Category Archives: Reviews

The Portrait by Ilaria Bernardini: Every picture tells a story

Cover imageThis is the second novel I’ve read recently in which two women become close to each other, one knowing very much more about the other. In Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow, a half-sister is entirely ignorant of her new friend’s relationship to her. Ilaria Bernardini’s The Portrait sees a celebrated writer whose lover of several decades has been struck down by a stroke, inveigle herself into his house by commissioning his wife to paint her portrait. Both irresistible premises for me.

The feelings both for the painter and the sitter are contradictory. It’s an intangible search for who knows what

Valeria hears of Martin’s stroke over the radio in her driver’s car. She’s in Paris, her latest collection of short stories completed, neither the title nor the jacket yet decided. Distraught, she hatches a plan to find her way into the house where Martin lies in a coma: instead of an author photograph she will commission his wife, Isla, to paint her portrait. After a good deal of persuasion and an intervention by her troubled teenage daughter, Antonia, Isla agrees. Valeria sets herself up in a flat close to Martin’s Holland Park house and the sittings begin: Valeria desperate to catch sight of her stricken lover; Isla seeking a distraction from her anxiety and grief – each very different from the other. Before long, Valeria is a part of the household, welcomed by the striking Argentinean housekeeper, becoming Antonia’s confidante and exchanging intimacies with the warm, welcoming woman seen as her rival throughout the long affair which has shaped both her life and the image she presents to the world. When she answers one of the many texts she’s been ignoring from her estranged mother summoning her to Rhodes, Valeria understands it’s time to go back to the place where her sister died when they were children. The story comes to a close in London with a Valeria rather different from the one with which it began.

She was going to try to let go of her struggle for a purpose, her vanity. She was going to try to not play a character

Bernardini explores loss, love and storytelling in this intimate novel told from Valeria’s perspective. A multitude of stories, memories of her meetings with Martin and of the sister, ever present in her mind despite the four decades since her death, are woven through the few weeks Valeria sits for Isla. She’s a pleasingly complex character, apparently strong and independent, rejoicing in her cosmopolitan life as an acclaimed short story writer, while in reality riddled with a constant questioning insecurity. It’s also a novel about writing – Valeria is a stealer of stories, not above rifling other people’s lives even at the risk of being exposed. There’s a quiet thread of humour running through Bernardini’s novel leavening the loss and hurt – Valeria’s over-empathising assistant is a triumph with her adulation and need for hugs – while the question of how much Isla really knows hovers tantalisingly over the last half. Altogether an enjoyable read – a wee bit too long for me, but that’s a minor quibble.

Allen & Unwin: London 2020 9781911630401 420 pages Hardback

You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken: What are friends for…

Cover imageI grew up in a village with my sights firmly fixed on escaping to the city which was what attracted me to You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here. That title says it all for those of us who couldn’t wait to get away. Beginning in the 1990s, Frances Macken’s debut is set in Ireland where ten-year-old Evelyn, Katie and Maeve are inseparable, following them into a young adulthood in which each turns out to be not quite what the others expected.

Evelyn is the undoubted boss of this disparate threesome, with Katie second in command and in thrall to her. Maeve trails behind them, mousy and the butt of Evelyn’s snide remarks echoed by Katie, only tolerated because she’s Evelyn’s adopted cousin. Gossip is rife in Glenbruff and opportunities thin on the ground. By the time they’re teenagers, Evelyn’s much-voiced plans to escape are the hope that Katie latches on to, determined that Maeve will be left far behind. Katie wants to be a filmmaker, while Evelyn plans to study fine art despite no evidence of any talent. When a new girl arrives at school, Katie briefly entertains the idea of friendship with her but Pamela’s involvement with Katie’s tentative crush puts the kybosh on that, helped along by Evelyn’s disparagement. Then Pamela disappears without trace, a mystery which will cast a long shadow of suspicion over Glenbruff. When Evelyn’s hopes of art school are dashed, Katie is pulled up short. Once in Dublin, Evelyn’s sneering still echoes in her head, scuppering any other potential friendships. Several years later she’s back in Glenbruff to find that not much has changed and everything has changed.

