Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Re-entering Dunnettworld

Well, my reading rates have tailed off after that magnificent burst of activity during the summer. This month, I have gone back to the habit of having about 3 books on the go at any one time, and then of course, there is marking, the masters and planning and preparation to be done.

So what is on the Currently Open but Unfinished pile?

Solomon & Lord: disappointing Miami law-thriller-romance. Promising reviews from the likes of Carl Hiaasen and Harlan Coben, but it's mushy and the characters are more like tv-movie characters than real people. Nearly finished.

The French Renaissance Court, Robert Knecht: this one I am really enjoying. It is proper history, but also accessible to people like me who are not academic historians. And it is a beautiful book to handle, lovely quality paper and reproductions, along with competent, concise prose exploring a complicated and complex subject.

King Hereafter, Dorothy Dunnett. I've been saving this since I bought it in 2001 just after DD died and I knew there would be no more books. It's the story of Macbeth, but not as we know him from Shakespeare. Instead, it is one of DD's classic recreations of period, focusing not on 15th or 16th century Europe, but on 11th century Scotland, and it is wonderful. I wasn't in the mood when I first picked up the novel, but now there is a group read on one of the Dunnett webgroups and it is at a steady pace, not too fast, allowing us all plenty of time to tease out meanings, observe the subtleties and work our way through the labyrinth of names and places that are a little familiar, but not totally so. I was surprised to encounter Lady Godiva, frex.

Dunnett's modus operandi is layering detail on detail to build her world, and to write about intelligent heroes surrounded generally by intelligent and perceptive observers. We rarely enter the hero's point of view, most frequently encountering him through the perceptions of others, which are opaque and driven by their own agendas, and she is quite extraordinary in capturing the way internal and external drives conflict and mesh to drive events. She is like a scientist turning a specimen over and around, searching out its secrets, its crannies and its depths, and yet leaving still some mysterious glamour over the reader. Once she has you in her grip, that's it, you are hers forever as a reader. When I look at the complete set of DD novels, the audiobooks and the interaction with my fellow fans over the internet, I cannot quite believe that it is now 22 years since I first read her books, and 26 years since I first heard her name, recommended in glowing and passionate terms by a literature don at Georgetown University.

Her throne remains empty. There are other writers of historical novels, certainly, but no one really to compare with her. Patrick O'Brian, perhaps, although he died the year before she did. I think the closest I've come recently is Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, although they are slighter and more fantasy-oriented, and Megan Whalen Turner's Eugenides books, although they are alternative history and aimed squarely at the YA rather than the A market. I don't mean to diss either writer when I say they don't really compare.

So I am enjoying my last unread Dunnett novel, savouring it, relishing it and drawing out the pleasures of a stay in the Dunnettverse, a world of riches and insight, led by a sure-footed guide in full command of her facts and faculties.

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