The Photographer’s Wife by Suzanne Joinson: Echoes of The Go-Between in Jerusalem, 1920

Cover imageAs regular readers may have noticed, I tend to bang on a bit about book jackets. They’re the first thing a reader sees after all, the first step along the way to reading a book – or not. Suzanne Joinson’s novel is a fine example of getting it right: the cover’s striking and it fits the book well. Set in 1920, The Photographer’s Wife follows the eleven-year-old daughter of an architect commissioned to design new plans for Jerusalem, let loose on her own in a city fractured by a multitude of interests and fraught with danger.

Prue is sent to live with her father when her mother suffers a breakdown after the death of their second child. Charles lives in the Hotel Fast with his mistress, far too caught up in himself, his work and the social life of this city where all the British seem to know each other, to keep a parental eye on his daughter. Left almost entirely to her own devices, Prue looks and listens – hiding behind curtains, crawling under tables – hearing and seeing things she shouldn’t. Lonely and outcast, she attaches herself to Eleanora, married to an Arab photographer intent on recording the brutality perpetrated by the British out in the desert. Eleanora befriends Prue, suggesting she learns Arabic with Ihsan who listens intently as she recounts what she overhears. Into this mix steps William, commissioned by Charles to provide aerial photographs of the city and its surrounds, ostensibly to help him complete his architectural plans. A casualty of the First World War, both physically and mentally, William has come to Jerusalem to find Eleanora with whom he has been in love for many years. Against this complicated political and personal backdrop, Joinson unfolds her story of duplicity, espionage and thwarted love all of which will come back to haunt both Prue and William.

Joinson’s novel flits back and forth between Prue’s childhood and her rackety life in Shoreham in 1937, living with her six-year-old son in a beach hut and working on her sculpture. Much of the narrative is from Prue’s eleven-year-old point of view, vividly conveying the febrile atmosphere of a city in which the British cosy up to Nazis and Armenians rub shoulders with both, all of them laying claim to what isn’t theirs. Desperate for attention, Prue is easy prey for manipulation and is frequently in danger. Her experience will have terrible repercussions for her, echoing L. P. Hartley’s Leo Colston in The Go-Between and Ian McEwan’s Briony Tallis in Atonement. It’s a clever device, and Joinson uses it well. For me the passages written from William’s point of view were less convincing but that’s a minor quibble. Altogether a story well told, and a sobering reminder that we’re still reaping what was sown nearly a century later.

Books to Look Out For in June 2016: Part 2

Cover imageTruth be told, Barkskins is only here out of nostalgia. Like so many readers, I was a huge fan of The Shipping News with its cast of eccentric, affectionately portrayed characters and its depiction of the wilds of Newfoundland. I also became a fan of Proulx’s short stories – Close Range had some wonderful, occasionally shocking and often funny pieces in it. I went off the boil with Accordion Crimes which told me far too much about accordions and not enough about the many cultures in which they’re played. Too much research which may well be an accusation levelled at Barkskins, weighing in at a doorstopping 730+ pages. Beginning in the seventeenth century, it follows Rene Sel and Charles Duquet who arrive in New France, penniless and willing to exchange their freedom for land for three years. Rene is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman but Duquet makes a name for himself, first as a fur trader then setting up a timber business. Proulx’s novel follows these two and their descendants across three hundred years, travelling across North America to Europe, China and New Zealand in what the publishers describe as ‘stunningly brutal conditions’. I wish I could say I was thrilled at the prospect but, in truth, my heart sinks…

I’m feeling much more enthusiastic about The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry’s second novel, set in an Essex village in the 1890s. Rich widow Cora Seabourne moves to Aldwinter where she and the local vicar are soon at odds over the Essex Serpent said to be rampaging through the marshes, taking lives as it does so. At a time when the newly emerging theories about the natural world clash cataclysmically with the Church and all it stands for, Cora, an enthusiastic naturalist, and Will find themselves embroiled in passionate debate. ‘Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take’ say the publishers. After Me Comes the Flood, Perry’s first novel, went down a storm so expectations for The Essex Serpent are high.