‘God almighty. Why in the world would I want to be anyone else,‘ Evelyn snorts

Macken’s novel may ring a few very loud bells for some. She captures that desperate small town longing for bright lights and opportunity painfully well, narrating her novel through Katie, torn between her sometimes exasperating idolisation of Evelyn and her need to escape. The friendship between the three is well drawn, excruciatingly so at times as Evelyn struts around the small stage of Glenbruff, bolstering herself with her small humiliations of Maeve and basking in Katie’s regard until her influence begins to wane. Macken has a sharp ear for dialogue, scattering her novel with smartly funny lines.

Look at Mammy, sure, existing with the spectre of the unlived Self.

Katie’s parents were a small joy for me, reminding me of my own in their encouragement of her ambitions. Altogether a well turned out, enjoyable first novel which had me cheering Katie on at its end.

Oneworld Publications: London 2020 9781786077653 288 pages Hardback

She-Clown and Other Stories by Hannah Vincent: All about women

Cover imageIt was that eye-catching jacket that attracted me to Hannah Vincent’s She-Clown and Other Stories although I’d spotted Amanda at Bookish Chat was interested and she has a sharp eye for short stories. Vincent already has a couple of novellas under her belt but this is her first collection of stories which are all about women, many of them in tricky circumstances of one sort or another.

The sixteen pieces that make up She-Clown and Other Stories stretch over a mere 160 pages, some briefer than others beginning with Portrait of the Artist in which the parents of a bright young girl are called into her school to discuss her disturbing writing. Several explore the gender power imbalance – Carnival sees one woman accept the her boss’ initiation rite while her friend does not, having chosen to impersonate him at the office fundraiser. Others portray coercive relationships in a more tangential way: in Connie and Me a friendship between a Chinese student and an ageing ex-model living with a gambler ends poignantly. Two more of the sixteen stood out for me: Camel Toe in which two ageing sisters come alive at a netball match, one shedding her relentless caring role, and the eponymous She-Clown who performs to a sceptical audience then has her own cynicism overturned when a children’s birthday party gig doesn’t end quite as she expected. Perhaps the most satisfying, though is the final story, Woman of the Year, in which the preceding pieces’ main protagonists are all brought together at an awards ceremony.

Vincent explores her feminist theme with wit and humour, occasionally bringing her readers up short with a touch of the surreal. It takes quite a degree of discipline to tell a story in ten pages or fewer, as so many of the pieces in this collection are, but Vincent carries it off beautifully. Her sharp attention to detail, smartly demonstrated in Woman of the Year, and clean, spare writing coupled with the delivery of more than a few surprises, small twists and subversive details, make this a pleasing collection. Just two stories didn’t work for me, a pretty impressive hit rate for a collection of sixteen.

If you’re keen to get your hands on a copy of She-Clown and Other Stories, you can order one direct from Myriad Editions. They’re a small publisher who will be struggling in these difficult times. This is their 100th publication and I’m hoping they’ll be around to publish 100 more.

Myriad Editions: Oxford 2020 9781912408382 176 pages Paperback

Five Comfort Reads I’ve Read

I suspect we’re all in need of a comfort read now and again and never more so while the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic that currently has us in its grip. I can’t promise that all five of these novels are entirely free of strife or upset – for me it’s hard to find good fiction that contains none of that – but they’re all either entertaining, heartwarming, something to lose yourself in or all three. Here, then, are five consoling reads that might help get you through difficult times, each with links to my review on this blog.

Cover imageSet in the near future, Robin Sloan’s  Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore playfully meshes the old reading world with new technology in a quirky edge-of-your-seat story of bookish folk. Clay Jannon works the night shift at the eponymous bookstore, logging its few customers, most of them oddly attired and in an urgent, distracted state. Curiosity aroused, Clay sets about unravelling the puzzle of the Broken Spine, the society to which all the shop’s customers belong, in a story that encompasses a fifteenth-century sage, extreme Google geekiness, the search for immortality and a bit of consternation about cassettes (remember them?) all served up with a good deal of humour.

