Flotsam by Meike Ziervogel: More than meets the eye

Cover imageYou may already know Meike Ziervogel’s name. She’s the founder of Peirene Press who publish three thought-provoking novellas in translation a year, several of which I’ve reviewed on this blog. Flotsam’s not her first book but it’s the first I’ve read by her. Set on the German coast in the 1950s, Ziervogel’s strange, unsettling novella is a beautifully expressed exploration of the legacy of war and the grief it brings.

Trine is playing on the shipwreck not far from the cottage where her mother has lived since her father suggested the family leaves Berlin during the war. Her brother Carl falls from the rigging, apparently dead but Trine decides not to interrupt her mother’s daily beach combing, instead dragging his body home, planning to give him a pirate’s burial. On the cusp of adolescence, Trine is an outsider, the butt of sneering bullies, but when she sets fire to the shipwreck her status changes. She’s someone to be reckoned with now. Her mother, Anna, has collected what the sea throws up for years until it fills several of the cottage’s rooms. Once an artist, she had plans to make something of these bits and pieces but nothing ever comes of it. One day she thinks she sees a man who may be Carl, trudging through the mudflats, and her thoughts turn to the war. As this evocative novella draws to a close, Anna at last finds a use for her daily gatherings.

As you may have gathered from that synopsis, this is not an easy book to write about without muffling the small shocks and perplexities which readers should experience for themselves Told 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. Written in often lyrical yet spare, clean prose, Flotsam is haunted by grief, leaving much for readers to deduce for themselves. Ziervogel’s setting reflects the shifting ambiguity of much of the novel in its atmospheric descriptions:

The blue sky is cloudless. A flock of oystercatchers is heading out towards the sea, which is nothing more than a thin line on the horizon

It was impossible to imagine that in just a few hours all of this would be covered by the sea, which seemed to have disappeared beyond the horizon, dropped off the face of the earth.

Ziervogel’s novella is likely to take you less than an afternoon to read, her own criterion for the books Peirene publishes, but I’d be surprised if you weren’t thinking about it for some time after you’ve finished.

Almost Four Days in Genoa and One Book

We booked a short break back in March thinking that it might be our last chance to join the EU citizen passport queue but once again we were reprieved. Or at least that’s how I think of it. This time we were heading for Genoa, home of two of my favourite things to eat: focaccia and pesto – the real thing not that stuff out of a jar. After a fabulously warm and sunny Easter weekend at home, we tried not to be disappointed as the rain lashed the cab windscreen on our way to our apartment but failed. Being British we were prepared and strode out into the narrow medieval streets of the old town with their many-storied buildings shaking our heads politely at the umbrella sellers. Our first impression of Genoa was of nicely faded grandeur which reminded me a little of Lisbon.

The next day, minds on our stomachs as ever, we headed off to the Mercato Orientale by way of the stupendously grand Via 20 Settembre – a shopping street with gorgeously decorated colonnades, resplendent with mosaic pavements and painted ceilings. Genoa is known as ‘La Superba’, a reference to its glorious past evident from the street’s extravagant decoration. The market was a treat, too, full of stalls displaying beautiful produce including purple asparagus, courgette flowers and shiny aubergines, some of which we snapped up for supper.

If Via 20 Settembre hadn’t rubbed in Genoa’s past glories there was no escaping them on Via Garibaldi which is filled with impressive palazzos. The city owes its Unesco World Heritage status largely to these extravagant but often beautiful buildings which hosted the state visits of the great and possibly not so good in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We returned to the Via Garibaldi for an aperitivo before supper, alerted by the excellent Travel Gourmet, whose blog I consulted frequently (almost obsessively) while in Genoa, to the delicious snacks served alongside drinks rather like tapas. We each had a glass of bone-dry prosecco at the Baribaldi, chosen by H who can’t resist a pun, and felt so much better at the prospect of yet more rain afterwards.

