The Book Trail: From Painting Dead Men to The Big Why

We begin this edition of The Book Trail with a fantastic novel by Sarah Hall.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

 

1. How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall 9780571224890
‘The lives of four individuals—a dying painter, a blind girl, a landscape artist, and an art curator—intertwine across nearly five decades in this luminous and searching novel of extraordinary power. With How to Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall, “one of the most significant and exciting of Britain’s young novelists” (The Guardian), delivers “a maddeningly enticing read . . . an amazing feat of literary engineering” (The Independent on Sunday).’

 

2. The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey
‘It’s Jake’s birthday. He is sitting in a small plane, being flown over the landscape that has been the backdrop to his life – his childhood, his marriage, his work, his passions. Now he is in his mid-sixties, and he isn’t quite the man he used to be. He has lost his wife, his son is in prison, and he is about to lose his past. Jake has Alzheimer’s.  As the disease takes hold of him, Jake struggles to hold on to his personal story, to his memories and identity, but they become increasingly elusive and unreliable. What happened to his daughter? Is she alive, or long dead? And why exactly is his son in prison? What went so wrong in his life? There was a cherry tree once, and a yellow dress, but what exactly do they mean? As Jake fights the inevitable dying of the light, the key events of his life keep changing as he tries to grasp them, and what until recently seemed solid fact is melting into surreal dreams or nightmarish imaginings. Is there anything he’ll be able to salvage from the wreckage? Beauty, perhaps, the memory of love, or nothing at all?  From the first sentence to the last, The Wilderness holds us in its grip. This is writing of extraordinary power and beauty.’

 

62568403. The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
Based on real events in Epping Forest on the edge of London around 1840, The Quickening Maze centres on the first incarceration of the great nature poet John Clare. After years struggling with alcohol, critical neglect and depression, Clare finds himself in High Beach Private Asylum – an institution run on reformist principles which would later become known as occupational therapy. At the same time another poet, the young Alfred Tennyson, moves nearby and becomes entangled in the life and catastrophic schemes of the asylum’s owner, the peculiar, charismatic Dr Matthew Allen.  For John Clare, a man who had grown up steeped in the freedoms and exhilarations of nature, who thought ‘the edge of the world was a day’s walk away’, a locked door is a kind of death. This intensely lyrical novel describes his vertiginous fall, through hallucinatory episodes of insanity and dissolving identity, towards his final madness.  Historically accurate, but brilliantly imagined, the closed world of High Beach and its various inmates – the doctor, his lonely daughter in love with Tennyson, the brutish staff and John Clare himself – are brought vividly to life. Outside the walls is Nature, and Clare’s paradise: the birds and animals, the gypsies living in the forest; his dream of home, of redemption, of escape. Rapturous yet precise, exquisitely written, rich in character and detail, this is a remarkable and deeply affecting book: a visionary novel which contains a world.’

 

4. The Island Walkers by John Bemrose
‘Within a bend in the Attawan River lies the Island, a small neighbourhood of white-washed houses and vine-freighted fences, black willows and decaying sheds. It is here that Alf Walker, a fixer in the local textile mill like his father before him, lives with his family.  It is 1965, and when a large corporation takes over the mill, and workers attempt to unionize, Alf’s actions inadvertently set in motion a series of events that will reverberate far into the future and burden him with an unspoken shame. This is also the year when his eldest son, Joe, falls headlong for a girl he first glimpses on a bridge – and his world is overturned by the passion and uncertainty of young love. The bittersweet story of Joe and Anna is juxtaposed against his father’s deepening role in the tensions building at the mill and his unsettling connection with a local Native woman, Lucille Boileau. Meanwhile, Alf’s wife, Margaret, must reconcile her middle-class English upbringing with her blue-collar reality, as her marriage is undermined by forces she cannot name.  Set over the course of a single year, the novel reaches back to the past – to Alf’s haunting memories of the Second World War and his brother’s death; to the stories of the town’s founder, Abraham Shade, and those of the eccentric river man Johnny North.  Bemrose weaves an intricate, absolutely spellbinding narrative. Besides the five members of the Walker family, he introduces a large cast of characters, including Archie Mann, Joe’s sad and inspiredteacher; Liz McVey, the wilful daughter of the town’s richest man; union organizer Malachi Doyle; and Anna Macrimmon, worldly, gifted, mysterious, who turns Joe’s world upside down.

 

5. The Russlander by Sandra Birdsall 295787
‘Katherine (Katya) Vogt is now an old woman living in Winnipeg, but the story of how she and her family came to Canada begins in Russia in 1910, on a wealthy Mennonite estate. Here they lived in a world bounded by the prosperity of their landlords and by the poverty and disgruntlement of the Russian workers who toil on the estate. But in the wake of the First World War, the tensions engulfing the country begin to intrude on the community, leading to an unspeakable act of violence. In the aftermath of that violence, and in the difficult years that follow, Katya tries to come to terms with the terrible events that befell her and her family. In lucid, spellbinding prose, Birdsell vividly evokes time and place, and the unease that existed in a county on the brink of revolutionary change. The Russländer is a powerful and moving story of ordinary people who lived through extraordinary times.’

 

6. A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay
‘From some accidents of love and weather we never quite recover. At the worst of the Prairie dust bowl of the 1930s, a young man appears out of a blizzard and forever alters the lives of two sisters. There is the beautiful, fastidious Lucinda, and the tricky and tenacious Norma Joyce, at first a strange, self-possessed child, later a woman who learns something of self-forgiveness and of the redemptive nature of art. Their rivalry sets the stage for all that follows in a narrative spanning over thirty years, beginning in Saskatchewan and moving, in the decades following the war, to Ottawa and New York City. Disarming, vividly told, unforgettable, this is a story about the mistakes we make that never go away, about how the things we want to keep vanish and the things we want to lose return to haunt us.’

 

1164867. The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart
‘In Rochester, New York, a seventy-five-year-old artist, Austin Fraser, is creating a new series of paintings recalling the details of his life and of the lives of those individuals who have affected him–his peculiar mother, a young Canadian soldier and china painter, a First World War nurse, the well-known American painter Rockwell Kent, and Sara, a waitress from the wilderness mining settlement of Silver Islet, Ontario, who became Austin’s model and mistress. Spanning more than seven decades, from the turn of the century to the mid-seventies, The Underpainter -in range, in the sheer power of its prose, and in its brilliant depiction of landscape and the geography of imagination- is Jane Urquhart’s most accomplished novel to date, with one of the most powerful climaxes in contemporary fiction.’

 

8. The Big Why by Michael Winter
‘Michael Winter’s powerful new novel, The Big Why, brilliantly fictionalizes a pivotal year in the life of celebrated American artist Rockwell Kent. In 1914, at the age of thirty, Kent decides to escape the superficial world of New York City and move to Brigus, Newfoundland, with his wife and three children to follow a few months later. A socialist and a philanderer, certain in the greatness of his work, he is drawn north by a fascination for the rocky Atlantic coast and by the example of Brigus’s other well-known resident, fabled Arctic explorer Robert Bartlett. But once in Newfoundland, Kent discovers that notoriety is even easier to achieve in a small town than in New York. As events come to a head both internationally and domestically and the war begins, Kent becomes a polarizing figure in this intimate, impoverished community, where everyone knows everyone and any outsider is suspect, possibly even a German spy. Writing in Kent’s voice, Michael Winter delivers a passionate, witty, and cerebral exploration of what makes exceptional individuals who they are–and why.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which pique your interest?

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