July was spent alternately taking refuge from our builders, lovely as they are, and the heat which seemed to go on forever. Having the sort of skin that needs dousing in factor 50, I spent less time outdoors than I’d planned. You might expect lots of July favourites, then, but just one stood out for me.
In Johanna Hedman’s The Trio, the lines between friendship and love affairs blur as they so often do. As you’ll have gathered from the title, Hedman’s novel is about three young people – two already the closest of friends – who form a bond when Hugo takes a room in Thora’s family home. He becomes obsessed by Thora and August, her sometimes lover, observing their intimacy with fascination and a tinge of envy, gradually drawn into it until he’s unsure whether it’s Thora or August he loves. Decades later, Thora and August’s daughter rings Hugo’s doorbell with questions to ask about her mother. I thoroughly enjoyed this accomplished debut which leaves much for readers to infer.
I had better luck in August with three excellent novels, the first of which, Hernan Diaz’s Trust, made it onto the Booker longlist. Set in early twentieth-century New York, Diaz’s ambitious, complicated debut is an exploration of truth, perception and morality told through the story of Andrew and Mildred Bevel: one apparently the most successful financier Wall Street has seen; the other a philanthropist lauded for endowments made to the arts. Their story is told in four discrete sections beginning with a portrait of a loveless marriage of convenience which may or may not have been based on the Bevels. It’s both very clever and very intricate but not so tricksy that it tests readers’ patience. The denouement didn’t entirely work for me but the journey to it had me gripped.
Irish oncologist Austin Duffy’s The Night Interns takes us back to his workplace, the setting for his debut, This Living and Immortal Thing, following three surgical interns, not long graduated from medical school, working the night shift in a large hospital where they’re expected to avoid calling senior medical staff at all costs, sometimes even to the patients. It’s brief but as is so often the case with novellas, it packs a very powerful punch as each intern deals with the challenges they face differently, not least hospital politics and power plays. Written in flat, stripped-down prose, it’s an unsettling piece of fiction which leaves you with renewed respect for doctors who manage to get through this punishing training but not for the ones who leave their humanity behind when they do.
August’s third favourite is from another Irish writer, Donal Ryan who’s name I’m always delighted to see in the publishing schedules. Opening with a beginning and an end, The Queen of Dirt Island follows four generations of women in one unconventional household. Left to bring up her daughter alone, Eileen Aylward becomes so close to her mother-in-law that Nana moves in. Saoirse grows up loving the background banter between the two women, straining her ears to catch the whispered gossip Nana can’t resist. Eileen and Nana continue their litany of affectionate insult until Nana slips into an inevitable decline. Ryan’s novel gently unfolds their story in short, elegantly mellifluous snapshot chapters. The Queen of Dirt Island shares the same setting as Strange Flowers characters from which become bound closely into the Aylwards’ story, putting me in mind of Kent Haruf with whom Ryan shares an ability to paint the universal on a small canvas. I loved it and am hoping to meet the Aylward women again some time.
We took ourselves off to the Netherlands in September, finally cashing in our Eurostar ticket which had been booked for an intended March holiday in 2020. Not much reading was done but Kate Atkinson’s gloriously entertaining Shrines of Gaiety when I got back more than made up for that. It’s set in Soho in 1926, when it was home to nightclubs offering a whole host of delights, not all of them legal, several run by Nellie Coker. Just out of prison, she’s determined to reassert her authority despite the secondment of D I Frobisher to Bow Street to sort things out. As the plot thickens, which it pleasingly does, it seems that Nellie has more than one reason to be concerned. Meanwhile bodies keep washing up at Dead Man’s Hole, some of them girls. Atkinson’s novel is wonderfully atmospheric, full of sharply drawn characters, rich in backstories, and an intricate plot into which revelations are casually dropped and there’s great deal of sly humour to enjoy. A brilliant end to the summer’s reading.
Just one more post which begins with a novel I was surprised to see in schedules and a little wary of despite it being by one of my favourite authors. Meanwhile, if you missed the first two posts and would like to catch up, they’re here and here.