My last post on holiday reads features new or (relatively) new books.
Shelter. Sarah Franklin
Shelter is the debut novel from Sarah Franklin, who hosts the wonderful Short Stories Aloud event in Oxford. Alas! I wasn’t able to get to either her launch party or her SSA event, but as it was published round my birthday I was lucky enough to have a copy delivered to me in Tenby.
Shelter is an unusual World War 2 story for several reasons. One is that instead of presenting us with a stereotypical wartime romance, the author has written a relationship based on uncertainty and ambivalence which is far more interesting. The second is that the heroine Connie subverts all our expectations of motherhood and behaves in ways that seem selfish mainly because she is a woman. And in another neat role reversal, while she yearns for freedom, it is her lover Seppe who longs for the comfort of safe domesticity. Thirdly, the novel is set far away from the front lines in the Forest of Dean, which allows us to see the impact of war on ordinary people.
The evocative setting of the forest, the sense of everyone finding shelter under its trees and the well drawn characters make this a satisfying and enjoyable debut. I’m very much looking forward to Sarah’s next book.
How to Stop Time. Matt Haig
The title for this novel (another birthday present) comes from a short section of Haig’s self help book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive‘ which begins ‘how to stop time:kiss‘ and continues ‘how to travel in time:read’ . It is an entirely fitting title for a book that explores what it feels like to be disconnected from the world, and the struggle to remain human and alive. Haig has visited this territory before with his novel, ‘The Humans’ in which his hero was an alien trying to understand humans. Here, the central character Tom suffers from a strange disease that means he ages very slowly. As a result, he has lived through centuries, hiding his secret for fear of being punished, after his mother was drowned as a witch and his wife died of the plague.
After centuries of searching for his daughter, who suffers from the same illness, he discovers an organisation of people like himself. When they promise to help him in his mission, he becomes an enforcer for them, killing those who would tell the world they would exist and changing his identity every eight years to avoid discovery. But, just as the alien in ‘The Humans’ begins to question his Vonnadoran masters who want him to kill the humans, Tom too, begins to realise he has made the wrong choice, particularly when the chance to love again comes his way.
This is a beautifully optimistic book with some lovely set pieces. I didn’t love it as much as Haig’s previous two, particularly because I felt the historical segments were too Hollywoodised (not surprisingly it’s being made into a film with Benedict Cumberbatch). However, these are niggles, because the central concept is so very strong, and in a world that constantly challenges us to be optimistic, we need books like this to remind us that human kindness and love will save us every time.
The Power. Naomi Alderman.
I had a weird experience on holiday, when I was looking at the pile of books we’d brought and was pleased to see someone had brought ‘The Power’ which I’d been meaning to read. When everyone denied buying it I realised belatedly that I’d purchased it as buy two get one free and completely forgotten about it. That’s the menopause for you…
Anyway I digress. I wasn’t sure about this one as I hadn’t particularly liked the last novel I’d read by Naomi Alderman, but ‘The Power’ was being hyped as THE feminist book of the year so I had to give it a go. And I’m very glad I did. ‘The Power’ is a fascinating novel about what the world might be like if women were more physically powerful then men. The novel begins with a teenager discovering she literally has power at her finger tips when, her anger at a man trying to sexually harass causes her to electrocute him. All of a sudden all over the world young women find themselves able to fight back and the patriarchy is under attack. And when the older generation are also awakened by their daughters, the world changes dramatically.
This is such an interesting idea and Alderman deals with it well by playing out different responses. A liberal American politician helps contain the phenomena to ensure her rise to power, sending her daughter to a training camp to correct her, and hiding her own abilities. The wife of an Eastern European dictator kills the tyrant and takes over the country ridding it of domestic abusers. The daughter of a gangster takes revenge on her mother’s murderers before fleeing to America. An abused foster child reinvents herself as a religious leader. There are sexual revolutions around the globe and a young African man sets out to document it all. All of which leads to some searching questions about what gives us power, what having power means and whether we can ever stop the powerful from committing abuse. For once, a novel that deserves the hype.
The Heart. Maylis de Kerangal.
This 2016 novel was another birthday present and was very different from my other reads. It deals with a short intense period that follows the death of a young man and the decision his parents must make as to whether to have a heart transplant.
The book takes us from the moment the young man and his friends decide to go surfing early in the morning, through the accident that kills him, the hospital that receives him the horror for his parents and then the various medical issues that need to be resolved until the heart reaches the woman who is waiting.
It’s a really thoughtful book, well told that takes us from person to person as the events impact their lives from the devastated parents to the hopeful recipient. Though it’s not high on action, the emotions run deep, and the novel leaves you with a sense of both the fragility, and strength of the world. It wasn’t my favourite book of the summer, but still is well worth a read.
I did also begin The Bible this summer, nearly reaching the end of the Pentateuch, but since I haven’t finished it, and I couldn’t get it any one of my categories, that’ll have to wait for another time.
In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed my holiday reads and found something to whet your appetite.