Amid the confusion, uncertainty and anxiety of the past 18 months or more, necessity has often become the mother of an impressive literary invention, and in recent times we have started to see the fruits of it. For novelist Sarah Moss, writing about the social and ethical complexities of foreclosure – what happens to those for whom the home is not a place of greater security? ; what psychological impact will isolation and fear have on the most vulnerable? – was a way to fight against a feeling of claustrophobia and unease.
The result is the fall (Picador, 4 hrs 7 mins), in which actress Emma Lowndes gives voice to four characters: Kate, a woman in quarantine in her Peak District home, a large space with a tantalizing closure; her teenage son, Matt; their older neighbor, Alice, balancing loneliness with her need for protection; and the mountain rescuer dispatched in the event of a disaster.
It’s a voice novel, almost like an old-fashioned radio play, and Lowndes skillfully conjures up its very different characters in all of their frustrations, worries, faltering resolve, and reaction to emerging disaster. It is also a very clever exploration of space, opposing the limits of the domestic to the attractiveness of the outside. Here again, the narrator shifts gears naturally, gradually increasing the tension while conveying Moss’s themes of compassion and cooperation.
Sarah Hall’s phenomenal Burnt coat (Faber & Faber, 6 h 7 min) starts from a similar place: a lonely woman who tries to deal with the surreality and the stress of her immediate environment and to take stock of the larger context of her life and that of the others. But Hall makes his protagonist, Edith, a sculptor tasked with making a vast monument commemorating those who lost their lives in a pandemic. It’s not quite the here and now – the disease in question has caused a societal disruption that makes the novel a dystopian form of fiction – and narrator Louise Brealey gives it an appropriately otherworldly feel.
There is also tenderness, as Edith remembers the savage disease that plagued her mother when she was a child and the more recent death of her lover. Like Moss’s novel, it is a compact work, not much longer than a short story, and to hear it read is to appreciate the intense economy with which Hall describes our relationships, from branch to branch. erotic, and the quiet communion that the artist feels. with his work. It’s immensely powerful and quite different from most other depictions of recent events that I have encountered.
Elsewhere, an older work has found a new lease of life. It’s been two years since Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood published Ness, a fable in prose poem inspired by the natural world recovery of Orford Ness, the former military zone of Suffolk (the landscape is so particular and symbolic that it featured heavily in the recently published work by John le Carré Silverview). During the lockdown and adapting to the resulting restrictions, they worked on an audio version (Penguin, 47 minutes), asking Hugh Brunt of the London Contemporary Orchestra to create a score that draws inspiration from both animal soundscapes and electronics in the region.
Stephen Dillane tells, his utterance sometimes bordering on the threatening and the prodigious. (“Look: here it is. Its bones are willow and it sings in birds. It soars in the swamps, glides forward in ripples and shivers.”) Centered on a green chapel to which various figures-numbers , from the Armorer to the Engineer to the Botanist, coming together to read the runes of the abandoned territory, it is a listening experience marked by its quirk, its vocabulary – drift, hag-stone, shingle – alerting us to the power of the non-human, and the incursions visited on it. Partly created in Abbey Road Studios, with additional contributions from singer Josephine Stephenson, it’s a fascinating and unsettling experience.
Finally comes one of my books of the year, and the one that seems particularly appropriate for the Advent season, which takes place as Christmas approaches. at Claire Keegan Little things like these (Faber & Faber, 1 h 57 min) is set in New Ross, a small town in Wexford, in 1985, as Bill Furlong focuses on his final deliveries of charcoal and wood before everything closes for the holidays. As he does, he recalls his upbringing, as the son of a single mother, thinking about the stability and happiness of his own life mingling with the plight of the young pregnant women currently in the care of the local convent.
In many ways, it’s a straightforward story, but one that triggers a series of deep emotional charges; reader Aidan Kelly, who has narrated the work of Sebastian Barry, Flann O’Brien and James Joyce, perfectly captures the sense of complicity and secrecy surrounding Irish mothers and babies homes, and the internal struggle that drives Furlong throughout Of the history ; his tone is both down to earth and conspiratorial. Quietly devastating, the story weaves its way to a courageous and heartbreaking conclusion.
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