Books: Plums and turkeys
We all read the `Books of the Year', but there's another side to the story. Every publisher has a favourite book or pet project, a stunning novel or hard-hitting memoir, that somehow doesn't tempt the reviewers or buyers. Kate Figes asks some of our leading publishers about the ones that got away, and delivers her own verdict.
London-born Kate Figes is the author of two novels and five non-fiction books, mostly about family life and relationships. katefiges.co.uk. Her latest book ‘Our Cheating Hearts: Love & Loyalty; Lust & Lies’ has just been published by Virago
Sunday 29 December 1996
HODDER & STOUGHTON
THE PASSION OF ALICE by Stephanie Grant, Sceptre pounds 5.99
"We published originally in trade paperback, feeling that with the right attention, that would get the book to the widest audience. It was garlanded with praise in the US and everyone who has read it has been enthralled and moved. The only review it got here (a rave) was in the Times Literary Supplement. The quality of the book aside, we thought that the subject matter would at least inspire attention, but maybe that is what turned out to be its undoing for literary editors - although the treatment of eating disorders is far from depressing. I think it's a remarkable novel."
KF's verdict: I have read two other novels recently about eating disorders: Jenefer Shute's Life Size and Martina Evans's superb Midnight Feast, set in a convent school where anorexia spreads quicker than flu. So I picked this up nervously - what more could I get from a novel set in an American rehabilitation centre for eating disorders, Alice's home after a heart attack brought on by self-induced starvation? Well, anorexics grow more body hair to keep themselves warm and dentists can tell how long a girl has been vomiting just by looking inside her mouth, but once you get over the eating-disorder detail and the cold, detached tone of the first 50 pages, this becomes a very good novel indeed, revealing how hard it is for most women to avoid living with some sort of obsession with food. Maeve is an intelligent, irreverent bulimic with a sense of humour. This is her fifth stay in a clinic (she chose this one because of the food) and she carries around a purse to puke in because she got tired of "putting my face where other people shit, it was giving me low self- esteem". Alice falls in love with her and in that love lies the key to her cure. Grant's writing becomes sensual, powerful and moving as she explores their relationship, for Maeve accuses her of "sexual anorexia" and encourages her to see her body for what it is. Grant maintains that eating disorders are not about dependency and obsession, needing the same sort of treatments as alcoholics or those with a drug habit, nor are they about childhood trauma needing therapy. Anorexics relish the control and discipline they exert over their bodies in order to try to constrict and eliminate the emptiness they feel inside. Even so, I wonder whether childhood trauma, unhappiness and cultural pressure to be thin doesn't also play a part
Clare Alexander Publishing Director Viking
N THIS DARK HOUSE by Louise Kehoe, Viking pounds 17
"We were going to publish it in the spring because I didn't want it to get lost when there was so much else going on, but then we had a legal problem and it came out six months later at a very busy time. It hasn't been completely overlooked, but it has been pushed to one side. I think that most families have something that troubles them, some kind of secret, and in this book it was palpable. I hoped that it would become a little classic about family, and I still hope that, because there are an awful lot of families that have reinvented themselves, cut themselves off from the past and the price for that is paid by the next generation. We published it just after Tim Lott's book about depression and his mother's suicide, The Scent Of Dried Roses, and that wasn't overlooked at all. Tim's subject is in a way grimmer but told with deep love, whereas Louise's book is written with great distress; maybe that made Tim's more palatable."
KF's verdict: When Clare Alexander consulted her review file for Louise Kehoe's memoir about her father, the architect Berthold Lubetkin, she was surprised to find that there were more reviews than she had expected. But because they had been spread out, the impact was considerably diluted. It takes more than good reviews these days for a book to make an impact on the reading public. Tim Lott's book was widely reviewed, extracted and discussed and has some important things to say about the relationship between depression and identity. But Kehoe's is more extraordinary and complete, managing to work as a riveting mystery story as well as an important testimony about Jewish guilt and the shattering of identity caused by the Holocaust. Lubetkin denied his Jewish identity to his children. They never knew that they had grandparents who died in Auschwitz; he moved them to a remote Somerset farmhouse in 1939 out of what can only be termed, in the light of what we know now from this book, as cowardice and guilt. He was a cruel, dictatorial father who refused to allow his wife to visit her children for comfort when they were ill, and repeatedly undermined their confidence with criticisms. Kehoe's memoir of her father is also the story of her discovery of her own Jewish identity and of the extraordinary way that her father cut off his past from his children and knowledge of his children from his surviving relatives.