If you’re in need of being reminded that things do get better, I’d suggest  Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage which tells the story of Mattie, once met never forgotten. It begins in 1928, ten years after British women who met a property qualification were enfranchised. For many in the women’s suffrage movement the battle’s over but not for Mattie. Evan’s story romps along replete with period detail, wearing its historical veracity lightly while exploring themes of social justice with wit, humour and compassion. It never loses sight of the fact that while some women were given the vote in 1918, the vast majority were not, nor that when they were the battle was still far from won. I loved it, and if you do, too, may I suggest reading Crooked Heart to which Old Baggage is the prequel.Cover image

Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop is narrated by a young woman not entirely sure of her place in the world. Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances. As Hitomi and Takeo stumble into the most tenuous of relationships, Mr Nakano’s sister cheers them on from the side lines. Kawakami’s four principal characters are wonderfully drawn – eccentric, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging but the star of the show is undoubtedly our narrator, the awkward but endearing Hitomi. Very little happens in this delightful novel but it’s an absolute joy and the ending is all you could hope for.

Elinor Lipman writes the kind of sharply observed, absorbing and entertaining fiction that‘s just the ticket when you’re after an intelligent bit of escapism. With its story of a young woman, her widowed father and the high school yearbook left to her by her mother, Good Riddance is the literary equivalent of a smartly turned out rom-com. It follows Daphne, a close-to-thirty woman, flailing around for something to do with her life after her unfortunate marriage, who has the carpet pulled out from under her feet a second time. Lipman narrates her story in Daphne’s sometimes waspish voice, serving it up lightly laced with a few farcical moments and a good deal of sly wit. It’s a pleasingly perceptive comedy of manners whose slightly old-fashioned style would suit Frasier fans well.

Cover imageI could have picked The Dutch House, the more recent of Ann Patchett’s novels which would fit the comfort reading bill well but instead I’ve plumped for the lesser known Commonwealth. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel criss-crosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, Commonwealth is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

I’m sure you have a few novels you turn to when in need of comfort and distraction. I’d love to know what they are.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2020: Part Two

Cover imageUnlike the first part of April’s paperback preview, I’ve read none of the following six titles. I’ll begin with the one that tempts me most – Matias Faldbakken’s The Waiter set in Oslo where the eponymous waiter works at the city’s grandest restaurant. Our waiter knows his clientele well, tending to their every whim while watching their various shenanigans. ‘Exquisitely observed and wickedly playful, The Waiter is a novel for lovers of food, wine, and of European sensibilities, but also for anyone who spends time in restaurants, on either side of the service’ say the publishers which sounds just great A vicarious dining experience to enjoy until we can all go back to the real thing.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman in Trouble is one of those books of which I’m a little wary. It was all over my neck of the Twitter woods last summer which could well mean just a literary flash in the pan but its premise is an appealing one. Toby Fleishmann is about to launch himself into his longed-for single life when his ex-wife disappears leaving him in sole charge of his familial responsibilities and impelled to solve the mystery of what has happened to her, while wondering if their marriage was not quite how he saw it. ‘A blistering satirical novel about marriage, divorce and modern relationships, by one of the most exciting new voices in American fiction’ say the publishers.

I’m not entirely sure about Tim Lott’s  When We Were Rich either but, once again, its premise is an appealing one. Six people gather on a London rooftop on Millennium Eve to watch the fireworks on the Thames. All seems rosy as the economy booms but mass immigration from Eastern Europe is causing rumbles of discontent and religious fundamentalism is making itselfCover image known. How will these six weather the challenges ahead? ‘Sad, shocking and often hilarious, it is an acutely observed novel of all our lives, set during what was for some a golden time – and for others a nightmare from which we are yet to wake up’ say the publishers. Apparently, this new novel sees the return of characters who first appeared in White City Blue, a novel I read but about which I can remember nothing.

