(Yes, I know it’s August, but I started writing this a while ago…)
At the start of this year, partly because I was about to start my Publishing Masters, and partly because I’d ironically had very little time to read for leisure throughout my literature degree, I made a determination to read more. I’m usually pretty bad at keeping resolutions, but this one was vague enough to be actually achievable: I only knew that I wanted to 1) read new releases, 2) read more widely, and 3) read some of those always-cited canonical novels I had somehow managed to miss.
I can’t say I’ve been tearing through contemporary novels this year, but I’ve definitely improved on last year’s tally. Here are my thoughts on a few of the texts I’ve picked up:
All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
I really enjoyed this novel and was pleasantly surprised by its readability. I’d wrongly assumed that, like some literary fiction, it would be dense and difficult to read in places, but it has thriller-like momentum that derives, I think, from its interweaving of various perspectives, its panoramic historical scope, and its incorporation of supernatural elements, which also lends it an endearing fable-like quality. Part war drama, part bildungsroman, part allegory, part fantasy, this novel defies generic expectations without ever lapsing into incoherence or parody. Doerr’s writing stands out; it’s so lyrical and seemingly effortless that at times it becomes almost transparent, which is a hallmark of good prose.
The Natural Way of Things – Charlotte Wood
I read this book, to be frank, because it won the 2016 Stella Prize, and while it’s undoubtedly an important exploration of pressing contemporary issues like misogyny and corporate corruption, I have to say that I’m ambivalent about it. Wood’s writing is beautiful and brilliant in sections – particularly in the disorientingly phantasmagoric hunting/foraging passages towards the end – but the plot didn’t quite do it for me, and the whole thing was a bit too abstract, allusive and open-ended for my liking. Having finished the novel, I felt that I’d missed something important embedded in its symbolism, and maybe I’d glean much more from a second reading. I won’t be picking up The Natural Way of Things again anytime soon, but it’s definitely worth a read, if only for its intriguing premise and stunning prose.
Enduring Love – Ian McEwan
McEwan might just be my favourite novelist (I’ve never been very decisive when it comes to authors, or anything else, really), so I came to Enduring Love with high expectations, and I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed; which is not to say that I wasn’t surprised. For some reason I’d assumed – because of the title, I guess – that the novel depicted a conventional romance, so I was hazily anticipating a kind of Nicholas Sparks-type story (and should have known better, I suppose, given McEwan’s penchant for tragic plot twists, and the dark, confronting themes of his early short stories). I won’t say too much about the novel, but it quickly metamorphoses into a study of a relationship that’s far from ordinary: obsessive, disturbing and ultimately ruinous. McEwan’s ability to trace out the seismic interpersonal and psychological ripple effects of seemingly insignificant events (exemplified, famously, in Atonement) is incredible, to say nothing of his extraordinarily perceptive, meticulous and nuanced writing.