From sheep falling off a cliff, to demanding gnomes and jellyfish attacks, the last three books I read have barely anything in common with each other, apart from the fact they’re all fantastic reads!
The Murdstone Trilogy, comes from the late Mal Peet. I was given this as a Christmas present and I think it’s safe to say that if this hadn’t been the case it would have been very unlikely that I would ever have thought of reading it. Not knowing much about his books (his previous ones leaning more towards YA) and fantasy not being my go-to choice of genre, I turned the pages with the same trepidation as trying Turkish Delight again, another ill-advised christmas present. But perhaps not. Tastes change.
The story follows Philip Murdstone, a failing author living in Devon. His highly attractive agent, Minerva, tells him to write something new, something that’s on trend, something involving swords, a dragon, a quest – fantasy in other words. Or as she says Phantasy, “with a pee aitch”. Disgruntled, Philip heads to his local pub and gets horrendously drunk on an ale called, fore-warningly, Dark Entropy. After this, he receives regular visits from a gnome with the power of writing the most brilliant fanta – Phantasy novel. The gnome is aptly called Pocket Welfare. Various obstacles and hilarious encounters ensue to help Philip write the trilogy and win back the respect he so craves from Minerva.
As you can probably tell, the book is less fantasy and takes more of a satirical look at the genre. The tongue-in-cheek references to stereo-typical character and plot devices are used comically to highlight the copy-cat trends of publishing. Alongside this, the acute observations of Devon life made me laugh out loud. The depictions of the characters, the goings on in the village and general small-town gossip is hilarious.
The Murdstone Trilogy is certainly an odd book, with the blurring between reality and fiction, and also thrown in with that- metafiction – it can become a strange mixture of feeling very close to the protagonist and also rather distant. But with the vibrant descriptions of the inhabitants of Devon and their monobrows, or the witty one-liners from Pocket Welfare, I continued to bounce along when reading it, fully engaged and wanting Philip to succeed.
It’s a shame such a wonderful writer has passed away so early in life.
I chose to read Far From the Madding Crowd next for a few reasons. Mainly, because I already love Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and just Victorian Literature as a whole. And also, the release of the latest film adaptation was upon the horizon and I wanted to read it beforehand.
It felt oddly comforting to be back in the Hardy land of hay bales, country fairs and conflicting passions after a bout of more modern novels. The strong-willed, independent and just a little bit whiny Bathsheba, inherits her own farm and sets about trying to make it a success. She finds herself stuck in a love-square between Gabriel, the reliable farmer, Mr. Boldwood, a prosperous neighbouring farmer, and Sergeant Troy, the rogue.
Hardy represents Bathsheba as a woman who knows her own mind. Her first thought isn’t of marriage and having a man run the farm, it is for her to do it herself, stating that she will be up every morning before everyone to check everything is in working order. Highly out of the ordinary for the Victorian period, Hardy depicts the capabilities of a woman in a man’s world. On the other side of this, Bathsheba is excruciatingly naive. She doesn’t understand the intricacies of the heart, first igniting Boldwood’s emotions with a pretend valentine, which makes an all-too-real impact on Boldwood. After this, she falls into a string of bad judgements, marries badly and neglects the farm and her true purpose in the first place. But, unlike a Hardy novel, all ends well.
This is a point I’d like to quickly mention actually. Just a little aside. It annoys me when Hardy’s work is criticised for being overly depressing, as if a novel should always be upbeat and resolved. Some of the best novels ever written are “depressing” in my opinion – Revolutionary Road, Atonement to name a couple – and even then I would call them moving, not depressing, which is often synonymous with the next word that usually follows – “dull.”
Sorry, rant over.
The narrative bumbles along akin to the gentle pace of Bathsheba’s horse and trap, the steady presence of Gabriel’s un-returned love for Bathsheba keeping the spoke of the novel’s wheel turning. Then, out of no where, an epic climax happens that will shock you out of your reading daze. Brutal in its insertion into the plot, Hardy manages to communicate the gravity of Boldwood’s mental deterioration with barely a whisper of it beforehand.
The 2015 film is an excellent adaptation of the novel and although they change a few things, this might actually be for the better. This story is a classic tale of growing up, independence and love.
My final book to chat about is by one of my favourite authors, David Nicholls. Although I said at the beginning there was no relation between these novels, Nicholls actually wrote the screenplay for Far From the Madding Crowd. This comes as no surprise as I think one of the reasons I adore his books so much is down to the way he writes dialogue.
Notoriously hard, dialogue is the trickiest thing to make authentic, but Nicholls seems to handle it with ease (I’m guessing at this – there are probably copious dictaphones and hair-pulling moments involved in the process). Us is a book that can make you laugh and cry, clench your fists in anger, or squirm at an ill-advised comment. It follows Douglas, who has just been told by his wife, Connie, that she doesn’t want to be with him anymore. In an attempt to prove to her that they should remain together, he plans a holiday with her and their teenage son, Albie, touring Europe. As you can imagine, this doesn’t go well. Albie ends up ditching them for food-stealing accordionist and as Connie flies home, Douglas vows to her that he’ll find their son and make sure he’s safe.
The story is told by Douglas and flits between the present time of their disintegrating holiday and the various memories of Connie that Douglas has accrued and then describes. From the hilarious moment they met involving a spatula, to the awkward introduction to parents, and from the heartbreaking discovery their first daughter has died after one day to when Connie admits she had an affair, the book takes you through it all – life, really. Each character is made believable by their flaws – so much so that I got highly involved in the story.
I hated Connie. But I think I was supposed to. Of course, there were moments, scenes, where I sympathised with her, but her manipulative tethering of Douglas and the fact she cheated, amplified the dislike I felt. At times, I even hated the protagonist and his lack of emotion, empathy, or refusal of anything “Arty” as a serious option for the future, but I still couldn’t help urging him on as his blistered feet stuck to his shoes and he tried to reconstruct an already crumbled marriage.
And this is the thing, how does he do it? I talk about these people as if they’re real. REAL. I don’t think a Tweet has ever spoken to me more than “preferring characters to actual people… #booknerdproblems”. But this is where true writing talent is, the ability to engage the reader, make them laugh and weep. Or make them cringe as if they were actually sat at the table when Douglas inadvertently implies a woman is fat. Us takes you through a roller-coaster of emotions and is definitely worth a read.
Best of the three: Us
Next on the book menu: The Silkworm