Two lengthy paperback previews for January, packed with a plethora of goodies to spend those Christmas book tokens on, many of which I’ve already read including Olivia Sudjic’s Asylum Road which follows Anya who finds herself engaged to Luke during their Provencal holiday rather than dumped as she’d anticipated. Anya feels like the perpetual outsider having left Sarajevo when she was a child where she endured the horrors of its siege in the ‘90s. Her relationship with the pernickety controlling Luke seems more about safety than love but the balance of power shifts when she takes him to Sarajevo to meet her family, not seen for decades. Such an impressive piece of fiction, extraordinarily powerful and elegantly spare, good enough for me to include it on my Women’s Prize for Fiction wishlist.
I also included Layla AlAmmar’s Silence is a Sense. Told through the voice of a narrator whose name we only learn at its end, it’s about a 26-year-old Syrian woman, silenced by trauma, now living in an apartment block in an unnamed British town. Resistant to attempts to involve her with the local mosque, she spends much of her time observing the occupants of the apartments opposite, making up stories for them until she witnesses something that culminates in a dreadful act of violence. Despite her determination to keep herself safe, she can no longer simply be an onlooker. This is an extraordinarily powerful novel which ends on a note of hope tempered with realism.
Another Women’s Prize wish, Annabel Lyon’s Consent, did make it onto the longlist, I’m pleased to say. It brings together two very different women: Sara watched her mother coping with the special needs of her sister, struggling after their father died, while Saskia grew up in her beautiful bipolar twin’s shadow. When, Saskia discovers the provocative text which precipitated her twin’s accident, she begins to investigate who sent it leading her to Sara, both of them struggling with loss, grief and self-blame. Lyon’s novel is both a sophisticated, thought provoking exploration of the meaning of consent and a smart piece of suspenseful storytelling.
Set in southern England, Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground explores the darker side of rural life through the story of Julius and Jeanie Seeder, middle-aged twins whose lives are thrown into disarray by the sudden death of their mother. As the twins set about all that must now be done unwelcome and shocking discoveries are made. The closely guarded lives they’ve led on the edge of society begin to unravel until a dramatic climax is reached. I’ve read and enjoyed all four of Fuller’s novels, beginning with her debut, Our Endless Numbered Days, back in 2015 and suffice to say I think this is her best. Thoroughly deserving of its Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlisting.
In Vanessa Veselka’s The Great Offshore Grounds, two half-sisters are reunited on the day of their estranged father’s wedding, determined to claim their inheritance. Rather than money, he gives them a name revealing a family secret that sets them off on a journey. ‘Moving from Seattle’s underground to the docks of the Far North, from the hideaways of the southern swamps to the storied reaches of the Great Offshore Grounds, this is an epic tale told with boundless verve, linguistic vitality and undeniable tenderness’ say the publishers whetting my appetite nicely.
Naomi Ishiguro’s Common Ground follows the friendship between two boys, each very different from the other. Bullied at school, 13-year-old Stanley races off to Newford Common every day where he meets Charlie, older and decidedly cooler. These two hit it off, despite their differences, meeting on the common regularly, Charlie encouraging Stanley to stand up to the bullies telling him stories of workers’ struggles, sowing the seed of an interest that will eventually see Stanley take up a journalism degree. Almost a decade after they first met, their paths cross again: Stanley is now a confident young man, and it’s Charlie who’s beset by troubles, reeling from crisis to crisis.
I’d not come across Billy O’Callaghan’s writing until I read My Coney Island Baby early in 2019. I loved it for its wistful, melancholy tone. Life Sentences sounds very different in scale but just as enticing with its story of three generations spanning more than a century. Apparently based on stories O’Callaghan heard in his home village, it follows a family from young Nancy’s departure, the sole family member to survive the Great Famine, to the 1980s when her granddaughter is nearing the end of her life with something on her conscience. ‘A taut domestic drama of epic emotional scope, and a moving portrait of life in Ireland throughout modern history, this novel goes on making the heart lurch long after the final page’ say the publishers. Not fond of that cover.
That’s it for the first instalment of January’s paperbacks. As ever, a click on a title will take you either to my review or to a longer synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with the month’s new titles, they’re here and here. Part two soon…