Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Sampling September: Fiction by women, part 1

The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall The Wolf Border (24 March 2015) by Sarah Hall

The premise: Rachel, a zoologist, returns home to Cumbria after close to a decade in Idaho; she is to oversee a scheme to reintroduce wolves to the English countryside, the brainchild of an eccentric aristocrat. She finds that the private and political implications of the project 'coincide with her own regeneration: impending motherhood, and reconciliation with her estranged family.'
First line: It's not often she dreams about them. During the day they are elusive, keeping to the tall grass of the Reservation, disappearing from the den site.
What I read: Chapter 1 (up to 11% in the ebook).
Would I read the rest of it? Words that spring to mind after reading the first chapter of The Wolf Border: dour, bleak - I suppose I should also say lyrical, as it's beautifully written, poetic in its descriptions of landscape and nature. For want of a better term, it's quite depressing, and not the easiest of reads; the care home scenes in particular are unbearably grim (and made this chapter difficult to read at a time when I already had ageing and mortality much on my mind). For some reason, I also felt the lack of speech marks stopped me from connecting with the characters or really 'hearing' their dialogue, although I don't normally have a problem with this device. And yet the world created by Hall's narrative is so complete and vivid that when I put the book aside, I realised I wanted to go back to it, felt as though it was a room I had just stepped out of for a moment. As with The Illuminations in the last post, I'm not chomping at the bit to read more, but I may return to the book eventually - perhaps after trying some of Hall's earlier work.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips The Beautiful Bureaucrat (11 August 2015) by Helen Phillips

The premise: Josephine wins a job at a mysterious company, where her only responsibility is to 'input an endless string of numbers into something known only as The Database'. However, a series of strange events, most worryingly the disappearance of her husband, prompts her to examine the truth about her work and her employer.
First line: The person who interviewed her had no face.
What I read: Chapters 1-3 (14%).
Would I read the rest of it? An overly cutesy couple, a boss referred to only as 'The Person with Bad Breath' and a character named Trishiffany... Everything about this so far suggests that it ought to be labelled with that dreaded epithet 'quirky'. Quirky elements aren't a guarantee that I'll hate a book, but they tend to make me a bit suspicious, and in this case they have dulled my interest in what initially sounded like an intriguing Kafka-inspired satire in the vein of Jonas Karlsson's excellent The Room. I have to assume that it shifts gear at some point, as at the moment I can't see the praise apparently heaped on it by The New York Times Book Review ('riveting... thrillerlike... succeeds because it isn't afraid to ask the deepest questions') actually referring to this book. I'm not striking it off the list completely, but I'm a lot less keen than I was.

The Offering by Grace McCleen The Offering (15 January 2015) by Grace McCleen

The premise: Madeline is a psychiatric patient, incarcerated for 21 years after being admitted to an institution as a teenager. A new doctor is determined to unlock the secrets of her unreliable memory; his attempts to persuade her to remember lead to the uncovering of past trauma.
First line: There has been a great deal of talk here recently about an event concerning myself and Dr Lucas, which took place from what I can gather in the Platnauer Room some two weeks ago.
What I read: The prologue and first three chapters (10%).
Would I read the rest of it? I've intended to read The Offering for a while, so really I'd always thought I would read the whole book eventually, and trying it hasn't dissuaded me from that. I couldn't get into McCleen's debut, The Land of Decoration, but loved her second novel, The Professor of Poetry; I thought I'd read somewhere that The Offering was written before either of the others, but googling this now, it seems that she wrote all three simultaneously, or at least announced them as completed at the same time. Anyway, perceiving it as essentially her first novel led me to expect some semblance of amateurishness in the narrative - and indeed the very beginning feels quite rushed, too quick to jump into Madeline's history as soon as her situation has been established. Much of the first few chapters are exposition, but they're extremely effective in creating the character and making you want to read on, and McCleen employs that past-and-present-alternate-chapters thing brilliantly. To be picked up again soon.

Throughout September I'll be working through some of my 2015 to-read list, sampling the books and cataloguing my thoughts on each of them. Find all the posts in this series here!

I received my copy of
The Wolf Border from the publisher through NetGalley.

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1 comment:

  1. I read the Wolf Border and really liked it. Usually I avoid novels written without punctuation like the plague. However I persevered. Her turn of phrase and descriptions are beautiful. Interesting to note though that the wolves play a minor part in the read.