The Last Hours is Minette Walters’ first foray into historical fiction, a genre I do read a fair amount of, though not of this period. Set in the summer of 1348, the Black Death has just arrived in Dorset. The disease is unlike anything anyone has seen before and with the lack of medical knowledge, it swiftly devastates towns and villages.
On the estate of Develish, Lady Anne finds herself having to take control of the demesne after her husband dies of the plague while travelling. Her daughter, Eleanor, takes after her rather crueller and less intelligent father. Much is made of her looks and the way she bullies the servants. From the serf class, the bastard Thaddeus Thirlwell is promoted to Steward, instantly putting up the backs of the older men. It is Lady Anne’s education and knowledge of medicine that saves her people: she brings them across the moat from the village, thereby separating them from the cause of the illness. But by cutting them off from the world, she has also severed their food supply and it becomes apparent that they are the sole living people for miles around. The murder of a young serf boy serves as an urgent catalyst for Lady Anne to resolve this self-imposed quarantine.
I’m not an expert on this period by any means but nothing shocked me out of the story in terms of accuracy. I had little knowledge of how the feudal system worked but here Walters’ research was woven into the story lightly enough that I felt that I understood it without having had a history lesson. The importance of the church at that time felt true. Her characters, however, had a more modern feel in their attitudes. Lady Anne finds little obstruction in the manner in which she takes over management of the demesne. While she is the lady of the manor, her power is only explained in the kindness she has shown over her tenure to the serfs who her husband would otherwise have brutalised. I did also wonder at her ability to shut her husband out of her bedroom (an important plot point) when in every other part of her life he seemed to have complete control.
Overall, an interesting read though it got quite baggy in the middle. A large cast of resulted in some very flat characters with little nuance. It will be interesting to see how Walters follows this up.
Thanks to Readers First for the review copy.
OK, it’s a couple of weeks early but I read so many good books this year that I’d be surprised if I read anything to better these choices in the next fourteen days! I’ve gone with a top ten just to pin it down, and these are presented in the order I read them in, from January to December. This year I’ve found that my favourite books have mainly been new publications, with one exception. There are several award winners in there as well, but I have gone strictly with those books that had a great story and characters who I wanted to spend time with.
Golden Hill – Francis Spufford
I picked this up after multiple recommendations and was not disappointed. Winner of both the Costa First Novel and the Desmond Elliott Prize, Spufford’s debut novel was a masterful recreation of eighteenth century New York. Mr Smith is a mysterious young Englishman with a potential fortune at his disposal. Fledgling New York society doesn’t know whether to embrace him or lock him up. The sense of place is incredible and the plot twists in directions you won’t possibly guess.
The Bone Readers – Jacob Ross
This, the first novel in Ross’s Camaho Quartet, won the inaugural Jhalak Prize earlier this year. Set on the small Caribbean island of Camaho, this is literary crime at its best. Michael ‘Digger’ Digson is recruited into the local police force’s plain clothes squad and sent to London to train in forensics. When Digger returns to Camaho he finds himself enmeshed in a complex mystery, helped along the way by fellow recruit Miss K. Stanislaus. This was an intriguing novel and I can’t wait for the next book in the series.
Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders
I worried that this book would not live up to the hype. So you can imagine how happy I was that George Saunders more than delivered with this masterpiece, winning the Man Booker in the process. Weaving factual accounts with this fictional story about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, playing with form and possibly the most characters I’ve come across in one piece of work, this novel is a thing of wonder.
The Power – Naomi Alderman
Winner of this year’s Baileys Prize, The Power was the book that started the most conversations for me this year. When women suddenly develop the power to conduct electricity, there is a worldwide revolution. Women become the dominant gender as uprisings and revolts overturn the old patriarchal society. At first it looks as though the world will emerge as a brand new utopia, but events take a dark turn… This was a fascinating read, though I did have issues with the latter sections of the novel. The most thought-provoking book of the year for me.
