Category Archives: Jones Cynan

My books of the year, 2020 – part 1, novellas and non-fiction

2020 has been a tumultuous year for obvious reasons. I’ve read somewhere in the region of 100 books – most of them in the first half of the year while on furlough during the national lockdown. A stressful time for many of us, I’m sure; but it did give me the chance to read some excellent books, many of which feature in my highlights of the year.

This time, I’m spreading my books of the year across a couple of posts – novellas and non-fiction in this first piece, with my favourite novels to follow next week. With the exception of some of the memoirs, most of these books were first published several years ago – a factor that reflects the types of books I tend to enjoy reading. So, if you’re looking for the best *new* books published in 2020, this is not the place to come – there are many other literary blogs which cover that territory very thoroughly…

So, without further ado, here are my favourite novellas and non-fiction books from a year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Novellas

The Dig by Cynan Jones

A haunting, deeply moving book about death, grief, brutality and compassion, beautifully expressed in spare, poetic prose. The narrative focuses on Daniel, a recently widowed sheep farmer struggling to cope with the lambing season deep in rural Wales. In writing The Dig, Jones has crafted an enduring story of loss, isolation and savagery in a harsh, unforgiving world – and yet, there is great tenderness here too, a sense of beauty in the language, particularly in Daniel’s memories of times past.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

The gloriously off-kilter world of Muriel Spark continues to be a source of fascination for me. I loved this novella; it’s wonderfully dark and twisted, characteristically Sparkian in its unconventional view. Dougal Douglas is a particularly sinister character, a mercurial individual who brings chaos into the lives of those he encounters. There is a touch of the dark arts about this novella with its slyly manipulative protagonist. If you liked Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, chances are you’ll enjoy this too.

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

A haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty – a story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations. The narrator – a young woman who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Into her life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, a connection that waxes and wanes as the days slip by. The book’s enigmatic ending only adds to its sense of mystery.

The Harpole Report by J. L. Carr,

Earlier this year, I read Carr’s excellent ‘football’ novella, How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup in which a team of plucky underdogs overcome the mighty Glasgow Rangers to scoop the much-prized trophy. It’s a book that shares something with the author’s earlier novella, The Harpole Report, which takes another British institution – in this instance, a Church of England Primary School – as its focus for a most amusing satire. In essence, the book constructs a picture of a term at St Nicholas C of E, during which George Harpole – who has taught there for some time – is appointed as the school’s Temporary Head. This is a very amusing book that perfectly captures the preoccupations and absurdities of state-funded education in the early 1970s. A marvellous period piece imbued with nostalgia.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

This haunting, dreamlike story of a neglectful single mother and her eight-year-old son will almost certainly get under your skin. Right from the start of the book, there is a something of a disconnect between parent and child, a sense of separateness or isolation that sets them apart from one another. The narrative unfolds over a bitterly cold night, during which these two individuals embark on separate yet strangely connected journeys, searching for their own sense of fulfilment in an uncertain world. The ambiguous nature of the ending only adds to the unnerving feel of the novel as a whole. One for book groups and individual readers alike. 

Non-Fiction

Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr

Ostensibly a memoir exploring Orr’s childhood – in particular the fractured relationship between the author and her mother Win, a formidable woman who held the reins of power within the family’s household. Moreover, this powerful book also gives readers a searing insight into a key period of Scotland’s social history, successfully conveying the devastating impact of the steel industry’s decimation – especially on Motherwell (where Orr grew up) and the surrounding community. This is a humane, beautifully-written book of how our early experiences and the communities we live in can shape us, possibly prompting us to strive for something better in the years that follow.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

A fascinating collection of mini-biographies, focusing on five female inhabitants of Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, including Dorothy L. Sayers, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf. What I love about this book is the way the author uses this particular location as a prism through which to view the lives of these pioneering women, painting a rich tapestry of life within London’s cultural milieu from the end of WW1 to the beginning of WW2. In short, an erudite, evocative and beautifully constructed book, highly recommended for anyone interested in London’s social/cultural scene in the 1920s and ‘30s.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

This is a terrific read – a compassionate, multifaceted discourse on what it means to feel lonely and exposed in a fast-moving city, a place that feels alive and alienating all at once. At the time of writing this book, Laing was living in New York, recently separated from her former partner, an experience that had left her feeling somewhat adrift and alone. During the months that followed, Laing found herself drawn to the work of several visual and creative artists that had captured something of the inner loneliness of NYC, a sense of urban isolation or alienation. Through a combination of investigation, cultural commentary and memoir, she explores the nature of loneliness, how it manifests itself both in the creative arts and in our lives. A fascinating book, beautifully written and constructed – a contemporary classic in the making.

