Category Archives: Reviews

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson: Families and how to survive them

Cover imageI wasn’t at all sure that I’d get on with Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here. While I’d quite enjoyed The Family Fang, the premise of his new novel seemed a little off the wall but Ann Patchett’s hymn of praise swung it for me. Wilson’s novel tells the story of a young woman, still reeling from the betrayal by her best friend which wrecked her life, who nevertheless responds to that friend’s call for help. It’s also about two children who burst into flames when agitated.

Raised by a mother who hardly seems to care for her at all, Lillian is determined to make the most of her chances, studying hard and winning a scholarship to Tennessee’s Iron Mountain Girls Preparatory School. Once there, she’s shunned by all the rich girls apart from her roommate Madison – almost as much a misfit as Lillian but adept at appearing otherwise – with whom she becomes besotted. When Madison is caught in possession of cocaine, Lillian takes the rap, returning home resigned to a life of dead-end jobs and living with her indifferent mother, punctuated by a desultory correspondence with Madison whose life she watches from a far – first marriage to a senator followed swiftly by the birth of a son. A decade or so later, Madison calls her with the offer of a job as a governess to Jasper’s twins from his second marriage after the death of their mother. An odd request, given Lillian’s total lack of experience with children, but this is no ordinary childcare position. Jasper is about to be vetted as a possible secretary of state. He needs the utmost discretion and his children have the strangest of disorders: when agitated they burst into flames, causing havoc around them but no harm to themselves. Such is Lillian’s devotion to Madison and the depth of her misery at home she agrees, but first she must get Bessie and Rowland to trust her.

Given those last few sentences you can see why I might have thought Wilson’s funny, heartrending and wholly original novel might not be for me but I’m delighted Patchett’s puff persuaded me. The story is told through Lillian’s funny, often snarky voice as she tries to find ways to keep Bessie and Roland fire-free, offering them the love and security that, like her, they’ve sorely lacked despite having no clue how to set about it. Wilson takes a multitude of digs at the rich and powerful who outsource their inconvenient child-rearing elsewhere, determined not to let embarrassing eccentricities get in the way of their ambitions. At the same time, he makes clear that the disadvantaged can be equally remiss in raising their children. Everyone, it seems gets in wrong, some more spectacularly than others. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel whose sardonic tone mellows as Lillian and the twins grow to love each other. If the prospect of spontaneously combusting children puts you off, I’d ignore it. You soon get used to the idea.

Text Publishing: London 2020 9781922268334 288 pages Paperback

Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth: Growing Up is Hard to Do

Cover imageDespite very much enjoying Emma Jane Unsworth’s Hungry the Stars and Everything almost four years ago, I still haven’t got around to reading Animals. It’s been quite some time since that was published but I’d be surprised if fans don’t think Adults was worth the wait. It’s the story of Jenny, fast approaching middle-age, who’s in the grips of a social media addiction that’s distracting her from her many problems.

Jenny writes the Intense Modern Woman column for an online feminist magazine which seems a little too concerned with chasing hits. She’s obsessed with social media – painstakingly composing a one-word caption for a croissant when we meet her, checking her phone mid-sex with her boyfriend of seven years – now her ex – and agonising over whether she should ‘like’ her internet crush Suzy Brambles’ latest self-promoting post. She has a house full of lodgers who unknowingly provide good copy and a scratchy relationship with her mother – once an actress, now a psychic. Jenny frenetically clicks and posts – stalking Suzy Brambles, checking up on her ex, reading nuances into every infinitesimal time lapse between likes and seeking her best friend’s approval for her many posts. The lone parent of a fifteen-year-old and the only sensible voice in Jenny’s life, Kelly’s patience finally snaps as her friend’s life unravels in an endless cycle of craving approbation, no matter how fleeting, from people she’ll never meet and who may not even exist. A crisis is on its way but by the end of the novel, Jenny has found a way to live and finally understood the value of friendship.

