The Braid by Letitia Colombani (Transl. Louise Rogers Lalaurie): Take three women

Cover imageLetitia Colombani’s The Braid is one of those elegantly structured novellas that manages to pack a great deal into fewer than two hundred pages. Three women’s stories intersect in a way that none of them can imagine when the book begins. They will remain unknown to each other yet each will have played a crucial role in changing the others’ lives.

Smita is a Dalit in the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh, an untouchable whose job is to empty the latrines by hand. The ostracism of Dalits from society was outlawed by Mahatma Gandhi yet Smita and her rat-catcher husband continue to be spurned. Smita is determined that her six-year-old daughter won’t suffer the same humiliation and is prepared to go to any lengths to protect her.

Giulia works for her father in Sicily, preparing hair for wig makers in a family business that has been established for generations. When her father is left comatose after an accident, Giulia discovers that all is not what it seems with their finances. Her Sikh lover offers a solution which isn’t welcomed by everyone.

Sarah is a partner in a Montreal law firm, a position hard-won and at great cost. She never mentions her children at work, hiding domestic difficulties and maternal guilt behind a mask of calm capability. Illness cannot be countenanced. When Sarah finds she has cancer she tucks the knowledge away, scheduling her treatment to fit in with work.

Colombani uses the conceit of telling the stories of Smita, Giulia and Sarah through a wig maker, interweaving their three separate narratives into a braid. It’s a device that works well: the wig maker makes a brief appearance at the start and end of the book with the occasional interpolation in between. Each of the stories explores the societies in which these three women live: Smita’s abject poverty, locked into a caste system sustained by corruption and lack of education; resistance to Giulia’s innovation in traditional, male dominated Sicilian society; Sarah’s discovery that the glass ceiling hasn’t been entirely shattered in her intensely competitive law firm where loyalty counts for nothing. All three women changes their lives for the better on their own terms, facing apparently insurmountable problems with courage and determination. It’s a heartening story, fable-like in its telling but not sugar-coated, and an appealing one. Proof, yet again, of the power of the novella – not that I needed it.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in April 2019: Part One

Cover imageI’m delighted to tell you that whereas there were just a few brand spanking new titles that took my fancy for April, it’s choc-a-bloc with tasty-looking paperbacks most of which I’ve yet to read. I’ll begin with one that I have: David Chariandy’s Brother, an eloquent story of grief and loss set against a backdrop of urban immigrant poverty. Returning to her home town, Aisha finds that Michael has become a recluse since the death of his brother Francis in a shooting ten years ago and is determined to bring him back into the world. Exploring themes of grief, racism and social deprivation while weaving Michael’s memories of Francis through Aisha’s visit, Brother packs a quietly powerful punch for such a short book.

Having been shortlisted for a multitude of literary prizes, including the Man Booker, Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black won the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize for which Brother was longlisted in 2017. The eponymous eleven-year-old is chosen as a personal servant to one of the brothers who have taken over a Barbados sugar plantation, a man obsessed with the idea of flying which results in disaster for him. ‘From the blistering cane fields of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-drowned streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black teems with all the strangeness and mystery of life’ say the publishers.

Carys Davies’ West sounds entirely different but has also met with a great deal of acclaim. When widower Cy Bellman hears of the discovery of huge ancient bones in Kentucky he takes himself off to investigate, leaving his young daughter behind in Pennsylvania. Davies’ novel tells the story of Cy’s journey and of Bess, waiting at home for his return. ‘Written with compassionate tenderness and magical thinking, it explores the courage of conviction, the transformative power of grief, the desire for knowledge and the pull of home, from an exceptionally talented and original British writer’ say the publishers promisingly.Cover image

Thomas Bourke’s The Consolation of Maps seems to explore similar themes of loss and the desire for knowledge. Kenji Tenabe sells antique maps in a prestigious Tokyo gallery but is presented with an unexpected offer of a job in America working for a woman who has never recovered from the death of her lover. ‘Moving across countries and cultures, The Consolation of Maps charts an attempt to understand the tide of history, the geography of people and the boundless territory of loss’ say the publishers which sounds interesting if a little woolly.