I’m also a little doubtful about Mary Loudon’s My House is Falling Down which sees a marriage under strain when Lucy falls in love with Angus. Lucy is determined not to deceive her husband but is shocked by his reaction to her affair. ‘Infused with her trademark precision, clarity and dark humour, Mary Loudon’s searing, highly-charged novel My House is Falling Down is a fearless exploration of what infidelity means when no one is lying, and how brutal honesty may yet prove the biggest taboo in our relationships’ say the publishers which suggests an original take on the somewhat hackneyed theme of middle-aged infidelity.

A multitude of bloggers whose opinions I trust sang the praises of Ray Robinson’s The Mating Habits of Stags when it was first published last year although it hadn’t appealed to me at first sight. After a violent act, widower Jake is evading capture on the wintery Yorkshire moors musing about his beloved wife and the child that is not his. His actions will change the friend who is devasted by the news of what he’s done forever. ‘As beauty and tenderness blend with violence, this story transports us to a different world, subtly exploring love and loss in a language that both bruises and heals’ according to the publishers.

After all those doubts, I’m ending on a more positive note with the winner of this year’s Portico Cover imageprize – Jessica Andrews’ debut, Saltwater which follows a young woman from her Sunderland working-class home to the seductive delights of London where she’s won a university place. Lucy finds the transition from one life to another overwhelming, never quite losing her feelings of being an outsider and eventually fleeing to her late grandfather’s cottage in Ireland. ‘Lyrical and boundary-breaking, Saltwater explores the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, the challenges of shifting class identity and the way that the strongest feelings of love can be the hardest to define’ according to the publishers. I do like the sound of this one which puts me in mind a little of Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking.

 That’s it for April’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have snagged your attentions and if you’d like to catch up with the first batch it’s here, new titles are here and here. Lots to keep us all entertained and take our minds of things a little this month. Stay safe, and keep washing your hands.

An Act of Defiance by Irene Sabatini: The power of hope

Cover imageBack in 2018 I read a book from a small publisher which blew my socks off. Sulaiman Addonia’s story of a young Eritrean refugee who sacrifices everything for love was one of my books of that year. Hopes were high, then for An Act of Defiance which is also published by The Indigo Press. Like Silence is My Mother Tongue, Irene Sabatini’s novel humanises a story which many of us will have seen played out on our TV screens, in this case the descent of Zimbabwe into ruination and madness under Robert Mugabe, beginning in 2000.

The daughter of a well-connected Mugabe supporter from who she keeps her distance, Gabrielle is a young lawyer, an activist, appalled at what she sees happening around her. She’s involved in the private prosecution of a member of the government accused of raping fourteen-year-old Danika. Her former partner, Gio, has been posted to Colombia, sending an air ticket in the hope that she’ll join him but she’s determined to stay and do what she can for the country she loves, now patrolled by drunken bands of Party Youth intimidating anyone openly opposing the government. Then she meets a smart, young American diplomat. Open and full of curiosity, Ben is keen to show Gabrielle the cultural riches she’s been too busy to appreciate. One day, on the way to a picnic, Ben’s beautiful red Chevrolet is car-jacked: he’s badly beaten and Gabrielle is taken to a torture camp. When she’s released it is Gio who takes her in, nursing her back to physical health, protecting her with a solicitousness that she tries not to find irksome. Over the next eight years, Zimbabwe will be strangled by the iron grip of a man once deemed his country’s saviour now apparently intent on destroying it. Traumatised by her ordeal, Gabrielle withdraws into a numb safety until she finally wakes up to what’s needed of her.

