Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor (2017)
It’s difficult to explain the allure of Reservoir 13. It’s thrilling without being a thriller, and it teems with life without much actually happening. In tone and intention, it has the feel of a short story, only a short story that goes on for 290 pages. Simply put, we have the life of a village, year after year, season after season, following the disappearance of a 13-year-old tourist. The tragedy of the girl becomes part of the fabric of the village, but it is merely the greatest tragedy among many smaller, even mundane ones, part of the quotidian along with life’s small comedies. McGregor’s style of piling one incident on top of another takes getting used to, and to keep the characters straight, it’s recommended reading over a short space of time. Thankfully, the beauty and clarity of McGregor’s writing and his insight into the human heart make such reading a simple, satisfying task. Some readers may be dissatisfied with this unconventional novel’s non-ending, but since when does life just end?
The Windfall – Diksha Basu (2017)
I was completely charmed by this comedy of manners set in India at the crossroads of tradition and modern prosperity. This is timeless satire, timeless in the sense that Diksha Basu isn’t pointing out anything new here but instead calls on classical themes regarding class, wealth, and ambition. She does so, however, from a fresh place of Indian great expectations, full of colour and lightness, and her observations are full of wit: “Mrs. Chopra looked like someone had taken Mrs. Gupta from Mayur Palli, coated her in honey, and dipped her in a luxury mall.” Or “A good spouse is someone with whom you can successfully run a boring nonprofit organization.” The Jha family and their friends are teased but lovingly so. In fact, Basu seems reluctant to put them in any sort of real peril. Instead, it’s a nice story about some nice people going through some changes, all in all a light, amusing read.
The Melody – Jim Crace (2018)
In an indeterminate place in an indeterminate past comes this bittersweet, simple story of an aging singer, Mr. Al, and his evolving town. Essentially he has a very bad week that sets off an irreversible chain of events, all beginning with the sound of bells at his larder door. It’s a novel about aging, loss and hunger in both literal and figurative senses, but it’s not just another sad-old-man book. This is thanks in part to the narration, which has a gentle formality about it, lovingly observant and respectful, as we later learn why. A highly evocative novel.
As an aside, this is my first Jim Crace novel, his 12th. Have you ever stumbled upon a writer and said to yourself, “Where have you been all my life?”
Less – Andrew Sean Greer (2017)
My favourite book of the year, the one I’m most likely to recommend. There are countless sad-middle-aged man novels. Why, even our protagonist, Arthur Less, has written one, only to have it rejected by his publisher. (“Even if he’s a gay man?” he pleads.) But rarely has there been a sad-man novel or character as winning, as endearing as Less. As Arthur circles the world in an attempt to outrun his 50th birthday, his lost love, his third-tier writing career, author Andrew Sean Greer lays out this odyssey like a banquet of increasingly exquisite desserts, beautifully constructed, delightful to the senses, always sweet. And yet there is surprising substance to Arthur Less’s humiliations and gaffs, for ultimately this is a story about love and its mysteries. Less the character is on virtually every page of Less the novel, and yet the reader never tires of him for he is, as a number of characters note, plain loveable.
Less won the Pulitzer Prize, and it’s an important book not because it’s “Gay Fiction” but because it’s fiction about a gay man. Being gay colours much of who Arthur Less is and what Less is as a novel, but it is the character and his love we care about, not his sexuality. In fact, Arthur is criticized at one point for not writing gay enough. Clearly, Greer is directing the joke at himself. But the reader gets the last laugh, for Greer has done a remarkable thing making Less so accessible, with no agenda other than to create warm, thoughtful, very funny literature.
Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday (2018)
I confess I had to go to other sources to explain what I had just finished reading. (Here’s a good one: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/why-asymmetry-has-become-a-literary-phenomenon) So now I feel a little stupid. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t enthralled by this book, mainly due to the stunningly assured writing of Lisa Halliday in her debut. Part 1 is told from the point of view of a fledgling writer and her relationship with a much older, established writer, Part 2 from the perspective of a man on his way to Kurdistan and detained at the airport, Part 3 from the viewpoint of the older writer. Whatever guise she writes in here, whatever “meta” themes she pursues, her touch is perfect, the level of detail just right, the dialogue exquisite. So what if I went “Huh?” I also went “Ahhhh….!” Even if you don’t connect all the dots, the novel is rich in themes of fate vs will and stepping — by choice or by chance — through the looking glass.
The Overstory – Richard Powers (2018)
At one point in The Overstory, Richard Powers seems to fault fiction for not pulling its weight to save the world, with its focus on characters and their individual cares. “The world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.” Powers seems determined to remedy that failure in this sprawling, philosophical work in which we learn just as much about the trees as we do about his diverse cast of characters. Powers provides the back story to each of the characters in the first section before setting them loose in part two, whose tangled woods of a plot primarily focuses on how five of these characters become guérilla tree warriors. In part 3, we begin to lose our way somewhat, as things start to get a bit Jedi. But by the end of part 4, it becomes clear that the humans in this story are truly secondary to the big picture of ever-thriving life, which will go on despite our human inability to quite literally see the forest for the trees. Powers has lots to say, often in lofty (yes, lofty) prose, including a suggestion that AI is the next interconnected life form that will help determine what purpose humans serve in creation, and not the other way around. Often bleak, sometimes overwrought, The Overstory certainly makes a strong case for our failure as a species and does so in epic manner. Plus, at very least, you will learn an awful lot about trees.
The Book of Negroes – Lawrence Hill (2007)
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov (1959)
Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata (2018)
Hotel Silence – Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2018)
My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout (2016)
Number 11 – Jonathan Coe (2015)
Other short reviews at my Goodreads page.