At first, I really didn’t think I would enjoy What Belongs to You, which I read for my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project. One reason was its explicit sexuality, which I didn’t really find interesting.
As I read further, I didn’t like it because it is about the unnamed main character’s affair with a Bulgarian male prostitute named Mitka. I have never understood why some people believe that they can have a meaningful relationship with someone they’re paying for sex, or even more pertinently, why that is such a common theme for fiction. The novel is divided into three parts, with the first and last devoted to this relationship.
Still, it is very well written, with clean, crisp prose. I also found the second section, which is about the narrator’s relationship with his father, more interesting. I felt it explained a lot about the relationship with Mitka.
Ultimately, I was touched by this novel, even though its sexuality was so explicit that it occasionally made me uncomfortable.
In a Strange Room
All That Man Is
Best Book of Five!
Pete Snow is a social worker living in a remote region of Montana in the early 1980’s. His life is slowly falling apart. He has left his wife because of her infidelity, and she soon decides to move to Texas, taking their thirteen-year-old daughter, Rachel, with her.
Pete is called to school because a ragged boy is found there. The boy is Benjamin Pearl, the son of a religious fundamentalist who thinks the feds are after him. In trying to help the boy, Pete slowly begins to learn the forces that have made Jeremiah Pearl so distrustful.
The world Henderson depicts is a rough one and it seemed at times to be filled with lowlifes. Nevertheless, Henderson draws you into his universe and makes you understand these people. Although this novel is at times harrowing, it is also touching and compassionate. I read it for my James Tait Black project and really enjoyed it.
We Are Not Ourselves
All the Birds, Singing
Best Book of Five!
At the beginning of Snowdrops, A. D. Miller explains that “snowdrops” are what Russians call the bodies that emerge from the snow after it melts. Sometimes these bodies are of drunks who have fallen asleep in the snow, but sometimes the explanation is more sinister. This note at the beginning of the novel is not the only hint that things are not going to go well for someone.
Nick Platt is a British lawyer who has been transferred to Moscow during the reckless years of the 2000’s. He thinks he is worldly and sophisticated, but he has a lot to learn when he meets Masha and her sister, Katya, in the metro one day. He is soon involved in a love affair with Masha, who asks him to help with the paperwork for her elderly aunt’s purchase of an apartment.
During the same time, Nick’s bank is shepherding an investment in oil managed by a character he calls the Cossack, a typical example of the gangsterish businessmen he and his boss have to deal with. Finally, Nick’s elderly neighbor, Oleg Nikolaevich, is worried about the disappearance of his friend.
It doesn’t take much to guess that all three of these situations will go badly wrong, assisted by Nick’s willful blindness because of his infatuation with Masha. It is getting there that is the pleasure of this engaging, slowly unfolding thriller and absorbing character study. Snowdrops is a novel I read for both my James Tait Black and Man Booker Prize projects. It’s really good, teeming with the atmosphere of those lawless days in Moscow.
The Girl on the Train
A Gentleman in Moscow
Best of Five
Dear Thief is one of the first books I read specifically for my James Tait Black Prize project, and it is an unusual one. The entire novel consists of a letter that we suspect will never be sent to its recipient.
The unnamed narrator addresses her letter to her friend Nina, whom she has not seen for 18 years. Although not exactly plotless, the novel is concerned with the narrator’s memories of their friendship, imaginings about how Nina is living now, and thoughts about the events that destroyed their friendship and broke up the narrator’s marriage.
Beautifully written, sometimes stunning, the novel is a meditation on memory and on the need for connection. It is an examination of the complexities of relationship, for the narrator both wishes to see Nina again and hopes she will destroy herself.
The focus of the novel is of course on Nina, or Butterfly, as she was named by the narrator’s son when he was small. Harvey makes readers understand Nina’s allure, a beautiful, scarily intelligent woman who seems to be on a path of self-destruction.
When I began my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project late last year, I had, just coincidentally, already read three of the four shortlisted books for 2014. Having finally posted my review for the fourth, it is time for my feature where I give my opinion about which book I would have voted for.
The year 2014 has some strong entries, the weakest of which, in my opinion, is The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. Although it skillfully depicts two vibrant cultures in the 1970’s, to me there seemed to be something about the main character that was not convincing, and the relationship that the novel pinned its major events on was unexplored.
I don’t think very many writers can beat Kent Haruf as a prose stylist and was happy to see his Benediction on the list. I also very much enjoyed the winning book, Harvest, by Jim Crace. It was dark and powerful. I strongly recommend both of them.
So, my opinion is simply based on the feeling that All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld made the biggest impression on me. Although I read it long ago, in the fall of 2014 (as I did Harvest), it is the one that sticks with me the most and that I find the most haunting. So, All the Birds, Singing is my pick for 2014.
Set in the mid-1970’s, The Flamethrowers evokes two distinct but frenetic movements. In New York, it is the art scene, where performance art is coming to the fore and artists are trying to live their art. In Italy, it is revolution and the Red Brigade, where common people are rising up against business and political corruption.
The heroine, Reno, has grown up in Nevada ski racing and has a fascination with motorcycles and speed. She moves to New York to become an artist (although we never see her making any art) and eventually becomes the girlfriend of Sandro Valera, a well-known, older artist.
Sandro’s family in Italy made its money in motorcycles and tires, and when Reno travels to the Great Salt Flats to do a time trial on her Valera motorcycle, she accidentally gets involved in the family business. As a result, Sandro reluctantly brings her to Italy during a time of great instability and confusion.
Kushner evocatively depicts both the New York art scene and the seething streets of Rome, although often the artists seem like poseurs to me. I don’t think the depiction is meant to be satirical, though.
However, Reno as observer seems to be a different person than the risk-taker who went to New York. Further, the narrative, which occasionally jumps to the story of Sandro’s grandfather, who started the company, feels disjointed and as if it doesn’t really add up. Although I was entranced by long passages of this novel, I ended up wondering what it really was about. In particular, the novel relies on Reno’s relationship with Sandro to tie it all together, but that relationship is barely touched on.
This is the first book I read specifically because it is part of my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project.
The Blazing World
How to Be Both
Best of Five!
I know little about Samuel Beckett except that he was Irish, and I have the most basic knowledge of Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape. (“A country road, a tree” is his setting for Godot.) So, I would not be able to say whether the novel at all conveys a true sense of what Becket was like. I can say, though, that I’ve read other works of biographical fiction that felt as if they gave a false or poor sense of their main character. A Country Road, A Tree is much more plausible in depicting Beckett.
The novel does not cover his entire life but concentrates on the war years, 1939-1945. Beckett is already a published writer, although probably not to much attention. He is friends with James Joyce and other writers and artists in Paris.
At the beginning of the war, Beckett is in Ireland. He feels stifled there, though, and chooses to return to Paris despite the instability. There he lives an increasingly stressful and straitened existence with his lover, Suzanne. At first, he has no papers, which complicates things when he and Suzanne are forced to evacuate Paris with the German invasion. Later, he decides to work with the French underground, which makes their lives even more precarious. Finally, they must flee to the countryside again.
Although this novel does not concentrate on the literary side of Beckett’s life—in fact, during much of it he is unable to write—it grabs your attention and keeps it. It also provides some insight into the man who produced his later works. I loved Jo Baker’s Longbourne and have been waiting for her to produce a work equal to it. This is that work, which I read for both my Walter Scott Prize and my James Tait Black projects.
The Mermaid’s Child