Last week I didn’t know whether to curse Larry McMurtry or send him a fan letter. I was supposed to writing my own novel, but I couldn’t stop reading his. In the end I had to scupper it by looking ahead to see what happened, so that I could stop reading it for long enough to do some work. Whoever would have thought I could have been so gripped by a book about cowboys? I know this won a Pullitzer Prize and was a very successful TV series, but I’d managed to avoid it so far. It’s over 900 pages long, yet I just wanted it to go on and on. It took me a little while to get into this story of two middle-aged Texas rangers and their crew driving a cattle herd from South Texas to Montana, but when I did . . . It soon became apparent when there was a death – a terrible one – as they crossed the first river, that they wouldn’t all make it and after that I was on tenterhooks. It was funny, touching, and I fell in love with Gus Macrae. Oddly enough the writer I was reminded of was Trollope or even Charlotte M Yonge’s family sagas! The Hat Creek outfit is a kind of family and this is a nineteenth century novel in its scope and length and narrative energy. The authorial voice, though never obtrusive, is humane and wise. I can see I am going to have to read STREETS OF LAREDO, but not just yet. One of the ironies of becoming a writer is that I don’t read as much fiction as I did, at least not when I am actually into a novel. I think that it’s because some of my hunger for narrative is being satisfied by my own work. But there also the danger of being infected by someone else’s style and, even worse, I find, being sucked into someone else’s fictional world and not being able to get back into your own. That’s especially the case when the fictional world is as fully and as vividly realised as the one in LONESOME DOVE.
I decided to blog about everything I read this year, so I am listing NATIVE SPEAKER by Chang-Rae Lee, even though I didn’t really enjoy it. I might not have finished it if it hadn’t been chosen by my reading group. Lee was born in Korea, but his parents emigrated to the US when he was three. He writes wonderfully about the experience of being a second generation emigrant, which in effect is what he is, and the sense of belonging to neither community. And yet it didn’t grip me, partly I think because so much of the first half was narrated in flashbacks and the real story doesn’t get going until half way through. Or maybe it’s that the flashbacks were the real story.
The novel I am really gripped by at the moment is Larry MacMurtry’s LONESOME DOVE, which I am devouring – first thing in the morning, last thing at night, in the bath and over lunch. It’s over 900 pages long. I’ve just over half way through and already know that I’m not going to want it to finish. More next week.
One of the nicest things about becoming a writer has been getting to know other writers. Crime writers are unusually convivial and can often be found propping up the bar together and commiserating about publishers (unlike the romantic novelists, who I’ve heard are at each other’s throats). I usually find that when I like someone, I like their books too, and vice versa. It’s been great getting to know Michelle Spring. I read her first book, EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE, when it came out in the early 1990s. It was set in Cambridge, where I was living at the time. My first copy was pinched from the outside pocket of the bag I’d checked into a left luggage office – the irony of it ! – and I just had to know how it ended, so I had to buy another copy. Four more fine novels followed. Michelle’s new novel, THE NIGHT LAWYER, is a break from her series of Laura Principal P. I. stories. It’s a suspense novel set on the Isle of Dogs. Eleanor Porter tries to leave her troubled past behind her and make a new start as the night lawyer in a newspaper office. She’s responsible for clearing articles for libel. It’s a great idea. Offices can be creepy places at night and soon some very sinister things start happening – one in particular had the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. But I won’t spoil it for you . . .
A book that is having a big effect on me right now is NO MORE CLUTTER: HOW TO CLEAR YOUR SPACE AND FREE YOUR LIFE by Sue Kay. Her book was listed by the bookshop at Friends’ House as one of their books of 2006 and it chimes in with the Quaker ideal of simplicity. There is a good word, ‘cumber’ which it was used by the early Quakers and could be usefully revived. It is very expressive of the spiritual weight of having too many material things. And it is how I feel: encumbered. I just have too much stuff. It doesn’t help that my husband is an academic as well, so we have a houseful of books and journals. Reading NO MORE CLUTTER has made me realise that I have been asking the wrong question when I have tried to clear the house. The wrong question is ‘can I imagine circumstances – however remote – in which I might one day want this?’ The right question is ‘Do I really need or value this?’ Am I ever going to need a run of the journal of ART HISTORY from the 1990s or thirty pairs of old tights? I think not. Actually William Morris said it all: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ It should be easy to get rid of the rest, but somehow it isn’t. The value of Sue Kay’s book is that it takes you through the process step by step. It’s goodbye, clutter: hello, charity shop, dustbin and e-Bay.
I was drawn to Rosellen Brown’s novel because it is written from an unusual combination of viewpoints. It begins with a crime – the murder of a seventeen year old girl – which is seen from the points of view of the mother and father and sister of the boy who is responsible. The quirk is that the father’s point of view is first person male and the mother and sister’s third person. I am particularly interested in viewpoint at the moment and wondered what I could learn and how she got away with this. And she DID get away with it. The book made the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list. Once I was into the novel, I soon got used to the shifting viewpoints and it turned out to be one of those books that you don’t want to stop reading. There is never much doubt that the boy is guilty, and the considerable suspense lies in the contrasting attitudes of the parents and how these will effect the outcome of the trial. The father’s instinct is cover up for his son, the mother’s is to let the truth prevail and I found myself being swayed first by one argument and another. It has only just occurred to me as I write this that Brown may have chosen the first person for the father as a more persuasive way of presenting an argument that on the face of it is unacceptable.
At any rate, she writes superbly and this is a terrific read. A tour-de-force.
