Spring – Ali Smith

Written in Ali Smith’s wonderfully readable style, this a story about hope and positivity set against a very contemporary setting of immigration and discrimination.

Two tales interweave over the book. One is of an ageing BBC play director who is grieving the loss of his best friend, a women called Paddy. He impetuously gets on a train to Scotland to get away from the pressures of a new play he’s been asked to direct.

The other is of a security guard at a migrant detention centre, Brit, who apparently randomly meets a 12 year old called Florence who she thinks she recognises as a pro-migrant activist and, mostly out of curiousness and a sense of adventure, joins her on a train journey to Scotland. And it’s on the train that they meet Richard.

They are picked up by a women called Alda from the station who, it turns out, is part of a network of resistance against migrant detention.

This novel is an insightful take on the injustice and downright unfairness of migrant detention centres. But more than this it’s a positive exploration of human motivation. Brit, in particular, is far from the stereotypical prison guard; her reasons for doing her job are not clear but she does her job with care and attention, and her sense of protection towards Florence is huge, and she begins to develop a friendship with her, one as equals, even if she ends up disappointed at the end.

Florence meanwhile is a beacon of hope – impossibly intelligent, mature, brave, challenging, charming, a symbol of what immigrants offer.

It is spring after all, so much of this is about hope, even against a backdrop of racism and sexism and immigrant sentiment.

And as always, it’s as much Ali Smith’s style that makes this book. She writes in long flowing sentences that you kind of gulp down, that are realistic, that read just as you’d hear them, without adornment or metaphor or pretension. Despite tackling weighty themes and the big ideas of social theory that lie behind much of her writing, her style is fluid and readable and digestible.

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Cousins – Angela Carter

A simple and simply told short story but one that lingers, making you reflect on humans and animals, men and women, and hierarchies.

In the first couple of pages we meet a family attacked by wolves who’s young children disappear, save from one baby boy. Years later, as a child of nine or so, he comes across a pack of wolves with a female among them who is more human than wolf and he thinks is in fact his cousin, thought killed years ago by the wolves.

The family capture and take her to their home, where she prowls around on all fours, her body grown into the shape of a wolf, and her mannerisms more animal than human. Eventually the family is attacked by the wolves who return her to their pack.

What’s so interesting is how Carter uses this simple tale to show that the difference between animal and human is not too big – how over a few years a child socialising only with animals might develop things like longer ankles, walking on all fours, defacating as they walk and so on, taking on the characteristics of animals not humans. The gap is so small.

Likewise, the way the boy gazes at his female cousin’s naked body leads you to wonder not only about how humans are so divorced from what’s natural, the naked body, but also how men objectify women, liken them to an irrational species, to animals, and use this to create a hierarchy between men and women. In this way Cousins is an allegory about how women are treated by men, as animals to be tamed rather than equals.

Anna Burns – Milkman

Blimey. Milkman offers a hugely inventive, insightful and darkly comic take on the cultures that develop in divided places. But it is a difficult book too, it’s stream of consciousness style both readable and tough in equal measure.

Set in an unnamed city divided by religious / ethnic conflict, it follows the story of an unnamed 18 year old as she describes her fate when a member of the paramilitary elite (known as the Milkman) starts to fall for her and follows her around. Rumours begin to spread about their involvement, meaning she’s treated a bit like royalty in some ways, but looked down on in others. It leads to fall-outs with her complex family and her ‘maybe-boyfriend’ and ‘longest best friend’.

It’s not so much the plot that makes this such an interesting book but the insights into living in a city divided by religion – clearly supposed to be Belfast – where violence, murder and conformity are constants that force people to live self-censored and limited lives for fear of standing out. It’s the everyday nature of the narrator, the writing and the events that brings the ever-present threat and terrible affects of the divided culture to life.

Days of Awe – A.M Homes

Days of Awe is a darkly comic and unsettling short story about a woman novelist on a speaking engagement at a conference on the Holocaust, at which she meets a guy she used to know at university and has a brief affair. But it’s about so much more than this – guilt, truth, forgiveness, openness, what it is to be yourself…

She recognises the guy when she arrives at the airport (we never know the protagonists’ names; the woman is the Trangressive Novelist or just ‘she’, he is the War Correspondent) and they strike up a conversation when they meet in the hotel lobby. They soon get together and have a one night stand, despite the fact that she is in a relationship with her girlfriend, a relationship close enough that her girlfriend and her mother play online scrabble with one another.

