In April 2017, I read two books. Two individual books, in a whole month.
But what books!
Normally I feel a little ashamed of myself when I read just one or two things in a month, as though I have failed reading. That doesn’t matter this month, because it is these books and Iove them.
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker – In which a golem is newly born and finds herself masterless and alone in New York in 1899, at the same time as a Jinni long imprisoned in a lamp is released in a backroom in the same city after centuries of imprisonment. They find places where they might fit in, or at least stand out less obviously, in the Jewish and Syrian quarters of the city. They struggle to assimilate, make friends and lose them, find one another and go their separate ways, make poor decisions and majestic ones, are hunted and face crises together. At its most basic this is a spellbinding tale of magical realism, with evil wizards, monsters, and fairytales. On the other hand that isn’t what it is at all, because it’s actually about the great migrations, and the struggle to integrate, and the clash of cultures, and how that needn’t matter at all because people are ultimately much the same, and food and art and love are universal.
This is a vast canvas of a book, at home in two cultures and none. It’s theme of integration is all the more topical for not having been written after Brexit and Trump, and all the more poignant for being a hope instead of a reaction. It’s epic in scope and tiny in its scale. There are flaws, certainly – the New York seen here is more representative than accurate, real within the story in ways it probably never was in life, but it is an appropriate New York for this tale, serving its purpose as a tantalising backdrop while allowing the focus to rest in the hearts of the characters.
This is a spectacular demonstration of what fantasy can achieve.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North – Imagine that when you die you are reborn, at precisely the same moment that you were born before, but that you remember everything you lived last time, and can change anything you like this time. Then imagine that it happens again, and again, to you and a handful of others, who you meet in each recurrence. Imagine the knowledge you might accrue, and the things you could do with it. This is that story. Harry August, not his real name, is an Ouroboran, living through the Twentieth century on a loop, seeking new experiences in each life and satisfied in their accrual. Then one day, on one of his many his deathbeds, a young girl tells him that the end of the world is drawing closer for each lifetime he lives, and leaves it to him to find out why. The result is an exceptionally twisty tale of investigation and betrayal looping through the same decades over and over, as Harry first finds the culprit and then must defeat him.
And hell’s bells, it’s good. Crisp, beautiful, unhurried storytelling, witty and profound, exhilarating and challenging. Harry is an incredibly charming narrator, who sometimes describes horrors (his experiences in one life being tortured for his own knowledge of the future are bleak), but is sufficiently distanced by his ultimate survival to do so with a sort of wry detachment that makes the extraordinary almost homely. And conceptually, there is some extraordinary stuff going on. Whether it’s Harry coming to terms with the circumstances of his birth and the father who abandoned him, or the delicious friendship he builds with the individual who will ultimately destroy the world, the novel uses its inhuman concept (for these characters are in many ways beyond human) to peel its cast apart and show as many shades of grey as it can. There’s some interesting science and philosophy thrown into the mix, some jaunts into some of the most interesting cultures and nations of the century at critical moments (always with purpose, never just to sightsee), and a wealth of detail that sucks you past the brilliantly high-concept premise to drop you into a single extraordinary life.
It’s sometimes disturbing, other times outright funny, charmingly rambling and meditative, and frequently satirical in an off-the-wall way. Most of all, it’s a glorious ride from start to finish.
Making sure I read everything Claire North has written, as soon as possible, has gone right to the top of my to-do list.