Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Late Review(er)

Since its still raining in Manchester, (you'll be surprised to hear), I've got on with some reading. Coincidentally, two female-authored prizewinners, Catherine O'Flynn's "What Was Lost" and Anne Enright's "The Gathering." They're both very readable books, and couldn't be more different, of course, except, like McEwan's "Atonement" beforehand, they revolve somewhat around childhood secrets. I'm wondering whether this is a contemporary trend, or is simply a recurring literary device? Children, I suppose, are almost always unreliable narrators, or unwilling witnesses to adult life. I'm wondering if the trend for memoir - particularly the "misery memoir" - is influencing the kind of subjects that get written about? Perhaps more accurately, in contemporary Britain, there aren't quite the same social mores that existed in the past. Both "The Gathering" and "What Was Lost" delve into the past, but in very different ways. I don't think its really possible to review either book in any depth without giving too much away. I enjoyed them both - and again, just as I'd heard Enright read from her novel last year, I also saw Catherine O'Flynn at Manchester Library.

"What Was Lost" is the 2nd book I've read recently - after "Black Swan Green" - to mine a Midlands eighties childhood and its recognisability, as well as its humour make it a very enjoyable read. However, I wasn't expecting it to be anything more than amiable. What impressed me was how well structured the novel is, and how even the smallest of characters are given a believability. There's always a temptation, I think, for new writers, to write from life, and yet I think O'Flynn takes her raw material and creates something very powerful from it. Ostensibly the story of a young girl who goes missing in the early 80s, it is the more adult sections which give the novel weight. It might have groaned a little under the weight of its coincidences (but no more than "White Teeth" for instance), but what is really impressive is that beyond the plot and characterisation, the real star of the novel is the gigantic shopping centre where the majority of the action takes place. Not since George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" has a shopping centre seemed so sinister. The novel is humorous, well-paced, and written with a nice economy that is far harder to pull off than it appears.

"The Gathering" is all about its language - for Enright writes beautifully, with a real physicality that can occasionally seem a little too insistent - and its slim premise, the gathering of a large Irish family following the death of one of them, is skilfully clothed in layer after layer of memory. It should be a grim novel - but it never is - and I think its partly her voice (or the voice of Veronica, the novel's narrator), but also partly because its a very indulgent novel - not self-indulgent, that would be wrong - but indulgent in the way that its narrator is indulgent. Grief and anger and breakdown are all intertwined in her telling of the story - and of her imaginings of how her grandparents met - and as a reader you either have to go with it, or run away from such intimacy.

What struck me about both books was that they without the "prizes" I doubt I'd have been interested in picking them up, they both - in very different ways - are unappealing in precis. Also, though very different in style, subject, and intention, they are both constructed with such skill and care, that I can only applaud. The idea of these two novels head-to-head in any prize seems absurd, since they are such different beasts. Let's hope this year's prize season unearths some equivalent gems.


Adrian Slatcher said...

Whoops. Thanks. I blame the arty cover!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Adrian, I'm so glad you liked the Enright in the end. (Can you guess I'm championing this novel?)

Adrian Slatcher said...

It's a fascinating book - so well written, and a worthy Booker winner, but problematic as well. Had a lengthy discussion with a friend about it last night. But you're so right about the need to get "the voice". It's the brittle, brutal heart of it.