Thursday was Liberation Day in Italy, and for us, too, with some sunshine and swifts flying past as H opened our apartments’ shutters. We took ourselves off for a stroll along the Corso Italia, looking out to sea with the many locals walking their splendid dogs, several of which looked as if they belonged in the mountains. The afternoon was taken up with visiting a few of those flamboyant palazzos on the Via Garibaldi which turned out to be even more overwrought inside than their exteriors suggested. I couldn’t help feeling Genoa’s nobility were trying to outdo each other rather like the owners of the outrageously decorated art nouveau villas we’d marvelled at in Riga, Budapest and Antwerp.

Another day, another palazzo, this one – the Palazzo di Andrea Doria – commissioned by the eponymous admiral instrumental in regaining Genoa from the French in the sixteenth century. His palace is quite stunning, opulent yet not nearly as florid as those lining the Via Garibaldi. Not exactly understated either, of course, but I found it much more appealing and its gardens are gorgeous, filled with roses and lavender already in bloom. We loved it although H described it as a bit ‘Trumpian’ given Doria’s penchant for having himself and his cronies portrayed as conquering Roman heroes.

We spent our last afternoon ambling around the city, taking the funicular up one of its steep hills and admiring the view then wandering back to our apartment through streets lined with tiny shops. Rather like our experience in Lille, we’d heard few foreign tourists throughout our stay which seemed a shame. That said, Genoa Cover imageclearly has a life of its own rather than relying on pandering to the likes of me for its income which is surely a good thing.

And the book? Set in 1930s Montreal, Heather O’Neill’s The Lonely Hearts Hotel tells the story of two orphans besotted with each other but separated when Pierrot is adopted by a rich man, escaping the brutality of the orphanage but left yearning for his soulmate. O’Neill’s imaginative, sometimes heartrending novel is a tale of gangsters, vaudeville, ambition, beauty and above all, love. It went down very well.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2019: Part Two

Cover imageBack from Genoa – of which more on Wednesday –  with the second batch of May paperbacks starting with the only one I’ve read. Lena Andersson’s Acts of Infidelity features the same sharply observed protagonist as her witty novella, Wilful Disregard, which I reviewed here a couple of years ago. Once again Ester is in the grips of monomania, this time for Olof who is performing in her play, Threesome, about a man trapped in an unhappy marriage who becomes involved with another woman. Given the novel’s title, it doesn’t take much to work out how things play between Ester and Olof. Andersson shows no mercy in skewering Ester’s deluded conviction that Olof is as besotted with her as she is with him despite his obvious indifference which may sound like a rerun of Wilful Disregard but its more sombre tone makes Act of Infidelity sadly credible.

I suspect Sara Stridsberg’s The Gravity of Love will share that tone. Jimmie Darling’s daughter visits her father in the psychiatric institution just outside Stockholm where he is in the charge of Edvard Winterson, happy to take his patients for the odd night out. When her mother disappears on holiday, the hospital becomes Jackie’s world and she makes the acquaintance of what sounds like a vivid cast of characters. ‘In Sara Stridsberg’s breathtakingly beautiful novel, the psychiatric hospital, set in a lovely park close to a lake, takes on near-mythic dimensions, both as an avenging angel and as a redeemer of lost souls’ say the publishers which sounds a little overblown but Stridsberg’s book has been much praised in Stridsberg’s native Sweden.

Sally Rooney’s quietly addictive Conversations with Friends won both prizes and accolades when it was published in 2017. Her second, Normal People, has met with a similar response. It follows Connell and Marianne, both from the same small town but from very different backgrounds, who win places at Trinity College Dublin. ‘This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel’ say the publishers promisingly. That synopsis remindsCover image me a little of Belinda McKeon’s wonderful Tender setting the bar very high for me.

In Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion a young student is taken up by a prominent feminist and finds herself treading a very different path from the one she’d expected to travel. ‘Expansive and wise, compassionate and witty, The Female Persuasion is about the spark we all believe is flickering inside us, waiting to be seen and fanned by the right person at the right time, and the desire within all of us to be pulled into the light’ according to the publishers. I’ve long been a fan of Wolitzer’s novels, reviewing The Interestings here way back in 2013.

