Book lists

16 books for 16 years of blogging

Sometime this week marks the 16th birthday of this blog. (I’m not sure of the definite date, only that it was the first week of March 2004.)

To celebrate the occasion I thought I’d create a special list, choosing an influential book for every year I’ve been blogging.

Each of the 16 books I have chosen left a lasting impression on me in some way, either by taking me into new reading territory or introducing me to a new favourite author.

Without further ado, here is my list arranged in chronological order beginning with 2004.

Year: 2004
Book: ‘Towards the end of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn
What it is about: A comedy of manners featuring two Fleet Street journalists in the 1960s who spend most of their time in the pub wishing they could break into the more lucrative business of television reporting.
How it influenced me: It opened my eyes to a whole new “genre” of books about newspaper journalists. I’ve read quite a few since then and have a list of my favourite 10 here.

Year: 2005
Book: ‘Three to see the King’ by Magnus Mills
What it is about: An allegory exploring whether the grass is greener on the other side.
How it influenced me: Reading this strange, quirky book turned me into a lifelong Magnus Mills fan. I’ve read all of his novels since then. You can read those reviews here.

The Barracks by John McGahern

Year: 2006
Book: ‘The Barracks’ by John McGahern
What it is about: A former nurse in war-torn London returns to rural Ireland, where she marries a policeman much older than herself and becomes stepmother to three children. When she develops breast cancer, she hides the diagnosis from everyone bar the local priest.
How it influenced me: After reading this book it made such an impression on me I went out and bought McGahern’s entire back catalogue. That same year I read two more by him. He promptly became my favourite writer. I even went to County Leitrim, where McGahern was from, to hunt out haunts mentioned in his novels and his memoir.

Year: 2007
Book:  ‘The Blackwater Lightship’ by Colm Toibin
What it is about: Three generations of Irishwomen, estranged for years, reluctantly join forces to look after one of their own who has a serious life-threatening illness.
How it influenced me: It turned me into a life-long Toibin fan and I’m slowly but surely making my way through his backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Tarry Flynn

Year: 2008
Book:
‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh 
What it is about: This is a joyous bittersweet novel about a bachelor farmer in rural Ireland in the 1930s.
How it influenced me: It opened my eye to the concept of “rural novels”, especially ones about farming, which I have sought out ever since.

Merry go round in the sea by randolph stow

Year: 2009
Book: ‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow
What it is about: A gentle coming-of-age story set in Geraldton, Western Australia during the Second World War.
How it influenced me: I loved this book so much I actually read it twice in a year. It also made me want to read his entire back catalogue, but at the time most of it was out of print. Fortunately, Text Classics has since rectified this and I have them all lying in wait.

Year: 2010
Book: ‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean
What it is about: Set in Belfast at the height of The Troubles, this profoundly moving story looks at both sides of the “dirty protest” carried out by political prisoners held in The Maze prison.
How it influenced me: As well as making me want to read more books by Louise Dean, it encouraged me to seek out more novels from Northern Ireland. Through this exploration, I have discovered the likes of David Park and Deidre Madden.

Devotion of Suspect X

Year: 2011
Book:  ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino
What it is about: This is an extraordinary crime novel which bucks the normal conventions of the genre: we know from the outset who has committed the crime, how they did it and who has helped cover it up, but we don’t know the steps taken to protect the real murderer.
How it influenced me:  This book got me into Japanese crime fiction, including several by Higashino, as well as wider Japanese literature.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Year: 2012
Book: ‘Plainsong’ by Kent Haruf 
What it is about: Set in rural Colorado in the 1980s, this gorgeously bittersweet story follows the trials and tribulations of a handful of diverse but interesting characters, including two old bachelor brothers, who run a farm and take in a pregnant teenager kicked out of home.
How it influenced me: This book rocketed straight into my all-time favourite reads. I loved its rural setting (see Tarry Flynn above) and its eccentric, warm-hearted characters, but most of all I loved the eloquent and elegant prose style. I have since read all of Haruf’s backlist. Sadly, his death a few years ago means there’s no more left for me to read.

