The second part of March’s paperbacks stays here in the UK for a while then wanders around all over the place finally arriving at one of my favourite literary destinations. Stella Duffy’s London Lies Beneath begins in August 1912 and follows three friends who have grown up together in the slums of Walworth where they’re expected to live out their lives. When the more adventurous of the three hears of a scouting trip he’s determined to go, taking the other two with him with tragic results. The blurb describes it as ‘a song of south London, of working class families with hidden histories, of a bright and complex world long neglected’. I’ve enjoyed Duffy’s previous London novels – she has a knack for catching the atmosphere of the place, and what a great jacket.
London – or at least the City – is the old stomping ground of sixty-year-old Matthew Oxenhay who is driving along the A303 towards Barnet, leaving Somerset behind him in Jim Powell’s Trading Futures. Whether he continues in that direction depends on his wife not answering her phone. If she does answer it, he’ll tell her he’s leaving her, turn around and head back to Anna in Somerset. Matthew’s story unfolds through his own waspish, darkly funny inner monologue. He’s a ‘60s rebel for whom the very idea of a career as a futures trader would have been despicable all those years ago. Sharply observed and grimly funny, in the end Matthew’s journey is a sobering one.
Marriage and infidelity also run through Anna Raverat’s Lover. Kate’s marriage begins to unravel when she discovers her husband’s dalliance with another woman. Work offers no comfort as her boss becomes increasingly demanding. Amidst this turmoil, Kate’s priority is to protect her daughters but her life is in tatters. ‘Told with warmth and lightness, even as it also mines real depths of sorrow, Lover is a novel about the hand that life can deal you, and how to play it with grace. Beautifully observed, full of wisdom, poetry and humour, it asks what it means to be true in all things, and in so doing, how to live’ say the publishers, which makes it sound like a nice piece of intelligent, absorbing fiction.
Keeping it in the family, Elizabeth Hay’s His Whole Life is a coming-of-age novel which follows Jim and his mother over seven difficult years as the bond between them deepens ‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’ asks ten-year-old Jim from the back seat of the family car. This is the question that will recur throughout Hay’s richly complex and intimate portrait of an extended family, each time revealing more about its characters. I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Hay’s nuanced understated fiction – her Late Nights on Air is one of my favourite novels. If you haven’t read her yet, please do. You won’t be disappointed
Complex family dynamics are a theme of Neil Hegarty’s adroit Inch Levels, set in Derry against the background of the Troubles, about a young man with only a few weeks to live, wrestling with a dilemma and the tortured family history that has led him to it. As Patrick’s recollections unfold they reveal a family whose emotions have been smothered: a mother closed off, unable to express affection; a father doing the best he can but unable to compensate and two children, confused and resentful but knowing that each is all the other has. It’s an engaging novel which shows rather than tells, richly repaying close attention.
Finding his family is on the mind of an American student with debts to settle in Miroslav Pensov’s Stork Mountain. He heads for the village of Klisura, deep in the Strandja Mountains on the Bulgarian side of the border with Turkey within spitting distance of Greece, hoping to sell his family’s land and track down his incommunicado grandfather. Beautifully expressed and often very funny, Stork Mountain weaves folklore, dreams and history through its long and winding narrative, often turning back on itself. It’s not an easy read, occasionally bewildering with its many stories, myths and legends overlapping with history, but it’s worth the effort.
Klisura once found itself part of the Communist state, the eventual result of the turbulent political upheavals which twenty-two-year-old Gerty Freely finds herself caught up in. Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist follows Gerty to Moscow where she takes up a position as a governess. Three years after her arrival, revolution transforms the city throwing the bourgeois into panicky bag-packing but Gerty decides to stay, becoming involved in a communal living experiment led by a charismatic inventor. His sudden disappearance leaves Gerty alone and vulnerable.
Straining for a link to Pamela Erens’ Eleven Hours but I think I it’s beyond me. Set in New York, the novel reveals the lives of two women – one in labour, the other her Haitian midwife. It’s the ‘taut sensitive prose’ of the publisher’s blurb that attracts me to this one together with the interweaving of the stories of two women from very different backgrounds. The ‘sometimes harrowing’ description is a little off-putting but at least we’ve been warned.
That’s it for March’s paperbacks which are many and varied, studded with several gems. Should you be interested, a click on a title will take you to my reviews for Trading Futures, His Whole Life, Inch Levels and Stork Mountain, or to a fuller synopsis for the others. If you’d like to catch up with part one, it’s here – March hardbacks are here and here.