Her laugh bores into him; it sneers at him, at his stick, at his manhood, at his revolution. Again and again he hits her

Spanning seventeen years, Sabatini’s novel is a poignant love story as well as a vivid account of Zimbabwe’s devastation and the beginnings of liberation. Gabrielle’s trauma is sensitively handled, the torture visited upon her detailed in brief snapshots, graphic but necessarily so, and the ruin of Danika wrenchingly portrayed. It’s a powerful story, made all the more so by the awareness of its veracity.  I remember being appalled by the spectacle of black Zimbabweans starving in a country rich enough for all to live in comfortably, beaten and turned out of their houses at the hands of the man once acclaimed as their hero. Sabatini ends her novel in 2017 on a note of hope, both for Gabrielle and for the country she so dearly loves.

A small request: if you decide you’d like a copy of either An Act of Defiance or Silence is My Mother Tongue, please consider ordering it direct from The Indigo Press or an independent bookshop. They’ll need all the support we can give in the current crisis.

The Indigo Press: London 2020 9781911648048 330 pages Paperback

Coming Up for Air by Sarah Leipciger: Everything I’d hoped for…

Cover imageBack in 2015 I read a debut so striking it more than lived up to the superlatives liberally scattered in its press release. That was Sarah Leipciger’s The Mountain Can Wait, anchored in its Canadian backwoods setting by its gorgeous descriptive language. As you can imagine, then, my hopes for her second novel were sky-high, tempered with a pinch of apprehension. Coming Up for Air is very different from Leipciger’s first novel, weaving together the stories of a nineteenth-century French woman, a Norwegian toymaker and a Canadian journalist.

A young woman jumps into the Seine on a frigid night in 1899. She’s an orphan, sent to work as a lady’s companion by the aunt who’s resented her since her mother died just after giving birth. Madame Debord watches her centimes closely, spending much of her time in bed, indulging herself in wine and cake. Fresh from the country, her new employee is entranced by Paris. Over the year she’s there her heart is broken but she finds a new kind of love, one which overwhelms her. In the middle of the twentieth century, the son of a Norwegian toymaker diverts the sorrow of a terrible loss into developing a plastic doll. When a scheme is devised to teach resuscitation skills, a dummy is needed and he’s summoned to Baltimore. In the early twenty-first century, a Canadian journalist is awaiting a transplant, her lungs shredded by cystic fibrosis. These three very different characters are connected in ways which becomes satisfyingly clear as the novel ends.

She saw a face that would, with its laconic smile, transcend time and fact. Smooth as cream, a face on to which anyone could paint anything they wanted. It was pretty but not too pretty. Innocent but also wise.

Leipciger deftly interweaves her three narratives, each equally absorbing, skipping back and forth in time yet shifting perspective so smoothly that the whole coheres beautifully. Each of the three protagonists are firmly rooted in their stories. The claustrophobia and strain of raising a child with a deadly illness, the searing pain and dull ache of grief and the disappointments of love are all vividly, sometimes viscerally, portrayed, always with compassion.

Afterwards, in the darkness of our room, I searched for her but, even pressed against me, she was missing

The descriptive writing I’d so admired in Leipciger’s debut is just as impressive, evoking the sights, sounds and smells of nineteenth-century Paris as strikingly as the natural beauty of Ottawa and Norway, but it’s the storytelling that captivated me this time. The Author’s Note elucidates the factual basis of Leipciger’s fiction, a pleasing story in itself, but her reimagining fleshes out its bare bones beautifully, bringing it vividly to life. It’s been five years since the sublime The Mountain Can Wait and perhaps it will be another five or more until Leipciger’s third novel but for writing of this quality, I can be patient.

Doubleday: London 2020 9780857526519 320 pages Hardback

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2020: Part One

April’s paperback preview falls neatly into two parts – those I’ve already read and those I’ve yet to read. I’m beginning with the former, the first four of which were on my last year’s books of the year list. Hard to know which one to kick off with but I’m plumping for Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, the story of an unusual house, almost a work of art, and the obsessions it sparks. It’s also the story of the Conroys, the family whose history is indelibly marked by this house whose huge glass windows leave them exposed to the world. Patchett’s writing is smoothly polished but it’s her storytelling, laced with an elegant wit, that kept me gripped, wondering what would happen to these characters whose lives are hedged around with secrets and silence. Altogether a treat: a book to curl up with and I think we could all do with one of those at the moment.

