Treading the Uneven Road by L. M. Brown: Life on a small stage

Cover imageTreading the Uneven Road is one of those books I was in two minds about. The author approached me directly which always feels very personal; there’s the worry that an appealing sounding book won’t live up to its promise and might not even get finished let alone reviewed. Given that you’re reading this, it’s clear that I did both. The title of L. M. Brown’s book is a nod to W. B. Yeats’ poem ‘The Phases of the Moon’, a quote from which prefaces this collection of linked short stories set in a small Irish village which explores the interlocking histories of its inhabitants.

It begins with ‘The Lady on the Bridge’ which sees Bernadette, lonely in her marriage and convinced her husband is having an affair, calling a number in his address book and finding herself confiding in the man who answers her. Later in ‘The Shape of Longing’ Bernadette’s uncle castigates her mother for neglecting her and we learn the darkness that lies behind both Ann’s departure and her daughter’s isolation. Two lots of people make a bid for escape. In ‘The Sacred Heart’ brothers Dick and Enda announce their plans to find work in London but events conspire to keep them in their place until a coin is tossed, leaving Enda to shoulder family responsibilities.  Ester and Moire cross the Irish Sea but find their lifelong friendship strained to breaking point when Moire moves in with a man Ester both detests and mistrusts in ‘The Wrong Man’.  ‘A Taste of Salt’ sees a young man longing to be punished for his friend’s accidental death for which he feels overwhelming guilt. His story is reprised in ‘Blackbirds’ when his urge to wreak revenge on his old teacher is thwarted by a realisation of her own tragedy.

Villagers’ lives are tightly interwoven, sometimes uncomfortably so, in these stories which crisscross the ‘80s and ‘90s. Loneliness, loss and isolation are common themes in the lives of this place whose bypass has rid the villagers of the roar of the traffic but left them feeling cut off from the world. It’s a small, self-contained stage on which to set a collection: Brown’s keenly observed characters went to school together, loved each other, hated each other, married, had children and affairs with each other, and judged each other. These are carefully crafted stories, quietly understated although often bleak. A few quotes will give you a flavour:

I thought we would always be together, but we were only children gasping at each other

From the moment my daughter was born, she made me feel like running away

A space existed in Moire where a mother had once been

An impressive collection, then. I’m glad I agreed to review it although I did long for a flash of joy now and then. I’m pleased to report there’s a wee bit of hope at the end of the final piece, not to mention cake and lots of it.

Your Fault by Andrew Cowan: A boy’s life

Cover imageFour things attracted me to Andrew Cowan’s Your Fault: its working class, ‘60s setting; its unusual structure; its length and its publisher, Salt Publishing whose list is never anything but interesting. Set in one of those new towns beloved by British town planners of the mid-twentieth century, Cowan’s novella has fifty-five-year-old Peter tell his story to himself, from his first memory in 1962 to the day his childhood ended.

Peter was born on the first day of the new decade. His father is a Scot, an ex-soldier working as a fitter at the steelworks where most of the town’s men are employed. He’s much older that Peter’s mother, forty-one to her seventeen when they first met on Malta where he was stationed. Peter knows Dolly is unhappy, that she sees other men and that she feels trapped in a stifling routine of housework and childcare. His parents rows are a constant and distressing soundtrack to his childhood. Sometimes, Dolly disappears leaving him alone with his little sister, Lorraine. Peter goes to school, makes friends, suffers the usual torments of embarrassment when he gets things wrong and is horrified when an outbreak of sibling rivalry goes too far. Eleven years after Peter’s first memory, his and Lorraine’s childhood ends with a shocking discovery by her, leaving him with a longing to step in and change both their stories.

