We book reviewers like to be kind: as my late father, Cyril Connolly, used to opine, it takes someone years to craft a book, whereas the work of the critic occupies mere days. Some critics relish writing stinkers – it’s much more fun and readers don’t instantly forget a hatchet job – but mostly we tend to overpraise. This is why it might be supposed, from reading a magazine of this kind or the review section of a Sunday newspaper, that each month or even each week sees the publication of novels worthy of Flaubert, Dickens or Nabokov. The truth is that most contemporary novels tend to bear comparison only to other contemporary novels and not to the all-time greats. That’s why it’s so exciting when a real talent emerges.
One of the highlights of recent times has been the rediscovery of the American short-story writer Lucia Berlin, a wonderful and truly original voice. Unfortunately, this flurry of interest and admiration has come too late to give her happiness: she died in 2004. Joan Silber is another American writer to have been rediscovered in recent years but – praise be! – she is alive and well and resident in the United States. Silber is the genuine article, a writer of such precision, intelligence and insight that she makes you gasp.
Improvement is Silber’s eighth work of fiction and it has won her the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction as well as the PEN/Faulkner Award. These laurels are well deserved. However, it’s taken until now for her to find a publisher here.
There are reasons, perhaps, for her relative anonymity. Silber is not a shouty author: if she were a religion she’d be Quakerism (hence the comparisons that have been drawn between her work and that of the similarly quiet Alice Munro). The way she writes does not invite summary. She called an earlier book A Ring of Stories and much of her fiction could be so described. Narrative, time and place shift and resettle, like the beads in a kaleidoscope. Characters are built up gradually, often through speech rather than description. Lives that seem to bear no connection to one other turn out to be linked through time or blood or, most often, shared desire. And desire is no guarantee of happiness.
Improvement is not so much a shaggy dog tale as a shaggy rug one: a Turkish carpet runs through the novel as it extends across decades and countries, a token of each of its owners’ desire to improve his or her lot. The characterisation is fantastic and the dialogue pitch-perfect. The way in which the characters’ lives are connected by threads so narrow as to be almost invisible, and yet which are as strong as steel, is moving and always realistic.
A liberal New Yorker named Kiki finds herself on the hippy trail in Turkey, where she marries a carpet dealer from Istanbul and ends up moving to his remote family farm. A car full of Germans turns up at the farm; they are looting antiquities, in a mild way, to fund their travels. Decades later, a group of young African-Americans hit on the scam of smuggling cigarettes from one state to another, with catastrophic results. Meanwhile the daughter of one of the Germans finds herself working at a museum in America, where her job is to research the provenance of the objects on display.
All of these are good stories in themselves, but together they form something wonderful. Silber seems to be suggesting that it’s not only things that can be stolen. Love can be a kind of plundering as well; hearts may be looted. One of the joys of this novel is that Silber doesn’t spell things out but assumes intelligence on the part of her reader.
If you are not yet acquainted with Joan Silber, then Improvement will be a treat. And once you’ve read it, get hold of the rest of her work: Ideas of Heaven, Fools and In My Other Life are all startlingly good.