Broken Greek by Pete Paphides

Ostensibly a childhood memoir, Broken Greek offers a moving account of Paphides’s upbringing in the suburbs of Birmingham in the 1970s and early ‘80s – ‘a story of chip shops and pop songs,’ as the subtitle accurately declares. In writing Broken Greek, Paphides has given us a tender, affectionate, humorous memoir, one that brilliantly conveys the power of music – not only for the emotions it stirs within us but as a means of deepening our understanding of life and humanity, too. I read this during lockdown, and it lifted my mood considerably.

How to Cook a Wolf by M. F. K. Fisher

Another excellent lockdown read, but for very different reasons to those for Broken Greek. Initially published in 1942 and subsequently updated in the 1950s, How to Cook a Wolf is a terrifically witty discourse on how to eat as well (or as decently) as possible on limited resources. In her characteristically engaging style, Fisher encourages us to savour the pleasures of simple dishes: the delights of a carefully cooked omelette; the heartiness of a well-flavoured soup; and the comforting taste of a baked apple with cinnamon milk at the end of a good meal. The writing is spirited and full of intelligence, a style that seems to reflect Fisher’s personality as well as her approach to cooking. A rediscovered gem to dip into for pleasure.

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

Harvey’s book is something of a companion piece to Insomnia, Marina Benjamin’s luminous meditation on the hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness. The Shapeless Unease brilliantly evokes the fragmentary nature of this interminable condition, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between seemingly disparate thoughts as the mind flits from one topic to another. Along the way, Harvey touches on a range of other subjects with her characteristic blend of insight and intelligence – topics ranging from loss, grief, childhood, writing, swimming and the distortion of our national values into the divisions wielded by Brexit. One to keep by the bedside for the long white nights when sleep fails to come.

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

I loved this thoroughly absorbing memoir by the journalist Hadley Freeman, a book that combines the personal and the political in an emotionally involving way. Ostensibly, House of Glass tells the story of Freeman’s Jewish grandmother, Sala, and her family, a narrative that spans the whole of the 20th century. It’s a book that asks searching questions about a whole host of issues including familial identity, integration, personal outlook, xenophobia and social mobility – topics that remain all too relevant in Europe and the wider world today, where instances of racism and nationalism are still very much in evidence.

So, that’s it for my novellas and non-fiction books of the year. My one regret is that I never found the time to write about Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling, a book I adored. Join me again next week when I’ll be sharing my favourite novels from a year of reading.

The Nature of Landscape: The Offing by Benjamin Myers and The Dig by Cynan Jones

Another of my round-up posts – this one focusing on two terrific books, both with a connection to the countryside.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)

This is such a beautiful, life-affirming book – a novel imbued with great warmth, a generosity of spirit and a strong sense of place.

The Offing is set in the English countryside in the summer of 1946, the year following the end of the Second World War. Although the conflict is over, the emotional scars remain, festering in the hearts and minds of the men following their return from battle, their shattering experiences too recent to suppress.

With little to look forward to other than a lifetime of work in the local pits, sixteen-year-old Robert sets out from his village in Durham to see something of the wider world outside. He envisages a journey with no set plan; just a desire to live from one day to the next, picking up a day’s work here and there in exchange for food and shelter.

At the approach to Robin Hood’s Bay, Robert spots a lane leading down to a secluded cottage. Here he stumbles across Dulcie, a tall, middle-aged woman of unconventional dress who greets him as if he were a familiar friend, just popping over as expected. Robert is invited to stay for nettle tea – an invitation he accepts, thereby sparking an unlikely friendship, one that ends up lasting the entire summer.

Dulcie is a wonderful creation – confident, direct and delightfully outspoken. At first, Robert is somewhat shy and reserved in Dulcie’s company, a little intimidated by her forthright views of the world. Nevertheless, he soon recognises this generous woman for what she truly is – wise, well-travelled and progressive in her outlook, someone with the potential to fuel his mind as well as his body. In return for a run of delicious meals and a shack for shelter, Robert clears Dulcie’s overgrown garden of weeds, an activity punctuated by long walks across the surrounding fields with Dulcie’s trusty dog, Butler.

Throughout the summer, Dulcie encourages Robert to read poetry to broaden his outlook, lending him books by D. H. Lawrence, John Clare and Keats amongst others. When the topic of war comes up in the conversation, Dulcie is quick to challenge Robert on his views of the Germans, reminding him that they are not so different from the British – mere pawns in a deadly game of chess.