Cowan unfolds Peter’s story through vivid snapshots of childhood memories, seen from the vantage point of the same age his father was when he died. Gaps are gradually filled as the years progress, small details slipped in making clear that this is not a happy household. Cowan is the master of show not tell, leaving much to the reader to infer. His characters are sharply observed – Dolly’s frustration at being tied to a baby and a toddler is perfectly caught, Peter’s conviction that she exists only for him brilliantly conveyed. Period detail summons up the ‘60s and ’70s beautifully, from the housewives’ Tupperware party, family holidays at Butlin’s and the Tufty Club joined by children who’d learned the rules of road-crossing, to the lives of women, curtailed by housewifery and childcare, their misery medicated with tranquilisers. All this is communicated through the young Peter’s eyes as his fifty-five-year-old self struggles with his past. Hard not to wonder if this is a slice of autofiction given that Cowan was brought up in Corby, a ‘60s new town with a steelworks at its heart, which makes its ending all the more poignant.

Books to Look Out for in June 2019: Part Two

Cover imageHard to match part one of June’s preview, having led with a new Kate Atkinson but Hiromi Kawakami is one of my favorite authors so I’ll start with The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino. Mr Nishino makes his advances to all manner of women: young, old, independent, grieving, cat-loving or interested in making their own conquests – all are considered fair game. ‘For each of them, an encounter with elusive womaniser Mr Nishino will bring torments, desires and delights’ say the publishers. I’m hoping for some of the understated prose infused with a gentle humour that characterised both The Nakano Thrift Shop and Strange Weather in Tokyo the covers of which are nicely referenced by this one.

I’m jumping from a favourite writer to one I know nothing about with Helon Habila’s Travellers which tackles the theme of migration through a diverse set of characters, from a Nigerian American couple who have been awarded an arts fellowship to a Somalian trying to save his daughter from a forced marriage. ‘Moving from a Berlin nightclub to a Sicilian refugee camp to the London apartment of a Malawian poet, Helon Habila evokes a rich mosaic of migrant experiences. And through his characters’ interconnecting fates, he traces the extraordinary pilgrimages we all might make in pursuit of home’ say the publishers. It sounds both ambitious and fascinating.

Carrying on the theme of migration, award-winning poet, Ocean Vuong’s lyrically named On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous takes the form of a letter from a son to his mother who cannot read, telling her the story of his life and exploring the family’s history in Vietnam before he was born. ‘At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity… … With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years’ say the publishers in the somewhat overwrought blurb. It does sound extraordinary, and Cover imageI’ve a weakness for novels by poets.

Carolina Setterwall’s Let’s Hope for the Best is apparently based on events in her own life, knowledge of which is likely to make her novel all the more wrenching. Written in the form of a dual narrative which flits back and forth between past and present, it tells the story of thirty-six-year-old Carolina whose partner dies in the night leaving her to bring up their infant son alone. Setterwall takes the story to the point where new love appears on Carolina’s horizon but will she be able to accept it. Reading the synopsis for Let’s Hope for the Best, I can’t help being reminded of Tom Malmquist’s powerful, moving piece of auto-fiction, In Every Moment We Are Alive.

The next two novels are reissues rather than brand spanking new ones but I’ve read neither of them. The first comes garlanded with praise from the likes of Alan Hollinghurst, who has written an introduction, and Rupert Everett who laments the passing of the New York City portrayed in Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance. Set in the 1970s, it follows Anthony Malone who turns his back on small town America to throw himself into the dance parties, discos, saunas and orgies of the New York gay scene. ‘First published in 1978, Dancer from the Dance is widely considered the greatest, most exciting novel of the post-Stonewall generation. Told with wit, eroticism and unashamed lyricism, it remains a heart-breaking love letter to New York’s hedonistic past, and a testament to the brilliance of our passions as they burn brightest’ say the publishers. I like the sound of that even if it won’t be possible to read it without the sadness of knowing what comes next.

Cover imageThe second reissue is a feminist classic which I’ve heard of but never read. Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen follows Sasha Davis who drops out of college to marry but finds herself rebelling against her conservative 1950s upbringing as her thirtieth birthday draws near. ‘Alix Kates Shulman’s landmark novel follows Sasha’s coming of age through the sexual double standards, discrimination and harassment of the 1950s and 60s. Originally published in 1972, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was the first great novel of second-wave feminism. Five decades later, it remains a funny, honest and heartbreakingly perceptive story of a young woman in a man’s world’ says the blurb. According to the New York Times ‘women will like it and men should read it for the good of their immortal souls’. Amen to that.

