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review 2017-08-25 22:34
"Reservoir 13" by Jon McGregor - on 2017 Mann Booker Longlist
Reservoir 13: A Novel - Jon McGregor

I found "Reservoir 13" hard to engage with at first. This partly the (I suspect, deliberate) frustration of my expectations and partly the style in which the people and events are presented.

 

The blurb says

"Reservoir 13 tells the story of many lives haunted by one family's loss."

The book opens with a search across the hills of an English National Park, for a teenage girl who has gone missing. My genre-led expectations kicked in and I settled down to a book about crime and guilt and secrets in a small village, with the mystery solved in a few weeks, during which colourful local characters and traditions are scrutinised and set aside as the villain is uncovered.  I knew that the book was on the Mann Booker Longlist, so I was expecting some trope twisting but I wasn't expecting something that rejects every convention of a crime novel.

 

I quickly amended my view of what the book was about but still found it difficult to care about because the story is told in an authorial voice that reports what little dialogue there is, rather than using direct speech and describes people and events with all the passion of an academic wildlife study.

 

I felt that I was being given a pencil sketch sprinkled with small details highlighted in colour for reasons that weren't immediately clear to me. 

 

I recognised that I was being shown the rhythm of rural village life where people's lives are governed by the seasons, personal routines and the politenesses required by long-term propinquity but the rhythms did not provide a narrative thrust.

 

I felt locked out of the inner thoughts or emotions of the people. The authorial voice seemed to have all the intimacy of a camera drone filming a landscape:  all-seeing but from an alien non-human perspective.

 

About a third of the way through, I finally surrendered myself to the rhythm of the book and let it carry me along.  It reminded me of the adjustment in pace that I had to make when I moved to a village in Somerset after living for years in London. I had to slow down to see the place. I had to let it absorb me before I could be part of it.

 

"Reservoir 13" shows how life is lived in a village. As thirteen years worth of seasons passed, I was given a surface view of all the things that people in a small village know about each other: the gossip, the constant observation of each others acts and the things they don't say or don't ask. I cam to understand how the politeness of being indirect grants dignity and privacy while still offering the possibility of sharing the things you cannot bear alone.

 

Initially, direct speech was less frequent than descriptions of wildlife or weather but, as the years passed and the context had been established, I was allowed to hear certain conversations and evesdrop on interior monologues.

 

The people in the village are following the same tidal flows as the wildlife around them and, just as Il earned about the courtship of badgers in the woods, I was shown that most human mating rituals are led by women and conducted through body language and eye contact more than words.

 

Some characters found their way into my affections: the vicar, carrying around everyone's cares and confidences, like heavy stones in her pockets, who brings comfort and compassion wherever she goes; the woman who walks her neighbour's dog every day but still treats each time as if it were something new.

 

The missing girl is not the centre of the book but rather something that distorts the flow of village life without adding to it, She is like a water-logged piece of driftwood that only occasionally surfaces but is always there, disturbing the peace of the water.

 

She has her own leitmotiv that often marks her appearance

 

 "The girl's name was Rebecca or Becky or Beks. She had been looked for and she hadn't been found."

 

She is a constant reminder of the possibility of loss and perhaps and incentive to hold on to those we love for as long as we can.

 

"Reservoir 13" has a distinct voice and an unusual structure that did, eventually, imprint the village on my imagination and made me reluctant to leave. The narrative doesn't thrust, it shapes your perception of people and events with gentle persistence, like a stream eroding one bank and building up another.
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text 2017-08-20 09:35
"Reservoir 13" by Jon McGregor - on 2017 Mann Booker Longlist - this is not going well
Reservoir 13: A Novel - Jon McGregor

From the description this sounds like a crime book - teenage girl goes missing on the hills above a small village - doubt - suspicion - secrets - yet it's on the Mann Book Longlist so I was expecting something with a twist.

 

I wasn't expcting something so difficult to engage with.

 

The story is told in an authorial voice that reports what little diaglogue there is rather than using direct speech.  The narration is a dispassionate description of events with all the passion of a more academic wildlife study.

 

This is mostly a pencil sketch sprinkled with small details highlighted in colour for no apparent reason.

 

There is a  focus on time passing and routines like seasons governing people's lives that gives the book a pleasant rhythm without providing any narrative thrust.

 

No access to the inner thoughts or emotions of the people. It has all the intimacy of a

camera drone filming a landscape:  all-seeing but from an alien non-human perspective.

 

I suspect the author is trying to do something new with form and that I should be delighted that he is eschewing the conventions of the genre. Instead, at more than an hour in to and eight hour book, I am still wondering what will make this book worth reading.

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review 2017-08-14 13:19
"History Of Wolves" by Emily Fridlund (on 2017 Mann Booker Longlist)
History of Wolves - Emily Fridlund

"History of Wolves" is easy to read but harder to understand.