Year: 2013
Book: ‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham [not reviewed]
What it is about: This doorstep of a novel follows the life and times of an orphan with a club foot who is raised by a strict and religious uncle in the English provinces, but flees, first to Germany, then to Paris, before settling in London to study medicine. It’s a profoundly moving book because it shows what happens to people when there is no welfare state. I loved this book so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it.
How it influenced me: Since reading this book, I’ve been happily working my way through W. Somerset Maugham’s backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Year: 2014
Book: ‘Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo’ by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond [not reviewed]
What it is about: This award-winning book examines racism in sport. It charts the story behind the image that is on its front cover — Aboriginal Australian AFL footballer Nicky Winmar pointing to his chest declaring he was “proud to be black” after enduring racist abuse during a football match on 17 April 1993 — and puts it into the wider context of Australian society.
How it influenced me: I’m not a football fan, but this book proved to be a compelling account of an important issue. I read Anna Krien’s Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport, which is about rape culture in the AFL world, at around the same time and it was equally as compelling. But the Winmar story was the one that sent me off on a new journey exploring indigenous issues, including Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country and Cal Flynn’s Thicker Than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir.

Year: 2015
Book: ‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut 
What it is about: Set in post-apartheid South Africa, this is the story of two doctors working in a deserted rural hospital who must share lodgings. It is a fascinating portrait of male friendship amid huge societal changes as the “new” South Africa shakes off its dark history.
How it influenced me: This book, with its effortless, dreamy prose, turned me into a Galgut fan. I’ve read four more novels by him since reading this one.

Walking Free by Dr Munjed Al Muderis

Year: 2016
Book: ‘Walking Free’ by Dr Munjed Al Muderis (with Patrick Weaver)
What it is about: The true-life story of an Iranian refugee who was held in Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia. After surviving this hellhole for 10 months, he eventually gained his freedom. He is now one of the world’s leading specialists in osseointegration in which prosthetic limbs are implanted and fused into bone Terminator style.
How it influenced me: This book opened my eyes to Australia’s shameful and inhumane policy of detention for refugees and asylum seekers, and made me more conscious of the issues facing those people seeking new lives against the odds.

Down in the city by Elizabeth Harrower

Year: 2017
Book: ‘Down in the City’ by Elizabeth Harrower
What it is about: Set in Sydney one hot summer, it tells the story of an abusive marriage between two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.
How it influenced me: Even though I’d read two books by Harrower before, this was the one that made me sit up and pay attention. Her ability to evoke atmosphere and to capture the inner-most workings of the human soul are just brilliant. I am on a mission to read all of Harrower’s work. This is what I’ve read so far.

Lie with me

Year: 2018
Book: ‘Lie With Me’ by Sabine Durrant
What it is about: This book nicely fits into the “holidays from hell” genre. It’s a psychological thriller set on a Greek island but is told from the perspective of a nasty, conniving narrator who you are never quite sure whether to trust.
How it influenced me: I always like a good psychological-thriller-come-page-turner and it’s such a relief to find a new author who you can rely on to offer up a great story. I have since read several more by this author.

Year: 2019
Book:  ‘The Old Boys’ by William Trevor 
What it is about: This is a black comedy about four septuagenarians who all went to boarding school together more than 50 years earlier and behave very much as you would expect a group of immature schoolboys to behave — badly! They connive, cheat and backstab each other, all in an outlandish bid to establish who is “top dog”.
How it influenced me: I had previously read quite a bit of Trevor’s later work and I associated him with poignant tales of thwarted love in rural Ireland, but this book showed me that his early work was very different (this was his debut novel): it was set in London and darkly comic. I have since read several more of his earlier novels and hope to work my way through his massive backlist. All my reviews of his work are here.

So, there you have it. These are the most influential books I’ve read in the past 16 years. I’m conscious of the fact that this is a very male-dominated list. But I’m sure that if I compiled this list tomorrow, the books here would probably be different. For now, this will have to do.

Have you read any of this list? Or care to share your own influential reads?

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Tahiti, TBR40, Vintage Digital, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Moon and Sixpence’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 226 pages; 2008.

Somerset Maugham is a consummate storyteller and this novel, which was first published in 1919, is no exception.

The Moon and Sixpence is about a man called Charles Strickland who forsakes everything — including his wife, children and a lucrative job as a stockbroker — in the pursuit of a dream. The rumour mill suggests he left his wife in London for another woman in France, but that is not the case: aged 40, he left her to free up his life to become a painter.

