A friend who reads my blog asked me, ‘How do you manage to read so much?’ I don’t read nearly as much as I have done at some periods of my life, but still . . . ten minutes sometimes over an early morning cup of tea, half an hour over lunch, always at bed-time, maybe even for a couple of hours in the evening. It all adds up. I can read pretty fast, but I don’t tend to unless the book has lost its grip on me and I just want to get to the end. I prefer to let the writer set the pace and really sink into the novel.I did manage to get through a fair bit of reading over Christmas and the New Year. Here are some that I rate highly.
Stefan Zweig’s BURNING SECRET is really a novella, published as a very attractive little book by Pushkin Press. It is set at a turn of the century German watering place. The philandering young Baron is determined to seduce an attractive married woman, almost past her prime, holidaying with her twelve-year old son, who at first provides the Baron with a way into her affections and then is an impediment to the consummation of the affair. Zweig is a wonderful writer with a deep understanding of human nature. I galloped towards the end, heart in mouth, desperate for things to turn out well, and fearing that they wouldn’t. I won’t say what happens. Do read it.
John Buchan’s Edward Leithen stories were recommended by Natasha Cooper at St Hilda’s last summer. They are good fun, and the last, SICK HEART RIVER, which takes place in the frozen wastes of Northern Canada, is a lot more than that. It is about coming to terms with mortality and about wresting meaning from life in the face of death. Buchan writes so well. I could almost feel the cold coming off the page and it’s touching to reflect that it was written at the end of his own life and published posthumously.
Finally Marilynne Robinson’s fine noveL, GILEAD, which I should really have read before HOME – discussed elsewhere on this blog- because it was written earlier and essentially tells part of the same story from a different viewpoint. A full realised world and a tour-de-force of technique and imagination. Brilliant, really.
Marilynne Robinson’s fine novel explores a question that I’ve sometimes pondered. After all the excitement of the return of the Prodigal Son, what happened next? Once they’d eaten the fatted calf and ordinary life resumed, what then? How did the good brother, the dutiful one who had stayed at home, come to terms with the situation? Did the prodigal one really manage to give up his wandering life and settle down? Could the father really fully forgive?
HOME begins with the thirty-eight year old, Glory, one of eight children, arriving home to take care of her elderly father, a retired Presbyterian minister. She is wounded by romantic betrayal and the knowledge that she has lost the chance of children and a home of her own. The scene is set for the arrival of the true prodigal, her brother Jack, always the black sheep of the family, who has been gone twenty years. This is a quiet novel about quiet people. There is no huge drama, and sometimes violent emotions produce little more than eddies on the surface, but how brilliantly Robinson depicts the ebb and flow of emotion, the importance of what people don’t say, the pain that well-meaning people can inflict on one another. It’s the 1950s and the TV news shows civil unrest. The anti-segregation protests seem a world away from the little town of Gilead in rural Iowa, but we come to understand that it isn’t. As for home, I think it was Robert Frost who defined it as the place where when you have to go, they have to take you in. But is it also the place that you can never escape from? There is something Checkhovian about this subtle, compassionate novel.