What I’m reading this month – Feb 2020

Cover image of Tristan Hughes's Send My Cold Bones HomeHaving finally got to (and through) Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, my next reading port of call was Tristan Hughes‘s Send My Cold Bones Home. This was my book-shaped Christmas present this year from my wife, and it was a very sensible pick. It’s local in more ways than one: a book about Wales written by a Welsh resident author and published by one of this nation’s stellar small presses, Parthian Books. But Hughes is also a Canadian, born in Atikokan, Ontario (home, as I learned to my joy-chagrin, of the White Otter Inn and no immediately other discernable place for coffee). He left as a young child, just as we have translocated some of our Ontario-born children, and the move most definitely stuck for Hughes, though he travels back often. It makes me wonder what perspective my kids will have on Canada as they age. I read Hughes’s most recent book, Hummingbird, a couple of years ago, set in that vast, underpopulated and overmosquitoed territory of northern Ontario, and he’s just as comfortable there as on Anglesey, Ynys Môn. He’s got a broad palette, and I hope they will, too.

Send My Cold Bones Home is a really good follow to Tokarczuk, instantiating in a more traditional novel form the ideas that she riffed on through glimpses, snatches of story, and psychological musings. Here again we have a character unwilling to stand still – perhaps incapable of it. Jonathan Hall was set on this path, we learn, though his unstable father, abetted by his sadly compliant mother. Jonathon’s father,

having built up a new store of debt and dissatisfaction, would simply up sticks and leave, hurtling us (there was only my mother and I) on towards the next destination, all the while accumulating fresh reserves of failure and bitterness in much the same way tourists accumulate mementoes and keepsakes – until each of our new houses was more densely decorated with misery than the last.

This sounds grim, and indeed it is, but Jonathon’s father seems never happier than when he’s taking his family off to the next place, which because it is unknown is therefore quite possibly the best place, whilst what they leave becomes one more in a litany of what he derides as “shitholes”. Jonathon, as soon as he is able, rejects this pattern and leaves home, but of course he also inhabits it, wandering the earth with no real connection to places or people. His mother’s death and the secret of a family cottage on Ynys Môn give him the chance to experiment with another way of living.

Jonathon’s foil in this is Johnny who, unlike this young man who suddenly becomes a neighbour, has never been anywhere at all. The novel begins with the transport of Johnny’s dead body to the cemetery by the village where his ancestors lived, a mere fifteen miles from his home. Yet we are told this may be the furthest his body ever travelled. Johnny lived as a recluse, seen as weird and certainly unsocialised by everybody else, so Hughes gives us a counterpoint to the thesis of flight: you don’t have to wander rootless about the earth to be cut off from your fellow humans.

Johnny’s got plenty of thoughts about the outside world, derived from stories and other accounts of ancestors who circumnavigated the globe and took up hopeful scientific exploration of other cultures. These, too, are foils, and it seems Johnny’s had no one to share this set of ideas with until a drifter comes along who’s willing to sit and listen.

This is one challenge of Hughes’s book: there’s a lot of sitting and listening. You have to enter into the conceit that many people ambling about a small village at the northern frontier of Wales are happy to speak in lucid paragraphs about their thoughts and lives. Jonathon gives very little back to any of them – he gives little to us, the readers, beyond what he has rehearsed about the outline version of his bitter life – so we are left to wonder what makes everyone so willing to confide in him. I would say something about attributing it to agreeable Canadian politeness, but though that might possibly work for Hughes the author, it doesn’t really square with Jonathon the narrator. However, novels all work by some kind of conceit, and we the readers spend time sitting and listening to the author. That’s what the whole enterprise is about.

Oddly, rounding out the Tokarczuk reflections, Hughes is similarly occupied with the other big idea in Flights – anatomy. Not the cabinet of curiosities and technical preservation, but the anchor that even dismembered bits offer as routes to other lives. These take on less prominence in Send My Cold Bones Home (though the title, now that I think of it, gives them rather a central position), but the book may provide a way of uniting these two themes for me. I’ll need to think on it some more.

Cover image of Katherine Stansfield's The VisitorHaving just finished it, I was casting about for the next read. Since we’ll be spending a few days in Cornwall over the kids’ half-term, my wife recommended something Cornish, and wouldn’t you know, we have just the thing. Not Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone, the book that first informed my curiosity about Cornwall. Yes it is on our shelf, and we read it to the kids the Christmas before last. A bit aloof from the Dark Is Rising cycle and certainly, in my view, the most successful of them all. No, this is pitched at grown-ups – The Visitor by Katherine Stansfield. Another local writer in our orbit, and her debut novel was also published by Parthian Books. She’s moved into Victorian crime/mystery fiction (also set in Cornwall), but her debut skews more to the poetic, literary-fiction milieu that is my happy place. I got started on The Visitor last night and am enjoying it: Stansfield opens in an unusual place and with surprising characters for a debut novel from a young writer, with an elderly couple booted out of their home to make way for tourists in the mid-1930s. Just, er, the right thing to take with me as I go play, uh, tourist on the Cornish coast. Well, literary fiction is supposed to make you feel depressed, right? Just ask my mom.

Cover image of Asterix and the PictsLast little bit, ’cause there always has to be three: took the kids to the library this soggy Saturday and saw Asterix and the Picts on the newly returned shelf. This is one of the new Asterixes, written by Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrated by Didier Conrad. In fact, it was the first to be created by the pair, with the torch thrown by original illustrator Albert Uderzo. It came out while we lived in Scotland, so it was quite an affair, but we were skint and so didn’t buy it. I’ve never had the presence of mind to put my library card to work on its account, though I’ve certainly checked out a fair few Asterix comics in my time (thanks to the Nose Hill Public Library for keeping a reasonable stock, right next door to the pool where my brother and I did swimming lessons as kids). So maybe this can keep me buoyant through the remainder of this menacey Storm Dennis.

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