A desire to make art

The story is told through the eyes of an acquaintance, a young writer, who initially meets Strickland through his wife. Over the course of the novel, he gets to know Strickland quite well — and it soon becomes apparent he’s not a particularly nice person. He’s gruff and bad mannered and blunt and cares for nothing except exercising his creative inclinations. He doesn’t even care if his paintings sell. He rarely shows them to people. He simply wants to make art.

There are men whose desire for truth is so great that to attain it they will shatter the very foundation of their world. Of such was Strickland, only beauty with him took the place of truth.

Said to be inspired by the life of French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence explores what it is to eschew material possessions, money, domestic happiness, family and love in pursuit of leading a truly creative life.

The bulk of the book is set in Paris, but the last few chapters are set in Tahiti, where Strickland settles into a relatively comfortable existence with a lover, whom he uses purely to satisfy his sexual urges.

Fame and fortune

Like Gaugin, Strickland’s talent remains largely unappreciated during his lifetime, but in the opening chapter we discover that his work is now highly regarded.  We know his paintings sell for high prices and that many biographies and books have been written about him. The pleasure of the novel is discovering how this came about and the collateral damage that happened along the way.

Written with Maugham’s typical insights into human psychology, in prose that occasionally drips with satire, the story is very much about the artistic life and what it is to refuse to compromise when we strive for a goal bigger than ourselves. It also shows how the sacrifices we make to pursue an obsession can have long-lasting ramifications on the people around us.

But it’s also a rip-roaring story about sex, betrayal, friendship and human behaviour — the good, the bad and the ugly.

This is my 12th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 31st for #TBR40. I bought this one in 2013 not long after I read Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’, a book I loved so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it, because I just didn’t have the words.

Author, Book review, China, Fiction, Hong Kong, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Painted Veil’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 186 pages; 2009.

I do love a good W. Somerset Maugham novel and The Painted Veil, first published in 1925, is regarded as one of his best.

The story is largely set in Hong Kong, before shifting to mainland China, and centres on a troubled marriage between two young Brits who are vastly different in personality, temperament and upbringing.

Walter Fane is a bacteriologist who is tightly buttoned up, the type of man who can’t really talk to others much less express his emotions, but he’s in love with his new wife, Kitty, even though he never quite tells her of his feelings.

Kitty Garstin, meanwhile, is extroverted but shallow and self-centred. She rushes into marriage with Walter, not because she’s in love, but because she’s desperate to escape her domineering mother and fears being “left on the shelf”, aged 25. She’s already turned down dozens of marriage proposals and is worried her younger sister will upstage her by marrying first.

The marriage between Walter and Kitty, of course, is a mistake. In Hong Kong, where Walter has been stationed, cracks begin to appear in their relationship, and Kitty begins an affair with Charles Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary, who is married with two young children.

It is when Walter discovers his wife’s adultery that the novel comes into its own.

Unexpected reaction

Walter does not react the way one would expect. While outwardly dull and seeming to lack emotion, it appears that he is an astute observer of human behaviour and knows how to manipulate people to his own ends.

He issues an ultimatum: if Kitty can get Charles to divorce his wife, then she is free to remarry; or she can come with Walter to mainland China where he has agreed to take charge of a cholera outbreak, putting both their lives at risk.

Of course, Charles turns out to be a coward and won’t divorce his wife, leaving Kitty with only one option: to accompany the husband she has wronged into a potential deathtrap.

Portrait of a cruel marriage

The Painted Veil is a rather good example of Maugham’s penchant for writing about cruel marriages and people tortured by love (or an absence of love). His technique is rather old-fashioned. The narrative, for instance, is completely linear, which is refreshing when you read a diet of contemporary fiction that seems preoccupied with flashbacks and multiple storylines. And his prose, as always, is simple, elegant and clear.

I got completely absorbed by this portrait of a mismatched marriage and loved the soap opera-ish element to it and the ways in which the characters behaved so abominably, often against expectation. For instance, who would think dull, strait-laced Walter would have it in him to plot his wife’s murder by forcing her to live in a town consumed by a cholera epidemic?

The ending is a bit of a let down (the 2006 movie adaptation starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts is much better), but on the whole The Painted Veil is a compelling tale of love, betrayal, revenge and redemption and confirms Maugham as one of my favourite writers.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, W. Somerset Maugham

‘Up at the Villa’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 120 pages;  2004.