Louisa Hall’s Trinity is about the pursuit of a different kind of knowledge, telling the story of Robert Oppenheimer, who oversaw the development of the atomic bomb, from the perspective of seven fictional characters and revealing the contradictory nature of this brilliant scientist. ‘Blending science with literature and fiction with biography, Trinity asks searing questions about what it means to truly know someone, and about the secrets we keep from the world and from ourselves’ according to the blurb. It sounds fascinating and Annabel’s review over at Annabookbel has whetted my appetite further. I’ve not read much fiction about the development of the bomb which shaped the second half of the twentieth century apart from TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos, Lydia Millett’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart and Joseph Kanon’s Los Alamos.

Cover imageI’ll end this first instalment with Gun Love by Jennifer Clement, author of the impressive Prayers for the Stolen, published in the UK a few years ago. Fourteen-year-old Pearl lives in the front seat of a wrecked car in a Florida trailer park while her mother lives in the back. Under the driver’s seat sits a gun given to Margot by her boyfriend, a regular visitor to the back seat. ‘Gun Love is a hypnotic story of family, community and violence. Told from the perspective of a sharp-eyed teenager, it exposes America’s love affair with firearms and its painful consequences’ say the publishers. I remember circling Prayers for the Stolen for some time, expecting unremitting grimness given that it was about kidnapped girls but it surprised me, and I’m hoping for the same with this one.

That’s it for the first batch of April’s paperbacks. A click on the first title will take you to my review and to a more detailed synopsis for the other five should any pique your interest. If you’d like to catch up with the month’s new titles they’re here. More soon…

Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (Transl. by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah): What’s real and what’s not.

Cover imagePeirene Press’s books are never anything but interesting. It’s founder and publisher, Meike Ziervogel, has a knack for seeking out unusual, thought-provoking fiction. For 2019 her theme is There Be Monsters. Virve Sammalkorpi’s Children of the Cave follows a nineteenth-century anthropological expedition which goes horribly wrong, posing the question who are the monsters?

Iax Agolasky, a young bookish Russian, is overjoyed when renowned French explorer Jean Moltique takes him on as an assistant in his quest to find the ‘children of the shadows’ thought by Moltique to be the descendants of an ancient Anatolian tribe. Moltique appoints a crew to accompany them before they set off into the north-western Russian wilderness in May 1819 on an expedition which will stretch into 1822. It will be a year before, Moltique and Agolasky discover their tribe, shooting the first member to appear before them, by which time Moltique has been revealed as vainglorious and egotistical, his crew a bunch of ruffians. They set up camp at the mouth of the cave from which the creature, seemingly a wild boar with a human face, has appeared. Agolasky is mortified by what has happened. It is his patience and empathy which leads the tribe to eventually show themselves. These are not fabulous creatures but children displaying a variety of physical characteristics which society finds abhorrent, each with a story to tell. As Agolasky gains their trust, he becomes increasingly fearful for their safety, both from Moltique whose ambition for fame will bring the glare of publicity and from the men who see a more sinister opportunity to make money. As the years wear on, Moltique loses his wits while Agolasky falls in love and the men continue to plot until, three years after the expedition began, it’s brought to a violent end.

Sammalkorpi uses the conceit of a fragmented diary to tell her story, exploring themes of reality and unreality, and what it is to be human. The reaction to the children, left by loving parents for their own protection, found abandoned or rescued from freak shows, is all too believable. Sammalkorpi is careful to engage our sympathy for them, telling their stories through Agolasky, an empathetic and idealistic character, distraught at Moltique’s exploitation and the brutality of the men. In the diary’s final entry, written in 1868 days before his death, Agolasky reiterates the vividness of his memories while questioning their reliability. As the postscript with which Sammalkorpi cleverly ends her book suggests:

However hard we try to capture our experiences, we still cannot be totally sure about what is real and what is illusionary.

Not my favourite Peirene – that’s still Marie Suzun’s Her Father’s Daughter closely followed by And the Wind Sees All – but certainly an original one, well worth reading.

Childless Voices by Lorna Gibb: Stories of Longing, Loss, Resistance and Choice

Cover imageBack in 2015 I reviewed Lorna Gibb’s first novel, A Ghost’s Story, a fascinating exploration of belief and longing to believe set against the backdrop of nineteenth-century spiritualism. I follow her on Twitter so knew she was writing something about childlessness and hoped I’d be offered it for review. It’s a state she and I share but I’m childless by choice whereas she had assumed she would have children.

