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Six months of blissful unemployment in the first half of the year and a one-hour train commute in the second half of the year means that 2014 was my best year yet for reading, as I just scraped across the line to make it a solid 70 books – a record I doubt I’ll break for some time. Here’s a rundown of the ten best books I read this year.
Beszel and Ul Qoma are twin cities with completely different languages, ethnicities, societies and architecture. They sit not side by side, but in the same physical space as each other, with residents of either city trained from birth to “unsee” their opposite numbers. China Mieville’s fascination with cities reaches its zenith in The City and The City, a hugely original creation which touches upon so many aspects of real life cities which seem bizarre when looked at afresh – wealth disparities, people not looking at each other on the tube, the homeless, and far more – yet it does so without forcing these implications upon the reader, leaving the novel, at its heart, a simple crime procedural that just happens to take place in a crazy fantasy city.
Selecting books for this list is often difficult – what exactly does “best” mean? Most enjoyable? Most memorable? Objectively greatest? Most thought-provoking?
T.H. White’s enormous novel The Once and Future King, comprised of five smaller books, is not a piece of fiction I can say I loved, or maybe even liked. Indeed, for most of the middle stretch (i.e. three books worth) I was bored by it. Its tone never sat well with me: deliberately whimsical and satirical, yet also dark and philosophising. But by the time I finished the final volume, The Book of Merlyn (the best in the series), I was ready to stand back and appreciate this enormous work on its own terms: as a long and fascinating attempt by a troubled writer to leave his own mark upon the legends which had long fascinated him. I may not have always enjoyed it, and I still believe it’s a strange and flawed book, but it was also deeply memorable and unique – the sort of book that you’re glad exists simply for its own sake. It wouldn’t have felt right to leave it off this list.
8. The Last Werewolf
There’s a reason humans peg-out around eighty: prose fatigue. It looks like organ failure or cancer or stroke but it’s really just the inability to carry on clambering through the assault course of mundane cause and effect. If we ask Sheila then we can’t ask Ron. If I have the kippers now then it’s quiche for tea. Four score years is about all the ifs and thens you can take. Dementia’s the sane realisation you just can’t be doing with all that anymore.
It’s appropriately ironic that this is a hybrid tale: part monster story, part espionage thriller, richly comic and with one of the best narrators I’ve read in a long time. 200-year-old Jake Marlowe may be a monster and a murderer, but we can forgive him that, because he’s such good company. The Last Werewolf would have reached a higher spot on this list if it didn’t stumble badly towards the end, but it’s still a cracking good novel.
“And there was another one, too, about ‘where is Earth?’ Now, I ask you – where is Earth? – in relation to what? Oh, yes, he knows it goes round the sun, but where, please, is the sun? And, there were some others – simply not his kind of questions.”
This is an overlooked classic from John Wyndham, one of Britain’s greatest science fiction writers, in which a humble father is distressed to find that his eleven-year-old son appears to have developed an imaginary friend – a voice in his head with all kinds of scientific questions and strange notions about the human race. All of Wyndham’s hallmarks are here: a curiously dated vision of society (even for his time), a stuffy yet enjoyable writing style, a collision between human and alien intelligences. Yet Chocky, his final published work before death, is surprisingly more hopeful about mankind’s future than his previous novels. And compared with his most famous four (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos), most of which have rather abrupt endings, Chocky has perhaps the most satisfying conclusion since The Midwich Cuckoos – and one a great deal more touching and affecting. It’s nice to think that perhaps Wyndham became more optimistic before his death.
A unique novel set in eleventh century England after the Norman invasion, Paul Kingsnorth has created a phonetic “shadow tongue” comprised entirely of derivatives from Old English words (rather than introduced Romance words which comprise much of the modern language) to better reflect the words and thoughts of the people who lived at the time. In this superstitious world where villagers fear the devils and spirits of the forest in the darkness beyond the light of the campfire, it’s easy to feel unsettled in the opening chapter, as a series of omens and warnings foretell something terrible coming for England. The French invasion may not have been supernatural, but for all the blood and misery it brought, it may as well have been an army of demons. The aftermath of the invasion unfolds through the eyes of Kingsnorth’s marvellously written narrator, Buccmaster of Holland, an arrogant and violent man with a dark history. The Wake is a wonderful case of concept and execution coming together perfectly.
