My 2016 summer reads settled into three sections: thrillers, literary fiction, and nonfiction. Here are thoughts on that literary side:
Don Carpenter Hard Rain Falling. Don Carpenter is a new writer for me, reclaimed in the New York Review book series. From all my reading, this is the book whose characters and scenes return to me. It’s great noir writing but without the gumshoes: crime is not there to be solved, it’s just the backdrop to lives of poverty, and it’s the poor who get caught. It takes you to the pool halls of Portland and Seattle, and later into San Francisco, and into the prison system. Characters do their best and cut the breeze and love where they can. It turns out to be a classic of gay fiction, for a core central section, though the cover copy doesn’t let on. A wondrous discovery.
Claire Keegan Foster. I keep hearing writers praise Claire Keegan, an Irish story writer. This is a story grown up into a book, and is indeed tender and lovely. A girl is transported from her home, overwrought by children and poverty, to stay with a couple in the country while her mother has the new baby. She is let to flower by the love she finds there, and heals the couple from the huge aches of their own personal tragedy. The tale and the community is given us through the awakening insights of the girl. A little touch of the ghost story sneaks in, which it did not need, but this is a touching tale beautifully handled.
Paul Russell Immaculate Blue: Paul Russell’s the one writer whose books I pre-order. This one arrived and sat there a while; it looked more domestic than I wanted. Set in Poughkeepsie, its main cast is absorbed in a small town world of emotional triumphs and torments. (We last saw them 3 years ago, in the debut novel The Salt Point, but this works fine as a standalone read.) The one who got away comes back with his experiences of war in Iraq and the protection game in the oilfields of the Niger Delta. That gives the book its much wider angle and perspective – and I was glad to see the environment figure as a main issue. The central event is a gay wedding, two guys in their forties, all done very well.
Julian Barnes The Noise of Time. I was in France completing my own book about music in the 20th century, so hoped for a lot from this lauded new one from Barnes. Shostakovich is his subject – but it’s Shostakovich the amateur politician reaching compromises with the Soviet regime that we get, far more than the musician. The book ranges across his life, though we never see him deep in composition. Where did the Quartets come from? We don’t get to see it. The book begins and ends with three clinking glasses – it’s something, but it’s token music. The friendship between Britten and Shostakovich, that could make for a great musical novel. It’s not glimpsed here. Prokofiev comes across as some sort of huckster and the novel made me think Shostakovich was a mean little man, which is nonsense. Lots of effort, but some close insight into the creativity would have helped.
Robert Seethaler A Whole Life. A short book and indeed a whole life. Andreas is delivered into his mountain valley home aged four, orphaned and set to be abused. We stay with him through the twentieth century, as electricity and ski lifts raid the mountains. The book picks episodes on which it dwells, and so the detail is rich. Love and tragedy both arrive, and a wartime in Russian captivity, and finally ageing. For a new generation in the mountains, Andreas is something of a wild recluse. His is a marginal life. Not for us, the readers, though. We know his stories and he is central. This is one important thing a novel can do marvellously – make us know the value of lives on the margins.