Sunday, 8 May 2011

Reading round-up, part one

As I seem to be averaging one post a month at the moment, I seriously need to try to improve in future. I'll start with a brief round-up of what I have been reading recently. (Progress has also been impeded by the new Mac, or more specifically, me not knowing how to use a Mac in order to put pictures up on the blog. This problem has now been sorted...)

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011)

I found Sarah Moss's debut novel, Cold Earth, fascinating - both because it is creepily atmospheric, featuring a group of archeologists studying an ancient settlement in Greenland which died out unexpectedly suddenly, and their own isolation in the wild after communication with the outside world is cut off - but also because structurally, it was deeply flawed, and yet I enjoyed it immensely. I was looking forward more than usual to what she might write next, because Cold Earth without the dodgy structure would have been truly fantastic, rather than merely good. And then I read Night Waking - a whole new set of strengths, a whole new set of flaws.

The central character is Anna, an historian of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century childhood who is stranded with her husband and their two children on a fictional island based on St Kilda while he studied puffin populations. Anna is trying to cope with being a full-time mother while finishing off the draft of her first book - a publication that is essential to keep her in employment after her junior research fellowship at Oxford finishes - and is unsurprisingly finding this difficult, particularly as her younger son Moth is a typically demanding toddler while her older son Raphael, seven, is preoccupied with the apocalypse. Anna is hardly a silent martyr, however, and a lot of the novel is made up of her increasing complaints - to herself, to her husband, and hilariously but disturbingly, slipped into her monologue as a mother, as when she re-interprets The Tiger Who Came To Tea: '"Good morning," said the Tiger. 'I'm here to symbolise the danger and excitement that is missing from your life of mindless domesticity,' or her Freudian slip when reading another children's story, 'Lucy and Tom went off for a lovely day at the suicide. Sorry, seaside.' Anna's story is interwoven with nineteenth-century letters from a nurse called May, who came to St Kilda to attend to the local population in childbirth due to the horrifyingly high infant mortality rates; the strand that connects the two is the body of an infant that Anna finds buried in her back garden.

Any chunk of Night Waking, taken on its own, is undoubtedly a good piece of writing, and I enjoyed reading it very much, but again, my problems are with structure, which gets increasingly repetitive as the novel continues: Anna has a rant at her husband, Anna edits a tiny section of her book, Raphael has a crisis, Moth has a tantrum, Anna complains about motherhood, oh look! a letter from May! To an extent this is unfair, as there are any number of beautifully-observed scenes (Anna's parenting crisis at high table in Oxford springs to mind), and idealistic teenager Zoe, introduced partway through, shakes up things somewhat. But unlike Cold Earth, which seemed rushed, the plot is undoubtedly plodding, and I found that the real interest in the story for me came in May's narrative, which deserved to be further fleshed out as it began to raise questions about who was in the wrong: the 'ignorant' villagers or the interfering May? Significantly, I think a strong case could be made on both sides, and unlike the rest of the novel, May's story is wrapped up too quickly. From a personal point of view, I think I may have also been a bit too close to a lot of the material here - working for a PhD on childhood and youth in postwar Britain, but having done a lot of past research on childhood in Anna's period as well, I fear my nitpicky historical brain switched on whenever we got an extract from Anna's book, blocking my more forgiving novel-reading self :)

I guess now I'll have to say that I'm waiting for Moss's third book... she has so much potential, and I really hope she cracks the structural issues.

The Orange Prize, 2011

I have only read two novels on the shortlist so far and so am not really able to comment on the list as a whole, but I'll certainly have a go at commenting at the ones I have read. Emma Donoghue's Room was the first I picked up, and I think overall I enjoyed it, but am a little bemused at the hype. I thought the first half of the novel was probably the strongest section, where Jake's five-year-old view of the world as a single room dominated, and was illuminating insofar as the most mundane objects and rituals were so important to him; for example 'Meltedy Spoon', a spoon with a melted handle, and the rituals and routines Ma invented to fill their day. After that, I think it became a bit too kidnapping-escape-story generic.

I've just finished Nicole Krauss's Great House, and although I think it was a stronger novel than Room, for me it was still good, but not great. Krauss's turn of phrase is fantastic, but I felt that sometimes she let this dominate the five characters' narratives - Izzy and Nadia sounded particularly similar to me. The novel is ultimately frustrating, because it seems to be about how much we cannot know, and how sometimes the truth is less important than what we do know and can hold onto: my favourite scene was where Weisz, an antiques dealer who has devoted his life to re-making objects Jews had lost during the Second World War, and claiming he had 'found' them again, reflects on his work: ‘Even if it no longer exists, I find it… He’ll only notice for a moment, a moment of shock and disbelief, and then his memory will be invaded by the reality of the bed standing before him. Because he needs it to be that bed where she once lay with him more than he needs to know the truth’.

I think this post is now long enough, so I will continue the round-up asap. (Not after another month this time!)


  1. I really, really must read one of Sarah Moss's novels. They both have such an intriguing premise, that I want to read them despite your reservations. :-)

    I'm glad we had a similar reaction to Room. By the end I was struggling to understand what the hype was about. I felt like it was an Emperor's New Clothes kind of moment, where a pretty average novel had somehow risen to the height of literary greatness through some misplaced reviewing hyperbole and the Booker nomination. I fear this is because of the resonance with real life events.

    I agree about Great House too. I found it a difficult and infuriating novel in parts, but also quite beautiful and moving. The final chapter from Lotte's husband, and then the sort-of-epilogue from Weisz were the strongest bits I thought.

  2. Oh, I would absolutely recommend both Moss's novels despite my reservations - what's good about them is so good that I'm probably geting more worked up than usual over the flaws. :) And yes, she's nailed the interesting premise! I also loved Weisz's epilogue in 'Great House', as is probably clear from its being the only bit I quoted. (Re-reading my brief review here, it seems a bit grudging - I went into such detail on Amazon reviewing the book for their Vine programme that I think I ran out of steam...)