I don’t know how to feel about anything anymore

Unsworth’s novel manages to be both moving and cringe-makingly funny as Jenny’s story unfolds in short episodic chapters, flashbacks, emails, social media posts and furious unsent drafts – a clickbait narrative that echoes her state of mind. Stuffed full of sharp one-liners and smart observations about modern life, it’s on the button in its depiction of social media addiction, uncomfortably so at times. Unsworth smartly nails the chasm between how some of us present ourselves to the social media world and the chaos of reality, not to mention the painfulness of over-emoting, on screen and off, and the pervasiveness of life lived via our devices.

I used to do things for their own sake but now grammability is a defining factor

The thin-skinned, self-absorbed Jenny could very easily have become an irritating caricature but Unsworth keeps our sympathy engaged, slipping in details of the story that lies behind her behaviour. The result is an intelligent, acerbic and entertaining piece of fiction with a heart.

The Borough Press: London 2020 9780008334598 400 pages Hardback

Paperbacks to Look Out For in February 2020: Part Two

Cover imageThe first batch of February’s paperback goodies didn’t set foot outside America but this second instalment starts in the heart of Europe with Robert Menasse’s The Capital, something of a bittersweet read for me given my country’s Brexit shenanigans. 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, sadly no longer a possibility. Like the institution it’s satirising, Menasse’s novel is not without faults but there’s much to enjoy.

Set in West Berlin during the summer of 1989, Ben Fergusson’s An Honest Man follows eighteen-year-old Ralf who is enjoying a summer of freedom until he discovers something about his family which turns his life upside down. ‘As old Cold War tensions begin to tear his life apart, he finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, forced to make impossible choices about his country, his family and his heart’ according to the publishers. Regular readers may have noticed that a Berlin backdrop is catnip for me

It was its Berlin setting that initially attracted me to Clare Clark’s In the Full Light of the Sun. In 1923 newly divorced Julius Köhler-Schultz, pillar of the art establishment, meets a young dealer, apparently respectful of his expertise and eager for his assessment of a painting he wants to sell. Based on the case of Otto Wacker, Clark’s engrossing, perceptive novel explores the machinations of the self-regarding art world taken in by an audacious fraud against the background of the failed Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis.

Christine Dwyer Hickey’s The Narrow Land is about the marriage between two artists – one acclaimed, the other not. The summer of 1950 was one of many Edward Hopper spent with his wife, Josephine, on Cape Cod but this year a ten-year-old German war orphan, traumatizedCover image by war, has come to stay with their neighbours. Written in Hickey’s subtle yet precise style, unshowy and often appropriately painterly, it’s a pleasingly nuanced novel which I enjoyed very much.

Back to Europe for Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian which is something of a doorstopper, the kind I’d usually avoid, but Zadie Smith has praised it to the skies so I think I might have to give it a try. It follows a young Palestinian from the Middle East to Paris during the First World War. ‘Hammad delicately unpicks the tangled politics and personal tragedies of a turbulent era – the Palestinian struggle for independence, the strife of the early twentieth century and the looming shadow of the Second World War’ say the publishers. Apparently, Smith has never spoken of a student in such glowing terms in the fifteen years she’s taught.

I’m not entirely sure about Sadie Jones’ The Snakes, either, having failed to see what so many others did in The Outcast, her much-praised debut. Bea and Dan have rented out their flat for a few months and driven to France where they plan to visit Bea’s brother at his hotel. When they arrive, they find Alex alone and the dilapidated hotel empty. The arrival of Bea and Alex’s rich parents makes Dan wonder why he’s never met them before. All of which may not sound very exciting but ‘tragedy strikes suddenly, brutally, and in its aftermath the family is stripped back to its rotten core, and even Bea with all her strength and goodness can’t escape’ say the publishers intriguingly. We’ll see.

Cover imageI’d also dithered about my last February paperback, Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day. It’s not that I don’t enjoy Hadley’s writing but her books are set in a world that can feel a little too cramped for me however the premise of this one appealed. It follows a group of late middle-aged friends whose lives are blown apart and put back together in a very different way after one of them dies suddenly. Despite its small canvas, I enjoyed this latest offering with its hope of change and new beginnings emerging from the pain of grief and loss.

That’s it for February. A very satisfying month. A click on a title will take you either to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for any that have taken your fancy. If you’d like to catch up with the first instalment of paperbacks it’s here, new titles are here and here.

