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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Friday, January 21, 2011

The strange case of 'Catch'

I read Simon Robson's novel 'Catch' late last year and it still fascinates and vaguely bothers me. Did I enjoy it? Not really - or at least not in any straightforward way. There is a complicated sort of enjoyment to be got from a difficult book that is quite different from the pleasure of a 'can't put it down' book. 'Catch' was more of a can't pick it up book at times. But it has stayed with me when other novels have dulled and blurred.

I love embarking on reading challenges. A weighty tome, an obscure subject, a difficult style, let me at it. I have rushed to dash myself on the rocks of, say, Gerusalemme Liberata, or Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones which, like a CRAZY person, I decided to read in French. (At 1,300 pages, that's not going too well. I'll get back to you.)

But 'Catch' didn't look like it was going to be a stretch. Robson's debut was an excellent collection of short stories, so I was keen to read his first novel. But the first 10 pages were not only hard going, I thought this was one of the worst books I'd come across all year. It's an excruciatingly slow read, about some neurotic woman living in a cottage who for some reason is obsessed with her never-played piano. There are minute descriptions of her surroundings, particularly the turn on her stairs where there's a window ledge with ornaments. But slowly this weird book exerted its pull.

It covers a day in the life of Catherine, nicknamed Catch, a stay-at-home wife with a hero-lawyer husband. Lonely, she turns over in her mind every character, every remark, every nuance of village life. She broods about a misunderstanding with the vicar and another woman over the church flowers, and goes to see the woman's student daughter to advise her about her college application, a visit that backfires badly. Catch may be going slowly mad. The tension mounts as she waits for Maria, her best friend, a woman who is everything she is not: outgoing, sexy - and musical. In implication it's one of the darkest and bleakest books I've read in a long time; yet what really happens? We're just in the mind of a comfortably off young woman who thinks too much.

Opinion will differ as to whether Robson has got under a woman's skin well enough. I was convinced by the character, although the suggested explanation for her angst, that she wants to have a child yet can't conceive, rather simplistic. It's Robson's minimalist plotting that compels. For its length the book took a long time to read, and by the end I felt that I too had lived in that village, and paused on those stairs to pick up an ornament, and been humiliated by a pushy neighbour.

The book has obvious forebears in its compression of plot to one day, 'Mrs Dalloway' being the most obvious. Woolf is a brave writer to take on; Robson is just not as sensuous and virtuosic a writer. Perhaps the writing isn't quite exciting enough to justify this narrow focus. But even if it doesn't quite come off, 'Catch' is an intriguing work of art with a serious purpose. It performs the great trick of defamiliarising the world, of making the human psyche strange and mysterious, of stimulating our compassion by putting us into the mind of difficult people in mental turmoil.

This might well be a minority opinion. Other readers I've spoken to have been infuriated by the book, finding the whole project self-indulgent and wilfully aloof to its audience. What on earth will Robson do next?

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