Back to the twentieth-first century for the rest of June’s titles, several of which herald the holiday reading season beginning with one that I’ve spotted on Twitter and particularly like the look of. Alice Adams’ Invincible Summer uses an irresistible structure following four young people, inseparable at university, and now facing the realities of life as young adults: Eva’s off to the City; Benedict decides to pursue a PhD; siblings Sylvie and Lucien indulge themselves in a life of art, travel and adventure. Summer reunions bring them back together but recreating the intimate bonds of student friendship isn’t always easy. ‘Invincible Summer is a dazzling depiction of the highs and lows of adulthood and the greater forces that shape us‘ say the publishers. I’m hoping for a nice slice of self-indulgent entertainment although nothing too sickly. This kind of novel needs a little bit of a bite to work for me.Cover image

Dean Bakopoulos’s SummerLong is aimed fairly and squarely at readers wanting to immerse themselves in an engrossing piece of entertainment by the look of it. Its main attraction for me is its small-town American setting. Realtor Don Lowry is busy hiding the fact that the marital home is in foreclosure while his wife Claire spends her time lusting after Charles, the failed actor who has come home to put his father’s affairs in order. As the temperature rises, inhibitions fall by the wayside setting the scene nicely for a bit of domestic drama. ‘Summerlong is a deft and hilarious exploration of the simmering tensions beneath the surface of a contented marriage that explode in the bedrooms and backyards of a small town over the course of a long, hot summer’ according to the publishers. Sounds like a winner.

As does Stephanie Danler’s debut Sweetbitter with its New York restaurant setting. Twenty-two-year-old Tess is determined to escape her provincial home and lands herself a job as a ‘backwaiter’ at a well-known restaurant where her colleagues are convinced that fame and fortune are just around the corner. It’s the restaurant setting – and of course, the young character making her way in New York – that attracts me perhaps in the hope of another Love Me Back, Merritt Tierce’s riveting debut which I read earlier in the year. Setting the bar far too high there, I’m sure, but you never know.

Much more sobering, Jung Yun’s Shelter seems to question the intergenerational debt when Kyung Cho, a struggling academic up to his eyes in money troubles, is faced with what to do when his prosperous parents’ lives are thrown into disarray by an act of violence. Kyung’s childhood was one of material privilege but emotional deprivation. When he decides to take his parents in, he begins to question his own qualities as a husband and father. ‘Shelter is a masterfully crafted debut novel that asks what it means to provide for one’s family and, in answer, delivers a story as riveting as it is profound’ say the publishers which sounds like something to get your teeth Cover imageinto after the fluff of Bittersweet and Invincible Summer.

Ending what’s become something of a mixed bag, Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Everything I Don’t Remember picks up the life of Samuel, a young man who has died in a car crash, and tries to piece it together through conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours each of whom seems to have a different view of the young man they knew. It’s also the story of the writer who is re-assembling Samuel’s life ‘trying to grasp a universal truth – in the end, how do we account for the substance of a life?’ A very big question on which to end this second selection of June’s new novels. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more substantial synopsis. And if you’d like to catch up with the first batch, here it is.

The High Places by Fiona McFarlane: An inventive, disquieting collection

Cover imageI’m writing this review in March, long before the book’s publication date which is unusual for me but after being struck down by a particularly nasty bug leaving me with a head so stuffed full of cotton wool that I was unable to read for four days I needed a way back in. Short stories seemed to be the answer which led me to Fiona McFarlane’s The High Places. I’d enjoyed her debut, The Night Guest, very much so it seemed just the ticket. Apologies if what follows is a little pedestrian: my critical faculties are somewhat blunted by a brutal hacking cough and not much sleep but I’ll do my best.

The collection comprises thirteen stories written over ten years – eight previously unpublished – and ranges far and wide, both in terms of geography and subject. Some tend towards the slightly surreal while other are more conventional but all are inventive. A small selection should give you a flavour. In ‘Man and Bird’ a vicar seems disconcertingly inseparable from his parrot then it becomes clear he believes the bird to be a messenger from God. The inhabitants of a small town are so stricken when their brief flirtation with the movie world is over that they begin to dress in costume, re-enacting their walk-on parts, in ‘The Movie People’. Reunited in Athens, forty years after they first met, the anxious, happily married Dwyers find themselves overawed by the confident, self-regarding Andersons until, suddenly, it becomes clear they’re not quite as invulnerable as they appear, in ‘Mycenae’. ‘Buttony’ sees a quietly charismatic little boy thwarting his classmates’ passion for their teacher’s afternoon game with frightening results while ‘Those Americans Falling from the Sky’ is a vivid childhood memory of a small town, playing host to American soldiers practicing their parachuting skills and charming the local kids, with a shocking discovery at its end.

