My two favorite books of the year could be a study in structural contrasts. If I were teaching a course on just these two novels, I’d call it something like “On Looseness and Tightness: And How Are These Both So Damn Good?”
Let’s start with Sarah Waters’s 2009 gothic novel The Little Stranger, which weaves in on itself again and again in the most satisfying and unnerving of ways. With limited settings (mostly a manor house in poor repair) and a limited and rather isolated cast of main characters, the story uses its own limits to create its tensions. What the average haunted house story does perfectly well — trap some people in an old house and let them stew in their own juices — this does tenfold, also trapping the main character, Dr. Faraday, in his own mind — a mind he fundamentally does not understand. The narrative moves straight through time (we sense early that we’re hurtling toward something terrible), and that linearity — along with our being limited to Dr. Faraday’s quite inadequate first person point of view, makes for a fabulously claustrophobic novel.
And now for something completely different: Maggie Shipstead’s sophomore novel, Astonish Me (out this year) is loose in the most beautiful of ways, much like the ballet dancers she writes about. We move back and forth through time — but lightly, not as if we’re suddenly hit with the great revelation about the past — and through various third-person viewpoints. We end up with something almost like a constellation, beautiful points of light which we’re at liberty to connect. The language itself is as relaxed and elegant as the structure. I suppose the word is “grace.”
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