The last book I’m reviewing this year is NOT the last book I read this year. It’s a book I read and loved back in the spring, posted the draft of a review for, and then … forgot to write the review. But I’m glad I realized that before the end of the year, because it was actually one of my favourite and most engaging books this year.
Queenie is the companion volume — not a sequel — to one of my favourite books of 2012, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. In that novel, a message from an old friend, Queenie Hennessy, who is now dying, is the catalyst for Harold’s long and strange journey across the length of England and into the depths of his own life. Queenie remains a shadowy figure throughout that book; though she is the ostensible reason why Harold is inspired to walk, it becomes clear that Harold never really knew Queenie all that well, or understood why he was important enough for her to reach out to after all these years.
The story is complete when you read Queenie’s side of it, which is as poignant, beautiful and insightful as Harold’s. Queenie steps out of the shadows in this haunting novel to become a fully rounded person with hopes, loves and fears. The other character who moves from two- to three-dimensional in this book is Harold’s son David, who skirts the edges of his father’s story but becomes a living, breathing person in the pages of Queenie’s book, as we realize that his father’s friend and co-worker knew David, in some ways, much better than his own father did.
There are tragedies at the heart of both Queenie’s and Harold’s stories, so this could never have been a story with a simple happy ending. But it is a story that reminds us of the tremendous potential, even in the midst of tragedy, for moments of kindness, warmth and human connection. I am so glad that Rachel Joyce wrote this second book, because the story would not have been complete without it.
My daughter, a discerning teenage reader, read this YA novel a little while back and was telling me about it with great enthusiasm. She made it sound so interesting that I decided I should read the book myself. Unfortunately, I would have enjoyed it more had I not been spoiled on a major plot point — yet that spoiler was the very thing that drew me and made me want to read the novel. I’m not going to spoil it for you, though, so perhaps you’ll read and enjoy it.
The narrator of The One Thing is teenage Maggie, who was enjoying a normal, soccer-filled adolescence until she lost her vision. She’s not adapting well to being blind, and her snarky, far from optimistic voice carries the novel. Curtis does a great job of portraying Maggie as far from the stereotypical “inspiring” disabled person, although sometimes she strays a bit too far in the direction of being simply unlikeable.
One day, in the office of her parole officer (she’s been getting into a little trouble since getting sent to a special school for the blind), Maggie sees a ten-year-old boy named Ben who walks with crutches. That’s the odd thing: she sees Ben. She hasn’t seen anyone or anything for months — so why can she suddenly see this kid?
From that one inexplicable circumstance the story spins out into a tale of friendship, family, and learning to live with loss. It’s a good story, but it’s a bettr one if you don’t get spoiled, so I’ll stop here.
A Little Life is a novel that’s received a lot of attention, a lot of critical acclaim (it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award), a lot of rave reviews, but also a lot of negativity from a smaller coterie of readers and reviewers who absolutely hated it. For me, the experience of reading it compared to another recent (much less literary) blockbuster: The Girl on the Train, in that I found it almost impossible to put down while I was reading it, but had to stop and evaluate when I got to the end how good it really was and how much I actually enjoyed it.
Spoiler: A Little Life is a much better book than The Girl on the Train. But it’s not without its flaws.
There will be other spoilers. I’ll try to not to give away any major plot points that you won’t have learned within the first 100 pages of this 700-page novel, but I can’t promise to keep you completely unspoiled.
If you read any blurbs, or even if you just read those first hundred pages or so, you may believe that A Little Life is the story of four college friends: Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB, as they make their young adult lives in New York City and embark on their various careers (law, theatre, architecture and visual art, respectively). But that’s misleading. A Little Life is the story of one character, Jude. Point of view shifts, so it’s not always told from Jude’s perspective, but it quickly becomes clear that this is in no way a true ensemble cast: The other characters’ perspectives and stories matter only as they impact upon Jude. This is sometimes annoying when another character — JB in particular — clearly has as rich, interesting and troubled a life as Jude does, but we get to learn very little of it. However, it’s not necessarily a flaw in the story; in a book of this length the author definitely had time and space to explore four lives thoroughly if she really wanted to, but she only wanted to tell one story, Jude’s, and that story is more than enough to fill these pages and make them an engrossing read.
As always, Anne Tyler delivers a well-written story with vividly drawn characters. A Spool of Blue Thread follows the fortunes of three generations of the Whitshank family — Abby her husband Red, and their grown children, with glimpses back into the past at Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie. The story is woven around a beloved family home and a family business that stretches across three generations, but the threads (see what I did there?) that really hold the three generations together are the two things that run through every family: love and lies. Throughout the story the Whitshank family’s many secrets are gradually revealed — some of which are quite surprising, and would be disturbing if everyone knew the truth. But the story suggests that when it comes to love and lies, you can’t have one without the other.
There’s a change in point of view about two-thirds of the way through the novel that is unavoidable but jarring, and I wondered if I would continue to be as engaged with the story after that point, but Tyler is more than equal to the task of keeping a reader involved in the story even as other characters’ points of view move to the forefront. The ending of the book — which actually happens before much of the story occurs, because the novel doesn’t unfold in chronological order — is bittersweet, suggesting how complicated family relationships always are, now much love and how many lies simmer below the tranquil surface of a well-loved family home.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August travels territory already explored in Kate Atkinson’s brilliant Life after Life, but in quite a different way. Like Ursula in Life After Life, Harry August lives his life, then is reborn in exactly the same place and time to re-live his life again. And again, and again, and again. Always the same starting point — same parents, same location, same birthdate. Unlike Atkinson’s main character, who only gradually begins to sense that she might be re-living her life, Harry August is aware, very early in his second life, that he has been here and done all this before, and the knowledge very nearly drives him mad. But of course, he gets another chance.
The fact that Harry is completely aware of his re-lived lives changes the direction of this story, as does the fact that he is not alone — during his third life he learns that he is one of a worldwide network of such people who are living their lives over and over. They keep in touch, look out for one another, and pass useful information back through time. So in this novel, along with the reflections about the value of an individual human life that I enjoyed so much in Life After Life, there is an added sense of urgency when an emissary from the future lets Harry know that something is going very wrong in the near future, and he and others who live in the present time have to attempt to fix it.
From that point on, the novel takes on the feel of a thriller, as Harry works to defeat a villain who, like himself, has an infinite number of lives at his disposal. This book was an intriguing page turner with lots of twists and turns. If, in a regular thriller, the reader’s fear is that the hero may be killed before he gets to carry out his mission, that fear doesn’t apply here. If Harry is killed, it’s inconvenient, because he has to start over from scratch and go through childhood again, but he’s able to put plans and resources in place that he can use again in future lives. The real danger is not that he might be killed — but that his enemy might somehow be able to prevent him from ever being born at all.