Five Novellas I’ve Read

I’m sure there’s going to be more than one of these posts, particularly  given Madame Bibliophile Recommends’ novella a day back in May 2018 , then this year’s selection lengthened my tbr list. The first task is to define a Cover imagenovella, something which varies from reader to reader, but for the purposes of this post I’m setting the limit at 200 pages which some may think is strict, others over-generous. Here, then, are the first five of my favourite novellas, all with links to a review on this blog.

I’ve sung the praises of Kent Haruf many times here. His writing exemplifies the stripped down yet beautiful style I most admire. Plainsong is the book I often mention when talking about him but for this post I’ve chosen his last novel, Our Souls at Night, a tender meditation on ageing and the joy it can sometimes bring along with sorrow.  Widowed and in their seventies, Louis and Addie have lived on the same block for years although they barely know each other. One day, tired of long, lonely nights, Addie knocks on Louis’ door and puts a proposition to him: she wants him to spend his nights in her bed. As Addie and Louis tell their stories, holding hands in the dark, we learn that neither of their lives has been quite what they’d hoped or expected them to be. Sweetly melancholy, this is one of the loveliest books I’ve read. If you haven’t yet come across Haruf, I hope I’ve persuaded you to get yourself to a bookshop and seek out his work pronto.

Mary Costello’s Academy Street is a fine example of the kind of Irish writing for which I have a weakness: elegant, understated and suffused with a quiet melancholy. Spanning almost sixty years, Costello’s debut begins, and ends, with a funeral. Left motherless at seven, Tess is a bright girl whose brush with sickness cuts short her education She longs to leave the family farm, training as a nurse then following her sister to America where she settles in New York City. Always a little outside of things, her life is an attenuated one, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity. Costello’s careful prose matches her subject perfectly; Tess’s sudden bright Cover imagemoments of empathy and understanding shine out from it like a beacon.

Towards the end of Academy Street Tess says ‘I could fit my whole life on one page’. The same could be said of Andreas Egger, the subject of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (expertly translated by Charlotte Collins), who leaves his Austrian alpine home just once to go to war in Russia. Egger is painted as a simple soul – he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his Austrian valley and finds women impossible to fathom – yet he is a great romantic. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage. The tumult of change which swept through so many Alpine regions in the twentieth century, marking the pristine landscape with gondolas and ski lifts but bringing prosperity, is strikingly captured through Egger’s eyes and experience.

Like Eggers, the protagonist of Luis Carrasco’s fable-like El Hacho has spent much of his life in one place and is determined to stay there. Curro was born and raised on the Spanish olive farm his father and his father’s father cultivated for years. He lives in the old family home with his wife, farming the land alongside his brother but this year the south is in the grip of an autumnal drought. Jean-Marie is determined to escape their arduous life leading Curro to make an arrangement that will cost him dear. Written in simple, clean prose from which vividly evocative descriptions sing out, this is a remarkable debut, strikingly poetic at times yet stripped of ornament and all the better for it.

At first glance, I took Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat (translated by Eric Selland) to be one of those books lit on by shoppers at Christmas who can’t think what to get their feline-loving friends but it turned out to be a thoughtful, rather lovely piece of fiction. It’s narrated by a man who lives with his wife in the grounds of a large house. In their mid-thirties and childless, they both work at home, leading a quiet life, occasionally seeing friends and helping their landlady. Shy and a little skittish at first, their neighbour’s cat begins to visit them. The couple welcome her, making a little bed for her, and play with her, mindful of her need for privacy, but when their landlady tells them that she plans to sell the house, they know they must move. The beauty of this book is its elegant understatement punctuated by insights into the narrator’s life expressed in prose which is often very beautiful and a little melancholic.

Any novellas you’d like to recommend? Please feel free to quibble with my definition.

The Jewel by Neil Hegarty: A multi-faceted gem

It’s three years since I reviewed Neil Hegarty’s first novel, Inch Levels, describing it as ‘quietly impressive’. It’s a subtle, perceptive piece of fiction which I enjoyed very much but it’s often the case that second novels fall far short of debuts. Not so with The Jewel which not only met but far exceeded my expectations. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s book explores the lives of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime.

