Affinity by Sarah Waters (2000)
I’m reading Waters’ books in a funny order. This is the third novel of hers that I’ve read - I still have to read Fingersmith and The Little Stranger. Affinity is my least favourite so far. It tells the story of Margaret Prior, a troubled young woman who becomes a ‘lady visitor’ at Millbank prison and finds herself drawn to one of the inmates, spiritualist Selina Dawes. This is a somewhat bleak, dispiriting novel which lacks the sparkle of Tipping the Velvet or the intricacy of The Night Watch. The ‘twist’ ending, too, fell flat for me. But I am not giving up on Waters yet – her prose is still great, and her attention to detail, building up the Victorian world surrounding her characters, is still impressive.
Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer (1979)
Gordimer has described her novel as a ‘coded homage’ to Bram Fischer, Mandela’s defence lawyer and a prominent anti-apartheid activist, and Lionel Burger, the ‘Fischer’ figure, looms over the book as a lofty presence. However, the real story, as the title suggests, is about Lionel’s daughter, Rosa. It is a fascinating premise: how does it feel to have grown up in a family obsessed with activism, to be left with a legacy that is impossible to live up to?
The narrative dips in and out of first person, and this is mirrored in the interplay between personal and political concerns in the novel. Gordimer uses language with beauty and precision – I haven’t read anything by her for a while, and I had forgotten just how good she is. I particularly loved the almost dream-like passages of the time Rosa spends in a small, rundown tin cottage with her not-quite lover, Conrad, such as this one describing re-reading letters:
“I read them again and again, their script appeared in everything I seemed to be looking at, pupils of yellow egg yolk slipping separate from whites of eyes cracked against the bowl, faint quarterings of tabby ancestry vestigial on the belly of the black cat, the slow alphabetical dissolve from identity to identity, changing one letter at a time through the spelling of names in the telephone directory.”
Rosa’s search for an identity which isn’t wholly contingent on her father’s legacy takes her abroad and back again, in and out of the South Africa Gordimer writes about so well. Highly recommended.
Also check out Tessa Hadley reading and talking about Gordimer’s excellent short story, ‘City Lovers’:
Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)
Quite a few people have suggested this novel to me, and having read it, I can see why. Interweaving the stories of four characters, the English Queenie and Bernard, and the Jamaican Hortense and Gilbert, the novel’s main plot is set in England in 1948. However, in the sections labelled ‘Before,’ Levy manages to elevate the characters’ backstories to a more prominent position even than the ‘main’ events. Each character has a highly distinctive voice, my particular favourite being Gilbert, whose experiences in the country he has come to defend are wonderfully tragi-comic. I was also very impressed with how Levy deals with the racism of characters such as Bernard: it is a real skill to write about attitudes we now find repugnant without making the reader turn against the character who holds those opinions.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman (2001)
I am ashamed to admit that this is the first work by Gaiman that I have read, but it won’t be the last. American Gods is one of the most imaginative novels I have read in a long time, with a cast of fantastical, mythical, and yet somehow utterly believable characters and a road trip plot that revels in the epic scale of the States. Only the final section involving Shadow’s (was there ever a greater name for a protagonist?) ‘vigil’ lost my attention a little; other than that I was fully immersed in the crazily inventive world that Gaiman has created. What should I read next of his?
Two in a Boat by Gwyneth Lewis (2005)
Time for a little bit of non-fiction, because variety is the spice and all that. Subtitled ‘A Marital Rite of Passage,’ this book unflinchingly depicts a marriage at close quarters, as Lewis and her husband Leighton decide to take to the seas and attempt to cross the Atlantic. Spoiler alert: everything does not go to plan.
The nautical terminology got a bit much for me at some points, but in fairness to Lewis, she does make an effort to explain it all in layman’s terms, and most people who pick up this book probably have more of an interest in boats than I do (not difficult). And as a poet, Lewis can certainly paint a picture with words; there are some gorgeously visual descriptions. The book ends with the couple finding themselves on quite a different journey than the one they were (sort of) prepared for – a tragic twist that helps to make sense of what has gone before.