First published in 1941, Up at the Villa is a quick-to-read novella by W. Somerset Maugham.

It tells the tale of Mary Panton, a beautiful young Englishwoman, who is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life following the untimely death of her beloved husband, who was a philanderer, gambler and drunkard.

Given the loan of an attractive villa in the hills above Florence, she spends her days sitting on the terrace admiring the view and her evenings in the company of a select group of aristocratic friends, including the wayward rotter and playboy Rowley Flint.

When an old family friend, Sir Edgar Swift, who has been in love with her since she was a girl, asks for her hand in marriage, she requests a few days to think about it. While she knows that she does not love Sir Edgar — he’s 24 years older than her and was a contemporary of her late father’s — she trusts him and believes his new position as the Viceroy of Bengal will elevate her social standing and provide her with a degree of financial security.

But during those three days, Mary makes a fateful decision, seemingly on a whim, that plunges her into enormous danger.

A morality tale 

I’ve read enough Maugham now to realise he’s obsessed with marriages (particularly unhappy ones), adultery, sexual restraint and class. And this book, a thinly disguised morality tale, is no different.

Mary’s kindness, compassion and desire embroils her in a scandal from which there appears to be no escape. The morally dubious way in which she then behaves when things go wrong does not make the reader warm to her.

Similarly, Rowley, who is painted as a bad character right from the start, behaves with great chivalry, but you soon come to realise his honourable actions are compromised by rather dark motivations. It’s hard to know who to cheer on and who to condemn.

In fact Up at the Villa is the sort of book that asks more questions than it answers. Its characters, all deeply flawed but terribly human, are well drawn even if some of their dialogue, especially the romantic bits, are a little unconvincing.

Despite the lightness of touch of Maugham’s sometimes silky prose, this is a story dealing with some very big themes — about beauty, the human heart and how the decisions we make can have lifelong repercussions, for both good and bad. I read it in one sitting and found it a thoroughly engaging, if slight, tale.

I believe the book has been adapted into a film starring Sean Penn and Kristin Scott-Thomas, but having read the synopsis on IMDb lots of liberties appear to have been taken with the characters and the plot. I probably won’t bother hunting it out — unless anyone can convince me otherwise.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Manybooks.net, Publisher, Setting, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Hero’ by W. Somerset Maugham

The-hero

Fiction – Kindle edition; Manybooks.net; 211 pages; 1901.

A couple of years ago I read W. Somerset Maugham’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece Of Human Bondage and loved its mix of grim reality, heartbreak and poignancy. I didn’t review it at the time, but it did make my list of favourite books of 2013, and I made a mental note to explore more of his work.

The Hero is probably one of his lesser-known novels. First published in 1901 — fourteen years before Of Human Bondage — it explores social mores, class and morality in Victorian England. And yet there’s something quite modern about the story, which shows how a man’s outlook on life can be changed by worldly experience, and how inward-looking, parochial and claustrophobic small town life can be.

A war hero’s return

The hero of the title is James Parsons, a soldier awarded the Victoria Cross during the Boer War, who returns to his small village in Kent, England, feeling anything but heroic. Five years earlier, he had gone straight from Sandhurst to India and then on to the Cape. Before moving abroad he was betrothed to Mary, who has patiently waited for his return and become much-loved by her soon-to-be parents-in-law in the process.

But when Jamie comes back to England he realises that he has no feelings for Mary. He knows it is his duty to marry her  “and yet he felt he would rather die”. That’s because he is rather obsessed with a married woman he met in India — the wife of his best friend — and though nothing really happened between them he thinks of her all the time.

He paraded before himself, like a set of unread school-books, all Mary’s excellent qualities. He recalled her simple piety, her good-nature, and kindly heart; she had every attribute that a man could possibly want in his wife. And yet—and yet, when he slept he dreamed he was talking to the other; all day her voice sang in his ears, her gay smile danced before his eyes. He remembered every word she had ever said; he remembered the passionate kisses he had given her. How could he forget that ecstasy? He writhed, trying to expel the importunate image; but nothing served.

When he makes the decision to break off his engagement, Jamie unwittingly offends everyone in the village — including his parents — who had only days earlier given him a hero’s welcome.

