After medieval attitudes to outsiders and two large fantasy tomes, my most recent read was something of a change of pace: Silk, by Alessandro Baricco - a brief, moving, utterly beautiful fairytale of longing and loss, set predominantly in mid-19th-century France and Japan (& which, I hear, is to be made into a film, with Keira Knightley).
The story centres on Herve Joncour, a young French silk breeder. When silk production in his home town is threatened by disease, he travels to Japan in order to smuggle out uninfected silkworms. There, he finds himself captivated by the concubine of his local contact. Despite the danger, as Japan erupts in civil war, and despite his marriage to the loving but childless Helene, Herve finds excuses to return, repeatedly. Lacking a common language, never exchanging a mutually-intelligible word, and venturing little beyond stolen glances, Herve and the concubine fall in love.
It is told, with an elegant simplicity (one of the review quotes on the back compares the language to that of haiku, and I concur), in the rhythms and logic of fairytale. Lines and passages recur, becoming motifs, like the stylised repetitions of Herve's journeys to and from Japan, which punctuate the two poles of his life, his encounters with the concubine and his repeated reunitings with Helene. In a such a stripped-down narrative, the flashes of imagery - in particular, colours - are especially striking and resonant as evocations of mood and theme. The characters, likewise, are made archetypes, their longings and lusts universalised, larger-than-life.
And the conclusion, of course, is desperately poignant - bringing home, finally, how longings for things that will never be can obscure the things that are.
Occasionally, on windy days, he would go down to the lake and spend hours in contemplation of it because he seemed to descry, sketched out on the water, the inexplicable sight of his life as it had been, in all its lightness.
Edited to add:
SFsite's top ten reads of 2005 (including Caitlin Sweet!)
Small Beer Press are having a sale
Ansible 224 published today