Not much of a Mayday outside, so I thought I might as well stay indoors and write up my recent reading.
Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh
The State of Grace , Rachael Lucas
A Very English Scandal , John Preston
Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love , James Runcie
The Fledgeling , Frances Faviell
The House on the Rhine, Frances Faviell
Crooked House, Agatha Christie
A Harp in Lowndes Square, Rachel Ferguson, abandoned
My Family and other Animals, Gerald Durrell
The Durrells of Corfu , Michael Haag
Golden Hill, Francis Spufford. ‘A Tale of Old New York’.
Thin Air, Sue Gee
After watching the first episode of Decline and Fall on television, I just had to re-read the book. I was struck yet again by how early Waugh found his beautiful style and how young he was when his views on art and architecture were pretty well fixed for life. Take this passage about Margot’s house before its transformation:
‘No wing had been added, no window filled in; no portico, façade, terrace, orangery, tower or battlement marred its timbered front. In the craze for coal-gas and indoor sanitation, King’s Thursday had slept unscathed by plumber or engineer.’
There’s also an example of the way he sometimes channelled Dickens:
‘Don’t let the Dad overwork you. He’s a regular Tartar is Dad, but then you know what scholars are – inhuman. Ain’t you,’ said Miss Fagan, turning on her father with sudden ferocity – ‘ain’t you inhuman?’
That second sentence, beginning ‘Ain’t you,’ is so Dickens. By the way, I praised the first episode of the TV series but felt it went off and the final episode wasn’t any good at all. I didn’t care for Jack Whitehall as Paul but am still full of admiration for Douglas Hodge’s brilliant performance as Grimes.
I didn’t like The House on the Rhine as much as I did The Fledgeling, finding it rather long drawn out in comparison. It’s about a large family living temporarily in a vacated house, scandalising the neighbours by their behaviour. They are wonderful characters. The older children get involved in violent crime and, astonishingly, the parents don’t notice because there’s so much else going on in their lives. The story gets quite melodramatic but is well worth reading. Crooked House is an enjoyable Christie. I simply couldn’t get on with A Harp in Lowndes Square and was happy to abandon it for the wonderful and familiar My Family and Other Animals. I just don’t like Rachel Ferguson.
The only book by Francis Spufford I’d previously read was The Child that Books Built, so good I read it twice. Golden Hill is his first venture into non fiction and has already won the Costa prize for best first novel. If you’ve read reviews saying that this is a brilliant book, trust them, because it is. The story is set in New York in 1746. A mysterious young man, ‘Mr Smith’ arrives with a note for £1,000, to be drawn on a New York business. It’s a small city and Smith is soon the talk of it. Rich or a fraudster? What does he want? I’m not keen on historical novels these days, especially if they purport to be written in the style of the period. Spufford has obviously read Fielding, Sterne et al but there’s not a hint of pastiche here. As far as I was concerned, the writing was pitch perfect throughout. There was just one sentence which I thought could have come straight out of a Georgette Heyer novel: ‘I may be equally a gilded sprig of the bon ton, or a flash cully working the inkhorn lay.’ The adventures of a young man (and what adventures!) all in the space of one year are in the picaresque Tom Jones tradition but here everything happens in one place. The descriptions of New York are brilliant (yes, that word again) and the large cast of characters interesting. You get such a good impression of a new world, where a city is only a mile or two away from wilderness and unimaginable spaces and terrors. In comparison, smelly old London seems a safe place to be. Having seen Richard Smith through wealth, ruin, love and near death we naturally hope for a satisfactory conclusion to the mystery. And get it. (I read this courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley.)
From one brilliant book to another. I haven’t quite finished Sue Gee’s Thin Air but feel justified in including it. I love this book! Beautifully written, characters you feel for, a wonderful sense of place. The main character is William, a retired civil servant who has lived in Dulwich all his life. He is handsome, charming, clever and constantly reminding himself that he has much to be thankful for. Yet he misses his dead wife, grieves for his brilliant but possibly schizophrenic son, confined to hospital, and quarrels with his fierce daughter. He has some very eccentric distant cousins living in Shropshire. Through them he offers a room in his large house to Janice, a young woman in her twenties who has been living at home and, although intelligent, has only low grade jobs working in a café and doing shopping for elderly people, including the strange cousins. The odd couple get on very well together, making William’s old friend Buffy jealous. It’s a beautiful and touching book. Sue Gee reminds me of Anne Tyler, which is high praise.
I’ve read some very good books this month, for a change. Apart from Decline and Fall, which would be my book of any month ever, the accolade this month goes to Golden Hill, the strangest and best book I’ve read this year.