They had set him on a pedestal, and then were disconcerted because he towered above their heads, and the halo with which they had surrounded him dazzled their eyes. They had wished to make a lion of James, and his modest resistance wounded their self-esteem; it was a relief to learn that he was not worth making a lion of. Halo and pedestal were quickly demolished, for the golden idol had feet of clay, and his late adorers were ready to reproach him because he had not accepted with proper humility the gifts he did not want. Their little vanities were comforted by the assurance that, far from being a hero, James was, in fact, distinctly inferior to themselves. For there is no superiority like moral superiority. A man who stands akimbo on the top of the Ten Commandments need bow the knee to no earthly potentate.

From there, the story twists and turns — will they get back together again? will Jamie track down the woman he truly loves? — as it winds its way towards an utterly shocking and heartbreaking ending.

Romance, war and morality

At its most basic level The Hero is a simple love story gone wrong, which confronts in no uncertain terms the 19th century idea that marriage was a contract between two people regardless of whether they loved one another or not.

On a deeper level, it explores Victorian morality — sexual restraint and a strict social code of conduct under a rigid class system — and shows how it’s not always clear-cut and leads to unhappy outcomes. Jamie’s stance, of doing the “right” thing for him and Mary, highlights the strength of character required to stand up for one’s own convictions in the face of total opposition.

War — and courage — is a metaphor that runs throughout the narrative. From Jamie’s time on the battlefield, he knows that sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good — he applies those same lessons to his love life, even if that means he is seen as being cold and hard-hearted:

The general in battle now is afraid to strike because men may be killed. Sometimes it is worth while to lose men. When we become soldiers, we know that we cease to be human beings, and are merely the instruments for a certain work; we know that sometimes it may be part of a general’s deliberate plan that we should be killed. I have no confidence in a leader who is tender-hearted.

Overall, I really loved this book. The characters, albeit stereotyped, are just wonderful: so parochial and meddling, but with their hearts ultimately in the right place. And it’s written in such a humane way that even though some of them are dreadful busybodies and  full of their own self-importance, you admire their desire to protect Mary’s reputation — at whatever cost.

The Hero is an utterly tragic tale, but Maugham never manipulates his reader’s emotions for effect — instead he builds up a picture of Jamie’s moral dilemma, his inner-most turmoil and the courage required to plough his own furrow — and allows you to come to your own conclusions. It’s a style I like… and I’m delighted there’s so many more Maugham books left for me to explore…

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2013

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again when I sit down, look back over everything I’ve read in the past 12 months and draw up a list of my Top 10 reads.

After much umming and aching, these are the books I’ve selected.

They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Click on the book’s title to see my review in full.

 

 

The-Orenda
The Orenda
by Joseph Boyden (2013)
Set in the 17th century, The Orenda plunges the reader into the vast wilderness of Eastern Canada and takes us on a sometimes terrifying, occasionally humorous, but always fascinating journey following members of the Huron nation as they go about their daily lives over the course of many seasons.

Apple-Tree-Yard

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty (2013)
Set in modern day London, this is a dark, smart and sexy psychological-thriller-cum-court-room-drama, full of twists, turns and unexpected shocks. It is arguably the best of the genre I’ve read this year.

Under-the-skin
Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000)
Under the Skin swings between psychological thriller and macabre horror, with numerous twists and unexpected plot developments along the way. It is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s intriguing and creepy and defies categorisation and the title is uncannily appropriate, because the story does, indeed, get under the skin…

Eventide
Eventide by Kent Haruf (2005)
Eventide is the second book in a loose trilogy of novels set in Holt, Colorado. There is nothing sentimental or saccharine in the understated, almost flat, narrative. But somehow, in its storytelling, in its evocation of place and spirit, in the characters’ raw and truthful actions, you get so caught up in everyone’s lives that you cannot help but feel deeply moved.

of-human-bondage
Of Human Bondage
by W. Somerset Maugham (1915)
I loved this book so much, that I struggled to write a review that would do it justice, so this is the only novel on the list that isn’t reviewed on the blogIt follows the life and times of Philip Carey, an orphan with a club foot who is raised by a strict and religious uncle in the English provinces, but flees, first to Germany, then to Paris, before settling in London to study medicine. It is at times a horrifying and heartbreaking  read, because Philip is a true loner and constantly struggles to find his place in the world. He is not entirely a likable character — indeed his relationship with Mildred, a waitress, borders on masochistic obsession — but I found his story a completely compelling one.