The Hungry and the Fat by Timur Vermes (transl. Jamie Bulloch): Marching to Fortress Europe

Cover imageTimur Vermes is clearly not a man to shy away from controversy. His sharp, very funny satire, Look Who’s Back, nailed the internet’s potential for political manipulation with admirable, if unsettling, prescience when Hitler wakes up with a bad headache in 2011 and quickly becomes a YouTube star. The Hungry and the Fat takes on the refugee crisis and Europe’s failure to deal with it in similar blistering style, following hundreds of thousands of refugees as they march towards Germany, all broadcast on prime time TV.

It begins with a new pair of shoes, a joke in a bar and the decision to stage a TV reality show finale in the world’s biggest refugee camp. The hugely popular Angel in Adversity is filmed in a German refugee centre where its star endears herself to viewers by helping with whatever’s needed. It’s an advertiser’s dream: a beautiful woman with a colourful life apparently empathising with others in desperate straits. Not being the sharpest tool in the box, Nadeche doesn’t entirely understand what her producer’s plans will entail, planning her wardrobe for the camp as meticulously as she always does. Off she goes with her entourage to sub-Saharan Africa where she spends the first day sulking in her plush trailer. The TV crew sets about finding her a guide, plumping for the man with the new shoes who they dub Lionel. Ratings shoot up even further as this handsome pair become a couple. When Lionel ‘s hopes of accompanying Nadeche back to Germany are dashed, he comes up with a plan. Perhaps that joke he’d cracked about walking to Germany in his new shoes wasn’t so ridiculous after all. Led by Nadeche and Lionel, three hundred thousand refugees begin making their way towards Europe, moving like a well-oiled machine thanks to Lionel’s enterprising skills. Meanwhile, the audience at home is watching, the politicians amongst them aghast. Surely the marchers won’t make it to Germany.

Just as he did with Look Who’s Back, Vermes takes swipes at the ridiculousness of many of our Western preoccupations and the perniciousness of others. He’s careful to avoid caricature – for all her self-absorption and manipulation Nadeche has a healthy streak of empathy. The politicians’ dismay and alarm at the smartly organised, cooperative operation that is the march and its relentless advance is well done. There are many funny, almost slapstick moments but it’s a novel with a message. Europe’s inability to address the refugee crisis in a humane and fair manner is lamentable. While some countries have offered a welcome, others – including my own – have been parsimonious with their generosity to say the least. When Minister Leubl offers his solution to the impending problem I wanted to punch the air – it’s a wonderful moment – but we know it’s no more than that. As with Look Who’s Back, Vermes’ novel is a little too long but that said it makes its sober point loud and clear while having a great deal of fun doing so.

MacLehose Press: London 2020 9781529400557 576 pages Hardback

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins: Written from the heart

Cover imageIf you inhabit the same neck of the Twitter woods I do, you may have spotted Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt some time ago.  It’s one of those books that’s been trailed for many months which usually presses my sceptical button but I have to say it’s the real deal. This extraordinary novel explores the theme of migration through the journey of Lydia and her son Luca who are fleeing Acapulco’s most powerful drug lord after escaping the massacre of their family.

Lydia is a bookseller who knows she must stock the books she doesn’t like in order to sell a few copies of those she loves. One day, a smartly turned out customer buys two of her favourites, engaging her in conversation. He becomes a regular and a friendship begins. Lydia is used to a degree of danger. She lives in one of Mexico’s most violent cities where shootings and elaborately mutilated corpses are commonplace. Her husband is a journalist, a profession whose members are regularly picked off by narcos. When he tells her about his latest piece, she understands that the suave, cultured Javier she thinks of as her friend is the subject of Sebastián’s profile. This is the man who orders the murder of sixteen members of Lydia’s family after the publication of the piece, a massacre that she and eight-year-old Luca escape by pure chance. They have no choice but to smother their grief and flee. There will be no help from the police, many of whom are in the pay of the cartels. Their only option is to head to the US in the hope of finding Lydia’s uncle who left years ago and has not been heard of since. As they head north, Lydia and Luca meet many migrants like themselves, jumping the tracks onto la bestia, the freight train that runs to the border.

