Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Identity and not belonging

Cover imageI read Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut immediately after Sara Taylor’s The Lauras. Both deal with themes of identity and the parent/child relationship but whereas Taylor’s novel had me foxed as to how to refer to her determinedly androgynous narrator, things are very much more straightforward with Buchanan’s protagonists. After his Canadian father dies en route to meet his new granddaughter, Jay finds that the family home in Connecticut has been bequeathed to Yuki, his Japanese mother who left it when he was two years old. As the executor of his father’s will, Jay must hand over the deed in person. Beginning in 1968 when Yuki was sixteen, Buchanan’s novel tells the story of how a mother came to do the unthinkable and leave her infant son.

Yuki has lived in New York since she was six. Singled out as an oddity at school, she’s astonished when she’s taken up by the streetwise, beautiful Odile. These two trawl the bars, Odile intent on filching money from her admirers’ pockets, eventually meeting Trench Coat as Yuki dubs the young man who gives Odile her start in the modelling world. Edison, his unlikely companion, fades into the background, turning up years later when Yuki begins a life class, hoping to find her artistic compass. Yuki manages to persuade her parents to let her live with Odile and her mother rather than return with them to Japan ten years after their arrival. As Odile’s career takes off, Yuki finds herself a job as a receptionist, helped along by Lou on whom she develops a crush after he encourages her artistic aspirations. These two slip into a relationship, staying together far too long – Yuki wrestling with her feelings of nothingness and the need to find an artistic outlet, Lou hefting a chip on his shoulder and taking it out on Yuki. When things finally come to an end, Edison hopes to fill the gap but it seems the chasm of nothingness in Yuki is too great. Yuki’s story is interspersed with that of her son, bereft of the father he had hoped would teach him how to parent his own baby daughter and filled with resentment at his mother who he manages to track down to Berlin.

Buchanan unfolds her story from Yuki’s perspective, interpolating Jay’s reluctant preparations for meeting his mother and his struggles with new parenthood into the narrative. Her writing is often striking: a flasher wears ‘a fedora and a thin beige raincoat, like a cartoon detective’; yellow paint is ‘the colour of streetlights on puddles at night, pickled yellow radish and duck beaks’; when Yuki moves in with Lou, Odile’s mother – Lou’s erstwhile lover – ‘didn’t offer to return the money Yuki’s father had paid for the year. But then again, they were both thieves. Yuki had pocketed the flavour of Lou’s smile and she wasn’t giving it back’. Of the two strands, Yuki’s is the most involving, her aching feelings of nothingness vividly conveyed. At first Jay’s story seems like an abrupt interruption but as the novel progresses his narrative thread feels more neatly woven in. The book’s poignancy is leavened with a wry humour, occasionally downright comic – the vision of Jay’s hairless therapy cat, prescribed as a cure for his fainting fits, all done up in her ‘festive sweater’ will stay with me for some time. Buchanan ends her novel satisfyingly, deftly avoiding any sentimental conclusions. Altogether a thoroughly accomplished and enjoyable novel. I’ll be interested to see what she comes up with next.

The Lauras by Sara Taylor: One name, many stories

Cover imageSara Taylor’s debut, The Shore, was a masterclass in storytelling: a set of stories spanning a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia which were so closely interconnected that it read like a novel. The Lauras is also stuffed full of stories as Alex looks back on two years spent on the road as an adolescent. As they criss-cross the USA, Alex’s mother tells stories about her life before Alex, packed with adventure and misadventure. Alex is determinedly androgynous, unwilling to be assigned to either gender. This as you can imagine makes writing a synopsis well-nigh impossible so, for the sake of my sanity if nothing else and because I’m a woman, I’m going to refer to Alex using female personal pronouns. Clearly, identity is something Taylor wants her readers to think about.