A-girl-is-a-half-formed-thing
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (2013)
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is about a young woman’s relationship with her older brother, who suffers a brain tumour in childhood that later returns when he is a young man. Spanning roughly 20 years and set largely in an isolated farming community in the west of Ireland, it is highly original, bold, confronting — and Joycean.

Tivington-nott

The Tivington Nott by Alex Miller (1989)
The Tivington Nott is an extraordinarily vivid account of one young man’s participation in a stag hunt on the Exmoor borders in 1952 and is filled with beautiful descriptions of Nature and the countryside — “the last ancient homeland of the wild red deer in England” — as well as depicting the bond between horse and rider like nothing I have ever read before.

Tampa

Tampa by Alissa Nutting (2013)
Tampa tells the story of a female teacher who preys on teenage boys. It one of the most outrageous books I’ve ever read. It’s confronting, disturbing and, well, icky, but the voice of the narrator, which is wondrous in its sheer bravado, wickedness, narcissism and wit, is utterly compelling.

Wonder

Wonder by R. J. Palacio (2012)
Wonder tells the tale of 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman, who was born with a serious facial deformity. He has been home-educated, but now his parents think it is time he attended a mainstream school. The book chronicles his efforts to fit in and become accepted by his peers at Beecher Prep. It is a book with universal appeal, one that genuinely warms the heart and brings tears to the eyes.

The-mussel-feast

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (2013)
The Mussel Feast is a tale about a woman and her two teenage children sitting around the dinner table awaiting the arrival of the patriarch of the family, whom they expect to return home with news of a promotion at work. A celebratory feast of mussels and wine has been prepared. But the story is also a metaphor for East and West Germany, reflecting the time period in which the book was written, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own top 10?

Author, Book review, China, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel, Vintage, W. Somerset Maugham

‘On a Chinese Screen’ by W. Somerset Maugham

On-a-chinese-screen

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Classics; 137 pages; 2010.

This is one of those books I probably would never have bothered reading had it not been for two important facts: it was a free download from manybooks.net and it was about China.

What I hadn’t clocked when I first began reading it was this: there is no narrative thread holding this book together. It is merely a collection of pen-portraits of various people, mainly expat officials, that Somerset Maugham met on his travels through China in the early 1920s.

There are 58 short sketches in total, and while each one is expertly and vividly drawn, it does not make for an effortless read because it is simply too disjointed. It’s almost like reading someone’s notebook rather than a published book.

Its importance, I guess, is more as an historical “document”, because Maugham’s “reportage” offers a glimpse of Europeans living in China during the interwar years. What he depicts is far from pleasant. These are people who don’t give a damn about the culture or the people. They simply cling onto the vestiges of home. No one bothers to learn the language or befriend the natives. Assuming that Maugham’s descriptions of British diplomats, Catholic missionaries and the like are accurate, this is a rather damning portrayal of the English abroad.

This is a good example:

China bored them all, they did not want to speak of that; they only knew just so much about it as was necessary to their business, and they looked with distrust upon any man who studied the Chinese language. Why should he unless he were a missionary or a Chinese Secretary at the Legation? You could hire an interpreter for twenty-five dollars a month and it was well known that all those fellows who went in for Chinese grew queer in the head.

Funnily enough, I get the impression that many of his sketches are tongue-in-cheek and that Maugham knows full well that these people are truly hideous in outlook and attitude.

Indeed, the book works best when Maugham offers up his own opinion of the Chinese natives (mainly “coolies”) and the places he visits (mainly villages along the Yangtze) — he seems far more accepting, interested and intrigued by his travel adventures than his British counterparts.

There in the mist, enormous, majestic, silent, and terrible, stood the Great Wall of China. Solitarily, with the indifference of nature herself, it crept up the mountain side and slipped down in the depth of the valley. Menacingly, the grim watch towers, stark and foursquare, at due intervals stood at their posts.

The book, however, is probably best read by genuine W. Somerset Maugham fans, those with a deep interest in China or budding authors wishing to learn the art of descriptive writing.

It was first published in 1922.