Category Archives: Reviews

Books of the Year 2019: Part Two

Cover imageEarly summer, which seems so very long ago now, was packed with literary goodies for me, particularly May which began with A Stranger City, Linda Grant’s portrayal of a post-referendum London through a set of disparate characters brought together by their connection with a woman whose body has been pulled from the Thames. Each character’s story is subtly woven through the others’ into a bright tapestry – some of it ragged and frayed – of a city Grant clearly loves but about which she’s deeply concerned. Her book reveals a London which is always in flux, shaping and reshaping itself to fit the constant flow of people drawn to it – a Brexit novel if ever there was one. I ended Part One by saying I’d try to avoid politics in the next instalment but as you can see, I’ve already failed.

Flotsam, May’s second favourite, is by Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press. Set on the German coast in the 1950s, this strange, unsettling book is a beautifully expressed exploration of the legacy of war and the grief it brings through the story of a young girl and her mother. Told in often lyrical yet spare, clean prose, first from Trine’s perspective then Anna’s, it’s the briefest of novellas yet it provokes more thought than many books three times its length. Far from an easy read but certainly a rewarding one, Ziervogel’s book leaves much for readers to deduce and is all the better for it.

Vesna Main’s Good Day? sported the second jacket I fell in love with this year, fitting its book as perfectly as the gloriously pink cover of Aylet Gundar-Goshen’s Liar, which popped up in Part One. Always a joy when publishers use an image which is both strikingly original and appropriate. Main’s Good Day? recounts a daily conversation between a Writer and her Reader, who is also her husband, describing the progress of her novel about a couple whose marriage is strained to breaking point. It’s such a clever piece of writing and a daring one, too. To write a novel almost entirely in dialogue and carry it off as well as Main does requires quite a degree of chutzpah. Thoroughly deserving of its place on this year’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

May’s last choice is much more straightforward, a piece of fictionalised biography which introduced me to a someone I’d never come across but who turned out to be an internationally popular figure. Eva Meijer’s Bird Cottage is based on the life of Len Howard who, aged forty, threw up her life as a violinist in London and took herself off to Sussex to pursue her lifelong passion for birds, determined to devote herself to researching their habits. Using simple, clean prose, Meijer lets her subject tell own story, weaving through it observations of Star, one of Howard’s favourites. A delightful book, the story of a true English eccentric.

June began with another piece of fictionalised biography by Jill Dawson who often chooses that form for her work. When I read that 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 speculation 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 a media which reduced her to ‘the lovely young nanny’ rather than a vibrant young 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.

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The first half of 2019’s books of the year ends with Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers, an inventive and imaginative piece of storytelling which takes its readers from 1902 to 1974 with a tale of castaways and mannequins, the like of which had never been seen before. Not just one story but several nested within each other, this is a novel haunted by madness and grief with more than a touch of the gothic brightened with moments of humour. Absolutely gripping – I loved it.

All of the above are linked to my reviews here if you’d like to know more. Part Three takes us into high summer with the return of Jackson Brodie after a nine-year hiatus, a tale of love, jealousy and betrayal in the Bauhaus and another beautiful jacket, perfect for its book’s contents. If you missed the first quarter on 2019’s favourites and would like to catch up, it’s here.

Books of the Year 2019: Part One

It’s that time again. Books of the year lists are being wheeled out right, left and centre. I’d love to tell you I’d managed to trim mine to a single post of gems but I’m not the Cover imagedecisive type so I’m afraid it will be the usual four, falling roughly into quarters, all with links to reviews on this blog. For those of you who think I’ve jumped the gun, I’m still a bookseller at heart, hoping to help out anyone desperate for gift ideas for their book-loving friends.

My reading year got off to a flying start with Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer whose premise is irresistible. A woman is about to sit down to supper when her sister calls. She’s killed another man and needs Korede’s peerless cleaning skills. Set in Lagos where Korede is a nurse and Ayoola charms men, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a short, darkly funny novel, an enjoyable caper with a sharp edge and a page-turning pace. I was delighted when it turned up on both the Booker Prize longlist and the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist.

