In the midst of the confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety of the last 18 months or more, necessity has often become the mother of impressive literary inventions, and in recent times we have begun to see the fruits. For the novelist Sarah Moss, who writes about the social and ethical complexities of lockdown – what happens to those for whom the home is not a place of greater security ?; What psychological strain will isolation and fear have on the most vulnerable? – was a way to combat a feeling of claustrophobia and discomfort.
The result is Decreased (Picador, 4 hours 7 min), in which actress Emma Lowndes gives voice to four characters: Kate, a woman in quarantine in her Peak District house, wide open space temptingly close; her teenage son, Matt; their elderly neighbor, Alice, balances loneliness with her need to shield herself; and the lifeguard was dispatched when disaster struck.
This is a novel with voices, almost like an old-fashioned radio game, and Lowndes skillfully conjures up her very different characters in all their frustrations, worries, shaky resolution, and reaction to incipient disaster. It is also a very clever exploration of space that contrasts the boundaries of the domestic with the external. Here, the narrator again naturally shifts gears and gradually turns up the tension, while conveying Moss’ themes of compassion and cooperation.
Sarah Hall’s phenomenal Burnt coat (Faber & Faber, 6 hours 7 min) starts from a similar place: a lonely woman who tries to process the surreality and stress of her immediate environment and take stock of the broader context of her life and that of others. But Hall turns her protagonist, Edith, into a sculptor who has been tasked with making a large monument in memory of those who have lost their lives in a pandemic. This is not quite here and now – the disease in question has caused a societal collapse that makes the novel a form of dystopian fiction – and the narrator Louise Brealey permeates it with an appropriate supernatural feeling.
There is also tenderness as Edith recalls the wild illness that afflicted her mother when she was a child and the recent death of her lover. Like Moss’ novel, this is a compact work, not much longer than a short story, and to hear it read is to appreciate the intense economy that Hall describes our relationship with, from the sonic to the erotic, and the quiet community that the artist feel. with her work. It is immensely powerful and completely unlike most other representations of recent events that I have encountered.
Elsewhere, an older work has been given new life. It’s two years since Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood released Ness, a prosaic fable inspired by the natural recovery of Orford Ness, the former military zone of Suffolk (the landscape is so peculiar and symbolic that it was very prominent in John le Carré’s recently released Silverview). Under lockdown and adaptation to the resulting restrictions, they worked on an audio version (Penguin, 47 minutes) and asked London Contemporary Orchestras Hugh Brunt to create a score that draws on both animal and electronic soundscapes in the area.
Stephen Dillane says his statements sometimes border on the threatening and the terrible. (“Look: here he comes. His bones are arrow, and he sings in birds. He rises in the bog, glides forward with ripples and shudders.”) Centered on a green chapel where various cipher characters, from the armor man to the engineer for the botanist, gathers to read the runes in the abandoned territory, it is a listening experience characterized by its peculiarity, its vocabulary – drift, hag-stone, single – that makes us aware of the power of the non-human, and whether they visited the intrusion on it. Created in part in the Abbey Road studios with additional contributions from singer Josephine Stephenson, it’s a compelling and disturbing experience.
Finally comes one of my books of the year, and one that feels particularly appropriate for Advent, set as it is in the time leading up to Christmas. Claire Keegans Little things like these (Faber & Faber, 1 hour 57 min) takes place in New Ross, a small town in Wexford, in 1985, where Bill Furlong focuses on making his last deliveries of coal and wood before everything closes down for the holidays. As he does so, he recalls his upbringing, as the son of a single mother, thoughts of the possible stability and happiness of his own life mixed with the fate of the pregnant young women who are currently in charge of the local convent.
In many ways, it’s a simple story, but one that sets in motion a series of emotional depths; the reader Aidan Kelly, who has narrated works by Sebastian Barry, Flann O’Brien and James Joyce, perfectly captures the sense of complicity and secrecy surrounding Ireland’s mother and baby home, and the internal struggle that drives Furlong through history; his tone is both factual and conspiratorial. Quietly destructive, the story moves its way to a bravura and heartbreaking conclusion.
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