Tag Archives: Constable

My Books of the Year – 2014

For me, 2014 was a year filled with great books, so much so that I’ve found it difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post. I read 101 books in 2014 – that’s probably too many although it does include several novellas – and very few turned out to be duds. My first pass at a shortlist came out at 24 books, but I’ve cut it down to thirteen, a baker’s dozen of favourites from my year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day.

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I’ve listed my picks in the order I read and reviewed them. I’ve summarised each one, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

2014 was the year of #FerranteFever, and I ended up reading four books by this author: the first three in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels and a standalone novel, The Days of Abandonment. It came down to a choice between the ferocity of Days and the breadth and scope of the Neapolitans. I’ve plumped for the latter and the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, which remains my favourite of the three. Set in Naples in the 1950s, it follows the friendship between two girls, Elena and Lila, and the different paths they take to escape the neighbourhood. A compelling story that captures the changing dynamics of the relationship between these two girls.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa)

This was a reread for the 2014 IFFP-shadowing project chaired by Stu, and it’s the book that prompted me to start my own blog. (Stu published my review as a guest post at Winstonsdad’s.)

A man is stabbed to death in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes a meditation touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. The Infatuations is my favourite novel from our IFFP-shadow shortlist, with Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels a close second.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was twenty-three when Nada, her debut novel, was published. It’s an amazing book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. A portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. A wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. by Anne McLean)

An account of the two years Vila-Matas spent in Paris as a young and aspiring writer trying to emulate his idol, Ernest Hemingway. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging piece of meta-fiction, full of self-deprecating humour and charm. Marguerite Duras makes an appearance too as Vila-Matas ends up lodging in a filthy garret at the top of her house. Huge fun and a favourite read from Spanish Lit Month.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

This novel charts a deep friendship between two American couples over forty years. The story explores how these four friends cope with the challenges and setbacks they face during their lives; their struggles are the stuff of our everyday existence, but no less important or significant as a result. It’s an exceptional book – eloquent, graceful, wise and deeply moving. Stegner’s prose is simply wonderful.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

I loved this novel of life in a seedy English boarding house set in the grim winter of 1943. A spinster in her late thirties is trapped in a ‘death-in-life’ existence and subjected to petty bullying by the ghastly Mr Thwaites. The characters are pin-sharp, and Hamilton has a brilliant for dialogue. A dark tragicomedy of manners, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra, a graduate student at Berkeley, drives home to her family’s ranch for the wedding of her identical twin sister, Judith, where she seems all set to derail the proceedings. This is a brilliant novel featuring one of my favourite women in literature. If you like complex characters with plenty of light and shade, this is the novel for you. Cassandra is intelligent, precise and at times witty, charming and loving. But she can also be manipulative, reckless, domineering, self-absorbed and cruel.  She’s a bundle of contradictions and behaves abominably at times, and yet she has my sympathies.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (tr. by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell)

This delightful novella is a playful take on the traditional country-house murder mystery where everyone’s a suspect. There is much to enjoy: the wit and charm of the writing; the eccentricities of the rather pedantic narrator; the playful nature of the narrative; the murder mystery at its heart. This is a book that never takes itself too seriously as it gently pokes fun at the mystery genre. A favourite read for Richard’s celebration of Argentinian lit.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Set in New York in the later 19th Century, this novel features Lily Bart, who at the age of twenty-nine remains unmarried despite her beauty. Lilly knows she must net a wealthy husband to safeguard her place in society and the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed, but she wants to marry for love and money. Lily is a fascinating character: complex, nuanced and fully realised. A great novel, fully deserving of its status as a classic.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (tr. by Brian Murdoch)

Narrated by an eighteen-year-old German soldier fighting in WWI, this is a searing portrait of the suffering, desolation and futility of war. There is, however, a sense of universality to this story. The narrator could be any one of the terrified young soldiers sent to the front, desperately trying to get from one day to the next, never knowing what the future might bring. A deeply affecting novel, beautifully written; I wish I had read it many years ago.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940. Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. Another standout read from Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

On one level, H is for Hawk is the story of how Macdonald attempts to deal with grief by training a goshawk following the death of her father. On another, it captures a biography of the novelist T.H White and his misguided attempts to train his own hawk. The writing is excellent: vivid and evocative in its description of landscape and nature, informative and engaging on falconry and White. This is an intelligent, multi-layered and humane book. An emotional but thoroughly rewarding read for me, I had to pick the right time for this one.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel featuring two mismatched couples, the Ashburnhams and the Dowells, The Good Soldier is a story of intrigues, betrayals and duplicity. It tells of the consequences of reigning in desires and of the damage caused when these desires are unleashed. As the narrator, John Dowell, tries to make sense of events, we’re left questioning his reliability. A fascinating book, superbly written. Each of the main characters is flawed or damaged in some way, and my impressions changed as I continued to read. One to revisit at some stage.