I could have said the same about William Boyd’s work had it not been for a string of thrillers which failed to hit the mark for me. His last novel, Sweet Caress, saw a return to form that I hope will continue in Love is Blind. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, it follows Brodie Mancour from Edinburgh to Paris where he conceives an obsessive passion for a Russian soprano with dangerous consequences. ‘At once an intimate portrait of one man’s life and an expansive exploration of the beginning of the twentieth century, Love is Blind is a masterly new novel from one of Britain’s best-loved storytellers’ say the publishers which makes me hopeful.

I’m finishing May’s paperback preview with two short story collections the first of which, Lauren Groff’s Florida, I’ve picked not because, as the publishers trumpet, it was one of Barack Obama’s books of 2018, although it has to be said that the man has excellent literary taste, but because Rebecca over at Bookish Beck rated it her favourite fiction of the same year. ‘In these vigorous stories, Lauren Groff brings her electric storytelling to a world in which storms, snakes and sinkholes lurk at the edge of everyday life, but the greater threats are of a human, emotional and psychological nature’ according to the blurb. Sounds great.

Cover imageCatherine Lacey’s second novel, The Answers, came with Margaret Atwood’s seal of approval which must be both a blessing and a curse for an author, raising stratospheric expectations. She’s followed it with Certain American States, a collection of twelve short stories which explore loss and longing, apparently. The Answers was stuffed full of smart writing so I’m hoping for the same with this collection although perhaps not the caustic humour given those themes.

That’s it for May. A click on Acts of Infidelity will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the other six titles. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch of paperbacks, it’s here. The month’s new titles are here and here.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2019: Part One

Cover imageRather like April, May’s paperback publishing schedules are chock full of potential delights, some of which I’ve read but most not. I’ll begin with one I haven’t: Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman which constantly popped up in my neck of the Twitter woods in the latter part of last year, lauded by all manner of people many of them readers whose opinions I trust. It’s about thirty-six-year-old Keiko who’s never had a boyfriend and who’s been working in the same store for half her life. Others may wonder why she doesn’t find someone to settle down with but Keiko’s happy with what she has.

Given Keiko’s apparent contentment with her single, childless lot she may not have troubled herself with the question of whether to have children or not, the subject of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. Heti’s narrator struggles to make a decision while everyone else has something to say on the matter. ‘Motherhood raises radical and essential questions about womanhood, parenthood, and how – and for whom – to live’ says the publisher in a blurb that gets straight to the point and is all the better for it. I’ve seen mixed reviews of this one but I’m keen to read it.

Eva Meijer’s Bird Cottage sounds most unusual. It’s based on the life of Len Howard who was forty years old when she decided to turn her back on her life in London and move to a cottage in Sussex to pursue her passion for birds. The result was two bestselling books based on her observations of the birds that lived nearby, some of which became so used to her they would perch on her shoulder as she typed, apparently. ‘This moving novel imagines the story of this remarkable woman’s decision to defy society’s expectations, and the joy she drew from her extraordinary relationship with the natural world’ say the publishers which sounds lovely.

Based on the early life of Madame Tussaud, Edward Carey’s Little takes its readers from eighteenth-century Switzerland to Revolutionary France before arriving at its destination in Baker Street. When six-year-old Anne Marie Grosholtz is orphaned, she attaches herself to the otherworldly Dr Curtius who make his living from modelling wax busts. Fleeing the bailiffs, these two take themselves off to France where they become embroiled in the French Revolution. Grudges are borne, scores settled in the worst of ways and when it’s all over Marie Cover imageis alone. Sharp and resourceful as ever, she finds her own pragmatic way. Marie is an engaging narrator whose story is made all the more enjoyable by Carey’s line drawings. One of my 2018 books of the year.

