At the beginning, The Underground Railroad feels like a typical American slave novel (think Beloved, The Polished Hoe, 12 Years a Slave and Roots) with horrifying details of physical and sexual abuse and a particularly evil plantation owner. Whitehead has a surprise in store for us, though, and that’s what makes this novel so original and intriguing.
Praised by the likes of Stephen King and sporting one of the best covers I’ve seen for ages, this award-winning book has all the ingredients for a creepy, atmospheric, wintry read. A desolate stretch of English coastline, a gloomy old house, apocalyptic weather, evangelical practices, pagan rites, and a cast of eccentric characters. The story follows events one Easter in the 1970s as a group of evangelical Catholics take a mute boy to be ‘cured’ at a holy shrine. The writing is evocative and Michael Hurley certainly knows his Catechism, with biblical quotes lending a reassuring authority to the narrative. He sets up a series of intriguing mysteries – why did Father Bernard lose his faith? How did the old lady regain her sight? What happened to the baby? What are the dodgy men up to? Why does the younger brother feel the need to record what happened before it is too late? The themes are worth exploring too: witchcraft/nature vs scripture/civilisation; the innocence or otherwise of childhood vs the so-called wisdom of adulthood.
Disappointingly, the book meanders around these themes and never quite knows where it is going; the Gothic tropes, so crammed in the narrative, can hardly breathe; there are too many balls in the air; too many loose ends left untied and – worst of all – the final long-awaited denouement is unconvincing and baffling. The main mystery is why this book ever won the Costa Book of the Year.
The Loney is published by John Murray, 368 pages.
A fascinating, partly true, tale of the tenuous relationship between a whaling community and the killer whales that help them catch their prey, set within hardships of a sparse whaling season in Australia in 1908.
Combining fact with fiction, Barrett tells the tale through the naïve and earnest Mary Davidson, the eldest daughter of the Headsman, whose humorous and surprisingly self-reflective voice guides us through this unknown world as she stumbles through adolescence, crush(es), hardship and pain. There are no attempts to give ready answers to life, and even the history of some of the characters (and the future of others beyond the year of 1908) are left open, giving the the reader much to mull over.
An unusual and endearing book: simultaneously full of a quiet suffering, hopeful yearnings, and indefatigable courage.
Rush Oh! is published by Virago, 368 pages.
This is a mature love story. It charts the course of the love between a couple from mixed backgrounds, from their first meeting to post-children. Where it is thin on plot, it is jam-packed with insightful nuggets and, though not yet a guide to marriage, something each married couple should read to better remember the consideration due their partner. While the narrator’s interruptions admittedly sometimes feel slightly patronising and somewhat didactical, they well suit de Botton’s style of musings and I felt they worked within the framework of this pseudo-novel.
It’s been a long time since I read Alain de Botton’s The Romantic Movement, first published in 1994, but I remember being irritated by its tone and disappointed by its attempts at philosophical conclusions. But that was almost 20 years ago and The Course of Love reflects both his personal and intellectual growth with a book that I would recommend.
The Course of Love is published by Hamish Hamilton, 240 pages.