 

I know how I feel about this book but I'm not sure what to think about it.

 

It's a beautiful piece of writing that uses language with relentless precision to climb inside the head of the main character.

 

Each page is watermarked with a profound sense of loneliness that the main character, our narrator, struggles with, denies, rails against, imagines gone and sometimes gives in to.

 

I felt fully present in each of the moments described in this book. So much so that, as we drifted between past, present, imagination, dream, memory and action, I found myself accepting what was going on rather than trying to make sense of it, much in the same way that the main character does.

 

Novels amplify my desire for a narrative that makes sense, that tells me something, that gives me meaning. "History of Wolves" frustrates that expectation. Rather than leading me to a conclusion or a judgement and "making sense" of the main character's life for me, this novel invites me to reach my own conclusions and then to challenge them and then to wonder if conclusions are devised to be a source of spurious comfort in an ambiguous world.

 

The story is told by Madeline, now thirty-seven, revisiting the events of a summer when she was fourteen and the things that led up to it and followed on from it.

 

Madeline, who also goes by the name Linda at school and with the family she babysits for, is both the most unreliable of narrators and the most honest of narrators. She shares who she is by showing what she has done and what she was thinking and feeling at the time but she gives no direct lectures, even to herself, on what this means.

 

Her narrative is not linear. It follows her reflections, making connections between past and present and starting from different "nows" as she tells her tale.

 

Madeline/Linda both accepts and rejects the idea that she is broken, that her childhood made her into someone with one foot always reaching out into space at the edge of the cliff. She sees herself, or perhaps her idealised self, not as someone human but as a wild thing, at home in the woods and on the lake but who still sometimes succumb to the pull of a hearth and food and a pat behind the ear, like a wolf playing at being a domestic dog.

 

The book cover carries a Jodi Picoult style "How far would you go to belong?" tag line on the cover that seems to me to miss the meaning of this book entirely.

 

I don't think it's belonging that Madeline's looking for, or even love. I think she wants someone who needs her and depends on her and supports her in an identity she approves of.

 

Madeline can be cruel and fickle. She is aware of the power she has over others. She is also aware of her own insignificance. She seems to be trying to find people and a place where she can be what she is and still be needed by someone who sees her clearly.  Except that is too glib. It may be what she wants but  she would probably resist anyone who tried to give it to her.

 

"History of Wolves" walks around two ways of establishing identity: "We are what we do" and "We are what we think". Madeline, at least the thirty-seven year old Madeline, doesn't seem to find either argument persuasive. The way she reviews her own life suggests that she believes that we are who we are and it doesn't change much.  At one point she goes further and suggest that evil enters the world when we let our actions be driven by belief, a personal narrative that tells us what we want to be true and absolves us from dealing with reality.

 

I need to think about "History of Wolves" some more. I probably need to read it again. Not because it's a puzzle I haven't solved or because the writer's intention escapes me but because I think it has more to show me.

 

The book often refers to the difficulty of recognition, of seeing clearly, either through fog, or through the loss of light at dusk or the emerging glow at dawn, or even the struggle to recognise objects identified on the journey out but which look unfamiliar on the way home and can only be recognised in retrospect. I think there is something here that says we need to let our eyes adjust to shape our world and that we need a point of reference. In this book, I think I saw each moment clearly but I have not yet been able to map the journey. Which makes it feel pretty much like real life to me.

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review 2017-08-01 17:09
“Idaho” by Emily Ruskovich
Idaho: A Novel - Emily Ruskovich

The title says, "Idaho - A Novel". I think the last bit is an assertion of intent meant to guide people like me who reach the end of the book knowing that I'd read something wonderful but not really being able to label it.

 

Each chapter in "Idaho" is a work of art. Emily Ruskovich can write in a way that makes you fully aware of how a particular person is experiencing something that is vivid and immediate but also ladened with context and possibility.

 

At one point she even helped me see inside the head of a blood hound on a search, head down, ears and folds of skin dampening all other stimuli except the hundreds of scents that contain the one scent I am looking for.

 

It seemed to me, that for much of the novel, I had become that blood hound and that each chapter was a scrap of fabric, soaked in sorrow, confusion, regret, guilt, love and, occasionally hope, that I would bend over and sniff at until I had extracted every scent of emotion and traced the trails of circumstance, intent, memory and consequence that connect the chapters and the people in them.

 

It is an intense, absorbing experience that speaks to my senses and my emotions but, by itself, does not satisfy my need for a narrative leading to some form of release. The nonlinear nature of this narrative, the emphasis on moments of being and intense but bounded insights into a person, meant that reading "Idaho" felt more like experiencing other people's lives than it did reading a novel with a beginning, a middle and an end. I was given lots of hard, emotionally taxing questions but I was offered only the inference of answers, much as I am in real life.

