Love, Friendship and Surveillance

When I felt rather under the weather a couple of weeks ago, I decided to revisit an old comfort read, Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido. I read most of Barbara Trapido’s novels when I was a teenager because my mum had them on the bookshelves at home. Brother of the More Famous Jack was the first one I read, the story of Katherine, a student who becomes involved with her philosophy tutor’s unconventional family and falls in love with their older son. It is quite a sharp and witty novel and I enjoyed it the second time round, although I was less sure than ever that I would actually want to be welcomed into the terrifying Goldman family in real life.

The next book I read was February Flowers by Fan Wu, a modern novel set in China about the friendship between two girls at university. It followed the kind of friendship that I often find portrayed in novels, where one girl of the pair is innocent, shy and academic, while the other girl is glamorous, adventurous and seems to have a much more exciting life. So I didn’t think February Flowers was particularly original in this respect, but it did have an unusual setting (for me) which made it more appealing. It seemed to be deliberately written for a Western readership who wouldn’t know much about China, which created a rather strange effect at times, but I found it interesting to read about the experience of being at university in China in the 1990s. Somehow I didn’t completely connect with this novel, although it had a nice melancholic atmosphere and explored experiences of friendship, growing up and sexuality in a realistic way.

I then became completely absorbed in Joanna Briscoe’s latest novel, You. I’d already read her earlier work Sleep With Me, which was equally compelling (in fact I managed to read it in one sitting in the bookshop over a cup of coffee – a good way to save money on books). You is about seventeen-year-old Cecilia, who lives on Dartmoor with her family and goes to a very liberal, progressive school which she hates. She is an obsessive reader and longs for a more structured, academic world, and finds a kindred spirit in her English teacher, the old-fashioned Mr Dahl. Cecilia becomes completely infatuated with Mr Dahl – and the book describes the feelings of a teenage crush wonderfully – but then unexpectedly she realises that he seems to feel the same way about her. The book is told in flashbacks from the present day when Cecilia has returned to Dartmoor with her children and new partner, and also follows the story of Cecilia’s mother Dora who has an equally obsessive love for Mr Dahl’s wife Elizabeth (yes, I admit the plot is rather implausible). I liked the wild and windswept setting on the moors, the intensity of the relationships, and the way the plot kept me reading until the very end. The anticlimactic ending disappointed me slightly – I didn’t want to be abandoned just before all the loose ends were wrapped up! – but overall I found this a very enjoyable book.

I picked up Fever and Spear, the first volume of Javier Marias’ trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, in the Oxfam shop on my lunch break, because I’d read All Souls previously and enjoyed it even though it wasn’t one of my favourite books ever. I don’t know if it was partly that I was in a different mood, but I loved Fever and Spear. The central idea is fascinating – the main character, Jacques Deza, is recruited by a mysterious espionage organisation when the leader realises that he has an unusual talent for understanding people’s motives and characters and for predicting how they will behave in the future. The book is again set mostly in Oxford and includes many of the same characters as All Souls (it’s set slightly later so I would read All Souls first). Following Deza’s discoveries of double agents and the history of betrayal during the Spanish Civil War, the novel is about how all relationships change over time and how much people can sense about others without being told. I’m now halfway through the second book in the trilogy, Dance and Dream, with the third lined up ready, and I think Javier Marias is becoming one of my favourite writers.

  1. I have only read one of Trapido’s novels, Sex and Stravinsky, but I liked it very much. Thanks for reminding me of her.
    Brscoe sounds like somene I would enjoy, I need to have a closer look.
    Februarary Flowers does sound familiar. I think there are a few books based on that premise but that doesn’t mean they cannot be good. I enjoy this combination, of two girls who are so different and their friendship.
    I still haven’t read Marias but it’s high time.
    It’s a nice change, four short reviews.

    • Sarah said:

      I think that’s the only Trapido I haven’t read! I must try that one.
      I think stories of that kind of friendship can be interesting (it reminds me of the film Me Without You), I suppose this one didn’t really grip me that much but it wasn’t bad.
      I would recommend Marias’ books very much. I had to get used to his writing style as it’s quite unusual (basically, sentences that never seem to end!) but now I really like it.

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