Childless Voices is divided into sections each of which examines childlessness from a variety of perspectives – from infertility to bereavement, choice to enforced sterilisation – against cultural backgrounds which range from tolerant to downright cruel. Each section is followed by short personal reflections. Gibb’s hope is that her book will give a voice to some who are unable to speak freely themselves

As you might expect, it’s an intensely personal book at times but Gibb’s empathy is firmly anchored in careful research and the testimony of others, rounded off with a thorough bibliography. Her experience of living in Qatar and her interviews with women in rural India are particularly poignant, shocking at times. Infertility in the Western world is hard enough to bear for those who wish to have children but in many parts of the world where women are often seen of worth only for their ability to bear them, it commonly leads to ostracism, violence and suicide.  Other cultures have more creative ways of dealing with what they perceive as a problem –  mention of Albania’s sworn virgins reminded me of Elvira Dones’ fascinating novel.

It was a bitter yearning of a few years for me; time passed and there was no more longing, just a sense of absence

Gibb’s own experience of endometriosis, the worst her surgeon has ever seen, is harrowing. She writes eloquently of coping with questions about childlessness which so often results in a gush of sympathy, inappropriate from strangers. In her final section, she reflects on what her childlessness means to her and her coming to turns with it. There’s not a trace of self-pity in this powerful book, entirely excusable though it would. Gibb’s experience has been underpinned with the loving support of her husband who, of course, is childless, too. Her book is dedicated to him.

Books to Look Out for in April 2019

Cover imageFewer titles than usual to whet my appetite in April, enough for just one longish post kicking off with Jill Dawson’s The Language of Birds. Dawson frequently uses historical figures in her fiction and this time it’s the turn of the notorious Lord Lucan. In 1974, Mandy River arrives at her new job as a nanny to find a household in the midst of a bitter domestic feud. Mandy is warned by her employer that her estranged husband has a violent streak but can she be trusted? ‘Drawing on the infamous Lord Lucan affair, this compelling novel explores the roots of a shocking murder from a fresh perspective and brings to vivid life an era when women’s voices all too often went unheard’ say the publishers. I’ve enjoyed several of Dawson’s novels, particularly The Crime Writer, so I have hopes for this one.

I loved Nickolas Butler’s debut, Shotgun Lovesongs; The Hearts of Men, its follow-up, not so much. I’m a wee bit cautious, then, about Little Faith which tells the story of the family of a young woman and her involvement with a fundamentalist preacher who is convinced her five-year-old son has the power to heal the sick. ‘Set over the course of one year and beautifully evoking the change of seasons, Little Faith is a powerful and deeply affecting novel about family and community, the ways in which belief is both formed and shaken, and the lengths we go to protect our own’ say the publishers, setting us up for more gorgeous descriptions of Butler’s beloved WisconsinCover image

Altogether more urban, Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is set in 1993 and sounds like it might be a take on Orlando. The eponymous Paul is a bartender in a university town gay bar, studying queer theory by day, but he has a secret. ‘Oscillating wildly from Riot Grrrl to leather cub, Women’s Studies major to trade, Paul transforms his body at will in a series of adventures that take him from Iowa City to Boystown to Provincetown and finally to San Francisco – a journey through the deep queer archives of struggle and pleasure’ promise the publishers which sounds wildly ambitious but well worth investigating.

I first came across Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love on Kate’s Books Are My Favourite and Best blog. She described it as ‘easily one of the most original stories I’ve read. Ever’ so I’m delighted to find it’s to be published here in the UK. Film composer Arky has promised his dying wife not to visit her in hospital. She wants to spare him the burden of her suffering but it’s destroying him. ‘One day he finds his way to MOMA and sees Mariana Abramovic in The Artist is Present. The performance continues for seventy-five days and, as it unfolds, so does Arky. As he watches and meets other people drawn to the exhibit, he slowly starts to understand what might be missing in his life and what he must do’ say the publishers.

The husband in Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands is also seeking succour by the sound of it, this time from a cheating wife although only in his dreams. He takes himself off to Tokyo where he decides to follow in the footsteps of Basho meeting a young student seemingly bent on suicide along the way. ‘Gilbert travels with Yosa across Basho’s disappearing Japan, one in search of his perfect ending and the other the new beginning that will give his life meaning’ Cover imageaccording to the publishers. I like the sound of travels in a ‘disappearing Japan’.

