At the beginning of April, H and I took ourselves off to Manchester, a city I’d not visited since the ‘80s. Unsurprisingly, it’s changed considerably since then. We had a great time exploring and meeting up with two dear friends with not much time for reading.
Plenty of that when we got back, beginning with Ellen Hawley’s Other People Manage whose Anne Tylerish cover suggested a novel about the everyday with a cast of characters you might recognise and a good dollop of insight. It follows Marge who had been with Peg for over twenty years, meeting her in the ‘70s, dancing at the Women’s Coffeehouse long before the advent of gay bars, at least in small town Minnesota. They seemed a mismatched pair – Peg was a post-grad student training to be a therapist, Marge a bus driver – but something clicked on that first night and remained in place until Peg died, leaving Marge unsure how to be in the world. Hawley’s portrait of a woman, laid low with grief, trying to find a way to carry on is poignant and affecting.
April’s second favourite is also about a couple from very different backgrounds, this time crossing the sectarian divide in ‘70s Northern Ireland. Acclaimed short story writer Louise Kennedy’s first novel, Trespasses, sees a Catholic teacher falling in love with an older man, a prominent barrister, married and a Protestant. Michael’s requests for Cushla to give Irish lessons to him and his friends usher her into the world of the comfortably off, educated Protestant middle class while paving the way to an affair. Kennedy explores the Troubles through a tender love story which echoes the divisions running through Northern Irish society, setting it in County Down where she grew up. A deeply moving novel, but not one that was easy to write, I’m sure.
In May, we finally cashed in the Italian holiday we’d booked just days before Covid gripped the country back in 2020. As a result, not much reading was done that month. Just one book stood out and a short and rather bleak one, at that. Set in a small New England town, Sarah Manguso’s Very Cold People sees a woman explore her childhood, brought up by two people desperately ill equipped for the job. Affection is rare, and when it happens isn’t repeated no matter how much Ruth begs for it. School offers some sort of respite with its opportunity to make friends but that doesn’t come easily to her. As the years wear on, Ruth begins to understand why her mother is the way she is and seeks a way out for herself. Written in cool, crisp, clean prose with glimmers of deadpan humour, it’s the antithesis of Ellen Hawley’s Other People Manage but it’s extraordinarily good.
Just two June favourites, the first of which, David Park’s Spies in Canaan, is about a man who’s spent his life in the shadow of his brief time in Saigon before its fall in 1975. Michael Miller began his stint in Vietnam sifting intelligence for the CIA. As incursions are made into the city, his language skills attract the attention of Ignatius Donavon, none too fussy about how he extracts intelligence from the enemy. Decades after his escape as the city fell, Michael receives a DVD which leads him to Donovan and the hope of some sort of redemption. An immensely powerful piece of fiction, and a sobering one, particularly given last year’s exit from Afghanistan and this year’s war in Ukraine.
By the middle of June, we were in the midst of a six-week kitchen renovation, washing up in the bathroom for weeks (oh joy) which was also being given a facelift. Not a lot of mental energy left for reading but enough for Miriam Toews’ Fight Night which takes the form of a letter written by nine-year-old Swiv to her father who her grandmother has told her is off fighting fascists. Swiv’s currently following an eccentric home-schooling curriculum overseen by Grandma with whom she and her mother live. Grandma regales Swiv with tales of her family, fighters all of them, then decides it’s time to see her nephews in California, taking Swiv with her. Toews’ novel fizzes with energy and wit but there’s a soberness underpinning it. Swiv is a brilliant narrator, instantly engaging who you’ll be rooting for right to the end.
Part three soon which begins with an impressive debut from a Swedish writer who I hope is busy working on her second novel. If you missed part one and would like to catch up, it’s here.