Six Good Books: Maggie Fergusson rediscovers an early novel by the Nobel-laureate Patrick White, and picks the best of 2012...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013
Happy Valley by Patrick White (Cape, hardback, out now). When this first novel appeared in 1939, reviewers including Graham Greene came together in a chorus of praise. Then Patrick White suppressed it. Reissued now to mark his centenary, it turns out to be a masterpiece. Happy Valley is a small Australian town, a microcosm through which White explores the passions simmering below the surface of apparently unexceptional lives. The only Australian writer to win a Nobel prize, he is brilliant on the gulf between thought and speech, and the sleights of mind we develop to cope with anguish. The spinster piano teacher withdraws from the "formless and volatile" present into an idealised past; the bullied child inhabits an imaginary future; the asthmatic schoolmaster harbours anger, finally released in the murder of his wife. White’s prose slides between dialogue and interior monologue, subtle but never obscure. "Will they read me when I’m dead?" he used to ask. They should.
Dear Life by Alice Munro (Chatto, hardback, out now). Hiding her craftsmanship under an easy, conversational style, Alice Munro uses the first ten stories in this collection to revisit small-town Ontario, and to reveal just how surreal real life can be. Every word pulls its weight (a wallflower at a party feels that everyone else is "equipped" with friends) as Munro homes in on the things that throw lives off kilter: the nuance of character that, slowly but surely, derails a marriage; the despair that drives a nine-year-old to suicide. She saves the best till last, closing with a quartet of stories that are, she says, the closest she will ever come to memoir. "The Eye", in which Munro’s capricious mother makes her visit the corpse of a nanny to whom she has become traitorously attached, is a gem.
Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks (Picador, hardback, out now). Hallucination need not imply insanity: this is what Oliver Sacks sets out to demonstrate in an "anthology" of his patients’ experiences. Some are gently amusing—an elderly lady who regularly "sees" figures in Eastern dress is delighted when diagnosed with "Charles Bonnet Syndrome"; most are alarming and poignant. One patient with "sundowning syndrome" is daily besieged by grotesque intruders as the light fails. But this is more than arm’s-length reportage. Writing with compassion, and weaving his tales together with literary reference and scientific research, Sacks places at the heart of the book a riveting confessional chapter about the drug-induced hallucinations he himself experienced as a young neurologist – his conversations with a spider, and the summer’s day he spent watching the battle of Agincourt played out on his dressing gown.
Trafficked by Sophie Hayes (Harper-Collins, paperback, out now). Misery memoir, or "mis mem", strikes me as a genre that too often panders to prurience. But by chance I met Sophie Hayes, was impressed, and felt compelled to read her story in full. British, well-educated and middle-class, she was not an obvious target for sex traffickers. But when her “boyfriend” took her to Italy, locked her up, stole her passport, and brainwashed her into believing that she’d be dead if she didn’t obey him, she was forced into prostitution, serving around 30 clients a night, seeing humanity at its most depraved—and, occasionally, at its kindest. Working with the United Nations and the Metropolitan Police, she now devotes herself to preventing other women from meeting a similar fate. Her cautionary tale ends in a triumph of tenacity over terror.
THE TWO BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (Portobello, paperback, out now). A blonde American journalist with "lousy health" and no languages sets out to capture Mumbai poverty: it sounds like a recipe for voyeuristic pap, but it has yielded a small classic. Annawadi, the slum in which Katherine Boo based herself for nearly four years, is overlooked by luxury hotels spewing rubbish through which the slum-dwellers comb to scrape a living. But the reader gets no closer to the rich than their waste. We are confined, instead, to Annawadi, forced to look hard at the rivalries, corruption and goodness governing the lives of its inhabitants. Some economists argue that chaotic uncertainty breeds ingenuity, and therefore social mobility. Combining a cool intelligence with a cinematic eye for detail, Boo explodes this myth. "We try so many things," says one Annawadian, "but the world doesn’t move in our favour."
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, hardback, out now). On Hilary Mantel’s computer desktop is a photograph of the view from her window. It prompts her, every so often, to re-enter the present, because for several years she’s been living in the Tudor past, and in the mind of Thomas Cromwell. In this Booker-winning sequel to the Booker-winner "Wolf Hall", the time frame is tight—from the autumn of 1535 to the spring of 1536—and momentum builds inexorably until, in the final chapters, the drama gallops towards the execution of Anne Boleyn. This is fiction to make you miss your stop on the train home: extraordinary, given that we know how the story must end. Mantel keeps us constantly aware of the provisional, "Sliding Doors" nature of history. Tweak a thought here or a word there, and it might all have turned out differently.
Maggie Fergusson is the literary editor of Intelligent Life, director of the Royal Society of Literature and the award-winning biographer of George Mackay Brown