Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Christmas reading is like summer reading. Well, in a large part of the Southern Hemisphere, of course, Christmas reading is summer reading.
But here in Europe, where we can't spend the Festive Season spread out on a beach with a great book, we still manage to steal a few more hours than usual, lying on a couch next to a cosy fire, reading something yummy. Which often turns out to be one of the heap of books we haven't read all year, saving them for the lazy days and long nights of our Christmas break.
This month, for instance, I finally got stuck in a nice thick novel I've been hearing about all year - New York Times best seller, Orange Prize for Fiction 2010 and, even better, praised by quite a few of my friends and fellow readers. I always find the small buzz created by word-of-mouth among like-minded book lovers so much more trustworthy than even the most raving literary review, don't you agree?
I think it was in May that my Johannesburg friend Elsabe first mentioned she was reading a wonderful novel set in Mexico, written by the author of The Poisonwood Bible, and dealing with real-life historical figures like Trotsky, Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera. A month or two later an American friend told me she was reading a marvellous story about the horror of the anti-Communist hysteria in the fifties in America. Then my friend Irma from England came to visit and, as always, brought some books along for me. Among them was this very same Mexican-American novel that I kept hearing about.
By now many of you will know I'm referring to Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna. I saved it for Christmas - and glory hallelujah, it is everything I want from a good Christmas read. Because Christmas reading, I believe, should be like Christmas food. Special, substantial but not too 'heavy', decadently enjoyable; in short, not your everyday fare. The Lacuna is special for many reasons: more than 600 pages, each of them finely crafted, telling a gripping tale set over two decades in two countries - 1930s to 1950s in Mexico and the USA - with a cast of unforgettable characters.
It is certainly not the least of Ms Kingsolver's many achievements that the fictional characters appear every bit as alive as the real-life figures. The protagonist's flighty mother and his sensible, demure secretary, Violet Brown, are the kind of people you remember long after you've met them between the pages of a book. And then there's the protagonist himself, Harrison Shepherd, a Mexican-American cook who later becomes a briefly famous author before mysteriously disappearing...
In case you haven't yet read the story, I won't spoil your pleasure by speculating about the end - but let me assure you, this is one of those that end not with a whimper, as is so often the case, but with a quite spectacular bang. Actually I'm quite envious of you if you're still planning to read it. You have a lot of pleasure to look forward to.
And now I'm returning to my next Christmas novel, which promises to be a glorious treat too: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, last year's winner of the Man Booker Prize, another lovely Big Fat Book.
I wish you all a happy Festive season and, above all, happy Festive reading!