Looking back over my reading during the past year, the first thing that strikes me is that I have read almost no new non-fiction or poetry. That anyone who aspires to be a writer needs first to be a voracious reader goes without saying, but reading as a writer is probably never quite the same thing as simply reading for pleasure.
For one thing, it has a cyclical character. On completing the writing of a novel, it is natural to relax, and catch up with what one has been missing. Then, as a historical novelist, one begins the research for the next, which inevitably involves a great deal of non-fiction, as well as literature and sources of the time. As the new novel starts to take shape, one looks around for literary inspiration and influences. With my first two novels, I was happy to follow the examples of well-loved classics (including works by Homer, Thomas Hardy and William Golding, in the case of Undreamed Shores; Virgil, Robert Graves and Marguerite Yourcenar, in the case of An Accidental King). In shaping the form of Omphalos, I cast my net more widely, to include Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino and David Mitchell. Now that I have completed the research for my next novel, set in London in the 1st/2nd Centuries AD, and am starting to shape the text, I have been drawing heavily on Ovid (specifically the 1717 English translation, to which John Dryden and Alexander Pope contributed), and on contemporary English writers who seem to me to be working, to some extent, in his tradition (including Ali Smith, Marina Warner and A.S. Byatt). All of this means that I enter 2016 with an exceptionally long TBR list (with Mary Beard's SPQR at the top of that list), but among the new fiction I have read, three novels stand out for me.
The first is Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account, a fictionalised memoir of a 16th Century Spanish expedition through Florida and Texas, led by the would-be Conquistador, Panfilo de Narvaez. The expedition was a disaster from beginning to end, with more than 300 men landing at Tampa Bay and only four surviving the eight year trek that eventually brought them to safety in Mexico. One of these was a black slave from Morocco, Estebanico, about whom very little is known. He is the perfect narrator for Lalami's fictionalised account, written in the first person, and in the meticulously researched idiom of the time. As a slave, he has no agenda of his own, and can as easily (perhaps more easily) relate to the Native Americans that they encounter, as to the men who have enslaved him. Since he is already bilingual in Arabic and Spanish (and also, perhaps, because he has no reason to share the prejudices of his companions), he is well equipped to learn their languages. It is a powerful and humane story of survival, enslavement and freedom, and inter-cultural contact; a fresh engagement with, and new perspective on, the history of the European colonisation of the Americas.
"It was the year 934 of the Hegira, the thirtieth year of my life, the fifth year of my bondage - I was at the edge of the known world. I was marching behind Senor Dorantes in a lush territory he and Castilians like him call La Florida. I cannot be certain what my people call it. When I left Azemmur, news of this land did not often attract the notice of our town criers ... But I imagine that, in keeping with our naming conventions, my people would simply call it the Land of the Indians. The Indians, too, must have a name for it, although neither Senor Dorantes nor anyone in the expedition knew what it was."
The second is Emily Bullock's The Longest Fight, set in South London in the 1950s. There is a long-standing debating point about where historical fiction begins and ends: the most common definition seems to be that it is fiction set before the birth of its author, and more than sixty years before it is published, in which case Emily Bullock and I both belong to the first generation of historical novelists for whom the 1950s provide potential source materials. Certainly it reads as historical fiction, and must surely have been researched as such. The world through which the reader is led, of working class boxing clubs in Camberwell, Brixton and Kennington, is eerily unfamiliar. The novel's protagonists, Frank and Jack, initially drawn to boxing as a recreational activity, come to see it as a potential route out of poverty, but success will require as much luck as talent, and may come at a terrible price. The bright lights of the West End represent a seemingly far-away place, of which the characters know little, and understand less.
"Jack surfaced from the Underground at Leicester Square ... He entered Soho, street-light shrivelled away from unlit doorways; the smell of beer and scalding tea, gas-heaters and rainy pavements. He took long, heavy strides as if he spent every night walking that side of the river ..."
It is an engaging, immersive exploration of a lost world whose buildings still largely surround us; of hopes and disappointments; of the pervasive influences of family, and of memory; and of the small personal tragedies that lurk in the background to all of the grand modernist narratives of "Progress."
My final choice, and certainly the most unusual (at least as far as my usual reading material is concerned) is Nell Zink's The Wallcreeper. It is supremely improbable that a bird species as obscure as the wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria) should, in the space of a single year, make an appearance in two novels, written by authors who have never met one another; but the wallcreeper does now have this distinction. It has a fly-on part in Chapter 14 of my own novel, Omphalos (blink and you'll miss it - the bird is not even named - but it, and its red wings, are there for a very specific literary/historical reason), and in Zink's novel an American couple in Europe, somewhat improbably, adopt one as a pet, following a road accident. The unorthodox lifestyle of this couple (think polyamory, the recreational use of ketamine, obsessive birdwatching of the sort a "real" birdwatcher - like my late mother - would call "twitching") is a rich source of dry, even surreal, humour; the more so as they become involved in, and ultimately redefine the nature of, environmental activism. It may not have a happy ending, so don't try out too many of these ideas at home, but the book, at turns, both made me cry with laughter, and made me think in new and different ways about the nature of our relationship with the world around us.
"I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage. Immediately obvious was my sticky forehead. Maybe I was unconscious for a couple of seconds, I don't know. Eventually I saw Stephen poking around the front of the car and said, 'Jesus, what was that' ... From the passenger seat the wallcreeper said 'Twee!' ... Stephen pulled over ... He said ... 'For me it's a lifer. It's like the most wonderful bird ... I identified it even before I hit it ... It was unmistakeable, just like they said it would be. So this is great.'"
A very happy New Year to one and all!
Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.