november-december 2019 books…

The Testaments (Margaret Atwood): This book (published in 2019) is the follow-up novel to Atwood’s “The Handmaiden’s Tale” (which, you might recall was first published in 1985!). It’s set some 15-16 years after the end of the previous book and the story is told through three female narrators, two of them young and idealistic, one of them old and wily. Just like the first book, this is a powerful symbol of resistance to the misogyny of Donald Trump and the Christian rightwing. The book continues to explore themes of suppressed women in a patriarchal society and the various means by which these women attempt to gain individualism and independence (with The Handmaids being forced to provide children by proxy for infertile women of a higher social status, the wives of ‘Commanders’). People were understandably shocked by how unnervingly relevant “The Handmaiden’s Tale” was in these early days of the 21st century. In “The Testaments”, we’re no longer shocked – we’re just sickened by the thought of what actually might lie ahead of us in our own lifetime (it feels THAT real!). It’s a brilliant, disturbing book with a hugely important message… and Atwood is a wonderful, wonderful writer.
The Overstory (Richard Powers): This is a beautiful, remarkable book (and it’s the latest of Book Group’s books – and which won the Pulitzer Fiction Prize for 2019). Essentially, it’s a novel (eco-novel?) about nature (and trees in particular). A hugely intelligent, profound, thought-provoking, well-researched novel about the ‘heedless’ destruction of trees - full of knowledge, beauty, history and science. Powers tells his story through the lives of nine strangers – each summoned and connected in different ways by the natural world. I found the first half of the novel (telling the background stories of the eight individuals and then how they come to be connected) absolutely compelling. It’s a long book (625 pages!) and, frankly, I felt it could have been reduced by perhaps 100 pages without detriment. However, there was something about the slowness of its story unfurling that reflected the quiet, adaptation by nature itself – which I felt was utterly appropriate. It’s an incredibly powerful homage to the natural world and the awful disregard that we, as humans, have for it. The book echoes a similar message (although in a completely different way) to one of our other recent Book Group books (‘Lanny; by Max Porter): something of a call to action regarding today’s world – reminding us about the need to nurture and care for our planet (and people) and about man’s selfishness and our apparent obsession with ‘wanting more and wanting it now – whatever the consequences’. There were parts of the book that I found worked much better than others, but I came to like all the individuals who helped to tell the story. Although it was never going to have an ‘everyone-lived-happily-ever-after’ ending, I found it a haunting and, ultimately, hopeful book which I know I’ll be reflecting on over the coming weeks. Pretty magical and a book I think you need to read.
A Kestrel For A Knave (Barry Hines): Ken Loach’s brilliant film ‘Kes’ is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year (amazingly) and I recently watched an excellent TV documentary (presented by Greg Davies) to mark the occasion. The film is one of my ‘all-time’ favourites, but I realised that I’d never read Hines’ book, published in 1968. In case you don’t know the film or the story, I don’t intend telling much of the story here… except that it’s about a 15 year-old, troubled, working-class schoolboy named Billy Casper (who’s about to leave school for the world of ‘work’, but hardly able to read or write) living in poor conditions in Barnsley. It’s a powerful story of survival in a tough, joyless world. Although Billy’s no angel (he steals; he tells lies and he’s lazy), he’s picked on - both at home and at his pretty depressing secondary modern school - by his schoolmates and by most of his teachers. Billy’s father left home some years earlier; his mother cares more about her love life than being a good mother (one of Billy’s friends reckons “tha’s got more uncles than any kid in this City”); and his older half-brother (who shares Billy’s bed and works “down t’pit”) is both physically and verbally abusive towards him. Billy is treated as a failure academically and he’s unhappy at home. But then he discovers a passion in the form of a kestrel hawk… a creature he captures from the wild and, against all the odds, sets about training. This short novel is quite brilliant… sad and shocking, powerful and uplifting. A reminder of how things were like for so many working-class children and families… but also a reminder, in many ways, of how little has changed.
Middle England (Jonathan Coe): This is a novel about Brexit. If I tell you that, in the light of the EU referendum outcome and the imminent General Election, I’ve never felt as hopelessly depressed about politics in my life as I do now, then you might have advised me to steer clear of any books on the subject. But you’d have been wrong. This is an uplifting book. Coe is a very funny writer and, somewhat ridiculously (you may think), he makes you feel better about what we’ve been through (and what is still to come). This state-of-the-nation novel starts in April 2010 and takes the reader up to September 2018 through the lives of the book’s characters… it provides a true-to-life picture of the Brexit story - that is funny, moving, depressing and tender – in an intelligent and delightful way. I even found the book’s cover entirely apt – a torn extract from one of those old railway posters showing a nostalgic, painted image of a quintessential English landscape… evoking, as some would no doubt have it, an impression of the ‘good old England’ we used to have. I really enjoyed the book (and reading it at the present time has been a perfect antidote to our current depressing times!)… a very clever man that Jonathan Coe.
I’ll Keep You Safe (Peter May): I really enjoy May’s books. This is another one set on the isle of Lewis (and Paris!)(but nothing to do with the ‘Lewis Trilogy’), published in 2018. Centred around husband and wife co-owners of a Hebridean Tweed company who were on a business trip to Paris to promote their luxury brand. The husband and another woman (a lover?) are killed by a car bomb; the wife returns home, bereft. Apparently, not terrorism but murder. The wife is one of the prime suspects… Another real page-turner (it’s 450 pages long and I read it in a little over a day). May is a very clever writer and his plots are intricate and ingenious. As with most crime novels of this type, the writer points you in the direction of perhaps four or five key characters who could all be the guilty party… and May duly conforms to this pattern here. But, much as I admire his invention, I found myself saying “Really? REALLY?” out loud! In the end, I found it somewhat implausible and far-fetched… and, frankly, I wasn’t altogether convinced.