It’s the gorgeously written Moonstone that’s whetting my appetite for the multi-talented Sjón’s Codex 1962 in which a character is fashioned out of clay carried in a hatbox by his Jewish fugitive father in WW2 Germany. The woman his father meets in a smalltown guesthouse nurses him back to health and together they mould the clay into the shape of a baby. It’s not until 1962 that Joseph enters the world, growing up with a rare disease which will attract the attention of an Icelandic geneticist fifty-three years later. ‘At once playful and profoundly serious, this remarkable novel melds multiple genres into a unique whole: a mind-bending read and a biting, timely attack on nationalism’ say the publishers promisingly.

I enjoyed Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room, so much so that we visited the eponymous building in Brno on out first central European railway jaunt a few years back. I’m hoping for something similar from Prague Spring which sees two English students, Elli and James, hitching across Europe and into Czechoslovakia in 1968 when the world’s eyes are on Alexander Dubcek’s ‘socialism with a human face’. A British diplomat in Prague is engaging in his own explorations of this new idealism but the Kremlin has other ideas. ‘How will the looming disaster affect those fragile lives caught up in the invasion?’ asks the publisher although I think we know the answer.

Quite some time ago, having spent several holidays in the Four Corners area of the US, I went through a phase of reading Native American fiction which is what attracts me to Tommy Orange’s There There. It revolves around the Big Oakland Powwow, following several celebrants not all of whose intentions are good. Described as ‘a propulsive, groundbreaking novel, polyphonic and multigenerational, weaving together an array of contemporary Native American voices into a singularly dynamic and original meta-narrative about violence and recovery, about family and loss, about identity and power’ it sounds both ambitious and enticing. Rebecca over at Bookish Beck counts it among the three best books she’s read this year.

Cover imageOver five years since I reviewed it on this blog, Cristina Henríquez’s brilliantly named The Book of Unknown Americans is being published in paperback. It explores the immigrant experience through one family who have left their beloved Mexico for the US in the hope of helping their young daughter Maribel, brain-damaged in an accident. Narrated by Maribel’s parents, the novel is punctuated by the testimonies of their fellow tenants in the Delaware apartment block where they live, some of whom have fled unrest and persecution while others are hoping to escape poverty, seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Filled with warmth as well as sorrow, it’s a sad story humanely told.

That’s it for the first batch of May’s paperbacks. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis or to my review for Little and The Book of Unknown Americans. If you’d like to catch up with May’s new titles they’re here and here. More soon but not until next week when I’m back from a short break in Genoa about which no doubt I will be posting.

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (transl. Jen Calleja): To the north

Cover imageThis is the third novel I’ve read from this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist. The other two are Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, beautifully translated by Sam Taylor, which didn’t make it onto the shortlist, and Olga Tokarczuk’s quirky Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of The Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, which did alongside The Pine Islands. One of the things I like about the prize is the joint credit given to the translator who often seems to be overlooked, even by publishers. Why not include their name on the cover? If it were not for Jen Calleja this monolingual wouldn’t have read Marion Poschmann’s novella which would be a shame. It follows a man woken by a vivid dream of his wife’s infidelity, convinced of its truth.

When Gilbert wakes from his dream, he’s affronted by Mathilda’s unfaithfulness, brooding on it all day and unconvinced by her denials. He heads to the airport, boarding the first plane that will take him far away and finds himself in Japan. He wanders the streets of Tokyo, sure that Mathilda’s failure to contact him proves the reality of her infidelity, eventually falling into conversation with a young man bent on finding a romantic suicide site. Gilbert is irritated by Yosa’s wan behaviour which reminds him of his students but takes it upon himself to deflect him from his mission, agreeing to visit a celebrated roof with its supposed view of Mount Fuji and the suicide forest where they inadvertently spend the night, before persuading the young man to accompany him to the pine islands of Matsushima, following Bashõ’s journey. They’re whisked along the poet’s route in high-speed trains, stopping here and there, composing haikus at Gilbert’s insistence. While Gilbert attempts to quash his annoyance, composing letters to Mathilda in his head and indulging in philosophical musings, Yosa seems to be fading away.

