Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2020

Cover image for The Testaments by Margaret AtwoodJust a one-part paperback preview for September, disappointingly, albeit a reasonably long one including two books I’ve already read. I’m starting with Margaret Atwood’s joint Booker Prize-winning sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, more because I’d find it difficult to leave it out than because I’m looking forward to it. Truth be told, I’m wary of sequels in the same way I’m wary of unpublished novels found mouldering in dusty desk drawers but many whose opinions I trust loved this novel which Atwood wrote in response to both her readers’ pleas and the state of the world, even bleaker now than when it was first published.

Here’s another I was in two minds about until Rebecca at Bookish Beck recommended it in one of my small publishers posts. Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s debut, In Love with George Eliot, reimagines the celebrated author’s life, first as a scandalous figure then as a national treasure. Meanwhile, in the present day two women compete in their interpretations of Eliot’s life. Rebecca describes literary editor O’Shaugnessy’s novel as ‘a book within a book’ in her review which you can read here.

I’m sure George Eliot would have been familiar with the work of David Livingstone whose body is transported by sixty-nine Africans over 1,500 miles to the sea so that he can be buried in his own country in Petina Gappah’s Out of Darkness, Shining Light. Gappah concentrates on the funeral procession rather than Livingstone, apparently, giving voice to his cook and three of his most devoted servants. ‘Their tale of how his corpse was borne out of nineteenth-century Africa – carrying the maps that sowed the seeds of the continent’s brutal colonisation – has the power of myth’ say the publishers of what sounds like a novel that deserves the rather over-used description ‘epic’. I still haven’t got around to Gappah’s short stories despite being so impressed by The Book of Memory back in 2015.

Francine Toon’s Pine takes us to Livingstone’s homeland with its setting in a remote Scottish village in the middle of a forest where Lauren lives with her father. When a woman stumbles in front of their pickup at Halloween, Niall takes her back to their house but by morning she’s gone. She’s not the first woman to have disappeared in this place where people keep their secrets to themselves, nor is she the last, apparently. ‘Francine Toon captures the wildness of rural childhood and the intensity of small-Paperback cover image for Pine by Francine Toontown claustrophobia. In a place that can feel like the edge of the word, she unites the chill of the modern gothic with the pulse of a thriller’ according to the publishers. Have to admit to being seduced by the cover of this one.

Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing also has a touch of the gothic with one foot in thriller territory, exploring themes of love, betrayal and jealousy in the eponymous Temple House, once a grand mansion now a Catholic school for girls. Twenty-five years after the disappearance of a sixteen-year-old scholarship girl and her art teacher, a young journalist has decided to write a series of articles about the case, more in an attempt to understand its circumstances than to solve it. It took me a little while to become absorbed in Donohue’s novel but once hooked the mystery of what happened to Louisa and Mr Lavelle kept me going.

Entirely different, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous takes the form of a letter from a son to his mother who cannot read, telling her the story of his life and exploring the family’s history in Vietnam before he was born. ‘At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity… … With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years’ say the publishers in the somewhat overwrought blurb. It does sound extraordinary, though, and I’ve a weakness for novels by poets.

Unusually for me, I’m finishing this paperback preview with a piece of non-fiction by one of my favourite novelists. Like Vuong’s book, Elizabeth Hay’s All Things Consoled is about her relationship with her parents, in particular her mother, which becomes increasingly strained when they move into a retirement home just down the road from Hay and her husband. Some of Hay’s descriptions will be all too painfully familiar to those whose own parents have endured a long decline or seen others at close quarters – hard enough when the relationship has been a good one. It reminded me of Blake Morrison’s long-ago bestseller And When Did You Last See Your Father? No small compliment.

That’s it for September’s paperbacks. As ever, a click on a title will take you either to my review or to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with the month’s new fiction it’s here. Fingers crossed there’ll be an abundance of October treats to look out for.

25 thoughts on “Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2020”

  1. The only one that even begins to appeal is The Temple House Vanishing. I’m always a bit of a sucker for anything it’s got an educational establishment background. Otherwise, like you, I’m hoping October will bring something more to my taste.

  2. Very kind of you to mention my review of the O’Shaughnessy; I hope you enjoy it if you get around to it. I find the Gappah appealing. Like you, I loved Hay’s memoir — I think Maclehose are doing a live book club chat with her some time soon? I had mixed feelings about Pine, but it would make a good autumnal read as it starts on Halloween and has some spooky elements. And The Testaments … well, I would say just don’t bother!

      1. Oh me too. I also sometimes wonder if Atwood didn’t decide to write The Testaments given the good critical reception to the TV show – nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t feel organic then.

        1. I agree. I wonder if the success of the TV adaptation wasn’t something of a curse. I watched the first series and thought it was good but the second seemed a step too far to me.

  3. I enjoyed The Testaments, however it isn’t a classic in the way The Handmaid’s Tale is, and will never be. In truth we probably didn’t need it, but I found it a great read. I don’t think it should have joint won the Booker either. It wasn’t quite that good, and Girl, Woman other really was exceptional. I love the world that Atwood has created in this and the former novel though, and I admire her work so much.

    1. I’m a great admirer of her work, too, but I may leave this one. It seemed to me that her Booker acceptance speech was a gracious acknowledgement that she’d have prefered the prize to be Evaristo’s alone.

  4. I recall seeing a few positive reports of Pine when it came out in hardback. It sounds very atmospheric with a strong sense of place – and, as you say, that cover is great!

    How is your hand, Susan? I keep meaning to ask you… (Very much on the mend, I hope!)

    1. It is, isn’t it. You might like to have a look at Tunde Farrand’s Wolf Country. Together their covers look like pieces of a jigsaw.

      I’m delighted to say my appointment to have my cast removed came today, Jacqui. It’ll come off on the 10th, and I can’t wait!

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed the new set of voices offered in The Testaments. Having been strongly influenced by The Handmaid’s Tale as a young reader, I did reread it in preparation to read the sequel and, for me, that was worthwhile, because there are nuances in phrasing and small details that unite the two works. But for the most part, I think readers who looked at it as a sequel, story-wise, would have found it disappointing simply because it’s aim is not the same (whIch seems appropriate because decades have passed, experiences have accumulated). I think she’s posing very important questions (how do we view the truth when it’s only through June’s eyes, how do we view it with representative characters from within/without the regime, etc.) but it’s definitely a different story. I’m not sure that I’m so struck by paperback offerings this time of year; all the hardcovers are pushing the paperbacks off the shelf! 🙂

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