The disquieting quality of much of this collection is evident right from the get go with the opening story’s first line: ‘My wife was driving on the night they hit Mr Ronald’. These are not horror stories but they’re distinctly unsettling, often exploring the odder areas of human behaviour. McFarlane’s writing is as striking as I remembered it from The Night Guest. ‘Ellie was pretty in such a sensible way, but Kath required adjustments’ thinks Henry of the well-turned out young woman he’s selected for his wife over the lover he’s being spending his Sunday nights with for years, in ‘Art Appreciation’. In ‘Exotic Animal Medicine’ a couple ‘changed their clothes and it felt to Sarah, briefly, as if it had been David’s suit and her dress that had married each other earlier in the day’. Not all the stories worked for me – ‘Violet, Violet’ about an introverted young PhD student whose half-cleaned room leads him into very odd territory seemed to fizzle out, as if McFarlane wasn’t sure what to do with it next. That said, there’s enough here to please readers who enjoyed The Night Guest, all served up with an appealingly wry humour.

The Gun Room by Georgina Harding: The inescapable shadow of war

Cover imageI’ve been an admirer of Georgina Harding’s writing since reading  her debut with its poetically beautiful descriptive passages. Each of her four novels is very different from the other although three share the theme of the aftermath of war. Set in 1616 The Solitude of Thomas Cave took us to the Arctic where one man elects to leave the whaling ship that brought him there and stay for a year. The Spy Game leapt forward to 1961 with a little girl piecing together an explanation for herself about her mother’s disappearance. The Painter of Silence has 1950s Romania as its backdrop where a man, both deaf and mute, discovers a connection with a young nurse that helps him unlock his past. Set in Asia at the time of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Japanese economic boom, Harding’s new novel is about a young photographer trying to cope with the shadow thrown by not one but two wars.

Jonathan Ashe has managed to hitch a ride in a helicopter but what was to be merely a chance to see what the country looks like turns into something else when the pilot spots a village under fire. Jonathan sees a young woman, her body splayed on the ground with a stomach wound clearly visible. Then he thinks he sees a soldier shoot her in the head. By the time they land, the action is over. Jonathan photographs a soldier sitting, stunned, then finds the young woman dead, shot in the head. He returns to the soldier, still in the same position oblivious of Jonathan’s presence, and takes the emblematic photograph that will appear on the front of a magazine changing both their lives. Deeply disturbed by what he’s seen, Jonathan turns his back on a career in war photography that had only just begun, taking himself off to Japan in an attempt to lose himself in its foreignness. He takes photographs endlessly – the daily changing view from his apartment window, milling passengers at metro stations – an outsider constantly observing. When he runs out of money he turns to teaching English, meeting Kumiko at the language school and falling in love with her, until a chance encounter brings him face to face with what happened in Vietnam. Running through Jonathan’s story are the reverberations of another war in which both his father and Kumiko’s grandfather fought.

Impossible for those who’ve seen Don McCullin’s striking image Shell Shocked Soldier not to see it as the starting point for this beautifully expressed, impressionistic but powerful novel. Harding hangs her narrative on the framework of the photographs Jonathan selects for his first exhibition interspersing it with memories which illuminate and slowly reveal his life and character. Over it all hangs the shadow of war and its aftermath for those who have witnessed or taken part in it. There’s a quiet elegance about Harding’s writing which vividly conveys Jonathan’s need for anonymity in an attempt to escape the inescapable: the horror of what both he – and his father before him – have seen. The moral ambiguity of war photography is also explored: ‘He has seen, or possibly he has done, whatever it was that put that look into his eyes. Is it necessary that he did it, or was seeing enough? Perhaps seeing is guilt in itself?’ thinks Jonathan when contemplating the photograph of the soldier and, by implication, his own role. It’s a novel which leaves its readers with much to think about as well as much to admire.

Books to Look Out For in June 2016: Part 1

Cover imageJune really is a bumper month for fiction. I know I frequently kick these previews off with that kind of pronouncement but such were the many interesting looking titles on offer that there were nearly enough books for a three-parter which seems excessive even for my eyes-bigger–than-stomach tendencies. Several of them are set in that fabled decade the 1960s, beginning with Emma Cline’s debut The Girls which has been attracting attention for a good few months now. Set in the summer of 1969, it’s about fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd entranced by the girls in their short dresses and long tatty hair who live on a Californian ranch, deep in the hills with the charismatic Russell. ‘Rumours of sex, frenzied gatherings, teen runaways. Was there a warning, a sign of things to come? Or is Evie already too enthralled by the girls to see that her life is about to be changed forever?’ say the publishers. Cline’s novel is based on the notorious Manson murders and seems to have caused quite a stir already.