Two books stood out for me in February, each very different from the other. Given my country’s preoccupation with Brexit, Robert Menasse’s The Capital was something of a bittersweet read. This sprawling novel takes a sharply satirical view of the European Commission, exploring its many accumulated weaknesses before returning to the founding values which make me want to remain part of the EU’s flawed club. Rather like the institution it’s satirising, Menasse’s novel is not without faults but there’s much to enjoy.

Entirely different, Joan Silber’s carefully constructed Improvement reads almost like a series of tightly linked short stories which explore the ripple effectsCover image of a car accident through a range of sharply observed characters. Silber’s writing is subtly understated leaving her readers to draw their own conclusions. Sadly, Improvement is her only book published here in the UK: all I can say to her publishers is ‘more please’.

Leapfrogging March into April, Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans also explores the fallout from a hit and run accident which kills a Moroccan immigrant who had been running his restaurant in a small Californian desert town for decades. Lalami tells her story in short chapters through a diverse set of characters whose backstories are meticulously sketched in. It’s a quietly powerful novel which seemed to have had less coverage than it deserved here in the UK

The second of April’s treats is a bestseller which left me wondering why I hadn’t already read it. Paolo Cognetti’s beautifully expressed The Eight Mountains is about the friendship between two men who meet as boys when they’re eleven years old: one who has never set foot outside the mountains in which he was born, the other a city boy from Milan whose father yearns for a return to his own mountain roots. It’s a beautiful novel, a testament to friendship and a loving tribute to a challenging but gorgeous landscape.

Cover imageRounding off April’s favourites, Ayelet Gunder-Goshen’s lusciously jacketed Liar tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Tel Aviv girl who becomes caught up in a scandal after an exchange between her and a fading reality TV star is misinterpreted then seized upon by a media hungry for sensation leaving her trapped in an untruth she’s allowed to take root. A thoroughly enjoyable novel with a clear message: lies tend to lead to a deeper deception that can only end in tears. Politicians take note. Rare for a lesson in morality to be delivered with such acuity and style.

There, I seem to have ended 2019’s first quarter with politics, something which I’ve been trying (but failing) to avoid since mid-way through the year when I though I might be about to spontaneously combust with fury. Let’s see if I can stay away from it in the second instalment which will cover May and June.

Six Degrees of Separation – from Sanditon to The Corrections

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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This month we’re starting with Jane Austen’s Sanditon, recently televised in the UK which must have been something of a challenge given that the novel’s unfinished.

John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman has three different endings making it well nigh unfilmable, you’d think, but Harold Pinter did an excellent job with the screenplay for the 1981 movie starring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep.

The title of Fowles’ book leads me to French Exit, Patrick deWitt’s caustic caricature of the wealthy upper classes, which takes its readers from New York City to Paris in the company of Frances Price, her son Malcolm and Small Frank, their ancient cat – once met never forgotten.

Small Frank would no doubt have sneered at the hairless therapy cat supposedly helping Jay get over what he sees as his mother’s desertion when he was a child in Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You.

Nathan Hill’s The Nix explores American politics through the relationship between another mother and the son she left when he was eleven years old, reunited when she finds herself in the spotlight over two decades later

The Nix sounds very much like the name of a famous New York basketball team although it’s spelt Knicks. I know next to nothing about sport but I did enjoy Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland which sees a Dutchman take up cricket in New York City. When President Obama declared his love for the book, sales must have spiked way beyond O’Neill’s wildest dreams.

Not quite in Obama’s league, although it was once rumoured that she might stand for president, an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey must have been the stuff of dreams for authors when she was in her heyday. Not for Jonathan Franzen, though, who refused to have anything to do with her book club rather snottily declaring his novel, The Corrections, to be high art and therefore, presumably not for the Winfrey-watching hoi polloi.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an unfinished nineteenth century novel to the story of a supremely dysfunctional family by a rather pleased-with-himself author. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Love Notes From a German Building Site by Adrian Duncan: Men at Work

It was its Berlin setting that first attracted me to Adrian Duncan’s Love Notes From a German Building Site, an irresistible backdrop for me. I’d somehow thought it was a love story, quite possibly an unhappy one, but it turned out to be very much more interesting than that. Duncan’s debut follows a couple in their mid-thirties who have left Ireland for Germany. While Evelyn looks forward to starting a new life, Paul flounders at work, trying to tighten his grasp on a language which constantly eludes him.

