As an English student, it’s important to allow reading to be more than simply an academic process, the means to an end – or the means to an essay. Reading contemporary literature purely for enjoyment is something that I hadn’t done in a long time. This summer, I gave myself the opportunity to read in a way that re-kindled my love of literature. Reading stopped being a sport (how many pages of The Faerie Queene can I read before I need to be rescued by a chivalrous knight?!) and became leisurely, yet still stimulating.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum – Kate Atkinson (1995)
Which brings me to my favourite of the contemporary books I discovered this summer, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson. The book follows the life of Ruby Lennox, from her very conception through into adulthood in 1950s Britain. Atkinson extends her narrative beyond the perspective of her protagonist, and weaves through the story a backdrop of Ruby’s ancestry, travelling back through generations. In a manner that comes to inform Atkinson’s choice of title, she lingers on objects, features and memories that shape the way families are formed and function, and how memory impacts the way we live our lives. I really enjoyed the way Atkinson toys with time, and the novel’s setting demonstrates in a rather matter-of-fact, and yet poignant way, how both the First and Second World Wars came to disrupt families and everyday living in England. Although the overall tone is far from uplifting, this novel has an intricacy and attention to detail that is sustained throughout the decades it spans, and left me in awe of the delicacy of Atkinson’s writing.
The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes (2011)
Barnes’ novella is one that I think will warrant reading more than once. Its infatuation with time and relationships is complicated, and I found myself looking back over passages to puzzle through the narrative in a way that we as humans are prone to do with our own lives. Told from the perspective of Tony, aged and living alone, it lingers over youth and relationships, and how both friends and lovers come to mould who we become as people. It’s certainly intense; we are whizzed through Tony’s experiences as both a teenager and a young man in a manner mimetic of the way in which life so frequent seems to fall through our fingertips. The book is tinged with regret, which is perhaps why I think re-reading would be an informative experience, as Barnes so artfully meditates on hindsight and decision-making throughout the book. There’s also a sense of mystery to the story, with an ending that dawns upon the reader (and its protagonist) with the heavy weight of something misunderstood finally making itself unwantedly plain.
In the Fold – Rachel Cusk (2005)
What I found so interesting about this book is that it cleverly and honestly responds to the way in which a single experience can be so impactful, particularly during the impressionable time of university. The book’s main character, Michael, remembers a family party in a culture of living quite removed from his own; in the space of one evening he is drawn into a world of easy mayhem, based in the seemingly idyllic English countryside. As Michael returns to ‘Egypt’ (the name of the family home he visits as an impressionable student) as an adult, during a period of tumult within his own marriage, the book looks at how growing up can reveal a sinister undertone to things one romanticised during youth. The characters are lively and interesting – albeit many of them far from likeable, with the family based at ‘Egypt’ being particularly complicated and thus interesting. Cusk deals intelligently with the way familial relations are so often muddled through with a distinct lack of communication and functionality, and yet repeatedly fall back upon a foundation of love and loyalty. This is a thoughtful study of relationships; familial, romantic or between friends, and questions the disparity between the way we see ourselves, and the way we are seen by others.