This is followed the next day when she finds a synagogue to go and worship at, only to find him there too. They spend time together, time in which they are able to be playful and honest and maybe very different from how they normally are – but eventually fall out and she leaves him in the middle of nowhere to walk back to the hotel.

Alongside this story is their relationship to war and genocide. He is a war correspondent, a witness to genocides, and held in high esteem. She is a novelist who has no direct experience of genocide but who is trying to understand its effect on future generations, and is taunted by holocaust survivors at the conference for having no right to talk to about the subject. Her treatment by some of those attending the conference is just hilarious.

The Days of Awe is a ten day religious period in the Jewish calendar when people ask for forgiveness from those they have wronged, and it’s this question of forgiveness and how much is owed that is at the heart of this story – to holocaust survivors, to parents, to partners. At the same time, though, it’s as if everyday life for the woman (and probably the man) are frozen and normal rules don’t apply at the conference, as she acts in ways that seem to be at odds with how she typically behaves.

The question is, does she need to ask for forgiveness for how she behaves during these Days of Awe that we witness in the story, or for how she normally behaves?

Black Girl, White Girl – Joyce Carole Oates

This is a truly brilliant book, a thorough and often uncomfortable character study that highlights differences in race, class, privilege and values.

Genna Meade is the narrator, the wealthy daughter of radical liberals Max and Veronica, who were active in the activism of the 60s and early 70s. Max is a lawyer to the counter culture movement, and Genna saw countless hippies and radicals live in their shambolic house as she grew up. They are are from a rich family of Quakers, the Meades, though what Genna had in terms of financial wealth she lacked in family support.

At the liberal arts college that was paid for by her family, she gets a roommate in Minette Swift, one of the few black girls in the college hall. Minette is from a church family, is devoutly Christian, and despite all of Genna’s attempts to be her friend, is consistently aloof and guarded and self-reliant.

We hear the story through Geneva fifteen years after Minette’s death at the college. Through their time as roommates, Minette is subjected to apparently racist acts that Genna at first doesn’t see but gradually comes to understand. At the same time she tries to befriend Minette, but Minette always keeps her distance, refusing to accept Genna’s overtures of friendship – something that Genna can’t comprehend.

What’s so powerful about this novel is the detail of emotion – the fact that Minette can’t be pigeonholed, that Genna is both privileged and traumatised by her upbringing, that the relationship between the two girls is so tense, that Genna still can’t see what was going on even a decade and a half later.

And what’s here, too, is the impact of racism and racial stereotyping on Minette, how she is tense and awkward, how she has different values and ways of relating to people, when compared to Genna; and Genna can’t or doesn’t comprehend this, always thinking that Minette will

at any moment accept the generous hand of friendship and support she is offering.

We see, as well, the impact of historic forces on individuals’ lives – Minette who is shaped by a history of racism and resistance in America, and Genna who is traumatised by the life her parents forced upon her.

This is an uncomfortable read at times, not least because Minette is often unlikable, and the fact that it’s a white woman, Oates, writing about black experience, makes you wonder whether the portrayal is fair or ought to be more understanding or sympathetic.

Ultimately for me this book is about how, when two people with radically different and difficult histories, values and daily experiences, are thrown together, they can’t easily just get one another, they can’t just connect, there’s too much there holding them apart.

The Ghost Rider – Ismail Kadare

A mysterious and beautiful story that uses a classic Albanian folk tale to talk about the supernatural surrounding love, loss and debt.

The heart of this novella is the story, also known as the ‘Lenore Motif’, of a family – a mother, her daughter Doruntine and her nine brothers, including Doruntine’s favourite brother Konstandin.

Set in a pre-industrial time, Doruntine had married far away from the village of her family, but in the three years she’s been away all but her mother died of the plague. After the mother was overheard cursing Konstandin’s grave for failing to keep his promise to return his sister home, something inexplicable happens – Doruntine returns on the back of a horse she says was ridden by Konstandin.

