My lockdown reading list
LitFest team member Robin Knight dips into his reading pile to review some newcomers, dust off an old favourite and get to grips with a couple of classics.
One of 2020’s LitFest contributors was to have been Stephanie Bretherton, talking about her debut novel, Bone Lines. Stephanie, who has spent many years writing – for stage and, screen, in media and marketing – wrote and edited this, her first novel, at weekends, over eight years. As she puts it: “Between major life events, put down, picked up again, dogged by doubt, thrilled by emergence, the book became not only a passion but a necessity.”
Bone Lines is a complex book with several cleverly interwoven threads. Essentially it is the story of two women, separated by millennia yet bound by the web of life, exploring the nature of our species and what lies at the heart of being human. One woman, living 74,000 years ago at a time of cataclysmic change, is struggling to survive and in the present, while Dr Eloise Kluft, a research geneticist, is caught up in her own emotional self.
The story of their struggles is set against an intriguing plot simmering, almost unseen, in the background, Eloise Kluft’s introspection and letters to Charles Darwin. Interspersed within the narrative there are some almost textbook passages on a range of topics that tell us more about the thoughts of Eloise than developing the plot. Although the style of writing might be a bit too clinical for some tastes, and possibly with too many strands, it is not one of those books that stagnates in the middle, tempting the reader to skip a few chapters to get back to the story. It has a pace of its own that does not falter even at the end.
Kate Rhodes, who was also due to speak at the 2020 LitFest, has set some of her crime novels in the Isles of Scilly (not the Scilly Isles). Ruin Beach, published in 2018, finds the main character back on his home island as the Isles’ Deputy Chief of Police and missing the excitement of the murder squad in London. As a winner of the 2015 Ruth Rendell Short Story Prize, Kate weaves an intriguing tale of murder, suspicion and secrets. She also weaves a sense of place, the island and the sea, into the plot that – like all good crime fiction – keeps you guessing about who ‘done it’ until the climactic final pages.
These are two very different books but each in its own way made enjoyable reading. With lockdown I thought it was also the time to read those books I’ve always meant to; those books sitting in the bookcase, their unread pages slowly going brown. So out came an old Penguin edition, that cost 35p, of The Plague by Albert Camus. I thought the time appropriate and that parallels might be drawn, but perhaps not until we’re free of Covid.
Having been challenged by existentialism, I next turned to something far less taxing, a straightforward novel published in 1944 by John Prebble: Where the Sea Breaks. When a German plane crashes on a remote Scottish Island, the crew of four decide to occupy the island to await rescue by the German forces they think will shortly land on the mainland. The story revolves around the plane’s navigator, the oldest of the crew, who is haunted by his memories but admires and sympathises with the strength and determination of the islanders to be rid of the occupiers. Although written 76 years ago it still has resonance today. For me it is a more powerful story about man’s resilience than The Plague and one of the few books I have reread many times.
Another book on my ‘to read list’ has been Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, an account of an early package tour: Americans ‘doing’ Europe and the Holy Land. It is typical Victorian verbosity, written initially as articles for the Alta of San Francisco and the Tribune of New York and later edited into the book. I will not add to the many critiques of this book by more illustrious reviewers but just make a few comments. Twain is the hero of the book and very dismissive of ‘culture’ in a way that few of us would be today for fear of being labelled a philistine. Take his disdain for the ‘old masters’ for example. In a paragraph of some 250 words, his boredom at having Michaelangelo’s achievements extolled goads him to attribute St Peter’s, the Pantheon, the Colosseum and many other buildings, even the Pope, the Tiber, and the Eternal City itself to the artist.
One disturbing aspect was the way these early tourists would plunder the places they visited for souvenirs, chipping off parts of ancient buildings and removing or buying historically important artefacts from local dealers. But I suppose that’s the way the British Museum got most of its collection!
Twain uses language to describe the citizens of various European cities that again few would choose to use today lest they are seen as being derogatory, or even racist. However, especially when foreign travel has been curtailed, it is a book that must be read, but you need plenty of time to do justice to the 344 pages of small print in the Collins Classic edition.
So thank you, lockdown, for giving me the time to tick off several more books on my ‘must-read’ list.