I began the year by reading Edna O’Brien’s ‘Girl with Green Eyes’. She is one of those authors whose name I first I encountered when I became aware of adult literature and Penguin paperbacks back in adolescence. But, as with others from that period such as Iris Murdoch, I had never read their work.
In ‘Girl with Green Eyes’ I expected find a novel that seemed dated and contrived, at best an historical document, but I ended up being bowled over by it – rural Ireland, the position of girls and women, the beginnings of the sexual revolution, escape to the big city (Dublin then finally London). As well as being a wonderful evocation of time and place, Cait, the main character, is a fully realised and sympathetic character. Women from that era that I have known sprung to mind as I was reading. I would usually say that ‘Romance’ is not my most preferred genre, but I loved this very human portrayal and story.
In February I read ‘Song for an Approaching Storm’ by Peter Froberg Idling. I found this deeply absorbing and every time I put it down I carried the sense of it around with me. It is set over a few weeks, day by day, over Cambodia’s first general election in 1955. The three consecutive sections are devoted to Sar (who later became Pol Pot), Sary (a high-level fixer working for Sihanouk) and Somaly (the first Miss Cambodia).
After visiting the country in in 2013, I wanted to know more about Pol Pot. David Chandler’s political biography – the accepted authority – was detailed and dense but left me with no real insight into the man’s psychology. Froberg’s book, which is subtitled ‘A Fantasy’, I thought was superb – brilliant characterization, clever and subtle storytelling, plausible political scheming. In some ways, the vain and pampered Somaly makes the strongest political points as she pines for a sophisticated and intellectual life in Paris whilst also wishing to retain all the privileges of her current position, with which she is becoming increasingly bored. The two men, her lovers, occupy two very different ends of the political spectrum and are prepared to commit extreme violence in their pursuit of what they see as ‘the common good’.
Later in March, I was attracted by reviews to ‘In the Light of What We Know’ by Zia Haider Rahman, a big book, much of what I seemed to read on buses and trains. Although I can see how the writing might irritate – lengthy exposition, seemingly erratic sequencing, sometimes a lack of clarity as to who is narrating – it held me and stayed with me when I had finished. The book is also in danger of being too clever for its own good but it works. There is a tumble of facts and ideas and I thought the chapters on being a writer and on the history of Saudi Arabia, were particularly good. There is also a lot on the 2008 financial crash, the English class system, the war in Afghanistan and mathematics, especially Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. This could easily go so wrong but the expositions are very well written and absorbing. A very distinctive book.
In April, I read Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Woodlanders’. I had enjoyed four of Hardy’s ‘big novels’ – Madding Crowd, Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess and Jude – tremendously when I read them back in my early 20s but had then floundered with ‘The Return of the Native’ and given up on it – and Hardy. I revisited ‘Native’ a couple of years ago and enjoyed it very much this time – all that open heathland and big Dorset skies. ‘The Woodlanders’ was for me the last of Hardy’s major novels and, according to Claire Tomalin’s biography, the author’s favourite. It was not for me as great a work as some of the others but distinctive and powerful nonetheless. Woods and wood, damp moss and tangled vegetation, social propriety and the coming of new scientific advances. Now I have no major Hardy novels left to plunge into for the first time, to lose myself in landscapes half familiar from childhood and among characters who might have tangled with generations back in the branches of my own family tree.