The story then turns to local lawman, Stres, who is intent on discovering what happened, how this could have been. He considers theory after theory, a person is even arrested. But as his investigation continues, and fear and suspicion are whipped up in the village, he eventually accepts that the only explanation is a supernatural one – that the brother did rise from the dead to return his sister home.

Ultimately, what Stres is accepting, I think, is the limits of the rational and the explainable. He doesn’t want to believe it but in the end he accepts that where love, honour and grief are concerned, sometimes things can only be accounted for by things that are beyond empirical verification. And what Stres accepts, too, is that the norms and conventions of the village, which see the return of the sister as an act by the dead Konstandin, are important their own right, more so than the authority of religion or deduction.

“He now realised that everyone, each in his own way, would take some stand in this affair, and that each person’s attitude would have everything to do with their station in life, their luck in love and marriage, their looks, the measure of good or ill fortune that had been their lot, the events that had marked the course of their life, and their most secret feelings, those that people sometimes hide even from themselves… though they would believe they were passing judgement on someone else’s tragedy, in reality, they would simply be giving expression to their own.”

Ismail Kadare, The Ghost Rider

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

This is a beautifully written tapestry of a novel with a host of characters‘ lives intersecting in the story of the end of modern civilisation and the beginning of a new one, after a flu epidemic wipes out almost the entire world’s population and everything we associate with modern life.

The core character that ties all the others together is Arthur, a famous actor who in fact dies on stage just hours before the ‘Georgian flu’ begins to affect people.

We meet a woman who acted with him as a girl, Kirsten, who two decades later travels the devastated world in a travelling symphony playing Shakespeare and classical music to the scattered townships that have emerged.

We meet Clarke, his friend, who finds himself trapped with a couple of hundred others in an airport on the way to Arthur’s funeral, and makes his post-apocalypse home there, eventually setting up the Museum of Civilisation that collects objects from the old world – iPhones, laptops, medicines, magazines etc.

We meet his ex-wife Elizabeth and son Tyler who are initially at the airport but leave, with Tyler becoming part of a religious cult, one of many, which claim they have answers, that the flu happened for a purpose, and attempt to wrestle control or at least take power, wherever they can.

And we meet Miranda, Arthur’s ex-wife too, who dies early on in the flu epidemic but whose hobby is creating a comic, Station Eleven, which Kirsten has a copy of and which finds its way to the Museum of Civilisation.

What’s the book about? Mostly, I think, the distinction between the contingent and the vital. What we think of as essential are really just the trappings of modern civilisation – air travel, nations, technology, healthcare… yes, no doubt they make life more comfortable – mostly anyway – but they can disappear, and when they’ve gone life is stripped to back to what is vital: human relationships, co-operation, selfishness and selflessness, art, and of course the flourishing of non-human life like animals and flora and fauna. It’s complex and difficult, and the book offers no simple solutions about what matters in our existing civilisation or afterwards, but it’s thought-provoking and haunting in equal measure – and, it’s worth saying, a highly readable if exploratory plot, with characters that you want to know more about even whilst you might not fully like them. Ambiguous and interesting to the last.

“Since I was young I have always wanted to be in the landscape. Not passing through, skirting over or observing it from a distance, but in it. A part of it. Immersed so totally that it scratches the skin and stains the pores. Fills the lungs, the veins, the bowels.”

Benjamin Myers, Under the Rock

How to Paint a Dead Man – Sarah Hall

After reading Sarah Hall’s Electric Michelangelo and finding it one of the best and most memorable novels I’ve read, I had high expectations for this.

In some aspects it met them, but in other ways it was less fulfilling as a book.

It interweaves four stories: a woman whose twin has died and throws herself into an affair with a friend’s husband. Her Dad, a famous landscape artist and hedonist, who we learn about while he is stuck on the hills after an accident. An aged Italian artist who is close to death. And a young woman who has lost her sight and finding her way in the world.

There are links between them all, and Hall’s interest is in delving beneath the art, which is what animates much of their lives, to the relationships that make them – the Italian artist to his housekeeper, the woman to her sister, and so on.

