Thirty years ago, in 1986, I was twenty-nine. I had just moved from London to Bath and bought my first flat with my not-yet-wife. I was building a new life and working in a new job, yet, according to the hand-written list I made at the time, I read fifty books that year.
Looking back at the list now, I had a pretty good reading year in 1986. I visited foreign cultures with “The Deptford Trilogy” (Canada) and “The Bone People” (New Zealand), saw John Irving’s writing reach its maturity in “Cider House Rules” and looked at life in England through the eyes of a new author in “The Camomile Lawn” and a well established one in “Dulcima”.
It was an especially good year for my first love, Science Fiction. I finally go to read Brian Aldiss’ “Heliconia Trilogy”, I started David Brin’s new “Uplift” series with “Sundiver” and discovered the amazingly talented Iain M Banks’ “Consider Phlebas”, his first but not his best novel of the Culture. At least I thought I’d discovered Iain M Banks. I stupidly didn’t realise he was the same Iain Banks who’d woken my interest in the Booker Prize with his startling debut novel, “The Wasp Factory” (what can I say? There was no google in 1986. Actually, there was no World Wide Web, either).
So here’s what I remember about these books thirty years later.
It may sound odd, given that “The Deptford Trilogy” is about 800 pages long, but I can barely remember what it was about. I don’t think that’s because my memory is poor but because the details of the plot are relatively unimportant.
I remember the richness and subtlety of the writing, the way the village the events take place in felt almost English but not quite and mostly the way, with each successive book, the view of the events in the book and what they mean changes.
Nowadays, I think this trilogy would be labelled “magical realism”. At the time, I’d never read anything like it. It was filled with myth and magic and illusion and slippery meaning. It grabbed hold of my imagination and didn’t let go until I’d made my way through all three books.
I’ve bought the audiobook version of the first book, “Fifth Business” so I can revisit it and see what it gives me this time around.
“The Bone People” won the Book Prize but don’t let that put you off, it is an absorbing read.
Keri Hulme uses multiple voices and writing styles to tell a sad and sometimes brutal tale about three broken New Zealanders, a woman, a boy and a man, from different ethnicities (Maori, European, Maori and European) who, in trying to connect with each other, cause themselves a lot of pain.
The layers of symbolism and the almost religious imagery and the almost too clever structure of the book would have made me put it aside, had it not been for the quality of the writing.
What resonated with me most at the time was how easily solitude can become isolation and how hard it is to break out of its grip.
I’d read all John Irving’s novels before “Cider House Rules” and enjoyed them for their originality, their fearlessness and their compassion.
With this book, I felt as if something had gelled in John Irving’s writing that made everything more powerful.
He still wrote characters that I believed in and wanted to talk with, even though I could see their flaws. He still approached difficult topics (abortion in this case) in original and challenging ways (as he had with rape and with monogamy in “The World According To Garp”.
The difference was in the level of complexity and of ambiguity. This is a book about rules, about creating your own rules to live by, about taking responsibility for your own life and the lives you touch but it is also a book about how love can push all rules aside, making doing the right thing both obvious and impossible to explain or defend.
I read “The Camomile Lawn” because it was in every bookshop I walked into. Mary Wesley was a sensation because she published her first book for adults at the age of seventy-one. The literary world was intrigued at the idea of someone who could write a novel in the Eighties about the lives of genteel English people during World War II, based on their personal experience and yet was still a fresh and unknown voice.
I took two things away from the book. Firstly, Mary Wesley had a wicked that dripped acid. She observed and described accurately, completely unhindered by the burden of empathy. It made me wonder if she had always been that way or whether surviving into one’s seventies gave one permission to write with such unimpassioned savagery?
Secondly, I understood for the first time that I had grown to think of the decades of the twentieth century that preceded the eighties as if each was in a separate box or perhaps a volume of an encyclopedia, connected only by their sequence, while Mary Wesley, who had lived through almost all those decades, saw them as intertwined and continuous. The older I get, the more I have taken on this view.
I like H. E.Bates, but only in small doses. His writing is too intense and his characters too desperate and driven to take too much of. Thankfully “Dulcima” is less than a hundred pages long.
The plot is fairly simple: Dulcima, an uneducated, poor country girl uses he good looks to try an old man with money to marry her while she takes a younger lover in secret.
What makes it stand out is the way the characters are drawn. Dulcima is neither villain nor victim. She is an amoral woman seeking to look after herself and get away with as much as she can.
The old man is not a demon or a saint. He is someone who is offered something he’s long been starved of and which he knows he may not deserve and then faces losing it. There is pain and betrayal and a great deal of human weakness packed into a very few pages. The cover photograph comes from the film version, made in 1971.
The Helliconia trilogy was one of the best science fiction series I’d read up to that point. It has a vast scope, dealing with the lifecycle of a planet where the long seasons have climates so different that each needs its own survival strategy. Everything is in here: the ecology, the cultures, the history, the evolutionary biology; yet none of it is overwhelming because the stories of the people (human and non-human) set the scale. It’s long and not always action-packed but I loved the flow of the history and the way the fate of the people is shaped by the seasons.
“Sundiver” by David Brin is the first book “The Uplift Trilogy”, which I think is his best work. The basic premise is that the universe is filled with space-faring races but none of them made it into space without being “uplifted” by and already-space-faring race, to whom they then owe a debt of patronage. All of them except the humans. Probably…
What follows is a piece of fun where the “wolfling” earth race (read the US as it would like itself to be) win-out against vastly superior technology and centuries of experience through true grit, can-do attitude and sheer cunning. It’s wonderful, page-turning stuff.
“Consider Phlebas” marked a whole new generation of Science Fiction for me. It was grown up and serious. The politics were complex and real. The sex was adult rather than pulp fiction bimbos-in-space. It was also violent and ruthless.
I was used to space opera being filled with battles between not-overly-complex good guys who will win out in the end.
Iain Banks’ characters are complex and richly drawn and likely to find themselves on the wrong side of evisceration.
The main character in “Consider Phlebas” is a shape-shifting mercenary helping a bunch of religious fanatics hunt down and kill and AI.
I found it surprisingly hard to cheer for a guy who was so clearly on the wrong side but I also found that I cared what happened to him and I wanted him to win through even though he was an amoral nihilist.
“Consider Phlebas” is my least favourite of “The Culture” books, perhaps because the main character is on the “wrong” side, but it still marks the first time I came across epic Science Fiction this complex, this ruthless and this well written.