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I’ve been reading… literary fiction

I’ve been reading… literary fiction

I’ve been reading… literary fiction

 This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series 2016 Reading Review

As well as some books for book club, this list includes that great author John Le Carré who, though writing espionage thrillers, writes in such a style as rightly belongs to this category.

embassyThe Embassy of Cambodia (Zadie Smith)

This short book doesn’t take long to read, but offers an engaging protagonist (Fatou) trapped in apparent unseen slavery down the road from the title’s building, which she passes on the way to her weekly relief at the local leisure club. I’m told that the convincing dialogue from well-formed characters is typical of Smith’s writing, and left me wanting to read more of her work. Though short, there is an elegant completion to the story without seeming trite, and it raises significant questions about how widely our compassion should extend when our reach is as wide as the globe. The endless badminton match in the grounds of the embassy, though seemingly incidental to the plot, provided the motif for the cover (a shuttlecock) and the basis of the chapter numbering, and is intriguingly suggestive of the inevitable question at the end of the book: in Fatou’s match, who won? Originally released as a serial in the New Yorker, it can be accessed for free here.

nightmanagerThe Night Manager (John Le Carré)

Ok. Full disclosure: I love reading John Le Carré, and when this eBook came down to £1.99 on Kindle, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity. Little did I know that it would become the subject of an entire BBC TV Series within a few months – precipitating my rapid digestion of this weighty novel (400-600 pages, depending on your edition!).

The very same features which draw me regularly to Le Carré’s work were found aplenty in this 1993 publication. As always, he moulds a compelling thriller with beautiful prose and occasional, unassuming humour. The book describes the valiant efforts of its eponymous (fictional) hero to bring down an international arms dealer in revenge at his lover’s brutal murder. Perhaps it takes a while to get going – the TV series covered many pages of the character’s descent into anonymity in a fraction of an episode. But I didn’t mind the long journey – I don’t read Le Carré just for the ‘exciting moments’. His “reveals” are often done slowly, almost gently, perhaps tempering the sophisticated plot twists which he writes into his narrative. However, the joy of reading his work is not about sudden advances in the plot, but about the author’s careful crafting of the scene, or the escalation of tension over time.

The plot contained more crude material than other books he has written, although less than the TV series would suggest, and I was relieved to reach the end of the book without someone else ruining the ending. However, I wasn’t in a rush to say goodbye to the characters. As often is the case, there was a lingering ‘unfinished’ sense to the conclusion of this Le Carré novel – not borne out of incompleteness in his story, but out of the success of his characterisation. I was left with an impression that there hadn’t been time to say goodbye to someone whose fully-described, grounded and convincing role had made him something of an acquaintance – a friend, perhaps, whose courageous efforts warranted more than the parting words of the novel’s closing chapter. But please, don’t see this as a criticism of Le Carré’s novel; on the contrary, it is a testament to how well it was written.

grassThe Grass is Singing (Doris Lessing)

I read this book as part of the book group at the Gallery Café, considering something from the domain of literary fiction each month. This intriguing novel opens with the death of an individual, Mary, and the immediate aftermath of such a tragic event. The bulk of the book, however, develops the years leading up to her death. Its clever format is complemented by Lessing’s beautiful writing and remarkable characterisation. However, most notable is her commentary on Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) and its culture of racist attitudes. The overt racism of Mary creates a fascinating tension between a natural sympathy for the victim of an imminent murder, and hatred of her offensive views. As a fan of ‘plot’, I found the book at times slow-moving, but otherwise stunningly crafted and well worth a read.

traitorOur Kind of Traitor (John Le Carré)

Have I mentioned before that I love Le Carré? As has been described elsewhere, he traverses the realms of literary fiction and genre fiction, which means his books are works of literary art – harder to read than some of the more popular-level entries in this year’s list, perhaps, but more rewarding. Our Kind of Traitor fits neatly into that mould.

The relatively faithful adaptation of the book for the big screen has made the plot familiar to many, and would be familiar to any fan of spy novels, as a potential defector emerges and considerable turmoil inevitably ensues. However, what makes Le Carré so readable is not simply the meandering of the plot, but the deep (and deeply persuasive) characterisation for which he is famed. Each individual is believable, with mixed motives clouding the predictability of their behaviour. The plot is complex but comprehensible. The writing is, as always, of the highest standard.

I don’t think there’s anything to mark out this work above the rest of the author’s work, but if you have any appreciation for decent writing, I can see no reason why you wouldn’t enjoy it!

frankensteinFrankenstein (Mary Shelley)

Having heard much of this work throughout my life, I was fascinated to discover how much I simply didn’t know about this book. It is much more sad than I’d realised, much more thoughtful than I’d expected, and much more harrowing than I’d imagined. Right from the baffling introduction, through to the tale’s melancholic conclusion, the book was surprising because of how far-removed the original has become from today’s conception of ‘Frankenstein’.

Many of us may be aware that Frankenstein refers to the creator, rather than the monster. But few, I imagine, would be aware of the intelligent voice given to the beast during the course of the novel. Yes, he is described as having an horrific appearance (although he is yellow, rather than green), but he is a troubled individual whose experience of life is a troubling one.

I’m grateful that our book group prompted me to read the book – in part because it prodded me into reading such a classic, and in part because it forced me to finish what was often a difficult read. If you haven’t read it before, it’s well worth a read – but be aware that it’s a demanding one.

spy1Favourite: The Spy who came in from the cold (John Le Carré)

Yes, I’ve said it, but I really like reading John Le Carré. That’s essentially always true. But this was the  masterpiece that launched Le Carré into the public eye and caused him to lose his job with the ‘civil service’! As well as exploring the moral complexity of espionage and carrying its readers through with an absorbing plot, the book was warmly commended for its authenticity – undoubtedly arising from the author’s own experience, as his memoirs later in the year are surely to confirm. Although much of the plot felt familiar (have I seen a TV adaptation of it, or is it simply too famous?) I was gripped to its final pages.

If you haven’t read any of the rest of Le Carré this would be a great place to start.

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