Dan FranklIn Publishing Director
LIKE PLASTIC by David Flusfeder, Cape pounds 14.99
"It's hard enough to get attention for first novels, but it's a doddle compared with the problem of second novels. I was particularly disappointed with the reception accorded to David Flusfeder's Like Plastic. And I was not alone: even the pseudonymous Harvey Porlock in the Sunday Times wondered, a propos this book, "why some novels are deemed worthy of heavyweight review coverage while others, apparently of equal merit and relevance, are virtually ignored". I wish I knew the answer. Flusfeder's first novel Man Kills Woman made its mark. Like Plastic is much more ambitious: a book about greed and perversity, a family in conflict, about business and about Britain today. These are big subjects; perhaps too big for a British novel, and one or two of those who did review the book seemed to think that Flusfeder had bitten off more than he could chew. It would be very sad if the perennial plaints about the narrow focus of English fiction were to turn out not only to be true, but to be encouraged by literary editors neglecting those very books that are trying to do something bigger."
KF's verdict: Dan Franklin is right. This is a brave, different, demanding novel, but it took me a while to warm to it and find its heart. The heart lies with marvellous Dinah, the great matriarch of an East End Jewish family who made their money out of a plastics factory but who now see profits dwindling. Dinah's son Howard squanders the family fortune on pointless hair-treatments for his encroaching baldness and then deserts his family for two years in order to downsize on a Greek island. Her nephew Charlie, meanwhile, snorts the profits and buys up other family shares so that he can get the required 75 per cent in order to sell the firm, founded by Dinah's dead husband. Old-style notions of family values and enterprise are dead, but neither Charlie nor Howard have found anything worthwhile to replace them with. Charlie has two failed marriages and no children, Howard has a loyal but unchallenging wife, a teenage daughter indulging in drugs and promiscuity and a son who locks himself into his bedroom for three years after his parents refuse to give him the ten-speed bicycle that he wants. Depressing stuff, until Dinah cuts through their immature, macho self-indulgence with pathos, character and humour, like a good Jewish mamma should. This is a rich, daring, multi-stranded novel with superb cameos and brilliant construction, far better in my view than a great many novels published this year by more established names.
Philippa Harrison Publishing Director
NORTH COUNTRY FAIR: Travels Among Racing Pigs and Giant Marrows by Harry Pearson, Little, Brown pounds 14.99
"I think this is a quite wonderful book full of the sort of humour that not only makes you howl with laughter but makes you feel really good about humanity. Harry is brilliantly perceptive, his comedy acutely observant yet not malicious. His first book The Far Corner was runner up for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year for 1995 and got wonderful reviews all over the place. Perhaps our cover wasn't perfect, but with this new subject - no obvious male hook? - he only got one national review and his sales are not yet two thirds of the sales of the first one. The solus review we did get in the Independent raved about the book and called Harry "funnier than Bill Bryson". Despite pre-publication coverage with pieces by Harry in two newspapers and two magazines, that was all we got, review- wise. I think we should nurture our own."
KF's verdict: Perhaps the cover wasn't perfect? It's one of the most hideous and unappealing covers that I've ever seen. It may be appropriate, but if you're trying to market a writer funnier than Bryson and Hornby, put together you have to come up with something that doesn't look so old- fashioned that it's destined for remainderdom. And the inside-cover blurb is even worse - an over-jocular imitation of a country fair poster which makes you want to put the book straight back down rather than read any further. Pearson writes intriguingly about the bizarre world of agricultural fairs and country shows where the candyfloss and toffee apples are always inedible and there is a prize for everything including "The Dog who Loves the Most". He can be very funny at times, but he lacks the charming self- deprecation that has made Bryson and Hornby so successful, and I wish he hadn't written so flippantly about the deeply fascinating history of these fairs. I like my history straight. As for the book's general appeal, football (the subject of Pearson's first book) is a national obsession, on television most nights of the week. Country fairs and agricultural shows have yet to find the same mass-market appeal.
