Books: new friends in 2022
Happy New Year! I hope 2022 was a good year for you and that 2023 will be even better.
On the global stage, 2022 was an extraordinary year and – I think most people would agree – not in a good way. For me personally, it was quite a special year. I hit a landmark birthday; like others, I was able to travel freely for the first time since the beginning of 2020; and, most important of all, I caught up with many old friends and made several new friends and acquaintances. In the latter, I include authors new to me, most of whom I did not meet and may never meet, but whose work I have now discovered and come to relish hugely.
It’s impossible to place them in any kind of hierarchy, so, in true bookseller tradition, I shall describe four of my discoveries here in alphabetical order of the author’s name.
The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore. I’ve written about this book before, so just to say that, dipping into it again, I am still blown away by the power of the narrative and Blakemore’s imaginative exploration of the English language.
Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus. This is a truly stellar tour-de-force which captures with ironical good humour the prejudices and misogyny of the 1950s and ’60s. Along the way it introduces the reader to the main principles of chemistry and – something that few critics seem to have picked up on – shows that an intelligent woman can be a good cook and a nurturer and take an interest in her appearance while still holding down a job. It’s also about relationships and how rigid social norms can destroy them; the fragility of life; the joys of keeping a dog; and the first stirrings of feminism. Above all, it is arrestingly written – there is barely a false or superfluous word – and achingly funny.
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout. I hadn’t read anything by Elizabeth Strout until I came across this book, and I was astonished her work had passed me by. She is clearly well known and exceedingly accomplished. The novel tells the story of Lucy Barton, a successful writer who meets her first husband again after many years apart. Her second, happier marriage has recently ended in widowhood. When she meets William again, the reader understands after a few sentences that she was right to end the relationship. William leads a desiccated life which runs in grooves. He is afraid of change, even wanting to eat the same meal all the time because it is safe and no trouble. (There are aspects of this novel that remind me of Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years.) The encounters with William primarily allow Strout to create a wonderful series of comedy-of-manners scenes, but there is a more serious sub-text. Gradually, Lucy’s good-humoured tolerance of this painfully circumscribed man gives her a new grace and wisdom, allowing her to ponder some of the deeper meanings of life – though always with irony and an exquisite lightness of touch.
Miss Pym disposes, by Josephine Tey. This is the only ‘classic’ novel in today’s list, though I have read – and enjoyed – several others this year. I bought it in The Mysterious Bookshop in New York (an Aladdin’s Cave of treasures, especially for aficionados of crime fiction and thrillers). I knew, of course, that Tey wrote crime fiction, but previously I had read only her historical whodunnit, Daughter of Time. For me, Miss Pym disposes stands out for its exquisite portrayal of character and for capturing exactly the hothouse, hysterical atmosphere that prevailed in a single-sex boarding school in the 1940s (the book was originally published in 1948). The identity of the killer, when it is revealed, is less of a surprise. I shall certainly read more Teys – and, having enjoyed this book, I am now in quest of other novels from the Golden Age of crime – Agatha Christies, Marjorie Allinghams, Patricia Highsmiths, Dorothy L. Sayerses. I have read some books by each of these authors, but all were prolific and there are many more I haven’t read to enjoy in 2023! Recommendations welcome.
I have already wished you a Happy New Year. Now I’d like to wish you a happy reading year, too!