Charlotte Brontë is mostly known today as the author of Jane Eyre, the battle of one passionate young woman against the cramping conventions of nineteenth century society. In Shirley, the same author tells the story of two heroines, Shirley and Caroline, fighting the same sort of battles
Just to show how efficient I can be when I want to, here is a table of the baker’s dozen best reads of 2013 with links through to the reviews. I have taken time to marginally adjust the scores out of 100. I see that one publisher, Sandstone Press up in the north of Scotland, has two runners. Well done Bob! My top three, and six out of thirteen are American writers. Let’s see how my massive reading programme for 2014 works out.
There are several shelves worth of novels telling the grim story of South Africa’s apartheid years – Alan Paton, Doris Lessing, André Brink, J M Coetzee and many more – but not so many that explore the Mandela years. One book of the new wave of post-apartheid novels is the excellent fictional memoir by Ivan Vladislavić, Double Negative [London: & Other Stories, 2013]. The narrator is Neville Lister whom we meet in his teenage dropout years. When he quits university, his frustrated father arranges for him to spend a day with fictional famous photographer Saul Auerbach; a day which affects the rest of his life. To avoid conscription and being sent to fight on the country’s borders Lister, like many others, ‘escapes’ to London but, as the cliché puts it, you can take Lister out of South Africa but you cannot take South Africa out of Lister. Ten years later he returns to pick up some of the threads of his life that have become unravelled. Finally, we encounter him in later middle age, now a professional photographer and hence an acute observer of what has changed, what has morphed and what has not altered. This is a case of still waters that run deeply. On the surface the pace and the language is gentle but, thanks to the skill of writing, the reader becomes more and more aware of the turbulence beneath the surface. I will rate this 7.5 out of 10 (and declare an interest; I am a subscriber-supporter of the publisher And Other Stories.)
With eight novels over fifty years (plus other non-fiction and serious critical articles) Thomas Pynchon (one of Harold Bloom’s four-strong Pantheon of American majors; the others being Don DeLillo, Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy) has not crowded our bookshelves but each of his books has involved a rich text and a complex plot structure. With a background in engineering and technical writing, Pynchon is something of a polymath but he is also blessed with a rich and complex imagination, and, thank goodness, a wicked sense of humour. All of this comes together in his latest novel, Bleeding Edge (New York: Penguin Press, 2013). As with his earlier Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon generates dramatic tension by having his protagonist operating entirely within the actual time frame of her story so that seemingly innocent observations made at the time have a much greater impact for today’s readers who know what actually went on to happen. This time, Pynchon sets his story in New York City and covers around one year before and after the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, not in itself a lot of laughs but as with all good humour the wit develops out of the situation and the temperament of the characters. Pynchon has the ability to get inside the characters and live out their stories, although he is open to the criticism that they can be two-dimensional and too similar. With a cast of ‘thousands’ it can make following a multi-strand plot quite difficult.
There have been many Paradise books – by Milton, Toni Morrison and Abdulrazak Gurnah to name and recommend but a few – but this one promises more than one paradise and they turn out to be trees! In a very clear and contemporary translation by prize-winning translator Beth Fowler, Paradises by Iosi Havilio is a sequel to his first novel Open Door. Open Door is a rural village in Argentina from which the unnamed narrator ‘escapes’ to a seedy suburb of Buenos Aires with her four-year-old son Simón. After a period of stability, her partner Jaime has been killed in a hit-and-run accident which leads to her being evicted from their farm with minimal compensation.