The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas
Angie Thomas’s debut is incredible and deserves its equally amazing sales. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this novel had me gripped from the first chapter. Thomas presents a realistic portrayal of a young black girl, Starr, dealing with the fatal shooting of her unarmed friend at the hands of the police. The story is so well plotted, and never tips over into becoming one sided. We see Starr’s uncle, himself a cop, struggle to reconcile the job he loves with the fear he sees from his niece. This is not a ‘them against us’ story, but one that seeks reasons and answers to a situation that is unfortunately familiar.
The Dark Circle – Linda Grant
I read this when it was shortlisted for the Baileys Prize this year. I loved Grant’s portrayal of twins Lenny and Miriam, sent away to a new NHS sanatorium in Kent after contracting TB in the 1950s. Witty and moving, Grant brings the past to the reader. Such a good book though I lost interest a little once the action moved from the sanatorium towards the end.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman
The book so many have been raving about and I loved it too. Eleanor Oliphant follows the same routine each week, her work colleagues providing pretty much the only human interaction she can’t avoid. One simple act of kindness propels her into having to change her routine and nothing will ever be the same again. This is a witty, moving portrayal of loneliness and mental health. I fell in love with Eleanor and I defy anyone to not become invested in her.
Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
This was longlisted for the Man Booker and should have been shortlisted (IMHO!). This retelling of Antigone was the best storytelling I read this year. I expected to struggle but instead, Shamsie had me from the very first page. The last page or so were a touch melodramatic, but I rooted for each of the characters, as flawed as they all were. To make a reader understand how a young marginalised man could plausibly be recruited by ISIS is masterful to say the least. To make you root for him after that is another level. Loved this book.
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage – Philip Pullman
It would have taken a lot to put me off this book – I even splashed out on the limited edition in my excitement. I don’t think it was just nostalgia that led me to enjoy La Belle Sauvage so much, though there it was a huge thrill to revisit familiar characters. Adventure and the battle between good and bad – what’s not to like?
Another Country – James Baldwin
Many of the novels I’ve rated this year have been steeped in place, this one perhaps more than any other. This is 1950s Bohemian New York. Jazz, sex, drugs, friendship. You can hear the music and smell the cigarette smoke as you turn the pages. Baldwin delves into the hidden thoughts of his characters so deeply that you feel voyeuristic reading them. A classic.
Set approximately one hundred years from now, America is in crisis. The warmer climate has led a divided country: the storm and drought ravaged south is emptying as citizens flee their battered homes and dust filled farms; in the north communities are under pressure as refugees arrive and set up in caravan parks – the southerners are far from welcome. A wall has already been built between the US and Mexico, and now it is Canada who are under pressure to let in more Americans each year.
Holly is a young British publicist, living in Seattle with husband Richard. Both would consider themselves delicados, the 22nd century word for liberals, but Holly has ambition. When she’s invited to join the presidential campaign for Senator Stephen Slaymaker, a man who stands against everything she says she believes in, she jumps at the chance. After all, his sole vision is to bring America together for a more successful future. Within weeks the battle to push fake news into the ‘whisperstream’ (a sort of futuristic social media) has made her his right hand woman, complicit in every move the campaign makes. Her challenge is to decide how far she will support Slaymaker’s strategies when they begin to diverge from the initial focus.
The great strength of this novel is how close Beckett drives it to our current situation. There is reference to the Tyranny, a 21st century calamity which, reading between the lines, could be the resultant fall out from the current US presidency. In the wake of this year’s storms, it doesn’t seem so unlikely that in a few decades it will be impossible to get insurance on homes in those areas, or that the houses and businesses would become worthless. Add in the increase in AI and robots, a decrease in manual labour jobs, and the situation put forward reads as an inevitability.
There was a sense of inevitability in the way that events play out in terms of the ‘human element’ of Holly and her relationships with Richard and their friends. I was less interested in this aspect and I wasn’t sure either what the Afterword was supposed to add to it. On reflection, this was just played a little too safe. Although there are various precarious situations shown to the reader, they’re a little too distant, all happening to people other than the main protagonists. In one way, this does serve to illustrate how northerners feel about the plight of southerners, that dispassionate idea that bad things happen to other people; on the other hand the human angle could have been so much sharper had danger been present.