 

There is a narrative. It is triggered by an act of violence that changes the lives of almost all of the characters in the book. Revealing this narrative in a non-linear way is not done to enhance the tension or to build to a great reveal, but to show that we are not the events that we live through. They can harm us or help us but the self we bring to each moment is what shapes the outcome of an event.

 

I'm sorry if that sounds obscure. Emily Ruskovich would never say anything so clumsily as that. It is merely me, trying to find meaning in what I was reading.

 

In "Idaho" I spent time seeing the world through the eyes of many people: May, a six year old girl living an isolated rural life in which her most intense relationship is with June, her older sister, whom she simultaneously loves and resents; Elizabeth, spending her life in prison for murder and trying to allow herself friendship and perhaps even love; Jenny, a woman who is trying to abnegate her right to anything she desires but who cannot stop herself from offering something of herself to others; Wade, a man who has survived tragedy and guilt and love but who is losing himself with each memory that slips out of reach; and Anne, who falls lives a life of sorrow-filled love that she does not feel entitled to cut herself free from.

 

I will remember these people for a long time. I will remember their joys and their pain and their ability to survive as long as they are remembered by someone, even if it is only themselves. I will remember the mountain they lived on and how its wildness and isolation and unforgiving winters shaped them like wind eroding sandstone.

 

Yet I still struggle with "Idaho" as "a novel". Probably this says more about my expectations than about Emily Ruskovich's writing but it changed my experience of the book. If "Idaho" had been a collection of short stories, I'd have gone, "How wonderful. This is like reading Alice Munro" but it was labelled a novel so I found myself expecting more connection.

 

The best example of what I mean is a character in this book, a young man who loses his leg through an accident in high school, who's experiences and thoughts are beautifully described but who seems to have only the most tangential connection to the other people in the book. I invested my imagination in him. I didn't like him but I began to understand him. Yet I couldn't make him fit and my inability to do so distracted and annoyed me.

 

I strongly recommend this book, novel or not. The writing is simply wonderful. The experiences are harrowing but in a way that made me more empathetic than horrified.

I am astonished that this is Emily Ruskovich's debut novel. I look forward to reading everything else that she writes.

 

I listened to the audiobook version of "Idaho" which is read with consummate skill by Justine Eyre. She helped my hound dog follow the scent trails in this book much more easily and with more passion than I had only read the text.

 

I've included below an extract of her performance and a short interview where she talks about her experience in narrating "Idaho"

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/307854062"

params="auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="450" iframe="true" /]

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtXenrTg_MY&w=560&h=315]

 

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review 2017-07-22 12:44
“Ms. Bixby’s Last Day” by John David Anderson
Ms. Bixby's Last Day - John David Anderson

I’m tempted to keep this review really short:

“Read this book. It’s wonderfully written, perfectly structured and shares the lives. problems, passions and fears of three young boys in a way that feels real and true without ever getting schmaltzy or maudlin.”

Except that doesn’t do justice to the impact this book had on me. It was one of the best reading experiences of the year so far.

 

I bought “Ms. Bixby’s Last Day” in the hope that it might be good but the expectation that it would turn out to be too saccharin for me to make it to the end of. The reviews used words like “heartwarming” and “uplifting”. These terms have been so degraded by Disney and Hallmark that, to me, they scream “phoney”.

 

My wife read the book first. She recommended it but warned me that it was sad and that it had someone in it with cancer. I can’t always cope with sad and we’ve both lost too many people to cancer to approach it casually.

 

I waited for a sunny day when I was feeling relaxed and then tried the first hour. After that, I was committed. I needed to know more about the people and what they were up to. I found myself unwilling to stop for necessary but inconvenient things like work, food and sleep. I wanted to get back to the boys and their journey.

 

The book is told as three first person accounts, with each boy getting a chapter in turn. The pace of both plot and character development are perfect. There is a quest structure that is amusing and exciting and sad in turns but never leaves the real world 

 

At the centre of the book are three very different boys who each have a particular take on friendship, a teacher they all love but who is neither a saint nor a super hero and their mission to provide her with a perfect last day.

 

What I liked most about the book was the way the character of each boy was slowly built up through a series of interlocking events and insights that deepened my experience as the book progressed.

 

I was glad to see that, while the book did deliver a big finale that actually meant something, it didn’t pull any punches and the main focus remained on the boys themselves.

 

I strongly recommend the audiobook version of “Ms. Bixby’s Last Day”. Each of the boys has their own narrator, which emphasises their individuality. The performances are pretty close to perfect.

 

One last thing. My wife was right. It is sad. It will make you cry. Life is like that.

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