Poschmann’s novella is both playful and poignant. Gilbert cuts a comic figure with his pomposity and his research into the role of beards in the movies, ridiculous even to him, but he’s unable to shake off his concern for the young man who accompanies him, despite a constant and growing sense of irritation. Poschmann weaves references to Bashõ lightly through her narrative, her descriptions of the Japanese landscape providing a lyrically beautiful backdrop to this journey which becomes as much philosophical as physical. The novella ends on a hopeful note for Gilbert who may well have found what he was looking for even if it’s not quite what he expected.

The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti (transl. Simon Carnell and Erica Segre): Enduring friendship

Cover imageI wrote a post about friendship a little while ago, part of my Five Books I’ve Read series, beginning it by saying how few novels there seemed to be about friendship, and fewer still about male friendship, at least in my reading experience. Paolo Cognetti’s The Eight Mountains offers a corrective to that. At its heart is 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.

The Guasti family first visit the mountain hamlet of Grana in the summer of 1984. Exacting and taciturn, Pietro’s father is determined to pass on his love of the mountains to his son but seemingly unable to communicate it. His mother sets about making the little rundown house homely, quickly becoming acquainted with the family to whom it belongs. It’s at her urging that Pietro talks to Bruno, the son of a local stonemason who no longer lives with him. Over the years Pietro and Bruno become firm friends. Eventually, as teenagers do, Pietro finds reasons to spend his summers in Milan. When his father dies, Pietro is in his early thirties, struggling to make a living as a documentary maker. Gianni has left him a small patch of land in the mountains on which to build a house. Reluctantly, Pietro takes himself off to Grana where Bruno offers to help. Over that summer, their boyhood friendship is renewed and Pietro comes to understand his father in the way that Bruno always has. Over the next decade, each will live their lives as mountain men in very different ways: Bruno as a farmer, taking care of his beloved cows; Pietro pursuing a career which takes him to Nepal. Both will remain the lynchpin of each other’s lives.

Hard not to gush about this novel, not least because its beautiful descriptions took me back both to alpine holidays and to Nepal whose mountains were the first I properly walked in. Cognetti writes evocatively of the landscape and how deeply Pietro’s father and Bruno are rooted in it –  one torn from it by circumstance, the other determined to pursue the old ways despite great personal cost

In its woods that fire was still ablaze: on the flanks of the mountain the gold and bronze flames of the larches were lit against the dark green of the pines, and raising your eyes to the sky warmed the soul

There’s a quiet poignancy about Cognetti’s writing, both in its depiction of Pietro’s relationship with his father, a man made angry by city life, and in its portrayal of the enduring bond between two men who are very different from each other, the one unable to help the other. It’s a beautiful novel, a testament to friendship and a loving tribute to a challenging but gorgeous landscape.

Books to Look Out for in May 2019: Part Two

Cover imageMay’s second batch of new titles begins with Linda Grant’s A Stranger City which seems to use the discovery of a body in the Thames to explore the nature of community in London, or the lack of it, through a policeman, a nurse and a documentary-maker. ‘The wonderful Linda Grant weaves a tale around ideas of home; how London can be a place of exile or expulsion, how home can be a physical place or an idea. How all our lives intersect and how coincidence or the randomness of birth place can decide how we live and with whom’ according to the publishers which sounds promising. I’ve not always got on with Grant’s fiction but enjoyed her last two novels: Upstairs at the Party and The Dark Circle.

I’m not entirely sure 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.

Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted could also go either way which seems to be becoming a theme for this post. A physics professor is determined to get to the bottom of why she’s received a phone call from a friend when she knows he died two days ago. ‘Helen is drawn into the orbit of Charlie’s world, slotting in the missing pieces of her friend’s past. And, as she delvesCover image into the web of their shared history, Helen finds herself entangled in the forgotten threads of her own life’ according to the blurb which leaves me a little mystified but I enjoyed Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds enough to give it a try.