Paul is a structural engineer refurbishing a building on Alexanderplatz in the old East Berlin, soon to be a temple to consumerism. Evelyn is the daughter of German parents who settled in Ireland in the ‘60s. She’s at ease with the language Paul struggles to express himself in, trying to fix words in his mind with the lists he calls ‘love notes’. The site is a tricky place to navigate: the boss is irascible, many of the workers have little English and Paul is unconfident, more used to working with plans than construction. As the six months of his contract wear on, Paul and Evelyn see little of each other. She explores the city and prepares for her new job in Cologne, a change of career from economist to museum curator filling her with excitement, while Paul grapples with the difficulties of working in a job which doesn’t quite fit. As the project nears its end, tempers on site become dangerously frayed, crises flare and Paul feels himself increasingly out of kilter.

A facet of our curiosity had begun falling away in those specializing years in university, like a shard of rock dislodging itself from a cliff face and slipping quietly into the  water below 

Duncan spent ten years as an engineer before drawing on that experience to write this thoughtful novella whose episodic structure is carefully constructed from memories, snapshots, observations and Paul’s ‘love notes’. Duncan’s use of language is quietly precise, his sense of place wonderfully atmospheric. A few clean bright sentences describing the sound of snow underfoot took me back to my first visit to Berlin, over ten years ago, while his description of Antwerp’s station instantly summoned it up for me as if I was there. The same quiet precision conveys the mind of a man wrestling with work that requires an accuracy hard to achieve in a language which seems to slip through his fingers, exacerbated by the utter exhaustion of an unrelenting schedule as the project hurtles towards its deadline. So few novels are set in the workplace and yet work is such an important part of our lives. Whether we feel comfortable in it or not contributes to our physical and mental health, our relationships and the way we see ourselves. It can both imprison us and liberate us. Written in spare, elegant prose, this beautifully crafted novella brings its importance sharply into focus.

Head of Zeus: London 2019 9781789546248 205 pages Hardback

Next week will be all about my books of the year which, as usual, I’ve been incapable of trimming back to a sensible figure.

Older Brother by Mahir Guven (transl. Tina Kover): A tale of two brothers

Cover imageApart from Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz I don’t think I’ve read anything set in Paris’s banlieues which is partly what drew me to Mahir Guven’s Prix-Goncourt-winning debut. Older Brother explores life in these areas, synonymous with poverty and dissent, through two brothers and their Syrian taxi-driving father, still grieving his French wife.

Despite the carefully prepared Friday banquets they share, the older brother and his father are at loggerheads over the former’s work as an app-based driver seen as deadly competition by taxi drivers. Every week the father angrily rehearses the same arguments accompanied by a tirade against Bashar Assad and the war in Syria. Neither speaks of the younger brother who disappeared three years ago. The younger brother was a nurse, encouraged to continue his medical studies by the surgeon who singled him out. As the news from Syria worsened, the younger brother decided he must help his fellow Muslims, contacting an NGO then leaving without a word. The assumption is he’s gone to Syria – some think to fight, others to save lives. The older brother has taken a very different route, smoking too much weed, invalided out of the army diagnosed with schizophrenia and now turned police informant to keep himself out of jail. All three are still mourning the woman who died eighteen years ago leaving the boys motherless at ten and twelve. After picking up a fare at the bus station, the older brother glimpses a man he thinks he recognises.

We were in the Holy Land, the land of the Bible; since the beginning of time, people have been ripping each other to shreds in God’s name.

Each of the brothers narrates their own story in this powerful, taut novel which takes its readers into the Parisian banlieues and to war-ravaged Syria. Each voice is distinctly different from the other – the cocky, street savvy irony of the older brother, who’s not as tough as he might like to appear, contrasting with the quiet, thoughtful younger brother faced with the horrors of war and the tyranny of extremism. There are occasional flashes of sly humour lightening the tone a little – bearded eco-hipsters ride their bikes alongside equally hirsute Islamic fundamentalists to whom cars are haram. Close to its conclusion, Guven’s novel speeds up its pace, hurtling towards what feels like an inevitable conclusion. Suffice to say I thought the ending was very clever although I suspect not everyone will agree.

