5

Eight Great Audiobooks

I had sampled the odd audiobook in the past, but it wasn’t until 2020 that I began to listen to them regularly. I am fortunate that my local library offers a great deal of titles for free on the BorrowBox app, and although this is the sole resource which I personally use for audiobooks, I know that many people pay for subscriptions to the likes of Audible and Scribd.

I haven’t reviewed any of the books which I came to on audio, but the following eight were standouts to me last year. I loved the narration and delivery for the mostpart, and also the way in which I was able to immerse myself in so many titles which I otherwise would not have been able to find very easily. I would highly recommend that if you are interested in the following books, you should try and find the audio version. However, I’m sure they would be just as good on the page too!

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
‘Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, the mother of two sons, ages seven and nine, and married sixteen years to her best friend, received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal. How does one live each day, “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty.

Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, even as she wrestles with the legacy of her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs’s breathtaking memoir continues the urgent conversation that Paul Kalanithi began in his gorgeous When Breath Becomes Air. She asks, what makes a meaningful life when one has limited time?

Brilliantly written, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving, The Bright Hour is about how to love all the days, even the bad ones, and it’s about the way literature, especially Emerson, and Nina’s other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer. It’s a book about looking death squarely in the face and saying “this is what will be.” Especially poignant in these uncertain times, The Bright Hour urges us to live well and not lose sight of what makes us human: love, art, music, words.’

Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore
‘With an abandoned degree behind her and a thirtieth birthday approaching, amateur writer Bonnie Falls moves out of her parents’ home into a nearby flat. Her landlady, Sylvia Slythe, takes an interest in Bonnie, encouraging her to finish one of her stories, in which a young woman moves to the seaside, where she comes under strange influences. As summer approaches, Sylvia suggests to Bonnie that, as neither of them has anyone else to go on holiday with, they should go away together – to the seaside, perhaps.

The new novel from the author of the Man Booker-shortlisted The Lighthouse is a tense and moreish confection of semiotics, suggestibility and creative writing with real psychological depth and, in Bonnie Falls and Sylvia Slythe, two unforgettable characters.’

I Want You To Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir by Esther Safran-Foer
‘Esther Safran Foer grew up in a home where the past was too terrible to speak of. The child of parents who were each the sole survivors of their respective families, for Esther the Holocaust loomed in the backdrop of daily life, felt but never discussed. The result was a childhood marked by painful silences and continued tragedy. Even as she built a successful career, married, and raised three children, Esther always felt herself searching.

So when Esther’s mother casually mentions an astonishing revelation–that her father had a previous wife and daughter, both killed in the Holocaust–Esther resolves to find out who they were, and how her father survived. Armed with only a black-and-white photo and a hand-drawn map, she travels to Ukraine, determined to find the shtetl where her father hid during the war. What she finds reshapes her identity and gives her the opportunity to finally mourn.

I Want You to Know We’re Still Here is the poignant and deeply moving story not only of Esther’s journey but of four generations living in the shadow of the Holocaust. They are four generations of survivors, storytellers, and memory keepers, determined not just to keep the past alive but to imbue the present with life and more life.’

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield
‘This collection of stories is about women and their experiences in society, about bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of its characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession and love. Throughout the collection, women become insects, men turn to stone, a city becomes insomniac and bodies are picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sea side towns are invaded and transformed by the physical, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to the bodies of its inhabitants. Blending the mythic and the fantastic, the collection considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new.’

The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall
‘Rachel Caine is a zoologist working in Nez Perce, Idaho, as part of a wolf recovery project. She spends her days, and often nights, tracking the every move of a wild wolf pack—their size, their behavior, their howl patterns. It is a fairly solitary existence, but Rachel is content.

When she receives a call from the wealthy and mysterious Earl of Annerdale, who is interested in reintroducing the grey wolf to Northern England, Rachel agrees to a meeting. She is certain she wants no part of this project, but the Earl’s estate is close to the village where Rachel grew up, and where her aging mother now lives in a care facility. It has been far too long since Rachel has gone home, and so she returns to face the ghosts of her past.

