February is my least favourite month: dank, drizzly weather here in the UK; little or no colour in the garden; countryside bedraggled and grubby looking – ugh, I hate it. It’s not always a sparkling month in the publishing schedules, either, although given all the above there’s plenty of encouragement to stay indoors reading. This year, however, there’s a huge treat in store: Anne Tyler’s new novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, her twentieth. Abby and Red Whitshank live in the house Red’s father built in the 1930s. It’s where they brought up their four children, all of whom have assembled to help decide what Abby and Red will do in old age, and what will happen to their beloved family home. Secrets, rivalries and tensions – all the bagage of family life – come into play as Tyler unfolds their story. If previous Tylers are anything to go by this will be a beautifully nuanced, acutely observed piece of fiction. And what a brilliant jacket.
Nicci Cloke’s Lay Me Down is about a very different stage of life. Eight months after their first kiss Jack and Elsa have moved to San Francisco from London after Jack secures his dream job working on the Golden Gate Bridge but he finds himself obsessed with thoughts of the Jumpers, suicides who make their leap from the bridge. Cloke’s narrative explores both Jack and Elsa’s past before they met – their failed relationships and mistakes – asking the question is their relationship strong enough to withstand their regrets. Handled well, this could be an absorbing read, and it’s a paperback original – always a plus.
Richard Bausch’s Before, During and After is also set in relationship territory, this time against the backdrop of 9/11. Michael and Natasha are apart when the Towers come down – Natasha in Jamaica where she suffers her own trauma and Michael in New York. Bausch explores the effect of both events on their love affair and whether it can survive. The tragedy that struck New York in 2001 seems an irresistible theme for a multitude of novelists and I might well have dismissed this one as just another 9/11 novel but I enjoyed Bausch’s Peace so much that I’m prepared to give it a go. For my money, the best novel written about 9/11 is Amy Waldman’s The Submission in which a woman, widowed in the attack, fiercely defends the architect picked to design its memorial when his Muslim identity is revealed. Let’s see if Bausch can better that.
Several years on from 2001, Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations sees Anne, once a documentary photographer, meet her beloved grandson, a captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers and fresh from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Both have secrets which begin to emerge, taking them on a journey back to the old Blackpool guesthouse where Anne once had a room. I haven’t read an O’Hagan for some time but this one sounds interesting.
Last year I read John Ironmonger’s The Coincidence Authority which explored the human need to make sense of coincidence through a sweet love story. There were a few ‘here’s the science’ moments but I enjoyed it enough to try Not Forgetting the Whale in which a young man is washed up at St Piran in Cornwall, stark naked and convinced that his computer program, which is predicting an oil crisis, a virulent disease and a Middle East conflict, is about to plunge the world into a banking collapse – some of which sounds horribly familiar. Not entirely convinced but we’ll see.
I’m also a little unsure about Laird Hunt’s Neverhome but apparently Paul Auster’s a big fan so who am I to be sceptical. It follows the fortunes of Gallant Ash, American Civil War soldier, leader of men, legendary figure – and a woman, secretly, of course. Sounds intriguing.
One of my weekly treats is Claire Fuller’s post at her flash fiction site where she uses a photograph as a starting point for the shortest of short stories. They’re often thought-provoking, occasionally funny and have sometimes fed into her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, apparently. It’s set in 1976 when Peggy Hillcoat is eight and happy. Her survivalist father takes her from London to a remote cabin in a wood somewhere in Europe and tells her the world has disappeared. I have great hopes for this one.
That’s it for February which I hope will be brighter than my doomy expectations. If you want a fuller synopsis of any of these titles a click will take you to Waterstones website.