We have come to the end of the strangest ever term, and the last post for this academic year. It’s therefore, very sadly, time to say goodbye to students in the Upper Sixth and to wish you all the best for the results to come in August and for your futures after School. I hope you will all carry on reading and continue to look at writing with a critical and appreciative mind.
The summer holiday looms, offering a time when there is a chance to read some BIG books, so this post will lead you through a number of suggestions leading to a big book recommendation. We’ll finish the year by considering novels that play with the idea of narrative, with what we expect from a story.
To start with some set texts: some of you have felt taken in, almost cheated, by the gradual revelation that the narrative of Ian McEwan’s Atonement isn’t what it appears to be, and in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the appearance of the Historical Notes at the end fundamentally alters the reader’s relationship with what they have just read. In Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, we have the distinctive voice of the Caribbean immigrant, eschewing the conventionalities of grammar and spelling, even with a ten page section lacking any punctuation at all.
The idea of a disconcerting, unconventional narrative voice is central to Eimear McBride’s 2013 novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, beginning ‘For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say.’ George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo also caused a stir in 2017, with the odd, shifting voices of dead spirits mixed with historical sources creating a polyphonic narrative which is disconcerting but oddly moving as it explores Abraham Lincoln’s grief for his dead son.
We think of these texts, drawing attention to themselves as artefacts, as post-modern, but of course experimentation has been going on for quite a time. Take BS Johnson’s 1969 ‘shuffle’ novel, The Unfortunates, which was published in a box. The first and last chapters were marked, while the other 25, of varied length, were loose and unmarked, for the reader to read in any order they wished. And take the great American writer William Faulkner, whose The Sound and the Fury (1929) artfully borrows its title from Macbeth, with a first section which makes no sense whatsoever – until you read the second and begin to grasp it. Then all becomes clear in the third. That drives many readers straight back to the first section to read again with the insight gained. And stream-of-consciousness is a tried and tested method now, but when Virginia Woolf wrote To the Lighthouse in 1927 it was ground-breaking, with a drifting, apparently disordered narrative following the shifting state of mind of the protagonist.
It would be a mistake to think of experimentation as a 20th or 21st century practice, however. It’s astonishing that before the literary world had really fully established what a novel was (remember the discussion of The Journal of the Plague Year) Laurence Sterne published Tristram Shandy in 1767. This is the BIG book and big it is, but full of exuberant fun, with chapters of different lengths, lines drawn instead of text, blank pages, marbled pages, black pages… Sterne plays around joyfully with how to write.
But if you want some shorter things to read over the summer, here are some other ideas, firstly a whimsical graphic novel.
Then it might be worth looking at one or all of the shortlisted poetry collections for the Forward Prize, which is of course the organisation responsible for Poems of the Decade, a set text for the Edexcel specification. Here they are:
The Air Year by Caroline Bird
Magnolia by Mingya Powles
Citadel by Martha Sprackland
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (to be published by Faber soon but astonishingly not on the Faber website yet)
And finally, nothing to do with literature, unless you want to write about it, something mesmerising which would be a great screensaver: a decade of the sun.
Have a great summer.