The Soul of Discretion

by Susan Hill

Lest you think that I have read this book in a mere day, let me put the record straight.  I have read the first seven books featuring the detective Simon Serrailler, plus a short e-book that I downloaded on holiday last year.  The eighth title in the series, which I ordered from the library in November, arrived last week and I collected it a week ago but only started it yesterday, having rushed through the Jo Nesbo book for book group.

But although I am only about 80 pages in, the book is living up to its promise, and I think that I can expound here on my response to all Susan Hill’s books in this series.  I was put onto them a couple of years ago by a fellow book group member, a voracious and generally ‘serious’ reader.  Hill is a serious writer, if such a term has any meaning, and although I have not yet read what is undoubtedly her most well-known work, The Woman in Black, I have read or dipped into other work by this author.

The Serrailler series offer the reader a well-developed crime story, backed up by believable characters and a picture of family life and relationships straight out of an Aga saga.  If neither of these genres appeals to you, but you like a story with a bit of tension, some thrills and shocks and a realistic setting, I urge you to give these stories a try.

The latest offering does not disappoint.

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The Snowman

by Jo Nesbo

Chosen, rather reluctantly, by our book group.  When asked what I thought, I said it was a “good read” and so it is, though I won’t be rushing out to read anything else by Nesbo.

The story has plenty of murders and false leads to the murderer – in fact I got rather tired of the number of would-be murderers who turned out not to be the real thing.  Though the murders are suitably gruesome, there were few if any really creepy moments in the book.  Perhaps the most chilling was right at the start of the book – a scene-setting that is only later shown in its full significance.

I didn’t manage to guess who the murderer might be, though some of my fellow book group members claimed that they had guessed.  There was a vast array of characters, most of them stereotypes and somewhat two-dimensional.  None of them is memorable, except perhaps the detective, Harry Hole.

After rushing to complete One Hundred Years of Solitude so that I would have a couple of days in which to read The Snowman, I found that this book raced along, being – as this genre of book tends to be – very much plot-driven (whereas 100 Years has no plot to speak of).

I would still call this a good read, and it fits the genre – you know what you are going to get.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

by Gabriel García Márquez

Reading this book has been a bit of a slog.  It has been on my ‘to read – someday’ list for a few years, and when my mother gave me her copy, having struggled to read it for her book group, I took up the challenge and started reading.

The book is unusual, indeed remarkable.  Its 430 pages pack so much in that you think you are reading a much longer book.  The atmosphere and characters are confidently but mysteriously drawn, and the reader is transported to a distant, remote and slightly fanciful world, which the author deliberately omits to root in place or time.  The reader is left to divine that the action probably takes place in the 19th and early 20th century, in a South American country on the Caribbean coast, such as Colombia (the author’s birthplace) or Venezuela.  The point being that it doesn’t matter.

Márquez captures well the internal solitude of each of us, and indeed each of his characters struggles with his or her fate, ultimately alone.  The narrative is mesmerising, almost in the way that Proust mesmerises the reader by dissecting everyday objects and situations and displaying them in excruciating and painstaking detail.  Unlike Proust, Márquez hints at what is going on, rather than laying it bare.  And so he is able to expose a hundred years in the life of a family and its members, telling you far more than you thought possible in an average-length novel, while Proust takes a great many pages to lay bare the innermost psychology of a brief moment’s reflection.

As a family saga, this story reminded me also of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.  It is some years since I read that book, and I ask myself now whether the setting and the characters were actually more important than the plot – as they clearly are in Marquez’s book. Would I be satisfied, going back to Seth after 20 years, to read a long novel without an engaging storyline?  I think my reading tastes may have changed, and nowadays I like a good story.  (But perhaps my memories of the Seth book are distorted.)

This lack of a plot is where Márquez’s  book fails for me.  I kept on reading because the prose is beguiling, the characters fascinating, and I wanted to know I could finish the book.  But the story did not compel me to keep reading, to find out “what happens next”.