Monthly Archives: December 2016

My books of the year 2016 – favourites from a year of reading

Just like its predecessor, 2016 turned out to be another year of great reading for me. I read around 80 books this year (mostly older/backlisted titles) with only a handful of disappointments. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve whittled it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of favourites, plus a few honourable mentions along the way. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each winner in this post, but in each case you can read the full review by clicking on the appropriate link.

books-of-the-year

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

It was a close call between this book and the other Taylor I read this year, At Mrs Lippincote’s – both are excellent. A Game of Hide and Seek is a very poignant story of life’s disappointments, compromises and lost loves, all set against the backdrop of the years preceding and following the Second World War. It is perhaps a more subtle novel than Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (a book that made my 2015 highlights), but every bit as carefully observed. Just thinking about it now leaves me eager to back to this author as soon as possible.

The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

Every bit as dark and disturbing as its wonderful cover suggests (I read the NYRB edition), The Widow is a tense and unsettling noir from one of the masters of psychological fiction, Georges Simenon. Right from the start, there is a palpable sense of foreboding as a young drifter just released from prison washes up at a farmhouse in the Bourbonnais region of France. The Widow is one of the few books by Simenon to feature a strong woman at the heart of the narrative, the tough-as-old-boots widow Tati. This would appeal to fans of James M. Cain’s fiction.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I’m glad to say that my first encounter with Barbara Pym did not disappoint. The novel focuses on Mildred Lathbury, a rather sensible, diplomatic and accommodating woman in her early thirties. In short, Mildred is one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea whenever others are in need of support. In many ways, she finds herself getting drawn into other people’s business, particularly as it is assumed that her status a spinster automatically means she has few commitments of her own. This is a wonderful novel, much more than just a comedy of manners, full of small but significant reflections on life as an unmarried woman in the 1950s. (On another day, I might have picked Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori or Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country for this slot, both are highly recommended.)

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

I really loved Isherwood’s Mr Norris, a warm and engaging story which charts the somewhat peculiar friendship that develops between two men following a chance encounter on a train. Even though it’s abundantly clear that the rather eccentric Mr Norris is something of a swindler, he is hugely likeable with it. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat protective towards him, a little like William Bradshaw does when he meets him on the train. A hugely enjoyable novel and a wonderful evocation of life in Berlin during the early ‘30s.

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

Voyage is narrated by an eighteen- year-old girl, Anna Morgan, brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna to survive on her own following the death of the girl’s father. What follows is Anna’s unravelling as she drifts around in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, slipping unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort and warmth. A brilliant and devastating book.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

A book that charts Didion’s attempts to make sense of the weeks and months that followed the sudden death of her husband and hospitalisation of her adopted daughter, Quintana – a period that swept away any previous beliefs she had held about illness, death and grief, about probability and luck, about marriage, children and memory, about life itself. It is a deeply personal exploration of these concepts, all written in Didion’s signature style, that of the cool, perceptive, surgically-precise chronicler of our times. She is relentless in her questioning of herself and of others, constantly seeking to understand what was said, what was felt, what might have been. A truly remarkable piece of writing.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Set in London in the 1930s, Watson’s book captures an extraordinary day in the life of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a rather timid, down-at-heel spinster who has fallen on hard times. It’s an utterly enchanting take on the Cinderella story as Miss Pettigrew finds herself drawn into a new world, a place of adventure, excitement and new experiences. This is a charming novel, full of warmth, wit and a certain joie de vivre. One to read or revisit if you’re in need of a treat.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

When both her parents die in fairly quick succession, sixteen-year-old Portia is sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, neither of whom want her there. Left to her own devices for most of the time, Portia falls in with Eddie is a selfish, uncaring young man with no real sense of integrity or responsibility. What follows is a very subtle exploration of the pain and confusion of adolescence, of how easy it is for an adult to toy with the emotions of a teenager, especially someone as vulnerable and as trusting as Portia. A novel I would love to re-read one day.

