December 12, 2018 by lucieromarin
Well, the best of the books that I happened to read, anyway. My favourites of this year – children’s fiction, a counselling text, adult fiction and adult non-fiction…
An op-shop find. Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels are underrated. This is supposed to be a children’s book; I don’t know if young readers are sufficiently literate for it these days, but even if they aren’t, adults are (or should be)! How does she do it? How does she make her landscape so real? I could see each rosemary sprig; I was hunched over in the shepherd’s brambly hut and smelt the sheep and the dogs; I saw the little stitches of embroidery running through fabric and felt the effort that had gone into their making. Likewise, I loved the nuance of Sutcliff’s characters. There was no easy, artificial division between bad men/soldiers/Christians/the rich, good women/natives/pagans/the poor, but instead human vice, virtue, interests and needs all mixed in as truly as they are in real life. The Norseman cameo is no half-comic Viking, but a real traveller, who brings news and political insight with him, together with a hint of brutality and the difference of his ways. Fans of Monica Furlong’s Juniper will love the character of wise-woman Ancret – not to mention her hut, her cooking, her healing herbs, and her love for the young master and his father, a love which directs her care for them, even though their presence on her life is part of the erosion of her culture and the death of her people. And as for the protagonist – I was tense in every muscle as the boy’s future was determined by a game of chess; I grew and suffered with him and felt his griefs and hopes as though they were my own. And the story made me cry.
WOW. This book is expensive, but it’s good. It doesn’t just recycle the content of other counselling texts, but presents original thought and research in a neglected area of human suffering. The author explores the concept of, and appropriate therapies, for chronic sorrow, which is distinguished from the ‘normal’ experiences of loss by the absence of any possibility of finality or closure. (So, for example, the grief that follows the finality of a loved one’s natural death differs from the grief that follows the disappearance of a loved one for which there is never any explanation or closure.) In other words, it’s not a book about people who always feel sorry for themselves; it is a book about learning to endure the suffering caused by a wound that will be left permanently open, not because of a defect in the sufferer (why can’t you move on?) but from the nature of the wound itself. The prose is much better than the prose of most counselling textbooks. It has the sinew of academic rigour, yet can be read through easily, almost like a serious memoir. The emphasis is on the experience of disability or the raising of children who are incurably but not terminally ill, so don’t necessarily go searching for a chapter related to your own experience. Even so, the astute reader can draw her own inferences, and any reader who has experienced spiritual abuse and betrayal by church or hierarchy should find a powerful description and acknowledgement here of his experience.
This was another op-shop find. I’ve never seen the book anywhere else before or since, and I was captivated by it. The best way to describe the effect of the prose (a credit to the translator) is to say that I didn’t feel that I was reading a translation of French into English – I felt like I was reading Latin, and, moreover, the Latin of a man. You know the kind of historic fiction where the author has carefully researched the Latin name for a couple of household objects and then taken care to include some of those words in the story as a piece of local colour? This is not like that. Yourcenar doesn’t need to clutter her tale with obvious artifacts from that world, because she takes the reader into the mind that was of that world. On which note – look, the guy was a pagan, so, even though the author never resorts to graphic or vulgar descriptions, if you hold Christian or feminist views about women or sexuality, you won’t want to share this book with young people. But the point of the book is not to promote an opinion; it’s to give you the experience of being another person, and it really is something to feel a man’s efforts to interpret and understand the universe from the limitations of his own time. I vastly preferred this book to Mary Renault’s ‘The Nature of Alexander’ – and, yes, while the latter was straight biography, surely any history written at that distance is half a work of fiction anyway. Renault’s adoration of Alexander the Great and her assumptions about his motives are just as obvious as Yourcenar’s absorption into her own subject – and Yourcenar’s notes about how the book came to be written are as fascinating as the book itself.
Yeah, I know I came late to this party, and I’m probably the only person left in the world who hadn’t already read it – but now I have, I want to urge any remaining stragglers to read it too! Read it if you hate your job but don’t understand why, if your life is at an impasse and you’re looking for new thoughts, if you’ve ever been made to feel you had to choose between thinking and making, or between making and value, or if you’re starting to feel that everything is a little bit broken and you wonder if it has something to do with faux-intellectual snobbery. Read it if you enjoy clean, easy-going prose that nonetheless flexes a muscle.
Here I am posting links to Book Depository as though that will somehow thwart Amazon, when Amazon owns Book Depository!! I still feel less sullied by BD, though.