I wish I’d written… three books that challenge me to raise my game

Continuing my occasional series. These are novels that, although I finished them several months ago, still make my green eyes … greener.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

51bdxkezzol-_sx325_bo1204203200_I mentioned this in my post last week. A woman decides to turn vegetarian, a very unusual and subversive act in South Korea, where the story is set.  Her husband thinks she has lost her mind. At a business dinner he is humiliated when she refuses to eat. Worse still is the reaction of her own family, who see it as a deeply threatening act of rebellion, and resort to acts of such cruelty that she tries to commit suicide. Her brother-in-law, meanwhile, who witnesses this horrific scene, finds he feels a sudden and unexpected kinship with her. This slowly erodes his tolerance for his ordinary wife and ordinary life.

There are two things I admire about this slim novella. First is its elegance. It begins with such a simple act, but one that travels, sure as a laser, to the very core of the characters’ insecurities. All are deeply upset by her refusal to conform. Most react by bullying. Others are themselves transformed. I also admire is its handling. You can probably see from my description that this concept has the potential to be overwrought; melodramatic in the wrong hands. It might even be hard to believe. However, it is thoroughly beguiling because of its psychological truth and the simple, yet poetic prose (and credit must go to the translator’s fine and sensitive interpretation – I should probably seek out books by her too). My review is here

Requiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute

indexWounded soldier Alan Duncan reluctantly returns home to his parents’ farm in Australia to recuperate after the war. He discovers the family in turmoil because their young housekeeper, Jessie, has committed suicide. As he searches through her belongings, he realises that the woman was actually Janet Prentice, the former girlfriend of his brother, who died in action. And Alan, who is broken psychologically as well as physically, has spent a considerable amount of time trying to find her.

I’ve yet to read a Nevil Shute that didn’t seriously impress me. A slight criticism is that I find his set-up a little slow, but once his stories are running, they are beautifully paced and full of smart surprises. And his stories shine with humanity. He involves you in every emotion of his troubled characters. His settings are at once down to earth, yet ingeniously suggest something bigger and eternal. He’s deft with structure too – the storylines align into a tragic study of the impossible human burdens of war. If I need to be reminded of how character+setting+structure+pace = a darn good read, Shute is my motivator. My review is here.

The Crossing by Andrew Miller

51c3k6rdccl-_sx325_bo1204203200_This is a study of a woman, Maud Stamp, who is an independent and lone spirit. Others seek to connect with her, and are disturbed or fascinated – or both – when they cannot. One of its triumphs is the way Miller can inject you into Maud’s thought processes and emotions, painting her with such empathy and curiosity that you understand what it is like to have her peculiar wiring. Moreover, she is not presented with any easy or fashionable ‘explanations’ for her personality. You won’t find anything as pat as a reference to Asperger’s or even a past trauma. She is just Maud; a unique creature, created carefully, skilfully and truthfully. The arc of the story is her marriage and its dissolution; this forms the framework of beginning, middle and end. The crossing referred to in the title is a solo sea voyage she takes in the second half of the book, a rite of passage in both the literal and the symbolic sense.

Another great pleasure of this book is Miller’s immersive, persuasive prose. Every line is beautifully turned, but it never trips up the narrative. It’s plain when it needs to be, enchanting when that’s called for. You will find moments of delight and poetry, but the story will keep pulling you on.  Although I found the ending was rather unsatisfying, the journey more than compensated. I think it won’t be long before I take this crossing again.

My review is here.

Over to you. What books (fiction or non-fiction) have you recently read that challenge you to do better?

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  1. #1 by ccyager on October 30, 2016 - 8:30 pm

    Oh, Nevil Shute! Tis true every time I’ve read a book by him I’ve been bowled-over impressed.I first discovered him through the TV broadcast of “A Town Like Alice.” Thanks for reading him and mentioning him, reminding me that I need to seek him out again. Cinda

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 30, 2016 - 8:38 pm

      Cinda, I’ve never read A Town Like Alice. But I reckon I’ll soon be putting that right. Great to meet another Shute-ist.

  2. #3 by Jonathan Gunson (@JonathanGunson) on October 30, 2016 - 8:32 pm

    I try to read all of your ‘occasional’ posts Roz. This review post is a perfect reason why. Terrific.

  3. #5 by Deb Atwood on October 30, 2016 - 9:55 pm

    A few books I read recently that I wish I’d written are A Monster Calls, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Orphan Master’s Son. If I could only have written one, it would definitely be The Orphan Master’s Son–what a heart-rending, compelling story; such lush writing!

    Roz, if you don’t have time to read A Town Like Alice, there’s a wonderful mini series made from the novel that’s well worth watching. I already feel there are too many books for me to get through in my lifetime, so sometimes I’ll substitute a good show for something on my TBR I can watch with the family.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 31, 2016 - 8:25 am

      Deb, I’ll definitely make time to read A Town Like Alice, but I might catch up on the mini-series as well so thanks for the tip!

  4. #7 by acflory on October 30, 2016 - 10:53 pm

    Hah! This will get me into trouble, but I wish I’d written Lifeform 3. As a huge fan of sci-fi, I think Lifeform 3 is exactly what sci-fi should be about, imho – a beautifully written story that touches your head as well as your heart. Can’t for the life of me remember who wrote it though….;)

  5. #9 by A Work in Progress on November 1, 2016 - 3:15 pm

    Two things I have read recently that push me to write more and write better. One is the new YA novel by Kathleen Glasgow, Girl In Pieces, which is so powerful it broke my heart open and brought me to tears. The second is a collection of short stories by Charles Baxter, There Is Something I Want You To Do, which won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for short stories. I share more thoughts on his writing here: A Work In Progress, writenowjbw.wordpress.com. And I agree with you about Nevil Shute. Andrew Miller’s book sounds very intriguing.

    • #10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on November 1, 2016 - 6:32 pm

      I shall have to check out those books you recommended – especially as we’re on the same page about Nevil Shute!

  1. The books that are our teachers – and 5 of my favourite reads (at @muddysurrey ) | Nail Your Novel

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