Fay’s noticed something she’s never noticed before. That love is not, anywhere, taken seriously. It’s not respected. It’s the one thing in the world everyone wants – she’s convinced of that – but for some reason people are obliged to pretend that love is trifling and foolish.
Work is important. Living arrangements are important. Wars and good sex and race relations are important, and so are heath and illness. Even minor shifts of faith or political intentions are given a weight that is not accorded love. We turn our heads and pretend it’s not there, the thunderous passions that enter a life and alter its course. Love belongs in an amateur operetta, on the inside of a jokey greeting card, or in the annals of an old-fashioned poetry society. Moon and June and spoon and soon. September and remember. Lord Byron, Edna St Vincent Millay. It’s womanish, it’s embarrassing, something to jeer at, something for jerks. Just a love story, people say about a book they happen to be reading, to be caught reading. They smirk and roll their eyes at the mention of love. They wind and nudge. Lovebirds. Lovesick. Lovey-dovey. They think of it as something childish and temporary, and its furniture – its language, its kisses, its fevers and transports – are evidence of a profound frivolity. It’s possible to speak ironically about romance, but no adult with any sense talks about love’s richness and transcendence, that it actually happens, that it’s happening right now, in the last years of our long, hard, lean, bitter and promiscuous century. Even here it’s happening, in this flat, midcontinental city with its half million people and its traffic and weather and asphalt parking lots and languishing flower borders and yellow-leafed trees – right here, the miracle of it.
I’ve decided good winter reads are the same as good summer reads. They basically require awesomeness. That is why I chose these from the To Read Pile for my winter holidays (exhaustively detailed on Instagram) – because I knew they’d be page-turners. So I’ve done the legwork for you on what to order in for the approaching summer holiday. Yep, it will be here before you know it.
Well, then, in order of preference:
The Republic of Love (Carol Shields, 1991)
Quoted above. The Canadian Carol Shields is one of my all-time most beloved authors. She wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning The Stone Diaries and also Larry’s Party, my personal favourite. This is the story of Fay, a folklorist who has the dubious fortune to fall in love with a man already married three times. Her books are as engaging as Barbara Trapido’s but with a subtler flavour, a rolling rhythm and glorious detailing of character, of thought and of action. It feels as though she speaks to the secret places inside of you.
Jack Irish Quinella: Bad Debts and Blood Tide (Peter Temple, 2007; published individually 1996, 1999)
This volume comprises the first two books in Australian crime writer Temple’s Jack Irish series, the first having won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel. Set in Melbourne, it features hero Jack Irish, a widowed ex-alcoholic lawyer who moonlights as a cabinetmaker, debt collector and accidental private investigator. These are highly readable mysteries with a compelling central character whose highlight is their blink-inducing use of Australian vernacular. But despite the local technicolour they never slide into parody and the nets of the plots, cast wide, are gathered slowly and carefully into killer climaxes. Even so, they didn’t make me cheer as hard as I did for the first Temple book I read recently, stand-alone The Broken Shore, another Ned Kelly award winner. This was what made me fall smack-bang in love with Temple’s writing – vivid, dark and beautiful.
Juggling (Barbara Trapido, 1994)
Picks up the stories of characters originally appearing in her earlier Temples of Delight, but functions fine as a stand-alone, following the gender, continent and common-sense-defying loves spanning several families. Far out, I just adore Barbara Trapido. I took this on holiday knowing full well I would chew through it with indecent speed. The words just fly off the page. But despite its relationship-exploring themes and dorky cover, this is nowhere near chick-lit. It’s fiercely funny, brightly intelligent literary fiction and it’s joyous. Pick up a book by Trapido – any one, seriously, it doesn’t matter – and clear your schedule. Don’t believe me?
Last Car to Elysian Fields (James Lee Burke, 2003)
Burke is a stalwart of the literary crime genre, so it was high time I tried his Dave Robicheaux series. This cop is another alcoholic widower – what can I say, whether in fiction or film the cliché works – but this is anything but cliched. Rather it is a lilting portrait of the state of Louisiana, its people and history. A reverberating sense of place is shot through with a streak of pure melancholy – Robicheaux’s grief for not only his wife, but for the New Orleans he once knew. This was perhaps the most appropriate read for a holiday, as it transported me to a world truly strange to me.
Call the Dying (Andrew Taylor, 2004)
More literary crime, this time English, with a historical bent. I had previously read Taylor’s Gothic mystery The American Boy, set in the 1800s, a fine creepy read inspired by the early life of Edgar Allen Poe, a winner of the Crime Writers Association’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger. I had high hopes for Call the Dying, a murder mystery set in an English country town around the 1950s. But despite my insatiable love for mid 1900s-set English crime (Agatha Christie obsession anyone?) I still preferred The American Boy to this. There was nothing whatsoever wrong with it or the plotting or execution of the mystery, and it had a very pleasing and entirely unexpected twist in the tail. It was perhaps just the least exciting of the pile.
Disclaimer: yes, I read these six books in two weeks, but they WERE page-turners, and I didn’t have anything else to do other than drink wine and eat cheese and go caving and horse riding and look at sea lions and then drink some more wine.