The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
I’m not really much of a dog-lover, but as a mad cat lady in training I do know what it is to bond with an animal. I simply adored this book, which speaks on so many levels about friendship and bereavement, as experienced by humans and animals.
The lifelong best friend of a woman, who is never named, commits suicide in late middle-age. Left behind is his dog, a Great Dane called Apollo, whom he got as a stray. ‘Wife three’ clearly doesn’t want him:
“He’s in good health except for some arthritis, which is very common in big dogs his age. Needless to say he’s had all his shots. Oh, I know it’s a lot to ask, but I really want to get the poor thing out of that damned kennel! If I bring him home, though, I swear he’ll spend the rest of his life waiting by the door. And he deserves better than that, don’t you think?”
Yes, I think, my heart breaking.
You can’t explain death.
And love deserves better than that.
The only problem is that pets are expressly not permitted on the narrator’s apartment lease. It’s going to be a problem… However, she and Apollo bond in their mutual grief.
He, an author, had been her mentor as well as friend. She is an author too now, but blocked in her grief. Turning her attention to Apollo and what to do when the almost inevitable notice to quit will come because she has a giant dog in her tiny flat takes up a lot of time. That and musing about life, the universe and everything.
The novel is written with a lot of vignette asides, somewhat in the way of The Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill, except that the sections are longer. There are some great comments about writing and being a writer, intertextual mentions (most of which I got for a change!) and many great anecdotes about her friend too. Although desperately sad in places, Nunez’s protagonist also has a sense of humour which she needs to work her way through her grief. Apollo is a wonderful canine companion – for a while, they share a bed – and he takes up more than his fair share of room! What a lovely book this was – highly recommended – expect to see this in my year end best of lists. (10/10)
The Casual Perfect by Lavinia Greenlaw
My latest poetry read. I really enjoyed Greenlaw’s book of memoir, The Importance of Music to Girls, which was full of elegant prose. I knew she’s written books of poetry, so it was natural to explore further and I found one in the library.
The Casual Perfect is a compact collection of poems which, according to the blurb, “explores the ‘hidden continuous’. In language, life and the body through an invented tense which celebrates the ‘achievement of the provisional.’ ” I couldn’t put it better myself. I can’t say I understood all the poems, but the word play was again elegant and the phraseology, as in the title poem, often reminded me of Gerald Manley Hopkins (not that I’m any kind of expert!). I enjoyed these much more than my recent experience of Alice Oswald. (8/10)
My favourites included a poem called Einstein, who ‘slipped past mathematics till he needed it.’ and the first poem in the book, Essex Kiss, which begins:
A handbrake turn on a hair-pin bend.
Merry-go-round? No, the waltzer.
A touch as bold as rum and peppermint.
Chewing gum and whelks, a whiff
of diesel, crocus, cuckoo spit.
The Lola Quartet by Emily St John Mandel
Oh, how I loved Station Eleven, Mandel’s last novel (a new one is coming in 2020 – yay!). An author whose back catalogue I wanted to read – I started with her second novel The Singer’s Gun – a modern noir which I enjoyed very much. So, I came to her third, The Lola Quartet, and I gave up after 116 out of 274 pages.
Maybe it was because our book group read this month was an outwardly rather similar novel (Turtle Moon by Alice Hoffman – which I enjoyed, to be reviewed soon). Both are set in hot and humid Florida, both involve a missing mother and child – Hoffman may have just got in first! Suffice it to say, I found it hard to engage with Mandel’s characters – the four members of a jazz quartet in High School. They’d gone their own ways, but ten years later, Gavin is still wondering what happened to Anna, his girlfriend of the time – who just might have been pregnant with his baby. He returns to Florida to find out what’s happened to her. The pacing felt very slow too – in line with the Floridian heat! I still want to read her first, Last Night in Montreal, which is on my shelves and maybe I’ll retry this novel another time. (DNF)