That’s it for June’s new novels. As ever, a click on any title that’s snagged your attention will take you to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

Lost Property by Laura Beatty: A road trip through history in search of meaning

Cover imageI’ve not read anything by Laura Beatty before but I found Lost Property’s synopsis intriguing. A woman finds herself in a state of despair at her country’s apparent indifference to the suffering and poverty on its streets and decides she must find a way to understand how such a state has come about. This witty yet profound novel of ideas takes us across Europe in a second hand camper van on a road trip through history, following our unnamed narrator’s quest for meaning.

Our narrator is a writer living in London with her partner who organises tours to Greece. After an exchange with the beggar who’s set herself up close to our narrator’s flat, complete with a banner labelled ‘BritAnnia’, our narrator finds herself in a dark place. What has become of her country which goes about its business, turning away from people sleeping on the streets? She and her partner pack up their belongings and take off for France. Rupert is a pragmatist, happy to go along with his partner’s quest while accepting the state of the world she finds so troubling. As our narrator explores European nations’ intertwined histories on her laptop, their journey takes them through France, on to Italy then into Slovenia and the Balkans until they reach Greece and come face to face with the refugee crisis. They volunteer in a camp on the island of Chios where our narrator finally lets go of the fear that has gripped her. Along the way, they encounter a multitude of historical, literary and mythological characters, from Eustace II who fought alongside William the Conqueror to Jean of Arc, from Christine de Pizan to Hermes. By the end of this odyssey, our narrator has found a degree of peace and understanding about what nationhood means to her.

That rather trite synopsis is a feeble attempt to encapsulate this ambitious novel. Beatty pokes gentle fun at Eustace who takes up residence in the campervan and interjects cynical smart remarks into our narrator’s conversation with Rupert, making her device palatable for those of us who might feel a wee bit uneasy with it. Our narrator’s idealism is neatly counterbalanced by Rupert’s pragmatism, allowing Beatty to explore both sides of the argument. Her writing is often striking, her historical vignettes illuminating and vivid, although occasionally delivered with a little too much detail for me. Inevitably, given that the search for the meaning of nationhood is at its heart, I couldn’t help reading Lost Property as a Brexit novel although its scope is far wider than that. It’s not an easy read – it’s hasn’t been easy to write about and I fear I haven’t done it justice – but it’s a richly rewarding one, and it’ll make you think.

If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail N. Rosewood: Belonging, and not belonging

Cover imageSome of you may have noticed that I’m attracted to novels about immigrants. The theme has an entry all to itself in my occasional Five Books I’ve Read series. I’ve lived my life in just one country which is perhaps why I’m so curious about how it might feel to leave your homeland, not always willingly. Abbigail N. Rosewood’s debut, If I Had Two Lives, tells the story of a young woman who spent her first twelve years in Vietnam until her mother’s determination to root out corruption becomes so dangerous that she sends her daughter to the United States.

In 1993, when our unnamed narrator is just three, her mother leaves in the middle of the night without saying goodbye. Intent on helping to modernise her country, her mother refuses to let corruption stand in her way. When she’s seven, our narrator is brought to the camp for political prisoners where her mother lives, protected by the man her daughter calls ‘the soldier’. She makes friends with the child of a camp employee, poor in comparison with our narrator’s privilege. These two become the closest of friends, sharing adventures, even dreams, which helps to soothe the wounds inflicted by their parents, emotional and otherwise. The last time our narrator sees her friend, she’s surrounded by the flames of the sugarcane field they’ve set alight. The following day our narrator flies to the States. When we next meet her, she’s supporting herself with a string of dead-end jobs after dropping out of college. An encounter with a woman in a bar results in an immediate connection and, perhaps, a way to fill the emotional chasm she’s endured since she was a child.