Europa Editions: London 2019 9781609455491 256 pages Paperback

Five Rediscovered Classics I’ve Read

Cover imageI could devote this post (and many more) to the classics I read decades ago but I’ve not reread them for some time so that would be cheating. Instead, I’ve decided to stick with five reissued, lesser known books that thoroughly deserved the burst of renewed attention they attracted. Here are five rediscovered classics, four with links to full reviews on this blog.

I’m starting with John Williams’ Stoner, originally published in 1965 and reissued here in the UK in 2012 when it became that thing publishers yearn for: a word of mouth bestseller. It’s about an ordinary man who leads an unremarkable life. Born on a small Missouri farm in 1891, Stoner discovers a love of literature and becomes an academic, his success hard won. He finds himself in a loveless marriage, his unhappiness briefly lifted by a relationship with a young woman before academic rivalry intervenes. Williams quietly draws this understated, poignant novel to a close with Stoner’s death.

First published in 1967, the reissue of Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog comes from the same publishers who brought us Stoner. Set in 1924, the novel tells the story of the Burbank brothers, owners of one of Montana’s biggest ranches and rich beyond reckoning yet still sharing the same bedroom. When George brings home a wife, Phil sets about quietly undermining her until she no longer trusts her own judgement. Savage unfolds his story in a straightforward unfussy narrative, contrasting Phil’s calculated cruelty with his brother’s open-hearted kindness and leaving the reader to infer what lies at the heart of his scornful contempt. His descriptions of the sweeping Montana landscape, gruelling winters and the daily business of ranching are all wonderfully cinematic. It’s a fine novel, entirely worthy of the inevitable Stoner comparisons made when it was reissued in 2016.Cover image

William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer was originally  published in 1962 at the height of the Civil Rights movement although, sadly, it still resonates today. In 1957, the descendent of a slave destroys the farm he bought from the family of a renowned Civil War general in whose home he grew up, before departing with his pregnant wife. Within hours the black population begins heading north leaving behind bewilderment until the white residents come to understand the repercussions of this exodus and their mood turns. The story unfolds in clean, plain prose from the perspective of a variety of characters, all white. Its ending comes as no surprise. Kelley was just twenty-four when he published A Different Drummer, an astonishingly confident piece of work for a writer so young.

I’m stretching the ‘five’ of this post’s heading a little here but both Nell Larsen’s novellas, Quicksand and Passing, were reissued in the same volume in 2014. Hard to mention one without the other. Passing begins with the memory of a chance meeting in a smart Chicago hotel. Two light-skinned women recognise each other – both are ‘passing’ in this bastion of white society but for one of them it’s a matter of convenience and mild titillation at her deception – for the other it’s the habit of a lifetime. Widely considered to be autobiographical, Quicksand, opens with a young woman deciding to give up her job as a teacher in an all-black school, risking all for what she hopes will be a more exciting future. She’s a woman who finds it impossible to settle. Each decision results in excitement, happiness then disillusion. Both are powerful, thought-provoking novellas which explore race and identity but while Quicksand is a sobering, Passing is gut-wrenching – an astonishingly brave book to have written in the 1920s

Cover imageSet largely in the ’30s and ’40s, and published in 1959, Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge was reissued in 2012. Written in understated elegant prose, it follows Mrs Bridge from her newly-wed days in Kansas to her widowhood and just beyond. She’s married to a lawyer, has three children and is both deeply conservative and naively innocent. Bombshells are delivered quietly and in passing: the Bridges cut short their six-week European jaunt because Hitler has invaded Poland which seems to be more of an inconvenience to them than a shattering world event. Mrs Bridge’s greatest enemy is time: housework and cooking are taken care of by the maid and Mrs Bridge spends much of her life wishing it away or devising little projects for herself which often come to nothing. Both moving and hilarious, Connell’s novella is a gently satirical portrait of a particular time and class. Mr Bridge, its companion, was reissued a year later and is also well worth reading but Mrs Bridge remains my favourite of the two.

Any rediscovered classics you’d like to recommend?

