I'm so, so excited to tell you about the last two books I finished, The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon and Something Red by Douglas Nicholas. Somehow (the endless coincidences of life) I managed to read my two favorite books this year back to back. Both are mysterious, suspenseful historical fiction, driven equally by complex characters and ideas. And I love them both because I can recommend them without my familiar fear of offending more delicate sensibilities with my usual literary taste.
The Colour of Milk (out in January) will seem strange at first. It's written in the stiff-sounding voice of a barely-literate fifteen year-old farm girl. Within the first few pages, she tells you the year (1830s) the setting (a rural farm somewhere in England) and who she is (Mary). By the time you've adjusted to this stilted but meticulous prose, you will be trapped, and it's likely you will finish this book in less than two days, like I did. This is the dark side of all our beloved, bucolic Regency classics; what Wide Sargasso Sea is to Jane Eyre, but with no dreaminess to soften the blow. Like Mary's infallible, blunt bullshit detector, this book speaks loud and plain truth to power and history.
Mary and her three sisters are relentlessly worked and abused as chattel on their father's farm. Never is a thought given to higher goals of education, pleasure, travel or art. What Nell Leyshon does most effectively is give us a window into the mind of a girl raised in such conditions. She harbors no aspirations of rebellion or justice because she has no time in her day for abstraction. She understands the brutal cause and effect of her world: work done for survival's sake, crops grown for one more year of life, cows milked for one more day. The trouble comes when the adults in Mary's life start to manipulate her, and I will not give anything more away. This is a devastating book, but it feels so true to its time that the devastation will feel like a very old injury, maybe one that we've almost forgotten. The experience of reading a character this strong and singular is worth the heartbreak.
Something Red by Douglas Nicholas is pure reading pleasure. If you've been craving beautiful sentences like I was, Nicholas' writing will melt over your brain and trickle down into your heart. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this is one of the most perfectly balanced novels I've encountered in years; no detail, character, tangent, bit of foreshadowing or iota of atmosphere is wasted. Nicholas employs great economy and restraint in dealing with vaguely supernatural elements, and my enjoyment of this book rested heavily on not knowing how far down the fantasy rabbit hole we were about to fall.
The story is set at a crucial turning point in world history: the rise of Christianity and the fall of Paganism in the British Isles, when monotheism wielded a strange combination of immaturity and power. A band of four travelers, who you will grow to love, are journeying across England, through forests reminiscent of those in Algernon Blackwood's The Wendigo. Nature looms alternately as friend and foe, and through the trees, barely glimpsed by the party, but certainly felt, something is prowling. You will want to discover every brilliant, imaginative, thrilling detail in this book for yourself. Be patient, the slow build of the first 200 pages or so will make the impact of the last 100 totally worth it. When I read the last paragraph, I felt that old twinge, so familiar to book lovers, of leaving before I was ready to go.
So there you go, my two best Winter picks! Enjoy!