I’m having a bit of a catch-up here as I have been reading more than I’ve been reviewing (and I had to time some of my reviews to fall on release days, etc. – I don’t know how people who do a lot of reviewing for publishers manage all that!). So here’s two reviews that are a bit out of the order I read them in, linked by their preoccupations with ageing, as the first is about a mid-life crisis and the second the last volume of diaries (which is always a melancholic thing to read).
Michael Cunningham – “By Nightfall”
(Bought 28 March 2015, Macclesfield)
Almost onto the last of that Macclesfield crop, and as my friend Laura, who bought a copy at the same time and read hers before I read my copy, it’s not the best Michael Cunningham. But it is a good book – and a poor Cunningham will beat the best of a lesser author in my opinion, and it’s not poor by any means.
Oddly reminiscent to me of Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty”, we are thrown into the mid-life crisis of Peter Harris (middle-aged at 44? I don’t think so, thank you very much!), in a long marriage to Rebecca, in a not-stellar career owning an art gallery and bothered by the reappearance of Rebecca’s feckless younger brother, Ethan (or “Mizzy” – the mistake), who, however, horribly reminds him of a much younger Rebecca.
The intimacy of classic Cunningham is there, the New York flat-dwelling, the almost Howard Jacobson or Philip-Roth like rumblings, sweatings and belchings, and there are some uncomfortable passages about the ageing of women which feel a little misogynistic, but then Peter doesn’t come off that well, either. The very occasional flash-forwards give the narrative a melancholy inevitability, and I wonder whether this quiet novel might in the future be seen as one of his masterpieces.
This book will suit … People who like Cunningham (but you won’t love it like you loved “A Home at the End of the World”), people who like thoughtful books about family relationships and inheritance where even when stuff happens, it’s a bit like nothing happens.
Harold Nicolson – “Diaries and Letters 1945-62”
(Bought 28 March 2015, Macclesfield)
The last volume of a collected series of diaries and/or letters is always going to be the saddest, and this is no exception. In the introduction, Nigel explains how he cut it short at Vita’s death, having no wish to expose his father’s private grief. And Harold died between approving the book and it being prepared for publication. I wept reading that, and I had to skip right ahead to Vita’s death and get it read first so I could cope.
But it was very good reading still. The family expands, and I loved this picture of three authors whose works I have loved for a long time! Elizabeth Bowen makes a surprise appearance and he’s rude about Pepys but appreciates that all diarists have to have “a little snouty sneaky mind”. There’s a lovely letter from Vita to Nigel when he was on the political campaign trail exhorting him to eat well and not leave tinned food on top of radiators which was most unexpected and sweet – her diaries are included a little as well.
The story of Harold’s decline – and that of his beloved Vita – was hard to read, but I have greatly enjoyed the set of three volumes. Of course, there’s none of the scandal and other relationships which were a feature of their lives together, but it’s a lovely and I feel true portrait of their lives and their love.
This book would suit … A reader interested in the family (Vita gets back to see Knole!) or post-war society, history and letters.
I’m currently reading another series volume where I’ve missed a few in between, this time a Jennifer Chiaverini, and have made a start on the rather wonderful bio of Roy Jenkins which has been steadily working up the TBR, waiting for me to need a “dining table book” to replace Harold. I’ve also read the new Victoria Eveleigh “Katy” book, but you’ll have to wait a couple of weeks for the review, as I want to tie it in with the publication date so people can rush to buy it! That’s the only one that’s come in recently, however!