At times it’s a little meandering, though the artist and his daughter are well developed characters and gripping to read about, especially as the daughter deals with the death of her sibling and the unexpected emptiness she feels and the chaos that ensues.

But what makes this book is the incredible language. Hall’s style is poetic but without any pretension, her descriptions vivid and ability to connect the reader to the people outstanding.

Compared to the long and thorough story of one person’s life of Electric Michelangelo, I found this less engaging, but it was nevertheless a book with language and style and characters to savour.

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

This is a book full of life but so much despair and sadness and horror that it’s at times both impossible to put down and hard to keep on reading.

It tells the story of four close friends who meet at university – JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude. All of them become successful, unrealistically so in some ways (artist, architect, actor, lawyer respectively), but what the book focuses on is Jude’s life.

In his adult life a hugely successful lawyer, as a child he was subjected the most horrific upbringing and abuse – first in an orphanage, then at the hands of Brother Luke, then by Dr Traylor and finally in a children’s home.

He manages to present himself as a success, but beneath it is constant self-loathing, cutting and self-harm and an inability to connect properly with others because he is always holding back what he views as his real – and, he feels, depraved – self.

Eventually, in his forties, he establishes a relationship with Willem that, though hard for him, is the closest he comes to contentment, but which is then ripped apart by Willem’s death. At this point he lets himself go entirely, unable to control his core drives, with self-harm and starvation escalating, and his relationships with JB, his adoptive parents Harold and Julia and friend / doctor Andy falling apart.

This book is so so sad. The length of the book means we get deep into Jude’s psyche and history, neither of which are nice to read, but both of which explain his behaviour, his life. And his life is both, as the book title says, little as he is so self-limiting, but also big because he has experienced more than anyone ever should.

For me, this book made me reflect on two things.

That people of all sorts, even the most apparently successful or brilliant, might be hiding brutal personal truths or emotions or even physical scars beneath the surface of their personality or clothes. It’s obvious but the brilliant, brutal exploration in this book really makes it so apparent.

And second, that despite everything, therapy and time and love will not always allow people to overcome or come to terms with their past and live happily or lightly; sometimes the experience is so horrific that a person’s life is so badly damaged that they can never live without despair, pain or suicidal thoughts hijacking their every moment.

Modern Gods – Nick Laird

This is a wonderfully written and closely observed book with two interwoven stories, one absolutely brilliant, the other less engaging, but both provoking questions about responsibility and guilt.

The novel centres on a Northern Irish Protestant family and particularly two sisters, Liz and Alison.

Alison had stayed in Ulster, has two kids, works at her Dad’s estate agency, and is about to embark on her second marriage to a seemingly nice if slightly uninspiring guy called Stephen.

Liz left Ulster for an academic life, lives in New York, and is about to go to Papa New Guinea to present a TV programme on a new religion that has sprung up there, but is back home for Alison’s wedding.

Alison’s story is incredible. It transpires, the day after they are married, that Stephen is in fact called Andrew and is a former terrorist who killed five innocent people in a pub shooting at the height of the troubles, but was given early release through the Good Friday Agreement.

Liz didn’t know because although she knew he had a past she’d never really wanted the details; the chapters building up to the wedding explain why she would rather bury her head in the sand than confront a difficult truth.

Liz meanwhile travels to Papa New Guinea with some BBC types and meets the leader of the new religion – Story – as well as a family of evangelical Christians spreading God’s message there. Things gradually unravel and Liz is thrown against the question of whether she should observe or intervene.

In a way that’s at the heart of the book, the question of how responsible you can be for something that you did not do or intend: how responsible is Liz when she doesn’t act against barbaric acts, or Alison for not enquiringly more about Stephen’s past, or Judith – their Mum – for always making Alison feel unloved, or Stephen for past actions?

The Gods of the title provide something of a guide to people, but not necessarily with the answers people want to hear.

I’ve seen the future baby; it’s murder – Tara Isabella Burton

A hugely relevant short story with a cutting critique of our apolitical narcissistic times.

Henry and Susan are the kinds of people who hate each other: he a part of the American elite, she a left feminist. But in their late twenties they meet one another at chance and strike up a loveless relationship based around sex and drink.