Regardless, this was a thrilling read that is being published at exactly the right time.
Thank you to Readers First for the review copy.
Billed as the original psychological thriller, winning the 1960 Edgar Award for best mystery novel, The Hours Before Dawn was Celia Fremlin’s debut. First published in 1958, it is of its time in some ways but had me guessing throughout.
Louise Henderson can’t understand why her baby son, Michael, won’t stop crying. All through the night he keeps her awake to the point that she can’t remember the last time she had a full night’s sleep. She never had this problem with either of her daughters and wonders what on earth could be wrong with her son. Husband Mark complains about the noise, reminding Louise that he never wanted a third child rather than offering to help. In fact, the only element of this novel that dates it particularly is this pre-feminist attitude that shows Louise struggling to cope because parenting is entirely her own responsibility.
It was thoughtful of Mark to switch off the alarm so that Louise should have an extra hour’s sleep after such a night. It was thoughtful of him, too, to get his own breakfast and to bring her a cup of tea when he left for work at half past eight. The only trouble was that by half past eight the girls also should have had their breakfast; should, indeed, have been almost ready for school instead of lying peacefully in their beds reading comics. Thus it happened that Louise was able to produce only the thinnest pretence of gratitude for all these attentions; and as she leapt out of bed and dashed into the girls’ room, leaving her tea half slopped into its saucer, she knew very well that Mark’s feelings must have been hurt.
And if this isn’t enough, she has their new lodger to deal with. Miss Brandon seems to be an incredibly organised and efficient schoolteacher. She never complains about the noise and yet there’s something odd about her. Both Louise and Mark agree that there is something familiar about her, though they can’t imagine where they might have come across her before. And a friend later tells Louise that Miss Brandon asked for her address, even before the advert had been posted to let the room. But why would Miss Brandon be interested in Louise and her family?
Fremlin writes in such a way that the reader (and Louise) can never quite decide if there is really something going on or if Louise is slowly going mad through lack of sleep. She falls asleep during the day, has dreamlike moments when she’s unsure whether she is awake or asleep. It doesn’t help that Mark assumes her worries over Miss Brandon are down to jealousy. And he doesn’t help either by spending hours upstairs in Miss Brandon’s room, apparently discussing Ancient Greek and other intellectual subjects that Louise has no interest in (I spent much of my time reading this novel trying to work out if Mark was just spectacularly useless or actually a terrible person).
Fremlin slowly increases the tension as Louise becomes more convinced of the guilt of Miss Brandon, even as she struggles to work out what she could possibly want from the Hendersons. The ending, when it came, was not a surprise but was very satisfying.
Published in 1962, Another Country is set in the Bohemian underworld of New York, exploring race, sexuality, poverty and wealth existing side by side.
Rufus Scott is a Harlem jazz musician, fallen on hard times as we meet him wandering the streets, sleeping in a movie theatre during the day. Prior to this he was a success. People knew his name; they still do but now they look at him in horror, shocked at what he has become. Seven months prior, he met southern girl, Leona, at a club and began an ill-fated love affair that triggered his self-destructive nature and ended badly for both of them.
Meanwhile, Rufus’ friend, Vivaldo is a frustrated novelist, working in a bookstore to pay rent. His friend Richard has just sold his first novel and has what looks like the ideal life: married to the beautiful Cass, with two sons. When Rufus goes missing after a night out, his frantic sister, Ida comes to Vivaldo and Cass for help in finding him. It is the relationship between her and Vivaldo which Baldwin uses best to illustrate racial attitudes of the time:
Now, as she walked beside him, trim and oddly elegant in a heavy, dark blue cost, and with her head covered by an old-fashioned and rather theatrical shawl, he saw that both her vanity and her contempt were being swollen by the glances which rested on her as briefly and unforgettably as the touch of a whip. She was very, very dark, she was beautiful; and he was proud to be with her, artlessly proud, in the shining, overt, male way; but the eyes they passed accused him, enviously, of a sniggering, back-alley conquest. White men looked at her, then looked at him. They looked at her as though she were no better, though more lascivious and rare, than a whore. And then the eyes of the men sought his, inviting a wet complicity.
