What I’ve Been Reading

I sampled several new-to-me authors towards the end of last year, with very little success. I don’t know if I chose badly or if it was my mood, but I abandoned quite a few books, which is most unlike me, and flicked through to the end of a few more. So this year I have returned to a winning formula of re-reading old favourites and new releases from favourite authors.

I had mixed feelings about The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, but I loved the premise and the writing, so I was really looking forward to reading Melmoth. I wasn’t disappointed. I loved this, right up to the last page. Melmoth is about a woman (Melmoth of the title) who wanders the earth through the ages claiming souls, watching our transgressions, seeing the blackness in our hearts, the stains on our conscience. She is waiting for us to join her. She is lonely. The concept gave me goosebumps, and the writing, when Melmoth is ‘on stage’ is enough to make you hide under the blankets – or look over your shoulder. But Melmoth (the book) is more than a Gothic tale – or maybe I should say it’s a very clever Gothic tale, because it has at its heart the dilemma of what we believe to be right versus what we are told is wrong. Helen, the central character, lives the life of an atoning sinner. Through Thea and Karel, her friends, she encounters several other people who have sinned, and have not been redeemed. Melmoth is their destiny. The question hanging over Helen is whether it’s her destiny too.

I’ve made it sound a bit like a conceptual novel but it’s not. It’s a story told through Helen’s eyes, through a collection of diaries and letters which come into her hands. It’s a book that I found difficult to put down. It’s a book that gives you the creeps and makes you sad and makes you question – because it uses some of our darkest history, and peels back the facts to reveal the human suffering and the human desire to survive lurking underneath. And ultimately, I’m very thankful to say, it’s a book not without hope.

Dark Asylum is the second in the Jem Flockhart series, and it certainly lived up to my expectations having read the first. E S Thomson has created a fabulous, murky and intriguing world set in the environs of a lunatic asylum, complete with a decrepit church and sinking graveyard (and a truly horrific character in the form of the sexton). It also features a stinking gaol which is being perfunctorily renovated, a rookery that you enter at your peril, and the ruins of an infirmary being used to build the massive railway viaduct that towers over the whole setting, a metaphor for the ‘new’ order usurping the old. In amongst all this is Jem, apothecary, a woman playing a man, and trying – in this case not so successfully – to solve a crime. What’s not to love!

Ms Thomson’s cast of characters are fabulous. The crimes this time, I felt, were rather over complicated and at the end I was struggling to keep up with the (in my view unnecessary) twists and turns. For me, a bit less plot and a little more of Jem would have struck a better balance, but I do understand that the author has to keep some of Jem back to be explored in the next book(s). I’m just being greedy. This is a murder mystery. It’s a character study. It’s a diatribe on the hypocrisy of Victorian values, and the analogies are too clearly drawn for it not also to be a diatribe on today’s. I really enjoyed this, and am already looking forward to the next one.

A good friend bought me Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori. I don’t think I’d have bought for myself, so I’m really glad that she did. This story is so dark that you have to search really hard at times to spot the humour, but it’s there on every page. A group of old people who are variously and bizarrely connected, receive phone calls telling them to ‘remember you must die’. The voice varies, though with one exception it’s always male. The calls distress some, amuse some, and turn others into sleuths. The characters start to unravel, or to get better – though that’s all relative. They start to look at their own mortality or to deny it. They turn on each other. They turn in on themselves. Almost all of the secondary characters die. Then all of the primary ones do too. And we never get to find out who made the calls. If anyone did!

So, what to make of this story? I’m frankly still not sure. It’s macabre, in a brilliant way, and really harsh. It has to be said that some of the scenes, in the long-term geriatric ward for example, are slightly dated (though only slightly). The book was written in 1959, at a time when dementia was barely understood and never discussed, and what Spark does brilliantly is show the sufferers in the light I suspect they were portrayed in at the time, which has the amusing and very moving effect of shining a light on the observers – the ‘younger’ generation. It is they who come out of this book worst. But what Spark also does, again I suspect innovatively, is make us see the ‘geriatrics’ as simply people, with all the attendant human foibles and traits – age has not softened them, nor has it made them an endearing pack of ‘grannies’ that are left to rot in the geriatric ward! This wasn’t an easy book to read, yet I read it quickly. I think that much of it still has to settle in my mind. But it was an excellent read, and one that made me determined to read more of Ms Spark’s vast repertoire.

I do most of my bedtime fiction reading on my Kindle – mainly because I can’t read paperbacks without my reading glasses these days – which means I have a library of hundreds of print books that I’ve not read in years. But now I’ve embarked on a journey of rediscovery. I started with Margaret Atwood’s Robber Bride because I’m anal enough to have my books on the shelves in alphabetical order, and because I love Atwood. I still can’t make my mind up what, exactly, I think this book was about – maybe there is no exact answer! It’s a fairy tale. It’s a riff on mythology and history, turned into a modern-day parable (I think), and it’s also an absolutely brilliant study of three friends and their (real or imagined?) bete noire, Zenia or The Robber Bride in her many guises. Oh, and let’s be straight up front, it’s all this and a brilliant page-turning story too.