I’m sure the Conroys’ house was as important to them as the eponymous work in Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel was to its creator. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s novel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. This is Hegarty’s second novel and it did that rare thing: exceeded the high expectations raised by his fine debut, Inch Levels. I’m already looking forward to his third.

When I read that Jill Dawson’s The Language of Birds was based on the notorious Lord Lucan affair my heart sank but far from being a rehash of the infamous murder replete with the usual Cover imagespeculation as to Lucan’s fate, Dawson’s book reimagines the story from the nanny’s perspective. Her careful, compassionate and compelling novel honours Sandra Rivett’s memory, tipping the balance away from the media portrayal which reduced her to ‘the lovely young nanny’ rather than a vibrant woman with a life of her own. For me, it’s one of Dawson’s best, and that’s saying something after The Crime Writer, a wonderful piece of literary fan fiction starring Patricia Highsmith.

Paul Lynch’s Beyond the Sea is from Oneworld who’ve  bagged not one but two Booker Prizes in the last few years. Written in that spare, pared-back style which I so admire, this intense novella explores themes of faith, madness, survival and existential crisis through the story of two fishermen cast adrift after a dreadful storm. Hector and Bolivar are thrown upon themselves and each other in order to survive. As a bond forms between them, each begins to tell the other about their lives, their secrets and their fears but while Hector sees faith as their saviour, Bolivar puts his trust in resourcefulness.

Anna Hope’s  Expectation narrowly missed my books of last year list only because I was wary of stretching readers’ patience a little too far. Very different from her first two novels, Wake and The Ballroom, it has the kind of structure I find irresitsible, exploring friendship, motherhood, love and feminism through the lives of Hannah, Cate and Lissa who share a house together in their twenties. Hope bookends her lovely, empathetic novel with two sunny Saturday mornings, the first in 2004 when Hannah and Cate buy breakfast to share with Lissa at home and the second in 2018 when the three, now in their mid-forties, meet for a picnic. Much has changed in between – betrayal, grief, disappointment, pain have all been suffered along with forgiveness, joy and hope. I loved it.

I’ve not read anything by Laura Beatty before but I found Lost Property’s synopsis intriguing. A woman finds herself in a state of despair at her country’s apparent indifference to the suffering and poverty on its streets and decides she must find a way to understand how such a state has come about. This witty yet profound novel of ideas takes us across Europe in a second-hand camper van on a road trip through history, following our unnamed narrator’s quest for meaning. It’s not an easy Cover imageread but it’s a richly rewarding one, and it’ll make you think.

Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands follows a man woken by a vivid dream of his wife’s infidelity, convinced of its truth. He takes himself off to the airport, boards the first plane that will take him as far away as he can get, ending up in Japan where he becomes involved with a young man intent on suicide. It’s a playful yet poignant novella which I enjoyed although I was a wee bit surprised to see it shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker International Prize.

That’s it for the April paperbacks I’ve read. A click on a title will take you to my review should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the month’s new titles they’re here and here. Into uncharted april paperback territory soon…

I should be rushing off to catch the train to Ghent after posting this but with Belgium closing restaurants and museums thanks to covid-19 there seems little point. Never mind, It’ll still be there when all this is over. Take care and keep washing those hands.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones: A tale of two sisters, secrets and lies

Cover imageOriginally published in the US back in 2011, Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow has been released here in the UK on the heels of Jones’ 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction triumph. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d read it, not having been quite as impressed with An American Marriage as the judges, but its premise is an intriguing one: two teenage sisters become friends but only one knows that they share the same father. Hard to resist that.

