Phases of Fuzziness

As a rule I don’t re-read books but recently I needed to: I was giving a talk on Maura Laverty’s Never no More ( the first 20th century novel I ever read, aged ten.     It mentioned  periods (  a subject I didn’t know was even allowed in fiction !) closely followed by a tutoring job on Michael Frayn’s Spies. I had vague and distant memories of the latter – young boys’ friendship / wartime Britain / rite of passage – and I suspect I first read it when simply a reader rather than a reader / writer. The craftsmanship of the narrative, the reflection on memory and time and the layering of themes and motifs are at the highest level – all of which will, ironically, make the book that more difficult to teach. As for Never No More ( first published in 1942 ) this is not a book I’d recommend. A lyrical and sometimes sentimental depiction of rural Ireland in the 1920s, it resonated for me because the central relationship – a close bond between a young girl and her grandmother – reflected my situation at the time. While re-reading I was aware of the novel’s literary weaknesses while at the same time reliving my feelings of excitement and wonder when I first encountered it: a good illustration of the extent to which one’s interpretation of reading matter is dependant on context ( obvious really!)

Then I came to Catherine O’Flynn’s What was Lost. The novel is split into two sections, the first taking place in 1984, the second in 2003/4. The first half I read quickly and enjoyed: a lonely little girl, Kate, an amateur sleuth, goes missing. But as soon as I started the second half, which introduces us to adult characters with a tenuous connection to Kate, it became clear that I’d read it before: not only did I know what was going to happen but the setting (a Birmingham shopping centre ) was familiar. Yet if I’d only read some of it, surely that would have been the first part? Perhaps I’d not actually read it myself but read about it? Nowadays my everyday life is imbued with forgetfulness and self-doubt from car keys ( But I know I put them there!) to hair straighteners ( did I turn them off?) to life choices ( So you think you can write? Really?!) and it stands to reason that this toxic combo permeates my reading experience. At any rate, What was Lost is a good read and impressive as a debut novel: I’ve already ordered her second one, The News Where You Are ( just had to re-google that, as I couldn’t remember the title’s exact wording from a minute ago…)

Arguably much of fiction is about misremembering, half-truths and flawed perception, notable examples include The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Throw in an unreliable narrator ( though no narrator, either in fiction or real life, can ever be ‘reliable’) such as in the brilliant His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet and your reading route becomes slippery, treacherous but, of course, exhilarating.

The academic Lillian Furst, talking about the distortion of memory in Ishiguro’s work, describes ‘the interplay of sharp remembering with phases of fuzziness or forgetfulness.’ There are times when I could do with a tad less fuzziness ( despite having recently been prescribed new contact lenses ) but I appear to have got through eight books in March which isn’t bad going. Through the blurred landscape of this month’s reading, the outline of one book in particular looms: Paul Kalanthi’s When Breath Becomes Air the memoir of a neurosurgeon who himself gets cancer. For me the epilogue, written by his widow who also edited the main text, was the most moving part of the book- a timely reminder to cherish the sharpness and clarity of the moment seeing as how easily ‘ the future, instead of the ladder towards the goals of life, flattens into a perpetual present.’

Picking up on that last point ( albeit this is hardly a matter of life and death and more about self aggrandisement) my book Raw Material has recently been longlisted for the Edge Hill prize alongside properly famous writers like Mark Haddon and Susan Hill whose work I admire so much. If anyone felt able to give RM an Amazon review ( you don’t need to have bought the book from them to do so ) this effort would not be forgotten ( well, actually it might be….)

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