What I’ve been reading in May…
- EVERLAND by Rebecca Hunt
- THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton
- EAT MY HEART OUT by Zoe Pilger
- LIFE DRAWING by Robin Black
At the beginning of May I was in a complete reading lull. GoodReads helpfully informed me that I was ‘4 books behind schedule’ (I have promised to read 52 books this year, one for every week and feel a dumb loyalty towards the automated system!) but everything I had read in March/April had been distinctly average. I needed something wonderful, a golden ticket in order to get me back into the swing, to restore my faith in the current state of contemporary literature – something to assure me that not everything being publishing was some tawdry 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s elegy, tapping into the rich vein of lucrative post-Gatsby period tributes.
Anyway, a saviour came along in the form of Rebecca Hunt’s glorious EVERLAND. I cannot recommend this book enough. I have a strange fascination with polar exploration (possibly fuelled by obsessive reading of Shackleton’s diaries in my teenage years, nostalgia regarding a certain Kenneth Brannagh adaptation and more recently, David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet) and this book delivered on all fronts. Following the lives of three people on two very different expeditions – one in 1913, the second an entire century later – Hunt perfectly recreates that sense of endless, stretching ice, the pure, white blankness and the extreme, maddening isolation of that most hostile of landscapes, Antarctica. With echoes of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN and THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD BY Apsley Cherry-Garrard, this astounding second novel sets Rebecca Hunt firmly as one of Britain’s best young novelists. The writing is filled with wonderful contradictions – one moment it majestic and powerful, the next it is finely describing the minutiae of life in the Poles.
Next up, feeling confident that I could handle something on a more epic scale, I attempted THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton, a novel which has been languishing in the dark, pixelated depths of my kindle since before Christmas. It started well, I was instantly drawn in to its intricate plot and fleshy characters – it moves along at a jolly pace, each chapter ending with a cliffhanger rather like a Dickens novel. However, as I was only reading it in short bursts (my 30 minute commute), I found that as soon as I had turned it off, I was not compelled to pick it up again for days at a time. Keenly watching the progression bar confirmed my worst fears – reading for a whole ten minutes would barely push it up by one percent, it was perhaps the least satisfying kindle read I have ever encountered. Crushed by the weight of those as-yet non existent screen characters, queueing up to show themselves I gave up. The pressure of those 900 odd pages that awaited me was just too much.
Keen to find something I could devour in less then two days, I picked up the rather appropriately titled EAT MY HEART OUT by Zoe Pilger. I had heard nothing but good reports about this novel and aware that Pilger was a fiercely intelligent Art critic (always judge a writer on their background! I particularly admire those who also hold down a day job, it shows that they are aware of the realities of being a writer and don’t just swan around at launch parties talking loudly about their new novel, desperately clutching glasses of champagne and bending the ear of every literary agent/publisher within a 1 mile radius!) I was prepared to give this ambitious first novel a go. And I’m so glad I did – it’s a fast-paced novel, incredibly witty, often very strange and surreal and brimming with contemporary art references. The reader follows the hedonistic 23-year old Ann-Marie on a journey through London and beyond as she seeks experiences which will break the monotony of everyday life and allow her to find her place within it. Unapologetically dirty and extreme – this novel will shock and appall in parts. It reminded me of Charlotte Roche’s controversial WETLANDS and Sheila Heti’s truly awful vanity project HOW SHOULD A PERSON BE, only far more sophisticated and intelligent.
Feeling I needed to finish the month on something more introspective and ‘quiet’ I turned to Robin Black’s LIFE DRAWING. Spurred on my Jessie Burton’s rapturous reviews on twitter and a fantastic write up from Claire Messud in The Guardian, I knew I was going to love this book. The prose is absorbing, mesmerizing, shifting – so much is happening under the surface and in those spaces in between the words. This is Black’s great skill – creating an entire mood, an atmosphere and a life from a few sparse lines, from the mildest of hints. I am still reading this, in fact, I am actively avoiding finishing the book because I know it will leave a small void for sometime afterwards. Perhaps I can write more when I have had time to fully digest the book, to chew it over, until then I can do no more than urge you, gentle reader, to pick up a copy.