sense of how they must act to survive. Again we find the eccentricities and comedy of the dialogue, the cuteness of children, and the community ethos that has simply grown pragmatically, and the caring but realistic author. The Mill on the Floss (1860) is a fascinating 600-page anthropological and sociological study of a micro-society, lightened by some magnificently comic scenes, which blot out the tragic parts. I have now read the first half of George Eliot’s works, and, like her, will take a break before the second half.
Mary Higgins Clark: The Shadow of Your Smile (2010), an undemanding crime with a little romance, is nicely written and plotted and I fell, without a struggle, for the temptation of reading it in one sitting. Another one I couldn’t put down was Lee Child: Without Fail (2002) which has an intriguing plot, and includes some recurring Lee Child-isms that we know and love and cannot do without.
Camilla Lackberg: The Ice Child (2014) tr Tina Nunnally 2016, is rather more macabre than her others so far, and marginally less credible, but delivers on its promises nonetheless. The translation is serviceable but sometimes draws attention to itself, as if it is struggling to convey precision at the cost of expressiveness. More success with the translation in Samuel Bjork: I’m Travelling Alone (2013), translated by Charlotte Barslund 2015. This was described by The Times as ‘intelligent and gripping’ and I will endorse both of those adjectives. I would also apply the word ‘intelligent’ to the high quality translation achieved consistently over more than 500 pages. However, Samuel Bjork: The Owl Always Hunts at Night 2016 (tr Charlotte Barslund), although well-written and smoothly translated it is just too weird, so I will not revisit this author.
Michael Connelly: The Burning Room (2014), another Bosch novel. I am picking up this series again after a break and now having the images from the tv series in my head (Titus Welliver is so good at delivering the balance of reflection and action spiced with kindness that is the essence of Bosch). A very satisfying read from Charles Cumming: A Divided Spy (2016). This author’s books get sharper and deeper. Lee Child: Killing Floor (1997) was the first of this prolific author’s Jack Reacher series, and, as they all do, stands alone as a good thriller. Having read some of the later ones I now appreciate the gradual honing and polishing that has gone on in the intervening years.
David Baldacci: Last Man Standing (2001) is a well-plotted FBI thriller with good characters and scene-setting but there is too much detail in the writing, although I was sufficiently gripped to need go to the final pages to resolve the mystery before giving up. Linwood Barclay: Never Look Away (2010). I just could not stop reading this one, what a plot and flawless writing. Henning Mankell: An Event in Autumn (2004)( tr Laurie Thompson 2014), is an early Wallander, a short novella, slightly clunky plot development, and a little self-conscious, but an easy read. Lee Child: Make Me (2015) is not quite so good as his others but his standard is so excellent. Gerald Seymour: No Mortal Thing (2015) – no I just could not read this, strangely pedestrian although I had liked some earlier ones.
Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood (1954) is one to read, and read again, with a joyful appreciation, and in my case years of accumulated guilt at never having read it before, one of those lurking secrets we all have, good to have it out in the open.
Will Eaves: The Absent Therapist (2014) fulfils all expectations from this sensitive writer. Here is a physical and visual declaration that every voice matters. You will have to read it to understand what I mean. MK Ashby: Joseph Ashby of Tysoe (1974) is a social history of a village and biography of a professional historian’s father, which has the vibrancy and musicality of a work of fiction. Reading this for a third time.
Charles Cumming: A Colder War (2014) is an energised and engaging modern spy thriller in which abbreviations and casual references to the tradecraft make you feel part of the inner circle, ‘eyes only’. It is enjoyable to pick up the 21st century tweaks of the John Le Carre repertoire.
I have read George Eliot: Middlemarch (1872) three times, confident in my assertion that it is the finest novel in the English language, but I must now read it again to be sure of this, since I have been giving some of her other works a fair wind. Scenes From Clerical Life (1857) is a delicate rendering of the fabric of small quiet lives each labouring under their separate tribulations with differing levels of awareness, but the author’s detailed and reflected depiction of both the small pictures and the wider resonances lets us see everything, a marvellous experience, warmed by the author’s philosophical and caring view of life. Similarly in Adam Bede (1859), a more consciously focused work centred on the character who stands for all that is good and right, but at the same time represents the stumbling, sometimes blindfolded, human in all of us, the detail entertains but never loses sight of the wider framework of a belief in the interdependence of communities and the importance of the governing processes, however poorly executed at any point in our history. One of the treats supplied here by George Eliot is the constantly inventive wit of Mrs Poyser’s every utterance, perhaps a contender for the funniest character in English fiction? The ingenuity of her wit, enhanced by her apparent lack of awareness of it, forms part of a classic structure of occasional recuperative humour relieving the tragic scenes. Eliot’s sense of place and season gives a natural rhythm to her narrative that reflects the natural progress of the conception and birth at the centre of the tragedy, and removes the need for unnecessary detail about dates and times. Eliot’s profusion of detail is selective and always directed. Another treat is her perfect capturing of cute baby talk. Well, I like it. At more than 600 pages this was a fine book to have in one’s cabin bag on the occasion of an airport delay.
Childhood of a very different shade in the remarkable Maureen Myant: The Search (2009) which captivated me from the first page with the quality of the writing, enabling the overcoming of my usual reluctance to tackle anything where children might be depicted as unhappy. Every word was the right one in the right place. Once I snagged on a phrase and then realised that, yes it was a cliché, but it was a boy using a man’s wording unconsciously to give him strength, resulting in quite an astonishingly loaded effect. I could not put this book down. The story starts starts from the reality of the cruel massacre which took place in Lidice in 1942. It follows a young boy through the decisions that by the end have turned him into a man, and have changed for ever the people in his world. Deceptively the scenes unfold with acute awareness of smells and physical sensations, anchoring us in the detail of the present moment, but we see in the mix of dashed hopes and positive reversals the value of holding on to a certainty that there is a better way if you decide to choose a higher focus and believe in the power of forgiveness as a weapon for defence, or better, a tool for living. The partisans speak sheepishly of ‘the greater good’ and laugh at the boy when he picks up the phrase, but this is what takes him forward in his altruism, never losing sight of his aim while taking care of others. The notion that thinking has to inform doing is later echoed in the reference to the discussions on philosophy that the old teacher has with the Jewish children he is sheltering. These lessons are conducted in the darkness, reflecting the movement of the book towards light and the universality of our struggle to understand the puzzle of our human nature. The ending of the book was everything I needed it to be, no more, no less. It was one of those few times that I sit still with a book for a few minutes after finishing it just wallowing in reflective appreciation, wanting to hang on to the state of mind brought about by the story and its resolution.
Starting 2017 with a slew of lighter reading. Kristina Ohlsson: The Chosen (2013) translated by Marlaine Delargy 2015, needs one’s full attention but it is good and so is the translation. Hakan Nesser: The Living and the Dead in Winsford (2013) translated by Laurie Thompson (2015) is a masterpiece of the genre, to judge all others by, and always a fine translation from Laurie Thompson. Liza Marklund: Borderline (2011) translated by Neil Smith (2014) will disturb some readers. I should have read this one before ‘Without a Trace’. A seam-free translation. Peter May: Coffin Road (2016) is one of his stand-alone stories. A satisfyingly complicated plot, well-defined characters and dialogue, but the star turn is the poetry of the Hebridean landscape and weather.