Monday, 15 June 2015

This hasn't been a good year for reading and for the last few months I've been finding it hard to settle down to a book. (One notable exception: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, which is one of those books that, while you are reading, become more real to you than real life.)

But over the last week or so, I've devoured three novels. (A few days at the seaside, away from electronic devices has certainly helped!) Far and away the best was Anne Tyler's new novel which, at 73, she claims is the last novel she will write. And what a way to bow out! (I can't believe that Ali Smith beat her to the Baileys Prize. Or rather, I can, because literary prizes are a very unreliable guide to choosing books I'm going to love.)

A Spool of Blue Thread is about three generations of an American family. Anne Tyler drip feeds their secrets to us ... right to the end, I kept thinking wow, I never saw that coming. It's wise - she handles her characters with such masterly skill - and it's a book that could only be written by someone at the height of her powers.

I galloped through Bodies of Light which is short enough to read over a weekend; I'm not sure it would have held my attention for longer, because it is rather contrived. The central character is Ally, daughter of a successful Pre-Raphaelite artist in Manchester and his brutally philanthropic wife, who is fanatically obsessed by the plight of fallen women and, indeed, all of society's crimes against women. Ally fulfils her mother's ambition - nay, demand - that she should qualify as one of the first women doctors. Unfortunately, I never quite believed in this novel ... If men hold all the power, why has Ally's prosperous father so completely relinquished control of his household and daughters to this zealot of a wife? And was it even possible in 1856 for a bride in the Cof E to omit 'to obey' from her wedding vows? I'd have thought that didn't come in until much later; after all, until the Married Women's Property Act, wives were defined by law as subject to their husbands.
This is Guardian Wimmin's Fiction; not a patch on Anne Tyler, but it passed an evening and the train journey home.

When Darlene was over here a few weeks ago, knowing how she loved The Love-Charm of Bombs (which I still haven't finished), I remembered to show her the house where Rose Macaulay lived after she was bombed-out during the war. (Picture the scene: London blogger on the pavement, bleating: "Don't get run over!" as Canadian blogger blithely steps into the road for a better photo ... )

So when I discovered this brilliant second-hand bookshop a few days later - and there was an old Virago copy of Rose Macaulay's The World my Wilderness, of course I had to buy it.

 It is a fascinating picture of the bombed heart of London in 1946. Barbary is a precocious and semi-feral 17-year-old who has grown up in Vichy France, running wild on the fringes of the Maquis,  completely neglected by her English mother. Now that the war is over, she has been thrown into her father's utterly conventional household in London. There she finds an escape - along with other drifters - in the ruins around St Paul's. I've never read any novel that describes the derelict city quite so vividly:

'A wilderness of little streets, caves and cellars, the foundations of a wrecked merchant city, grown over by green and golden fennel and ragwort, coltsfoot, purple loosestrife, rosebay willow herb, bracken, bramble and tall nettles, among which rabbits burrowed and wild cats crept and hens laid eggs.' 

It made me wonder whether Sarah Waters read this, before writing The Night Watch? I'm sure she must have done.

Rose Macaulay was fascinated by the rubble and ruins of the broken city. I was less convinced by her characters ... even in wartime, could any upper-class mother have been quite as feckless and neglectful as Barbary's hedonistic mama?

Still, as Darlene pointed out to the assistant in Daunt Books who was valiantly trying to suggest a novel with a wartime setting that she hadn't already read ... only contemporary fiction really rings true. And Rose Macaulay made me feel as I'd stumbled with her over every broken stone and been dragged through every bramble.


elaine said...

I know just how you feel - like you, I just haven't found a novel recently that holds my attention. I ordered the Neapolitan trilogy to take with me on holiday - books two and three have arrived but I am still awaiting book one. Hope it reaches me on time. I have heard nothing but good about these books.

mary said...

Hope you enjoy it, Elaine; it's a perfect holiday read because you can just escape into that world. I certainly want to read books 2 and 3.

Mac n' Janet said...

I liked A Spool of Blue Thread, but I can't say I loved it. Well written, of course, it's Anne Tyler, but for me it just wasn't quite there. I found the ending a bit of a let down.

Cosy Books said...

There seems to be a slow trickle of ladies coming to the library lately to place a hold on Tyler's book. It's popularity seems to be down to word of mouth as the ladies are keen because of a recommendation from a friend or mother. Anyway, it's looking like a winner over here! And your weekend must have been wonderful, Mary! Our stroll around downtown Oakville was so chilly that R bought a sweatshirt from the Roots store to wear right then and there. Naturally, I had the good sense to start out with something cosy.

mary said...

I really got caught up in it, Janet;but I see what you mean about the ending.

It was too cold to sit on the beach for very long, Darlene.

Lucille said...

Excellent timing Mary. I have just finished Crewe Train, having struggled to get going with it and abandoning it several times before and I was just on the lookout for some other titles by her. And there you are.

mary said...

It's definitely worth it, if only for the London backdrop, Lucille - which I found fascinating. I haven't read Crewe Train, or any of her other novels.

Toffeeapple said...

This is a timely post Mary, thank you. I had wondered about the Anne Tyler but was dithering, I shall read it now.

Currently I am reading Vera Brittain's England's Hour. It is a good long read and seems to be more diary than novel.

Lucille said...

I have been reading London War Notes by MPD, so that will be a good companion.
Didn't she write The Towers of Trebizond? I seem to remember my mother liking it.

mary said...

That sounds interesting, Toffeeapple. I didn't realise she'd carried on after Testament of Friendship.

I think Towers of Trebizond is the one for which she's best known. Now on my list!

Nicola said...

I'm Ferrante'd out now. Loved the first two books but by the third I started to get fed up with this self-centred bunch.

I'm a huge Tyler fan. I thought the beating heart of A Spool of Blue Thread was diminished after the death of the matriarch Abby Whitshank, but yes, this should have won a literary prize. I think Breathing Lessons is Tyler's finest novel and I'm very fond of A Patchwork Planet. I doubt this will be Tyler's last novel. She said at the Oxford Lit Festival that she has 'no life outside writing' maybe she won't publish though.

mary said...

Sorry to hear that about the Neapolitan Trilogy, Nicola - but I can see how they could be infuriating!

Agree that it's hard to believe that Anne Tyler will retire, although I suppose there's no reason why writers shouldn't be as keen to retire as the rest of us! I also loved Breathing Lessons.Was that the one with the Ritz crackers pie? I always meant to try making one but never got round to it.