Unusually for me, I’ve got ahead of myself with Tash Aw’s We, the Survivors and have already read it. Set in rural Malaysia, it tells the story of a man born into poverty, a decent man whose attempts to better himself end in tragedy. Ah Hock tells his story to a young woman who is writing about him, revealing what led up to the uncharacteristic act of violence that resulted in a man’s death and his own incarceration. It’s a quietly powerful, compelling piece of fiction, beautifully expressed. Review to follow next month.

Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian is a doorstopper, the kind I’d usually avoid, but Zadie Smith has called it ‘a sublime reading experience: delicate, restrained, surpassingly intelligent, uncommonly poised and truly beautiful’ so I think I might have to give it a try. It follows a young Palestinian from the Middle East to Paris during the First World War. ‘Hammad delicately unpicks the tangled politics and personal tragedies of a turbulent era – the Palestinian struggle for independence, the strife of the early twentieth century and the looming shadow of the Second World War’ say the publishers. Apparently, Smith has never spoken of a student in such glowing terms in the fifteen years she’s taught.

I’m ending with Season Butler’s Cygnet which has been in the offing for six months. It sees a Cover imageyoung girl, stranded on an island seemingly abandoned by her parents. Swan Island is home to an ageing separatist community who have turned their back on the mainland to create their own haven and have no wish to have their carefully constructed idyll shattered by an incomer, let alone a young one. ‘Cygnet is the story of a young woman battling against the thrashing waves of loneliness and depression, and how she learns to find hope, laughter and her own voice in a world that’s crumbling around her’ according to the publishers. This one could go either way but it’s an interesting premise.

That’s it for April’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli: Recording and bearing witness

Cover imageThis is the first book written in English by Valeria Luiselli and I’m delighted to say it’s been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’ve read only one of her novels, The Story of My Teeth, which I loved but which I gather isn’t typical of her work. Lost Children Archive is a response to the journeys made through the most dangerous terrain by those hoping to find their way across the Mexican border into the United States, many of them unaccompanied children. It explores the story of these children through one family who are travelling from New York to Arizona, their future uncertain.

Two unnamed parents set off from New York city with their children – his ten-year-old son and her five-year-old daughter – each with different projects to pursue when they reach their destination. They are both archivists of a kind, recording soundscapes as a way of exploring stories, but each has a very different approach. Their marriage is foundering, their future undecided although he intends to stay in Arizona documenting the Apache nation while she plans to record what is happening to migrant children, spurred on by her friend’s plea to look for her two daughters. As they cross the country, the children entertain themselves playing games reflecting what they hear on the radio, the audiobooks their mother has selected and the Apache stories their father tells them. They stop in motels where the parents fight quietly, convincing themselves their children can’t hear. The closer they come to the border, the more they hear about the migrant children, many about to be deported. Aware of his parents’ unhappiness, the boy decides to take action in the hope of bringing his parents back together.

Where to start with this immensely ambitious, contemplative novel? It begins from the mother’s perspective then switches to the son’s whose narrative echoes the structure of his mother’s. Each of their accounts is rich in literary allusion: the mother reads from Elegies for Lost Children, a book apparently based on the Children’s Crusade echoing the migrant children’s journeys and itself stuffed with literary references, which the son takes up. There’s a useful list of works cited in the back if, like me, you’re not as formidably erudite as Luiselli which helps elucidate many of these allusions. There are stories within stories throughout this novel but at the heart of them all are lost children, the way that they are failed, sometimes cruelly, and the necessity both of recording their fate and of bearing witness to it. It’s far from an easy read – there’s a long dense passage with little in the way of punctuation that almost defeated me – but it’s both thoughtful and thought-provoking. A humane and at times beautiful response to a desperate global problem.

Almost Three Days in Lille and One Book

Lille Post Office towerI’d been toying with the idea of a weekend in Lille for what must be a decade but had somehow never got around to it. When the train which took us to Amsterdam last year stopped there, less than 90 minutes after we’d left St Pancras, it seemed ridiculous not to go so off we set last Thursday, leaving Bath at 10.13 and arriving in Lille at 15.25 their time.

By the 1990s Lille was an industrial town in decline but the mayor pressed hard for a Eurostar stop which breathed new life into the city. We’d found ourselves a hotel in the old town which is all beautifully restored buildings, upmarket shops and restaurants. Some of the houses reminded me of Amsterdam or Brussels but then Lille is very much a Flanders town; think beer and waffles Art Nouveau (Lille)rather than wine and olives. There were a few arresting art nouveau fixes for me, too.

