Review catch-up: things read

07 Feb


Tony Parsons, Valley of the White Gold (Penguin 2006) reminded me of the old radio serial Blue Hills, a comparison the author probably wouldn’t mind, but I couldn’t finish it. I was interested in the history of Mudgee that it offered, but I’m afraid I found the writing very flat indeed. It is the only OzLit in the current batch.


Will Napier, Summer of the Cicada (Jonathan Cape 2005) is American Gothic written in Scotland, but by an American. It is very good on atmospherics, and at times very powerful and disturbing. I have to admit I found the open ending a touch forced though.

Napier triumphs on two counts. His portrait of Joe is supremely well imagined and he uses the anger and desolation of Joe and his father to drive the novel along with irresistible force. Frequently brilliant and consistently unsettling, Summer of the Cicada will remain with you for quite a while.

Peter James, Dead Simple (Macmillan 2005) really is very good, even if at times just a bit far-fetched. The writing is not quite up to P D James or Ian Rankin, just to name two, but is good enough. I will certainly look out for other books by this author.

Just brilliant — a best read of 2008

No doubt about it, though I am a latecomer to it, Anita Brookner’s Latecomers (Grafton Books 1988/9) is one of the best novels I have read in a long, long time. How near to perfection can a novel get? Irony but also poignancy, an amazing eye for human relationships, characters one cares about, and a disturbingly accurate rendition of aging that resonated deeply with this sexagenarian reader! Totally a delight.

I can’t improve on David Leavitt’s New York Times review:

…Her wise and powerful new novel, ”Latecomers,” represents a distinct breakthrough. As usual, she has written a stringent and unsentimental assessment of human interaction, but the story she has chosen to tell is one of cautious triumph. ”Look! We have come through!” is the novel’s rallying cry, its cheer. And indeed, Thomas Hartmann and Thomas Fibich, the heroes of ”Latecomers,” have come through. Friends since childhood, partners in a London greeting card business that keeps them affluent without forcing them to work too hard, they are quite literally self-made men, having pulled each other up from their desperate beginnings as German refugees in an alien country, held each other up, helped each other to settle and build.

Only their temperaments are opposed. Hartmann, ”a voluptuary,” looks aggressively forward and has sympathy, if little patience, for Fibich’s anxious, debilitating homesickness, his sense of alienness (on a vacation in France, Fibich worries for no reason about being ”either stopped or arrested”), and most potently, his ambivalent desire to return to the Berlin of his childhood in search of the sense of self that, along with his parents, the Third Reich successfully exterminated. To his friend’s lamentations, Hartmann can only offer the better example of his own optimistic character: ”You are not a survivor. You are a latecomer, like me. . . . You had a bad start. Why go back to the beginning? One thing is certain: you can’t start again.” To Hartmann, ”Time is a wonder. . . . Time has brought me this good life, the food I eat, the family I enjoy. And if I got here by an unorthodox route I rejoice all the more that I got here at all. That I am here. Believe me, that is all there is.” …

”Latecomers” is an extraordinarily eloquent novel, full of pleasures as well as lessons. In a relatively short span of pages, Ms. Brookner gives us the lives of all these characters, their tragic beginnings as well as their resolutions in old or middle age. Perhaps the most affecting passage is that which describes Fibich’s eventual journey to Berlin – a homecoming that Ms. Brookner refuses to sentimentalize, and that is therefore moving in a deeper, if more elusive, sense than we might expect. She allows no easy answers; Fibich’s triumph, when it comes, consists merely of the discovery that it is all right to seek and feel comfort, and by this time we have developed such urgent pity for this suffering man that even such a modest victory radiates a sense of majesty.

Ms. Brookner, so adept at articulating discomfort, maintains all her familiar masteries here, yet seems to have reached an apotheosis of her own. ”Look! We have come through!” might be the rallying cry of this author as much as of her heroes. In ”Latecomers,” she has given us a novel that teaches its readers, like Fibich, ”to be free, and, once free, to be brave.”

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Posted by on February 7, 2008 in Best read of 2008, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, OzLit, reading, Scottish, Thriller


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