The discomforts of 2020 were, for me and my family, relatively minor in the scheme of things. Living in regional Victoria as we do, yes we were partially locked down and working and schooling from home, but apart from that we were safe and well (and employed – no small thing right now). Yet for the most of the year I found it hard to retreat into the solace of fiction.
Too many times I picked up a book that I thought I should read – because it was a prize-winner, or highly recommended, or in some other way worthy – but quickly discovered that it couldn’t hold my interest. I’d read a few pages then find myself picking up my iPad to continue doom-scrolling through social and online media. It was only when my kids took me to task for my frequent and tedious ranting about politics (Trump’s appalling behaviour, mainly, but also the home-grown variety) that I decided an intervention was in order. I stopped reading about the US elections and, to a large extent, stopped reading or watching any news at all. If it wasn’t a good news story, I really didn’t want to know.
I applied the same ‘methodology’ to my reading, with some success, I think.
I stopped thinking about what I should read and just immersed myself in what I wanted to read. And it turned out that I wanted to read was Bernard Cornwell’s commercial fiction. Having watched and enjoyed The Last Kingdom on Netflix (starring Alexander Dreymon, pictured left) I turned to the source material and simply inhaled all 13 books in the series, which are set in medieval Britain around the time of Alfred the Great. It’s entirely possible that the series features a very handsome hero, but I was there for the literary quality and historical accuracy. Honest.
Anyhoo, for the first time in ages, I was able to disappear into a story, sitting up late into the night to find out what happened next. Which, in this case, was usually: hero gets in trouble, hero fights a battle, trouble and battles continue for a while, hero wins the day (and, often as not, the girl too).
To be fair, I found the quality of writing to be pretty good, if sometimes a little repetitive – Cornwell does love to harp on about how close one gets to one’s enemies when two armies come to blows. “As close as lovers” it seems, or less appealingly, “close enough to smell his sour breath”. Apparently the historical accuracy isn’t too bad, and at the end of each book there’s a solid author’s note about the sources, and Cornwell explains about where and why he occasionally strayed from the known facts. It’s perhaps worth noting, though, that I tried and singularly failed to enjoy another Cornwell series, about King Arthur and Merlin. The pacing was much slower and there was far too much telling, and not enough showing.
Thanks to Cornwell, however, my reading enjoyment was re-set and I’m reading fiction again. Some other fiction titles I’ve enjoyed this year (pre- and post my reading slump) are listed below.
- Songwoman by Ilka Tampke. Ignore the silly cover and immerse yourself in this brilliant examination of the experience of invasion, from the point of view of an ancient Briton. Yes, I know there’s a ‘Britain in the olden days’ theme emerging here but I read this one right at the start of the year, before my coronavirus reading slump was even a thing. The author is an Australian woman, and the travails of the Indigenous Brits are very much applicable to the invasion of Australia. This title won the Small Press Network’s 2019 Most Underrated Book Award and deservedly so. Terrific book, sadly overlooked.
- Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I’m late to the party on this one (it was released in 2013), but it is SO good. And the swag of international prizes that it won and was shortlisted for should encourage you not to just take my word for it. Atkinson, a master of the writing craft, uses an unusual structural device to take us through the many lives of an English woman born in 1910. It’s a little weird, strangely compelling and deeply moving.
- The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott. I loved Arnott’s first novel, Flames, and couldn’t wait to read this. Was not disappointed! A multi-layered tale of betrayal, destruction and (possibly) redemption that explores the connections between people and the natural world with sympathy and insight.
- Longbourne by Jo Baker. Set in the world of Pride and Prejudice, but told from the point of view of the servants in the Bennett household. Marvellous premise that absolutely delivers.
- Bright Planet by Peter Mews. Placing the reader in the very earliest days of marvellous Melbourne, this book reads lightly and easily as a period romp but is actually a fascinating exploration of the idea of colonisation as an act of imagination.
- Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Read this, and you’ll never see Shakespeare’s Hamlet the same way again. And if you’ve never seen Hamlet, read this anyway, for a rich evocation of family and love and loss. Deserving winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
And how about you? What fiction this year has brought you comfort and joy?
Well we have one in common, Longbourne. Much to WG’s disgust I often pick up (as audiobooks) lightweight Austen derivatives. Mr Darcy’s Daughters – there’s lots of them – might be my favourite. Now you’re in the mood you might try Bulwer Lytton’s Harold. Just don’t give up at the sixth page, those old books take a while to get going.
I did wonder what WG would think about Longbourne…lol. I don’t mind it when old books start slow, I’m more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.
I’m glad you liked Songwoman, you might like the first one in the series too, it’s called Skin.
I took an entirely different tack to you: I read serious stuff about people whose lives and circumstances were infinitely more difficult than mine. I figured (correctly) that it would be hard to feel sorry for myself if I had that different perspective. And I also read as many new release OZ novels as I could manage so that I could give their authors a bit of publicity on my blog, even though I sometimes wasn’t sure if anyone was still reading it. (But actually, my stats have not just held up, they’ve gone up a lot, I’ve got no idea why!)
I’m keen to read Skin, and I understand there’s a third one on its way too. Your approach sounds much more sensible than mine and I think what you do for authors is outstanding – no wonder your stats keep going up. Quality tells!
Lovely to get a peek into your reading, Michelle. I haven’t made it to any of Cornwell’s books, and I’m in no rush to read about battles. I’ve been immersed, still, in research along with writing, and haven’t made it to as many novels as I’d like. I did read Hamnet and really enjoyed it, and I’ve just finished Steven Conte’s The Tolstoy Estate, which is very good. I read Skin when it first came out (it was reviewed alongside The Anchoress, so they must have been released around the same time) — it’s great, though I haven’t yet read Songwoman. And I must read The Rain Heron, from everything I hear about it.
Don’t mind me and Cornwell – I just have a thing for warriors! And they’re relevant (sort of) to my current WIP, as it happens, so I guess I could call it research?
Oooo, do I sniff historical fiction in the wings? Exciting!! I kind of guessed the warrior interest from the photo on your blog — chiselled chin essential to the job. Go well with the WIP, and always intrigued if you care to drop a few hints.
Ha ha! As much as I’d love to spill the beans, I can’t quite yet. Soon though!
I can say, however, that the WIP is a collaborative work of non-fiction. I’m still writing about other peoples’ lives but quite a different life, this time, to the last one. And of course my interest in the chiselled chins of the warrior class is purely professional…
I;m not sure any fiction really brought me comfort and joy this year. My mum’s illness and death just overshadowed everything, and I’m feeling as though my reading this year has felt flat. But, when I write up my highlights in early January, I’m sure I’ll be able to put some sort of perspective on it all, and I did read some very interesting books.
I’ve read only one on your list – though I have my sights set on a couple of others. The one I’ve read is Longbourne, and my response is a bit different to yours. I loved the historical fiction part about servants – that was well done – but I really didn’t like the reimagined plot! Mr Bennet isn’t a hero in my books, but Baker took a step too far!!
Oh Sue, I’m so sorry. What an awful year all round. Longbourne – of course I thought of you and I’m only surprised you loved it as much as you did.