Rosewood’s narrator tells her story in her own voice, exploring themes of dislocation and belonging with poignancy and immediacy. Quick to anger, her mother is so driven that she has neither the time nor emotional energy to expend on her daughter who looks for family where she can find it. When she arrives in the States, she tells whatever story she needs to belong, accepting the stereotype of the poor immigrant:

I didn’t realise then that learning a new language permanently separated you from yourself so that each version was neither a lie nor a whole truth

Rosewood’s writing has an aching poignancy, and is often lyrically poetic:

Remembrances were like slivers of glass, crystal clear until you picked them up and smudged their surface with your fingerprints

Her narrator’s story is one of loss, isolation and a yearning to belong, summed up for me in the quietly devastating line: What I learned over the years – abandonment was love’s destiny. You’ll be relieved to hear it ends on a note of hope.

Books to Look Out for in June 2019: Part One

Cover imageNo prizes for guessing which book tops June’s list of new titles if you’ve had your eye on Transworld’s tweets. Big Sky is Kate Atkinson’s first Jackson Brodie novel in nine years. For those not yet familiar with Jackson, he’s a private investigator with a military background and a career in the Cambridge Constabulary behind him. This new instalment sees him returned from Edinburgh to his native Yorkshire. His current case, an apparently straightforward one of infidelity, draws him into a sinister network and back into his past. ‘Old secrets and new lies intersect in this breathtaking new novel, both sharply funny and achingly sad, by one of the most dazzling and surprising writers at work today’ say the publishers. Regular readers won’t be surprised to hear I’ve already devoured this one. Such a treat, particularly as it’s not even a year since Transcription was published.

Jo Baker’s The Body Lies is also a novel of suspense according to the blurb. A young writer accepts a job at a university deep in the countryside hoping to turn her back on the assault she endured in the city but finds herself involved in a vitriolic debate about violence against women. Tension is ratcheted up when a student sends her sample chapters of his novel whose main protagonist resembles herself. ‘At once a breathless battle-of-wits and a disarming exploration of sexual politics, The Body Lies is an essential book for our times’ according to the publishers.

I’m not entirely sure about Tim Lott’s When We Were Rich but its premise is an appealing one. Six people gather on a London rooftop on Millennium Eve to watch the fireworks on the Thames. All seems rosy as the economy booms but mass immigration from Eastern Europe is causing rumbles of discontent and religious fundamentalism is making itself known. How will these six weather the challenges ahead? ‘Sad, shocking and often hilarious, it is an acutely observed novel of all our lives, set during what was for some a golden time – and for others a nightmare,Cover image from which we are yet to wake up’ say the publishers. Apparently, this new novel sees the return of characters who first appeared in White City Blue, a novel I read but about which I can remember nothing.

My reservations about Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers are based largely on the idea that I don’t much enjoy historical novels but I’m beginning to question that having after reading several excellent ones last year. Cliff’s story sees a recently widowed window dresser hatch a plan to scupper a rival whose mannequins are uncannily lifelike. ‘What follows is a gothic tale of art and deception, strength and folly, love and transgression, which ranges from small-town New Zealand to the graving docks of the River Clyde in Scotland. Along the way we meet a Prussian strongman, a family of ship’s carvers with a mysterious affliction, a septuagenarian surf lifesaver and a talking figurehead named Vengeance’ apparently. I’m a little concerned about that talking figurehead but it does sound original

Claire McGlasson’s The Rapture is about The Panacea Society, a religious community made up almost entirely of single ladies who patiently awaited the return of the Lord. A devoted member of the Society, Dilys makes friends with Grace, a new recruit, but becomes wary of their leader’s zealotry. ‘As her feelings for Grace bud and bloom, the Society around her begins to crumble. Faith is supplanted by doubt as both women come to question what is true and fear what is real’ according to the publishers. The Panacea Society was based in a Victoria villa in Bedford, a town I lived in for a couple of years without the slightest knowledge of the cult’s existence. The last member died in 2012, apparently.

