‘Daniel Deronda’ by George Eliot
Challenge number one:and at 899 pages it was a challenge. But was it worth it? Well, yes, though it could do with a trim. Clearly, plenty of space and time is needed to develop the central character of Gwendolene as a selfish twit for whom the reader, very gradually, in tiny steps, begins to feel some sympathy. Also admirable is the bold structural choice of barely mentioning the title character of Deronda in the first 100 pages, as is the thorough exploration of gender and religious prejudice in late 19th Century Britain. However, whilst important to the story, there is simply too much of the minutiae of Judaism explored to appeal to the average reader. This has plenty, though, for an Advanced Higher candidate to investigate in a Dissertation.
‘Tapestry’ by Philip Terry
Challenge number two of the summer, from a writer who employs ‘Oulipian Techniques’: for a start, I had to look up Oulipian (‘the techniques used by a self-ordained group of poets, novelists, story writers and mathemeticians, most of them living and working in France, writing within invented constraints in an attempt to discover ‘potential’ ways of making literature’ – clearer now?). Anyway, this mixes fact, fiction and fantasy and is presented as a ‘Canterbury Tales’ of how the unknown parts of the Bayeaux Tapestry came to fruition. It is tough going, at times, but I thought it was brilliant. Apart from anything else, it reminds us that the Bayeaux Tapestry was not produced in Bayeaux and is not a tapestry. I think it’s time for my debut appearance on QI.
‘This Is Not About Me’ by Janice Galloway
I have long been a fan of Janice Galloway’s fiction: having read this volume of her auto-biography, which covers her childhood, I am even more impressed. She unsentimentally captures working-class life in a Scottish seaside town with great skill and, given some of what she has to endure, enormous self-control. More amazing still, she manages to find humour amid the grimness. Pupils should be obliged to read this to get a sense of how the majority of Scots used to live and everyone should be encouraged to read it simply to be exposed to a writer at the top of her game.
‘A Perfectly Good Man’ by Patrick Gale
I read, and loved, ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ and, whilst this is not quite as good, that is faint praise because it remains a hugely impressive book. The opening chapter is breath-taking: it is hard to believe that the writer has done what he has actually done. You are immediately drawn into this close-knit Cornish world and, as ever, Gale makes the setting effortlessly real and ensures that you care about his key characters. “The final chapter left me with a lump in my throat.” The Guardian – I don’t know that I agree specifically with that but it did make me cry at one point – what more of a recommendation can there be?