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

An ideal summer read, The Go-Between is a compelling story of secrets, betrayals and the power of persuasion, all set against the heady backdrop of the English countryside in July. Leo Colston (now in his sixties) recalls a fateful summer he spent at a school friend’s house in Norfolk some fifty years earlier, a trip that marked his life forever. The novel captures the pain of a young boy’s initiation into the workings of the adult world as Leo is caught between the innocence and subservience of childhood and the complexities of life as a grown-up. Fully deserving of its status as a modern classic.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

Another quintessential summer read, the Sagan is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions – only in this case the backdrop is the French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another player arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father. An utterly compelling novel, I’d like to read this again in the Irene Ash translation.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel in the 1920s. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum skilfully weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these people as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. A delightful gem.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

A superb noir which excels in the creation of atmosphere and mood. As a reader you really feel as though you are walking the streets of the city at night, moving through the fog with only the dim and distant lights of LA to guide you. The focus is on the mindset of the central character, the washed -up ex-pilot Dix Steele, a deeply damaged and vulnerable man who finds himself tormented by events from his past. The storyline is too complex to summarise here, but Hughes maintains the suspense throughout. This novel was a HUGE hit with my book group.

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter, concerns itself with the confusing mix of emotions which characterise a critical period in a young girl’s life: her coming of age. It also captures the deep sense of loneliness and isolation that marks its central character, a woman named Katherine Lind. It’s a quiet, contemplative novel, one that explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. Larkin’s prose is sublime, equally impressive in its portrayal of the nostalgic atmosphere of an English summer and its evocation of the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. An understated gem. (It was a toss-up between this and Natsume Söseki’s The Gate, another quiet, thoughtful novel I enjoyed this year.)

So there we are. Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!

Christmas at Thompson Hall and Other Christmas Stories by Anthony Trollope

Last December I couldn’t resist buying a couple of these lovely Penguin Christmas Classics with their beautiful covers and decorative endpapers – they make wonderful gifts. Christmas at Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories – my first read in the series – brings together five short stories by Anthony Trollope, all with a seasonal theme. Shot through with the author’s customary insight into the dynamics of human relationships, these stories mostly depict the English middle classes and gentry of the Victorian era, their lives governed by the social conventions of the time.

trollope

The book opens with the titular story, which happens to be one of the strongest pieces in the collection. Having grown accustomed to spending their winters in the South of France, Mr and Mrs Brown are travelling back to England for a family gathering at Thompson Hall in Stratford. Mrs Brown’s younger sister is to be married, and this will be the couple’s first opportunity to meet the girl’s fiancé in person. With her fondness for the traditions of the season, Mrs Brown is eager to get to Thompson Hall in time for Christmas Eve. Her husband, however, seems reluctant to make the trip for fear of aggravating his weak chest and throat, a condition which prompts the couple to break their journey to spend the night in Paris. When his wife asks him if there is anything she can do to relieve his suffering, Mr Brown identifies just the thing – the application of a mustard compress to the throat is sure to be of great help. (As it turns out, Mr B is something of a hypochondriac.)

Down in the salon he had seen a large jar of mustard standing on a sideboard. As he left the room he had observed that this had not been withdrawn with the other appurtenances of the meal. If she could manage to find her way down there, taking with her a handkerchief folded for the purpose, and if she could then appropriate a part of the contents of that jar, and returning with her prize, apply it to his throat, he thought that he could get some relief, so that he might be able to leave his bed the next morning at five. “But I am afraid it will be very disagreeable for you to go down all alone at this time of night,” he croaked out in a piteous whisper.

“Of course I’ll go,” she said. “I don’t mind going in the least. Nobody will bite me,” and she at once began to fold a clean handkerchief. “I won’t be two minutes, my darling, and if there is a grain of mustard in the house I’ll have it on your chest immediately.” (pp. 7-8)

What follows is a hilarious sequence of white lies, misunderstandings and coincidences, all of which culminates in a most embarrassing predicament for Mrs Brown. To say any more might spoil the story – this is a wonderful piece, one that makes an excellent introduction to the collection.