Claire Lombardo’s The Most Fun We Ever Had sounds rather more down to earth. Much loved by their parents, the four Sorenson sisters have their lives turned upside down by the reappearance of a teenage boy given up for adoption years earlier. ‘Weaving between past and present, The Most Fun We Ever Had portrays the delights and difficulties of family life and the endlessly complex mixture of affection and abhorrence we feel for those closest to us’ say the publishers which suggests family secrets and a novel to escape into to me, perhaps heralding the beginning of the summer reading season.

That’s it for the first batch of June’s new titles. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Second instalment soon…

Six Degrees of Separation – from The Dry to The Hotel New Hampshire

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme 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.

Cover images

We’re starting this month with Jane Harper’s The Dry which I haven’t read but I remember it popping up frequently in my Twitter feed when it was published. I do know that it’s a thriller set in small town Australia.

As is Lesley Glaister’s nail-biting As Far as You Can Go which sees a British couple running a remote Australian farm after answering an advertisement. I remember being gripped by this as their letters to the outside world go unanswered and the farm’s owners’ behaviour becomes increasingly odd.

Cassie and Graham are running away from problems in Glaister’s spooky thriller as is Dylan who is escaping the bailiffs in Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims. The only place left to go is the caravan his mother left him in Scotland where the temperature is plummeting.

There’s a distinctly dystopian flavour to Fagan’s novel as there is to Megan’s Hunter’s strikingly poetic The End We Start From, the story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives.

I’m using Hunter’s name to link with Carson McCuller’s classic The Heart is a Lonely Hunter which tells the story of a deaf-mute whose kindly nature draws in his fellow townspeople, many lonely and unhappy.

McCuller’s celebrated debut is set in small mill town in America, down on its uppers, as is Richard Russo’s Empire Falls which is set against the backdrop of the eponymous town in the state of Maine where the manager of the local diner has a lot on his plate.

Maine is right next door to New Hampshire which leads me to John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire and the Berrys, the family that runs it. I’ve gone off the boil somewhat with Irving’s recent novels but this is one of his best: a showcase for his consummate storytelling skills and entertaining characters.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a drought-stricken small Australian town to a hotel on the US Eastern seaboard run by an eccentric family. 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.

Flotsam by Meike Ziervogel: More than meets the eye

Cover imageYou may already know Meike Ziervogel’s name. She’s the founder of Peirene Press who publish three thought-provoking novellas in translation a year, several of which I’ve reviewed on this blog. Flotsam’s not her first book but it’s the first I’ve read by her. Set on the German coast in the 1950s, Ziervogel’s strange, unsettling novella is a beautifully expressed exploration of the legacy of war and the grief it brings.

Trine is playing on the shipwreck not far from the cottage where her mother has lived since her father suggested the family leaves Berlin during the war. Her brother Carl falls from the rigging, apparently dead but Trine decides not to interrupt her mother’s daily beach combing, instead dragging his body home, planning to give him a pirate’s burial. On the cusp of adolescence, Trine is an outsider, the butt of sneering bullies, but when she sets fire to the shipwreck her status changes. She’s someone to be reckoned with now. Her mother, Anna, has collected what the sea throws up for years until it fills several of the cottage’s rooms. Once an artist, she had plans to make something of these bits and pieces but nothing ever comes of it. One day she thinks she sees a man who may be Carl, trudging through the mudflats, and her thoughts turn to the war. As this evocative novella draws to a close, Anna at last finds a use for her daily gatherings.

As you may have gathered from that synopsis, this is not an easy book to write about without muffling the small shocks and perplexities which readers should experience for themselves Told first from Trine’s perspective then Anna’s, it’s the briefest of novellas yet it provokes more thought than many books three times its length. Written in often lyrical yet spare, clean prose, Flotsam is haunted by grief, leaving much for readers to deduce for themselves. Ziervogel’s setting reflects the shifting ambiguity of much of the novel in its atmospheric descriptions:

The blue sky is cloudless. A flock of oystercatchers is heading out towards the sea, which is nothing more than a thin line on the horizon

It was impossible to imagine that in just a few hours all of this would be covered by the sea, which seemed to have disappeared beyond the horizon, dropped off the face of the earth.