Painted on Irish linen by a once-obscure nineteenth-century artist, The Jewel is Emily Sandborne’s finest work, folded into her coffin at her request after her suicide then later disinterred. It’s gorgeous; the malachite set into its mounted subject’s armour glittering against the distemper which never seems to fade. This is the prize stolen from the refurbished Irish National Gallery on the eve of its reopening. Distemper is the medium, chosen by John – painter, self-confessed counterfeiter and thief – whose childhood Deptford home was demolished much to his mother’s disgust, reluctant to move to the council’s much-vaunted tower block. Roisin grew up in rural Ireland, escaping tittle-tattle and judgement to study art history in London but not the childhood tragedy which has left her feeling forever responsible. Ward works for an EU-funded agency, tasked with helping police solve art theft. Born in Dublin, he lives in London, seemingly locked into a dysfunctional relationship with his partner. The theft of Sandborne’s masterwork brings these three together, each with their own many-layered story to unfold.

The Jewel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of its three main protagonists, each of whose alternating narratives follows them from childhood to the early-hours theft. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. The loss of home is a common thread, whether under duress or a need to escape what turns out to be inescapable. Each of the character’s narratives is anchored in a strong sense of place as if underpinning this loss, vividly evoked by Hegarty’s striking writing – the descriptions of Deptford are particularly atmospheric while the claustrophobia of small-town ‘80s Ireland is sharply portrayed. He’s just as smart in nailing organisations:

And the agency was just this sort of place: a bit bitchy, incestuous, like a university department, like the Borgias in the matter of rivalry and career development

As ever, writing about a book with which I’ve been so struck is much more difficult than reviewing one I’ve simply enjoyed. There’s so much to think about and to admire in this engrossing, accomplished novel that I’ve barely done it justice. Best just read it.

Head of Zeus: London 2019 9781789541809 368 pages Hardback

Eight Days in Portugal and Two Books

It’s been quite some time since H and I went to Portugal even though we love it there. After skirting around the southern Alentejo, years ago, we’d promised ourselves we’d visit the area properly one day and this year we finally got around to it. I rarely write about the places we stay but the lovely Monte da Fornalha is so idyllic it deserves a sentence or two. Its gorgeous garden alone, full off artfully placed divans and comfortable seats in which to lounge, lit by lamps and candles at night, would be enough mark it out as special but the rooms – both public and private – are absolutely delightful, too, decorated with originality and flair. The overall effect is of casual, boho elegance thrown together with ease although a great deal of careful thought has clearly gone into it. Breakfasts were a treat, too. There’s nothing like being offered a persimmon ripe off the tree, carefully chosen by Fornalha ‘s generous owner, Orlanda. A blissful place.

Just as well as with temperatures in the low 30s on the first day we weren’t up for anything much beyond loafing, reading and a slow amble through cork and olive groves, looking at the fading vines whose fruit went into the delicious wines we drank with supper. I’ve always loved Portuguese wines but they’re hard to track down in the UK.

Our nearest town was Borba, the smallest of the three marble towns as they’re known. Marble is mined in the area and, despite its lack of grandeur, Borba is almost entirely built from the stuff. Even the kerbing stones are made of it. Close by is a second marble town – Estremoz, whose Saturday market we visited before nipping up to its pousada which incorporates the castle’s marble keep. For those who don’t know Portugal, pousadas are hotels sited in historic buildings, usually quite grand but happy for nosy tourists like us to enjoy a coffee which we did in the lovely cloistered garden. Vila Viçosa is the third marble town. Its palace, built by Jaime IV, Duke of Bragança in the sixteenth century but now a pousada, is quite breath taking in its splendour for what is essentially a small mining town, although its grand facade fronts a building just one room deep.

We did manage to drag ourselves away from Orlanda’s beautiful garden for a few days out further afield., My favourite was a trip to the pretty spa town of Castelo de Vide, its hill crowned with a carefully restored castle as are so many in this area close to the border with Spain. It’s also home to the oldest synagogue in Portugal, deep in the maze of streets of the medieval town, now a beautifully presented museum. After a steep climb up to the old city walls, we were rewarded with impressive panoramic views. At the much smaller and even prettier Marvão the views were just as spectacular, well worth the scramble up to the top. We drove back to the guesthouse through back roads, many lined with trees sporting autumn colours against a background of green, very different from the parched countryside surrounding the marble towns.