Those ten words perfectly sum up the ethos of Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Western masterpiece is in many ways a book of two halves. On one hand it’s a plain and easy read which I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to somebody who isn’t much of a reader; on the other hand, it’s a thousand pages of deep and affecting literature that very much deserved its Pulitzer win. On one hand, it’s a light-hearted and often funny book; on the other hand, it doesn’t shy away from the realities of the American West, and contains scenes of utter brutality. On the one hand, it’s a nihilistic and realistic novel in which death comes to good people for no good reason; on the other hand, it exhorts us to take joy in the world and find meaning in simple things. As one reviewer put it: “If you only read one Western in your life, make it Lonesome Dove.”
When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died earlier this year, Peter Carey wrote in the Guardian about how valuable the Latin American writer had been to him as he struggled with his own cultural cringe. Nobody can read Carey’s early stories, or his first novel Bliss, without noticing they take place in locations which are clearly Australian but nonetheless go unnamed. “The absence of placenames in the stories is a good indication of what I was avoiding,” Carey said, “a sign that I was still too young (and damaged) to see that Myrniong was a beautiful strange name and that Wonthaggi was a poem unto itself.”
In Illywhacker, his second novel, this reluctance has been well and truly vanquished. Illywhacker zigzags its way up and down Australia as it follows the life of vagabond, thief, pilot, casanova, snake-catcher and general illywhacker Herbert Badgery, and its paragraphs are dotted with Australian town names that begin to take on a lyrical beauty: Jeparit, Terang, Balliang, Jindabyne, and hundreds of others. The novel sprawls across hundreds of pages and three generations of Herbert’s extended family: a huge, messy, heartfelt picaresque epic. Objectively speaking, Oscar & Lucinda is probably Carey’s better book, but Illywhacker is by far my favourite, and one of the best novels I’ve read in years.
Lev Grossman’s brilliant Magicians trilogy is often incorrectly described as Harry Potter for adults, which is a pathetically shallow analysis. For all its flippant humour and millenial meta-commentary, this trilogy is a surprisingly thoughtful work about unrealised dreams and the bleakness of adulthood. Young people finding that life isn’t what they thought it would be is hardly uncovered ground in literature, but Grossman marries this to the very concept of young adult fiction, and the momentousness, heroism and epic nature that makes up so much of it – setting up an entire generation of kids for dashed hopes and dreams.
It’s a mark of Grossman’s success that he builds this concept into a genuinely successful fantasy: a story that you love reading and a world you enjoy being in. It’s a further mark of his success that The Magician’s Land manages to answer all of those hard questions the earlier books raised, squarely acknowledging that our hopes and dreams probably won’t come true, but still ends on a positive and uplifting note. The Magician’s Land is an excellent conclusion to one of the finest works of fantasy in the last twenty years.
2. The Bone Clocks
The brigadier I knew has left his bombed-out face, leaving me alone with the clock, shelves of handsome books nobody ever reads, and one certainty: that whatever I do with my life, however much power, wealth, experience, knowledge or beauty I’ll accrue, I, too, will end up like this vulnerable old man. When I look at Brigadier Reginald Philby, I’m looking down time’s telescope at myself.
David Mitchell has always been known for having a pastiche writing style, switching easily from the viewpoint of a 19th century diarist to a Worcestershire schoolboy to a Korean clone-slave in a dystopian future, all while maintaining his own magical authorial voice, replete with wit and dazzling wordplay. The Bone Clocks returns to the patchwork style we saw in earlier novels like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, skipping across the threads in the life of Holly Sykes, from 1980s England to the coast of Ireland in a future ravaged by climate change, by way of Cambridge, Switzerland, Iraq, Australia, Iceland and plenty more besides. In the background of Holly’s life, the conclusion to a centuries-long battle between different factions of immortals is being played out.
The Bone Clocks is not David Mitchell’s finest novel; I felt that the framework meant we never truly got to know Holly as a character, and the tone stumbles badly in the penultimate chapter as the immortals come out of the shadows and onto the stage. But it is, nonetheless, a David Mitchell novel, and every sentence is a feast.
1. The War of the Worlds
Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human beings moved and suffered together. The legendary hosts of Goths and Huns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been but a drop in that current. And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede – a stampede gigantic and terrible – without order and without a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.
