Happy New Year Everyone!
Over the past year, I’ve read more than thirty five books, but as you’ve doubtless read a plethora of year end book lists, I’ll keep mine simple. Here are three of my Memorable Reads of 2012
The Long Song
by Andrea Levy
It was hard to know if Levy could match ‘Small Island‘, winner of the 2004 Orange Award, but The Long Song is an incredible tour de force and was short listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2010.
Here is an excerpt from the beginning: You do not know me yet. My son Thomas, who is publishing this book, tells me, it is customary at this place in a novel to give the reader a little taste of the story that is held within these pages. As your storyteller, I am to convey that this tale is set in Jamaica during the last turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom that followed.
I was relieved to know right from the beginning that July, the main character, survives. The novel centers around July’s own story on a Jamaican sugar cane plantation, as a house slave. She is there during the Baptist war of 1831 and she is still there when slavery is eventually declared illegal. So her journey through slavery’s last turbulent years, as well as the upheaval that followed, as you can imagine, is fraught with difficulties.
But Levy’s rich prose is the heart of the book, and shows how much she’s grown as a writer. While she manages to covey the horrors of slavery, she uses particularly awful occurrences sparingly, concentrating more on the characters and their relationships. We see the division of the house slaves and the plantation workers, as well as the derision in which the owners themselves are held by July and her fellow house slaves. They take what freedoms they can within their limited abilities. In showing this, Andrea Levy gives her readers a picture that muddies the waters of the preconception that slaves are all good, owners are all bad. They are individuals, and Levy’s beautiful prose carries us through the story with such a range of emotion, including joy and humor, that we feel left with a balanced account of a truly terrible part of British Colonial history, despite the fact July is in truth an unreliable narrator.
I saw the film of Revolutionary Road before I read the book, and as usual I preferred the book. Not only is the characterization more developed, but the events and sentiment that lead up to the ending are a little different.
The novel encapsulates the hope of the 1950’s in a young couple, Frank and April Wheeler, who move from Manhattan, with two young children, to a starter home in the suburbs. Suburban bliss is not something either expected, and very quickly it’s not what either want; particularly April, who is artistic, and feels her husband has the potential to be anything he wants. The fact that Frank is unsure of what that is does not deter April. But claustophobia and boredom soon set in and the certainty of what they thought their life was going to be, starts to fall apart.
Here’s an excerpt : Intelligent, thinking people could take things like this in their stride, just as they took the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing,always, was to remember who you were.
Richard Yates style is very much of the era – straight forward, no flowery prose needed to convey the basics of the situation. But in being forthright, he subtly displays with compassion and no mistake, that April and Frank have sacrificed their own potential in being seduced by the promise of the American Dream of the 1950’s.
Jess Richards Snake Ropes was short listed for the 2012 Costa First Novel Award and is also on the long list for the Green Carnation Prize. Here is a short extract:
“No-one here goes to the main land, and no-one wants to. Our boats aren’t strong enough, we dun know the way, them can’t understand us, we’re fine as we are. We have so many reasons; them stretch as wide as the distance to cross to take us there.”
Snake Ropes takes place on an island that is “just off the edge of the map”. The people who live there trade with the Tall Men who come from the mainland in their boats and exchange supplies. After such a visit, Mary’s young brother goes missing and she needs to find him. The fact that it ostensibly starts as a relatively “simple tale of simple folk”, and then turns out to be anything but, makes the reveal of its brutal events have a particularly strong impact.
It’s an exceptional novel, both in its stylistic uniqueness, but also in managing to successfully combine narrative and myth – real or imagined – while at the same time dealing with intense issues. I was impressed how the author managed to subtly, but consistently, maintain the tension throughout. It intensifies in the second half of the novel which also gives the reader lots of fantastic plot twists towards the end. Truly a stunning debut novel.
What were your memorable reads over the past year?
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