Cummins’ quietly understated, immersive novel is both gripping and deeply moving. The stories of the other migrants they meet along the way, from Rebeca and Soldad whose beauty will cost them dear to Marisol whose teenage daughters were born in San Diego, are woven through Lydia and Luca’s as they adapt to life on the run. Both mother and son are strikingly well portrayed – Lydia resourceful and wary of everyone she meets, Luca, endearingly brave and empathetic despite the horrors that have been visited upon him. We come to know them intimately and to care deeply about what happens to them. The everyday atrocities perpetrated by the narcos are described in clean, plain language making them all the more shocking. Corruption, treachery and exploitation are common amongst migrants and officials, alike, yet set against this are the many small kindnesses of ordinary people, often putting their own safety at risk. Despite its unsparing realism, Cummins’ novel is not without hope: For every wickedness, there is an equal and opposite possibility of redemption thinks Lydia when faced with yet another tale of depravity. It’s an astonishingly powerful book. Films often make my cry, books not so much: American Dirt is an exception. More immediate than Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, it feels written from the heart.

Tinder Press: London 2020 9781472261380 480 pages Hardback

Paperbacks to Look Out For in February 2020: Part One

Cover imageFebruary’s packed with enough paperbacks to stave off the miseries of a Northern hemisphere winter, several of which I’ve already read and can heartily recommend. I’ll begin with Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future, a slice of metafiction in which a writer comes across the notebook she kept in 1978, the year she arrived in Manhattan fresh from Minnesota, planning to write her first novel. As S. H. reads her journal, she contemplates the version remembered by her sixty-two-year-old self and how often it differs from the twenty-three-year-old’s account. As ever with Hustvedt, her book is stuffed full of literary allusions, ideas and erudition but it’s also playful in its early stages before taking a darker turn.

Memories play a large part in Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise which sees Sarah and David fall obsessively in love in their first term at a performing arts school where teachers and students become dangerously close. Twenty years later, the students’ lives remain marked by what happened in the secret, enclosed world of their school. ‘Captivating and brilliant, Trust Exercise is a novel about the treacherous terrain of adolescence, how we define consent, and what we lose, gain, and never get over as we navigate our way into adulthood’s mysterious structures of sex and power’ say the publishers promisingly. I enjoyed Choi’s My Education very much and like the sound of this one.

Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is set in 1993 when the eponymous Paul is a bartender in a university town gay bar, studying queer theory by day, but he has a secret. ‘Oscillating wildly from Riot Grrrl to leather cub, Women’s Studies major to trade, Paul transforms his body at will in a series of adventures that take him from Iowa City to Boystown to Provincetown and finally to San Francisco – a journey through the deep queer archives of struggle and pleasure’ promise the publishers which sounds wildly ambitious but well worth investigating.

Former US Army medic Nico Walker’s Cherry is set in Cleveland Ohio where two students meet and fall in love in 2003. When Emily is called home, her lover joins the army leaving for Iraq after they hurriedly marry. He returns stricken with PTSD and a drug habit which turns into heroin addiction. When Emily becomes addicted, too, the couple’s attempts at a normal life collapse and he turns to bank robbery. ‘Hammered out on a prison typewriter, Cherry marks the arrival of a raw, bleakly hilarious, and surprisingly poignant voice straight from the dark heart of America’ say the publishers.

Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Lost Children Archive has something to say about America’s dark heart. The first book written in English by Valeria Luiselli, it’s a response to the journeys made through the most dangerous terrain by those hoping to find their way across the Mexican border, many of them unaccompanied children. On their way from New York to Arizona, a family stops in motels where the parents fight quietly, convincing themselves their children can’t hear. The closer they come to the border, the more they hear about the migrant children, many about to be deported. Compassionate and often beautiful, Lost Children Archive is an impressive achievement although less immediate than Jeanine Cummins stunning American Dirt which I’ll be reviewing shortly.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Sunday Times Young Writer Award shortlisted Stubborn Archivist also tackles the theme of immigration. A young woman whose mother has left her homeland struggles to find a way to feel comfortable with herself by exploring her family history. ‘Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity’ says the publisher whetting my appetite.

