The Reader on the 6:27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

 

After reading the brief Grief is the Thing with Feathers I turned to The Reader on the 6:27, which at 194 pages is much longer – but still likely the second shortest book I’ve read in a very long time.

 

And here’s the thing. It’s too long.

 

The Reader on the 6:27 is the story of Guylain Vignolles a menial worker in a factory that’s sold purpose is to pulp books. I can, of course, relate to Guylain’s horror at all those lovely books being pulped, so full of potential, but not quite achieving it.

 

Every night he rescues from the machine some of the pages that have been pulped, and then, the next morning reads them aloud to his fellow passengers on his morning train.

 

It’s a wonderful hook, but what follows are two completely separate plots. While they don’t detract from each other, nor do they particularly compliment each other.

 

Guylain finds a memory stick one day, and reads the excerpts of the diary he finds on it. He reads it on the train, and then subsequently to the residents of the old people’s home he’s invited to visit by some of his passengers.

 

He falls in love with the writer of the diary entries and proceeds to track her down in her job as a cleaning attendant in a shopping centre toilet. His reading out loud on the train and the the subsequent consequences of that has no impact on his quest for his mysterious love.

 

It’s almost like the writer had a good idea, wrote it, and then realising it was a bit too short, fished in his ideas pool, found another good idea and stitched it together. It all feels a bit like padding, and I’m not sure entirely what the writer is trying to do.

 

Perhaps I’m too dense, or maybe there is no point to get.

 

The ideas ARE good however, and along with the writing and the unique cast of characters, they make a charming little book. It’s just a little galling that the publisher then slapped an £8.99 price point on it.

Grief is the Thing With Feathers – Max Porter

Back in November, I got the chance to present an award at the ‘Books are My Bag Reader’s Awards’. Like a nominee at the Oscars, it was an honour, just to be asked, but I also got to present the first award at the very awards.

 

I can already feel the blue plaque heading my way.

 

The award was for best fiction book of 2016 and the shortlist, selected by booksellers, was a strong one. Among the heavyweights of Maggie O’Farrell, Jessie Burton and Anne Enright were debut authors Joanna Cannon, Andrew Michael Hurley and Max Porter.

 

I’d read three of them and Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats and Sheep was already in my reading pile. When I spotted Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers in my local WHSmith, I grabbed it so that I could add a fourth tick to my list (and it’s not often I actually buy books, so this marks it out as special right away).

 

It is not a long book, I could read it under an hour, but it’s not meant to be read in one sitting. It’s to be savoured, dipped into.

 

When I revealed it as winner up on that stage I said “and the winner is… on my bedside table, so no spoilers please.”

 

In reality, that’s a stupid thing to say about this book – it’s not the type of book that has spoilers, in fact, the spoiler is right there on the front cover. Grief is the thing with feathers. The metaphor of crow is spelled out for you right there.

 

(As an aside, the reason I ended up speaking such nonsense was because I was concentrating on not saying what was actually in my head which was namely “What are you doing, Alex? Get off the fucking stage.”)

 

So, what is it about? Dad. Boys. Crow.

 

A woman has died leaving behind three men. Dad and her boys. Dad, a Ted Hughes fan, introduces Crow into their lives. Crow is the thing with feathers. Crow is grief.

 

At first crow seems quite ominous, an imposing force on the small family’s life, however as we progress through the snapshots of their lives we learn that the the crow, their grief, is there to protect them from something worse: despair.

 

This book is more poetry than prose, each snapshot of their lives presented in short form, a small anecdote, or even just a sentence or two, capturing a moment or feeling as the boys deal with their grief.

 

The type of book you will be able to dip in and out of and find different meanings each time in the same sentences.

 

I’m not sure it would have been the title I would have picked to win the award for best Fiction 2016 – it feels different to fiction somehow, a category of it’s own, an outpouring of emotion, and not the sort of book I would normally read.

 

But I’m glad I did – and I’m pleased I got to present Porter with his award, because it certainly deserves recognition.