‘…War is war: it’s started by the few and fought by the many, and everyone loses in the end. There’s no glory in bloodshed and bullet holes. Not a bit of it. I also happen to know that Germany has been left in a terrible state too, and always remember that most of those young men – boys the same age as you are now, no doubt – did not want to be there either. It’s always the honest folk that have to do the bidding of the despots. And after all there are only a few things truly worth fighting for: freedom, of course, and all that it brings with it. Poetry, perhaps, and a good glass of wine. A nice meal. Nature. Love, if you’re lucky. And that’s about it. Don’t hate the Germans; many of them are just like you and me.’ (p. 41)

With Dulcie’s encouragement, Robert begins to feel more alive to the possibilities open to him, with the realisation that there is much more to life than merely following in his father’s footsteps down the mine. He gains a deeper appreciation of the simple things in life, like the wonders of the natural world and the value of education. In short, Dulcie inspires Robert to live his own life – just as she has chosen to live hers. And there’s another payoff too, one for Dulcie. In the fullness of time, Robert enables this independent woman to come to terms with a painful event from her past, something she has been trying to suppress for the last six years. 

In writing The Offing, Myers has given us such a gorgeous, compassionate book, one that demonstrates the power of human connection in a damaged world. Alongside its themes of hope, individualism and recovery, the novel can also be seen as an evocative paean to the natural world. Myers writes beautifully about the countryside in a way that feels at once both timely and timeless, perfectly capturing the ephemeral feel of a glorious English summer.

The tiniest details came into sharp focus: the skeletal architecture of a small dead leaf that had lain untouched since winter, or the quiver of a solitary blade of wild grass where others beside it were still. The gentle panting of the dog too fell into the rhythm of my own heart as it beat a gentle pattern of sweet coursing blood in my eardrums. A single drop of sweat ran down my left temple. I felt alive. Gloriously, deliriously alive. (p. 45–46)

There are shades of J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country in this transcendent novel, maybe L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, too. If you liked either of those, chances are you’ll really enjoy this too. 

The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014)

A haunting, deeply moving book about death, grief, brutality and compassion – beautifully expressed in spare, poetic prose.

Like the Myers, The Dig is rooted in the countryside. However, this is a very different kind of place to the one portrayed in The Offing. Here the environment is tough, feral and visceral; a setting characterised by the undercurrent of cruelty in the natural world.

Recently widowed Daniel is a sheep farmer, struggling to keep on top of the lambing season deep in rural Wales. He is quiet and hard-working, his days dictated by the rhythm of his flock, the demands of the farm acting as a respite from grief.

He tried to put it as clearly as he understood it. He could not bear the responsibility of small talk, reassuring people he was coping. He seemed to know the offer of sympathy would be like a gate he’d go crashing through. He could bear only the huge responsibility to the ewes, to the farm working, which would be tyrannical and which was in process now, and which didn’t care about him.

‘After?’ asked his mother.

I don’t know after,’ he said. And truly he didn’t. She held him then, and she felt the massive devastation of him. (p. 50)

Daniel’s story is interspersed with glimpses of another inhabitant of the community, ‘the big man’, a badger-baiter whose underground activities risk attracting attention from the police. The baiter is a sinister presence in the book, one who hunts at night, using savage dogs to trap badgers for use in the mercilessly cruel sport. (For the uninitiated, badger-baiting – an illegal activity in the UK – involves pitting a badger against a ferocious dog, typically resulting in the death of the badger and often seriously injuring the dog.)

As the narrative unfolds, the lives of the two men intersect with devastating consequences.

By now you’re probably thinking of this as a brutal book, one that features distressing scenes of badgers being exploited for sport. Well, that’s true; but one of the roles of fiction is to raise uncomfortable issues, challenging our beliefs and preconceptions of the world around us. While we may wish to think of the countryside as a peaceful place, we should also recognise the sense of darkness it can foster, the innate violence it can breed.

In writing The Dig, Jones has crafted an enduring story of loss, isolation and savagery in a harsh, unforgiving world. And yet there is great tenderness here too, a sense of beauty and poetry in the language, particularly in Daniel’s memories of times past. The writing has a meditative quality to it, perfectly capturing Daniel’s love for his wife and the intense pain of her loss. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates this aspect of the novella.

He remembered the sight of her in the cab of the tractor while she drove along the rows of bales and he stacked them on the trailer as the boys threw them up. He remembered the sweat and the itch of seed, the burn of the baling twine inside his fingers, the bales grazing his knuckles, the diesel air about the tractor. He remembered her with the bright splash of colour of the cloth worn on her head, how they had joked that she looked girlish and Alpine. Heidi they had called her that day, and how he had wanted her in the rich way we can want a woman we physically work with, and how he was glad it was his wife he wanted this way. (p. 91)

The Offing is published by Bloomsbury (personal copy), The Dig by Granta; my thanks to the publisher/Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.