Be My Guest by Priya Basil: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity

Cover imageWhen I spotted Priya Basil’s beautifully jacketed Be My Guest it was the third word in its subtitle that caught my eye. Food is pretty high up my agenda, mixing well with that other passion, travel. Basil’s book looked like the sort of comfort reading that would restore my faith in human nature which has taken a battering recently, despite my turning away a little from the 24-hour news cycle, but it turned out to be rather more than that.

Each bite holds the flavour of the past and the present, a lifetime of my mother’s love, her unstinting hospitality.

Basil begins with a declaration that we start our lives as guests, at first in our mothers’ wombs, then as recipients of care and attention until we become independent. She goes on to describe the dish that symbolises her mother’s nurturing to her, always available when she visits until one day it isn’t, and she realises her mother is ageing. Food is an important part of Basil’s family life, the foundation of her grandmother’s marriage, cooking for the man she hoped to marry to save her from disgrace and continuing to do so until it has become both an expression of love and almost a means of control. Drawing on her family history and her own life, Basil explores the meaning and symbolism of food, the responsibilities of being a host and those of being a guest and the importance of communal hospitality in the face of rising individualism.

Food sustains us physically, yet to be fully nourished we must be fed by ideas, feelings, experiences.

This brief, eloquent book ranges far wider in just over a hundred pages than the hymn of praise to food and hospitality I’d been expecting. Politically engaged, Basil explores the idea of generosity through the roles of guest and host, extrapolating it to migration, in particular the opening of her adopted country Germany’s doors to migrants in 2015 and its consequences. She’s a passionate believer in the generosity of the EU’s freedom of movement, disappointed by its failure to deal with the refugee crisis. Brexit, of course, rears its head as that generosity’s counterpoint with its determination to squeeze immigration. Against this backdrop, Basil threads family anecdotes, cultural attitudes to hospitality and musings on her own endearingly self-confessed greed. She has an elegant turn of phrase, describing storytelling as an invitation to readers who repay the courtesy with their attention, and she’s funny, too. The section on reciprocity and the etiquette of taking the last portion – ‘Do you love anyone enough to give them the last Rolo?’ – had me thinking about what happens in our house. My partner went to boarding school – he often can’t help himself. Always best to open negotiations early, I’ve found.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781786898494 122 pages Hardback

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (transl. Martin Aitken): In the deep midwinter

Cover imageAlthough I’ve yet to read Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room reviews of it by bloggers whose opinions I trust were enough to convince me that Love was likely to be something special. This spare novella tells the story of Vibeke and her son, Jon, on the eve of his ninth birthday, each, unbeknownst to the other, out and about on a frigid Norwegian winter’s night.

Vibeke and Jon have recently moved from the south to a village close to where she works as the arts and culture officer for the local authority. Vibeke spends most of her time reading when she’s not working, barely registering her imaginative, curious son although tender towards him when she does. Jon is sure that Vibeke has plans to bake him a birthday cake, considerately taking himself off to the visiting fair so that she can surprise him with it the next day. Vibeke, however, has not a thought for Jon’s birthday, caught up in fantasies of the brown-eyed colleague for whom she preens in the mirror before setting off for the local library in the hope of bumping into him. When Jon returns, he finds he’s locked out, convincing himself that his mother has gone to the convenience store for cake ingredients. Off he goes again, taken home by a young girl who spots he has no mittens. Meanwhile, finding the library closed, Vibeke has switched the focus of her fancy to a friendly worker at the fair. Over a single, chilly night Jon and Vibeke’s paths will almost cross, both of them returning home during the long winter’s night. The next day will be far from what either of them might have expected.

Written in clean, bright prose, Ørstavik’s intense novella packs quite a punch. Her narrative slips back and forth between Jon and Vibeke, smoothly at times, at others shifting disconcertingly, disorienting the reader and ratcheting up the tension as we wonder what will happen to each of them. Both characters are vividly drawn, their voices clear and distinct. Jon is an endearing little boy, sensitive and curious, given to catastrophist thinking about his mother who he calls ‘Vibeke’ rather than ‘Mum’. Vibeke is a naive young mother, married far too young, her head full of romantic fantasies and willing to take risks to fulfil them. While it’s clear she loves her son – there’s a tenderness in the few exchanges between them – she hardly notices he’s there most of the time, a carelessness that will cost them both dear. The stories of the fair workers with whom each of them becomes involved are left untold but we can guess that for them Jon and Vibeke are mere bit-players or perhaps even pawns. Altogether a very polished, powerful piece of writing, beautifully expressed. Time to order a copy of The Blue Room, I think.

