I have read some truly terrible books during lockdown. I won’t be naming and shaming (though you can go to my Good Reads and find the two star reviews!).
I did reflect a little on these books and can now name some of the things I really don’t like in a novel. For example, I don’t like a novel that deals with an issue that matters in a way that doesn’t matter. One novel I read recently contains some appalling sexual abuse, then failed to deal with the impact of the events. I don’t think the characters, or the plot were big enough to carry the enormity of what had happened. I need novels that can set an example of digging deep, staring life in the face and explore the ambiguity of feelings and reactions without shying away from what is hard. I need the writing to be big enough to handle the weight of life.
Here are some of the books I can recommend.
Elizabeth Wetmore, Valentine
Set in a Texas oil boom town in the 1970s, this novel was much more than the crime novel I was expecting. It opens with a brutal crime against a young Mexican girl, Glory. Wetmore reveals the story in relation to a series of women’s lives, examining aspects of class, race and gender as she moves us towards an imperfect resolution. I especially loved the character of Corrine and if you are familiar with the writing of Elizabeth Stout this character might remind you a little of the beloved Olive Kitteridge.
Leif Enger, Peace Like a River
This book has been on my radar for a long time and I’m so glad I finally picked it up. The Land family are on a journey in pursuit of the oldest son Davey, a fugitive from the law. The story is told by eleven-year-old Rueben and developed by his very literary sister, Swede. The greatest success of this novel is the light-handed way in which the author makes God a character in the story. I won’t give too much away but there are some miracles here that are reminiscent of the genius of John Irving in A Prayer for Owen Meany. And if you’re a To Kill a Mockingbird fan, there’s an endearing touch of Scout in the character of Swede.
In non-fiction reads my favourite was Emma Mitchell, The Wild Remedy.
This is written in 12 chapters that map the changing English countryside against the months of the year, tracing the author relationship with depressive illness. There’s a little bit of brain science and some very vulnerable writing about the experience of chronic mental health deficit but this isn’t just a book about depression. Emma Mitchell describes local nature in a way that is relatable to those of us who live and walks the English countryside. I share the authors experiences of using nature to help moderate my own low mood and really loved the photos and illustrations.
Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer
I’ve read a lot of Esther de Waal recently. She’s been there on my shelf for decades and I’m finally really enjoying her books. They look like books that will inform you about a spiritual tradition when actually they are books that will help you develop your own practices in relation to that spiritual tradition. I guess I’m more ready to build the practices rather than just read about them. She’s famous for her book about the Benedictine tradition, but I’ve enjoyed Lost in Wonder and two books she has written on the Celtic tradition, God Under My Roof and The Celtic Way of Prayer.