November 2, 2016

The long dark teatime of the soul,

recent reads worth mentioning.

Devastation Road

Say 'road novel' or 'road movie' to anyone, and you'll likely get Kerouac's 'On the Road' or 'Thelma and Louise' or 'Easy Rider', or even 'The Grapes of Wrath' as an answer or some other example which makes the genre seem uniquely American. But the road or journey as a narrative form has its roots much earlier than that, in Homer's Odyssey, or Virgil's Aeneid - a hero sets out on an often perilous journey, survival by no means guaranteed, but when the destination is finally attained, he will have learned something about himself and the world he lives in.

Devastation Road is such a Bildungsroman: an Englishman wakes up in a field somewhere in Europe in the last days of World War II.  He doesn't know who or where he is, only that he is lost, and has lost his memory. He meets Janek, a Czech teenager, and despite not speaking the other's language, they manage to piece together enough to discover they share a common cause: the urge to learn the fate of their respective brothers. They start walking, like the millions of other displaced persons in 1945 - which feels incredibly potent in the context of the current refugee crisis - in search of safety, and in Owen's case particularly, in search of identity.

It's a meticulously researched novel - Hewitt took the physical journey his protagonists take in the novel and also learned to speak Czech - but it's Hewitt's ability to conjure the intense, vivid, claustrophobic confusion of a Europe broken apart by war and to deftly explore themes of identity, nationhood, and the extremes to which desperate people are driven in a bid to survive, that gives Devastation Road its narrative impact.

The Improbability of Love

Hannah Rothschild, documentary film maker, writer and Chair of the National Gallery. Her first novel, The Improbability of Love, is a vivid satire of the art world, where the stakes are so high, people are inevitably compelled to behave in an unbecoming manner. It tells the story of Annie McDee, sweet, single and skint, recovering from the disappointment of a failed relationship, who buys a grimy, unprepossessing painting in a junk shop. Little does she know it's 'The Improbability of Love' a lost masterpiece by Antoine Watteau, one of the great painters of the 18th Century. We're drawn immediately into a cut-throat and deeply glamorous world, peopled by exiled oligarchs, billionaire collectors and unscrupulous dealers, the super wealthy and the avaricious, all of whom would do anything to possess the painting. 

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich