A short month and two books to read for reading group this month means I only read four books this month.
1984 – George Orwell and Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
It was a dystopian double bill for reading group this month, though I can’t remember why. One line of thinking was that people could manage two because we’d have read them before and therefore could skim read. Confession: I hadn’t read either of them before. Perhaps there’s an optimum age to read dystopia, perhaps when you’re still impressionable and open to ideas. Clearly someone jaded and disturbed by politics like me was no good, I was actively dreading reading them, nervous of having my worst fears about our society confirmed. Very few weeks go by without some kind of reference to 1984 especially, but BNW has some relevance too.
So what did I think? I’m not going to write a full critique of either here, there’s been a lot said about both by people far more astute than I. The first thing to say, and I think the most important, is how very readable they both are. The first time reader opens them with a sense of trepidation, of realising the weight of the reputation they come with but no one ever mentions how easily you race through them. Neither are very subtle, especially the Orwell, though I suppose if you’re writing a furious diatribe as a warning to society about a political system that will spread across half of Europe and beyond, perhaps subtlety isn’t the key. But I did feel like I was being hit over the head half the time.
As a group, many people who re-read BNW felt slightly disappointed by it, which perhaps comes back to my point about reading these things at a certain age. The disappointment was largely down to the lack of characterisation, we felt; Huxley seemed to be having some fun describing the society that other elements were perhaps a little neglected? Of the two, it felt more positive than 1984 (though that’s not difficult) and despite the dreadful treatment of women and the sad ending, there was little menace to it.
I think we were all pretty impressed by the amount that Orwell foresaw; in many ways well before his time and of course the novel’s influence cannot be overstated.
After all that, I definitely needed something lighter! Which is not to say this is a fluffy book or one to be dismissed lightly. I LOVED this. It features two of the bizarrely well-matched real feeling characters I’ve read for a while without being kooky, which I find important. Ten year old Noel, orphaned and suffering following the death of his godmother and guardian Mattie, is packed off to St Albans as part of evacuation efforts in the Second World War. There he lodges with opportunist Vera Sedge whose scams to make money and provide for her feckless son and invalid mother are wearing thin. (Vera’s mother writes letters to Winston Churchill throughout the book, which are hilarious. Can we have a spin off short story please?) Vera sees Noel as a source of potential income but doesn’t count on how useful this bright boy is. Together they start trying to make a bit of cash, and end up trying to catch a rogue ARP warden who steals the possessions of a wealthy but vulnerable lady after she is carried off to hospital. There’s lots of lovely detail in this book but it is the dynamic between Vera and Noel that makes it a really great read. Vera especially is a woman whose circumstances have always conspired against her, making her appear morally lax. Rough diamonds are a cliche yet she really is. And Noel is a lovely bright little boy, aware that he is different to others but trying very hard not to let that affect him but to stay true to himself and to the memory of Mattie. Go and buy this, it’s really enjoyable.
It’s the summer of 1976 (the hot one) and a resident of a small claustrophobic cul de sac goes missing. Is she dead? Suicide? Murder? Two little girls, Grace and Tilly, decide to investigate by seeking out God. In going round the close they talk to the other residents and uncover more dark secrets than you can imagine. The title comes from seeing how other people describe themselves: are they goats – a bit wacky, a bit out of sync with others? Or are they sheep – following the herd, conventional. How do we judge people and what are the consequences? I went to hear Joanna Cannon talk about the book last Thursday at Waterstone’s and having heard her story clearly I am sick with envy. Ten months to write it (while working at a demanding job) and a book deal before it was published. What have I been doing with my time? Anyway, green eyes aside, I really enjoyed this book. The main narrative character, Grace, is a spirited but normal child, making mistakes, especially with how she deals with her best friend Tilly, and wandering around the close winkling secrets out from the adults without even realising it. While Grace’s perspective leads the tale, not all the chapters are from her point of view and that way we get to find out more. I wholeheartedly approve of this – books from just the child’s point of view have a tendency to miss out some of the detail I want to hear about (Room, and Our Endless Numbered Days suffered from this in my opinion.) The other characters are all so well written that with a bit of thought you can cast them and design the costumes they’ll need (I mean this as a good thing – it’s a very visual book.) And the food! Why oh why did anyone eat chocolates and soup in that heat? There may not have been much choice. It’s nostalgia of the best kind, a self indulgent laugh at how we used to live.
And that’s it for this month! Two thought provoking books I found better than I was hoping and two books I really enjoyed.