Peter Straus Publisher MacMillan
REBELLION IN THE BACKLANDS by Euclides da Cunha, Picador pounds 15
"This is seen as one of the greatest works of Brazilian literature - an abridged version appeared in this country in 1945 but the full edition has never appeared in England before, although it has been available in the US. It is a quite marvellous and extraordinary story and the likes of Vargas Llosa, Garca Mrquez, and, nearer to home, writers like Nicholas Shakespeare and Louis de Bernieres attest to its qualities. We published it in a special series and special format, the travel classics, and I thought that was a way of getting attention for it, but we have had no reviews whatsoever and this is most disappointing."
KF's verdict: This is a book that demands repeated quotation in any review, for the writing is breath-takingly rich and eloquent. Euclides da Cunha combines vivid descriptions of Brazil's geography, geology, weather bands and peoples with a devastating portrait of the acute drama and futility of war, when state forces engaged in a year-long siege at Canudos to crush the rebellion led by the religious mystic Antonio Conselheiro in 1896. Economic and social inequities between the rebels and the state are rooted in the land and its unequal spoils. He shows how the northern backlands of Canudos are deserts, "how natural life in these parts is hunted by the cruel climate, how it is crushed to the earth". It is so hot that he came upon a soldier who lay dehydrated but completely intact three months after he had been killed: "not even a worm had defiled his tissues". His tone is always generous and often humorous. Conselheiro "was impelled by a power stronger than himself to enter into conflict with a civilisation and to go down in history when he should have gone to hospital". Clearly this is never going to be a mass-market read, but it is an important introduction to Brazil for anyone who intends to travel there, a crucial text for Latin American scholars and it is fascinating and unique for the armchair traveller. I can't think why this book has been so consistently overlooked.
SECKER & WARBURG
DEATH COMES FOR PETER PAN by Joan Brady, Secker pounds 16.99
"This is one of the most important books that I could ever hope to be associated with, written out of bereavement and the sorrow and love that go with that, as well as immense anger about health-care systems. I wanted this book to fuel national debate on the destruction of the health service, and it didn't happen. It got some fantastic reviews and people did respond well to it, but others felt that the non-fiction element of the novel impeded the fiction. We sold a respectable number of copies but we didn't change the world with it. It's a wrenching, tricky subject and perhaps it was too painful, or perhaps we failed to get it to politicians at the right time. We will try to reposition the book as a paperback (in June) as the love story that it is rather than as a story about death and anger. We won't put words like `untreatable' in the cover blurb."
KF's verdict: This is a powerful, shocking and important novel that ought to be read by every politician. It tells the story of a young woman who fell in love with a much older man, bore his only son and then has to come to terms with the fact that he is dying, at just 65. They leave England for home in America and a second opinion, only to find themselves sucked into the bureaucratic nightmare of the American health system, where Peter loses his right to a bed because he is too sick for "rehabilitation" and not yet sick enough for a hospice. Alice has to fight and use devious means in order to keep him cared for in hospital rather than have him farmed out to die in the scandalous conditions of a nursing home, where the dying are left without nursing care or adequate pain relief and have food administered through their noses by untrained staff. The point of this book is the real-life scandal: how the elderly are not allowed to die in dignity because there is so much money to be made by private contractors, and how that model is slipping into the British health service, as Brady so chillingly outlines in her afterword. And while the fiction is, as you would expect from a Whitbread Award winner, accomplished, I kept wishing that I was reading a work of autobiography and investigative journalism. Somehow the message gets diluted by the use of the third person rather than the first, when we know that much of this novel has been based on her experiences with her own husband. Brady spent two years working on a non-fiction book about the plight of millions of elderly and dying Americans, only to find it rejected by every American publisher, and so was forced to turn her research and her story into a novel. Shame on them, for we have all lost out. Such a book really might have made the world a better place.
