Well, this is a turn up for the books (sorry) – I seem to have already read all but one of the paperbacks published this June that I’m interested in. I’ll kick off with one of the few successes from my Baileys Prize wish list back in February: Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory which made it onto the longlist but not the shortlist, sadly. Within the first brief paragraph, Gappah manages to hook you with both a grisly death and the announcement that our narrator, a black Zimbabwean albino now on death row, was sold to a strange man by her parents. Memory slowly reveals her story finally delivering a devastating denouement. A multitude of well-aimed barbs are shot at modern Zimbabwe along the way, all spiced with a hefty helping of Memory’s acerbic wit.
Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World was also on my Baileys wish list, more in hope than expectation it has to be said. Despite its rather insipid jacket it’s a smart, elegantly understated piece of writing which looks at the complexities of parenthood and marriage, belonging and dislocation, following Charlotte and her family across the world from her beloved Cambridge to Australia where her husband Henry is intent on proving himself. Bishop tackles the tricky theme of motherhood with an unflinching honesty, exploring its contradictions with a powerful subtlety.
Marriage and motherhood pop up again in Gebrand Bakker’s June. It’s set largely on a single Saturday in a small Dutch village but at its centre is Queen Julianna’s visit on June 17th 1969 nearly forty years before, a day of celebration which turned into tragedy when a farmer’s two-year-old daughter was killed. Her mother has regularly taken herself off to the hayloft over the forty years since the accident, ignoring all attempts to talk her down. There are no fancy descriptive passages littered with similes and metaphors in Bakker’s writing: it’s clean and plain but richly evocative for all that.
Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor has more than a touch of the Gothic fairy tale about it: a dour castle sitting atop a remote mountain, warring factions complete with a heroic ‘exceptionally handsome’ captain, a fair lady with whom our own hero falls in love and a satisfying arc of redemption. It opens with seventeen-year-old Lucy Minor leaving home to take up the titular position of undermajordomo. His mother sees him off from the cottage door, barely waiting for Lucy to close the garden gate. Lucy is glad to be on his way, hoping for adventure, convinced that he is meant for better things. Like DeWitt’s previous novel The Sisters Brothers, Undermajordomo Minor has a richly cinematic quality which brought to mind Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in its almost cartoon-like depictions of the odd world in which Lucy finds himself. A thoroughly entertaining novel.
The only unread title in this month’s paperback publishing schedules that takes my fancy is Liza Klaussmann’s Villa America, largely because I enjoyed her debut, Tigers in Red Weather, set in a slightly Gatsbyesque world – although at the end of the Second World War. This new novel features the Fitzgeralds entertained, alongside the likes of Picasso, dos Passos and Hemingway, by Gerald and Sara Murphy in their villa on the French Riviera until a stranger arrives and the dream shatters. Novels peopled by historical figures are sometimes far from successful but such was my enjoyment of Klaussmnn’s first novel that I’ll be giving this one a try, and that cover is lovely although it would have been so much more elegant without the Tigers in Red Weather inset.
That’s it for June. A click on a title will take you to my review for the books I’ve already read and to Waterstones website for the one I haven’t. If you’d like to catch up with the month’s hardbacks they’re here and here.