Alex is thirteen when she’s hauled out of bed in the middle of the night, half-way through yet another noisy parental row. She’s packed into the car along with the barest essentials and driven off, not entirely sure what’s happening. Shortly after they set off, Alex’s mother withdraws wads of cash from an ATM, cuts up her credit cards and tosses her phone out of the car window leaving Alex under no illusion that she wants to be found. So begins a two-year odyssey during which Alex’s education is completed, both school and otherwise, while her mother works to keep them afloat. Each year they travel further along the yellow-highlighted map that Alex finds when her mother is out at work annotated with cryptic messages – ‘dead girl found in bath tub’; ‘crazy Laura, kissing Laura’ and the more prosaic ‘where I learned to drive’ – amongst the many ‘group home’ and ‘foster home’ locations where Alex’s mother grew up. At each destination, scores are settled, longstanding promises fulfilled and debts repaid. Alex misses her father, surreptitiously sending him postcards when she can. When, finally, they reach their destination, Alex must make a decision.

Alex tells her own story – niftily avoiding any shenanigans with that personal pronoun – making sure to remind us now and again that she’s an unreliable narrator, that her memory may be faulty, that the past is just another story we tell ourselves. She’s a convincing character, often uncomfortable in her adolescent skin yet engaging and sometimes funny. Taylor’s writing is every bit as striking as it was in The Shore: ‘because I had chosen to give chase, sleep stuck its thumb out, leaving me still on the hard ground, listening to the hum of cars go past’ thinks Alex trying to sleep rough after an unhappy hitchhiking incident. The stories Alex’s mother tells are vivid and riveting, revealing a life far more eventful that Alex could ever have imagined. Throughout it all runs the theme of identity – Alex’s determined decision not to identify as male or female, her mother’s sexual ambiguity and rootlessness – all handled with an enviable deftness. There’s always a little apprehension when picking up a second novel by an author whose first is as entrancing as The Shore was for me but The Lauras more than lives up to that promise.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2016

Cover imageSome particularly delectable paperback treats in store for September, all but one of which I’ve already read and reviewed, beginning with Francesca Kay’s The Long Room set in the last few weeks of 1981 when terrorism was in full swing in Northern Ireland. In an MI5 back office, Stephen listens to tapes of tapped phone calls attentive for the tiniest hint of treachery. When he’s called to a meeting by an operative concerned about the loyalty of a colleague, he finds himself listening to the comings and goings at the Greenwood household. Soon he’s obsessed with Helen Greenwood, convinced he’s in love with her. Judgement is clouded, risks are taken and before too long Stephen has found his way down a very dangerous path. Slow-burning and beautifully written, The Long Room is a gripping psychological study of loneliness and obsession.

Music is the obsession that brings Mahsa and Katherine together in Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life an engrossing tale of female friendship set against a backdrop of tumultuous social change and cultural difference. Mahsa finds escape in music after she becomes the ward of her uncle in Karachi, winning a scholarship to Montreal where she finds liberation, fulfilment and adventure, eventually meeting Katherine. The child of a Chinese father and a white mother, jailed in 1940 when her baby daughter was a mere three months old for ‘incorrigible’ behaviour, Katherine has carved out a place for herself, playing piano in a jazz band, pursuing music, love and family with passionate determination.  There’s so much to admire about this absorbing novel, not least Echlin’s beautifully polished writing. I hope it gets more attention in paperback than it did when it was first published here in the UK.

Rachel B. Glaser’s Paulina & Fran is about a very different friendship, no less enduring in its way.Cover image Paulina rampages around her New England college campus in a fury of contempt towards her fellow aspiring artists, sleeping with all and sundry whenever an opportunity presents itself. She and Fran become bosom buddies on a study trip to Norway, curling their lips at the world together. All goes swimmingly until Fran steps over a line and Paulina flounces off in high dudgeon. After graduation, when adult life begins and disappointment sets in, the lives of these two remain entangled despite their estrangement, each still obsessed with the other. Glaser’s book is a raucous, roller-coaster of a novel, both savagely funny and heartrendingly poignant.

There’s much more of the latter in Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family which unfolds the aftermath of a tragedy in a beautifully nuanced, multi-layered narrative, skilfully interweaving the many stories of those affected by it. The night before her daughter’s wedding June’s house burns to the ground with her daughter and her fiancé, her ex-husband and her boyfriend inside. In a state of shock and grief, unable to bear the endless stream of condolence, she flees the small Connecticut town where she’s been living for three years and heads west across the country, holing up in the Moonstone motel for months. The bare bones of what happens in Clegg’s elegantly crafted novel hardly do it justice: at its heart is the human condition and what that means to us all.

