I’m kicking off this second instalment of October paperbacks with the only one I haven’t read. I’d have expected to be hell-bent on getting my hands on it but after the hardback reviews, I’m not so sure. Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore sees a portrait painter discover a strange painting in the attic of a famous artist, opening a Pandora’s box in the process. To close it he must do all manner of things involving ‘a mysterious ringing bell, a two-foot-high physical manifestation of an Idea, a dapper businessman who lives across the valley, a precocious thirteen-year-old girl, a Nazi assassination attempt during World War II in Vienna, a pit in the woods behind the artist’s home, and an underworld haunted by Double Metaphors. A tour de force of love and loneliness, war and art – as well as a loving homage to The Great Gatsby – Killing Commendatore is a stunning work of imagination from one of our greatest writers’ say the publishers. Others weren’t so keen.
Frances Liardet’s We Must Be Brave is in altogether more straightforward fictional territory. Set in a small Hampshire village, it opens in 1940 with the discovery of a child fast asleep at the back of a coach filled with frightened women fleeing the bombing of Southampton. When Ellen comes across five-year-old Pamela, her first impulse is to find the girl’s mother but the child is alone. Much to her surprise Ellen warms to this adventurous, heart-broken child whose plight mirrors her own experience. Nothing much in the way of literary fireworks here, just good old-fashioned, satisfying storytelling.
War, and its legacy, is also the theme of Georgina Harding’s Land of the Living. Returning from the Second World War, Lieutenant Charlie Ashe buries himself in farming his uncle’s land. As he sets about his work, his wife wonders about the things he witnessed, colluding with the silence of this man she barely knew before they were married by asking few questions and playing the part of the frivolous woman until a figure from Charlie’s past turns up. A new Georgina Harding is always something to celebrate for me. I’m a great fan of her elegant yet lyrical writing and her quiet perceptiveness. Very disappointed not to see this one on the Booker longlist.
Last, but by no means least, Joan Silber’s Improvement traces the repercussions of a fatal accident through a set of characters, exploring themes of love and redemption. This carefully constructed novel reads almost like a series of tightly linked short stories beginning and ending with Reyna as Silber explores the ripple effects of Claude’s accident through a range of characters from his girlfriend to the three Germans who visit Reyna’s aunt’s Turkish home decades before the carpet she brought back to the States contributes to Reyna’s redemption. Silber’s characters are sharply observed, her writing subtly understated leaving her readers to draw their own conclusions. Improvement is her only book published here in the UK: all I can say to her publishers is ‘more please’.
That’s it for October’s paperbacks. A click on any of the last three titles will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for Killing Commendatore should you wish to know more. If you’d like to catch up with October’s new titles they’re here and here, the first paperback instalment is here.