Six Good Books: Maggie Fergusson recommends searing novels by Claire Messud and Louise Erdrich and sparkling histories of ballooning and servants
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (Virago, hardback, out now). Rage and sorrow burn so fiercely off the pages of this novel that I had to keep reminding myself I was in no respect like its heroine. At 37, Nora Eldridge, an East Coast Third-Grade teacher, presents a Clark Kent face to the world: she’s the quiet, self-sufficient woman upstairs whose romantic life amounts to watching re-runs of "Sex and the City", and who spends her weekends caring dutifully for her ageing father. Inwardly, however, she rails against her loneliness and “calcifying spinsterdom”. When the parents of one of her pupils draw her into their circle, her life is flooded with happiness and hope—but briefly. Written in the first person, this is Nora’s conversation with herself, as she spins on a "mental gerbil wheel", trying to comprehend a betrayal so foul it continues to unsettle long after the last page is turned.
The Round House by Louise Erdrich (Corsair, hardback, out now). "One in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime," Louise Erdrich states in the afterword to this novel, set on a reservation in North Dakota, and demonstrating the utter devastation that each of these crimes can trigger. Joe Coutts has just turned 13 when his mother is violently raped, and almost incinerated, in the round house, a meeting place sacred to his people. As she withdraws from company, refusing food, he and three friends turn detective. Though too fond of digression, Erdrich is brilliant at using dialogue to capture the teenage psyche—conversations swithering between "Star Trek" and sex. The parallels with "To Kill a Mockingbird" are obvious, but it was the soundtrack to Rob Reiner’s classic coming-of-age film "Stand by Me" that spooled through my mind as I followed Joe and his mates through their long, hot, life-changing summer.
This Boy by Alan Johnson (Bantam Press, hardback, out now). Alan Johnson may be the best Labour prime minster Britain never had, but his exceptional memoir is mercifully free of politics. Concentrating exclusively on the first 18 years of his life, he evokes a 1950s childhood of eye-stretching deprivation and squalor. The backdrop is North Kensington, then a slum jungle, the fiefdom of Peter Rachman, and seething with racial tension—"No Blacks" read many of the room-to-rent ads posted in local shop windows. Johnson grew up with no lavatory, always hungry, scavenging coal. His father was an abusive wastrel who eventually abandoned the family, but his mother, Lily, was a heroine, who battled ill-health to give Alan and his sister, Linda (another heroine), a better future, before dying at 42. All this he recalls in quiet, unpretentious prose. It’s as if his undernourished youth has left him with no appetite for spin, but only for the plain truth.
Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes (William Collins, hardback, out now). Balloons are in the air. In "Levels of Life", Julian Barnes uses the euphoria of balloon flight as a metaphor for love. Now Richard Holmes weaves together stories of ballooning from the 1780s to the present, and through them pursues his beady but benevolent fascination with human courage and endeavour. His tales range from the sublime—balloonists see the world with an "angel’s eye", and "rapture" is the word they use repeatedly to describe their experiences—to the tragic. The book closes with Nils Strindberg’s death while attempting to explore the Arctic by balloon in 1897, an end as tragic and haunting as Scott’s at the opposite pole. Throughout, Holmes maintains his trademark elegance and verve, and an endearing use of emphatic italics to keep the reader infected with his enthusiasm.
Servants by Lucy Lethbridge (Bloomsbury, hardback, out now). Even into the second world war, the eleventh Duke of Bedford maintained a household of 60 indoor servants, for himself and his duchess. And that was just his country seat; he also had two fully staffed houses in London, both in Belgrave Square. His parlour-maids were "amazonian": he insisted they be all over five foot ten. Lucy Lethbridge’s portrait of the downstairs classes in 20th-century Britain is full of such delicious detail. She concentrates not only on the great houses—the real-life Downtons—but also on the tweenies, skivvies, lady-helps and "odd men" employed in humbler homes. Without servants, most classes were helpless; with them, they were vexed by the "servant problem". Neither snobbish nor socialist, Lethbridge has produced a sympathetic and affectionate study, laced with invigorating anecdote.
Feral by George Monbiot (Allen Lane, hardback, out now). A healthy ecosystem should be not just wild, but self-willed. That’s George Monbiot’s manifesto, and his methods for achieving it are radical. Remove, from upland areas like the Scottish Highlands, both the tycoon landlords and the subsidised grazers —sheep, after all, are not true Brits, but imposters from Mesopotamia. Allow forests to flourish, and welcome home species that were, a few ecological seconds ago, indigenous: wolves, lynx, beaver, boar, moose, bison, elephant. Yeah, right, you may think; but Monbiot demonstrates that Trafalgar Square was once roamed by hippos. He’s the Guardian’s resident lateral thinker, a punchy polemicist whose arsenal includes science and statistics, poetry and history. But he’s at his lyrical best sharing his own very private encounters with the natural world. Then his craving for a "richer, rawer life" becomes not just compelling but irresistible.
Maggie Fergusson is literary editor of Intelligent Life and director of the Royal Society of Literature