Christmas Day at Kirkby Cottage is a beautifully observed story of the dynamics between two young lovers who are drawn together over the festive season. While Isabel Lownd, the daughter of the household, and Maurice Archer, a ward of the family, clearly have feelings for one another, a disagreement over their respective views of Christmas leads to a bit of an impasse. One of the joys of this piece is the interplay between Isabel and Maurice as they try to hold their respective positions, hiding their true feelings for one another in the process.

Why had Isabel made herself so disagreeable, and why had she perked up her head as she left the room in that self-sufficient way, as though she was determined to show him that she did not want his assistance? Of course, she had understood well enough that he had not intended to say that the ceremonial observance of the day was a bore. He had spoken of the beef and the pudding, and she had chosen to pretend to misunderstand him. He would not go near the church. And as for his love, and his half-formed resolution to make her his wife, he would get over it altogether. If there were one thing more fixed with him than another, it was that on no consideration would he marry a girl who should give herself airs. (p. 77)

This is a gentle story of misunderstandings, pride, generosity and the true spirit of Christmas, another fine addition to the collection.

The Mistletoe Bough has much in common with the previous piece, set as it is in the home of another English family coming together over the festive season. Central to the story are two young sweethearts, Elizabeth Garrow, and her former fiancé, Godfrey Holmes. Some months earlier, a disagreement between the pair caused their brief engagement to come to an end; nevertheless, Elizabeth remains very much in love with Godfrey even if she refuses to admit it. Once again, Trollope illustrates his skills in portraying the dynamics of human relationships. I particularly like Trollope’s depiction of the women in these stories as he seems genuinely interested in their thoughts and feelings. Here’s a short quote from a conversation between the couple in question – Godfrey is the first to speak.

“In marriage should not the man and woman adapt themselves to each other?”

“When they are married, yes; and every girl who thinks of marrying should know that in very much she must adapt herself to her husband. But I do not think a woman should be the ivy, to take the direction of every branch of the tree to which she clings. If she does so, what can be her own character?” (p. 148)

While the outcome of this story is somewhat predictable, it is nevertheless an engaging read.

The Two Generals is rather different from the other pieces in this collection. Set in Kentucky in the early 1860s, this is the story of a family fractured by the divisions of the American Civil War. It features a father and his two sons: Tom, the elder of the boys, a Southern gentleman who has profited from the presence of slave labour on his land; and Frank, the younger son, a member of the National Army and supporter of the North. The two brothers end up joining opposing sides in the war – Tom for the Confederacy, Frank for the Union – a situation which creates significant tension within the family. (Tom has already claimed that he will not hesitate to shoot his own brother should he come face to face with him on the battlefield.) Furthermore, both brothers are in love with the same woman, Ada Forster, a distant relative of the family who also happens to live in their house. Somewhat surprisingly given her Yankee sympathies, Ada is engaged to Tom; Frank, with his strong conviction to the principles of the Union, remains ever hopeful of winning her hand. To a certain extent, the narrative plays out as the brothers return home over successive Christmases while the war continues to rage on their doorstep. This is an excellent story, one of the highlights here.

The book closes with Not If I Know It, the shortest and least memorable piece in the collection. It centres on a disagreement between two brothers-in-law, something that could have been resolved fairly quickly and easily. Once again, misunderstandings, unnecessary pride and bruised feelings all play a role here, but in this instance the characters seem thinly sketched compared to those in the other stories.

Overall, this is a most enjoyable collection, one that would make a fine introduction to Trollope’s style. Ali has also reviewed this book here.

Christmas at Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories is published by Penguin Books.

