Lots of paperback goodies to help us all through the dank, dreary days of February, even more necessary than usual this year, more than enough for a two-part preview. I’ve already read several beginning with Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days whose poignancy leavened with wry humour and striking images echoes her debut, Harmless Like You. Buchanan’s compassionate, empathetic novel explores the effects of mental illness from both sides of a relationship, following Mina and Oscar from New York to London where Oscar is hoping Mina will find some distraction. Buchannan switches perspectives between these two, laying bare both the sheer exhaustion of living with the constant worry of what a beloved partner might do to themselves and the relentless debilitation of a disordered mind. Achingly sad at times, it’s an affecting, clearly heartfelt piece of fiction.
Very different, Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game is set against the backdrop of the Bauhaus movement. It begins in 1922 with the admission of six students whose lives will become inextricably bound, telling their story through Paul whose memories are brought vividly into focus by the death of Walter, both friend and enemy. Written in the form of a confessional, it’s a story fraught with betrayal, jealousy and a tortured form of love, a tragedy in which the appalling events of Nazi Germany are personalised. A smart, accomplished piece of fiction, through which Wood lightly weaves her meticulous research.
Straining for links here, I’m settling on art with Ilaria Bernardini’s The Portrait which sees a celebrated writer whose lover of several decades has been struck down by a stroke, inveigle herself into his house by commissioning his wife to paint her portrait. Bernardini explores loss, love and storytelling in this intimate novel told from Valeria’s perspective. She’s a stealer of stories, not above rifling other people’s lives even at the risk of being exposed. Altogether an enjoyable read – a wee bit too long for me, but that’s a minor quibble.
Deception also plays a part in Ani Katz’ smart, compelling debut, A Good Man, about a family man who adores his wife and daughter but fails to protect them, something he considers to be his job. Thomas appears to epitomise a happy, successful middle-aged man. Life is good, at least that’s the story he tells himself but as his carefully controlled existence unravels, we begin to see that there may be other interpretations to be made. Thomas is a superbly drawn unreliable narrator, always my favourite sort
Sarah Butler’s Jack and Bet is about a long marriage and all the baggage that brings by the sound of it. Butler’s eponymous couple have been happily married for seventy years and are more than content to continue living in their flat looking after themselves but their son has other ideas. Bet finds a solution by inviting a young Romanian woman to live with them as their carer but knows it will come at the cost of revealing a long-buried secret. ‘An irresistibly moving story about love and loss, Jack & Bet is at once a story of unlikely friendship and a tender look at a lifelong struggle to find a place to call home’ say the publishers. Slightly worried about the potential for schmaltz there but we’ll see.
Niamh Campbell’s This Happy was all over my Twitter timeline when it was first published, much lauded by people whose opinions I trust. Twenty-three-year-old Alannah and her married older lover spend three weeks in cottage in the Irish countryside. Six years later, recently married to another man, Alannah spots the cottage’s landlady triggering memories of bliss followed by utter misery. An interesting enough premise but it’s the quote that comes with the blurb that’s sold this one to me: I have taken apart every panel of this, like an ornamental fan. But we stayed in the cottage for three weeks only, just three weeks, because it was cut short you see – cut short after just three weeks, when I’d left my entire life behind. Hoping for some fine writing if that’s a sample.
The promise of long buried secrets is the lure in Jean Kwok’s Searching for Sylvie. Unable to afford to keep her when she was a child, her family sent Sylvie far away from their new home in the US. When she returned as an adult, Sylvie was the one who took care of them all, idolised by her sister who decides she must find Sylvie when she fails to return from the Netherlands on a visit to her dying grandmother. ‘A deeply moving story of family, secrets, identity, and longing, Searching for Sylvie Lee is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive portrait of an immigrant family. It is a profound exploration of the many ways culture and language can divide us and the impossibility of ever truly knowing someone – especially those we love’ according to the blurb which sounds right up my street.
That’s it for the first part of February’s paperbacks, several of which are long overdue thanks to the pandemic’s impact on last year’s schedules. As ever, a click on a title will either take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with February’s new fiction it’s here and here. Part two shortly…