The Wolf Border is a breathtaking story about the frontier of the human spirit, from one of the most celebrated young writers working today.’

The Glass House by Eve Chase
‘Outside a remote manor house in an idyllic wood, a baby girl is found. The Harrington family takes her in and disbelief quickly turns to joy. They’re grieving a terrible tragedy of their own and the beautiful baby fills them with hope, lighting up the house’s dark, dusty corners. Desperate not to lose her to the authorities, they keep her secret, suspended in a blissful summer world where normal rules of behaviour – and the law – don’t seem to apply.

But within days a body will lie dead in the grounds. And their dreams of a perfect family will shatter like glass. Years later, the truth will need to be put back together again, piece by piece . . .

From the author of Black Rabbit Hall, The Glass House is a emotional, thrilling book about family secrets and belonging – and how we find ourselves when we are most lost.’

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
‘Helen Macdonald’s bestselling debut H is for Hawk brought the astonishing story of her relationship with goshawk Mabel to global critical acclaim and announced Macdonald as one of this century’s most important and insightful nature writers. H is for Hawk won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction and the Costa Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, launching poet and falconer Macdonald as our preeminent nature essayist, with a semi-regular column in the New York Times Magazine.

In Vesper Flights Helen Macdonald brings together a collection of her best loved essays, along with new pieces on topics ranging from nostalgia for a vanishing countryside to the tribulations of farming ostriches to her own private vespers while trying to fall asleep. Meditating on notions of captivity and freedom, immigration and flight, Helen invites us into her most intimate experiences: observing songbirds from the Empire State Building as they migrate through the Tribute of Light, watching tens of thousands of cranes in Hungary, seeking the last golden orioles in Suffolk’s poplar forests. She writes with heart-tugging clarity about wild boar, swifts, mushroom hunting, migraines, the strangeness of birds’ nests, and the unexpected guidance and comfort we find when watching wildlife. By one of this century’s most important and insightful nature writers, Vesper Flights is a captivating and foundational book about observation, fascination, time, memory, love and loss and how we make sense of the world around us.’

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
‘At twenty-five years old, Anna Wiener was beginning to tire of her assistant job in New York publishing. There was no room to grow, and the voyeuristic thrill of answering someone else’s phone had worn thin. Within a year she had moved to San Francisco to take up a job at a data analytics start-up in Silicon Valley. Leaving her business casual skirts and shirts in the wardrobe, she began working in company-branded T-shirts and hoodies. She had a healthy income for the first time in her life. She felt like part of the future.

But a tide was beginning to turn. People were speaking of tech start-ups as surveillance companies. Out of sixty employees, only eight of her colleagues were women. Casual sexism was rife. Sexual harassment cases were proliferating. And soon, like everyone else, she was addicted to the internet, refreshing the news, refreshing social media, scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. Slowly, she began to realise that her blind faith in ambitious, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs wasn’t just her own personal pathology. It had become a global affliction.

Uncanny Valley is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of our generation’s very own gold rush. It’s a story about the tension between old and new, between art and tech, between the quest for money and the quest for meaning – about how our world is changing for ever.’

Have you read, or listened to, any of these books? Are you a fan of audiobooks? Which is your favourite?

2

The Book Trail: From the Unit to California

This edition of The Book Trail begins with a dystopian novel which I received for my birthday, and very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

 

1. The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist 71wd5kifoul
‘Ninni Holmqvist’s uncanny dystopian novel envisions a society in the not-so-distant future, where women over fifty and men over sixty who are unmarried and childless are sent to a retirement community called the Unit. They’re given lavish apartments set amongst beautiful gardens and state-of-the-art facilities; they’re fed elaborate gourmet meals, surrounded by others just like them. It’s an idyllic place, but there’s a catch: the residents–known as dispensables–must donate their organs, one by one, until the final donation. When Dorrit Weger arrives at the Unit, she resigns herself to this fate, seeking only peace in her final days. But she soon falls in love, and this unexpected, improbable happiness throws the future into doubt.  Clinical and haunting, The Unit is a modern-day classic and a chilling cautionary tale about the value of human life.’