Where Rufus, in his relationship with Leona, struggled to deal with the attention as a black man walking with a white woman, Vivaldo owns the privilege of a white man. Despite moving in together, the barrier to intimacy is caused by Ida. Seeing this relationship mainly through Vivaldo’s perspective is particularly interesting as his frustration grows. Ida refuses to accept his ‘I don’t see colour’ attitude; he begins to suspect she’s having an affair.
Into this mix is thrown the failure of Richard and Cass’s marriage as his literary success is reached through sacrificing his talent to produce a novel which earns him a fortune but is far less worthy than he had hoped for. The knowledge that both Cass and Vivaldo don’t rate his work becomes as corrosive to his marriage as Rufus’ inability to deal with the perceptions of others poisons his friendships and, ultimately, leads to a tragic end for both he and Leona. Eric, an old friend who’s been living in France with his lover Yves, returns to New York and becomes the catalyst for change amongst this group of aimless misfits. Sexuality becomes blurred as the friends rely on one another for comfort of one sort or another: sex, alcohol, drugs, friendship.
This novel is an immersive experience that flows effortlessly. There are so many beautifully written passages that are evocative of both time and place, and yet never once does the prose feel forced. Around halfway through the book is a sentence in which Baldwin is describing Ida’s voice as she sings in public for the first time. In some ways it could be used to describe his own writing in this novel:
This quality involves a sense of the self so profound and so powerful that it does not so much leap barriers as reduce them to atoms – while still leaving them standing mightily, where they were; and this awful sense is private, unknowable, not to be articulated, having, literally, to do with something else; it transforms and lays waste and give life, and kills.
Alison is getting married for the second time. After an abusive first marriage to an alcoholic, she is confident that quiet, thoughtful Stephen will be a good dad to her two kids. She knows he has a difficult past but has resisted enquiring about it, happier to let sleeping dogs lie. She worries about what her older sister Liz will make of him, and of her: Alison has never left the small town she grew up in and still works at her father’s estate agency. She worries what her sister will make of Stephen and this dull life she’s made for herself.
Liz’s family had downsized their role in her life since she left home, of course, but not in the way she’d expected. They were like a village she had once lived in that had been shrunk down to miniature. The relationships didn’t loosen to old friendships; they contracted over the years, but retained all the same angles and shapes, the same functions of shame and despair and joy. It was like a scale model she lived in – and it still functioned. The little train ran, the signs swung outside the little shops, tiny people went from room to room, turning on and off the lights. Interacting with her family was like entering the village as an adult – outsized, and trying to crawl under the arches and bridges and flyovers, trying not to put one’s size-fives in the miniscule flowerbeds.
Liz is in her thirties, independent, a college professor teaching in New York City. The very day she’s supposed to fly home for Alison’s wedding, she walks in on her live-in boyfriend in bed with another man. Single and in her thirties, she feels as though her life is stalling. The offer to present a BBC documentary on a new religion that has sprung up in Papua New Guinea, on an island called New Ulster, is a welcome lifeline.
The two sisters form the heart of this novel, which throws up a lot of interesting ideas on religion, Over in New Ulster, Liz is torn between the New Truth Mission, represented by Josh Werner and his family, and the Story’s new movement led by the Werner’s former nanny, Belef. On the face of it, Belef is a grieving woman who feels lied to by the church, but Liz is shaken by several things she hears while in the village. The Werners are also far from sympathetic, Josh so desperate to quash Belef’s influence that he uses her daughter’s grave as a battleground. There is always a subtle threat of violence, both in Liz’s expectations of what PNG is, and in the actions and words of the people she meets.
