The New Life- Tom Crewe (Chatto & Windus 2023)

Here’s a book which was my last read of 2022 and which I loved so much that it just had to be in my Books Of The Year Top 10 even though it is not published until January 2023…

This extraordinary debut opens with a sex scene in a public place which instantly brought back the memory for me of watching the 1986 French film “Betty Blue” (although it’s known as a different title in France) at the cinema which also begins with a steamy sexual encounter going on.  It brought back the same sense of unease which filled the cinema as without any preamble and little context the description of the act become more shocking, more distancing and challenges the reader/viewer who begins to feel they are a voyeur.  It’s a device which obviously isn’t used that often (which was why a film I saw decades ago came to mind) and I can see why (surely even porn films have some build up to the act).

It materialises that, in this instance, this encounter is actually a dream experienced by John Addington, in the last years of the nineteenth century.  Addington, a middle-aged married man is obsessed by his sexuality.  His wife knows of homosexual encounters in his past and he struggles to channel these feelings into watching naked men swimming in the Serpentine until a meeting in Hyde Park causes him to confront his desires.

Alongside this narrative strand we meet Henry Ellis on his wedding day.  He is an advocate for change in Victorian society, both he and his wife-to-be believe in a New Life with greater freedoms.

I’m a sucker for Victorian-set novels especially when they highlight the double standard of the era and they trace along the darker sides which this novel certainly does.  The byline for the book on Amazon proclaims it – “A daring  new novel about desire and the search for freedom in Victorian England” and that pretty much fits the bill.

The benchmark I seem to always use for such novels is Michel Faber’s sublime “The Crimson Petal And The White”.  Does it match this book by conveying the feel of the time?  Does this feel authentic?  Is the author able to bring the characters and events to life?  In this case, this book is certainly comparable in terms of quality and also up there with other classics in this field -such as John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and Michael Cox’s “The Meaning Of Night”.  Also, like Faber’s work the subject matter and its handling means that it becomes a difficult book to recommend to all.  Looking back at my review of “The Crimson Petal..” I said “Reading groups will be divided because of the graphic elements.  The reader will know within the first pages whether they feel they will be able to accompany Sugar on her momentous journey.”  Substitute the character of Sugar for John Addington and it still feels apt.  This book is not as explicit but there is something about sex in Victorian settings which still shocks.

I didn’t know this until after reading the novel but it is very loosely based on John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis who collaborated on a book called “Sexual Inversion” as do the main characters here.  Written just as the Oscar Wilde scandal is kicking off there will be serious repercussions for our Addington and Ellis.

I loved the characterisation.  Addington tries the patience despite being a soul in  torment.  Ellis’ passivity will frustrate whilst their wives and lovers are richly drawn and add much to the depth of the novel and the issues raised here.  In one or two places the theories of the time clog the flow a little but I think that this is a very important addition to the genre of modern Victorian-set literature.  This is an outstanding literary debut from the former editor of the London Review Of Books.

The New Life will be published by Chatto and Windus on the 12th January.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2022 – Part One (10-6)

I read 61 books this year which is a bit down on the last couple of years and short of my Good Reads goal of 70.  I retired from paid employment in 2022 and I thought that would mean I would have more time for reading – that obviously hasn’t proved to be the case.  Out of these 61 books, 15 got five star ratings which I think is the highest figure for top ratings I’ve ever given, which made picking the Top 10 from these very worthy books very difficult.  As always, if I’ve read it this year it is included, even if it was published in a previous year, or in the case of one of the titles below, due to be published in 2023.  There are 3 books on the list which were published in 2022, which seems to be the typical figure in these Top 10s. 

