Books for the new year

The most rewarding aspect of my year-and-a-bit old resolution to stop re-reading old favourites and concentrate on new books has been discovering authors whom I’d either heard of but never read, or had simply never heard of.  I am lucky enough to have the library of one who reads more than I do at my disposal, and thanks to him I’ve recently come across two people I’d like to read more by.

Asylum by Patrick McGrath is a dark and rather depressing thriller whose central conceit is that the story is related by one of the major players in a way that initially leads us to think it’s a dispassionate account, when of course the point is that it can’t be.  I found myself almost more interested in the motivations of the narrator than in the events which unfold in the story itself – which in itself is quite gripping enough.  Add to the mix that both the narrator and other key characters are psychotherapists, or possibly psychiatrists (I know it’s terrible to get them confused, apologies to representatives of both professions) and you begin to realise that there are more layers to this story than might at first be apparent.

That said, the weakest part of the book is its characterisation, and it’s hard to care about people who don’t seem quite real, somehow.  But even so, it kept me engaged right to the end.  I don’t know whether either author would see this as a compliment, but I mean it as one when I say that it reminded me of Ruth Rendell at her best.  It certainly made me want to read more by him.

But then I wanted something completely different.  “What sort of thing?”, enquired my private librarian.  “Something set in Ireland!”, I declared triumphantly.  And so it was that I found myself reading J. G. Farrell’s Troubles, the story of a first world war veteran (though he’s not old, which is something I always have to remember when I read about “veterans”) who in 1919 becomes entangled with an Anglo-Irish family living in a tumbledown hotel on the east coast of the country, and gradually finds that he is unable to leave them or the place to their grim fate.  The inevitable eventual ruin of the hotel, brought to rubble by creeping vegetation, serves as a slightly clumsy metaphor for the decline of English rule in Ireland, but the writing is so magical, the characters so beautifully drawn and the jokes so icily perfect that I forgave it everything.  It’s a gem of a book which I would recommend to absolutely anyone.  I have now found copies of The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip, and if they’re half as good I’ll love those too.

Speaking of world war one veterans, I have now moved on to The Avenue Goes To War, the second part of the Avenue trilogy by R.F. Delderfield which I began reading last year.  Having barely recovered from the various ravages wrought by the first war the inhabitants of this unremarkable suburban street find themselves embarking on a second.  I haven’t got very far with it yet (I only picked it up at the weekend), but I’m already struck again by the subtlety of Delderfield’s writing.  It seems so simple, and yet it’s so very readable that one wonders how hard he had to work to perfect it.   More thoughts to come when I get further through the book.

In the category of “Things I Thought I Should Read Because Everybody Else Was Doing It” is The Road, which I started a couple of weeks ago but which hasn’t grabbed me yet.  I’ve heard so many good things about it, and so few bad, that I shall do my best to persevere to the end.  It’s not a long book, and I think all I need is a few uninterrupted hours when I’ve nothing better to do.  But as long as I keep finding Wodehouse books I haven’t read for £1.99 in Oxfam that’s unlikely to happen.

Talking of Wodehouse, I’ve come to a firm conclusion about something which I’d only suspected before, which is that I prefer the Blandings stories to Jeeves and Wooster.  Jeeves and Wooster are wonderful and perfect, but the more one reads of them the more one realises that there are a certain number of boxes which must ticked in each story, and once the boxes are all ticked the story is over.  I shan’t enumerate the essential plot elements because I don’t want to pre-empt anyone else’s enjoyment of them, but they are there, and once one realises that the stories become slightly – and only slightly – less enjoyable.  Perhaps this is a symptom of having “discovered” the books so late in life and read too many of them in a six-month-long gorge.  A spot of indigestion is only to be expected.

In contrast, the Blandings crowd are an entirely unpredictable lot, and though they travel on a similar merry-go-round of broken engagements, misunderstandings and small domestic catastrophes, these things happen to a wider variety of people and are resolved in less foreseeable circumstances.  There’s also the fact that they are set in the countryside.  I do like domestic catastrophes involving farm animals.  And there is something intrinsically funny about a prizewinning pig.

Which leads me almost seamlessly to a book about which I still can’t quite form an opinion.  Stalking Fiona is by Nigel Williams, of fond Wimbledon stories memory (does that make it sound as though he’s dead?  He isn’t), and it’s the first non-comedy I’ve read by him.  Which doesn’t stop it from being funny – he can’t help but be funny, even when he’s not trying, though I suspect he was trying in this case.  And yet it’s not quite funny enough to count as a comic thriller: I’m fairly sure it’s intended as a straight thriller.  And the problem there is that it’s not quite tight enough to be a straight thriller.  It sets up lots of questions, and by the last page they aren’t all answered.  In some genres that’s forgivable, but I think not here.  I enjoyed it, but I shan’t be racing out to find the sequel.