Best of 2012: Rook, Swimming Home, Hawthorn & Child, and Object Lessons – Guest Post by Alan Bowden

This guest post has been written by blogger and philosophy PhD student Alan Bowden. Alan’s blog Words of Mercury is an intelligent and well-written book blog with a variety of texts as well as Alan’s own fiction and poetry. Here he talks about his favourite books of 2012 (he couldn’t choose just one!), Rook by Jane Rusbridge, Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy and Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents The Art of the Short Story.

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2012 has been a significant year for me as I’m of the firm belief that it’s the first time I really started reading fiction. (I also got married). I’ve read hundreds of novels, but only once I began writing reviews for my blog did I realise what they can really do. As a result, many of the books I’ve read this year have a lasting personal significance beyond their purely literary achievements. The books that follow are as much a reflection of my new engagement with contemporary fiction as they are an attempt to pick some personal highlights of what has been, by all accounts, a very good year. A quick note on criteria: with one obvious exception all my choices were – to the best of my knowledge – published for the first time in 2012. Reprints, translations, new editions, and so on, were excluded.

Some further criteria: The late Peter Goldie turned more than once in his writings on the philosophy of art to a quotation from his favourite author Joseph Conrad. He felt that it captured the essence and value of the project of creating and consuming art. The artist, Conrad wrote, ‘speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain: to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation—and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts; to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspiration, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.’  More than anything, the books which will stay with me from this year have looked to speak in this way.

Jane Rusbridge’s wonderful Rook (Bloomsbury Circus) successfully seeks to occupy the slippery but persistent ground between the land and the sea, the past and the present, bereavement and consolation, in language that flows with the rhythms of the tides that inundate the Sussex village of Bosham and the insistence of the young rook rescued and nurtured by Nora, a former concert cellist forced to return to the home of her widowed mother by the crisis which haunts the novel. The interpenetration of the language of the mind and landscape in moments which shift toward the visionary before returning, quite literally, to earth, emphasises Rusbridge’s concerns, not only with the role of place in forming our mental economy, but also with the idea that the only way that we can reach out and touch the past is by staying where we are and living in the same buried spaces.

2012 paperback cover. Image: bloomsbury.com
2012 paperback cover. Image: bloomsbury.com

A concern with the complexities of surface and depth underpins Booker shortlisted Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories/Faber). Gathered around a pool in the South of France are two quite different couples, childless shop-owners Laura and Mitchell, and war correspondent Isabel and poet Joe who are accompanied by their teenage daughter Nina. The pool’s surface is disturbed by the arrival of Kitty, a painfully thin young woman obsessed by Joe’s poetry. Her uneasy transition between surface and depth is mirrored and undermined by Levy’s refusal to allow clear distinctions between private thought and public behaviour. Levy clouds motivations and relationships as the transparent pool water becomes cloudy through mismanagement and inattention. With a Cubist fondness for allusion, her faceted prose creates a fluid space of shifting desires, dreams, and repressed violence.

2011 paperback cover. Image: andotherstories.org
2011 paperback cover. Image: andotherstories.org

From fractured minds to broken narratives of urban lives, the much tweeted and quite stunning Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway (Granta) sticks a policeman’s boot into the novel and emerges bloody and triumphant between the splints of its covers. A set of eight stories set in North London and loosely held together by the detectives of its title, this book challenges any and all coherence you felt your identity and experience might have. It’s a novel of violence and sickness of language; of fear, memory, suspicion, lust, and confusion. And it’s marvellous. ‘I am cracked like ice. I know this. But listen. Listen to me. This is important. Beneath the fault there is solid ground. Beneath the ice. Under all the cracks. Under all the cracks there is something that is not broken.’ But is there?

2012 paperback cover. Image: grantabooks.com
2012 paperback cover. Image: grantabooks.com

The mind’s resilience beneath the weight of solitude and the meaning of human endeavour are at the heart of James Smythe’s unforgiving novel The Explorer (Harper Voyager) in which journalist Cormac Easton finds himself the lone survivor on a mission to deep space. Then it gets weird. Smythe’s writing is controlled to within an inch of its life and Cormac’s direct first-person voice, which begins as a journalist’s selfish mythologisation of endurance, becomes as tender as a bruise as its pretention is stripped away by shock after psychological shock. What is it to explore with no hope of remembrance? How does one understand oneself when stripped of the gaze of others? The bizarre reflexivity Cormac achieves is testament to Smythe’s narrative and poetic imagination and ambition in his consideration of exploration, time, and identity.

2013 hardback cover. Image: harpercollins.co.uk
2013 hardback cover. Image: harpercollins.co.uk

Finally, Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story (William Heinemann) contains a superb collection of stories. Each has been selected and introduced by another excellent writer, some of whom appear as both a selector and a selectee. Thus Jeffrey Eugenides introduces Denis Johnson’s remarkable ‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’ which, he argues, ‘delivers a narrative where the personal brushes up against the eternal, all from a single incident, or accident, on a rainy night.’ Lydia Davis selects and dissects Jane Bowles’ ‘Emmy Moore’s Journal’, revealing its hidden and confused despair, whilst her own ‘Ten Stories from Flaubert’ appears as Ali Smith’s choice. I must confess that I haven’t finished this book yet: I refuse to rush it. Each story must be read and then returned to once the introduction has been taken in. As a guide and inspiration for the budding short story writer Object Lessons cannot fail.

2012 hardback cover. Image: randomhouse.co.uk
2012 hardback cover. Image: randomhouse.co.uk

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Rook was published in August 2012 by Bloomsbury Circus, an imprint of Bloomsbury UK. Swimming Home was published in October 2011 by And Other Stories/Faber. Hawthorn & Child was published in July 2012 by Granta Books. The Explorer will be published in January 2013 by Harper Voyager, an imprint of Harper Collins. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents The Art of the Short Story was published in October 2012 by William Heinemann, an imprint of the Random House Group.

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