Moving along my bookshelves to decide which of my 290+ unread books to keep, I’ve reached titles all beginning with the letter F. I’ve pulled out two novels and one work of non fiction to sample before deciding whether to let go or keep. There’s a loose connection between them — they all seem to involve individuals who make life-changing decisions.
A Five Year Sentence by Bernice Rubens
I bought this in a spirit of patriotism, wanting to support the only author from Wales to have won The Booker Prize. I wasn’t terribly keen on the winning novel — The Elected Member but dislike it so much that I ruled out reading another book by Bernice Rubens. A Five Year Sentence, published in 1978, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year.
It seems a very different kind of novel, one based on the figure of a single woman, a factory worker who is forced to change her drastic retirement plan when she receives a diary as a gift.
The opening is dramatic: ‘Miss Hawkins looked at her watch. It was 2.30. If everything went to plan, she would be dead by six o’clock.’ But things don’t go to plan.
A five-year diary, which she receives as a retirement gift, compels the dutiful Miss Hawkins to cancel her carefully prepared suicide. Having been sentenced to live, she then embarks on a mission to taste life’s secret pleasures.
The Verdict: Keep. I think it’s worth trying though I do hope it doesn’t become sentimental.
The Friendly Ones by Philip Hensher
This is a novel about two families, neighbours in an upmarket street in Sheffield. One is a retired doctor, a widower whose four children have long left home. His next door neighbours are a large and loosely connected family driven away from Bangladesh by war, murder, crime and brutal oppression — things their new neighbours know nothing about. A near tragedy one sunny afternoon brings the two families together. The novel is told partly in flashback, in the years leading up to the violent path to Bangladesh’s independence in the 1970s.
The Verdict: Keep. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve not read anything set against this period in history and this sounds a very powerful narrative . The Guardian reviewer highly rated it, describing it as “… a profoundly generous and good-hearted book, one that leaves you missing its characters as you would fondly remembered friends. Hensher is one of our most gifted novelists and this is certainly his best novel yet.”
Fourty Autumns by Nina Willner
I’ve enjoyed participating in Non Fiction November over the last few years but there is one downside — seeing all the posts by other participants means I get tempted to buy their recommendations. Fourty Autumns is the result of one of those temptations. It traces the history of three generations of Willner’s family —mothers, sisters, daughters and cousins — separated by forty years of Soviet rule.
Nina Willner’s mother, Hannah, managed to get out of eastern part of Germany just as the Soviets took control just after the end of World War 2 but her mother, father and eight siblings remained in the East. In her new life in America, Hannah made many attempts to establish contact with her family but most were unsuccessful. It was not until the Berlin Wall came down, that the families were able to be reunited.
The Verdict: Keep. The account of one family’s experience would make this interesting but Willner’s professional background gives this book an added dimension for me: she was a US Army intelligence officer who led intelligence collection operations in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. So I’m thinking that her account of the East German regime during partition will be based on deep insight.
Sample Sunday is when I take a look at all the unread books on my shelves and decide which to keep and which to let free. The goal isn’t to shrink the TBR as such, but rather it’s about making sure my shelves have only books I do want to read. What do you think of the decisions I’ve reached? If you’ve read any of these books I’d love to hear from you.