No matter that I’ve read and watched and experienced so many adaptations of this story that I already could have written a plot synopsis: the original is the best. I was pleasantly surprised to find, when I finally got around to reading this 116-year-old novel, that it was the most captivating piece of fiction I’d read in a very long time. Wells’ timeless tale of imperial destruction and genocide is a classic for a reason: from the sultry, eerie heat of the summer evening in Woking, to the panicked flight at the Leatherhead ferry, to the horrible stillness of a deserted London, he takes the reader through a series of unforgettable set-pieces as he wreaks apocalyptic devastation on the suburbs of London – which, even though set in the 19th century, still seem the very definition of humdrum normalcy. The War of the Worlds is an enduring classic for a good reason, and even if you know the story, it’s a book you absolutely must read.
The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke (2006) 235 p.
Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was one of the most roundly acclaimed fantasy novels written in the past few decades, winning the Hugo Award and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and deservedly so. It’s particularly amazing given that it was Clarke’s debut, and twelve years later it remains her only novel. I’ve often thought it must be intimidating to try something once and have it meet with overwhelming success, which is perhaps why her second book, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, is a collection of short stories which run more or less along the same lines as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
It’s solid and enjoyable in the same way that the great novel is, although, as with any collection of short stories, they’re never quite as good as a novel. This is further emphasised because half the fun of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was the sheer vastness of it, the voluminous prose, the epic sense; the style doesn’t work quite so well in the format of a short story. It’s telling that my two favourite stories in this collection (“Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower” and “Tom Brightwind or How the Bridge was Built at Thoresby”) are also the longest.
But in any case, I enjoyed the book and can easily recommend it to anybody who liked Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. On the other hand, though, I can also see how somebody apprehensive about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’s size might try this as a sample for Clarke’s writing style and her magical, alternate history England. That would be a mistake – it’s just not quite the same.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843) 138 p.
Obviously I meant to finish reading and review this before Christmas Eve, but I spent too many evenings drinking and on Christmas Eve itself I fell asleep watching Howl’s Moving Castle instead. So never mind that.
But anyway! Christmas! Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of his most well-known and influential works, and indeed one of the most well-known and influential pieces of literature in the human canon. We all know how it goes. Even if we haven’t read it, we’ve picked up bits and pieces from the dozens of films and parodies and cartoons and retellings (if I have to think, probably the first version I remember is A Muppets Christmas Carol). Ebeneezer Scrooge is a miserly old rich man who sneers at the concept of Christmas, is visited by the ghost of his old business partner on Christmas Eve, is subsequently visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, and learns to change his ways for the better. Timeless.
I’ve been avoiding reading Dickens because he’s one of those authors you feel obligated to read, but whom you fear will also be dry and dull and tedious – I mean, he was born more than two hundred years ago. Apart from it being timely, I read A Christmas Carol because it’s slim, and if I hated it then I could at least say I’d read Dickens. I was pleasantly surprised to find his prose accessible and readable and even witty.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
Dickens’ literary legacy is obvious, but I was fascinated to learn that much of what we associate with a modern Christmas – feasting, merriment, family gatherings and generosity of spirit – is a relatively recent trend, as the holiday morphed from a purely religious observance in the early 19th century to something more broadly festive. It’s a stretch to say that Dickens invented modern Christmas, but the massive popularity of A Christmas Carol was certainly an enormous influence on it.
I enjoyed A Christmas Carol quite a bit. It’s a charming, pleasant story about generosity, love for your fellow man, and redemption. It deserves its enduring, iconic status, and I’m relieved to find that Dickens is a relatively approachable writer. I’ll next read his first full novel, The Pickwick Papers.
The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White (written 1941; published 1977) 138 p.
T.H. White’s Arthurian saga The Once And Future King has a troubled publication history. The final volume, The Book of Merlyn, was submitted to his publishers in 1941 but was rejected as part of a collected volume due to wartime paper rationing. Undeterred, White took two major sequences in it – in which Merlyn transforms Arthur into an ant and then a goose – and inserted them into the first book, The Sword in the Stone. The Book of Merlyn was thus unincluded in later collected editions of the series, until the manuscript was discovered amongst White’s papers after his death in 1964. It was included in future collected editions from 1977 onwards, but – in order to present everything as accurately as possible – retains the ant and the goose sequences in The Sword in the Stone, while also later repeating them in The Book of Merlyn. (This is particularly notable because the goose sequence is probably the most famous and well-loved thing White ever wrote.)