 

2744237._sy475_2. Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
‘In her stunning novel, Hall imagines a new dystopia set in the not-too-distant future.   England is in a state of environmental crisis and economic collapse. There has been a census, and all citizens have been herded into urban centers. Reproduction has become a lottery, with contraceptive coils fitted to every female of childbearing age. A girl who will become known only as “Sister” escapes the confines of her repressive marriage to find an isolated group of women living as “un-officials” in Carhullan, a remote northern farm, where she must find out whether she has it in herself to become a rebel fighter. Provocative and timely, Daughters of the North poses questions about the lengths women will go to resist their oppressors, and under what circumstances might an ordinary person become a terrorist.’

 

3. Distant View of a Minaret and Other Stories by Alifa Rifaat 206228
‘”More convincingly than any other woman writing in Arabic today, Alifa Rifaat lifts the vil on what it means to be a women living within a traditional Muslim society.” So states the translator’s foreword to this collection of the Egyptian author’s best short stories. Rifaat (1930-1996) did not go to university, spoke only Arabic, and seldom traveled abroad. This virtual immunity from Western influence lends a special authenticity to her direct yet sincere accounts of death, sexual fulfillment, the lives of women in purdah, and the frustrations of everyday life in a male-dominated Islamic environment.  Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies, the collection admits the reader into a hidden private world, regulated by the call of the mosque, but often full of profound anguish and personal isolation. Badriyya’s despariting anger at her deceitful husband, for example, or the hauntingly melancholy of “At the Time of the Jasmine,” are treated with a sensitivity to the discipline and order of Islam.’

 

11392114. The Tiller of Waters by Hoda Barakat
‘This spellbinding novel narrates the many-layered recollections of a hallucinating man in devastated Beirut. The desolate, almost surreal, urban landscape is enriched by the unfolding of the family sagas of Niqula Mitri and his beloved Shamsa, the Kurdish maid. Mitri reminisces about his Egyptian mother and his father who came back to settle in Beirut after a long stay in Egypt. Both Mitri and his father are textile merchants and see the world through the code of cloth, from the intimacy of linen, velvet, and silk to the most impersonal of synthetics. Shamsa in turn relates her story, the myriad adventures of her parents and grandparents who moved from Iraqi Kurdistan to Beirut. Haunting scenes of pastoral Kurds are juxtaposed against the sedentary decadence of metropolitan residents. Barakat weaves into her sophisticated narrative shreds of scientific discourse about herbal plants and textile crafts, customs and manners of Arabs, Armenians, and Kurds, mythological figures from ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, and Arabia, the theosophy of the African Dogons and the medieval Byzantines, and historical accounts of the Crusades in the Holy Land and the silk route to China.’

 

5. Without a Name and Under the Tongue by Yvonne Vera 420461
‘Yvonne Vera’s novels chronicle the lives of Zimbabwean women with extraordinary power and beauty. Without a Name and Under the Tongue, her two earliest novels, are set in the seventies during the guerrilla war against the white government.  In Without a Name (1994), Mazvita, a young woman from the country, travels to Harare to escape the war and begin a new life. But her dreams of independence are short-lived. She begins a relationship of convenience and becomes pregnant.  In Under the Tongue (1996), the adolescent Zhizha has lost the will to speak. In lyrical fragments, Vera relates the story of Zhizha’s parents, and the horrifying events that led to her mother’s imprisonment and her father’s death. With this novel Vera became the first Zimbabwean writer ever to deal frankly with incest. With these surprising, at times shocking novels Vera shows herself to be a writer of great potential.’

