This year, as usual, I’ve kept a note of every book I’ve read. Not the books for research, but simply for personal enjoyment. Quite a few found their way onto the bookshelf via Jewish Book Week (Jonathan Wittenberg, Ruth Gilligan, Barbara Honigmann, for example); some were written by long-time favourite authors, while others were the work of authors I’d never read before. A glance through the list (below) shows that 2017 was a year for crime thrillers and memoirs, and featured just one German-language title: Honigmann’s ‘Alles, Alles Liebe’. I do love reading in German but as the vast majority of my research is German sometimes it’s just a welcome (lazy) relief to switch off and read in English. It’s impossible to elaborate on each of the twenty books, but here’s a flavour of three great fiction titles I particularly loved.
2017 was a year for
crime thrillers and memoirs
‘The Extra’ by AB Yehoshua. Noga, a harpist, is in her early forties and she’s chosen not to have children. Following the death of her father, Noga takes temporary leave from her role in a Dutch orchestra to return to Israel for three months. To fill the time and to earn a bit of money while she’s there, Noga takes on a variety of ‘extra’ roles in film productions. Being there allows her mother to test out a retirement home for a trial period without risking eviction from her rented flat in the meantime, as the terms of tenancy require permanent occupation of the property. Legitimacy through presence and remaining (and, by implication, precariousness through absence) is a key theme in the book; not just in relation to the flat, but also regarding Noga’s position in the orchestra.
In a talk at JBW 2016 Yehoshua explained it was his intention to discover the rationale for Noga’s decision as he wrote the book, and to constantly try and persuade her to change her mind. He certainly does that. Every step of the way, Noga is forced to explain and defend her decision to remain child-free. Her marriage has already broken down because of it; now she finds herself completely at odds with the large families of the ultra-orthodox community living in the once-secular neighbourhood; and in a society that promotes childbirth she’s regarded with varying degrees of pity, scorn and suspicion by family and acquaintances. But it’s through these conflicts that she realises that her decision has opened doors too, and and upon her return to the Netherlands (a country that places fewer demands on her fertility), and to the orchestra, she resolves to live her life for herself — and not as an ‘extra’ in other people’s stories or expectations. (I also wonder whether the ‘extra’ might also be a reference to the ‘missing’ child?) However, during the orchestra’s tour of Japan she has a final unexpected reckoning with her decision — this time through the music of Debussy.
‘Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan’ by Ruth Gilligan. Unfamiliar with Gilligan’s work, I came across this by chance at JBW 2017 and was intrigued by its context, as it tells the stories of different generations of Jews in Ireland. At first it’s unclear how on earth the book’s three stories could possibly be connected: first there’s Ruth, who arrives as a child in Cork with her family, escaping the pogroms in Europe in 1901 (they were actually heading for New York) and ends up staying, caught up in a world of stories, fantasy, and wishful what ifs. Then, in the late 1950s, there’s the teenager Shem, institutionalised because he’s stopped speaking. We soon learn that silence is Shem’s way of preventing himself from saying something awful about the person he loves the most. In a tragic twist, the self-imposed silence also threatens to take away that person so precious to him. The third story is set in the present day: Aisling is an Irish journalist trying to make her way in London, where she has a Jewish boyfriend. Now facing a life-changing question — should she convert to Judaism before marrying? — Aisling turns to a tatty second-hand book, gifted to her from her (potential) future mother-in-law, for guidance.
The three stories, all so intimate and heartfelt, take shape at different paces as we revisit them throughout the book: Ruth’s by the decade, Shem’s by the month and Aisling’s by the day. Gradually they unfold to reveal the betrayals, losses, misunderstandings and emotions that bind Ruth, Shem and Aisling’s fates together. This was such a fantastic read!
‘The City and The City’ by China Miéville. Beszél and Ul Qoma are two distinct cities that occupy the same physical space. Even on one street, a building could be in Beszél, and its neighbouring structure in Ul Qoma; there are also ‘cross-hatched’ areas — spaces shared by the two cities. The residents of Beszél and Ul Qoma are taught to ‘unsee’ or ‘unhear’ people and events from the other city and to focus only on their own business, and that which occurs within their own city. In both cities a misplaced glance, word or gesture invokes the intervention of Breach, the authority tasked with upholding the integrity of the respective cities. Although the ‘topoganger’ phenomenon isn’t explained, it’s a concept that’s surprisingly easy to accept. And that’s probably because of the parallels with our own cities and societies: think how often we are wilfully oblivious of people, even in close proximity, who might as well be inhabiting a completely different world to our own.
this is a story that questions otherness and
the arbitrary nature of borders
All of this makes a unique and challenging setting for a murder investigation. The case takes Inspector Tyador Borlú from Beszél to Ul Qoma, where he is required to ‘unsee’ his own city and fellow citizens and, once he returns to his own domain, to ‘unsee’ Ul Qoma. But having consciously seen both cities can he really compartmentalise people and places and ignore what he has witnessed ‘elsewhere’? This is a story that questions otherness and the arbitrary nature of borders — and with them the meaning of nation states and nationality.
Added to the mix is an intriguing web of corrupt officials, rival politicians, archaeologists, folklore scholars and underground organisations, including nationalists, unificationists, and believers in the existence of a secret third city. It’s a fascinating, provocative and highly original book — and at the same time a great crime thriller.
the full list of books 2017:
Richard Coles: Fathomless Riches; Bringing in the Sheaves; Charles Cumming: The Hidden Man; Ruth Gilligan: Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan; Barbara Honigmann: Alles, Alles Liebe; Howard Jacobson: The Dog’s Last Walk; Philip Kerr: Prussian Blue; Hand of God; January Window; Adam Lebor: The Reykjavik Assignment; John le Carré: The Pigeon Tunnel; A Small Town in Germany; Luke McCallin: The Man from Berlin; The Pale House; China Miéville: The City and The City; Haruki Murakami: Men Without Women; Barbara Stok: Vincent; Jonathan Wittenberg: My Dear Ones; Walking with the Light; AB Yehoshua: The Extra.
image credit: melkhagelslag @ pixabay