Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Staff Picks - Best Books of 2012: Jane

The Street Sweeper – Elliot Perlman

Elliot Perlman’s third novel comes eight years after his last novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity, and is dedicated to the victims of racism, named individuals ''who died from manifestations of the same disease.'' The worlds surrounding two men and their families swirl in and out of history as the forces of the Holocaust, the American civil rights movement, Chicago unions, and New York City racial politics combine in a thrilling cross-generational literary symphony. Despite describing some of the worst horrors of the 20th century, it ends unapologetically happily as ''a young African-American oncologist and a white Jewish historian stood smiling and talking to a skinny black street sweeper''.

The Chemistry of Tears – Peter Carey

In Peter Carey’s 12th novel, much depends on two voices. The first belongs to Catherine Gehrig, an horologist working at the (fictional) Swinburne Museum in London, who has recently lost of her lover. The notebooks she receives introduce us to the novel’s second voice, that of a wealthy mid-19th-century Englishman, Henry Brandling. Henry pursues a beautiful invention, to heal his sick son; Catherine reassembles the mechanical swan as a means of balancing her grief. Carey manages these time-shifts with ease. The themes turn out not simply to concern the beauty of science, but the ways in which science and humans interact and overlap. Specifically, it is a vision of how to discover order in a random universe, the illusory versus the actual, the mechanical versus the organic. And it turns out that the most tremendous of all Mysterium Tremendums - overwhelming mysteries - is the body, which operates according to specific laws ("the chemistry of tears"). The gap between that which imitates life and that, which is living, is something that isn’t simply part of the works. A soul! 

A Perfectly Good Man- Patrick Gale

Gale’s latest novel was conceived as a companion piece to his earlier book Notes on an Exhibition. The central idea of that book was of the difficulty in growing up with a mother who was a mad genius, and in A Perfectly Good Man the madness is on the father’s side. Barnaby Johnson, the central character, is not just a priest; he is a man who has devoted his life to being as good as he possibly can and inevitably that flows over onto his wife and children.

It’s a kind of moral thriller. At the beginning of the novel when Barnaby prays for the dying Lenny’s soul instead of calling an ambulance, it leads to his having to justify his actions as well as the power of prayer at the inquest, which shows bravery in an age where priests are considered as mere social workers. But Barnaby stands up for what it’s really about.

On another level it’s also a thriller because of a frightening stalker, Modest Carlsson who seems to be excited by death and whose main aim in life is to destroy the “good” Barnaby. He is a character who doesn’t realise how his actions affect others. The plot moves in two directions at once spiralling backwards into Barnaby’s roots and troubled teens and childhood to find out what the answer to his need to be “good” might be and each chapter to feel as contained as a short story. In the end the novel is about much more than religion. It’s really about family as most of Gale’s books are, and about the dynamics of the family.

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