Having just finished Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s a talented writer. Her metaphors are spot on, her ambitions high and she’s an accomplished storyteller – at times. This Booker Prize long-listed novel about Marian Graves, a female pilot in the early 20th century, takes off with a roar, but seems to stall before it picks up again at the very end. Whether or not you’re willing to go on that 600 page journey I’ll leave up to you. I certainly haven’t given up on Shipstead as an author although this book was a bit of a schlep.
...something long and epic
I must admit, I am severely partial to a narrated life-story, which includes twists and turns in the forms of death and romance, transforming the readers into the detectives. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood fulfils this criteria in the most evocative and powerful way. Carefully balanced, the author ensures the novel’s pendulum never swings too far into the excessively-narrative, nor the aloof. With Iris Chase as our narrator, we are invited to re-live the loss of her sister, Laura. This tumultuous story line is interrupted by a novel within a novel: here we are presented with a nostalgic and illusive glimpse into a perilous romance which sings of alacrity.
Norway’s capital is perhaps not the most spectacular city in Europe, but it has seldom been more charming than in Echoes of the City by Lars Saabye Christensen, the first instalment in an ambitious trilogy tracing the lives of ordinary people in post-war Oslo. One of Norway’s most respected novelists, Saabye Christensen has managed the feat of attaining both critical acclaim and high sales.
A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell is a 12-volume sequence of novels that has been lauded as one of the greatest works of 20th century English literature. The books start in the late 1920s and take us up to the 1960s, feature a huge cast of characters and offer a remarkable vision of changing social history, a deftly sustained narrative, some wonderfully memorable characters and a stark vision of the impact that time wreaks on our lives.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck somehow slipped through the cracks for me. I’ve spent the summer rectifying this and I can see why this novel has become such an enduring classic and a favoured choice amongst English teachers. The story of the Joad family, uprooting from their arid Oklahoma farm, fleeing poverty and industrialisation of farming in search of the American Dream is beautifully told, incredibly moving and a highly effective piece of political propaganda. If you haven’t read it yet, do. If you have, perhaps it’s time for a re-read?
Han Kang’s quirky Booker Prize winning The Vegetarian opened my, and I suspect many other’s, eyes to South Korean literature. I was curious, then, when Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a Korean-American, came out to rave reviews. Especially, as I have a soft spot for epic family sagas, the kind that sucks you in and makes you cry when you finish as you feel you’ve become a part of the family. However, Pachinko has turned out to be a tricky book to write about. It has many strong points but almost as many faults. I learned about the immigrant experience, Japanese racism towards Koreans, but missed some more historical context. There were characters in this book I really felt I got to know while others remained like card-board cut-outs. All in all, an uneven reading experience but one which still, somehow, managed to keep me going.
4321 by Paul Auster is a novel about Archie Ferguson, American grandson of a Jewish immigrant. Born in 1958 to hard-working parents, he grows up, negotiates adolescence, plays baseball, gets to know his extended family, lives through the major events of the 20th century. So far, so predictable. But because this is Auster, there is a twist: this is not one linear narrative; it is four stories, four lives in one. Same boy, four different childhoods, four different paths. Remarkably broad in scope yet fantastically rich and detailed, this is Paul Auster’s post-modern version of The Great American Novel.
I’ll admit right at the beginning of this review that I think this is one of the best historical novels I have ever read. And I’m deeply envious of anyone who hasn’t yet discovered it. You have an enormous treat in store. I first read this epic novel in one long sitting from cover to cover in my early twenties and I’ve returned to it many times over the years, discovering something new on every fresh reading.
If you’re at all disgusted by bodily fluids, don’t even think about reading this book. If you’re not, prepare yourself for a firework of a novel by a master storyteller set in a part of the world which I’m willing to bet you’ve never read anything about before. Kim Leine’s novel The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, set in Greenland during Danish colonial rule, won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2013 and is finally out in English.