Back to love which never runs smoothly, at least not the more interesting literary variety. In Billy O’Callaghan’s My Coney Island Baby two lovers are engaged in a long affair, meeting for an afternoon once a month, a welcome interval in their humdrum marriages. Now each is faced with a crisis that threatens this relationship which has become so precious to them both. O’Callaghan’s novel takes place during a single afternoon, switching perspective from Michael to Caitlin. It’s a novel that quietly draws you in, engaging sympathy for these two lovers who face the end of the only relationship in which they’ve truly felt themselves.

Cover imageI loved Jen Beagin’s sharp, funny Pretend I’m Dead but was a little surprised to find she’d written a sequel. Two years after the love of her life disappeared, Mona’s becoming more intimate with her clients and not necessarily in a good way. Vacuum in the Dark follows Mona from client to client, all of whom have their own darkness to shoulder. It’s considerably bleaker than Beagin’s first novel: the humour still sardonic and off the wall but less slapstick. I did wonder if Beagin was pushing her luck with a sequel but she manages to carry it off. Best quit while you’re ahead, though.

That’s it for the first instalment of February’s paperback delights. A click on a title will take you 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 February’s new novels, they’re here and here.

A Good Man by Ani Katz: What makes a man ‘good’

Cover imageI liked the sound of Ani Katz’ A Good Man, even before it started popping up in my Twitter timeline. It seemed to be about a family man who adores his wife and daughter but fails to protect them, something he considers to be his job. I’d had hopes of an interesting examination of how a ‘good man’ might be portrayed but what I hadn’t expected was a superbly drawn unreliable narrator, one of my favourite literary devices.

Married to a beautiful woman, the father of a bright daughter and established in a lucrative career, Thomas Martin appears to epitomise a happy, successful middle-aged man. He and Miriam live with Ava in a smart modern house, a social world away from the run down home inherited by his abusive alcoholic father where his mother and twin sisters still live. Miriam has never had a job, keeping house for Thomas and raising their daughter, rarely seeing her parents in her native France. Thomas has worked hard to afford the home he was determined his family would have, although Miriam’s trust fund helped despite her reluctance to leave the Brooklyn neighbourhood where she was happy. He’s trusted at work, his boss happy for him to pitch to the most prestigious clients, and respected by his two female colleagues. There are worries – dark memories of his difficult childhood, the loss of his elder sister and Ava’s pushing of the boundaries – but life is good. At least that’s the story Thomas tells himself and us but as this carefully controlled existence unravels, we begin to see that there may be other versions to tell, other interpretations to be made.

I want us to have everything I never had, I said. I want to build a shell around us so that we’ll be protected.

Katz keeps the tension nicely taut as she unfolds this story of a man who is convinced of his own best motives while letting slip hints that suggest otherwise. We’ve been primed from the start that things will not end well, and I suspect that ending will come as no surprise, but the denouement is not the point of this novella which explores what constitutes a ‘good man’ in some men’s eyes. What Thomas views as protecting his family, others would construe as coercive and controlling, a word of which he’s very fond. Katz is careful not to portray Thomas as a monster; he’s a man who’s believes himself to be doing what’s best for his family yet his behaviour towards them – and others – proves as toxic as his violent, abusive father’s. There’s a gradual ratcheting up of suspense as Thomas builds towards his story’s inevitable climax, deftly handled by Katz. It’s a smart debut, both compelling and disturbing, delivered with the kind of confidence that makes me keen to see what Katz will come up with next.

William Heinemann: London 2020 9781785152214 214 pages Hardback

The Street by Ann Petry: Walls closing in

Cover imageUnusually for me, this is the third book I’ve reviewed this year which is far from shiny and new. Something of an American publishing sensation, Ann Petry’s The Street was the first novel by a black woman to sell over a million copies in 1946. This new edition is introduced by Tayari Jones, whose An American Marriage won last year’s Women’s Prize for Literature, placing it neatly in its literary and social context. It tells the story of a woman trying to do the best she can in the face of a deeply divided society.

