The second batch of January paperbacks starts with two novels that take swipes at social media, both of which I’ve read. Set in 2016 with Trump freshly elected, Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts follows an unnamed narrator, shocked to find her apparently liberal boyfriend is running a popular conspiracy theory website, taking herself off to Berlin where she drifts among ex-pats, failing to make friends, refusing to learn German and ceaselessly scrolling. Then an astonishing revelation jolts her out of her aimlessness. Oyler’s dense narrative style and its presentation made this one quite hard going but its snarkiness made me persevere.
I much preferred Patricia Lockwood’s Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlisted No One is Talking About This. When our unnamed protagonist posts the question ‘Can a dog be twins?’ it goes viral. She finds herself travelling the world, invited to speak on platforms alongside other internet celebrities, opining on all sorts of things, her views gleaned from her constant scrolling until a small tragedy opens her to love, empathy and the messy emotions of reality lived in the world rather than via a screen. Lockwood’s novel is a fragmented clickbait narrative, both very funny and alarmingly familiar. Very much a novel for our times: sharp, savvy and, ultimately, sobering.
Mateo Askaripour’s Black Buck sounds like a smart piece of light relief with a serious edge. Stuck in a dead-end job, Darren is invited to join a tech startup as part of its sales team thanks to a chance meeting. Finding he’s the only Black employee, Darren invents a new persona becoming one of the company’s top salesmen, partying likes there’s no tomorrow until tragedy sobers him up. ‘An earnest work of satire, Black Buck is a hilarious, razor-sharp skewering of office culture; a propulsive, crackling debut that explores ambition and race, and makes way for a necessary new vision of the American dream’ say the publishers. Not sure how I feel about the idea of an ‘earnest’ satire but the rest of it sounds promising.
It was the clever wordplay of its title that made me want to read Salena Godden’s Mrs Death Misses Death. This sharp, funny novel is all about the subject we Westerners do our best to sanitise with all sorts of euphemisms. Mrs Death is a tired Black cleaner, eager to unburden herself, who follows a young, blocked writer home and finds him only to ready to listen. As he records her many stories, Wolf recalls the loss of his mother in horrific circumstances and his own miraculous escape. Then Mrs Death disappears leaving him with his loneliness. Godden’s writing is both playful and sobering, witty and smart. It made me laugh out loud and brought me up short.
Robert Jones Jr’s The Prophets was one of those titles which popped up on my Twitter timeline so frequently it almost put me off. Samuel and Isaiah, two slaves on the Halifax plantation, share the same sleeping quarters as the animals they tend, finding solace in their love for each other but are betrayed to their master by a fellow slave. ‘The culminating pages of The Prophets summon a choral voice of those who have suffered in silence, with blistering humanity, as the day of reckoning arrives at the Halifax plantation’ says the somewhat overwrought blurb of a novel which sounds well worth investigating.
Whereas I couldn’t seem to get away from The Prophets, I completely missed Hafsa Zayyan’s We Are All Birds All Birds of Uganda which is framed as a dual narrative, one part set in 1960s Uganda where Hasan is coming to terms with his wife’s death when Idi Amin seizes power, the other beginning in present day London where Sameer is summoned to his family home by news of a tragedy. ‘Moving between two continents over a troubled century, We Are All Birds of Uganda is an immensely resonant novel that explores racial tensions, generational divides and what it means to belong’ say the publishers putting me in mind a little of Sunjeev Sahota’s China Room. It was Karen’s review here that alerted me to this one.
January’s second short story collection, Danielle Evans’ The Office of Historical Corrections, explores racism in America and its complicated history. There’s not one dud in its seven stories but the novella-length titular piece stood out for me. It’s set in the Institute of Popular History, founded to correct the misinformation, inaccuracy and downright falsity endemic in Trump’s America. When Cassie is called in to calm the ruffled feathers in the whitest town in Wisconsin, thanks to a colleague’s correction concerning an apparent lynching, her investigations lead to a surprising, deliciously ironic discovery which has the soberest of results. A sharp, funny and nuanced collection, delivered in a low-key deadpan style, often laced with a wry humour.
That’s it for January’s paperbacks, more than enough to occupy us through those long winter nights here in the UK. As ever, a click on a title will either take you 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.