February’s often the gloomiest month in the UK weather year but at least there are lots of bookish goodies on offer, certainly enough for a two-part preview. I’m kicking off both with long awaited novels.
For some reason I’ve never got around to Hannah Kent’s The Good People having very much enjoyed Burial Rites but I jumped at the chance of a proof of Devotion which grew partly out of Kent’s fascination with her ancestors and their settlement of Southern Australia. Opening in 1836 in Prussia, it follows Hanne, a young misfit in her Old Lutheran community, persecuted for their religion, who forms a friendship with Thea, newly moved to the village. When the community is granted permission to leave, they embark on a dangerous journey which will lead to a new life for some. Kent’s absorbing, atmospheric novel takes an unexpected turn halfway through which brought me up short but this, of course, is a spoiler free zone.
I’m not entirely sure about Alex Hyde’s debut, Violets, set in the last days of the Second World War. Two women, both named Violet, are contemplating very different futures after a miscarriage leaves one unable to conceive while the other faces the stigma of an unmarried pregnancy, choosing to dodge it with a posting to Naples. ‘As their lives begin to intertwine, a spellbinding story of women’s courage emerges, suffused with power, lyricism and beauty, from an exhilarating new voice in British fiction’ according to the publishers. Lots of pre-publication enthusiasm for this one on Twitter but it’s Megan’s Harper’s praise that’s swung it for me.
I read Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic long enough ago to not remember it very well other than that I enjoyed her writing. Her new novel, The Swimmers, is about Alice, once a member of a group for whom their local swimming pool was the centre of their lives, now in a residential home, lost and confused, as her family tries to find the best way to care for her. It’s a novel ‘about mothers and daughters, grief and memory, love and implacable loss, The Swimmers is spellbinding, incantatory and unforgettable’ according to the blurb which sounds both poignant and rather beautiful
The eponymous Mona of Pola Oloixarac’s novel is a Peruvian writer with a penchant for recreational substance abuse. Singled out as a writer of colour on the whitest of campuses, Mona finds herself nominated for a prestigious literary award and heads off to a Swedish village where she and her fellow nominees from all over the world are thrust together in intimate proximity. In a sinister twist, Mona finds evidence of a physical violence that she can’t, or won’t, remember happening to her. Mona comes garlanded with praise from a starry list of writers from Rachel Cusk to Joshua Cohen, and it does sound intriguing.
I’ve yet to read Niamh Campbell’s This Happy but that hasn’t stopped me from casting my eyes at her second novel, We Were Young. Nearing 40 with a stalled career, Cormac is living the life of a much younger man while his peers are well into domesticity or divorced. Two things look set to change his life: a sudden intimacy with an ambitious young woman and his brother’s mid-life crisis. ‘Set in Dublin, a city built on burial pits, We Were Young is a dazzlingly clever, deeply enjoyable novel from a Sunday Times Short Story Award-Winning author’ say the publishers. Not sure if that ‘burial pits’ reference is hinting at something.
I’ve already read Irish author Audrey Magee’s The Colony whose overarching theme is colonialism as you might expect from that title. Unbeknownst to each other, two men are on their way to a tiny island. Mr Lloyd and Mr Masson are each planning to capture the spirit of the place, one through his paintings, the other by recording its speech. As the summer wears on, the two men become increasingly antagonistic. Meanwhile, the radio serves up news of daily atrocities on the mainland where The Troubles are in full swing. I loved this spare yet lyrical novel whose ending made it all the more powerful.
February’s previews both end with story collections by Irish writers, both of which I’ve read. Sheila Armstrong’s debut collection How to Gut a Fish came with a glowing endorsement from Roddy Doyle which was part of the lure for me, that and the hint of the surreal in its blurb, and it lived up to both. Most of Armstrong’s stories are disquieting, peopled by idiosyncratic characters, often outsiders ill at ease with themselves. All are beautifully expressed, studded with poetic images and the occasional flashes of humour. Just one piece didn’t work for me. Not a bad hit rate out of 14.
That’s it for part one of February’s new fiction. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that take your fancy. Part two soon…