THE SECRET INTENSITY OF EVERYDAY LIFE by William Nicholson. Quercus pbk. £11.99
SAS members probably know William Nicholson best for his very successful and popular Wind Singer trilogy. He wrote the script for the movie Gladiator and also for Shadowlands. He’s a chap with copper-bottomed macho credentials, therefore, and also a man with a great deal of emotional intelligence. He’s recently written a novel for young adults called Rich and Mad which I haven’t read but which they say is very good, though apparently not for those of a nervous disposition when it comes to frankness about sex.
In The Secret Intensity etc, he takes a group of people who live in the Sussex countryside near Glyndebourne and interweaves their stories in a fashion that’s both skilful and absorbing. Recently, on Nicola Morgan’s blog (http://www.helpineedapublisher.blogspot.com/)
and elsewhere there has been much discussion about the importance of pace and excitement and incident in novels, about page-turnability and this book is extremely page-turny without anything like an exciting plot to drive it forward. When I say that, I mean you’ll have to look to another book for abductions, vampires, dastardly plots against the government of the day, races against time, death bed reversals of fortune and wild chases in fast cars. You will not find heroic feats of strength, nor impossible puzzles. What you do get is exactly what the title promises: the sadnesses, regrets, longings and epiphanies of normal everyday life.
Laura is awaiting a visit from an ex-boyfriend whom she hasn’t seen for more than twenty years. Their love affair was incandescent, all-consuming, mad and life-changing. Her husband, Henry, is making a film for television about iconoclasts. He’s got a star to deal with whom he can’t stand and is worried because he can’t stop himself from fancying almost every woman his eye lights on, in spite of loving his wife enormously. Several other adult characters are also highlighted and it would be tedious to list them all, but into these people’s lives come the day-to- day concerns of their children, too, and Nicholson deals with subjects like bullying and peer pressure and the inner world of childhood in a most sensitive and imaginative way. Just as it’s unnatural sometimes to eliminate adults from children’s books, it’s also very refreshing to see children take their place alongside their parents in a novel for adults. This is the way things are in the real world. Ask any mother or father what their main interest/focus/ object of devotion is and you’ll find it’s their children but this truth isn’t something you find reflected very often in fiction.
Not knowing the whole truth about something, having to understand more before you can grasp what’s truly going on, and what a person is like is probably the main theme of the book. It’s very perceptive about a writer’s angst, secret fears, and unacknowledged doubts and terrific at describing love of every kind but there’s also a lovely scene in which Laura is searching for an outfit to wear to Glyndebourne. Nicholson understands perfectly the strange phenomenon of women going shopping and there are very few male writers who’ve nailed that properly. Zola was good at it, and so is Colm Tóibín but I can’t think of others offhand. [Please do leave some recommendations in the comments box if you know of any.]
Readers who are averse to characters who are middle-class and quite well off would do well to steer clear of this book (and in another post I may address the subject of the scorn that many reviewers seem to feel for literature about the upper middle classes and their concerns) but for everyone else, it’s a hugely enjoyable and satisfying read and I am eager to get hold of the sequel which is being published very soon.
THE ANATOMY OF GHOSTS by Andrew Taylor. Michael Joseph hbk £18.99
Andrew Taylor has been one of my favourite thriller writers since I read the Roth Trilogy (The Four Last Things, The Office of the Dead, The Judgement of Strangers) some years ago. If you’ve not come across these before, by the way, you have real treat in store.
His latest book, (published on September 2nd) is a historical novel, set in an invented Cambridge college called Jerusalem in the late 18th century. It’s a ghost story, a crime story and a love story, beautifully and cunningly combined. Taylor has produced a richly atmospheric and exciting tale, which will keep you happily enthralled to the last page. By contrast with William Nicholson's book, this novel has almost everything you could possibly wish for by way of plot: drowned people, terrible happenings in the past, mysteries aplenty in the present, academic machinations, adulterous longings, abuse of one kind and another, and the whole thing written so well that you feel yourself instantly drawn into the time and the place. Here's another real page turner, and one which would make a terrific film or television series. If only Andrew Taylor and William Nicholson in his scriptwriting mode could get together on such a project...what fun that would be! Do try and read it. The hardback is a bit pricey (though less than the cost of some restaurant meals and totally calorie-free!) but this is a good chance to bombard your local library branch and make sure they order at least one copy.