Ziervogel’s novella is likely to take you less than an afternoon to read, her own criterion for the books Peirene publishes, but I’d be surprised if you weren’t thinking about it for some time after you’ve finished.

Almost Four Days in Genoa and One Book

We booked a short break back in March thinking that it might be our last chance to join the EU citizen passport queue but once again we were reprieved. Or at least that’s how I think of it. This time we were heading for Genoa, home of two of my favourite things to eat: focaccia and pesto – the real thing not that stuff out of a jar. After a fabulously warm and sunny Easter weekend at home, we tried not to be disappointed as the rain lashed the cab windscreen on our way to our apartment but failed. Being British we were prepared and strode out into the narrow medieval streets of the old town with their many-storied buildings shaking our heads politely at the umbrella sellers. Our first impression of Genoa was of nicely faded grandeur which reminded me a little of Lisbon.

The next day, minds on our stomachs as ever, we headed off to the Mercato Orientale by way of the stupendously grand Via 20 Settembre – a shopping street with gorgeously decorated colonnades, resplendent with mosaic pavements and painted ceilings. Genoa is known as ‘La Superba’, a reference to its glorious past evident from the street’s extravagant decoration. The market was a treat, too, full of stalls displaying beautiful produce including purple asparagus, courgette flowers and shiny aubergines, some of which we snapped up for supper.

If Via 20 Settembre hadn’t rubbed in Genoa’s past glories there was no escaping them on Via Garibaldi which is filled with impressive palazzos. The city owes its Unesco World Heritage status largely to these extravagant but often beautiful buildings which hosted the state visits of the great and possibly not so good in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We returned to the Via Garibaldi for an aperitivo before supper, alerted by the excellent Travel Gourmet, whose blog I consulted frequently (almost obsessively) while in Genoa, to the delicious snacks served alongside drinks rather like tapas. We each had a glass of bone-dry prosecco at the Baribaldi, chosen by H who can’t resist a pun, and felt so much better at the prospect of yet more rain afterwards.

Thursday was Liberation Day in Italy, and for us, too, with some sunshine and swifts flying past as H opened our apartments’ shutters. We took ourselves off for a stroll along the Corso Italia, looking out to sea with the many locals walking their splendid dogs, several of which looked as if they belonged in the mountains. The afternoon was taken up with visiting a few of those flamboyant palazzos on the Via Garibaldi which turned out to be even more overwrought inside than their exteriors suggested. I couldn’t help feeling Genoa’s nobility were trying to outdo each other rather like the owners of the outrageously decorated art nouveau villas we’d marvelled at in Riga, Budapest and Antwerp.

Another day, another palazzo, this one – the Palazzo di Andrea Doria – commissioned by the eponymous admiral instrumental in regaining Genoa from the French in the sixteenth century. His palace is quite stunning, opulent yet not nearly as florid as those lining the Via Garibaldi. Not exactly understated either, of course, but I found it much more appealing and its gardens are gorgeous, filled with roses and lavender already in bloom. We loved it although H described it as a bit ‘Trumpian’ given Doria’s penchant for having himself and his cronies portrayed as conquering Roman heroes.

We spent our last afternoon ambling around the city, taking the funicular up one of its steep hills and admiring the view then wandering back to our apartment through streets lined with tiny shops. Rather like our experience in Lille, we’d heard few foreign tourists throughout our stay which seemed a shame. That said, Genoa Cover imageclearly has a life of its own rather than relying on pandering to the likes of me for its income which is surely a good thing.