Friday morning was taken up with a visit to La Piscine in Roubaix, a 20-minute metro ride from Lille where the local authorities have turned their art deco swimming pool into a gallery. Neither of us were particularly keen on the paintings but there were some pleasing ceramics. The first floor offered some very fine textile exhibits plus a few fashion pieces including a lovely, simple, full-length dress by Jean Paul Gaultier, subtly patterned but for the designer’s name La Piscine (Robaix)which marred it ever so slightly for me once I’d spotted it.

No visit to Lille is complete without popping into Méert, beautiful both outside and in with its stained glass and tiling. The window displays of cake and chocolates would induce even the most puritanical tourist to step inside and neither of us is of the self-denying persuasion in that department. We went for Friday afternoon tea with cake for me and a gaufre for H which looked a bit sad when it arrived but proved quite tasty. Meert (Lille)

On Saturday morning we took ourselves off to the Palais des Beaux Arts where, rather like La Piscine, we were more taken with the ceramics than the paintings including a seventeenth-century two-handled mug, touchingly designed for the ‘tremblant’, presumably too shaky to hold it one-handed. We spied a few gilets jaunes through the window and a long line of parked gendarme vans. We’d seen no sign of a march but learned later that there’d been trouble, with the CRS wading in and one street filled with tear gas.

Sea Unicorn (Hospice Comtesse Lille)Our own Saturday afternoon’s outing was much more peaceable taking us to, for me, the best museum we visited in Lille: the Hospice Comtesse originally established in 1236 by Joan, Countess of Flanders. Rebuilt in the seventeenth century, the hospice now houses local artefacts offering a glimpse of Lille’s history. It’s a beautiful building whose entrance takes you into a kitchen entirely covered in blue and white tiles depicting a multitude of scenes and creatures including what appeared to be a sea unicorn. One for the brexiteers, I couldn’t help thinking.

We left Lille Europe station promptly at 12.35, arriving home in time for tea. Oddly, we’d heard very few British voices while in Lille. It’s such a delightful town and so easy to get there, I’m amazed it’s not overwhelmed with weekenders like us. Cover image

And the book? Not much time for reading on such a short break but I enjoyed what I read of Elizabeth Day’s swipe at the British class system, The Party. It’s about the friendship between two men who met at public school, Hotel L'Abre Voyageur (Lille) wallpaperone a scholarship boy, the other a privileged member of the upper classes. An incident at the eponymous fortieth birthday party results in a police investigation during which long kept secrets are spilled. Perfect holiday reading: well written, intelligent and absorbing yet unchallenging.

I don’t usually post pictures of wallpaper but this, from the corridor outside our hotel room, could not be missed. Yes, those are monkeys

Six Degrees of Separation – from The Arsonist to Ghost Moth

Back from lovely Lille – more of which later in the week – and it’s time for my favourite meme. Six Degrees of Separation is hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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This month we’re starting with Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist which I haven’t read but which I know from Kate’s review is about an appalling conflagration which took place in Australia in 2009 and the man who set some of the fires which contributed to it.

For obvious reasons my first link is to Sue Miller’s The Arsonist about the burning down of summer houses in a small New Hampshire town.

One of the characters in Miller’s novel is called Frankie which leads me to Barbara Trapido’s Frankie and Stankie whose main protagonist flees South Africa’s apartheid regime in the ‘60s to live in the UK.

South Africa shares a border with Zimbabwe, the setting for Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory in which the eponymous narrator tells her story from death row, imprisoned for the murder of the white man she’s been living with since she was nine.

Edgeworth Bess shares a similar predicament, telling her story via Billy Archer as she awaits sentencing for the possession of stolen goods in The Fatal Tree, Jake Arnott’s rollicking tale of eighteenth-century thieves and whores.

In Emily Woof’s The Lightning Tree a girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, leftie activist parents – meet a boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties.