 

18061536. Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon by Nicole Brossard
‘Carla Carlson is at the Hotel Clarendon in Quebec City trying to finish a novel. Nearby, a woman, preoccupied with sadness and infatuated with her boss, catalogues antiquities at the Museum of Civilization. Every night, the two women meet at the hotel bar and talk – about childhood and parents and landscapes, about time and art, about Descartes and Francis Bacon and writing.  When Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon appeared in French (as Hier), the media called it the pinnacle of Brossard’s remarkable forty-year literary career. From its intersection of four women emerges a kind of art installation, a lively read in which life and death and the vertigo of ruins tangle themselves together to say something about history and desire and art.’

 

7. Defiance by Carole Maso 153596
‘Bernadette O’Brien: misfit…child prodigy…professor of mathematics at Harvard…sentenced to die in the electric chair for the shocking murder of two male students. In her journal, her death book Bernadette takes a dark look back at the unfolding events that led to the extraordinary crime for which she was convicted.In the incandescent, erotically charged prose for which she is known, Maso probes the depths of a female psyche inextricably embedded in a uniquely American matrix of sexuality, violence, and the clash of class difference. A raw and fearless performance by an author of fierce vision, Defiance stays with readers long after they put the book down.’

 

97044818. Lola, California by Edie Meidav
‘The year is 2008, the place California. Vic Mahler, famous for having inspired cult followers in the seventies, serves time on death row, now facing a countdown of ten days. For years, his daughter, Lana, has been in hiding. Meanwhile, her friend Rose, a lawyer, is determined to bring the two together.  When Rose succeeds in tracking down Lana at a California health spa, the two friends must negotiate land mines of memory in order to find their future. In sharp episodes infused with pathos and wit, Edie Meidav brings her acclaimed insight and poetry to friendship, parenthood, dystopia, and the legacy of the seventies.   Lola, California speaks to our contemporary crisis of faith, asking: can we survive too much choice?’

 

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

0

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?

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘How to Paint a Dead Man’ by Sarah Hall *****

Before picking up Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2009, I was only familiar with her short stories.  She is an author whom I have heard an awful lot of praise for, although I must admit that I was rather disappointed by her collection The Beautiful Indifference.  I am thrilled that I received a copy of How to Paint a Dead Man as a gift, however, as it proved to be one of the most beautiful novels which I had read in a long time.

9780571224890Historical fiction author Sarah Dunant calls How to Paint a Dead Man ‘a stylish novel, as replete with ideas as it is technically ambitious’, and the Sunday Telegraph deems it ‘an intelligent page-turner which, perversely, you also want to read slowly to savour Hall’s luscious way of looking at the world.’

The novel has four interconnected storylines at its heart.  In Italy in the early 1960s, a dying painter ‘considers the sacrifices and losses that have made him an enigma, both to strangers and to those closest to him’.  We also meet a young blind girl, who sells family-grown flowers in a busy marketplace, and tends to the painter’s grave.  The other threads here are set in England; that of a painter in Cumbria some years later, who ‘finds himself trapped in the extreme terrain that has made him famous’, and his daughter in present-day London, who is struggling to come to terms with the sudden death of her twin brother, and ‘finds herself drawn into a world of darkness and sexual abandon.’  How to Paint a Dead Man thus spans half a century, and is described in its blurb as ‘a fierce and brilliant study of art and its place in our lives.’

The varied perspectives which Hall has employed in the novel ensure that every single page is of interest, and the separate stories never become too similar.  The second person perspective which follows the daughter living in contemporary London is particularly striking: ‘You aren’t feeling like yourself.  You haven’t been feeling like yourself for a while now, not since the accident…  You’re not sure what’s wrong exactly; it’s hard to put your finger on, hard to articulate.  It isn’t grief.  Grief would be simple.  Something internal, something integral, has shifted.  You feel lost from yourself.  No.  Absent.  You feel absent.  It’s like looking into a mirror and seeing no familiar reflection, no one you recognise hosted within the glass.’

