Reading is a dangerous pastime. For me, anyway. I have to be very careful…
Most people are able to read for pleasure. To pick up a book, enjoy it in their spare time, then put it down when work or their social life is more important. I’m not capable of this. If I’m still reading at midnight, I’ll carry on reading until 4, 5, 6am… sleep becomes less important. I remember when I was about 14, and I stayed up all night reading The Goblet of Fire, and my wonderful mother let me have the next day off school as I’d read myself into exhaustion (I probably learnt more asleep than at that particular school anyway). After completing an English Literature MA, I left university and learnt that work is (ostensibly) more important, so I stopped reading.
I stopped reading. I really did.
Running your own business and being self-employed requires a lot more work than being employed by someone else; but running a business with your fiance makes it your number one priority. Everything you do – or fail to do – affects them. If you miss a deadline, or lose a client, it feels like you’ve smacked a kitten in the face (Tom isn’t like a kitten though, just so we’re clear, it’s just a simile.) When I stopped reading, however, a bit of my soul died, and I’m slowly starting to get it back as the business matures and is better able to care for itself. I thought I’d share with you what I thought of the novels I’ve read over the last week.
The Chemistry of Tears – Peter Carey
A conservator of antique clocks suffers the traumatic loss of a secret lover she cannot openly mourn, and is given an eccentric project to distract her. As she tries to keep depression from overwhelming her, the increasingly manic behaviour of her assistant and her frustration at the hopelessness of her project’s original commissioner, whose story is conveyed through a series of crumbling notebooks, contributes to her growing dislocation from reality.
I never really connected to this novel. I used to work for the National Trust as a Conservation Assistant (‘Tour-Guide to the Past and Cleaner of Antiquities’ was my preferred title, but whatever), so I assumed I’d bond with the narrator over the grime of time and too many biscuits; but no. Her symptoms of misery are conveyed without a sense of the sentiment behind them, and a parent’s fear for their child’s health – the parallel story revealed by the notebooks – is not something this particular book helped me to comprehend.
The Conjuror’s Bird by Martin Davies utilised the ‘parallel mystery from the past that is discovered and misinterpreted in the present’ trope more effectively, and I found his characters to be more engaging. Not that I mean to critique The Chemistry of Tears. It is an intelligent book, and the narrative is well paced, but I didn’t enjoy reading it. The only aspect of the plot that caught my attention was the suggestion that the notebooks’ narrator may have been falsifying his own story, inventing multiple characters from the spliced traits of one individual, but this was not explored sufficiently to really grip me.
The Poison Tree – Erin Kelly
A bohemian summer of freedom ends in two murders. Straight-A graduate Karen meets Biba, a beautiful but eccentric actress, and is quickly drawn into her world. We experience the summer alongside Karen, the narrative interspersed with her handling the consequences years later, until a final death allows the past to finally be laid to rest. In concrete.
I was hoping for another Secret History, albeit – inevitably – a lesser shade. When I reached the final page I discovered that someone has helpfully listed books that share common themes with The Poison Tree, and included The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Sorry, but no. Not a good idea. They may share common themes, but encouraging comparison with these classics only makes The Poison Tree pall further. Biba’s house, the focus of much of the narrative and site of various pleasures and indiscretions, comes across as being more like grimy student digs rather than the temple of eccentricity and youthful awakening it is intended to be. The characters are well observed, hipster drug-dealer Guy in particular, but the intimacy and obsession requisite to the final chapter having sufficient impact to leave the reader shell-shocked is… missing.
A lot of novels claim to be of the same ilk as The Secret History and Brideshead Revisited, but I haven’t discovered one yet that actually is. So, dear publishers, please stop letting us down like this. Allow new novels to stand on their own, or they will forever disappoint. The Poison Tree is diverting, but not captivating.
I’ve not had much luck so far have I, but it’s about to get a lot better.
The Panopticon – Jenni Fagan
Fifteen year old Anais is sitting in the back of a police car (again), this time covered in blood that isn’t her own. As we explore the traumas of her childhood, frequently warped by her intake of narcotics, her fate draws ever closer.
I admit, my attention was captured by the front cover. The old adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ is bollocks, frankly, as that’s what book covers are designed for. As visual summary and enticement. The narrative of The Panopticon is told though wonderfully foul-mouthed Anais’s eyes, often refracted by a prism of hallucinogens. You never feel quite able to trust what she actually sees, whilst simultaneously putting your faith in her instincts and interpretation of events. Bad things happen to Anais, and to be honest she’s no angel herself, but at times she’s so normal that the horrors of her life are exacerbated until you feel desperate to help her. To reach into the pages, grab her hand and drag her out of her own story.
I found her consistent intake of drugs a little puzzling, as this so often denied her any control over her life and, well, ruined everything, without her acknowledging this or wishing to regain control. I’m not a drug addict though, so perhaps this is normal. Fagan’s ability to juxtapose horrific events with genuinely hilarious setups (the lake outing was perfectly realised, and had me giggling to myself long after it was over) seems effortless, and is highly accomplished. I’d definitely recommend The Panopticon, though perhaps not to everyone I know…
The Perfume Collector – Kathleen Tessaro
Two narratives, of 1920s Paris and 1950s London, are linked by a mysterious will. Grace is summoned to Paris by an unknown benefactor, Eva D’Orsay, and takes the plunge into a story that slowly develops into her own.
Both protagonists are captivating, intelligent and talented, but damaged. Living in different eras they are nevertheless both subjugated, albeit one by cruelty and one benevolent misogyny. Without tarring it with the brush of feminism, this is definitely a book for the girls, and will leave you thoughtful but elated.
I didn’t see enough of 1920s Paris, to be honest, or New York, or even 1950s London, which was a disappointment. Instead the focus is on characters, and those met by Eva D’Orsay are particularly wonderful. I’d recommend this novel wholeheartedly. When I turned the last page, I stared into empty space for a long moment, before looking around for another book to devour. A sensation only the finest novels can provoke.
Has anyone else read any of these novels? What were your thoughts?
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