In the spring and early summer of 2022 I read three good books. These books, all new writing, adult fiction, published within a few months of each other, and written with intelligence and ambition, raised my spirits. In recent years, it has been hard to find good new books that meet my somewhat exacting criteria.
What constitutes a good book? Well, obviously, to some extent that depends on the reader. I read very little conventional crime, but lots of “noir”, that is crime with added metaphysics. I never knowingly read anything that could be described as romance, only the odd fantasy, and not much in the way of domestic novels concerned with heterosexual relationships. I have a soft spot for war stories, novels of adventure and submarine dramas. I have very little patience with cosy crime or lightweight feel-good lifestyle fiction, where all’s well and ends well. And whilst I am delighted to be entertained, I don’t read primarily for entertainment.
So, what do I read? Despite my comments above I actually think that it’s important to read widely and delve into the great river of trash that pours off the commercial presses, even if you cannot bring yourself to finish the awful book in hand. You never learn nothing whatsoever from a badly written book. In fact, in my experience the most indescribable merde has always been most instructive.
I therefore spend at least six weeks of every year in Bestseller-Land. I usually read several books that are being marketed with a welter of hyperbole close to my eyeballs in The Bookseller and hyped as ‘astonishing, incredible, amazing’ by Waterstones. These books tend to reproduce a row of contemporary clichés and I read them to see how bad things have got. The two books that stand out from the pandemic years are both American productions by women. Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa (Fourth Estate, 2020), now advertised on line in Block Capitals as: The Sunday Times Bestseller AS SEEN ON TIK TOK, comes surrounded by Trigger Warnings and controversies involving Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. Here’s the basic plot, set in two time zones:
2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher. 2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past.
This first novel loiters in the shadow of Nabokov’s Lolita. I read it as a pornographic hymn to sexual abuse, as is Lolita, but there are many reviews online that assure me it is a sensitive analysis of what it feels like to be flattered and groomed by your English teacher who has his eye on removing your knickers. My Dark Vanessa is a melancholy tale of disillusion and disappointment. Sentiments which exactly mirrored my experience of reading the thing. But, happily, one book always leads to another. As a result of my disenchantment with My Dark Vanessa I read Vanessa Springora’s analysis of exactly the same situation. Springora was fourteen and her seducer, three times older than she was, is the writer Gabriel Matzneff. Consent is written with a critical intelligence and a startling, savage elegance that is blood curdling. We know exactly why and how she was flattered and seduced, and why she denounced her abuser. First published in French as Le Consentement (Bernard Grasset, 2020) and republished in an excellent translation by Natasha Lehrer as Consent: A Memoir (Harpervia, 2021). Consent is not fiction, but the pitiless quality of the writing raises the book far above any other account that I have ever read about predatory paedophiles and the children they abuse. The abuser in this case had fame on his side. The central subjects of his own books were paedophilia, seduction, abuse and child murder. Gabriel Matzneff, like Jimmy Saville, was hiding in plain sight.
The other American book that I read has literally sold millions. Where the Crawdads Sing - first published in the USA 2018, published in the UK by Little, Brown, 2019, has grown into a massive bestseller ever since. This is another first novel, written by a zoologist, Delia Owens, who is well known for her books about Africa. Here are the latest sales figures: in 2022, Publishers Weekly ranked it the 14th bestselling book of 2021, with sales of 625,599 copies, and as of late February 2022, the book had spent 150 weeks on the bestseller list. In April 2022, it was reported that Owens’ book had sold 12 million copies. If you read this novel with attention, you will learn that there is a significant difference between a marsh and a swamp. If you are an adult, capable of thinking, it is unlikely that you will learn anything else. This is a coming-of-age sentimental romance novel – starring one feral marsh girl, implausibly abandoned by both parents and left to Nature. Luckily, Mother Nature teaches her all she needs to know. Enter two blokes who fancy her. One is the nice guy and the other is a rapist. The book morphs into a crime novel when the marsh girl studies the mating tactics of the female praying mantis and does for the rapist.
If you read with a pencil in your hand, and I do, you are going to spot and be irritated by the patronising idiocy of the plot and the fairy-tale fantasy elements in this medley of genres. But you will still emerge with a powerful sense of the place where the novel is set, the marsh, its geography, climate, tides, and complex eco-systems. A marsh is a type of wetland where herbaceous plants are the dominant vegetation. An herbaceous plant is a plant that does not have any woody stems above the ground. Grasses and reeds are the most common plants found in marshes. Most woody plants that live in marshes are shrubs that grow to low heights. A marsh can be thought of as a wetland dominated by grassland. A swamp is a wetland dominated by trees and other woody plants. This type of wetland is often found along large rivers and lake shores. Swamps often have stagnant, slow-moving water. Swamp vegetation is often dependent on the water level fluctuation. This in particular is the case with swamps found near large rivers.
As I said, you will always learn something from a very bad book.
Well, you may ask, what about these three good books you mentioned? Is it all just a matter of taste? Every reader makes a demand on what she reads or even on the films she watches. The demands I make of every book I read are always tied up with the writer’s ambition. Has the writer mastered the form they are using? Are they in control of their meanings? Genre and form often determine both content and meaning. Is it clear that the writer knows this? Are they in control of their sentences? Is their command of the language original, sophisticated and sure-footed? If a writer is well and widely read, it will show. It always shows. Does their book give me a reading experience I have never had before? Will I remember that book in the months to come?
My answer to all these difficult questions is a jubilant “Yes”.
My three good books are subversive fictions, often difficult and unsettling to read, but utterly satisfying. Interestingly, they could not be more different one from another. I have treasured every word.
All Rights Reserved. Patricia Duncker 2024