Finding links between novels in the first part of February’s paperback preview was hard enough but it’s even worse with the second, I’m afraid. Best start off with what I’ve already read. Daniel Khelmann’s Tyll was one of my books of last year, an uncharacteristic choice for me but I’m a huge fan of Kehlmann’s writing. This lengthy, richly imagined historical novel spans the early years of the Thirty Years War to the convoluted negotiations which bring it to an end. A sharp, clever boy, the eponymous miller’s son takes off with a friend as soon as he’s old enough, leaving his hungry, squalid village behind and becoming a travelling entertainer which eventually leads him to the highest court in the land. Throughout it all, Tyll is the fool who sees his masters’ folly, unafraid to speak truth to power if only they’d listen. I loved this novel with its contemporary resonance, gobbling it up.
Emma Jane Unsworth’s Adults also won a place on my books of last year list with its story of Jenny, fast approaching middle-age, who’s in the grips of a social media addiction. The lone parent of a fifteen-year-old and the only sensible voice in Jenny’s life, Kelly’s patience finally snaps as her friend’s life unravels in an endless cycle of craving approbation, no matter how fleeting, from people she’ll never meet and who may not even exist. Unsworth’s novel manages to be both moving and cringe-makingly funny, nailing the chasm between how some of us present ourselves to the social media world and the chaos of reality.
The narrator of Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation may well have been interested in chatting with Jenny. Popkey’s debut tells the story of an unnamed woman through the conversations she has with other women at various points in her life. By the end of it, our self-confessed unreliable narrator has taken us from young adulthood to early middle-age by way of marriage, divorce and motherhood, constructing her own story from her exchanges with other women and revealing herself to be much more attracted to the immediacy of intimacy with a stranger than to the slow maturing of a long friendship. It’s an impressive debut, clear-eyed in its depiction of life’s messy confusion and indecision, which leaves you with a great deal to think about.
Rye Curtis’ debut Kingdomtide features two women worth talking to by the sound of it. Seventy-two-year-old Chloris Waldrip, is the sole survivor of a 1986 air crash, lost in the Montana wilderness with little or no hope of seeing her Texan home again; Debra Lewis is the park ranger, still bruised from her messy divorce, who assembles the raggle-taggle search party to find her. ‘Suspenseful, wry and gorgeously written Kingdomtide is the inspiring account of two unforgettable characters, whose heroism reminds us that survival is only the beginning’ say the publishers temptingly but it’s the praise from Ron Rash, one of my favourite writers, that seals the deal for me.
Tomasz Jedrowski’s Guardian Book of the Year-winning Swimming in the Dark comes garlanded with praise from the likes of Sebastian Barry, Alan Hollinghurst and Edmund White. Set in Poland in 1980, it’s a gay coming-of-age novel which follows Ludwik and Janusz who meet at an agricultural camp during the summer university vacation. They enjoy a dreamlike summer together, sharing books, swimming and falling in love. Back in Warsaw reality hits and they are forced to go their separate ways. ‘Swimming in the Dark is an unforgettable debut about youth, love, and loss – and the sacrifices we make to live lives with meaning’ say the publishers of what sounds like a very promising novel.
An Yu’s Braised Pork was all over my Twitter feed when it was first published but, somehow, I never got around to reading it. It’s about a recently widowed artist, who sets out from a hidden jazz bar on what becomes a dreamlike journey to the high plains of Tibet, encountering others who have suffered loss as she travels. ‘Cinematic and delicately beautiful, Braised Pork is an exploration of myth-making, connection, a world beyond words, and of a young woman’s search deep into her past, in order to arrive at her future’ say the publishers temptingly, putting me in mind of Julia Blackburn’s The Leper’s Companions.
I can’t say I’ve enjoyed every book by Colum McCann I’ve read but I’m an admirer of his writing. His new novel, Apeirogon, sounds extremely ambitious. It follows the friendship of two men – an Israeli and a Palestinian – both of whom have lost their daughters – one killed in a suicide bomb attack, the other shot by a border guard. ‘Colum McCann crosses centuries and continents, stitching time, art, history, nature and politics into a tapestry of friendship, love, loss and belonging. Musical, muscular, delicate and soaring, it is a book for our times from a writer at the height of his powers’ promise the publishers. Finger crossed for this one.
This month’s potential short story treat is described as a ‘novel in stories’, still my favourite kind it has to be said. Maria Reva’s Good Citizens Need Not Fear is about the inhabitants of a crumbling apartment building in a small industrial Ukraine town in the years leading up to and immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, focusing on a feisty young girl with links to them all. Revas’ book comes with both Miriam Toews’ and Margaret Atwood’s seal of approval. Can’t argue with that.
That’s it for February’s paperbacks treats. 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 part one, it’s here. New fiction is here and here.