Their relationship is really a series of nights at hotels, where they antagonise and sometimes discuss politics with one another, both knowing they’re diametrically opposed to one another and stand for what the other hates.

Their first night together is the one when David Bowie dies, the second when Prince dies. The third, and the focus of the story, is Trump’s election. They are in a hotel, getting wasted as it happens, and they end up arguing, waking up with little recollection of what they did, then driving home via a sleezy motel where they argue, have sex and Henry gets beat up pointlessly defending his Porsche.

This is a good read but more than anything is a story for the Trump era, one that perhaps explains to us why Trump can succeed: irony and self-absorption are such motivating factors for Henry and Susan that political and social events, however much they dislike or care about them, are nothing more than a backdrop to their lives. They dislike one another’s politics but ignore it for the hedonistic pleasure of being completely other than themselves.

Tellingly, Susan even runs out of time to vote because she’s meeting Henry, and so feels partially responsible for Trump’s victory because she did nothing to stop it, because she was so obsessed with her own disingenuous enjoyment that she let something terrible happen.

Flights – Olga Tokarczuk

A difficult book yes, but ultimately one full of insight, surprises and, at times, humour.

Flights definitely pushes against the boundaries of the novel form: a series of vignettes, essays and stories, some written in the first person, others in the third, others presented as facts in some way, what links the disparate entries together is the themes of travel and the body.

In fact, travel might be a bit narrow. Flights is about movement, though human travel is a big part of that. It includes the journey of a dead body, a brilliant rumination on the marvels of a plastic bag, the travels of Chopin’s heart, experiences of air travel, and most affectingly the story of a man whose wife and child go missing on a Greek island, and after he imagines his worst fears they re-appear untroubled, as if the freedom of being somewhere else made her realise the freedom open to her.

At the same time we get detailed rumination on the workings of the body, which Tokarczuk shows might appear a static entity but is in fact constantly in motion inside. It’s as if she’s saying that travel and movement are natural, they constitute the body itself and so global travel is inextricably linked.

An oddity of the book is that it presents travel and movement as a central part of the daily lives of writers, professors, holidaymakers, business travellers. But for so many, travel is forced upon them; their movement is in fact migration driven by poverty or war. The positive nature of travel loses its allure in this context, but it’s not something we hear about in Flights.

But this aside, Flights is a thought-proving book, surprising in both its content and its format.

Michel Houellebecq – The Map and the Territory

This dark and thoroughly readable novel offers a thought provoking take on art and the art world the temporary nature of life.

It focuses on a reluctant artist, Jed Martin. After an almost loveless upbringing – his mother committed suicide and his architect father shut him out by choosing boarding school for Jed and working continuously – Jed finishes university as an intelligent loner. His father buys him a small Paris apartment, and from there Jed drifts and thinks and works.

His earliest phase an artist sees him photographing hundreds of industrial and man made objects, earning him a misunderstood respect among his peers.

He then begins creating a series of photographs based on Michelin maps that are regarded as works of huge beauty. The Michelin company loves them, he receives artistic prestige, meets a beautiful Russian woman living in Paris – Olga – but characteristic of Jed, he fell into creating these works of art and when Olga leaves for Russia he leaves it all

begins are becomes a recluse once more.

Ten years later he’s exploring painting, this time painting everyday and famous figures in ways that capture their essence. Waiters, bakers, executives, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – he paints many – and they become recognised as great depictions of people, and at this point he comes to be seen as one of France’s greatest artists.

It’s at this point too that he meets the author Houellebecq, living as a drunken, depressed recluse in Ireland. They begin an acquaintance based on a shared antipathy to the world. Jed does a portrait and gives it to him, and though they rarely see each other it looks like they’d be friends of sorts – until, that is, Houellbecq is brutally murdered after moving into his family home in rural France.

The story then focuses on the policeman investigating the murder, and in a sense the book turns away from Jed and the art world to the investigators. But eventually we return to Jed as a rich artist who has bought his grandparents’ old house in the countryside and adjoining land and built an estate that allows him to live for over a decade without meeting anyone. He even builds a private road in order to avoid going into the nearby village.