Cover imageMy final paperback choice seems appropriate after that – Max Porter’s much-lauded, award-winning Grief is the Thing with Feathers. As a father faces the awfulness of their mother’s sudden death with his two young sons, they’re visited by Crow a smelly ‘self-described sentimental bird’ who is determined to stay until they no longer need him. It sounds a little outlandish but the book’s beauty of expression and honesty of sentiment has been much praised. ‘Full of unexpected humour and profound emotional truth, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers marks the arrival of a thrilling new talent’ say the publishers and reviewers seem to agree..

That’s it for September paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review for the first four novels, should you want to know more, and to a fuller synopsis for the Porter. If you’d like to catch up with the rest of September’s preview it’s here.

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: Seeing the world in shades of grey

Cover imageEven if Ron Rash wasn’t one of my favourite writers I’d have picked this one out of a crowd: its jacket is a thing of beauty, enticing you to pick it up. Rash hails from the Appalachians and it’s there that he sets his award-winning novels with their smalltown mountain backdrop similar to Kent Haruf’s Holt, Colorado. He’s also a poet, more evident in this new novel than in previous books I’ve read by him. Above the Waterfall is about Les Clary, the local sheriff who’s about to retire but finds himself faced with a final case which will see him repaying a childhood debt in a most unorthodox fashion.

Les has a few weeks before he hands over his badge to his young colleague. He’s lived all his life in the mountains, most of them as a sheriff. He’s an accomplished watercolourist, written off as sissy by all but one of his schoolmates and bullied for it. C. J. had also been the butt of a good deal of abuse but seemed to shrug it off effortlessly, heading off to college, marrying and building a career for himself. Now he’s back, working for the local resort and intent on providing the future for his sons that his own parents failed to provide for him. When the river is poisoned with kerosene, killing the trout stock provided for the resort’s guests, the finger is pointed at Gerald, known for trespassing on resort land. Becky, the park ranger, with whom Gerald has formed a close bond, springs to his defence, determined to convince Les of his innocence. Faced with what seems to be cast iron evidence, Les is inclined to accept Gerald’s guilt but his instinct tells him otherwise. Far from winding down, it seems that Les must solve a case which will tax his moral framework, reminding him of his past before he can take himself off to his mountain cabin.

The most striking element of Rash’s writing for me is his use of language which seems even more evident in this novel than others his others. He punctuates Les’ plain, unadorned narrative, from which the occasional vivid image sings out, with Becky’s word pictures, often expressed in language which pays tribute to her favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. For Les, his tentative relationship with Becky is a ‘wary out-of-step dance’; ‘A man entering his coffin’ he thinks as the freshly meth-addicted Darby walks into his darkened house. In contrast Becky holds ‘sunspill like rain’ in the palm of her hand, sees a slug’s body as ‘a slimy slow lugging’ and admires ‘a black snake’s cast-off stocking’ caught in a tree. The writing is gorgeous – at times lyrical, at times stark – but there’s much more than polished prose to this morally complex novel. The Appalachians may be idyllically beautiful but they’re far from untouched by the challenges of modern life: Les and his crew regularly raid houses for the meth that’s decimating the population while Becky struggles with memories of the school massacre that tore apart her childhood, seeking healing in nature. Les’ long experience has taught him to see humanity in shades of grey rather than the black and white that his young successor perceives but Rash leaves us to draw our own conclusions, allowing space for redemption to step in. It’s a mature work: beautifully executed, compassionate yet unflinching in its portrayal of human frailties and utterly convincing.

