I’ve read a LOT of books this summer, many of which I discovered through friends.
Liza Perrat, my Triskele Books colleague, suggested The Company of Liars, a superbly crafted tale set in 1348 England. Moving over the water, Darren Guest was impressed by Patrick deWitt’s tale of 1850s America in The Sisters Brothers. So was I. Triskelite Sheila Bugler, who reads at an incredible rate, said I’d love A Parachute in a Lime Tree. Sheila can spot good writing a mile off. My wonderful local English Bookshop recommended AD Miller’s Snowdrops for our first bookclub read. It provoked a range of reactions and interpretations, and very much appealed to me. And because she is a friend, I’d been very much looking forward to Jo Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I wasn’t disappointed.
It occured to me that these five books each have a unique take on the concept of personal morality; the pursuit of individual desires versus social responsibility. From 1348 to 1850, into the late 1930s, up to the beginning of this millennium and right now; each author has something important to say about how people interact, about judgement, about how our choices define us.
Here are my reviews of each, which have appeared on Amazon, Goodreads, Triskele Book Club, Words with JAM etc. And if you’ve read any of these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
A Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
In this extraordinary novel, Karen Maitland delivers a dazzling reinterpretation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales–an ingenious alchemy of history, mystery, and powerful human drama.
The year is 1348. The Black Plague grips the country. In a world ruled by faith and fear, nine desperate strangers, brought together by chance, attempt to outrun the certain death that is running inexorably toward them.
Each member of this motley company has a story to tell. From Camelot, the relic-seller who will become the group’s leader, to Cygnus, the one-armed storyteller . . . from the strange, silent child called Narigorm to a painter and his pregnant wife, each has a secret. None is what they seem. And one among them conceals the darkest secret of all – propelling these liars to a destiny they never saw coming.
Magical, heart-quickening, and raw, Company of Liars is a work of vaulting imagination from a powerful new voice in historical fiction.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
1850s. Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired guns on their way out west to kill a man called Herman Kermit Warm. The story is narrated by Eli, whose quirky deadpan style belies a surprising sensitivity. The two men are practical and efficient when it comes to violence, but Eli has a sentimental streak, which starts to affect the way he feels about his work.
The ambience of a lawless frontier where life is precarious is beautifully brought to life. DeWitt doesn’t shy from stark depictions of violence, but the book is shot through with a dry humour and human sympathy. Particular moments, such as Eli’s introduction to dental hygiene, are laugh-aloud funny and some of his philosophical ponderings are truly touching.
But what I loved most about this is the powerful voice that makes us view the world through Eli’s distinctive standpoint. Through his personality, we observe kindnesses and cruelties, power and greed, and reflections of the two brothers in other characters’ eyes. Unusual and unforgettable.
A Parachute in the Lime Tree by Annemarie Neary
A lyrical, charming and unpredictable story of what happens at the edges of war. The ripple-effect of what happened in late 1930s Germany reaches as far as Amsterdam and Dunkerin.
German neighbours Oskar and Elsa might have been lovers, but she is Jewish. They are separated in the build-up to war.
Oskar cannot forget her and learns that after a stint in the Netherlands, Elsa was removed to Ireland. He decides to desert from the German army and find his love. One night after a bombing raid, he leaps from his aircraft, with no idea where he will land. He ends up in a lime tree.
Said lime tree is in Kitty’s garden. She’s desperate for excitement and a German soldier landing in the garden is just the thing to relieve the boredom. But as Kitty falls for the German, his focus is unwavering. He’s looking for Elsa.
Elsa’s story is touching and complex, a musical prodigy whose life is torn asunder by politics and prejudice. While her youthful love searches for her, she finds solace in Charlie. The course of love does not run smooth, but Neary avoids cliché and delivers a bittersweet tale against a backdrop of horrors.
Snowdrops by AD Miller
The eponymous snowdrop refers to a body buried under the winter snow which only comes to light in the thaw. The image is relevant both literally and metaphorically to AD Miller’s Moscow tale of corruption and moral erosion.
The book is ostensibly a letter from Nick to his fiancée, cleaning the slate by confessing his past. During the early 2000s, he’s working as a lawyer in Moscow, where he meets Masha and Katya, and so begins his decay.
It’s difficult to talk about the book without giving too much away, but it’s a book to make you think. The author uses the setting of wintry Moscow, and the period just before the credit crunch, to great reflective effect. Nick’s moral choices are underpinned by a sense of ‘Right here, right now, this is just how it works’. But one day, the snow will melt …
The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling
It took me a while to get into the world of this book, but once I had, I didn’t want to leave. The characters and the village of Pagford come brilliantly to life, and not always in a good way. I felt positively murderous towards Si-Pie, wanted to slap Fats and would happily rip part of Obbo’s anatomy off. At the same time, I willed Krystal to find some kind of haven, kept my fingers crossed for Andrew and Gaia, and experienced the frustration which leads Parminder to her outburst.
The plot is expertly woven, and the reader is drawn into the petty battles, the daily cruelties, and the crushing hopelessness with omniscient knowledge. Rowling’s skill is such that she makes us root for characters such as Samantha when we are in her head, but judge her with the same sneering superiority as Shirley et al when we perceive her from an external perspective. It’s a clever feat of characterisation.
And the book works superbly as a highly unattractive depiction of the selfishness and absolution of responsibility engendered by the Big Society. The NIMBY mindset and judgemental blinkers are shown up as brutally self-serving and inhumane by one masterful set-piece towards the end.
This is a surprisingly powerful piece of storytelling which forces us, by stealth, to care.