It’s a bit less confusing when you’ve read it all the way through, but the funny thing is that those sequences feel a lot more like they belong in the first book, when Arthur was a child being transformed into animals all the time as part of his education with Merlyn, rather than the final book, where Arthur is whisked away on the night before the great battle with Mordred to discuss human nature and warfare with Merlyn and his council of wise animals. The vast majority of The Book of Merlyn takes place in the badger’s cosy underground den, which has the air of a cluttered library or gentleman’s parlour, as White (through Merlyn) expounds his philosophy about the wretched, violent nature of man.
Understanding T.H. White goes a long way towards understanding The Once and Future King, and my edition has an afterword discussing how the book came about. White was an unhappy man for much of his life: an alcoholic, a closeted homosexual, and a pacifist in a time of just war. When World War II was looming in 1939, he relocated himself to neutral Ireland and spent the rest of the war there as a conscientious objector. At this stage The Sword in the Stone had already been published, but it’s clear that the outbreak of WWII greatly influenced the rest of the series. “I have suddenly discovered that… the central theme to Morte d’Arthur is to find an antidote to war,” White wrote to his publisher. The Book of Merlyn expresses this more clearly than any other volume in the series; along with The Sword in the Stone, it effectively bookends the series, as Merlyn compares mankind to various animals – only now, with Arthur as an adult, Merlyn is no longer teaching a pupil but rather discussing an intractable problem with an equal, to the king’s increasing weariness and despair.
The Book of Merlyn ultimately presents no conclusion on the matter, no coherent moral or philosophy, because White himself didn’t have one. He was a confused man, a man full of doubt, a man aghast at the horrors of the world, a man who tried to make sense of it all as best he could. He was a writer, in other words, who moulded his love of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur into his own unique, funny, beautiful epic, a meditation on the failures and foibles of the human race.
I liked The Book of Merlyn a lot; it’s probably my favourite out of the series. Despite a current of nihilism and despair, White brought back all the elements that made The Sword in the Stone such a success, and the result is a sweet and affecting tale of a man who tried to do his best. I didn’t always enjoy The Once and Future King, but The Book of Merlyn is a strong conclusion which serves the series well. And as for the series overall? I may not have always liked it, I may have been bored and frustrated with it at times, but I can nonetheless appreciate it objectively as a powerful and important work of English fantasy.
He suddenly felt the intense sad loveliness of being as being, apart from right or wrong: that, indeed, the mere fact of being was the ultimate right. He began to love the land under him with a fierce longing, not because it was good or bad, but because it was: because of the shadows of the corn stocks on a golden evening; because the sheep’s tails would rattle when they ran, and the lambs, sucking, would revolve their tails in little eddies; because the clouds in daylight would surge it into light and shade; because the squadrons of green and golden plover, worming in pasture fields, would advance in short, unanimous charges, head to wind; because the spinsterish herons, who keep their hair up with fish bones according to David Garnett, would fall down in a faint if a boy could stalk them and shout before he was seen; because the smoke from homesteads was a blue beard straying into heaven; because the stars were brighter in puddles than in the sky; because there were puddles, and leaky gutters, and dung hills with poppies on them; because the salmon in the rivers suddenly leaped and fell; because the chestnut buds, in the balmy wind of spring, would jump out of their twigs like jacks-in-boxes, or like little spectres holding up green hands to scare him; because the jackdaws, building, would hang in the air with branches in their mouths, more beautiful than any ark-returning dove; because, in the moonlight there below, God’s greatest blessing to the world was stretched, the silver gift of sleep.
– From “The Once and Future King,” by T.H. White
Australia is a “nation of victims” with citizens unable to properly protect themselves with weapons, pro-gun crossbench senator David Leyonhjelm has said.
The Liberal Democrat said he wanted a calm, measured discussion about the right to “practical self-defence” in the wake of the deadly Sydney siege.
The Senator goes on to claim that: “What happened in that cafe would have been most unlikely to have occurred in Florida, Texas, or Vermont, or Alaska in America, or perhaps even Switzerland as well.”
I stayed up until 3:00am London time watching ABC24’s online feed of the Sydney cafe siege with a mix of unease and fascination, and followed it further at work the next day as it unbelievably dragged on for hours and hours. I also watched with contempt as a number of Americans with a political axe to grind descended on the Twitter hashtag and proclaimed that such a thing would never happen in America, with its prevalent gun ownership; a sentiment one of our politicians has decided to adopt, even before funerals are held for the two Sydneysiders who were murdered.
