November was intense.
I started work on an ambitious secret project (hint: It’s a Richmond book), spent my birthday cycling Cape Charles, joined in the collective suffering of the election, and then explored the James River with H & a friend over Thanksgiving.
I also found the time to attend an excellent writing conference by James River Writers and read five books, primarily past Booker winners, with the odd-one out being Fingerprints of You, the debut 2012 novel of Kristen-Paige Madonia. I don’t normally read books marketed as Young Adult, mostly because I don’t fit in the category and don’t get the marketing, so I feel incredibly fortunate that I heard Madonia read the opening sentence at a conference session. I was immediately hooked. Try it yourself:
“My mother got her third tattoo on my seventeenth birthday, a small navy hummingbird she had inked above her left shoulder blade, and though she said she picked it to mark my flight from childhood, it mostly had to do with her wanting to sleep with Johnny Drinko, the tattoo artist who worked in the shop outside town.”
It’s brilliant. We know exactly who and what we’re dealing with, and the sentence has a rhythm and a cadence that makes it spring to life. Read it out loud. Doesn’t that just flow? The entire book keeps the pace, and I feel confident that it would be marketed as “literary fiction” if there was money in literary fiction or if it was about a male protagonist. Madonia has an incredible voice, and I’m looking forward to reading her second work, Invisible Fault Lines.
The four Booker-winners can be divided into two equal camps: depressing and comic. Banville and Swift belong the former, McEwan and Brookner to the latter. Last Orders, Swift’s novel, crosses over at times from tragedy to comedy, in a dark tale about four drinking buddies transporting the ashes of their recently departed acquaintance. The opening sentence couldn’t be more different from Madonia’s, but it also sums up the book perfectly: "It aint like your regular sort of day”. The plot is sometimes too convoluted for its own good, with too many jumps between characters and points of view, and the slang and colloquialisms can feel a little like an episode of EastEnders. The plot is clearly inspired by Faulkner, but I’m not sure where the vernacular hails from.
Banville writes beautifully in The Sea, his fourteenth novel, but I was put off at times by the sumptuousness of the words and descriptions. It’s a lovely book that I enjoyed best on a second reading: much like Last Orders, the book contains a big secret that is only revealed in the closing page, although it’s really revealed in the opening sentence: “They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.” Only after the last page, though, does this memorable sentence actually mean something, and re-reading the subtle hints and foreshadowing was a real pleasure.
Brookner surprised me with Hotel Du Lac, a fascinating book about a romance writer sent off to Switzerland to weather a romantic scandal. It’s a beautiful book with beautiful descriptions of the mountains and the lake, hiding the ugly story of human cruelty and oppression. I thoroughly enjoyed this book until the last 40 pages, where I began to worry that it was a conventionally conservative story reinforcing sexist views, but I was delighted by the clever narrative twist Brookner was hiding. It’s a rewarding book about the liberation of the human spirit with fascinating parallels to The Magic Mountain. Brookner’s protagonist, the mild and meek Edith Hope, is easy to imagine as young Hans Castorp, torn between competing views of the world and how one is to live, until she’s finally called to action.
I didn’t read Ian McEwan until 2016, when I read Atonement in October and Amsterdam in November. In fact, I was committed to not reading McEwan, because of a case of mistaken identity. The film adaptation of Atonement came out at the same time as a number of stories about Ewan McGregor, who I only knew as “young Obi-Wan in that horrible Star Wars prequel”, and I mistakenly thought McGregor wrote Atonement. Of course, I was mistaken about so many things: Sir McGregor is a fine actor with a sharp mind, and Ian McEwan is a brilliant novelist, although I’m not in love with Amsterdam, an enjoyable book, but not one that stayed with me to the same degree as Atonement. I was genuinely engrossed in Amsterdam, but the ending happened and was over almost before I realized it. I’m not sure that I really buy the friendship between the two men, or the euthanasia pact they enter--is this really something people do? It was a fun farce, but it didn’t have the same effect as the other books I read this month.
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