Rebecca West: A Life

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A Year in Reading: Sarah Waters

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Many of my most memorable reads in 2013 have, I realize now, been re-reads.

Having worked my way, over the years, through all the novels of the fabulous British writer Elizabeth Taylor, I decided to return to Angel, a novel that I’d recalled as not one of my favorites. This time I saw why so many people call it Taylor’s masterpiece. With its monstrous romantic-novelist heroine Angelica Deverell, it’s a study of extravagant self-deception that’s both achingly funny and heart-wrenchingly sad.

Patrick Hamilton’s novels are gloomier than Taylor’s; he’s a sort of 20th-century George Gissing, preoccupied with the frustrations and lonely passions of “ordinary” life. His hilarious The Slaves of Solitude, with its minute depiction of petty rivalry and thwarted ambition in an overcrowded Second-World-War lodging-house, was a joy to re-read.

Inexplicably, Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows was a novel I’d remembered not quite fondly; but on this visit I was glued to it. The semi-autobiographical story of a shabby-genteel Edwardian family led by a brilliant but feckless father into one crisis after another, it’s a long, leisurely read, full of wonderful odd meanders — but all held together by West’s luminous prose. One lovely effect of this re-reading, too, was that it left me wanting to know more about its author. That took me to Victoria Glendinning’s Rebecca West: A Life — a magnificent biography, quite as enthralling as West’s own fiction.

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