As so often seems to be the case, part one of this preview is mostly made up of novels originating in the States but top of the list has to be one set very close to where I live in the UK, and coincidentally it’s the only one I’ve read. Helen Dunmore’s Birdcage Walk is the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge but with the spectre of the French Revolution looming across the channel, Diner’s plans look set to fail. Politics, both national and domestic, run through this novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling with a thread of suspense. Sadly, as I’m sure readers will know, this is Dunmore’s last novel. She’ll be much missed.
Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers is also set in a turbulent time: 2007, the year before the global financial crash. Recently arrived from Cameroon, Jende Jonga and his family have high hopes for their new life, all the more so when Jende becomes a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior partner at Lehman Brothers. The fates of the two men’s families become closely interlinked and the Jongas begin to believe that the American Dream might be within their grasp until it becomes clear that both the Edwards family and the world of finance have distinctly rocky foundations. ‘Faced with the loss of all they have worked for, each couple must decide how far they will go in pursuit of their dreams – and what they are prepared to sacrifice along the way’ say the publishers. The financial crash offers fertile ground for fiction just as 9/11 did, and this sounds like an interesting take on it.
Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History is about another immigrant to America, this time from Yemen. As Jacob waits at a psychiatric clinic he casts his mind back over his life – from his childhood in an Egyptian whorehouse to his life as a gay man in San Francisco at the height of the AIDS epidemic – interrupted by taunts from Satan and scoldings from Death. ‘Alameddine gives us a charged philosophical portrait of a brilliant mind in crisis. This is a profound, philosophical and hilariously winning story of the war between memory and oblivion we wrestle with every day of our lives’ say the publishers which sounds intriguing.
Tim Muphy’s Christodora also has the AIDS epidemic as its backdrop. The Christodora is the apartment building in Manhattan’s East Village whose inhabitants Murphy’s novel follows from the 1980s to the 2020s: ‘Christodora recounts the heartbreak wrought by AIDS, illustrates the allure and destructive power of hard drugs, and brings to life the ever-changing city itself’ as the publishers put it which sounds right up my New York city loving alley. Of course it could be a sprawling mess but I’ll certainly be trying it out. Great jacket, too.
Hide, Matthew Griffin’s debut, takes us out of the city to the American South where Wendell and Frank meet after the Second World War in a depressed textile town. They decide to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, well aware of the dangers their relationship poses. Decades later, when Wendell finds Frank collapsed outside it seems that the carefully constructed face they present to the world may fracture. Wendell attempts to maintain the façade as Frank continues to deteriorate but ‘faced with giving care beyond his capacity, he must come to terms with the consequences of half a century in seclusion: the different lives they might have lived – and the impending, inexorable loss of the one they had’ say the publishers. This sounds like a heart-wrenching novel, a story that’s to be hoped will play out less and less in real life.
My final choice is also set in a down-at heel-town and may well backfire horribly. In Everybody’s Fool Richard Russo revisits North Bath a decade after the events of Nobody’s Fool, picking up the story of ‘Sully’ Sullivan, now beset by health problems. It sounds as if there’s a good deal to entertain in Russo’s novel, including an escaped cobra, but returning to the scene of a much-loved book is always a dicey game for a writer. The publishers promise ‘a novel which is a pure pleasure to read – genuinely funny, enormously heartfelt and imbued with the warmth and wisdom that are Richard Russo’s stock in trade’. Let’s hope they’re right.
That’s it for August’s first batch of paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, should you be interested, and if you’d like to catch up with the month’s new titles, they’re here. Part two shortly…