So, 61 books, 15 five star ratings, 31 four star reads and also 15 three stars.  59 of these have already been reviewed on the site and they can be found by scrolling through or using one of the two indexes – two titles, including one of the top 10 have not yet had their full reviews appear as I am holding out to nearer to the publication date in January 2023.  I spent quite a considerable time thinking about the books I’d  read this year in forming my Top 10 and once I had assigned positions I felt a little uneasy.  Last year I had a diverse list with a 50-50 gender split, 40% black authors and 30% identifying as LGBT+.  Although the latter figure stays the same there is a drop in both female and black writers (and no black female writers).  In fact, I thought the gender imbalance was unprecedented but this list matches my 2014 choices with which I launched reviewsrevues.com.  I’m not sure whether this is just a blip this year, I must admit some of the big female authored titles did not appeal to me, for example Bonnie Garmus’ “Lessons In Chemistry” was a title I’d had recommended to me and I know it’s one which will feature in many end of year lists but I couldn’t get beyond the very female orientated cover (nor the title actually).  I like to read a balance of books, fiction, non-fiction, newly published and backlisted titles written by a diverse range of authors and this will continue in 2023.  Three of the Top 10 are non-fiction and there are two debut novels and a chunky 50% of the authors have previously featured in my end of year best of lists, which may illustrate that in a year when I have had a lot of upheaval, moving house, relocating to a new area and leaving work I have been more likely to choose authors who have impressed me in the past. 

Here is the first part of the list 10-6.  Don’t be too shocked by the lack of female authors, there is more of a balance in the Top 5.  If you would like to read the full review (and I hope you do as these are the books I want to clamber onto rooftops and shout about) just click on the title.

10. The Queen Of Dirt Island – Donal Ryan (Doubleday 2022)

(Read in July, reviewed in August)

This is Irish author Donal Ryan’s second appearance in my Top 10.  His debut “The Spinning Heart” was my runner-up in 2013.  He has a real skill with characterisation.  In both the books of his which have blown me away he brings a whole community to life.  He is able to establish rich characters in a short space of time and he certainly does this here with his tale of four generations of a family from rural Tipperary.  It is set in the same location and with some of the same characters as “Strange Flowers” which won the Novel Of The Year Awards at the Irish Book Awards.  This was also shortlisted for the same award in 2022 but lost to “Trespasses” by Louise Kennedy.  I think it is a superior companion piece to “Strange Flowers” (and also works fine as a stand-alone).

9. My Revolutions – Hari Kunzru (Penguin 2007)

(Read and reviewed in December)

This is also British writer’s Hari Kunzru’s second appearance in my end of year Top 10, with his 2004 novel “Transmission” making it to number 3 in 2010.  This was perhaps my biggest reading surprise as I wouldn’t have thought this tale of radicalism in late 60’s/ early 70’s England would have appealed.  I was totally captivated by the story-telling and thought it was so rich a novel.  It skipped around in time, which I know some readers do not like but I think it worked really well here and each time-frame was as interesting as the others.  I described it as a book which explores “fighting for what you believe in and how easily idealism can become tainted so that the brave new world once thought possible goes increasingly out of reach.” In terms of scope I felt echoes of Ian McEwan’s 2022 publication “Lessons” but I think this is the stronger novel.

8. Let’s Do It – Jasper Rees (Trapeze 2020)

(Read and reviewed in April)

The authorised biography of Victoria Wood- this is a big book which I knew I was going to like, enough to get me forking out for a hardback edition.  Rees gets the split between the private and public person across so well and this was a big thing for Victoria, who privately was far removed from the bubbly confidence of perhaps the greatest British comedian of all time.  Rees celebrates her as a pioneer, which she undoubtedly was.  I described this as “the definitive biography of Victoria Wood, no one else need bother.

7. Dickens- Peter Ackroyd (Sinclair Stevenson 1990)

(Read and reviewed in March)

And talking of big books, this was my only 1000+ page read of the year, so thank goodness I loved it.  I suspected I was onto a winner as Ackroyd is my third most read author of all time and has made 6 previous appearances on my End of Year list (although not since 2010).  In fact, I had read this before in an edited edition but this full account of the life of Dickens is the real deal and made a greater impression.  It is just so thorough and really got me wanting to revisit the work of Dickens (as well as more Ackroyd).  It’s not actually the author’s best book- I’ll still give that to “London: The Biography” which was my book of the year in 2002 but it is extremely impressive and in the lengthy time it will take you to read this book (five weeks for me) you will be in the hands of a master biographer.

6. The New Life – Tom Crewe (Chatto & Windus 2023)

(Read in December. To be reviewed)

Advance warning for this outstanding debut which will be published in the UK on 12th January.  The author is a former editor of the London Review Of Books and he puts his literary awareness into play with this Victorian set novel which is described as “a daring new novel about desire and the search for freedom in Victorian England.”  My full review of this will follow in the New Year.  Expect comparisons to  “The Crimson Petal & The White” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”- two of my all-time favourites.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for my next post – The Top 5