It’s testament to the commitment of the Berwick Book Group members that so many turned out on a horribly chilly night – the sleet starting just before 6.30pm as we all headed for Doolally’s. And the late Austin Wright’s literary thriller (or was it a thriller?), Tony and Susan, prompted what has to be one of the best debates of recent months.
In the novel, Susan receives the manuscript of a violent novel from her ex-husband and whilst reading it is forced to reflect on her own life. According to a review in The Guardian, Wright was “obsessed by the interconnection of real and invented worlds and believing that at least in some sense the reader writes the book.” Knowing this, the novel-within-a-novel device and the strangely passive character of Susan who keeps reminding us that we’re reading a fiction, makes much more sense.
For many of us, the novel-within-the novel had us turning the pages, although it was, as Anne R put it, a harrowing read. Anne couldn’t come to the meeting but sent these comments on e-mail: “It was quite distinct from most of the other novels I’ve read over the last year and certainly one of the best I’ve read for the book group! It’s difficult to summarize the range of reactions I had to the book, so these are just a few.
“Although the story within a story format isn’t especially original, I felt it worked really well here with the stories weaving in and out of each other in a way that was unforced, whereas in other novels it often seems like a writerly device. Also, each story was equally interesting. The account of the highway nightmare was genuinely terrifying; I can’t remember the last time I read a story which made me feel as frightened as this. Even though the Susan story was quieter, it formed an effective contrast to the terrors of ‘Nocturnal Animals’, and it was particularly fascinating to hear Susan’s response to Edward’s manuscript. I think the book is also a meditation on the role of both the reader and the writer, which added an unexpected dimension to the thriller / crime story and that of Susan’s marriages. These multiple layers greatly enrich the book.
“I admired the quality and depth of the writing, and at times slowed down to appreciate that a little more; there were some lovely observations, e.g. p62 ‘No problems are temporary until they are over. All problems are potentially permanent.’ I was particularly moved by the scene when the two bodies were discovered. Tony’s grief and the empty house that greets him on his return home are described in a way that is haunting and at times beautiful. (p147 ‘The house was an empty tank full of grief …’)
“There was also some rather sharp humour, if that’s the right word. I love the way Susan responds critically to the manuscript, for example to Edward’s description of the beard (‘Lips bulged through his beard like internal organs oozing through …’).
“The last part of ‘Nocturnal Animals’ – the revenge story with Bobby Andes – was the least strong, I thought, and more predictable. I was less gripped at this point, but still keen to discover how the novel would end. Having just finished the book, I’m still not sure whether I was completely satisfied by the ending, but it does leave the reader with much to reflect on, which is perhaps the point of it.”
For Helen, this was the best book group choice in recent months. She was intrigued by its mixture of fiction and ‘reality’ and how it would feel to receive a manuscript like this from an ex-husband.
Margaret also enjoyed the novel, finding the convention well done and liking the way Susan used the manuscript to reflect on her own life – although she found the ending of the Nocturnal Animals section, in which Tony talks to his dead wife and daughter, unconvincing.
But while many of us ‘couldn’t put it down,’ Rose found the opposite – she had to keep putting the book down because the violence was so extreme. She found the idea of “the novel as revenge” preposterous. But I agreed with her observation that Susan’s decision not to offer Edward any response was particularly powerful.
Mike was less impressed. Whilst he thought it was “quite a good idea” and “unusual,” he pointed out that for the framing device to work well, the two styles and voices need to be very different, and he did not feel that they were. AS Byatt, he added, is an author who does this technique well, even though he is not a fan of her writing. “It was exciting at first but then became silly.”
For Maisie, the character of Tony was well-drawn but not so much that of Susan. Although she was unconcerned about Susan and her middle-class life, she had to read through the novel to find out what happened: “I needed to know.” She found it fast-paced until around two-thirds of the way through, when the Nocturnal Animals plot became too improbable. “the end was less satisfying, but it was a pretty good read.”
Gemma disagreed. She found the novel “clumsy, clunky, paint-by-numbers,” and, wanting to be thrilled, was disappointed. She found the return to Susan’s point of view an irritation that ruined her concentration on the Nocturnal Animals part of the novel.
Jill was less than convinced by the notion that Tony, in a remote part of America, would ever allow his car to be run off the road in the first place, and she was frustrated by the way his character never dealt with his grief.
Paula enjoyed the novel, in spite of the chilling content of the novel-within-a-novel. She tried hard to work out what Edward might be trying to say by giving his manuscript to Susan and found the character of Tony very believable in his inability to decide what action to take. It was less gripping as it went on, she felt.
Janet enjoyed the Nocturnal Animals thriller, comparing it to watching a film noir, but hated being pulled back to Susan’s point of view. She did enjoy some of the use of language, however, such as the ‘diminuendo’ of the car’s speed and the description of the dead bodies as ‘mannequins.’ It was a curate’s egg, she added, where some of the writing was too self-conscious and literary. She wondered whether Austin Wright “really wanted to write pulp fiction but felt he had to dress it up.”
Janet, like Gemma, was disappointed that there was no final revelation and Margaret pointed out that if we often read a novel for the end, then perhaps this one did ultimately fail the reader.
I wondered, though, whether we were expected to ‘rate’ the Nocturnal Animals section or whether we were intended to see it as an exercise in amateur writing that was there to tell us something about the act of reading.
New year, new books – weather permitting, January’s meeting will be held on the second Tuesday of the month, for this month only. In the meantime, may Santa stuff your stockings with books and may your Kindle be merry and bright!
Next meeting: Tuesday 10th January 2012, 6.30pm, Doolally’s, Marygate, Berwick upon Tweed. When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman.