Before I get into talking about specific books, an apology to all the lovely book publicists who have sent me review copies of titles out from mid-August onwards. THANK YOU! I will read and review all the books you’ve sent, but with the crowding of titles coming out on this year’s ‘Super Thursday’ – Sept 3rd, it’s not going to happen for most on their actual publication day/week, but as soon as… ‘bear with’ as Miranda would say. But, I am going to enjoy my wonderful shelf of new books.
Mother: A Memoir by Nicholas Royle
I reviewed Royle’s previous novel, An English Guide to Birdwatching for Shiny New Books back in 2017, and he also graciously answered all my questions in a Q&A we did too. Royle’s novel was metafictional, experimental and very enjoyable, blending the novel with another story within it, with essays and bird-related short stories full of wordplay that expounded on the themes in the main novel appended. It was refreshingly different and very funny as well as thought-provoking – highly recommended.
So it was no surprise that Royle’s memoir and tribute to his late mother shows many of the same properties as ‘Birdwatching‘. Royle (far right on the front cover) writes about his family with humour, empathy and plenty of philosophical musings, using his no-nonsense mother’s idiosyncrasies and interests to veer off into other areas, particularly writing and books, but also other maternal themes including ‘mother nature’. Once again, this blend of styles makes for a really diverting read.
He begins by introducing us to a vision of his mother’s sitting at the table doing The Times crossword, before immediately digressing to quote David Attenborough on climate change, and acknowledging that thinking about Mother Nature and Mother Earth was his inspiration to write about his mother who died in 2003. He admits that the book won’t be a conventional memoir, and considers what the words memoir and mother symbolise. Not for him, his mother’s given name of Kathleen / Kate. “She is prior to names. Pre-name. Pre-word.” Conversely, he speaks thus of his father:
“He knew about all sorts of things. He had an extraordinary vocabulary and always knew how to spell things. He loved the English language and had a compulsive interest in grammatical correctness. My mother was pre-word. My father was word. Or at least that is how I understood them and how they appeared to want to be understood.”
Sadly, Royle’s younger brother Simon died from cancer while in his twenties, and this event would signal the beginning of a decline in his mother, who later would declare, “I’m losing my marbles,” realising in herself what had been obvious, if denied, to others. “They were the saddest words ever spoken to me.” says Royle, using this as a starting point to explore memory through memoir.
Apart from his two novels, as Professor of English at the University of Sussex, Royle has written several books of literary criticism, and the text of Mother is peppered with little nuggets from Barthes to Wordsworth. However as a novelist and teacher of creative writing, he wears the cloak of academe lightly in this book, letting the references reflect his parents’ intellects and his mother’s voracious reading without bogging the reader down in unnecessary detail. A few photos enliven the text further, but even then he uses them to discuss the value of photographs in memoir.
This memoir is at once entertaining and educational, but also profoundly touching, demonstrating Royle’s love for his family, their grief at losing first Simon, then his mother. Nicholas Royle is a unique stylist in his writing, his love of wordplay and etymology, which was obviously influenced by his mother’s crossword expertise is evident throughout, which helps to make Mother: A Memoir such an enjoyable and affecting book to read. (10/10)
Source: Review copy – Thank you! Nicholas Royle, Mother: A Memoir (Myriad Editions, May 2020), paperback original, 212 pages.
A Strange Country by Muriel Barbery – DNF
Translated by Alison Anderson
Four years ago, Barbery, acclaimed author of lovely novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog (reviewed here), had her next novel published in translation. The Life of Elves couldn’t have been more different! I reviewed it for Shiny New Books here; an historical fantasy (with elves) that fans of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell would appreciate. At once entrancing yet often oblique, I enjoyed the tale of the two young women who would grow up to be key figures in the battle to save the links between the human and elfin worlds. There was much left unsaid, and a second volume promised…
That second volume finally arrived this summer. Rather than simply continue the story to its conclusion, Barbery moves sideways to tell the story of two soldiers, Major Alejandro de Yepes and his Lieutenant Jesús Rocamora, who are defending a castle in Extremadura when they encounter three elves amongst the ghosts in the wine cellar. The elves, Petrus, Paulus and Marcus convince them to go with them over the bridge into the elven Pavilion of Mists, where they will be needed to help fight the battle against Aelius who would close the link between worlds.
This is where it began to lose me. The magical elixir that allows the transport between worlds is ‘grey tea’ and once there everything is just misty. Barbery intersperses extracts from the four Source books, thematically grouped either as murder or poetry. Each book extract prefixed its title in Japanese characters. There is an obvious Oriental influence in the ceremony of the grey tea too, but no explanation of the origins of this (in the part I read at least). Meanwhile, the world of the elves is shrouded in those mists – and it was the mists that did me in. They obscured everything so much that the plot became incomprehensible. The elves also have an ability to shape-shift between human-like and animal forms, and there were political factions within the animals that confused me further.
I lasted until page 118, by when Alejandro and Jesús had travelled to the elves’ world, but I became lost in the mists and couldn’t find my way out. Skimming the last sections, I could see there was some resolution, but that much was left unsaid again – will there be another volume? I knew that this novel was conceived as a companion to the prior volume, rather than prequel or sequel, but it was hard to relate between the two, even once the two girls from the first appeared in the other. Barbery is certainly ambitious in her world-building, but for me it didn’t come off being just too confusing.
Source: Review copy – thank you! Muriel Barbery, A Strange Country (Gallic, Jul 2020), trade paperback, 332 pages.