Following an immensely successful debut with a second novel is a nerve-wracking time for writers, I’m sure. Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist was hugely successful two years back. Her second novel, The Muse begins in London in 1967 with Odelle Bastien who left her Trinidadian home five years before and who is about to find her niche working in a London art gallery. One day a lost masterpiece with a story behind it is delivered to the gallery, purported to be by the legendary Isaac Robles. Burton’s novel untangles the painting’s history taking her readers to Spain in 1936.  ‘Seductive, exhilarating and suspenseful, The Muse is an addictive novel about aspiration and identity, love and obsession, authenticity and deception – a magnificent creation and a story you will never forget’ say the publishers.

By contrast, the synopsis of Susan Beale’s The Good Guy isn’t anything hugely special but there’s something about it that draws me in. Perhaps it’s that old third-party dynamic. Still in the ‘60s but this time in suburban New England it’s about Ted – a car-tyre salesman married to Abigail – whose chance encounter with Penny sets him off inventing a new life for the both of them until ‘fantasy collides with reality, the fallout threatens everything, and everyone, he holds dear’, apparently. Could be as dull as ditch water but it’s got a great jacket and John Murray often publish interesting novels.

Staying in the ‘60s, Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer follows Patricia Highsmith to a cottage in Suffolk where she is concentrating on her writing and avoiding her fans while conducting an affair with a married lover. When a young journalist arrives determined to interview her, things take a dark turn. ‘Masterfully recreating Highsmith’s much exercised fantasies of murder and madness, Jill Dawson probes the darkest reaches of the imagination in this novel – at once a brilliant portrait of a writer and an atmospheric, emotionally charged, riveting tale’ say the publishers. Dawson has a particular talent for taking the bare bones of a life and working it up into a richly imagined novel.Cover image

Natasha Walter – she of Living Dolls and The New Feminism fame – has a debut novel out in June which also takes the story of historical figures and fictionalises it. Laura Leverett has been living in Geneva since her husband disappeared in 1951. Ostensibly a conventional wife and mother, Leverett has been living a double life since 1939 when she met a young Communist woman aboard a transatlantic liner. When she marries a man with similar sympathies she becomes caught up in a world of espionage which will take her from wartime London to Washington in the grips of McCarthyism. Based on the relationship between the Cambridge spy Donald Maclean and his wife Melinda Marling, A Quiet Life is ‘sweeping and exhilarating, alive with passion and betrayal’ according to the publishers. This is the third Cold War novel to have caught my attention this year although Walter has stiff competition to beat: the other two were Francesca Kay’s The Long Room and Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, both excellent.

This next one is eagerly anticipated, by me anyway. It’s the third in Louisa Young’s First World War series which began with My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You and continued with The Heroes’ Welcome. Those who have read the first two novels will be familiar with several of the characters which apparently reappear in Devotion, although the baton has been handed onto the next generation now faced with the prospect of another war as Tom, adoptive son of Nadine and Riley, falls in love with Nenna whose father supports Mussolini. The first two instalments of this series were a joy – compassionate and humane without a hint of sentimentality.

Winding back to the end of the First World War and the Spanish influenza epidemic that swept the world, Sjón’s Moonstone is set in Iceland in 1918 against a backdrop of an erupting volcano and coal shortages. Sixteen-year-old Mani loves the movies, even dreaming about them, but everything changes when the ‘flu hits Iceland. ‘Capturing Iceland at a moment of profound transformation, this is the story of a misfit in a place where life and death, reality and imagination, secrets and revelations jostle for dominance’ say the publishers. Make of that what you will.  It’s so unusual to see an Icelandic novel in the publishing schedules that seems to have nothing to do with crime that I feel I should give this one a go.

Everyone is WatchingFinally, at least for this first batch, Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching is set in New York which is usually enough to guarantee any novel a place on my list but this one sounds particularly attractive, apparently featuring the city itself as the main protagonist. From Walt Whitman in 1891 to Robert Mapplethorpe in 1967, from Robert Moses in 1922 to Edmund White in 2013, Bradbury’s novel is about the artists and writers who have made New York a city that captures the imagination. ‘Through the lives and perspectives of these great creators, artists and thinkers, and through other iconic works of art that capture its essence, New York itself solidifies. Complex, rich, sordid, tantalizing, it is constantly changing and evolving. Both intimate and epic in its sweep, Everyone is Watching is a love letter to New York and its people – past, present and future’ say the publishers which suggests that it could either be a great sprawling mess of a novel which rambles about all over the place or a resounding success. We’ll see.

That’s it for the first batch of June titles. As ever a click on a title will whisk you off to a more detailed synopsis.