James Witherspoon is a bigamist. Married to Laverne when she was pregnant at just fourteen, he stood up before a judge ten years later with Gwen, the woman he’d met when buying Laverne’s anniversary present. Fully aware of what they were doing, Gwen had been determined to give their daughter Dana some sort of legitimacy. Chaurisse was born four months after Dana, a longed-for child whose brother had been stillborn. These two grow up in very different circumstances: Chaurisse the child of parents proud of their success after a rocky start; Dana’s deeply resentful mother taking her on spying trips spent sneering at their less attractive but more secure counterparts. Every Wednesday, James and the man he regards as his brother, come to visit Gwen and Dana, Raleigh carrying a flame for Gwen. As the girls grow up, their worlds begin to overlap much to James’ apprehension, until they meet in the local mall as if by accident, one knowing a great deal about the other, both lonely in their own way. Chaurisse is flattered by the attention of this pretty girl but sometimes puzzled by her cageyness. What ensues will trigger aftershocks felt for years to come.

I lived in a world where you could never want what you wanted out in the open

Jones explores themes of family, trust, honesty and identity through Dana and Chaurisse, as first one then the other tells their story, neatly balancing her novel. Given the Oprah-like set up, it could easily have descended into soap opera but Jones is much too skilled for that, sidestepping turning James into a monster although men don’t come out of this novel too well. The web of lies and deceit ensnares even Raleigh, the most loyal of men, making him complicit and dishonest.

The six of us were hog-tied, fastened in place by different knots

Richly complex, peopled with a cast of nuanced characters, Jones’ book steers clear of judgement treating its subject with compassion and empathy while injecting a slim vein of dry humour into each of her narratives, even at the most poignant of moments. I enjoyed An American Marriage but, for me, Silver Sparrow is the better novel. I’m hoping that Jones’ other two backlist titles will appear here in the UK if this one meets with the success it deserves.

Oneworld Publications: London 2020 9781786077967 368 pages Hardback

The Weight of Love by Hilary Fannin: ‘There were three of us in this marriage’

Cover imageI’d not come across Hilary Fannin until The Weight of Love started popping up on my Twitter timeline. Her name will no doubt be more familiar to Irish readers thanks to her prize-winning column in the Irish Times. She’s also known as a playwright and memoirist but this is her first novel, a delicately nuanced exploration of a long marriage at crisis point.

When Ushi takes in a young boy one summer, Robin finally finds a friend. Ushi is fiercely protective of her son who’s singled out at school for his German mother and no sign of a father. Joe’s mother has a wildness about her that rubs off on her son, lending him a precociousness and unpredictability of his own which emboldens Robin. As soon as he can, Robin takes himself off to London, teaching literature in a school where he meets Ruth, his tentative hopes of a relationship dashed when he introduces her to Joe, all intensity and glamour in comparison to Robin’s quiet diffidence. Ruth moves in with Joe the following day and it’s not until her son is two that she and Robin meet again in Dublin, Robin still in love with her while she still thinks of Joe. Over the years, these two will find an accommodation, Robin becoming the good father to Sid he lacked himself. Over twenty years later, the balance has shifted and it’s time to take stock now that Sid is finding his own way and Ushi is dying.

These old men’s stories were, she considered, smooth as pebbles from the number of times they’d been pulled from memory and fondled with words and sighs

Fannin’s novel alternates between 1995 and 2018, smoothly switching perspectives between Robin and Ruth, building an intricately layered portrait of this complicated marriage as their stories unfold. Memories, anecdotes and episodes from their lives are skilfully threaded through each narrative. Fannin’s characters are convincing and true, their dilemmas sympathetically explored so that we come to care for these people who have become so entangled with each other – whether absent or present. Her writing is striking – often lyrical – and it’s witty.

The two men stood watching it dart around the pond, lonely and confused, looking for a friend to eat

It’s an absorbing, carefully constructed novel, wrenching at times. Fannin gives us a nicely ambivalent ending with just enough grounds for hope for the more optimistic of her readers like me.

Doubleday Ireland: Dublin 2020 9781781620458 352 pages Paperback