Maylis de Kerangal’s Painting Time follows one of three students who meet in Brussels while on a trompe l’œil course. Paula shares her small apartment with Jonas, the star of the course, barely registering each other for months so immersed are they in sheer hard grind. Kate, a young Scottish woman who will excel at reproducing the most precious of marbles for the rich, makes up the third of the trio. Years later, when Jonas is unable to fulfil a lengthy commission to reproduce the Lascaux cave paintings, he passes it to Paula and with it the chance to lose herself in this ancient story. Rich in anecdote and erudition, de Kerangal’s novel wears its meticulous research lightly.
I wasn’t a fan of her debut, When God Was a Rabbit, but I’m including Sarah Winman’s Still Life as several bloggers whose opinions I trust have assured me it’s very good. Art historian Evelyn Skinner meets Ulysses Temper, a young British soldier, while taking shelter from a bombing in a Tuscan villa in 1944. Evelyn’s reminiscences over the ensuing evening, her talk of truth and beauty, will help shape the next four decades of Ulysses’ life. ‘Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence, to the smog of London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate’ say the publishers.
Colm Tóibín’s The Magician also has a wartime backdrop following Thomas Mann from his childhood in Lübeck to his last days in Switzerland, still living in exile from his beloved Germany. Mann was a patriot, slow to acknowledge the threat of Nazism despite the cajoling of his brother and older children. When war finally broke out, he was in Switzerland at the beginning of an exile which took him and his wife to the US where his influence as a Nobel Prize-winning writer led to his involvement with the American war effort. The Magician is an intimate reimagining of the life of a complex, flawed but immensely influential man who clearly fascinates Tóibín. Engrossing, polished and accomplished, but I’m hoping for something more Brooklyn-like next time.
Opening in 1947, Lars Saabye Christensen’s Echoes of the City tells the story of Oslo’s emergence from wartime austerity through the Kristoffersen family and their neighbours in the Fagerborg district where the Red Cross have established a department. Ewald Kristoffersen works for an advertising agency while his wife Maj looks after their seven-year-old son, her talent for bookkeeping making her a shoo-in as the local Red Cross treasurer. Christensen’s novel lives up to the ‘slow storytelling’ mentioned in his prologue and is all the better for it. It’s the first in a trilogy, the second of which, Friendship, I’ve also read and reviewed. Already looking forward to the third.
Made up of the thoughts, memories and stories of those laid to rest in the unfarmable land that became part of Paulstadt’s cemetery, Robert Seethaler’s The Field has the intriguing premise: telling the story of the town through the voices of its dead. Some have a great deal to say, others very little, and some are notable by their absence. Seethaler brings the same understanding of the richness of everyday life to this novel that made A Whole Life so satisfying. Regret, sorrow, love, happiness, revenge, dishonesty, loneliness, misunderstanding, greed – all human life is here so to speak. Such an unusual idea, and so well executed. Kudos to Charlotte Collins for her expert translation.
Kevin Power’s White City sounds like the kind of thing I watch on Walter Presents with its Serbian gangsters encountered by the son of a rich Dublin banker, clearly out of his depth. After bumping into an old schoolfriend keen to cut him in on a property deal, 27-year-old Ben sees an opportunity to do something with his life after years of dead-end jobs and drug-taking but what appears to be the cure for all his ills turns into a nightmare. Not entirely sure about this one but it’s much praised by the likes of John Boyne.
My last March choice is Sheila Llewellyn’s Winter in Tabriz set against the backdrop of 1970s Iran just before the revolution. Llewellyn tells her story through four young people: two Oxford academics who become closely involved with a poet and his elder brother, an aspiring photojournalist keen to capture the uprising on the streets. Described by the publishers as ‘an expertly imagined tale of the fight for artistic freedom, young love and the legacies of conflict’, it’s the unusual setting that attracts me to this one.
That’s it for March’s paperbacks. 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.