At first glance, Joanne Ramos’ The Farm is some way outside my usual literary territory but it comes garlanded with praise from all and sundry including Sophie Mackintosh and Gary Shteyngart. A young Filipina immigrant hopes to improve her life and her child’s, taking a job at Golden Oaks a luxury fertility clinic run by an ambitious business woman who’s spotted a gap in the market. Described by the publishers as ‘a brilliant, darkly funny novel that explores the role of luck and merit, class, ambition and sacrifice, The Farm is an unforgettable story about how we live and who truly holds power’ which reminds me a little of David Bergen’s Stranger. It’s the dark humour and class theme that attracts me to this one.

I suspect there’ll be some dark humour in Paulo Maurensig’s A Devil Comes to Town set in a Swiss village where everyone’s a writer so absorbed in their work they’ve failed to notice the inauspicious signs, all but the new parish priest that is. When the devil turns up in a flash car claiming to be a publisher, the village’s harmony is shattered as literary rivalries are let loose. ‘Maurensig gives us a refined and engaging literary parable on narcissism, vainglory, and our inextinguishable thirst for stories’ say the publishers of a novel which could well be a great deal of fun.

Cover imageI’m rounding off this second instalment of new titles with Being Various: New Irish Short Stories put together by guest editor Lucy Caldwell. It’s the sixth volume in a series from Faber, apparently – I’ve clearly got a lot of catching up to do. Following In the footsteps of Kevin Barry, Deirdre Madden and Joseph O’Connor, Caldwell has assembled a stellar list of contributors which includes Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney, Stuart Neville, Sally Rooney, Kit de Waal and Belinda McKeon. I’m sure there will be more than a few gems with writers of their calibre involved, and that’s a fabulous jacket.

That’s it for May. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis if you’d like to know more, and if you want to catch up with the first part of May’s preview it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami: Modern America in the Mojave

Cover imageGiven my weakness for small town American novels and an immigration theme I had a shrewd idea I’d enjoy Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans just from its title. It explores the fallout from a hit and run accident which kills Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant who had been running his restaurant in the Californian desert town of Joshua Tree for decades.

Nora is celebrating with her flatmate when she hears the news of Driss’ death. She’s a musician, funding her work through supply teaching having turned her back on medical school to her mother’s chagrin. Her elder sister, Salma, is Maryam’s favourite: the good daughter – a dentist married with two children –  while Driss had always favoured Nora. She rushes home in shock, unable to take in what has happened then determined to get to the bottom of it. Back in the town she was so eager to escape, she feels suffocated by the constant attention and condolences but finds herself confiding in Jeremy, her high school band mate and an Iraq war veteran, now sheriff’s deputy. The sole witness eventually comes forward but it’s a lucky traffic stop prompted by a high school grudge which finally solves the case. Throughout the months between Driss’ death and the arraignment of the culprit, family dynamics, grief and the possibility of love are explored against a background of a modern America where casual racism and sexism abounds, and the repercussions of the Iraq war run deep.

Lalami tells her story in short chapters through a diverse set of characters whose backstories are meticulously sketched in. Secrets are revealed, circumstances are seen from different perspectives, interpreted or misinterpreted by others. The many narratives are deftly knitted together, each voice carefully kept distinct – from Maryam to whom Driss’ secret comes as no surprise to the detective wrestling with her stepson’s sullenness. Nora’s and Jeremy’s are the dominant voices, each with their own challenges as Nora is faced with her father’s fallibility and Jeremy understands that the traumas he suffered in Iraq may not be entirely put to rest. It’s an accomplished, absorbing novel. Lalami’s writing is subtle – the theme of racism runs throughout the book but is never laboured – and her characterisation strong. Time to explore her backlist, I think.

Vacuum in the Dark by Jen Beagin: Mona reprised

Cover imageI finished my review of Jen Beagin’s sharp, funny Pretend I’m Dead happily anticipating what she might come up with next. What I wasn’t expecting was a sequel. Two years after the love of her life disappeared, Mona’s finding herself becoming more intimate with her clients and not necessarily in a good way.

