It’s been an Easter feast of reading here at Charlotte’s Web. I should have been writing and reading other people’s manuscripts, but instead I was selfishly absorbed in a big fat pile of novels. Delicious. And especially good when accompanied by a Lindt bunny or three.
The first book I read was Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal, which is longlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize. Set in New Zealand, where the writer grew up, the novel centres on an all-girls’ school where one of the senior girls has had a relationship with the music teacher, Mr Saladin. Down the road, at the acting school, the first-year drama students get wind of the scandal and rehearse it for a play of their own. What makes this book stand out (it also won the Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award) is its luscious and original use of language. Here’s a snippet from the second page:
‘I require of all my students,’ the saxophone teacher continues, ‘that they are downy and pubescent, pimpled with sullen mistrust, and boiling away with private fury and ardour and uncertainty and gloom. I require that they wait in the corridor for ten minutes at least before each lesson, tenderly nursing their injustices, picking miserably at their own unworthiness as one might finger a scab or caress a scar. If I am to teach your daughter, you darling hopeless and inadequate mother, she must be moody and bewildered and dissatisfied and wrong. When she realises that her body is a secret, a dark and yawning secret of which she becomes more and more ashamed, come back to me. You must understand me on this point. I cannot teach children.’
The novel is experimental and playful. While the style seemed extraordinary at first, I found myself drawn into it, especially since the world Catton weaves is so intriguing. She evokes the intensity and self-absorption of teenagers, the sexual hothouse of high school and the rather fake theatricality of drama school with maturity, sophistication and wit. The Rehearsal is a wonderful read and I won’t be surprised if it makes the Orange shortlist, or even wins. As someone trying to learn the craft of writing, what I’m taking away from Catton’s novel is this: be bold with language and unafraid to experiment.
Second on my reading list this weekend was Aifric Campbell’s The Loss Adjustor and I am somewhat puzzled that it’s not on the Orange long list. This is Campbell’s second novel and her first The Semantics of Murder, which I haven’t read, was extremely well-received. Caro is a loss adjustor for a London insurance firm and has specialised in compartmentalising her emotions. However she can’t shake the tragic events of her childhood: the deaths of her father, her dog and one of her best friends, and returns frequently to the village where she grew up. While visiting her friend Estelle’s grave, she meets Tom, an old man also grieving his lost loves, and these two ill-matched and emotionally stunted characters become friends. Campbell is especially good at evoking Caro’s inability to shake her past and her style is spare and cool. As a writer, l learnt this: the subtle seeping in of backstory makes a reader grow to identify with a character.
Next up in my reading carnival was Orange long-listee MY Hyland’s This is How. The novel comes hugely feted by Hilary Mantel, who says, ‘When you’ve been reading Hyland, other writers seem to lack integrity; they seem wedded to weak confabulations, whereas she aims straight for the truth and the heart.’ To me, that seems to be the ultimate praise, and it’s richly deserved as Hyland’s tale of a man whose life is going off the rails is fascinating and masterful. Patrick, the protagonist, is someone who doesn’t cope with life and as the reader you watch with growing empathy and horror as things fall apart. Hyland’s dialogue is exceptional and she uses it to demonstrate his mental unwinding. There is nothing extraneous in her writing, no fluff, few descriptors, and everything viewed through the increasingly jaundiced eye of her narrator. Lesson learnt by novice novelist: dialogue is key, both to moving the action on and to evincing a character’s mindset.
Today I read Amanda Craig’s Hearts and Minds, also on 2010’s Orange longlist. This is a London novel, and has been called Dickensian by some reviewers in that it has a strong moral conscience. Craig picks five disparate Londoners: Polly, a human rights lawyer and single mother; Anna, a trafficked Ukrainian teenager, an illegal Zimbabwean minicab driver called Job; Ian, a South African supply teacher and Katie, an American assistant for a high-flying magazine editor. Her talent lies in slowly winding the five together in an ever-tightening net, where the stakes grow higher and ordinary people behave in heroic fashion. I particularly loved the character Job, for his moral courage and his fortitude. Hearts and Minds is a big fat novel – the kind I like best – and takes on every aspect of today’s London, from the grimmest brothels to the sinkhouse estates to the posh clubs without striking one false note. The lesson I’m taking from Craig’s book is this: don’t be afraid of a broad canvas.
I’ve just started Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger and then I’ll be reading The Twisted Heart by Rebecca Gowers. I’m looking forward to the announcement of the shortlist later this month and I’m hoping that Hyland, Craig and Catton will all be on it. Watch this space.