‘On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.‘
This month, the chain begins with Rachel Cusk’s Second Place. The narrator is M, living out in a remote country landscape with her second husband Tony, invites celebrated painter L to stay in the second cottage they own: she is powerfully attracted to his work. We’re witness to M’s inner monologues, as she worries about her relationship with her daughter, her husband and L’s antipathy towards her, manifesting itself in calculated rudeness. Cusk acknowledges the book as a re-write of Mieko Kawakami’s memoir of DH Lawrence, Lorenzo in Taos, but I haven’t read this. M could be thought obsessive, over-analytical, though much of what she thinks is beautifully expressed. Insightful? Pretentious? Only you can decide.
Some weeks on from reading Second Place, my lasting impression is of a lonely setting, and of characters who are ultimately alone. So the first link in my chain is Jane Harper’s The Lost Man. This story is set in the Australian outback, and for me the central character in the novel. Understanding the vastness, the harshness, the loneliness and unforgiving nature of this landscape was what I took from this book. It’s the story of a family, of three brothers who live next door to one another (by which you need to understand that they each live at least three hours drive from each other), and what happens after Nathan finds Cameron dead one day, by the grave of a long-dead stockman, in upsetting circumstances. The wider family unravels, then ravels again in a satisfyingly realised story, in which the ending was possibly just a little too neat. But it’s a great story, well told and visualised.
Loneliness of a different kind is at the heart of Javier Marías’ Berta Isla. Berta and Tomás fall in love while still at school together. Anglo-Spanish, Tomás goes to university in Oxford, to further his extraordinary gift for languages, while Berta studies in Madrid. At Oxford, Tomás makes a mistake which obliges him to make his choice of career to work for the British secret service. It changes his and Berta’s relationship for ever. This is the story of a marriage in which the husband is largely absent to his wife, to his children and to the world at large. It takes in – at a distance – the Irish Troubles, the Falklands War, and Franco’s dictatorship.
At one point Berta herself quotes from Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: ‘…every human creature is destined to be a profound secret and mystery to every other creature’. That’s what this book is about. A thoughtful, discursive book which will remain with me for a long time.
Let’s look at loneliness of a different kind: Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flynn. This is a book about what man has done to various places on earth, and what happens when man ceases to interfere: when the mining stops; the botanical garden is left to its own devices; the fatally damaged nuclear reactor is fenced off; the WWI chemical weapons site locked and the farmland abandoned. Nature begins to take over once more. Maybe not quite in the form that it had previously, but insidiously, by adapting and making do. The wilderness revives.
This beautiful, even lyrically written book celebrates Nature’s power to recover, even when to the average aesthete the results are not conventionally pretty. It may be almost too late. There is much to be concerned, horrified and terrified about as man continues to despoil the planet. But Flyn finds hope in nature’s power to take back control. A book I am pleased to have read: and one which gave me plenty to think about, and plenty to appreciate in the quality of Flyn’s writing.
Back to fiction, to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the tale of a father and son trudging through post-Apocalypse America. This is a land where nothing grows, no small animals are there for the hunting: where communities and dwellings are deserted and long-since looted for anything that might sustain life a few more days: where other humans might prove peaceable, but might instead be evil and dangerous. This book is bleakly, sparely written. Conversations between father and son are clipped, necessary. No speech marks. Sometimes little punctuation. Every ounce of energy is needed for the business of staying alive. This book, in which nobody lives happily-ever-after will stay with me for a long time.
An apocalypse of a different kind is described in John Lewis-Stempel’s Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War. I thought I was pretty clued up about the social history of World War I, but this book was a revelation. It describes the war, and life in the trenches and beyond from the point of view of the young subalterns who, in leading their men at the Front, had a life expectancy once there of six weeks. These young men, some no older than 17, had been equipped by their education in public schools to be team players, leaders, and military men through their membership of the OTC. They rose to the occasion, leading men often old enough to be their fathers, commanding their respect and even love. Some of these men became officers in their turn, because the public school men, frankly, were mainly all killed. Marlborough School, for example, lost 400 men in the Great War. This is about their short lives, and the lives of the men they led. Brilliant.
Oh goodness, this has been quite a dark month of book choices. Let’s lighten the mood for my final choice, in a book about that moment in our lives when we’re all finally alone … death. Waiting for the Last Bus by Richard Holloway. This is an excellent, thought provoking book written with a light, amusing touch. I’ve reached the stage in life where reflections on life and death seem appropriate, and this is a book I’ll read again. Holloway considers our fears of death, both for ourselves, and for those whom we love. He looks at what comes next, both for the deceased and for those left behind. A former monk, agnostic, and bishop, Holloway has written a book which is accessible to us all, not just Christians. Highly recommended, and not at all depressing.