I like to start these previews off with a book I can heartily recommend and I’m delighted to say that’s easy this April as two of my 2015 favourites hit the shops in paperback. Hard to choose which I enjoyed most so I’m starting with one and ending with the other. Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s wonderful Himmler’s Cook took me on a romp through twentieth century history. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ a credo that’s got her through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband. Rose is a fabulous character and, unlikely as it may seem, there’s quite a lot of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters.
Jill Alexander Essbaum’s protagonist in Hausfrau is the antithesis of Rose, living a life in the Zurich suburbs so attenuated she’s almost faded into its background. Anna is an American who moved to Switzerland with Bruno nine years ago when pregnant with their oldest son. Bruno has settled back into Swiss life, living a short walk from his mother, but Anna has never felt she belongs there, speaking only the most basic German. Her psychiatrist has suggested she join a language class which might make her feel more of a participant than a bystander. Soon, Anna begins an affair and over the course of three months, finds herself embroiled and beleaguered until a calamitous event shakes her to her core. Essbaum’s language is striking and Anna’s story well told. Well worth a read.
The next three are new to me, although I’ve had my eye on Owen Sheer’s I Saw a Man for some time. It’s about Michael Turner who has lost his wife and is now living in London next door to the Nelsons with whom he has become close friends. For Michael, the Nelsons represent everything he has lost but their friendship is a solace to him until a catastrophe changes everything. The synopsis sounds a little trite but Sheers is a fine writer with a reputation for lyrical prose and I suspect his book will be worth reading for that alone.
I spend quite lot of time banging on about lousy jackets but in this particular case, it’s the jacket that’s sold the book to me so I can only hope the contents live up to it. Nell Leyshon’s Memoirs of a Dipper is about Gary, a seasoned thief, trained by his father on the job when he was just a child. He’s already done a stint inside, coming out of prison a career criminal. Bright, opportunistic, he knows all the moves ‘but all that changes when he falls for Mandy…’ is the nice little teaser from the publisher. A little outside my usual purview but I do like that cover
The same could be said of Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress which is set in 1255 but Elizabeth Gilbert’s description of it as ‘so beautiful, so rich, so strange’ has piqued my interest. Sarah is seventeen when she decides to be an anchoress, shutting herself away in a tiny cell beside the village church. She’s turned her back on the world and devoted herself to prayer in an attempt to escape her grief for her sister and her family’s determination that she should marry. Things, of course, are never so simple. ‘Cadwallader’s powerful debut novel tells an absorbing story of faith, desire, shame, fear and the very human need for connection and touch. With a poetic intelligence, Cadwallader explores the relationship between the mind, body and spirit in Medieval England in a story that will hold the reader in a spell until the very last page’ say the publishers.
I’m rounding things off with my other 2015 favourite, Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth which was commissioned as part of an exhibition by the Mexican juice factory that appears in the novel. Inspired by the nineteenth-century Cuban practice of employing a ‘tobacco reader’ who read to the workers to relieve their boredom, Luiselli arranged for her fiction to be read to the juice factory workers in instalments, incorporating their suggestions into the next episode just as Dickens did with his serialised novels. Ostensibly the somewhat outlandish story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, aka Highway, who has one aim in life – the perfect set of gnashers – the novel’s really about the art of storytelling. Often witty and fantastical, it’s a brilliantly original piece of work and translator Christina MacSweeney’s Chronologic is a wonderful finishing touch, putting Highway’s life into context and illuminating his many allusions.
That’s it for April paperbacks. A click on anything I haven’t already reviewed will take you to a fuller synopsis should you want to know more. If you’d like to catch up with new titles for the month they’re here and here.