Put aside, for a moment, the notion that America is never visited by mass shootings or terrorist attacks. At the same time the siege was unfolding in Sydney, a gunman in Pennsylvania killed three times as many people. Rarely does the world provide such a stark, timely example that perhaps people should reconsider the logic of their beliefs.
The concept that armed citizens are the best way to stop gun violence has become a popular argument in America in recent years, despite the fact that in the extensive annals of American spree shootings, it has literally never happened. Someone came close during a shooting in Las Vegas earlier this year, but was instead killed by one of the perpetrators.
I’m slightly off track when it comes to Australia’s gun laws, which have broad community support, whatever libertarians like Leyonhjelm say. I believe people have a right, within reason, to own weapons for self-defence; the concept of the state removing that right makes me uneasy. But not as uneasy as I would be to live in a country in which 30 people die from firearms violence every day.
Since drastically tightening gun ownership laws after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, Australia has had no further mass shootings. It’s worth mentioning, however, that in 2002 a mentally disturbed student entered Monash University and shot and killed two students (this limited death toll is apparently why the incident is not generally considered a “massacre” or “mass shooting.”) He was prevented from killing any more because a lecturer and some students tackled him. He had six handguns; the Virginia Tech shooter only had two. If it wasn’t for the bravery and quick-thinking of those in the room with him, the incident could have been far worse.
I mention this not to say that our gun laws are ineffectual or useless or that they should be repealed, but as an example of how random mass shootings are – as we all know, the worst in history didn’t take place in the US at all, but in Norway, a bastion of liberal, left-wing gun control. There are more factors involved than the accessibility of firearms, and while we can control them to some extent, we can never truly prevent them.
But gun control isn’t about mass shootings – or at least, it shouldn’t be. The issue is always viewed through that big, lurid prism of body counts and police stand-offs, which make global headlines and bring the pundits into the studios to talk about how this might be a catalyst for change. But the vast majority of America’s gun violence victims don’t go down at the hands of a crazed mass shooter. They die in ones and twos, on street corners in black neighbourhoods, in botched armed robberies, in domestic disputes or arguments that turn violent.
Those are the facts of the matter. Senator Leyonhjelm doesn’t want “a calm and measured discussion” any more than the Americans on Twitter who saw a hostage crisis unfolding, attached it to one of the only things they know about Australia, and decided it was a good time to push their own political agenda. Leyonhjelm is a libertarian purist who bases his beliefs on abstract philosophy rather than real-world facts; what he wants is guns back in people’s hands, irrelevant of the plain statistics which prove that Australia’s gun laws have saved lives.
Like so many Americans, Leyonhjelm wishes the statistics told a different story. But they don’t.
The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod (2008) 368 p.
The Night Sessions, by Scottish author Ken Macleod, is a police procedural set in near-future Scotland and New Zealand after a series of catastrophic “Faith Wars” have resulted in most Western countries adopting a hardline approach to separation of church and state. The state has an official policy of “non-cognisance,” meaning people’s religious beliefs are kept entirely private and not recognised by the state; the actual situation appears to be more social than official, with religious belief having dwindled to a select few anyway. The novel begins with Edinburgh Detective Adam Ferguson responding to an explosion which turns out to be a letter-bomb mailed to a Catholic priest, leading on to the usual deep layers of conspiracy and epic plots foiled etc.
The Night Sessions begins on shaky ground, with a prologue in which a New Zealand priest flying to Scotland has a conversation with a fellow plane passenger about faith which is the very definition of hammy; later he meets some subculture youth at a nightclub who are also oddly happy to discuss the finer points of theology, spouting Sorkinesque zingers complete with ludicrously specific Bible passages. (Why would people keep that information tucked away in their head for debating purposes, in a world where you’d be highly unlikely to ever meet a believer?) Macleod is on firmer ground as The Night Sessions gets properly underway, couched in the familiar language of a crime novel: police lingo, helpful crime investigation exposition, and undersketched characters referred to by surname. But as this wears on it fits oddly with Macleod’s ostensibly grand preoccupation with questions of faith and artificial intelligence, and I felt the novel’s philosophical reach outstretched its grasp. The Night Sessions is readable enough, but never amounts to much.