At the same time, though, he is working on a series of overlaid films that depict the organic breakdown of matter, including his artworks, that show the finite nature of human life and meaning – a series discovered after his death, when it is seen as a masterpiece.

Besides the rich plot and characterisation, and the simple prose (despite its translation from French), there are some brilliant themes in this.

One is the question of the authorial intent of an artist. Jed appears to create works that people see as offering a deep insight into being human. But in Jed we see none of this gift: he is lonely, taken up by everyday concerns like the boiler, and rarely seems introspective or reflective. Where do these works come from? How much are they intended? The same appears to apply to the character of Houellebecq when we meet him too. Autobiographical maybe? Who knows.

Another interesting question raised, though a more cynical one, is the relation between money and art. Jed is able to spend time on complex artistic works because he’s relatively well off at the start and not occupied with the drudgery of work, and at the end when he’s rich. Further, it’s because Michelin and various rich people are flattered that he has taken them as subjects that we see his popularity and the price of his paintings increase. It’s not all about money, the recognition of good art, but it plays, its part it seems to be saying.

One thing that intrigues throughout the book is the author – is it Houellebecq? Whoever it is they often offer strong opinions that can’t always entirely be ascribed to the characters they are talking about: on religion, or immigration, or the state of France say. It might be that the little I know of Houellebecq is that he’s a controversial public figure prone to reactionary views, and so I was looking for this, or it might be that this undertone is there. I need to read more of him to see, and will.

“I know very well that human beings are the subject of the novel, of the Great Western Novel, and one of the great subjects of painting as well, but I can’t help thinking that people are much less different than they generally think. That there are too many complications in society, too many distinctions and categories.”

Jed Martin speaking in Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory

“The more arid and affectless life became in the high rise, the greater the possibilities it offered. By it’s very efficiency… it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses… in many ways, the high rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.”

JG Ballard, High Rise

JG Ballard – High Rise

This is a fantastic and disturbing story, as well as a meditation on the base urges that are only partially hidden by the veneer of modern society.

The novel focuses on the minutiae of social breakdown in a suite of high rise apartment blocks populated by well-to-do professionals – academics, doctors, journalists, marketers, entrepreneurs. The 1000th apartment had just been filled and gradually the deterioration begins. First there are minor fall-outs over the elevator or waste chutes or swimming pool access. Next there are loud parties where the upper floors taunt and begin to physically intimidate those from below.

Eventually all conventions breakdown: dogs are killed and eaten, people physically attacked, there’s no lighting or food or hygiene, people are murdered, family units are given up, women are raped. Eventually there is nothing left but unfiltered desires for basic urges: violence, sex, food.

The book tells the story through three characters. Laing, a young doctor, recently divorced, who loves the high rise, seems to some extent able to view it objectively whilst also being entirely implicated in its degeneration, and who gradually becomes more and more depraved. Wilder, a TV journalist who wants to make a documentary about the high rise but is unable to maintain his objectivity and degenerates into no more than a savage. And Royal, one of the architects of the high rise living in the penthouse, who is as little responsible for its demise as the others or the building itself.

As well as a gripping story, High Rise is a powerful allegory. Partly it’s of high rise and city living, of the way that by living close together people will inevitably give way to basic selfish urges. But as much as anything it’s an allegory for how human culture, norms and civilisation obscure a host of basic animal drives that are a the core of what it is to be human. In a way it’s another example of ‘desolation fiction’, writing about the basics, the essentials, of life once all the unnecessaries of modern life have been stripped away.

I do love this book, though it is somewhat essentialist about what makes humans human. In part it is essentialist about human drives. But also about gender. The men, as they degenerate, become lone hunter gatherers, intent on getting or protecting women, on violence, on sex. The women work together in packs, maintain a semblance of a home, look for men to please. Whether Ballard’s commenting on what underlies men and women’s roles in modern society, or saying it’s something more enduring than that, it’s hard to say, but either way it seems to reflect a kind of stereotyped view of men and women.

But that aside, High Rise is a superb study of how modern life is no more than a veneer pasted over the reality beneath.

