Welcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.
Today’s guest is author Kate Manning.
A former documentary television producer (and winner of two Emmy awards), Kate has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, Glamour and More, among other publications.
She is an adjunct faculty member of the English Department at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan and has two novels to her name: Whitegirl (2002) and My Notorious Life by Madame X (2013), which I reviewed yesterday.
Without further ado, here are Kate’s Triple Choice Tuesday selections:
Since I love so many books, it seems wrong to have a favorite in the same way it’s wrong to have a favorite child, but, I will here admit that my current darling is The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. This novel wins my love for the poignancy of its story, about Roseanne Clear McNulty, an ancient inmate of what used to be called a lunatic asylum.
The sheer beauty of its startling language possessed me from the minute I began to read. Every page offers a sentence, a metaphor, a way of seeing that brings Roseanne’s voice and her many secrets alive. Her story feels immediate and important, told right from the gut. And yet, the language is not the language of a show-off, it does not interfere, but carries a reader along in a torrent akin to music. The imagery is sublime: “My little breast beating as if there was an uncomfortable pigeon trapped there”; “He was cleaner than the daylight moon.”
For a novelist, this one at least, reading fiction can become more difficult over time, since writers are too aware of how a story is made, the tricks and devices the storyteller employs. If these are too obvious or common, I tend to put the work aside. So to read Barry is pure pleasure. The Secret Scripture, as it moves along through lovely Roseanne’s past in Sligo, Ireland, weaves her voice with the voice of Dr. Greene, who has looked after her in the hospital for many years.
The story is driven not just by language, but by questions of plot that keep you galloping forward. Why is Roseanne locked away? Is she mentally ill? A casualty of politics? War? And what has become of her family? Her true love? What will become of her? The answers as she supplies them form a story so enchanting and moving that as a writer my reaction was pure awe. And this despite an ending that I did see coming a ways off—but no matter.
It’s a great read. Barry has a great deal to teach, and as I approach the writing of my next novel I will be looking to his work for lessons, as indeed I have already, devouring his other work with a hunger I haven’t felt since I was first discovering books.
What is it about Irish writers? What do their mothers feed them, or paint on their tongues so that their sentences are so gorgeous and startling? Edna O’Brien’s novel Down By the River took me by the gizzard and has yet to let go. It tells a riveting and powerful story, one taken straight from the headlines, a reworking of something that really happened. It was that transformation — of history into art — that so dazzled me and showed me new possibilities.
Mary McNamara, the young girl at the heart of the story, is alone with a terrible secret. She’s pregnant, and the reason why is too heinous for her to reveal. She leaves home, a slip of a girl only 13 years old, wanting to end her pregnancy. But abortion is illegal in Ireland, and she must find a way to evade the law, her own family, and the political and religious forces who seek to make a lesson out of her, so she can travel to England where pregnancy termination is legal.
This novel, inspired by the famous 1992 “X” case in Ireland, opened my eyes to what a novelist could do with real events. It was this book that made me realise you can read all the headlines and history books you want, but if you desire an answer to the questions: what was that like? How must it have been? you must turn to novels. It is fiction that fills in the cracks of history, fiction that opens us to the emotion and the nuance, and brings alive the experience of people whose stories remain hidden, anonymous.
Heroes and stars and the rest of the powerful may write the first draft of history, but the second draft and afterwards belongs to characters like the compelling, heartbreaking Mary McNamara, and the novelists like O’Brien who tell their stories in such indelible prose we will be reading them for generations.
As a reader, I am only gripped by a novel if the voice on the page captivates me, and in Down by the River, O’Brien spins the English language to gossamer and steel. She has dazzling technique, and performs feats of difficulty, mixing tenses and points of view, and shifting back and forth in time in seemingly effortless fashion.
While it deals with a polarizing issue, Down By the River is absolutely not a rant. Not polemical. It’s a cry from the heart. While writing my own novel, My Notorious Life By Madame X, which deals with the same polarizing issue, I took courage and guidance from O’Brien’s example.
Keri Hulme, a New Zealand writer, won the Booker prize for The Bone People in 1985, and has yet to publish another novel. This book is not well known in the States, and there may be many readers now who are unaware of this extraordinary work. It impressed me deeply with its mystery, violence, tenderness and evocation of a world entirely unfamiliar to me.
The story, set on the coast of New Zealand, is about Kerewin, a reclusive woman whose world is upended when a mute, quasi-magical boy named Simon shows up at the tower she has built to escape into solitude. Kerewin is soon entangled with Simon and his Maori foster father, Joe, and sets out to understand the mystery of the boy’s origins. Kerewin’s own mysteries unfold along the way.
The writer’s language — a mix of English and a few words of Maori, of slang and poetry — combines to create a dazzlingly unique voice on the page. The muscular beauty of Hulme’s sentences compels me to press this book on readers who ask: what should I read next? Again and again I give them The Bone People, and I hope readers will continue to discover it.
Thank you, Kate, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!
I’m so delighted that two Irish novelists and an Antipodean are featured here, given my own preference for fiction from those two ends of the world. I’ve read and reviewed The Secret Scripture and The Bone People, but haven’t read Edna O’Brien’s Down by the River which has promptly gone onto my wishlist.
What do you think of Kate’s choices? Have you read any of these books?