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 note 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.
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.