February’s packed with enough paperbacks to stave off the miseries of a Northern hemisphere winter, several of which I’ve already read and can heartily recommend. I’ll begin with Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future, a slice of metafiction in which a writer comes across the notebook she kept in 1978, the year she arrived in Manhattan fresh from Minnesota, planning to write her first novel. As S. H. reads her journal, she contemplates the version remembered by her sixty-two-year-old self and how often it differs from the twenty-three-year-old’s account. As ever with Hustvedt, her book is stuffed full of literary allusions, ideas and erudition but it’s also playful in its early stages before taking a darker turn.
Memories play a large part in Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise which sees Sarah and David fall obsessively in love in their first term at a performing arts school where teachers and students become dangerously close. Twenty years later, the students’ lives remain marked by what happened in the secret, enclosed world of their school. ‘Captivating and brilliant, Trust Exercise is a novel about the treacherous terrain of adolescence, how we define consent, and what we lose, gain, and never get over as we navigate our way into adulthood’s mysterious structures of sex and power’ say the publishers promisingly. I enjoyed Choi’s My Education very much and like the sound of this one.
Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is set in 1993 when the eponymous Paul is a bartender in a university town gay bar, studying queer theory by day, but he has a secret. ‘Oscillating wildly from Riot Grrrl to leather cub, Women’s Studies major to trade, Paul transforms his body at will in a series of adventures that take him from Iowa City to Boystown to Provincetown and finally to San Francisco – a journey through the deep queer archives of struggle and pleasure’ promise the publishers which sounds wildly ambitious but well worth investigating.
Former US Army medic Nico Walker’s Cherry is set in Cleveland Ohio where two students meet and fall in love in 2003. When Emily is called home, her lover joins the army leaving for Iraq after they hurriedly marry. He returns stricken with PTSD and a drug habit which turns into heroin addiction. When Emily becomes addicted, too, the couple’s attempts at a normal life collapse and he turns to bank robbery. ‘Hammered out on a prison typewriter, Cherry marks the arrival of a raw, bleakly hilarious, and surprisingly poignant voice straight from the dark heart of America’ say the publishers.
Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Lost Children Archive has something to say about America’s dark heart. The first book written in English by Valeria Luiselli, it’s a response to the journeys made through the most dangerous terrain by those hoping to find their way across the Mexican border, many of them unaccompanied children. On their way from New York to Arizona, a family stops in motels where the parents fight quietly, convincing themselves their children can’t hear. The closer they come to the border, the more they hear about the migrant children, many about to be deported. Compassionate and often beautiful, Lost Children Archive is an impressive achievement although less immediate than Jeanine Cummins stunning American Dirt which I’ll be reviewing shortly.
Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Sunday Times Young Writer Award shortlisted Stubborn Archivist also tackles the theme of immigration. A young woman whose mother has left her homeland struggles to find a way to feel comfortable with herself by exploring her family history. ‘Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity’ says the publisher whetting my appetite.
Back to love which never runs smoothly, at least not the more interesting literary variety. In Billy O’Callaghan’s My Coney Island Baby two lovers are engaged in a long affair, meeting for an afternoon once a month, a welcome interval in their humdrum marriages. Now each is faced with a crisis that threatens this relationship which has become so precious to them both. O’Callaghan’s novel takes place during a single afternoon, switching perspective from Michael to Caitlin. It’s a novel that quietly draws you in, engaging sympathy for these two lovers who face the end of the only relationship in which they’ve truly felt themselves.
I loved Jen Beagin’s sharp, funny Pretend I’m Dead but was a little surprised to find she’d written a sequel. Two years after the love of her life disappeared, Mona’s becoming more intimate with her clients and not necessarily in a good way. Vacuum in the Dark follows Mona from client to client, all of whom have their own darkness to shoulder. It’s considerably bleaker than Beagin’s first novel: the humour still sardonic and off the wall but less slapstick. I did wonder if Beagin was pushing her luck with a sequel but she manages to carry it off. Best quit while you’re ahead, though.
That’s it for the first instalment of February’s paperback delights. A click on a title will take you either to my review or to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. And if you’d like to catch up with February’s new novels, they’re here and here.