One of my first reads of 2014 was Stoner by John Williams, and having heard and read so many great things about the book I was excited to read it for myself. Fortunately, or regretfully depending on your point of the view, ‘Stoner’ is not about someone with a frequent case of the munchies but is actually the life story of man called William Stoner who was raised as a farm boy until a revelation at college sets him on his path in academia. After this life changing moment we experience with Stoner the conflicts, disappointments and relationships dynamics of an everyday life. On the back of my copy there is a New York Times review that describes the book as ‘a perfect novel, it takes your breath away’ and it’s hard to disagree.
The first thing that struck me when reading ‘Stoner’ was the clean, quiet and understated voice of the narration. There is nothing flamboyant or fancy going on here with the language, which may seem odd when you consider that Stoner’s passion and life work is literature but for me this simplicity is one of the books strengths and before you know it three or four chapters will have flown by. Stoner is crammed full of injustice, frustration and sadness and this simple prose makes it an all the more affecting and powerful reading experience.
One of the saddest and most heart-rendering of these events for me is Stoner’s relationship with his daughter Grace. For much of her young life they are the most important thing in each other lives, indeed in her first year ‘Grace Stoner knew only her father’s touch, and his voice and his love’ and some of the happiest scenes in the book involve Stoner and his daughter together in his study, with Grace sat at her specially made desk. But as a consequence of his failing marriage Grace is turned against Stoner and they become strangers to each other. This is not to say that the novel is relentless misery, there are moments of happiness and joy in Stoner’s life, but most of the important things that happen to Stoner, finding love, his relationship with his daughter, his career to an extent, end in failure.
Although Stoner’s life reads as a series of frustrating obstacles, setbacks and disappointments, I never found myself pitying him at any point in the novel. I felt frustration and sadness for how his life had turned out but Stoner never becomes, for me at least, a pity figure due to his complete dedication and passion for his work and his unwavering belief in its value and merit. And I think this is the main ‘message’ at the heart of the book. Although life may not reach the dizzying expectations of your youth, it’s important to set aside the disillusionment and setbacks and make the most of the cards that you’ve been dealt.
Easily one of the most moving and poignant books I have read, Stoner comes highly recommended but you will, however, almost certainly find yourself keenly feeling every disappointment and frustration of Stoners life along the way. There are no great moments of dramatic despair in Stoner, it’s the quiet and ordinary sadness of everyday life that makes the novel so moving.
Due to the recent re-release and having being made Waterstones book of the year there are various editions of the book available. I was lucky enough to be given the hardback cloth special edition and it now sits snugly in what I like to call my ‘classic American Literature section’ pictured above. (I do work in a library, don’t judge me too harshly) If you are thinking of buying the book I would definitely recommend shipping out the extra couple of quid for the cloth edition!