How to Paint a Dead Man is highly descriptive throughout.  Hall’s prose is highly sensual, and very evocative of place.  When introducing the painter and the limits imposed upon him by both illness and ageing in his secluded corner of Italy, Hall comments: ‘To begin each day there is only the wind, asking to come in from the north before even the daylight.  It is a rolling wind, excitable as it prepares to leave the continent.  Some mornings I will accompany the wind to the road above the town.  It helps me to unstiffen.  There is sciatica in my legs and my breathing these days is somewhat impaired.  Really I can do no more than amble.’  Nature is ever-present, and so beautifully observed, in the novel.  Hall later writes: ‘It’s apparent that this is the changeover season.  He can feel summer’s end.  There’s the memory of frost down in the earth’s membranes.  The northern rivers are carrying a message to the Solway that winter is coming.’

So many themes suffuse this novel; at its heart are art and loss, and the many forms which both can take.  There is a definite rawness to it at times, and real wisdom in what Hall considers and explores.  She muses, for instance: ‘To expose what was broken and re-cast in a composition is to reveal the fallibility of an artist.  The spilled varnish and the misaligned hand, the lost saint and the irregular ghost pavement.  All those errors and adjustments in the studies of the past.  And in us – the chips and fractures and tumours, the flaws in our exceptional design.  Truth has become a hunted thing, but it is eternally insubstantial.  The philosophers have always known this.’

Hall is so understanding of what it means to be human, and how life can affect a cast of characters in such different ways.  She is conscious of each of her characters and their troubles.  Particularly poignant are the observations which she makes about Annette, the blind girl.  ‘If,’ says Hall, she ‘did not know what people looked like, if she had not ever seen them before, she would think they were fantastical compositions – part-insect, part-crockery, with wings made of gossamer or tin, with whiskers, hooves…  so unlike tidy, soft-skinned creations do they sound.’  Hall’s prose which concerns Annette is tender and kind.  She writes: ‘Though her eyes were blind, inside a compartment of her head she could still see.  She could imagine the room exactly as it had been before the sickness, her dresser with its beaded cloth, the washstand, and the low beams in the ceiling from which Uncle Marcello had strung the honeysuckle.  She could imagine her shoes arranged neatly, side by side, their laces tucked inside the leather openings, and, on the window seat, the pot of marigolds peeking out from their green heads.’

At less than 300 pages, Hall has created a real masterpiece in How to Paint a Dead Man.  Her fourth novel is searingly beautiful, and offers so much to the reader.  The different characters, time periods and places are woven together with a strong sense of commonality – that of the art world, and what can be considered beautiful.  Whilst reading, I felt entirely present in each of the stories, and there was not a single second in which I was not entirely convinced by what Hall had set before me.

Compelling and gorgeously pieced together, How to Paint a Dead Man is a transporting novel, which strikes a wonderful balance between the natural and manmade worlds in which its characters live.  Hall’s prose is textured and precise, and this novel is a real delight to sink into.  Each of its stories are so alive and so resonant, and I imagine that they will stay with me for a long time yet.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