Books to Look Out for in September 2016

Cover imageI like to kick off these previews with a novel that I can hardly wait to get my hands on. Sometimes there’s more than one, sometimes nothing that entirely fits the bill, but this month there’s no contest – the prospect of Jay McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days has me almost slavering in anticipation. Brightness Falls was one of my favourite novels of the ‘90s, summing up the heady days of 1980s New York through the lives of Corrine and Russell, a glittering couple in love with each other and pursuing successful careers in a world where anything seemed possible if you were young, bright and fearless until the Wall Street crash of 1987 when the bubble finally burst. Of course, we’ve since been buffeted by a much more damaging financial crisis but Russell and Corrine have that yet to come. Obama and Clinton are still rivals, Lehman Brothers have not yet crashed as the couple go about their lives, Russell running his own publishing company, still hankering after the bohemian life, while Corrine manages a food redistribution programme, longing for more than just a loft to live in for their twelve-year-old twins. ‘A moving, deeply humane novel’ say the publishers which exactly summed up Brightness Falls for me although I have to confess to being somewhat disappointed in its sequel, The Good Life.

Still in New York for Tom Connolly’s Men Like Air which is described by the publishers as ‘a glorious love letter’ to the city, sealing the deal for me. It’s about four men and their relationships with each other: nineteen-year-old Finn, fresh from the UK; Jack, the brother Finn’s determined to track down; Leo, lonely and envious of his best friend’s life and William, not only Leo’s oldest friend but also his happily married brother-in-law. The lives of these four interconnect in unexpected ways, apparently. The ‘love letter to New York’ may have been the hook for me but male friendship is an unusual theme which gives Connolly’s novel an added draw.

We’re off to city far less celebrated than New York in American fiction for Christopher Hebert’s Angels of Detroit. Hebert’s novel explores what was once a beacon of America’s industrial success, now bankrupt and on the point of dereliction, through the lives of a wide Cover imagerange of characters, from activists intent on saving it to an old woman trying to establish a community garden, from a carpenter with an idea for regeneration to an executive who remembers Detroit in its bustling prime. ‘Driven by struggle and suspense, and shot through with a startling empathy, Christopher Hebert’s magnificent second novel unspools an American story for our time’ say the publishers which sounds just the ticket to me.

I have something of an on again, off again relationship with Ann Patchett’s fiction – I loved The Magician’s Assistant but couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about with the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto . Commonwealth sounds tempting, though. Deputy District Attorney Bert Cousins falls for the mother of the baby whose christening party he’s crashed in 1964. Twenty-four years later Franny meets her literary idol and tells him her family’s story unaware of the far-reaching consequences she’s setting in train. It’s described by the publisher as ‘a powerful and tender tale of family, betrayal and the far-reaching bonds of love and responsibility… …a meditation on inspiration, interpretation and the ownership of stories’. I’m particularly interested by the ‘ownership of stories’ idea.

Georgia Bain’s Ester in Between a Wolf and a Dog continually listens to the stories of others. Ester is a family therapist, helping clients to navigate their way through misery to happiness on a daily basis. However her own life is far from a delight. Lonely and estranged from both her ex-husband and her sister, each of whom have their own problems, she’s about to face the consequences of a choice made by her mother that will affect them all. Sounds right up my street.

Cover imageAs well as starting with a much-anticipated novel I like to end with one, too, and Carol Birch’s Orphans of the Carnival fits that slot beautifully. Picking up the performance theme of the marvellous Jamrach’s Menagerie with its Victorian East End setting, Birch’s latest novel has one foot in nineteenth-century Europe with Julia Patriana, known as much for her physical oddity as her singing and dancing talent, and one in present-day London with Rose who collects lost treasures. These two share ‘a wonderful and terrible link’ according to the publishers in what they describe as a ‘haunting tale of identity, love and independence’. If Orphans of the Carnival is only half as good as Jamrach’s Menagerie it will be well worth your time.

That’s it for September. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, should you be interested.

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell): An endearing little gem

Cover imageThree years ago I reviewed Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo, praising the publishers for its splendid jacket and I’m delighted to see that they’ve used the same designer for The Nakano Thrift Shop. It’s not the only thing this quietly charming novel has in common with Kawakami’s previous book: it’s also narrated by an introverted, slightly awkward young woman not entirely sure of her place in the world. Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances.

