At the start of the year I set myself a challenge to read more in 2015. So I picked five books on everything from celestial signs and teenage abandonment to adulterous wives and mystical circuses for January and got stuck in.
Here’s what I thought of January’s beautiful books.
The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton
“We spend our entire lives thinking about death. Without that project to divert us, I expect we would all be dreadfully bored. We would have nothing to evade, and nothing to forestall, and nothing to wonder about. Time would have no consequence.”
The Luminaries has been on my intimidating must read list ever since it won the 2013 Man Booker Prize…and also because I knew it was written about a place in New Zealand that I visited all too briefly but fell quickly in love with: Hokitika. Set in the 1866 gold rush, the story navigates around emigré Walter Moody and the twelve, strange men (like the twelve signs of the zodiac, get it?) he meets on his arrival. The twelve are trying to uncover the reasons behind a series of local crimes and, along the way, a rich tapestry of drunks, whores, opium dens, missing men and discovered fortunes weave in and out of the complex story line.
Structured like the waning and waxing cycle of the moon, this book both transported and frustrated me. The sheer volume of plots and characters took time to get to grips with and Catton has an irritating knack of ripping the rug out from under your feet just as you’ve got settled in. At times bewildering, at times brilliant and, at times, frankly boring; this isn’t a book to take on lightly. I wasn’t sure what to make of Catton’s tome when I finally turned the last page on the final, diminutive chapter, but, perversely, I am thinking about reading it again…because something about this extraordinary book has stuck with me.
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
“The denigration of those we love always detaches us from them in some degree. Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers.”
After I started this canary yellow copy of the classic French novel I began to wonder why I had never read it before. It was Flaubert’s debut novel and followed a mild mannered, vaguely boring doctor called Charles Bovary, who met, fell in love with and married Emma Rouault – an adulterous, tempestuous woman obsessed with the romance and luxury she has absorbed from years spent devouring fantastical works of fiction.
As she embarks on ever bigger affairs and begins to loose herself to her self-concoted idea of love and luxury, everything begins to crumble around her; while her husband remains staid and loyal to the bitter (very bitter) end. This is neither a story with a happy ending nor a cautionary tale on the dangers of being immoral and lustful; it’s a beautifully written, tragic story of the pursuit of romance at all cost that perfectly shows off Flaubert’s never-ending quest to find le mot juste – the perfect word.
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”
This gorgeous book introduced me to a lovely new word – phantasmagorical – and had me gripped from page one, which doesn’t start with a block of prose but with a poetic stream of consciousness that begins: “The circus arrives without warning.
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”
In the beginning, two magicians make a bet as to who can raise the best assistant. Prospero the Enchanter chooses his daughter, Celia Bowen and the enigmatic Mr A.H. picks an orphan, Marco Alisdair; sequestering him away in a world of books and rote learning until he is ready to challenge Celia in an epic battle of will, might and magic to the death. This was utterly immersive, with each story, line and word interwoven with the ever present spectre of the night circus; a place of mysticism and wonder populated by tattooed contortionists, eerie white fires, floating cloud mazes and impossible magic tricks that seems to appear and vanish at will, swallowed into or simply becoming part of the night itself.
The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton
“Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.”
This was the book I couldn’t wait to start reading and one that everyone and their dog had recommended to me. Plus, when you’re given a particularly beautiful hardback copy like the one I was, there’s an extra incentive to want to grab it at the earliest opportunity. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, Jessie Burton has created a historical masterpiece where every detail and nuance has been impeccably researched. The story revolves around Nella Oortman as she settles into the house of her new husband, a rich merchant called Johannes Brandt.
He gives her an exact replica of their house as a present and she begins to fill it with tiny furniture and miniature things, however, as the story moves and the tiny house fills, a sense of some unusual power at work pushes itself to the forefront. I don’t want to reveal or ruin any of this novel’s creeping unease, but all I will say is this is a powerful story – full of exquisitely crafted passages and plot twists – that grabs you and refuses to let go. I demolished this book in two days.
Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki, Haruki Murakami
“The truth sometimes reminds me of a city buried in sand. As time passes, the sand piles up even thicker, and occasionally it’s blown away and what’s below is revealed.”
I have been in love with Murakami since I read Kafka on the Shore while travelling years ago and was over the moon when a good friend gave me Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki for my last birthday. I’ve been saving it for just the right moment, and waking on new year’s day seemed just the right time to start. There’s something about Murakami’s writing; his measured, restrained prose; his pared back explanations of everyday Japanese life; his inscrutable characters and his stark, unexpected injections of frenetic sexual activity, which often pop up in wild dreamscapes.
This book felt very much like a classic Murakami. It follows Tsukuru Tazaki, a high schooler in Nagoya with a close-knit group of four friends, each who have names that mean a colour: Aka/Red, Ao/Blue, Shiro/White and Kuro/Black. Suddenly, without warning or reason, these four friends cut all ties with Tazaki and he is set adrift, grey, depressed and very much alone. The book follows his gradual return to some semblance of normal life and the journey he embarks on to discover just what happened all those years ago.
As Murakami books go, this was a slow burner, seeped in sadness and full of long, drawn out, contemplative discussions. Although it still had all the familiar accents – the frequent simple suppers, the cameo from Cutty Sark whiskey and the background of jazz and classical music – that keep me wanting to read Murakami’s novels.
Getting through these books in one month has been a challenge, especially since I stupidly picked The Luminaries, which is a whopping 832 pages long. To save my eyes, and my face considering how many times I fell asleep and dropped The Luminaries on it this month – February’s five books are all a little slimmer and I can’t wait to get started.
I’d love to hear if anyone has read anything so far this year that they recommend, I’m always on the hunt for new books to get my teeth into!