And Other Stories: London 2019 9781911508724 128 pages Paperback

Blasts from the Past: Being Dead by Jim Crace (1999)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

I remember someone looking over my shoulder when I was reading Being Dead on my way home from a meeting just before it was published. Of course, I didn’t mind – I’ve done that as discreetly as I can often enough – but I imagine they may have been a little taken aback. Jim Crace’s beautifully expressed novella tells the story of two corpses on a beach while describing the process of their decay in forensic detail.

On a lovely afternoon a couple lies dead on a beach, their bodies bloody and battered. They have been married for almost thirty years and even in the throes of a violent death they appear devoted, Joseph’s hand curved around Celice’s shin. In acknowledgement of their death, Crace tells us that Being Dead is to be a ‘quivering’, a retelling of their lives in accordance with an ancient custom. So begins the narrative of Joseph and Celice’s life from their first meeting on that same beach, where they made love so many years ago, to their brutal murders. Woven into their story are descriptions of what happens to their bodies as they lie undiscovered for six days. Written in language that is graphic yet poetic, Crace’s novel makes the unbearable and the inevitable something we can look in the face.

Crace came in for a bit of a bashing for the inaccuracy of some of his descriptions, not to mention the lack of evidence for his ‘ancient custom’, for which he had some handy rebuttals, telling his critics that they were based on his observations of animal decomposition when he was out walking. Very polite. He could simply have said ‘it’s fiction’.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout: Revisiting an old friend

Cover imageWhat a joy to spot a new Elizabeth Strout in the publishing schedules and an even greater one to find that it’s about the irascible yet essentially warm-hearted Olive Kitteridge from Strout’s eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 2008. Olive, Again takes the same form as the original, comprising thirteen closely knit short stories in which Olive is often the central character, sometimes a co-star and occasionally a bit-player.

I like you, Olive… … I’m not sure why, really. But I do

Strout’s book opens with Jack Kennison, recently widowed and on his way to the next town to buy whiskey in order to avoid bumping in to Olive. Readers already acquainted with her might assume it’s to avoid her judgemental gaze but the tentative relationship between these two has stalled and Jack wants to spare them both embarrassment. As with Olive Kitteridge, Strout takes us into the lives and homes of several inhabitants of Crosby, Maine where Olive taught maths and lived with her husband, Henry, for decades. Olive is far from the most popular of Crosby’s residents. Apparently short on empathy and with no patience for modern social niceties such as baby showers, she’s unwavering in approaching the unapproachable, visiting a middle-aged woman who may be dying when her friends are too scared to face her. The very idea of Olive at a baby shower might well discombobulate those who’ve met her before but when a pregnant guest goes into labour it’s the no-nonsense Olive who saves the day. Her uncompromisingly brusque exterior hides a practical humanity and she’s generous in her honesty when she gets things wrong.

He would never have imagined it. The Olive-ness of her, the neediness of himself; never in his life would he have imagined that he would spend his final years with such a woman in such a way

Small details fill in Olive’s life for readers who’ve not read her first outing or those of us who can’t quite remember it all and are cursing ourselves for not finding the time for a reread. The sharp characterisation, dry humour, understated prose interspersed with occasional passages of quietly lyrical descriptive writing are all present and correct. Strout trusts her readers to infer and draw their own conclusions. Her themes are pleasingly familiar: small town life, loneliness, regret, love, the complications of human relationships, and ageing as unflinchingly explored as Olive would demand. Ordinary everyday day life is filled with events unremarkable to others but extraordinary to those who live through them. Epiphanies are had. Time passes. Olive grows old but not always alone. It’s a triumph. I’m deeply suspicious of sequels but delighted that Strout took me back to Crosby to meet Olive again. My hope is that Frances Mcdormand, who was such a thoroughly convincing Olive in HBO’s miniseries, is already practicing her lines.

Viking: London 2019 9780241374597 304 pages Hardback