John McGregor – Reservoir 13

What initially appears to be a crime novel quickly turns into something wholly more intriguing and experimental.

A young girl, Rebecca Shaw, has gone missing near reservoir 13 above a Peak District village. There’s some focus on this at the start, and references throughout, but more than anything the disappearance forms the backdrop to the novel’s focus on the life of the village.

Set over 13 years, McGregor tells the story of the people and the wildlife of the village. In 13 chapters, where each month might get a few pages – though it’s not regimented, not set – and in long paragraphs, he covers some of the people in the village like the Hunters and the Fletchers and the Joneses, as well as the nature surrounding them. Through short vignettes we get to know intimate details of the villagers’ lives, both the mundane and the remarkable, and a picture of their lives builds up as we visit them for brief periods time and time again over the years.

The development of the youngsters James, Rowan, Sophie, Lyndsey, is most interesting – from just teenagers (who knew the missing girl Rebecca, fleetingly) to twenty somethings, we see their tight relationship to one another unravel and then come together again differently. They follow divergent paths, university, marriage, that kind of thing, but there remains a bond – perhaps because of the girl’s death, perhaps because of their historic friendship.

The book is beautifully written. Pared down, short sentences, simple words, entirely descriptive all the way through, in a way that accurately captures so much of village life. One striking thing about the style, too, is the way everything is smooth and flowing, but the numbering of the reservoirs is jaunty when mentioned; they really stand out, making you remember the missing girl that acts as a shadow over the book.

What the novel really achieves is capturing the endless flow of life, the way lives repeat, iterate and change; the way certain things bind people into a community – bonfire night, annual pantomimes, new year celebrations, the school, mischief night, even the shared history of a missing girl. Some events stand out like Jones the school caretaker being arrested for child pornography, Martin and Wendy’s relationship breaking down, Suzanne Wright’s violent ex-husband turning up. But mostly human life is like animal life – seasonal, cyclical, habitual.

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

This has more than you could expect from a big American novel – immigration, assimilation, sprawling and complicated families, race, food, diners, urban decline, enterprise, all of it – but with an added twist that marks the ambivalence of everything.

The narrator is Calliope Stephanides, a hermaphrodite. This is her / his story but it’s also that of her Greek immigrant grandparents Desdemona and Lefty, and her parents Tessie and Milton. It begins with her grandparents living in Greece and eventually travelling to the States during war. In these extraordinary times Desdemona and Lefty, who are in fact brother and sister, realise their love for one another and marry, though vow to tell nobody.

After moving to America we follow them finding their way in the US and settling in Detroit. Lefty earns money by starting a speakeasy and then a bar – the Zebra Rooms – they have children, and the book then moves on to their son, Milton, and his wife Tessie. Whereas the grandparents remain only partially assimilated, Milton is the all-American male of the American dream, eventually creating a successful chain of hot dog restaurants, but managing to alienate his wife and kids with his posturing masculinity.

Then comes Calliope (and her oddly named brother, Chapter Eleven), and we follow her through the first 16 or so years of her life. Her gradual coming of age as a teenager sees her peers becoming adolescents but Calliope’s body refusing to grow breasts or begin periods. She falls for another girl (known as the Obscure Object), but eventually she ends up going to see a sex specialist who diagnoses her and says a small operation will make her all-girl.

But Calliope doesn’t feel like a girl, so she runs away – hitching, living in a park in San Francisco and becoming an act in a sexual freak show. And she cuts her hair, changes her name to Cal and becomes a boy.

This is just one of those huge absorbing novels, where you can get lost in the characters and the romance and the details. The lives of the family are set against the backdrop of Greek and Turkish wars, prohibition, race riots, the rise and decline of industry in Detroit, sexual liberation, all of it.

As the narrator, Calliope gives us details that nobody could know – about her grandparents, about herself in the womb – making it part research, part fantasy, part guesswork, part elaboration, part author’s license.

And throughout, what Eugenides gives us the ambiguity of life – nothing is straightforward. The Greek war with Turkey, the island of Cyprus split between the two, marital and familial love, nature and nurture, sexuality and gender, nothing is ever one thing or the other but lives in an ambiguous place in the middle. Middlesex.