Why on earth did it take me so long to read this? I picked up a lesser-known work of his, Sweet Thursday, a year or so ago from my favourite bookshop; the local charity shop. And thought it was wonderful. Simple, honest, insightful, intelligent, caring and humane writing. This one physically comes in much, much bigger. I took a deep breath, opened it and dived in. And goodness. It was a delight every night to open the pages and fall into another world. Evocative of California in the early 20th century, in that turning time from pioneer country to consumer-driven world power. All the big meaty themes of life are here, with characters doing what it takes to make a living from the soil, from the army, from shops, from inheritances, and given what seems to be for Steinbeck a rather familiar relationship with whorehouses, from lying on their back.

For me he seems to move things along wonderfully as a story-teller, and through his characters drops into insights of the human condition with as much power as Shakespeare – our greatness and our futility, our quirkiness and our wisdom. Take this, as a character describes his old horse: “Do you know I paid two dollars for him thirty-three years ago? Everything was wrong with him, hoofs like flapjacks. He’s hammer headed and sway backed. He has a pinched chest and a big behind. He has an iron mouth and still fights the crupper. With a saddle it feels like you are riding a sled over a gravel pit. He can’t trot and stumbles over his feet when he walks. <and on and on it goes> I have never in thirty-three years found one good thing about him. To this day I don’t dare walk behind him because he will surely take a kick at me. When I feed him mash he tries to bite my hand. And I love him.”

It’s not simple black and white, good and bad. As often with good stories and the best storytellers, the realities of how those things are all mixed up is presented to us, with all the challenges those paradoxes and dilemmas the characters in the story, and we in life, face. And yet hope and direction comes through. And the core theme arises again and again, with references to the biblical Cane and Abel – fighting for love and recognition and dealing with guilt. And the message; it’s not that we will inevitably overcome wrongdoing, or indeed that we must strive to do that as an imperative, but that ‘we may’.

We have choice, and we have possibility. A really great book.