The Book Trail: From Heartburn to Varieties of Exile

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with a fabulous novel about pregnancy and its pitfalls.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.
2253431. Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Is it possible to write a sidesplitting novel about the breakup of the perfect marriage? If the writer is Nora Ephron, the answer is a resounding yes. For in this inspired confection of adultery, revenge, group therapy, and pot roast, the creator of Sleepless in Seattle reminds us that comedy depends on anguish as surely as a proper gravy depends on flour and butter.  Seven months into her pregnancy, Rachel Samstat discovers that her husband, Mark, is in love with another woman. The fact that the other woman has “a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb and you should see her legs” is no consolation. Food sometimes is, though, since Rachel writes cookbooks for a living. And in between trying to win Mark back and loudly wishing him dead, Ephron’s irrepressible heroine offers some of her favorite recipes. Heartburn is a sinfully delicious novel, as soul-satisfying as mashed potatoes and as airy as a perfect soufflé.
2. Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
England is in a state of environmental crisis and economic collapse. There has been a census, and all citizens have been herded into urban centers. Reproduction has become a lottery, with contraceptive coils fitted to every female of childbearing age. A girl who will become known only as “Sister” escapes the confines of her repressive marriage to find an isolated group of women living as “un-officials” in Carhullan, a remote northern farm, where she must find out whether she has it in herself to become a rebel fighter. Provocative and timely, Daughters of the North poses questions about the lengths women will go to resist their oppressors, and under what circumstances might an ordinary person become a terrorist.
3. Distant View of a Miaret and Other Stories by Alifa Rifaat 19433013
“More convincingly than any other woman writing in Arabic today, Alifa Rifaat lifts the vil on what it means to be a women living within a traditional Muslim society.” So states the translator’s foreword to this collection of the Egyptian author’s best short stories. Rifaat (1930-1996) did not go to university, spoke only Arabic, and seldom traveled abroad. This virtual immunity from Western influence lends a special authenticity to her direct yet sincere accounts of death, sexual fulfillment, the lives of women in purdah, and the frustrations of everyday life in a male-dominated Islamic environment.  Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies, the collection admits the reader into a hidden private world, regulated by the call of the mosque, but often full of profound anguish and personal isolation. Badriyya’s despariting anger at her deceitful husband, for example, or the hauntingly melancholy of “At the Time of the Jasmine,” are treated with a sensitivity to the discipline and order of Islam.
4. The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta
Nnu Ego is a woman who gives all her energy, money and everything she has to raising her children – leaving her little time to make friends.

802135. Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe
Chris, Ikem and Beatrice are like-minded friends working under the military regime of His Excellency, the Sandhurst-educated President of Kangan. In the pressurized atmosphere of oppression and intimidation they are simply trying to live and love – and remain friends. But in a world where each day brings a new betrayal, hope is hard to cling on to. Anthills of the Savannah (1987), Achebe’s candid vision of contemporary African politics, is a powerful fusion of angry voices. It continues the journey that Achebe began with his earlier novels, tracing the history of modern Africa through colonialism and beyond, and is a work ultimately filled with hope.

6. The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye
At the beginning of this masterpiece of African literature, Clarence, a white man, has been shipwrecked on the coast of Africa. Flush with self-importance, he demands to see the king, but the king has just left for the south of his realm. Traveling through an increasingly phantasmagoric landscape in the company of a beggar and two roguish boys, Clarence is gradually stripped of his pretensions, until he is sold to the royal harem as a slave. But in the end Clarence’s bewildering journey is the occasion of a revelation, as he discovers the image, both shameful and beautiful, of his own humanity in the alien splendor of the king.

7. Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon 139054
A young Frenchman, Joseph Timar, travels to Gabon carrying a letter of introduction from an influential uncle. He wants work experience; he wants to see the world. But in the oppressive heat and glare of the equator, Timar doesn’t know what to do with himself, and no one seems inclined to help except Adèle, the hotel owner’s wife, who takes him to bed one day and rebuffs him the next, leaving him sick with desire. But then, in the course of a single night, Adèle’s husband dies and a black servant is shot, and Timar is sure that Adèle is involved. He’ll cover for the crime if she’ll do what he wants. The fix is in. But Timar can’t even begin to imagine how deep.

8. Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant
Mavis Gallant is the modern master of what Henry James called the international story, the fine-grained evocation of the quandaries of people who must make their way in the world without any place to call their own. The irreducible complexity of the very idea of home is especially at issue in the stories Gallant has written about Montreal, where she was born, although she has lived in Paris for more than half a century.  Varieties of Exile, Russell Banks’s extensive new selection from Gallant’s work, demonstrates anew the remarkable reach of this writer’s singular art. Among its contents are three previously uncollected stories, as well as the celebrated semi-autobiographical sequence about Linnet Muir—stories that are wise, funny, and full of insight into the perils and promise of growing up and breaking loose.

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