Batting Against Castro by Jim Shepard (1996) 197 p.
Jim Shepard is widely regarded alongside Tobias Wolff as one of America’s finest living short story writers. As with Wolff, he first came to my attention in university when I read his brilliant short story Love and Hydrogen, about a pair of clandestine lovers on the doomed voyage of the Hindenburg. As with Wolff, it’s somehow taken seven years for me to actually bother to find a full collection of his stories and read them.
Batting Against Castro is his first collection of stories, and while it’s good, it doesn’t quite reach the heights which I know his later work does. There are only two particularly good stories in here: Spending The Night With The Poor, an agonisingly awkward account of a teenage girl’s sleepover at her poverty-stricken friend’s house, and Mars Attacks, which recounts a man’s relationship with his troubled brother by describing the trading cards they collected as children which depicted a cartoonish assault on Earth by Martian invaders. Some of the stories are technically accomplished but left me feeling cold – I think Krakatau, the final story in the book, is probably an objectively great story, but the theme of troubled families had worn out its welcome by then. Similarly, there are some stories (such as the title one, which finds its American narrator literally batting against a young Fidel Castro when he plays baseball in pre-revolutionary Cuba) which are deeply immersed in the lore of American sports; as with the movie Field of Dreams, I suspect you kinda have to be American to get what they’re all about. But overall it was a decent first outing for Jim Shepard, and I’ll pick up his later books.
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (2014) 365 p.
As an Australian my knowledge of the mother country’s history is patchier than I would like. It was only this year, when I moved to Britain and started doing some more reading on the subject, that I discovered the astonishing fact that the Normans were not (as I had vaguely assumed) merely one tribe among many squabbling for turf inside Britain’s borders. Rather, they were an invading French force who successfully defeated the king and installed a new leader, and who were never really turfed out but rather absorbed – even today, British people who have Norman surnames are more likely to be wealthy than those who don’t. It was three centuries before England again had a king who spoke English as his first language. The violent dispossession of land and livelihood by the invading foreigners was one of the most traumatic and consequential events in English history.
Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake, billed as “a post-apocalyptic novel set a thousand years ago,” follows a group of resistance fighters in the Lincolnshire fens who have seen everything they know destroyed in the Norman invasion – their homes burned, their wives killed, their freedom shattered. They are led by Buccmaster of Holland (Holland referring to a historical region of Lincoln, not the Netherlands), a crazed and violent son of England who thirsts for revenge.
The most notable feature of The Wake is its language. Kingsnorth says in the afterword:
I simply don’t get on with historical novels written in contemporary language. The way we speak is specific to our time and place. Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes – all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them. To put 21st-century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappucinos: just wrong.
Rather than write the novel in what we now call Old English, the actual language of the day which would unfortunately be “unreadable to anyone except scholars,” Kingsnorth has created what what he calls a “shadow tongue,” which represents the feel and sound of Old English while still being comprehensible to the modern eye:
in the mergen i was waecen by the sound of the wind in the treows and a great wind it was. blowan from a great height blowan with the strength of thunor this wind it mofd the great treows baec and forth and the sound was grim to hiere. i cnawan this was the sign of sum great thing that had been done or was cuman bit i cnawan not what. i cum out of our hus of stoccs and leafs and i seen that the mete we had tied ofer the fyre had cum down in the wind and was all ofer the ground.
The most obvious book this calls to mind is Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel written in a degenerated, phonetic version of English, to represent the warping of the English language two thousand years after a nuclear war. But the invented tongue is becoming a proud tradition: David Mitchell mimics Hoban in the post-apocalyptic segment of Cloud Atlas, parts of Will Self’s novel The Book of Dave feature another verbally debased apocalyptic community, and parts of Iain M. Banks’ Feersum Endjinn are written in a half-Scottish half-Cockney patter. (Interesting to note that these are all British authors.) Although strange to behold at first, Kingsnorth’s invented language is easy to come to grips with after a few dozen pages; lack of punctuation and capital letters aside, no more than one word in five is actually altered, and there’s a handy vocabulary at the back for some of the less intuitive words, such as “micel” for much and “fugol” for bird. A basic knowledge of a few Norse words like “fyrd,” “thane,” and “cottar” is also useful, which I handily knew from years of playing King of Dragon Pass like the nerd I am. The language absolutely succeeds in imbuing The Wake with a real sense of alienness; the narrative voice of Buccmaster is gritty and accented and sounds as though he’s telling his story from the other side of a campfire in a deep, dark forest.