And the book? Set in 1930s Montreal, Heather O’Neill’s The Lonely Hearts Hotel tells the story of two orphans besotted with each other but separated when Pierrot is adopted by a rich man, escaping the brutality of the orphanage but left yearning for his soulmate. O’Neill’s imaginative, sometimes heartrending novel is a tale of gangsters, vaudeville, ambition, beauty and above all, love. It went down very well.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2019: Part Two

Cover imageBack from Genoa – of which more on Wednesday –  with the second batch of May paperbacks starting with the only one I’ve read. Lena Andersson’s Acts of Infidelity features the same sharply observed protagonist as her witty novella, Wilful Disregard, which I reviewed here a couple of years ago. Once again Ester is in the grips of monomania, this time for Olof who is performing in her play, Threesome, about a man trapped in an unhappy marriage who becomes involved with another woman. Given the novel’s title, it doesn’t take much to work out how things play between Ester and Olof. Andersson shows no mercy in skewering Ester’s deluded conviction that Olof is as besotted with her as she is with him despite his obvious indifference which may sound like a rerun of Wilful Disregard but its more sombre tone makes Act of Infidelity sadly credible.

I suspect Sara Stridsberg’s The Gravity of Love will share that tone. Jimmie Darling’s daughter visits her father in the psychiatric institution just outside Stockholm where he is in the charge of Edvard Winterson, happy to take his patients for the odd night out. When her mother disappears on holiday, the hospital becomes Jackie’s world and she makes the acquaintance of what sounds like a vivid cast of characters. ‘In Sara Stridsberg’s breathtakingly beautiful novel, the psychiatric hospital, set in a lovely park close to a lake, takes on near-mythic dimensions, both as an avenging angel and as a redeemer of lost souls’ say the publishers which sounds a little overblown but Stridsberg’s book has been much praised in Stridsberg’s native Sweden.

Sally Rooney’s quietly addictive Conversations with Friends won both prizes and accolades when it was published in 2017. Her second, Normal People, has met with a similar response. It follows Connell and Marianne, both from the same small town but from very different backgrounds, who win places at Trinity College Dublin. ‘This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel’ say the publishers promisingly. That synopsis remindsCover image me a little of Belinda McKeon’s wonderful Tender setting the bar very high for me.

In Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion a young student is taken up by a prominent feminist and finds herself treading a very different path from the one she’d expected to travel. ‘Expansive and wise, compassionate and witty, The Female Persuasion is about the spark we all believe is flickering inside us, waiting to be seen and fanned by the right person at the right time, and the desire within all of us to be pulled into the light’ according to the publishers. I’ve long been a fan of Wolitzer’s novels, reviewing The Interestings here way back in 2013.

I could have said the same about William Boyd’s work had it not been for a string of thrillers which failed to hit the mark for me. His last novel, Sweet Caress, saw a return to form that I hope will continue in Love is Blind. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, it follows Brodie Mancour from Edinburgh to Paris where he conceives an obsessive passion for a Russian soprano with dangerous consequences. ‘At once an intimate portrait of one man’s life and an expansive exploration of the beginning of the twentieth century, Love is Blind is a masterly new novel from one of Britain’s best-loved storytellers’ say the publishers which makes me hopeful.

I’m finishing May’s paperback preview with two short story collections the first of which, Lauren Groff’s Florida, I’ve picked not because, as the publishers trumpet, it was one of Barack Obama’s books of 2018, although it has to be said that the man has excellent literary taste, but because Rebecca over at Bookish Beck rated it her favourite fiction of the same year. ‘In these vigorous stories, Lauren Groff brings her electric storytelling to a world in which storms, snakes and sinkholes lurk at the edge of everyday life, but the greater threats are of a human, emotional and psychological nature’ according to the blurb. Sounds great.

Cover imageCatherine Lacey’s second novel, The Answers, came with Margaret Atwood’s seal of approval which must be both a blessing and a curse for an author, raising stratospheric expectations. She’s followed it with Certain American States, a collection of twelve short stories which explore loss and longing, apparently. The Answers was stuffed full of smart writing so I’m hoping for the same with this collection although perhaps not the caustic humour given those themes.

That’s it for May. A click on Acts of Infidelity will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the other six titles. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch of paperbacks, it’s here. The month’s new titles are here and here.