I love the way that Margaret Atwood plays on history and myth together, the way she’s always looking back to look forward. I love the way she weaves ‘current’ history into well-documented history, the way she’s constantly saying hey, look at how history repeats itself. And it’s not just facts, it’s character traits, it’s how we react, it’s how we constantly try to redefine ourselves into a shape that fits how we see our story – if that makes any sense. Roz, Toni and Charis do just that, to make it a bit clearer – redefine their own history to fit their perceptions of themselves even when, right at the denouement, Zenia finally shows them the clear (or is it?) unadulterated (or is it?) version of what really happened.

And so to Kate Atkinson and her Jackson Brodie books which I absolutely adore and have read countless times. Jackson makes his first appearance in Case Histories. He is a brilliantly complex character with an endearingly shambolic life. The ‘case histories’ in this book are intriguing, locked together in ways that are not too unlikely, and overall the book is (very) darkly comic. I love Kate Atkinson’s storytelling, her writing, the way she plays with time and twists the genre.

   

One Good Turn brings Jackson to Edinburgh during the festival a couple of years later. Atkinson labels the book a ‘jolly’ murder mystery, and indeed it is – if you like your murder mysteries steeped in irony and very, very black humour. Unlike Case Histories, the story at the centre of this book, of a corrupt housebuilder, left no room for sympathy or empathy. Graham Hatter, who builds ‘real homes for real people’ is not fit to live, in his wife Gloria’s eyes, and she’s right. Of course, you have absolutely no idea how the many other crimes are connected to his eventual death, as the story unfolds and the connections become apparent like a set of Russian dolls, and for me that is part of the pleasure. This is NOT a murder mystery, it’s a comic caper written on the edge of darkness with some rather vicious (hilarious) swipes at the Edinburgh illuminati of the Fringe and the Festival.

And then there is the eponymous Jackson Brodie, a man with a full fish supper’s worth of chips on his shoulder (I think I might have stolen that from someone). Jackson, who might have found happiness with Julia, if only he was capable of happiness, a man who thinks he has to save the world, resents that fact, but can’t actually escape the conviction that it’s still his purpose anyway. Among other things, despite the fact that Atkinson never really describes him, we know he’s magnetically attractive. A knight errant who loves country music and his daughter, with a tragic past he cannot escape (and doesn’t really try to) and some rather excellent morose one liners (though the queen of them in this book is Gloria).

When Will There Be Good News? moves us on another couple of years. Jackson has been dumped by Julia, but the book opens with him in a quest to claim her child for his own, because he simply can’t believe anyone could be a better father, and because the sheepdog in him can’t resist the urge to herd everyone he cares for together, even when they aren’t interested in being herded. He’s done nothing about DCI Louise, who has remarried – much to his chagrin – and his life is boring. Be careful what you wish for, Jackson, look what happened the last time you were bored. Sure enough, he’s immediately involved in a terrible train crash. Reggie, a sixteen year old going on sixty, saves his life and immediately calls in the favour to get him to track down her kidnapped (or is she?) employer. Who of course has a tragic past. And of course her husband is involved in some dodgy dealings. Which naturally means DCI Louise is back on the scene.

On the surface of it, this is another darkly comic romp stuffed full of improbable co-incidences – just like the previous books. Atkinson loves to play about with time, she loves to show that you can’t leave your past behind, that life has a way of coming full circle, what goes around, comes around, and in this book she really does this with some heft. She has such strong female characters, she showcases in a sense all that they can be, and you don’t care that sometimes there eventual fate is far-fetched because that’s not the point. In Jackson Brodie’s world, as he says several times, a coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen. This book is really tragic, but in a funny way because you aren’t supposed to take it literally. And it’s really fabulous. In every way.

In Started Early, Took My Dog, Jackson Brodie’s journey moves into alternative realities, as he comes across an alter ego, another PI called Brian Jackson. We jump forward in time, once again with Jackson having ‘failed’ to confront his apparent destiny in the form of Louise, who makes not a single appearance in this book. Instead, Jackson mirrors Louise by acquiring a dog (he gave her a dog at the end of the last book) and setting out once again in search of lost children, his panacea to his lost sister.

Does this sound existential? That’s because it is in a way – a very, very funny way. There’s Tracey, a retired detective who kidnaps a child. Whose child? We don’t find out. Jackson kidnaps ‘The Ambassador’, a terrier which does circus tricks. Whose dog? We don’t find out. Who is Brian Jackson really? No idea. Who actually killed the prostitute at the centre of the historic murder? Nope, no idea. Does any of it matter? I would imagine, if you think you’re in for a detective book then it does, but the books in this series aren’t detective stories. I have no idea how you would classify them except as dark, comic, and incredibly readable fiction. I love Atkinson’s writing. I love her internal monologues, her high expectations of her readers. She doesn’t write pastiche, she takes genre and twists and turns it into something else, that is what it once was but is also something else – like a dark reflection of itself. I know, this sounds pretentious, but the writing isn’t!

If you’ve never read Atkinson, lucky you. If you’ve never read any of this series, start at the beginning. As for me, I can’t wait to see if that phone call from Louise at the end of Book 4 is the beginning of something or another false start. And as for all the threads left hanging, will they be unravelled in the long-awaited fifth book out later this year? Maybe, but somehow I doubt it. I’m planning to be first in the queue for the hardback.

You can read all my reviews, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads. If you’ve ready any or all of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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