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Books for our times: From The Da Vinci Code to The Year of the Runaways…

Twelve years ago, my husband had just died, and I was having a lot of difficulty sleeping.  For my birthday, someone gave me a copy of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.  They didn’t know anything about it, just that it might involve maths/code and so I might like it.

I really loved it!  I was totally immersed in its urgency and it made me forget about everything going on around me.  I stayed up till about three in the morning so I could finish it (there wasn’t much point trying to sleep anyway.)  I remember being awestruck by the fact that the main characters seemed to be awake for about seventy-two hours solid, as every time they found somewhere they thought they were safe, they had to run away again.

It was only later that I realised the disdain with which the book is regarded 🙂 In particular, I read a review which said that a much better read on a similar subject, the secret life of the Templars, was Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, so when someone suggested that we read this for our next book group read, I said I would definitely go for that.

I actually did prefer The Da Vinci Code over Foucault’s Pendulum.  For a start, Foucault’s Pendulum is huge, and it wasn’t a good start when members of the group had to go down to the Post Office depot to pick up their orders because they were too large to fit into people’s letter boxes.

I was also surprised by how hilariously dated Foucault’s Pendulum was.  It was like watching an Eighties computer hacking-crossed-with-horror film.  Near the beginning of the book, there’s a scene in which the hero has about ten thousand attempts at guessing the password for a computer belonging to his friend, in times that were clearly set before the rules for setting up a strong password became commonplace knowledge.  Near the end, there is a scene where some people get eaten by a blob.  At least I think that is what happens.  It gets very confusing.  The hero becomes very confused as to what is real and what is fantasy and spends a lot of the latter stages of the novel with a headache induced by the twists of what he has discovered or not discovered.  I empathised with this in a way similar to my identification with sleeplessness in The Da Vinci Code.

The Da Vinci Code could almost have been made-to-measure for the nineties consumer, who were being treated to fast developing adventure and special effects driven films in the cinema.  Both I think were products of their time in terms of subject matter too, as well as aesthetic approach.  I found it difficult to care about the worldwide conspiracy theory that underpinned Foucault’s Pendulum; such themes seem now to be the domain of the crackpot in the street.  Likewise, The Da Vinci Code also holds fast to the tenet of the conspiracy, albeit in a less arcane and more immediately compelling way; I am not sure I can think of or imagine conspiracy forming the backbone of a major modern novel in a way that it did in FP and TDVC.  Am I wrong to conjecture that we are more cynical people now and we tend not to believe in things that are not material and individualistic?

Our most recent book group discussion culminated in our first ever unanimous agreement in twelve meetings that we had all enjoyed the book, which was Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, about the Biafran War.  At my other, work, book group, someone asked what novels I would give ten out of ten to, as I had just done that with Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.  I could only remember 100 Years of Solitude, and I’d forgotten Half of a Yellow Sun, which is my other ten out of ten read.

So Americanah, Adichie’s next novel after HoaYS, had so much to live up to.  The subject matter is very different.  It’s a study of racism in North America, as seen through the eyes of Nigerian immigrant Ifemelu.  We see Ifemelu’s early life in Nigeria, where things could be a struggle financially, and her contrasting life as she works her way up the ladder in America, which is an experience not only financially difficult but socially so as well.

The novel is good, in a much more subtle way than HoaYS – there would have been little point in trying to write something that would better it on the same terms.  Taken together, I think the two books show what makes Adichie such a great writer, that she can get so meaningfully into the lives of so many different types of people.

Ifemelu’s boyfriend’s mother is a lecturer in Nigeria, and refers to Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter as being a great book, which incidentally I had just read a post about here: it seems that George Orwell didn’t like it.  Such a polarising book, of course, had to be investigated, especially as another recent strand in my reading is novels from the post-war era – Waugh, Mitford, Greene, et al, and I will include Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour in that list, even though it wasn’t published until 1981.  Someone asked me whether I read all the words in novels, since I get through so many, and it depends on the book.  For example, reading all the words was never going to be key to my appreciation or otherwise of Foucault’s Pendulum, as the whole novel basically boiled down to: Man hiding in museum – Flashback to man with his student-type friends – some conspiracy stuff with the history of the Templars – some investigations performed by the student-type friends – some dangerous pursuit-type activities between Templars and students – The End.

But I really enjoy the way that you generally have to read all the words in the post-war novels, where there is so much unsaid that you have to pick up from the construction of the sentences.  It’s almost like the difference between a time when paper was more expensive and more had to be said in a shorter space, as opposed to our times now when I often feel that the meaning of a book has been diluted down with too many words because publishers think that it will make for a thicker book that buyers will think of as better value for money.

I have to say that The Heart of the Matter was a very uncomfortable read in places, as the setting, an unnamed African colony, was so miserable and grim.  Nobody would be there by choice, so they were either there because they had to be, or because they had some chronic personal issues that caused them to choose to be miserable.  And then every so often, this hot, sweating fug of misery would be torn through by a really clear piercing image of the true awfulness of existence.  It was very memorable, if not exactly enjoyable.

Good Behaviour was my last example of enjoying reading every single word in a book, but that’s before I started The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota.   It’s not often that I read like I did when I was a child, with a compulsion to find out what happens to the characters, and with an enjoyment of learning about the world from their point of view, but I felt that very strongly.  The book is about three immigrants, legal and illegal, from India, and a British born young Sikh woman.  I thought the plotting was very well done, with all the characters’ motivations, which were often less than straightforward, well explored and then used to make them run into each other with dramatic results.  The ending was a little bit weak, however, and the writing style was adequate, if not inspirational, so this is not going to be another ten out of ten book – I’m still on the lookout if anyone has any suggestions!




  1. Really enjoyed reading your review, full to the brim with snippets and your insights. Just finished Brighton Rock, so it was funny to see you talking about THOTM.
    You have really made me want to pick up a copy of the Year of the Runaways too – thank you!

  2. A great informative post with lots of good points Denise, thank you. You are certainly a veracious reader! Have you ever tried Jon Mcgregor? I loved If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. I’d give it a 10😉

    • I hadn’t heard of Jon Mcgregor, but I’ve ordered his book, as it sounds like a particular type of book I really enjoy – one where the writing and author’s engagement with the characters and their situation is such that ordinary things become remarkable. I think that is a great writing skill to have.

  3. As always I’m in awe of your book reading capabilities, even when it’s clear you aren’t enjoyjng it that much 😉 I think sometimes people like to read books like this to make themselves feel clever, then look down on the little people with their books du jour xx

  4. I had heard of the Year of the Runaways, now I have written it on the list of must reads. Thank you for the great review. I hope life is treating you well. Also I never heard of Foucault’s Pendulum but as I enjoyed the Da Vinci Code, I think given your review I will skip it.

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