Also noteworthy (these are the books I agonised over): Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue; Speedboat by Renata Adler; The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald; Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier.

So there we go, my favourite books from a year of reading and eight months of blogging – better late than never. Wishing you all the best for 2015, may it be filled with many wonderful books.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (review)

Patrick Hamilton’s quite brilliant novel, The Slaves of Solitude, takes us back to the winter of 1943. Having being bombed out of her room in Kensington a year ago, Miss Roach, a spinster in her late thirties, is now residing in Thames Lockdon, a fictional town by the river just beyond Maidenhead. Much of the action takes place in the Rosamund Tea Rooms boarding house, where Miss Roach lives along with a handful of other residents. At first, the town had provided a welcome respite from the bombings in London, but now, after more than a year, life in Thames Lockdon seems closer to Hell. Having given up any hope of marriage some years ago, Miss Roach’s rather drab and dreary existence is mirrored by the dismal surroundings in which she finds herself:

Miss Roach turned on the switch by the door, and saw her room in the feeble light of the bulb which hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room and which was shaded by pink parchment. She saw the pink artificial-silk bedspread covering the light single bed built of stained oak – the pink bedspread which shone and slithered and fell off, the light bedstead which slid along the wooden floor if you bumped into it. She saw the red chequered cotton curtains (this side of the black-out material) which were hung on a brass rail and never quite met in the middle, or, if forced to meet in a moment of impatience, came flying away from the sides; she saw the stained-oak chest of drawers with its mirror held precariously at a suitable angle with a squashed match-box. (pg 7, Constable)

Hamilton has a wonderful knack for capturing the stifling and oppressive atmosphere in this provincial boarding house:

This system of separate tables, well meant as it may have been, added yet another hellish touch to the hellish melancholy prevailing. For, in the small space of the room, a word could not be uttered, a little cough could not be made, a hairpin could not be dropped at one table without being heard at all the others; and the general self-consciousness which this caused smote the room with a silence, a conversational torpor, and finally a complete apathy from which it could not stir itself. 

[…] 

Sometimes an attempt at a conversational jailbreak was made, and there would be some unnecessary loud and cheerful exchange between table and table: but this never had any hope of success. As the maid handed round the vegetables one voice dropped down after another; the prisoners were back in their cells more subdued than ever. (pgs. 12-13)

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Miss Roach, a respectable yet somewhat meek woman, finds herself besieged not only by her drab surroundings, but also by the bullying behaviour of another of the Rosamund’s residents, the ghastly Mr Thwaites. Thwaites considers life in the Rosamund Tea Rooms as a ‘sort of compulsory indoor game, in which he perpetually held the bank and dealt the cards.’  With the Rosamund’s dining room as his main stage, Mr Thwaites proceeds to hold court, steering the conversation at mealtimes and passing judgements on the other residents, especially Miss Roach who has to sit at his table:

Mr Thwaites made a habit of being the first in the dining room for breakfast. No one had ever been known to beat him to it. Five, or even ten minutes before the time, he would be found sitting in his place at the table for four in the corner. It was as though he were fretful for the day to start, to be in his presidential position and to take charge of the day from the beginning. However early they appeared, those who entered after him, saying ‘Good morning, Mr. Thwaites’ and catching his eye, had a distant feeling of being on the mat for being late. Miss Roach did at any rate. 

This morning, the Saturday following the one on which she had had drinks with Vicki Kugelmann at the Rising Sun, Miss Roach was in the room while the gong was still being hit, and took her place at the table with Mr Thwaites.

‘Good morning,’ said Mr. Thwaites. ‘You’re very early, aren’t you?’ But this was not intended as a compliment: it still meant that she was late. It implied merely that a chronically late Miss Roach had appeared relatively early upon the scene.

‘Yes,’ said Miss Roach, ‘I suppose I am.’