Lutie Johnson has worked hard to better herself, cleaning by day and studying by night, hoping to ensure a future for eight-year-old Bub. She’s spent years away from her son, working as a maid for a white family in Connecticut to help pay the mortgage on their home when her husband loses his job. When she discovers Jim’s unfaithfulness, Lutie kicks him out but can no longer afford the house. Instead, she finds an apartment in Harlem on 116th Street, far from the respectable end of the neighbourhood. She rents the attic rooms, repelled by the caretaker who conceives an obsession for her and wary of the madame who runs the downstairs whorehouse but unable to afford anything better. Lutie saves what she can, maintains her respectability and makes sure that Bub understands the value of money. One evening, she treats herself to a drink at the local bar, a beautiful woman alone, attracting the attention of Boots Smith, the bar’s bandleader who dangles the prospect of a singing job in front of her. Lutie is no naïve young girl but she spots a chance of eking out her small salary persuading herself that leaving Bub alone at night is a small price to pay. Meanwhile, Jones the caretaker has devised a scheme he hopes will deliver his tenant into his hands setting in train a chain of events that can only end badly.

According to Jones’ introduction, The Street was originally marketed as a piece of noir, its various lurid-sounding jackets suggesting pulp fiction rather than literature which no doubt helped those record-breaking sales along. Several of Petry’s characters fit that mould – the grotesque caretaker, the madame with eyes everywhere and the white nightclub owner with a taste for black women – but she takes care to explore their backstories, steering them away from the two-dimensional. Lutie is a strong woman, fiercely protective of her respectability and determined that she and her son will have a bright future but stymied at every turn by the prejudice that steers her towards a different role. Petry’s metaphor of a wall between black and white is a vividly effective one – even the liberal white employer happy to chat to her on the train firmly puts her in her place at their destination. How wonderful it would be if Petry’s novel was no longer relevant.

Virago Modern Classics: London 2019 9780349012933 403 pages Paperback

Books to Look Out For in February 2020: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of February’s new titles begins with one I’m eagerly anticipating although a novel set against the backdrop of the Thirty Years’ War wouldn’t usually appeal. Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll is based on the German legend of the eponymous trickster, born in an ordinary village but destined to expose the folly of kings and the wisdom of fools, apparently. ‘With macabre humour and moving humanity, Daniel Kehlmann lifts this legend from medieval German folklore and enters him on the stage of the Thirty Years’ War. When citizens become the playthings of politics and puppetry, Tyll, in his demonic grace and his thirst for freedom, is the very spirit of rebellion – a cork in water, a laugh in the dark, a hero for all time’ say the publishers. I’m not at all sure about that but I’ve yet to read anything by Kehlmann I’ve not both enjoyed and admired.

If the historical setting of Tyll is a little outside my literary territory, thrillers are practically on a different continent but I enjoyed A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple, a favourite holiday read in Palma, a few years back. With Independence Square, Miller returns to Ukraine where his bestselling first novel, Snowdrops, was set, a country whose turbulent recent history he covered as a journalist. Once a senior diplomat in Kiev, Simon Davey spots a woman on the Tube he’s convinced is the person who unwittingly brought about his downfall and decides to follow her. ‘Independence Square is a story of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times. It is a story about corruption and personal and political betrayals. It is a story about where, in the twenty-first century, power really lies’ say the publishers. William Boyd is a fan, apparently.Cover image

Not entirely sure this one is up my street either but the stories that make up Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro were apparently inspired by her stint at the lovely Mr B’s Emporium here in Bath. Her pieces are speculative ranging from a musician who befriends a flock of birds to two newlyweds inhibited by a large, watchful stuffed bear in their lives. I wonder if it’s the Orvis bear which disappeared mysteriously from outside our local branch. ‘Stories that start like delicate webs and finish like unbreakable wire traps’ according to Neil Gaiman.

I can’t say I’ve enjoyed every book by Colum McCann I’ve read but I’m an admirer of his writing. His new novel, Apeirogon, sounds extremely ambitious. It follows the friendship of two men – one an Israeli, the other a Palestinian – both of whom have lost their daughters – one killed in a suicide bomb attack, the other shot by a border guard. ‘Colum McCann crosses centuries and continents, stitching time, art, history, nature and politics into a tapestry of friendship, love, loss and belonging. Musical, muscular, delicate and soaring, it is a book for our times from a writer at the height of his powers’ promise the publishers. Finger crossed for this one.