And as with Riddley Walker, even beyond the etymological gymnastics, the story itself is excellent. (It’s hard to make this point without making it sound as though the invented language is a gimmick, which it’s not, in the case of both books.) Many a fine historical novel (Sacred Hunger, for instance) stumbles by having characters who conveniently share the sensibilities of a 21st century Guardian reader. Buccmaster of Holland is a wife-beating religious fanatic who never loses an opportunity to remind others that he is, by the eleventh century’s standards, a member of the landed gentry – even after his home has been razed and he’s sleeping rough in the woods with the other plebs. He is arrogant, vain, pigheaded and violent, flies off the handle at the slightest provocation, is prone to bitter jealousy when others speak of more well-known resistance fighters, and is given to dark suspicions and foul moods. As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly clear that he is at the very least a psychopath, and likely suffering from other mental issues as well. He is an unlikeable and unsympathetic narrator, and yet it’s hard not to pity him, because in the wake of the Norman invasion his life truly is a tragedy.
I saw The Wake at Waterstone’s back in summer, but was leery of it because it came from what I mistook for a vanity publisher (it’s not) and because a quick google revealed that while Kingsnorth was a published non-fiction writer, this was his first attempt at fiction. It was only after The Wake was longlisted for the Booker Prize that I picked up a copy. Some might say that’s a shame, that a reader might rely on awards or acclaim to judge worthiness, but I prefer to think of it as heartening – the system ensured that a book this good wasn’t keep in obscurity. (Also, I live in London, so I can’t afford to go around buying new hardbacks unless I’m assured they’ll be good.) The Wake is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and certainly the most unique.
Goliath by Scott Westerfeld (2011) 543 p.
Goliath is the conclusion to Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, an alternate-history WWI steampunk YA adventure series in which Franz Ferdinand’s fictional heir Alek attempts to stop the ongoing war while travelling around the world on the living British airship Leviathan, assisted by able young cadet Dylan Sharp – actually Deryn Sharp, a boy in disguise. Goliath greatly expands the scope of the story, with the Leviathan travelling across Siberia and Japan, crossing the Pacific and eventually reaching North America. It’s probably objectively the best book of the series.
Unfortunately I found the trilogy as a whole underwhelming. It’s competently written, and Westerfeld clearly has a marvellous imagination, but much of it too often feels like a publisher’s ideal YA series rather than something more original or daring. We check off all of the following cliches: noble child on the run learning to live amongst common people, girl who dresses up like a boy to serve in the military, fetishisation of British naval service, scheming journalists and foolish millionaires, an inevitable romance between the two leads, and cute animal sidekicks which eventually prove irrelevant to the plot. And the alternate history setting, which was put to good effect in Leviathan and Behemoth, becomes tiresome in Goliath, as Westerfeld takes us on a roll call of all the era’s famous figures. Nikola Tesla is integral to the plot and is put to good use, but by the time the Leviathan went on a Mexican detour purely, it seemed, for the purposes of meeting Pancho Villa, I was starting to get annoyed.
I suppose what I didn’t like about the Leviathan trilogy was that it never really surprised me. Can’t we have YA fiction where the main leads don’t fall in love just because they’re of the opposite sex? Can’t we have strong roles for female characters that don’t involve putting on trousers and doing boy stuff? Can’t we have characters’ fears about punishment or consequences actually realised, instead of everything turning out OK at the end of each book? We can, of course, and there’s plenty of YA fiction out there that does that (I feel like a broken record going on about Philip Reeve, but I’m also thinking of John Christopher – who, to be fair, had the benefit of writing YA fiction before the term itself was invented by publishers as a marketing angle). And I don’t want to suggest that genre subversion is a mandatory prerequisite for successful YA fiction. I’m just trying to put my finger on why, despite many points in its favour, I found the Leviathan trilogy ultimately unsatisfying.
Anyway, that’s just my take. Although I think it’s true that nobody’s ever too old to read YA fiction it’s also important to remember that I’m no longer the genre’s target audience. If you’re looking for fun young adult fiction, or are stocking a school library or your kid’s Christmas stocking, by all means give this series a try. I thought it was okay, and a lot of people loved it more than me.