My other favourite day out was spent in Évora, a substantial hill town, topped by the remains of a Roman temple, quite busy with tourists like us but nevertheless unspoilt. Close to the temple, the Sao Joao Evangelista church has a magnificent tiled interior, mostly blue and white, some arranged to tell biblical stories but, interestingly, those close to the altar were more abstract, suggesting a Moorish influence. We wandered around the cobbled streets then into a park filled with peahens and their chicks. On the drive back to what I was beginning to think of as home, I spotted some black pigs rooting around in a cork grove no doubt looking for acorns.

And the books? More reading than usual on this holiday, but only two really stood out for me. I first spotted Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn on Naomi’s blog, Consumed By Ink. It’s the occasionally funny, often poignant story of the ups and many downs in a seventy-year marriage which begins just before the Second World War when Harry goes off to the North African front leaving Evelyn in London. It reminded me of Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack. Sally Rooney’s Normal People is also about a relationship, both different and similar to Harry and Evelyn’s. Rather like Conversations with Friends, I began it unsure whether I’d like it, not least because it kept popping up on almost every prize list going, but I grew to love this story of two young people from very different backgrounds whose on-again off-again relationship begins when they’re at school. Both Connell and Marianne seem as incapable of leaving each other alone as they are of  articulating their feelings to the other.

It was raining the day we left the lovely Monte de Fornalha which made our departure a whole lot easier not to mention preparing us for real life back home here in the UK. No more persimmons for breakfast for us. It’s back to muesli.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in November 2019

A mere handful of November paperbacks after a very satisfying two-part new title preview, but all four look pretty enticing to me beginning with Walter Kempowski’s Homeland which opens in 1988, the year before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A journalist living in West Berlin is commissioned to write a piece about the former East Prussia where he was born in 1945 as refugees fled the Russian advance. ‘Homeland is a nuanced work from one of the great modern European storytellers, in which an everyday German comes face to face with his painful family history, and devastating questions about ordinary Germans’ complicity in the war’ say the publishers.

Marie Benedict’s The Only Woman in the Room is about a woman whose fate was also decided by the Second World War. Hedy Lamarr, as she came to be known, fled the Hitler regime and landed up in Hollywood where her beauty secured her future. A scientist by training, Lamarr had learnt secrets about the Nazis at the side of her Austrian arms dealer husband and had devised an idea to help defeat them. ‘A powerful novel based on the incredible true story of the glamour icon and scientist whose groundbreaking invention revolutionised modern communication, The Only Woman in the Room is a masterpiece’ according to the publishers. It sounds a little improbable but intriguing nevertheless.

Poverty is the enemy in Alessandro D’Avenia’s What Hell is Not, set in Sicily where seventeen-year-old Federico is asked to help at a youth club in a destitute neighbourhood controlled by the Mafia. While the children of Brancaccio lack Federico’s privilege, their spirit and will change his life forever, apparently. ‘Written in intensely passionate and lyrical prose, What Hell Is Not is the phenomenal Italian bestseller about a man who brought light to one of the darkest corners of Sicily, and who refused to give up on the future of its children’ says the blurb which sounds distinctly cheering.

One man looks set to make a difference in a negative way in Jeffrey Lewis’ Bealport which sees a financier buying the New England factory where his favourite shoes are made. The sale will have a profound effect on the people of Bealport for whom the factory provides both livelihood and community. ‘Bealport is a portrait of a place, at once sympathetic, mordant, unsparing, comic, tragic and universal, and of a way of life that is passing. It is a novel of a town, and to no small degree of every town in America and beyond’ according to the blurb which sounds right up my street.

That’s it for November’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have taken your fancy, and if you’d like to catch up with new titles, they’re here and here. If past performance is anything to go by there will be very few books to look out for in December, but you never know…