Cover imagePetina Gappah’s Out of the Darkness, Shining Light sounds just as ambitious as Apeirogon, following a procession of sixty-nine Africans carrying the remains of a white man 1,500 miles to the sea so that he can be buried in his own country. The body is David Livingstone’s but Gappah concentrates on the funeral procession, apparently, giving voice to his cook and three of his most devoted servants. ‘Their tale of how his corpse was borne out of nineteenth-century Africa – carrying the maps that sowed the seeds of the continent’s brutal colonisation – has the power of myth’ say the publishers of what sounds like a novel that deserves the rather over-used description ‘epic’. I still haven’t got around to Gappah’s short stories despite being so impressed by The Book of Memory back in 2015.

Painted on a much smaller, twentieth-first century canvas, Luke Brown’s Theft sees a journalist granted an interview with a cult author who welcomes him into her London home. There he meets Sophie, celebrated for her controversial political views. Meanwhile, his sister has disappeared after their falling out over their dead mother’s house. Paul‘s life becomes increasingly fraught as he travels back and forth between his rundown northern home town and the Nardinis’ rather grand London house in what the publishers are describing as ‘an exhilarating howl of a novel’. Couldn’t resist that line.Cover image

My final choice is Ben Halls’ The Quarry which offers a small twist on state-of-the-nation fiction in the form of a collection of interlinked short stories rather than a straightforward novel. Set on the eponymous West London estate, Halls’ stories explore contemporary masculinity and changing gender roles through a diverse set of working-class men, apparently. That state-of-the-nation theme is catnip for me and this take on it sounds intriguing.

That’s it for February’s new fiction. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have snagged your attention, and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

Abigail by Magda Szabó (transl. Len Rix): Coming of age in 1940s Hungary

Cover imageI’ve yet to read Magda Szabó’s The Door despite having enjoyed both Katalin Street and Iza’s Ballad. Abigail is very different from either of those, not least in its length, but it comes billed as the most popular of her novels in her native Hungary. Set in a girls’ boarding school, it’s about Gina whose officer father sends her away to the other side of the country in 1943 on the eve of the German occupation.

Fifteen-year-old Gina has a head full of glamour and romance, spending much of her time with her frivolous aunt, cultivating her crush on a lieutenant. Inexplicably, her beloved father has decided to send her to a strict Protestant boarding school, squatting on the edges of a town that resents it. At first, Gina enjoys being feted as a novelty, thinking herself superior to these provincial girls intent on finding ways around their school’s draconian rules. When she carelessly lets slip one of their more arcane rituals, Gina feels the full force of her schoolmates’ fury. Desperate to escape, she devises a plan which ends in failure. Perhaps she should leave a note in Abigail’s pitcher, another ritual she’s sneeringly dismissed, but which has resulted in surprising results for other girls. When her father suddenly appears, she’s faced with a sobering reality. He brings news which chimes more with the dissident placards left around the town proclaiming the war a disaster than the school’s resolute patriotism, telling her that the secrecy of her whereabouts is paramount to her safety. Gina realises she must make the best of things, finding her way back into the affections of her schoolmates and devising entertainments that frequently land her in trouble. Life outside the walls of school becomes more dangerous as the Germans set their sights on occupying Hungary. Things come to a head when Gina’s cover is blown but Abigail comes to the rescue.

According to its press release, Abigail is the most celebrated of Szabó’s novels in her homeland – it’s even been adapted into a rock opera, still performed in Budapest, apparently, which is slightly mind-boggling. It’s told from Gina’s perspective, many years after the tumultuous six months in which she learnt that appearances can be deceptive. Szabó summons up the claustrophobia of boarding school life vividly – the spitefulness of adolescent young girls, bored and forced into piety, or the semblance of it, is painfully believable. Their tiny, tightly controlled world is in stark contrast to the bloody drama unfolding in their country, most evocatively demonstrated as the girls watch a train full of soldiers, bound for the front. Szabó tells her story well, pulling its thread of tension taut as Gina’s danger becomes apparent and neatly tying up loose ends in its final chapter. Not my favourite of her novels, but certainly well worth reading.

Maclehose Press: London 2020 9780857058485 448 pages Paperback