Fewer treats than usual in May for me but three of them are from some of my favourite authors. It was a toss-up as to which one of them should lead this preview but in the end it had to be Elizabeth Strout. Anything is Possible is a novel told in stories linked to Lucy Barton, familiar to readers of last year’s very fine My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy is now a successful writer living in New York but these stories explore the lives of those she left behind in the small town of Amgash, Illinois. ‘Writing these stories, Lucy imagines the lives of the people that she especially remembers. And the people she has imagined that, in small ways, have remembered her too. For isn’t it true that we all hope to be remembered? Or to think in some way – even fleetingly – that we have been important to someone?’ say the publishers. Such an interesting device to have a character playing the role of the author of a book.
Colm Tóibín’s House of Names comes a very close second to Anything is Possible but I’m slightly put off by its premise. It’s a retelling of the story of Agamemnon whose shocking sacrifice of his daughter in an effort to secure the gods’ approval for his battle plans plunges his family into a terrible and violent chaos. ‘They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, they heard her muffled screams’ quotes the publisher assuring us that it’s ‘a work of great beauty, and daring, from one of our finest living writers’. I won’t argue with the last point.
Even before my short story conversion I would have read Haruki Murakami’s Men without Women. These seven stories bear many of the hallmarks no doubt familiar to fellow fans – ’vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles’ promises the publisher who also quotes the author on writing short stories in the book’s blurb: ’I find writing novels a challenge, writing stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.’ I’d still prefer a novel.
I’m particularly fond of the idea of an apartment block portrayed as a microcosm of a city – Alaa Al Aswany did it beautifully in The Yacoubian Building as did Manil Suri in The Death of Vishnu but my favourite has to be Georges Perec’s Life, a User’s Manual. Fran Cooper’s debut, These Dividing Walls, is set in a Parisian building whose inhabitants live their separate lives, barely aware of their neighbours’ existence. Enter Edward who seems to be about to change all that. ‘As the feverish metropolis is brought to boiling point, secrets will rise and walls will crumble both within and without Number 37…’ say the publishers somewhat melodramatically. Maybe I’ve set the bar too high having Perec in mind but it sounds worth investigating.
I tend to shy away from dystopian fiction, particularly at the moment. My optimistic world view has taken such a bashing over the past year that I’m looking for a little comfort. Megan Hunter’s first novel, The End We Start From, is set against a backdrop of an environmental crisis which sees London under water. It follows a couple desperately seeking sanctuary for themselves and their new-born baby. This all sounds a little familiar, a well-worn dystopian trope, but what’s caught my attention is the promise of beautiful writing and this quote from the blurb: ‘though the country is falling apart around them, this family’s world – of new life and new hope – sings with love’. Let’s hope so.
I’m finishing this preview with a novel which, unusually for a new title, I’ve already read – Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell. Two people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. Marc has been kidnapped while on business in Pakistan and finds himself caught up in the web of stories the woman he comes to know as Josephine weaves around his murdered daughter. These are the bare bones of Lowe’s cleverly structured, subtle debut which I found utterly engrossing. Breathes new life into that hoary old cliché ‘unputdownable’. Review to follow next month.
That’s it for May’s new books. A click on any of the titles that takes your fancy will give you a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks to follow soon…