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton: Never did run smooth

Cover imageAlain de Botton’s first novel, Essays in Love, was published when he was a mere stripling of twenty-three. Since then he’s written essays about travel, architecture and literature returning to love for his second novel two decades after his first. I’ve long been a fan of his gentle, humane writing. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work was published when I was reviews editor at Waterstone’s Books Quarterly. I made it the lead review for that quarter and as I was commissioning reviews, packing up books to be sent out to reviewers and editing their copy, I felt as if de Botton was sitting quietly in the corner of my office, benignly observing what I was up to while taking notes.

The Course of Love follows Rabih and Kirsten’s relationship over seventeen years, from their first meeting to Kirsten’s surprise birthday celebration at a luxurious hotel. Rabih and Kirsten are very different from each other although they share the loss of a parent early in life. Rabih’s mother died when he was twelve and his father remarried within a year to an emotionally distant woman. Kirsten’s father deserted the family when she was seven and she is fiercely loyal to her mother. Both bring this emotional baggage to the relationship. Rabih meets Kirsten through work after a long series of failed relationships based on a romantic ideal of what he thinks his partner should be. He has struggled to get his architectural career off the ground and is now working in urban design while she is a senior quantity surveyor in Edinburgh’s planning department, successful and confident. De Botton tells this likable couple’s story in the main from Rabih’s point of view, ending his novel with a list of reasons why Rabih is finally ready for marriage sixteen years after the wedding.

We know how Rabih and Kirsten’s story will pan out at the end of chapter two but that didn’t  stop me from wanting to read on. De Botton tells us that they ‘will marry, they will suffer, they will frequently worry about money, they will have a girl first, then a boy, one of them will have an affair, there will be passages of boredom, they’ll sometimes want to murder each other and on a few occasions to kill themselves’. There are frequent italicised interpolations punctuating the narrative sometimes offering an alternative, improved scenario to the one that’s just been played out, sometimes making wry or rueful comments on the nature of relationships, sometimes interpreting what makes these two individuals behave the way they do. It’s a little didactic at times but de Botton’s compassionate yet acute, often funny observations save it from falling too far into the lecturing trap. Rabih and Kirsten are an endearing couple, battling the best they can with tangles of emotion and misunderstandings as they negotiate first how to live together then how to cope with parenting while struggling with their own emotional needs, the demands of work, and running a household.

Ultimately, this is a supremely hopeful book about how a couple can live together, eventually growing into a mature and enduring love for each other which may be far from the romantic ideal peddled in Hollywood but infinitely more likely to stay the course. It’s a risky business – ‘a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully omitted to investigate’ – but well worth the effort as I’m sure most veterans of long relationships will agree. Whether you enjoy de Botton’s novel or feel that it’s simply a thinly disguised self-help manual will very much depend on how much you like his writing and how invested you become in Rabih and Kirsten’s relationship. It worked for me but as you may have gathered I’m a bit of a fan.

Blasts from the Past: So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor (2006)

Cover imageThis is the first in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could. It’s quite possible that if I read them now I might not feel quite the same about all the titles I’ve raved about to anyone who would listen but I’ll only include the ones I’m still happy to recommend. It’s partly inspired by Janet’s Under the Reader’s Radar series over at From First Page to Last which kicked off with Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things reminding me how much I’d loved that book when I first read it. The other reason is that this blog tends to be all about recently published books with the odd mention of backlist titles thereby turning its back on a huge number of novels well worth reading. I already have a list in my head and I know that some titles on that list will be out of print but if that’s the case I’ll be sure to mention it. Some may be a little obscure, some not so much and others not at all. Some I’ve already written about elsewhere in the past. So, with a nod to Janet’s post for its inspiration, here’s my first blast from the past: Jon McGregor’s So Many Ways to Begin.

Set in post-war Britain, McGregor’s novel explores both history and the possibility of new beginnings. Since stumbling upon a tobacco tin, still filled with cigarettes, dating from the First Cover imageWorld War in his Auntie Julia’s treasure trove of memorabilia, David has been fascinated by the past. Regular trips to museums inspire a determination to run his own someday, and David takes his first step becoming a junior curatorial assistant in Coventry. On a field visit to Aberdeen he meets his future wife Eleanor, bright, sparky and determined to become a geologist as far from home as she can get. As Julia’s treasured memories become engulfed by her premature senility, she lets slip a secret that shatters David’s own history leaving him bitter and restless.

In vignettes constructed around small artefacts, often seemingly insignificant but freighted with a very personal meaning, this compassionate, quietly lyrical novel captures David and Eleanor’s lives and history – their disappointments and unhappinesses, their unfulfilled ambitions and their small compensatory joys. It’s both a tender exploration of a very personal history and an evocative portrait of post-war Britain.

What about you, any blasts from your own past you’d like to share?