I’ve long since given up trying to work a thematic link into these previews but May’s first batch of paperbacks is the exception that proves the rule – they’re all by Irish writers beginning with oncologist Austin Duffy’s The Night Interns which takes us back to his workplace, the setting for his debut, This Living and Immortal Thing. Duffy’s novel follows 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. 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.
David Park is one of those underrated writers whose name I’d love to see on literary prize lists but which never seems to appear. 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 novella, and a sobering one.
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 forty 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.
Michelle Gallen’s Factory Girls is set in the ‘90s with Northern Ireland still embroiled in the Troubles, one of several things Maeve Murray and her pals are desperate to escape. Maeve, Caroline and Aoife have got themselves summer jobs at the local factory earning the money to help ease them into a new life while waiting for their exam results. Maeve finds herself dodging the attentions of their handsy boss while attempting to iron 100 shirts an hour but the discovery of suspicious goings-on behind the scenes offers a possible way out. Roddy Doyle has praised this one to the skies while one Irish paper compared it with Channel 4’s Derry Girls whetting my appetite further.
Jem Calder’s Reward System comes with Sally Rooney’s seal of approval which may or may not make you prick up your ears. Made up of six stories interlinked by characters who drift in and out of each other’s lives, Calder’s collection sounds as if it reads more like a novel in which a group of young adults try to find their place in the world. ‘’If you’ve been waiting for someone to close the gap on social distancing, to capture the furtive problems of social media, to make you laugh at your own alienation, to wrap your mind around the narcissism of small differences, then Calder is your new best friend, and his debut collection is the must-read book of the year’ quotes the blurb which explains why it might appeal to Rooney as it does to me.
Colin Barrett’s short story collection, Homesickness, rounds off this first batch of May’s paperbacks. ‘In these eight stories, Barrett takes us back to the barren backwaters of County Mayo, via Toronto, and illuminates the lives of outcasts, misfits and malcontents with an eye for the abrupt and absurd’ according to the publishers, suggesting a treat in store. I missed Barrett’s first collection, Young Skins, much praised by the likes of Kevin Barry, Jon McGregor and Colm Tóibín making me even keener to read this one.
That’s it for the fist part of May’s paperback preview. A click on a title will take you to either to my review or to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with new fiction it’s here and here. Part two next week when I’ll be back from a short break in Sussex where I hope the sun will shine brightly.