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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

A novelistic history of a mining family, and fiction set in wartime Europe and 21st-century New York

Maggie Fergusson | July/August 2014

SOCIAL HISTORY The Valley by Richard Benson, Bloomsbury, hardback, out now. “Worms of the earth” is how Nancy Astor is said to have described miners. If that revolts you, just wait till you’ve read this book. Richard Benson’s great-grandfather came to the Dearne Valley in South Yorkshire as a first-world-war veteran, forced down the mines despite crippling injuries. Two generations followed him into the pits. Writing with involved detachment, in a novelistic present tense, Benson recreates the valley over a century through a kaleidoscope of lives—from quiet heroes and heroines to bigamous wife-batterers. He’s good at high drama, with a particularly powerful chapter on the 1984-85 strike, when the miners took on Margaret Thatcher and lost. But he’s equally gripping on the daily round—the rough, unspoken intimacy among the miners; their wives’ foreboding while they are underground. He transforms the long littleness of life into an epic, and a masterpiece.

FICTION All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Fourth Estate, hardback, out now. As he writes at his desk in Boise, Idaho, Anthony Doerr wears ear defenders, blocking out external noise, and it’s almost as if he has tuned into some beautiful private frequency. Ten years in the making, his second novel follows the lives of two children in the 1940s—the blind daughter of a French locksmith, and a German orphan boy recruited into the Hitler Youth—as they become entwined over the radio waves. As the tide turns against Germany, the barbarity is increasingly desperate: in one chilling scene German teenagers are raped by Russian troops. But Doerr sees evil as essentially empty, whereas hope, goodness and grace are constantly replenished. He interleaves narrative and dialogue with images and feelings in short, chiselled chapters, building to an uplifting denouement.

Eyrie by Tim Winton, Picador, hardback, out now. Tom Keely is an unlikely hero. On the run from life after public humiliation and private heartbreak, he has holed himself up on the top floor of a tower block in Fremantle, Western Australia, using drugs and alcohol to sidestep the void. But reality breaks in, and through a mixture of goodness and physical need Keely’s drawn into the troubled lives of 40-something Gemma Buck and her grandson, Kai. Winton writes with all five senses. As compelling as the drama here is his evocation of “Freo”: its roasting salt winds, the stink of “toxic crap” in the docks, the orange crane lights strobing the sea at night, the boom of containers hitting the deck. There’s nothing so trite as a happy ending, but there is a suggestion that providence answers our deepest longings in surprising ways.

In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman, Picador, hardback, out now. “It’s always nice to learn a thing or two from a novel,” quips one of the characters in this astonishing debut, and its 497 pages are an intellectual banquet. The ingredients range from philosophy, religion and mathematics to international aid, high finance and carpentry. But the question at its heart is simple: how does knowledge relate to wisdom, happiness and truth? And the story, which ranges from Islamabad to Wall Street and from 9/11 to 2008, is gripping. Two Oxford contemporaries—one an unnamed old Etonian Pakistani, the other Zafar, a Bangladeshi from a humble background (like the author)—meet in early middle age to thrash out a devastating betrayal. Zafar is a deeply endearing creation: brilliant, complex, essentially good. And Rahman makes the issues urgently personal.

NATURE The Moor by William Atkins, Faber, hardback, out now. Beginning in the West Country (Bodmin, Dartmoor, Exmoor), William Atkins travels north to the Pennines, Northumberland and the Scottish borders, weaving together nature, literature and real lives as he explores the push-you-pull-you allure of moorland. History is layered upon history: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath walk in the footsteps of Emily Brontë near Haworth; Saddleworth is a murder moor long before Ian Brady. Through Atkins’s skilful plaiting, ghosts constantly rub shoulders with the living, and this study of lonely places teems with people—beekeeping monks, grouse-shooting tycoons, subsidy-harvesting farmers, prisoners in Dartmoor aware of the “larger silence that enfolds even the most raucous wing”. The loneliness of the moor consists not in the lack of company, but in what one moorland writer described as “the hunger for something unattainable”.

MEMOIR My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, Bloomsbury Circus, hardback, out now. Dictaphone, Rolodex, carbon paper, typewriter: they sound now like a roll-call of dinosaurs. But the New York literary agency where Joanna Rakoff landed a job as Girl Friday in the late 1990s doggedly resisted modern technology, refusing to contemplate e-mail, or negotiate electronic rights. This piquant coming-of-age memoir is Rakoff’s tribute to a vanished office world. It’s also an elegy for the agency’s reclusive star author, J.D. Salinger, for whom she acted as a literary bouncer. It was Rakoff’s job to reply to the angst-ridden teenagers and traumatised war veterans who wrote to Salinger from all over the world—and in doing so, she became unwittingly involved both in their lives and his. Now an established novelist, Rakoff writes with wry wit, holding in check a tsunami of feeling.

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