Mona’s still in Taos, living next door to her fey neighbours, cleaning houses for clients and fending off the inevitable questions as to what else she does by telling everyone she’s a writer. One morning, she finds what she thinks is a bar of gritty, brown, homemade soap in the bathroom of Rose, her blind therapist client. Similar distasteful deposits appear in random parts of the house which Mona patiently cleans up much to the disgust of Terry, the NPR presenter she likes to talk to in her head, who suggests that this isn’t normal behaviour. Mona embarks on an affair with Rose’s husband which becomes so twisted, even for her, that she decides to jump ship. Her next gig is equally bizarre but this time she finds herself falling in love with her clients’ house. Lena and Paul are both artists with exquisite taste and difficult lives. Lena offers hope of a career for Mona when she sees her photographs of herself dressed in her clients’ clothes but disappears shortly after Mona begins modelling for Paul. She heads back to L. A. when her mother, sober for the first time in sixteen years, asks her to collect what’s left of her belongings. There she hooks up with Kurt, safe, comforting and just a wee bit dull, until, two years later, her Taos past catches up with her. Throughout it all, Mona cleans and vacuums, removing even the nastiest of stains.

Vacuum in the Dark is more episodic than Pretend I’m Dead, much like a set of very closely linked short stories as Mona moves from client to client. We learn a little more about her childhood, her creepy grandfather and drunken mother, the casually abusive men she was exposed to, but this time we also meet her clients, all of whom have their own darkness to shoulder. The same sharp wit is on show and there are some very funny scenes with her stepfather’s parrots who seem to do Frank’s crying for him, not to mention picking his teeth. It’s considerably darker than Beagin’s first novel: the humour still sardonic and off the wall but less slapstick. I’m often sceptical of sequels and was concerned that Beagin might be pushing her luck but she manages to carry it off. I’m hoping there won’t be a third, though. Best quit while you’re ahead.

Books to Look Out for in May 2019: Part One

Cover imageApril was a wee bit light on new titles for me, making up for it with a plethora of paperbacks to keep an eye on. In contrast May sees me spoilt for choice with a very attempting array of new novels on offer beginning with 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.

Rosie Price’s debut, What Red Is, seems to explore similar themes, albeit more dramatically, following the inseparable Kate and Max through their four years at university. Max’s wealthy, socially assured family are very different from Kate’s whose life is shattered by an incident in a bedroom during a party at Max’s parents’ London house just after graduation. ‘What Red Is explores the effects of trauma on mind and body, the tyrannies of memory, the sacrifices involved in staying silent, the courage of a young woman in speaking out’ say the publishers. Price’s novel has drawn comparisons with all manner of authors, from David Nicholls to Meg Wolitzer, but I’m taking my cue from a couple of people whose opinions I trust in my Twitter feed where it’s been popping up for months.

Students and their relationships, both with each other and their teachers, are the subject of Cover imageSusan 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.

Set in one of England’s new towns Andrew Cowan’s Your Fault takes us from the ‘60s into the ‘70s, following Peter from his first memory to his first love. Each chapter marks one year in Peter’s life, as his future self tells Peter’s story back to him. ‘It’s an untold story of British working-class experience, written with extraordinary precision and tenderness’ according to the publishers which sounds more unusual then it should. I do like the sound of that structure

Rather than telling the story of one life, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other tells the story of twelve very different characters’ lives, most of them black British women.Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible’ promise the publishers. That structure certainly makes it irresistible to me. Evaristo’s Mr Loverman was an absolute joy raising hopes for this one.

Cover imageI’m rounding off this first instalment of May’s new titles with a collection of short stories by Julia Armfield, salt slow, which sounds a little surreal. It focusses on women and their experiences in society, apparently, exploring themes of isolation, obsession and love. ‘Throughout the collection, women become insects, men turn to stone, a city becomes insomniac and bodies are picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sea-side towns are invaded and transformed, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to the bodies of its inhabitants’ according to the publishers, bringing to mind Michael Andreasen’s The Sea Beast Takes a Lover. Like Nicole Flattery, whose Show Them a Good Time I enjoyed very much, Armfield is the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize. An award to keep an eye on, clearly.

As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should any take your fancy. More soon…