Today I’m reviewing a couple of first books. As I’ve said before, I like authors’ first books. I like their flaws, I like that you can often see in them the author who will emerge in the next book and the one after. I like to imagine the author’s joy when, out of the uncertainty of writing the book, comes a publishing contract.
I read and enjoyed Toni Jordan’s book, Nine Days, earlier this year and that convinced me to search out Addition, her first book. As part of our Writers Ask Writers series, Hannah Richell joined us to discuss books that have influenced us and meeting her virtually in that process encouraged me to read her first book, Secrets of the Tides.
The Secrets of the Tides
Reading these first books made me rather ashamed of my own–I’m not sure it’s quite as accomplished as these two. I know when I was writing What is Left Over, After I was very uncertain about the structure and perhaps that comes through in my final product. Secrets of the Tides shows no such uncertainty, which makes it a very hard book to put down once you begin to read it. I truly admired Richell’s deft management of the multiple points of view, and the way this creates a strong sense of narrative tension throughout, but never at the expense of character; each character has their own set of intrigues and secrets that the reader has to discover.
In the author’s note at the back of the book, Richell says that she wanted to write a story where something so shocking happens that the reader’s breath is literally taken away. And she succeeds. Secrets of the Tides is about a family who take up residence in a grand home by the sea in Dorset. Life is fairly ordinary, besides the usual upheavals and squabbles of family life, and the usual insecurities of tween and teenage daughters. And then the shocking thing happens, which I won’t reveal because I don’t want to spoil the plot. This event is made even more tragic by the fact that Helen, the mother and wife of the family, is meeting a man with whom she is having an affair at the time of the tragedy and her own sense of complicity in what happens causes her to blame her daughters for something that, arguably, was not at all their fault.
And so their family unravels through the passing years, until Dora, one of the daughters, becomes pregnant. She visits her estranged family in a quest for redemption and it is the scenes between Dora and her brittle and grieving mother that are especially strong. Richell doesn’t make life too easy too quickly for her characters, thus ensuring you want to read on until the end.
Addition is quite a different book. It is really a character study with none of the forward driving, page-turning intensity of Secrets of the Tides, but it is not intended to be like that. It tells the story of Grace, who is so obsessed by numbers that every part of her life, down to what she eats and what she wears, is arrived at by some kind of mathematical formula. I did find the first couple of chapters of the book difficult to engage with; there were so many numbers and, because of the fact that Grace lives alone and does not see anybody else, it felt very interior and as if I was trapped inside a head I was not quite sure I wanted to occupy. But I think this is intentional on Jordan’s part; you truly get to experience Grace as she might appear to a stranger and it is to Jordan’s credit that out of this, Grace emerges as a character that you are absolutely on side with for the rest of the book.
Then Grace meets Seamus at the supermarket and Addition becomes a lovely and engaging book. Jordan’s true gift is for dialogue. The exchanges between Grace and Seamus are superb for revealing the kind of person Grace could be if only she detached herself from numbers, and for creating a beautiful relationship of the kind that a reader wants be a happily ever after—but again, the reader knows the numbers are in the way of this happening, unless Grace can change.
After a time, Grace is convinced by Seamus to try therapy to help her with her obsession and this is the beginning of the end. Grace loses everything that makes her special and individual and funny and warm and becomes a different person, one that she herself doesn’t particularly like or care for, and the reader knows there is going to be trouble ahead for her and Seamus.
This book is essentially a love a story of the non-traditional kind—and it does have a happy ending. I was glad that I had sought out this book and can easily see how Jordan’s talent has blossomed over the years.
So, I’ve caught up with all my reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge now. That makes my total 14 books by Australian women writers read and reviewed so far this year, and the year isn’t even over yet! What did you think of these books? Any recommendations to restock my reading pile?