Villa Triste by Patrick Modiano (tr. John Cullen)

There are some mysterious persons – always the same ones – who stand like sentinels at every crossroads in your life.’ (p. 47)

First published in 1975, Patrick Modiano’s Villa Triste is a short, hypnotic novel steeped in a sense of nostalgia for an all but vanished milieu.

modiano

As the story opens, a man is revisiting a summer he spent as an eighteen-year-old in a town in the Haute-Savoie region of France. Winding back to those days in the early ‘60s with the Algerian war rumbling away in the background, our narrator flees Paris where he feels unsafe, an uneasy, police-heavy atmosphere being firmly in evidence. Going by the name of Victor Chmara, the narrator installs himself in a sleepy boarding house, avoiding all news reports and communications from the wider world. Instead, he spends his evenings observing the young people around town, taking in a movie where possible and whiling away the hours at one of the local bars. The nights are long and languid, a mood which Modiano perfectly captures in his evocative prose.

I’ve never known nights so lovely, so crystal clear as those were. The sparkling lights of the lakeside villas dazzled me, and I sensed something musical in them, like a saxophone or trumpet solo. I could also perceive the very soft, immaterial rustling of the plane trees on the avenue. I’d wait for the last cable car, sitting on the iron bench in the chalet. The room was lit only by a night-light, and I’d let myself slip into that purplish semidarkness with a feeling of total confidence. What was there for me to fear? The noise of war, the din of the world would have had to pass through a wall of cotton wool to reach this holiday oasis. And who would have ever thought of coming to look for me among these distinguished summer vacationers? (pp. 16-17)

With the summer season in full swing, it isn’t long before Victor meets a mysterious couple in one of the town’s hotels, the glamorous, auburn-haired Yvonne and her close friend, the somewhat affected Dr René Meinthe. Right from the start there is something shadowy about these people. While they treat Victor as an old friend, taking him to lunch and various social events around the town, both Yvonne and René are somewhat evasive about their lives. René makes frequent trips to and from Geneva, although what he does there remains something of a mystery. Yvonne for her part is trying to fashion a career as an actress having just made a film with a director in the local area. The source of her money is never entirely clear, especially when it emerges that she hails from a fairly modest family still living in the neighbourhood.

Nevertheless, Victor is captivated by his new friends, Yvonne in particular, and the two of them soon become lovers. In the shelter of Yvonne’s room at the Hermitage hotel, there is a sense that Victor is muffled from events in the broader world; as long as the band continues to play, the world must still be turning.

Downstairs the orchestra would be starting to play and people began arriving for dinner. Between two numbers, we’d hear the babble of conversations. A voice would rise above the hubbub – a woman’s voice – or a burst of laughter. And the orchestra would start up again. I’d leave the French window open so that the commotion and the music could reach up to us. They were our protection. And they began at the same time every day, hence the world was still going around. For how long? (p. 100)

During the course of the novel, Victor – now aged thirty – tries to piece together the fragments of that long lost summer in Haute-Savoie. There are many unanswered questions from this time, a few of which I’ve alluded to already. By the end of the novel, some of these elements are a little clearer, in particular, the nature of René’s business in Geneva, a hub for transit activities at the time. Others, however, remain a mystery.

All in all, I found Villa Triste to be an intriguing novel, an intimate exploration of memory, identity, loss and our desire to understand the past. The place, period and cultural milieu are all beautifully evoked. Modiano conveys a society that values beauty and elegance, qualities that are typified in one of the novel’s best set-pieces, a thrilling recreation of the Houligant Cup, a contest for the most glamorous presentation of a classic car by a couple. With their eyes on the prize, René and Yvonne are all set to put on an impressive display for judges.

As the novel draws to a close, these people continue to haunt Victor’s memories. I’ll finish with a favourite quote, one that seems to capture something of the elegiac mood of this story.

Already in those days – soon to be thirteen years ago – they gave me the impression that they’d long since burned out their lives. I watched them. I listened to them talking under the Chinese lanterns that dappled their faces and the women’s shoulders. I assigned each of them a past that dovetailed with those of the others, and I wished they’d tell me everything: […] So many enigmas presupposed an infinity of combinations, a spider’s web they’d been spinning for ten or twenty years. (p. 32)

Guy has also reviewed this book – there’s a link to his excellent post here.

Villa Triste is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.