I don't know about you but I do read the 'puffs' on book covers quite purposefully now, having discovered that they often offer many hidden clues as to a book's potential, or perhaps a publisher's hopes for a book's potential.
I mentioned on an online list pre-Booker, Not Untrue and Not Unkind by Ed O'Loughlin as a 'perhaps possible' purely because it had quotes on its magnificence from two writers with Booker previous, Anne Enright and Joseph O'Neill.
It's all set me thinking and a-wondering just how much I am influenced by these quotes nowadays and I think I have to own up that it is probably far more than I realise.
For example I'm not sure I've read a 'wrong' book for me if Hilary Mantel has done a cover quote.
In fact I'll go out of my way to start a book that Hilary has praised and that probably goes for many-an author I've read, though what on earth makes me think because I love their writing I might love their reading tastes as well is all beyond me.
So when Sleeper's Wake by South African writer Alistair Morgan arrived from Granta I was interested to see a cover quote from Anne Landsman also a South African. Albeit also a Granta author, so perhaps some in-house conspiracy was afoot to seduce me, but I overrode that because Anne Landsman's novel The Rowing Lesson had been, for me, one of the great mysteries of our time.The book flattened me, as I recall it was an amazing read and I quite thought to see it win prizes, yet it disappeared here in the UK at least, virtually without trace and largely unreviewed so that was me egg-on-face.
Except Anne Landsman's efforts were finally rewarded in her home country recently with the Sunday Times 2009 Literary Award for The Rowing Lesson and I was delighted, not only for Anne but also that perhaps it hadn't just been me who'd sensed the power of this book and I could wipe a bit of the egg off my chops.
So perhaps I'm a bit onside with Alistair Morgan before I open the book, not least because alongside Anne is Andre Brink queuing up to praise this book. I didn't know a lot about Andre Brink either beyond a revered name and reputation, but having done some research I plan to know much more.
As John Wraith regains consciousness after a car accident which has wiped out his family, it's clear this is going to be an exploration of one man's travails through grief as he takes up his sister's offer of a solitary stay in a holiday cabin on a remote part of the South African coast.
'...the pain of their deaths. It hasn't arrived yet. But it is coming. I can see it nearing the coastline, like a tropical cyclone on a TV weather report. Common sense says that I should get out of town, that I should hammer planks of wood over the windows and flee with whatever possessions I can carry in my arms...'
Intended perhaps as a time to reflect on his many failings and John's no slouch in flagging up his weaknesses, there's an honesty in here,
'...my life over the last few years has consisted of nothing more than a mass of stagnant potential, contained within a brittle shell of denial.'
Unfortunately it's all less solitary than John had planned as he is hopelessly unable to resist being drawn into the strange web of the god-fearing Roelf and his teenage children, Jackie and Simon.
Another family escaping life's traumas, and it's inevitable that this head-on collision of grief reactions in all its many guises is going to become a tough, uncompromising read. Everyone's nursing too much pain of their own to really empathise with each other's.
I can't deny that this is both a complete page-turner but also a disturbing book, and one I had to read whilst keeping in the very forefront of my mind that John was a man disturbed and distorted by the excruciating guilt and anguish of the loss of his family. Though we always say there are no rights and wrongs about grieving, it has to be done by the individual as they see fit and there are some moments here which would certainly shock given a lesser context. Plenty to ponder as John becomes increasingly embroiled with the family and in particular seventeen year-old Jackie, Roelf's deeply traumatised but superficially functioning daughter.
When you know what has happened to Jackie it may well raise questions in your mind, as it did in mine, about the 'what happens next' aspect of Sleeper's Wake, but Alistair Morgan's premise to the book, the 'Sleeper' theory, and that primitive and often brutal instincts may prevail when personal survival is at stake, just about held good for me, two people dealing with their grief in their own way, though none of this felt too certain as I finished the book.
Incidentally the neatness of the title and the added inference of the 'wake' as the post-funeral gathering now very apparent.
That was a all few weeks ago and it's taken this long for me to decide to write about it and post here because I honestly wasn't sure how I felt about the John-Jackie situation but having gained that perspective of distance from the final page I'm now quite able to see that Alistair Morgan has genuinely examined how far grief can and does reshape behaviour into something basic and instinctive
It's been another in a succession of challenging reads for the likes of little old me, but I do think it's good to weave those in from time to time and I'd be very interested to know what others think of this one if they decide to give it a go.