Emily Woof is an actor, a profession she shares with Michèle Forbes who wrote Ghost Moth, set in Northern Ireland, which tells the story of a marriage in alternating narratives, twenty years apart.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an investigation of a devastating fire in Australia to a Northern Irish love story, and this time I’ve read all but our starting point. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

My Wish List for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019

The longlist for my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, is due to be announced next Monday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2018 and March 31st 2019 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in predicting what took the judges fancy but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as previous years, limiting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog apart from Lost Children Archive, The Narrow Land and Memories of the Future which I’ve yet to review. So, in no particular order here’s my wish list for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction:

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Transcription                              The Death of Noah Glass           White Houses

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Putney                                           All Among the Barley               Ghost Wall

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Land of the Living                        My Sister, the Serial Killer       In the Full Light of the Sun

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Improvement                              We Must Be Brave                         Old Baggage

 

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Lost Children Archive                  The Narrow Land                        Memories of the Future

Several of my favourite writers are listed here – Kate Atkinson, Amy Bloom, Siri Hustvedt, Georgina Harding – but I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention. We’ll see. Any titles that you’d love to see on the judges’ list?

That’s it from me for a few days. We’re off for what could be our last weekend as European citizens abroad. I may need tissues. Back next week to tell you all about it.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in March 2019: Part Two

Cover imageThe first batch of March’s paperbacks fell neatly into a time sequence whereas this one jumps about all over the place both in terms of period and theme. I’ll begin with a one of my 2018 favourites: Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea, a carefully crafted, moving novella which explores love, loss and connection through the stories of three very different men, bringing them neatly together at its end. Farouk is a bereaved refugee, Lampy helps out at the local care home, spending much of his time in a rage, and John is fixer, bent on the corruption of good men. It’s a tricky manoeuvre to tell your characters’ stories in discrete parts then merge them as subtly as Ryan does here but he pulls it off beautifully, writing in prose which has a lilting rhythmic beauty.

A description which could also be applied to many of the stories in Helen Dunmore’s Girl, Balancing, a posthumous collection put together by her son Patrick Charnley. Many of the themes running through these stories will be familiar to Dunmore fans. Family, friendship, memory, love and passion, and, of course, women and their place in the world, are all adroitly explored. As ever with Dunmore, so much is said in a few precisely chosen words. There’s not one dud in this collection which captures its author’s wonderful facility with language and acute observation.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s first collection, You Think It, I’ll say It, is another treat for short story lovers. its overarching theme is the gulf between our perception of ourselves and other people, and theirs of us. Characters’ initial impressions are often proven entirely, sometimes comically, wrong. Gender is firmly to the fore – women and childcare, expectations of female beauty, distribution of domestic chores are all deftly and effectively handled. Altogether an intelligent, satisfying collection which neatly skewers modern social mores with a sly, occasionally waspish wit.Cover image

Chloe Caldwell’s Women is so short – a mere 130 pages – that it could almost pass as a lengthy short story but for all that it took me far longer to read than I’d expected. It charts her narrator’s passionate, destructive affair with a woman much older than herself, ending just a year after it began. There’s a feverish intensity about the first-person narrative which makes it feel raw and confessional, all the more so given that Caldwell has made no secret of drawing on her own experience for this book. For me, it was a book to admire for its stripped down, meticulously crafted writing rather than enjoy.

Tortured relationships are also the subject of Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage. Ray and Celeste are staying in a hotel when he is hauled off in the middle of the night, falsely accused of rape just eighteen months into their marriage. Jones charts the effects of his imprisonment on their relationship from both Ray’s and Celeste’s perspectives. Racism, class and marriage are put under the microscope as are absent fathers and attitudes towards women in this tightly controlled, powerful novel.

I’ve yet to read James Wood’s Upstate in which two sisters – one a philosopher, the other a record executive – are still coping with the emotional fallout of their parents’ bitter divorce. When Vanessa suffers a crisis, Helen and her father travel to upstate New York where over six days the family struggles with life’s big questions. ‘If, as a favourite philosopher of Vanessa’s puts it, “the only serious enterprise is living”, how should we live? Rich in subtle human insight, full of poignant and often funny portraits, and vivid with a sense of place, Upstate is a perceptive, intensely moving novel’ say the publishers of what sounds like a weighty piece of Cover imagefiction.

Finally, Paolo Cognetti’s The Eight Mountains has a particularly appealing premise: two very different Italian boys meet in the mountains every summer. Pietro is a lonely city boy who comes to the Alps for his holidays while Bruno is the son of a local stonemason. These two explore the mountains together, becoming firm friends but take widely diverging paths as they become men. Annie Proulx has described Cognetti’s novel as ‘Exquisite… A rich, achingly painful story’. It sounds right up my street.

That’s it for March’s paperbacks. A click on the first five titles will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the other two, and if you’d like to catch up with both the first instalment and March’s new titles, they’re here, here and here.