Publisher Fourth Estate
SONGS IN ORDINARY TIME by Mary McGarry Morris, Fourth Estate pounds 6.99
"I feel passionate about this novel, it's one of my most favourite books that we've ever published. We published it in hardback in August 1995 and I was hoping to be able to do with her what we managed with Carol Shields. It got two national reviews, and we sent 2,800 copies into the bookshops, but got half of them back. However, this didn't deter us. After all, the paperback was the format in which it was going to sell. We gave it the prime June publication spot and spent a bit on marketing it with the chains, but it still didn't work. So why this slow start? The length is probably a factor, either deterring reviewers altogether or making them skim-read. And it might also have initially put off readers. Nationality has also been a problem in that it has excluded her from our prize circuit. Although her previous two novels were critically acclaimed, Macmillan's failure to do anything with them presented us with yet another obstacle. A first-time novelist would have been an easier bet. In short, the most difficult book to publish is an over-long third novel by an American female writer!
KF's verdict: This is a terrific read, an intelligent, epic, soap-opera of a novel set in a small town in Vermont in the Sixties, where everyone has some secret sin or unhappiness to hide. Marie Fermoyle struggles through poverty and the social disgrace of being a divorcee to raise her three children. Enter Omar Duvall, a conman and a murderer, who manipulates Marie shamefully, swindles her out of much-needed funds and feeds her loneliness by pretending to love her. McGarry Morris is masterly at describing incident and character, for these are real people. Marie's frequent rage at her children is born of despair rather than hate, and Omar makes her happier even though she knows he is a bad man. Marie's ex-husband is a drunk, dominated by his sterile, cruel sister, who craves love from his children, but only succeeds in embarrassing them in public with his drunken outbursts. Duvall's loathsome duplicity drove me to distraction, yet his ability to charm Marie and seduce her back into his power had me questioning his motives too, for - as her youngest son Benjy says - "evil might be a force here, but then so was love, because without it nothing made sense or would survive." This is a Peyton Place of a novel, full of intrigue, double-crossing, adultery and general wrongdoing, which towers above much of today's commercial fiction - but it is not a literary novel with any great resonance or depth, so is unlikely to appeal to lovers of Carol Shields or Alice Munro. I don't think the length would have been a problem if Fourth Estate had marketed it as the enjoyable soap that it is, for we like wallowing in long, absorbing reads with such good storytelling that it never seems to end.
Non Fiction Publishing Director
MRS KEPPEL AND HER DAUGHTER by Diana Souhami, HarperCollins pounds 18
"I could have wished more for lots of books, but this is the one that I would have liked to be much more successful than it was if there is justice in this world. In spite of mouthwatering praise and good reviews it didn't catch fire. I felt if ever there was a book that it was worth being around to publish, this was it and it reached number 6 in the bestseller list. Yet I wanted it to be more of a bestseller, to go into the top three and to stay there, so that it became the sort of book that people refer to when describing other books (which in publishing is a true mark of success). I wanted it to sell three times what it did, and given its ingredients, all so beloved of British book buyers, I am surprised that it didn't."
KF's verdict: The ingredients are all here - royalty, adultery, Bloomsbury, Vita, Camilla Parker-Bowles and lesbianism - but perhaps there wasn't quite the right balance in the cooking to capture the word-of-mouth bestseller status that Michael Fishwick felt this book was such a strong candidate for. Mrs Keppel was the discreet but acknowledged lover of Edward VII, and great-grandmother to the lover of another Prince of Wales, Camilla Parker-Bowles. Mrs Keppel lived at the heart of Edwardian High Society as the king's mistress, escorted by him to parties and on holidays at a time when royalty was allowed greater indulgence than we give them today. Her daughter was Violet Trefusis, lover of Vita Sackville-West and the Princesse de Polignac, and spurned by her overbearing mother for her flagrant lesbianism. While royal adultery was acceptable, lesbianism was not, and Souhami explores these contradictions in sumptuous, riveting prose. But this book is essentially about Violet rather than her mother. Diana Souhami's quest is to expose Violet's courage, and the alienation that arose from her determination not to hide her lesbianism behind the facade of a loveless marriage However laudable that intention might be, therein lies the book's downfall, for the homophobia that loomed large in Edwardian times is still to some extent with us today. Had this been a biography focused on the contradictions between Mrs Keppel and her great-granddaughter, then it would undoubtedly still be in the bestseller lists. But that probably wouldn't have been the book that Souhami would have wanted to write.
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