Back in Northern Ireland, Alison is forced to confront the real identity of her new husband. The man who is so patient with her children has a darker past than she could have imagined. Even as she berates herself for sticking her head in the sand, she carries on, going through with a honeymoon where they are pleasantly civil to one another. It is only when she overhears Stephen telling his side of the story, to a neutral observer, that she begins to understand exactly what it is that he’s done.
This scene, with Alison in the next room and Stephen recounting his upbringing, is perhaps a little clumsy though I understand why it was easier to put his story across in this way. It’s a matter of fact retelling that attempts to explain Stephen’s actions as a younger man, a man who he says no longer exists. Elsewhere I felt that the clashing of religion was done in a more subtle way, events in PNG coming to a head after a strange hallucination scene that leads to Liz’s expulsion from the New Truth’s trust and forces their hand. The tragedy here was more simply drawn, though no less brutal.
In some ways, having the two locations interspersed kept the pace going. I did find the PNG section more vibrant but perhaps that is mainly because of the contrast with the more low-key scenes as Alison and Stephen try to move on while refusing to confront their main issue. I also felt that both Alison and Liz changed for the better during the course of the novel and there was a satisfying resolution. This book looks at difficult topics and yet remains an enjoyable read that kept me interested throughout. There are light moments as well as dark. Perhaps at times I would have liked a little more of the darker side, especially when it came to Stephen, but overall I think the balance was well-judged.
It’s been a while since my last review but I’m finally getting a chance to get caught up! In my defence I’ve been trying to finish a draft of my novel which is finally complete (hallelujah!). My Man Booker shortlist reading fell by the wayside but there were a couple of the novels that I had still to read including this one: Elmet.
Daniel lives with his sister Cathy and his Daddy in a house built by his father by a copse two fields over from the east coast main line. The book opens with Daniel heading north along the tracks, looking for someone, before going back to the beginning of his story: their arrival at the copse as Daniel turns fourteen and Cathy turns fifteen. This life we see immediately is unconventional. Prior to their arrival on the outskirts of the village, the children lived with their grandmother, both parents fading in and out of their lives. They went to school. Now that Granny Morley has passed away their father has come back to care for them but in his own way. Both still minors, he doesn’t send them to school but instead to neighbour Vivien. She teaches Daniel from what books she keeps in her house; Cathy refuses and spends her time outside, exploring the countryside. Daddy teaches both children how to hunt and use the countryside for survival, living outside of the wider society.
I enjoyed the attention to the surroundings and reading about this different way of living. I was drawn completely with Mozley’s language resulting in vivid imagery. One of my favourite scenes was the Christmas Tree that Daddy makes, covering a pine tree in the copse with oil lanterns that are carefully designed so that they glow and dance in the darkness. So beautiful. The characters were well-rounded and the dynamic between the family and the villagers, an element of distrust always visible, worked to keep them close but always slightly outside of the regular society.
Where I became a little less sure of the novel was when the plot suddenly becomes evident, quite late on. It almost felt as though the book had originally been one thing and, perhaps in order to make it sell, had been changed into something else that was more plot-driven. Something felt disjointed anyway, at least for me. I was alright with this until the very end when events take such a dramatic turn that I didn’t buy it at all. This is, up to a certain point, a slow-moving book. I was fine with that. I even quite liked the arrival of an antagonist and thought he was used very well. I can’t be more specific without spoilers but I think that the Biblical level finale had an issue because I didn’t understand the motivation for that level of violence, beginning with the catalyst, an event that occurs completely off the page and seemed too extreme. A Tarantino-esque ending to what had been quite a gentle literary novel. I feel like the paragraph that starts at the bottom of p298 of my copy is a literal representation for what was done to this book.
Overall, I thought this was a great debut, and I’m glad that getting shortlisted for the Man Booker will have brought it to more people’s attention. Compared to some of the heavyweights on that list, it didn’t really stand a chance but it was just the small issues with pacing that really threw me off. I’m excited to see what comes next from Fiona Mozley.