I’m between drafts of a novel and have been roaming around my collection of books, picking up this and that, while I mull over various problems. This is the first time I’ve written a novel in the third person and from more than one viewpoint and I’m also having plotting problems. It always helps to see how other people have managed. John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels are in the first person, so not much help as regards viewpoint, but he is a terrific plotter and the books are compulsively readable. They are set in Florida over a time-span of over twenty years and are a fascinating reflection of social history from the drugged-up sixties to the chilly eighties. It is a pretty dangerous thing to be an attractive woman in Travis McGee’s life as, despite his best intentions, they usually wind up dead. Still he is a engaging character, and his hirsute intellectual chum, Meyer, even more so, to my mind. And the novels are an object lesson, too, in how to keep a series going, though they are not quite of equal quality, and there are occasional repetitions. New readers might start with THE SCARLET RUSE or THE DREADFUL LEMON SKY or PALE GREY FOR GUILT(great titles).
I’ve been rereading Ann Tyler’s novel for my book group tonight. And I’m very conscious of how my reading style has changed over the years. In my teens and early twenties I read voraciously – sometimes reading just to plunge in and loose myself in the narrative, sometimes from a lit crit point of view looking for patterns and symbols ( I did an English degree). Later as an art historian I tended to read novels for sheer pleasure and escape. But when you become a writer yourself, you lose your virginity as a reader. So that reading A PATCHWORK PLANET, which has a first person male narrator, though I was quickly sucked into the story – she is above all just immensely readable – I was also asking myself, how does she do this? And: has she pulled it off? To write a short story from a male viewpoint is not too difficult (I’ve done it myself) but a whole novel is a tour-de-force, especially in the first person. Jane Austen famously avoided even having two men talking without a woman present, and a male narrator would have been unthinkable. Tolstoy on the other hand got into the head of Anna Karenina to write perhaps the most brilliant novel ever written. LARRY’S PARTY by Carol Shields springs to mind as an admirable effort to present a male viewpoint, even though it’s not in the first person, as I recall. So how does Ann Tyler do in the cross-dressing stakes? Not bad. Sex is always difficult to write about anyway without sounding clinical or crude or unintentionally funny but she manages by not being too specific about what’s actually going on. I think Carol Shields is better at imagining what it is like to actually live in a male body and have a masculine cast of mind, but for an exploration of the cruel dynamics of family life in scenes that are both funny and painful (here a mother and son relationship what would give Woody Allen a run for his money), it’s hard to think of a contemporary writer who can equal Ann Tyler.
Tobias Hill’s novel is described as a thriller in the SUNDAY TIMES review that’s quoted on the cover. It’s too measured and reflective to be that, in my view, and is none the worse for it. Neither is it science fiction, though it is set a little way in the future, when hard currency has ceased to exist and has been replaced by an electronic currency, Soft Gold. The global economy depends on it, and it in turn depends on the (supposedly) unbreakable code in which is encrypted. The creator of the code is John Law, a fabulously wealthy businessman, and the story begins when the tax inspector, Anna Moore, is sent to track down discrepancies in his accounts. As she begins to penetrate the layers of mystery surrounding Law, a mutual attraction develops between them . . .
Hill is an award-winning poet and it shows in the elegance and precision of his writing, which offers a series of little surprises in its aptness of description and metaphor. It’s written in the present tense, always difficult to pull off, I feel, but it works.
As an aside, I might add that I once worked for the Inland Revenue. It soon became clear that my talents lay elsewhere and I left before my mistakes caught up with me.
The crime writer I’m most enjoying at the moment is Andrea Camilleri, but Qui Xialong is a close second. As I said in my very first blog, I don’t read him for the (perfectly servicable) plot, but for his fascinating evocation of contemporary China and Shanghai in particular. WHEN RED IS BLACK is the third in the series. When a former member of the Red Guard is found dead, the roots of the crime lie in the cultural revolution and the long shadow it still casts over the present. I ought to admit an interest. We’ve got a family connection with China and spent some time in Guangzhou around four years ago. Like Shanghai it is a huge city where new buildings are going up at a staggering pace. The air pollution when we were there was stupendous – we had chest infections for weeks after we got back. The Shanghai of WHEN RED IS BLACK is also a city of extraordinary contrasts. Inspector Chen and his ‘little secretary’ go to drink at a retro bar called Golden Time Rolling Backwards, decorated in the style of 1930s Shanghai, while a month’s wages of a young man who has come to work in the city wouldn’t be enough for one karaoke night. As usual the incidental details are fascinating. A housewife is given a present of a live soft-shell turtle and thinks nothing of killing and gutting it herself and steaming it for dinner. A woman scrapes a living by shelling frozen shrimp by hand.
There are often times when I have 15 or 20 minutes to spare – waiting in the doctor’s surgery, waiting for a child to finish a swimming lesson, waiting for a train, etc, so, although there is nothing like immersing oneself a novel, a book that you can read in short bites is good too. TRY ANYTHING TWICE by Jan Sturther is that kind of book. It’s a collection of short pieces written in the thirties by the author of MRS MINIVER and they are similar: dispatches from middle-class domestic life, but written in the first person. Some of the period details are a little quaint – this is a world of nannies and prep schools – but many of her observations are still spot on. Take for instance her remark that a ten-year old address book makes ‘good, though cryptic reading. How few people one knew in those day . . . And what has become, I wonder, of the Hartley-Whitneys. And who the devil was Mrs Broole?’ And take her comment on parties: ‘Giving a party is very like having a baby: its conception is more fun than its completion, and once you have begun it it is almost impossible to stop.’