20 Books of Summer #5 & 6 – Robinson & Offill

Forgetting Zoë by Ray Robinson

Trade paperback covers – left – dust-jacket, right – underneath it.

I loved Robinson’s first two novels, Electricity and The Man Without (see here). Both followed the lives of troubled young people; very immediate, very British and very touching.

With his third novel published in 2010, he did something rather different. In Forgetting Zoë, he moved his storytelling to the USA/Canada, and gives us a multiple narrative told from three points of view: that of an abducted young girl, her mother, and her abductor. We are introduced to abductor Thurman first by an after the event prologue:

At first glance there is little remarkable about Thurman Hayes. In this photograph, taken from his high school yearbook, he looks like an average teenager, with sandy hair and gray eyes and an amiable smile. The press interviewed local ranchers but no one said they had known Thurman or the Hayes family well, if at all. No one said that he was more or less a pleasant man, a nice man to talk to. No on said he was a harmless fellow who kept himself to himself. No one expressed any real surprise at what he’d done either…

We then return to 1995 to meet Thurman, aged fifteen. He has a troubled relationship with his father, who sees “his own weaknesses, his failings,” in the boy. It’s just after the Oklahoma bombing, and Thurman’s father has made their disused nuclear fallout bunker on their remote ranch in Arizona livable and stocked up again. When, a few years later, Thurman’s parents die one after the other, by now we know that Thurman is already a psychopath having seen a little of how he has been nurtured towards it by his father. He loved his mother though, and plans a journey to take her ashes home – to Newfoundland.

We switch to Newfoundland and meet Zoë, a ten-year-old who loves to clamber around the rocks on her own or watching birds with old Einar. No sooner have we met her than she disappears and the narrative shifts to her mother Ingrid, who becomes increasingly desperate over the next chapters as the search for Zoë stalls despite appeals. Sightings do come in from the USA, but nothing comes of them.

Zoë is by now, trapped by Thurman in the bunker, he controls her every move – and of course she comes to rely on Thurman which is the horrible thing about Stockholm Syndrome, in which captives develop a relationship with their captors as a survival strategy. To say any more would completely spoil the novel.  Although well-paced, there is a remoteness about the prose in its choppy chapters  that made it harder to engage with the characters.  Like Jackie at Farm Lane Books who reviewed this book on its publication, I too found this novel dark but not tear-jerking as I’d expected.  (8/10)

Source: Own copy.  BUY from Amazon UK (affiliate link)

Ray Robinson, Forgetting Zoë , (William Heinemann, 2010)  Windmill books paperback, 288 pages.

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill

This little book is a real gem – I loved it! A one-sitting novella telling the story of a relationship from its beginnings through all the rocky patches to an ending, but told in short pithy vignettes. The mention of a vignette style  may remind you of the marvellous pair of novels Mrs Bridge and Mr Bridge by Evan S Connell, but  in comparison, Connell’s vignettes are full short stories.  Except towards the later part of the novel, Offill’s vignettes really are just a couple of sentences, single short paragraphs for the most part – yet she encapsulates entire worlds in these few words.

The story is narrated by the female half of the unnamed couple. She appears to be a scientific journalist…

I got a job checking facts at a science magazine. Fun facts, they called them. The connected fibers in a human brain, extended, would wrap around the Earth forty times. Horrible, I wrote in the margin, but they put it through anyway.

That was one of the early, funny vignettes before she gets married. In fact the humour doesn’t let up, it just gets darker…

When she tells people she might move to the country, they say, “But aren’t you afraid you’re going to get lonely?”

I was surprised how funny this novel was, but it was equally profound, bittersweet and wise. Offill’s narrator also shares many (truly fascinating) scientific facts, references to many other authors and philosophers with us. It’s a form of denial, saying our problems are so insignificant compared to those of the world at large. However, it’s not the bigger picture that matters here but the intimate one, the relationship between the narrator and her husband and their child.

I had put off reading this book, thinking it was going to be too intellectual. How wrong could I be?  Yes, the protagonists are comfortably well-off, middle-class, well-educated, but Offill’s exquisite prose speaks volumes to us all.  (10/10)

Source: Own copy

Jenny Offill, Dept of Speculation (Granta, 2014) paperback, 192 pages.

13 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer #5 & 6 – Robinson & Offill

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’m a fan of vignette-style, I like the gaps around the story which let you imagine. It was so unexpectedly funny yet felt true to life too. Loved it.

  1. A Life in Books says:

    I loved the Offil, too, although I think a fair few people didn’t when it was published. I’m also reading Mr Bridge, coincidentally, having read Mrs Bridge a few years back. I’m quite fond of the vignette structure but I think it might be a Marmite thing.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I preferred Mrs to Mr Bridge, but they compliment each other magnificently capturing the different personalities – look forward to hearing your views on them. I hadn’t twigged the Offill was in vignette structure until I opened the front cover – I was won over immediately.

  2. Liz Dexter says:

    I can’t be doing with books about marriages gone sour since I got married – very annoying, as there are so many of them. Keeping up nicely, though, with the 20books challenge!

Leave a Reply