Mr. Thwaites, fingering his knife, now quietly stared at Miss Roach. When alone with her he frequently stared at her like this, quite unconscious of her embarrassment and even of the fact that he was doing it. It was the preoccupied stare of one who sought to discover some fresh detail in her appearance or demeanour about which he could say or think something nasty. (pgs. 83-84)

Hamilton’s characters are pin-sharp, and there are some wonderful darkly comic scenes in the Rosamund Tea Rooms – a black tragicomedy of manners might be one way to describe these sections. He has a keen ear for dialogue, too, and the novel contains some terrific extended passages which convey Thwaites’ coded conversations with the other boarders. It’s not just what Thwaites says; it’s more what he implies – the implication behind his blustering, coupled with his tone. These aspects seem equally (if not more) important than his actual words. Here’s the beginning of one of his exchanges with Miss Roach:

‘Well,’ he said. ‘Your friends seem to be mightily distinguishing themselves as usual,’ and oh God, thought Miss Roach, not that again, not that again.

Miss Roach’s ‘friends’ – according to Mr. Thwaites – were the Russian people, and Mr. Thwaites did not like or approve of these people at all. (pg. 17)

Actually, the Russians were not Miss Roach’s ‘friends’. She had simply left some political publications hanging around in the Lounge, an activity that Mr. Thwaites considered ‘a diseased and obscurely Russian thing to do.’ As a consequence, Mr. Thwaites comes to associate Russia with Miss Roach and proceeds to torment her accordingly.

Into Miss Roach’s miserable life comes an American officer, Lieutenant Pike, who brings a glimmer of light and spontaneity to the proceedings. He takes Miss Roach for drinks at the local pub, evening walks in the park and at one stage even appears to hint at marriage. But the spontaneous Lieutenant, who also has a fondness for rather too much whisky, often disappears for several days at a time. While Miss Roach is attracted to Pike, she’s unsure as to where she stands with him.

The situation is further complicated by the arrival of a new lodger at the Rosamund, Vicki Kugelmann, a German woman whom Miss Roach has befriended in the town. At first Vicki charms the Rosamund’s residents, Mr. Thwaites included, whom Vicki quickly identifies as the dominant figure of the boarding house. In fact, the previously rather chauvinistic Thwaites seem positively smitten by Vicki despite his initial suspicion of having to reside alongside a German woman. If anything, Thwaites seems ‘more alert, lively and responsive’ when Vicki is around, and this change in his demeanour is accompanied by an increasingly savage and sarcastic attitude towards Miss Roach, ‘as if he were angrily comparing her to Vicki.’

And it’s not only the Rosamund’s residents who fall under Vicki’s spell. Miss Roach’s American Lieutenant considers Vicki cute, and the German ends up joining the couple on a raucous night out. As far as Lieutenant Pike and Vicki are concerned the evening’s a blast; but Miss Roach is embarrassed by her friends as they cavort around in a drunken manner, and she cannot wait to get home. It’s not long before Vicki reveals another side to her personality as she adopts a rather spiteful and disdainful attitude towards Miss Roach:

‘No,’ said Vicki, moving towards the door. ‘You are not sporty, Miss Prim.’ She reached the door and opened it, ‘You must learn to be sporty, my friend. You are the English Miss. No?…Good night.’(pg. 169)

Alongside the main narrative, Hamilton also does a terrific job in capturing the ‘endless snubbing and nagging’ nature of war and its effects on provincial towns such as Lockdon. Billboard signs lecture inhabitants at every opportunity – citizens must not waste bread, use unnecessary fuel, undertake journeys unless absolutely necessary, etc. etc.  The war, which had started by making drastic demands of people, had now turned into a ‘petty pilferer’, stealthily stealing every last luxury and necessity. Even a simple sign that says ‘NO CIGARETTES. SORRY’ seems to sneer at Miss Roach with its rather sarcastic and nasty ‘sorry’.

I won’t say any more about the story for fear of spoiling it, but our sympathies are with Miss Roach as we will her to escape the confines of this ‘death-in-life’ existence. Suffice it to say that The Slaves of Solitude is a downright enjoyable and satisfying novel – as devastating as it is darkly humorous, as accomplished as it is atmospheric. I can’t recommend it highly enough – one for my end-of year highlights.

Max at Pechorin’s Journal has posted an excellent review of this novel.

The Slaves of Solitude is published in the UK by Constable. Source: personal copy.