Mr Nakano’s shop has been open for over twenty-five years. Sometimes it’s busy, sometimes quiet but there’s always something to keep Hitomi occupied, whether it’s speculating about the regular customer who turns out to have eloped with a schoolgirl years ago or selling the many household bits and pieces acquired by Mr Nakano and Takeo. Hitomi is a little socially awkward but in comparison with the taciturn Takeo whose most likely utterance is ‘Sorry’, she’s a shining example of confidence and self-possession. As these two stumble into the most tenuous of relationships, Mr Nakano’s sister Masayo cheers them on from the side lines. Mr Nakano has his own romantic troubles, although at times he seems blissfully unaware of the emotional damage he’s wreaking. As the year wears on, Mr Nakano becomes increasingly entangled, Masayo pops in regularly exerting a magnetic attraction for customers, Takeo keeps himself awkwardly to himself and Hitomi wonders about everyone else’s love life while finding her own increasingly perplexing. A few things are bought and sold.

Written in quietly understated prose infused with a gentle humour, Kawakami’s novel is an absolute delight. The four principal characters are wonderfully drawn – eccentric, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging. Mr Nakano has a tendency to launch into sudden gnomic pronouncements, a continuance of his internal monologue, often eliciting a dumbfounded ‘What?’ from the astonished Hitomi. Masayo sagely offers romantic advice despite her own troubles while Takeo is both enigmatic and exasperating. The star of the show is undoubtedly our narrator, the awkward but endearing Hitomi. Over the course of a year, these four become woven into the fabric of each other’s lives. It’s an episodic novel, held together neatly by a series of objects which provide the focus for each chapter. There’s a nice little catch-up in the final chapter, three years after Hitomi’s year in the shop, and the ending is all you could wish for. I loved it – a welcome antidote to the twenty-four-hour misery cycle that is our news at the moment, and a reminder that joy can to be found in the most prosaic of lives.

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond: Two love stories in one

Cover imageMidge Raymond’s My Last Continent caught my eye when I was busy perusing the July publishing schedules for a preview post. It’s set mainly in Antarctica, a backdrop shared by two other novels that I’d read and thoroughly enjoyed: Favel Parret’s tale of the 1987 Nella Dan disaster, When the Night Comes, and Rebecca Hunt’s Everland which recounts two expeditions separated by a century. I was hoping for more glorious descriptions of the Antarctic landscape and Raymond delivers them beautifully in her moving story of Deb and Keller, drawn to each other by their mutual love for this desolate yet majestic continent.

Close to forty and unmarried, Deb is a researcher for a project examining the effects of climate change and tourism on penguins. She’s something of a loner, more at home on the ice observing her beloved birds than at the parties her Oregon landlord throws. Ironically, her annual research trips are funded by her work as a tour guide aboard the Cormorant, educating tourists about the impact of their behaviour on the environment. She’s all too well aware that her own research increases the penguins’ anxiety as much as the presence of tourists during their heavily supervised excursions. It’s on one of these trips that she meets Keller who has turned his back on his career as a lawyer. These two see each other only during their summer research stints – Deb hoping for something more, Keller still untethered after the loss of his daughter. One summer Keller fails to appear on the Cormorant, dropped after overstepping the mark in expressing his views to a passenger. When the book opens we know there will be a shipwreck and that the death toll will be heavy but we don’t know who will die.

There are two narrative strands running through Raymond’s novel: one unfolding Deb’s story, taking us back and forth over twenty years; the other, her account of the weeks leading up to the shipwreck. Raymond’s writing has a quiet, contemplative tone which contrasts sharply with the dramatic suspense of the shipwreck scenes. The love story between Deb and Keller is deftly handled, properly grown up in its acknowledgement of the tensions between them, but this is not simply a novel about two lovers – it’s a passionate tribute to the no longer pristine Antarctic icescape and the fauna that inhabits it. Raymond is never sentimental in her descriptions but it’s impossible not to be moved by her recurring image of the ‘flipper dance’ with which Emperor penguin mates greet each other after a long separation ending with an ecstatic cry, echoing Deb and Keller’s encounters. Her novel is full of arresting images – icebergs the size of skyscrapers, a zebra-striped monochrome island – conjuring up a world of stark beguiling beauty where the slightest slip can result in death. Raymond weaves her research lightly through her writing; there’s no bludgeoning the reader with polemic but the awareness of the environment’s fragility is always there. Enlightening, absorbing and moving, it’s a damn good read which succeeded in transporting me into a very different world from the one outside my door on what was then the hottest day of the year.