Not Man Booker – Harvey and Joyce

It is a strange thing, and this is a digression, one of the blog sites I follow had a piece about “Books I struggle to Read” and in the following comments there were lots of people who struggled with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Ian Banks The Wasp Factory and similar fiction, but as far as I could see no one mentioned James Joyce or Proust; and this may either be because people who read and write blogs are quite young or because no one will admit to struggling with Joyce and one no longer has to admit to not having read Proust since one notable (Man) Booker Prize judge announced proudly that he had never read Proust and never intended to. Well, I have read Proust, but I have struggled with James Joyce. I cannot see the point of Ulysses, though people quote Molly Bloom and Stephen Daedelus as great and memorable characters, I have never got through Ulysses, The Dubliners or Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and have never tried anything else, so it is with great joy I have found another Joyce, Rachel Joyce whose books I have read and really love.

Her first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was quirky, funny and profoundly emotional in a quietly sustained narrative which led from Kingsbridge in Devon to Beswick in Scotland in a pilgrimage to honour a great and abiding friendship. Hew new novel, Perfect, missed the Man Booker longlist but is definitely worth looking for, because it too is a profound meditation on friendship.

At the start, it is hard to manage the switches from one scene of family life in the summer of 1972 to the inexplicable muddle and sadness of Jim’s rather pitiful existence between a van in a modern housing estate complex and wiping tables in a nearby shopping mall café. But stick with it, all is revealed and what is revealed is a deeply charged, wounded and frightening childhood where two young boys think they discover a hidden secret in the two seconds that were added in that fateful year. So many events and accidents fly from this dreadful moment and the resolution right at the end of the novel is both painful and exquisite.

The scenes of the summer of 1972 are seen through the eyes of a young boy called Byron; he seems anything but Byronic, rather untidy, slightly fat and mildly disorganised. His best friend, at the same private school, is James Lowe to whom he brings all his concerns and problems. Between them they attempt to unscramble the ‘accident’ that took place when the two seconds were added to the year…and thereby hangs the whole book. scan0003

This is a beautifully written novel, beautifully presented, right down to the typeface and the line drawings at the beginning of each chapter. Doubleday, the publisher and the illustrator, Andrew Davidson have captured the quiddity of Rachel Joyce’s writing so that it all hangs together nicely for the reader, quietly unassuming but telling. I loved these two books, I hope you will as well.

The other book, also a second novel by a writer I discovered through the Man Booker longlist, is Samantha Harvey’s new novel All is Song.

Two brothers, the elder William and the younger Leonard, are living together in William’s family home with Kathy and three children. This has arisen because Leo has been in Edinburgh looking after their father in his last year until his death and now he is back, his live-in partner Tela has chucked him out. The relationship between the two brothers is fraught with history, as are most sibling relationships and living together both brings their differences and their affection for each other into focus. However, when William drifts inexplicably into trouble with the law, the fact that he will not make any effort to distance himself from the result of his involvement, or take steps to escape the consequences forces Leo to see even more clearly, that what lies behind them cannot alter the total, unconditional love that he has for William. That whatever happens, brotherly love, however baffling and inconvenient is where true happiness lies.scan0002

While at times it is quite hard to keep track during the long philosophical ‘logic-chopping’ conversations between the two brothers which make up much of the book, it also has the effect of really getting into the mind set and the acute differences between the two men. It is not until nearly the end of the book that the crucial difference between them emerges.

This is such a cerebral book, almost like an early Iris Murdoch, in which ideas of truth and what is really true, perception and actuality, are examined and teased out in the unfolding of the story. Like The Wilderness her first book, Samantha Harvey takes us to places we might not really wish to go, makes us examine our preconceptions and provides an alternative or different perspective. It is a book for everyone, but especially for siblings, it certainly spoke to me.

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