Books to Look Out For in November 2019: Part Two

Cover imageBack from Portugal – more of which next week – with part two of November’s preview which has its feet firmly placed in Europe with one novel set in Norway, two in Germany, one in France and two in the UK. Let’s work our way south, starting in a remote small town in northern Norway where a single mother has forgotten her young son’s birthday. Hanne Orstavik’s Love follows the separate journeys of Jon, as he sets off to sell lottery tickets for his sports club, and Vibeke, who heads off to the local library and a fairground, in what the publishers are calling ‘an acknowledged masterpiece of Norwegian literature’, and they’re quite right. Gorgeous jacket, too. Review to follow.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim’s  The God Child takes us to Germany where Taiye Selasi Maya grows up aware of her parents’ difference. One Christmas her cousin arrives, spinning stories about Ghana, colonialism and its fallout, awakening Maya to the reasons why her parents might be the way they are. When, as a young woman, Maya is reunited with her cousin in Ghana, she finds him troubled. ‘Her homecoming will set off an exorcism of their family and country’s strangest, darkest demons. It is in this destruction’s wake that Maya realises her own purpose: to tell the story of her mother, her cousin, their land and their loss, on her own terms, in her own voice’ say the publishers of what they’re calling ‘a brave reinvention of the immigrant narrative’ which sounds right up my alley.

We’re staying in Germany for Amanda Lee Koe’s Delayed Rays of a Star in which a photographer captures Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl in a single photograph at a Berlin party in 1928. Koe’s novel follows the three women through their careers and private lives. ‘In the murky world these women navigate, their choices will be held up to the test of time. And the real question is, how much has anything changed? This fierce and exquisite debut Cover imageabout womanhood, ambition, and art, played out against the shifting political tides of the twentieth century, introduces a mesmerizing new literary talent for our times’ according to the publishers which sounds very tempting to me.

Heading across the border to France for Marie NDiaye’s The Cheffe about the daughter of a  poor family in Sainte-Bazeille who displays a remarkable talent for cooking when she grows up, even dreaming in recipes. An acknowledged genius in the kitchen, the Cheffe is intensely private, refusing to reveal the name of her daughter’s father when she gives birth.  Despite the sucess of her restaurant, her relationship with her daughter becomes so fraught it threatens to destroy her career, apparently. I have a weakness for novels set in restaurants and about food hence the appeal of this one.

Off to London for Jane Rogers’ Body Tourists set in a small private clinic. The bodies of the teenage poor are being used to rejuvenate the old and rich willing to pay the price. ‘It’s an opportunity for wrongs to be righted, for fathers to meet grandsons, for scientists to see their work completed. Old wine in new bottles’ according to the publishers. Not entirely convinced about this one. I usually avoid dystopian fiction but Jane Rogers is a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past, not least her last novel, Conrad and Eleanor back in 2016.

Cover imageI’m finishing this second part of November’s preview with Scarlett Thomas’ welcome return to adult fiction, Oligarchy, set in an English boarding school where the daughter of a Russian oligarch is finding it hard to fit in. Then her friend disappears plunging her into a dark world. It seems a very long time since The Seed Collectors so hopes are high for what the publishers are calling a ‘fierce new novel about power, privilege and peer pressure’.

That’s it for November’s new titles. A click on any that take your fancy will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first batch, it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: Good old-fashioned storytelling

Sometimes I need a glorious bit of good old-fashioned storytelling, something to bury myself in and distract myself from the world and its woes. Ann Patchett’s new novel, The Dutch House, is exactly that. It’s the story of an unusual, beautiful house, almost a work of art, and the obsessions it sparks. It’s also the story of the Conroys, the family whose history is indelibly marked by this house whose huge glass windows leave them exposed to the world.

When Cyril Conroy takes his wife to see the Dutch House, she’s appalled, convinced they’re trespassing. Its walls are lined with grand portraits of the Van Hoebeeks, the family who commissioned this mansion full of light but now in disrepair. Having quietly built up a property management business, Cyril has bought the house, presenting it as a gift to Elna but she’s never happy there. One day she disappears, or so it seems to Danny, her eight-year-old son. Cyril rarely speaks of her again leaving Danny and his sister Maeve to puzzle over what has happened to her. Maeve takes over the mothering of Danny who idolises her. One day, Cyril introduces them to a small, neatly turned out woman who will eventually become their stepmother bringing her two daughters with her. Andrea adores the Dutch House, but not her stepchildren, throwing them out when Cyril dies. Over the years, Maeve and Danny return, parking just across the road, seemingly unable to resist the house’s lure. Maeve remains the lynchpin of Danny’s life. He takes up his place at medical school to please her but once qualified builds a property business, just like Cyril. He marries and has two children but Maeve remains single, living not so very far from the Dutch House. One day, Danny is called to the hospital and what he finds when he gets there will both change and disconcert him.

John Irving popped into my head several times while reading this novel. Using the device of the Dutch House, Patchett explores the history of a family who have been both obsessed and shaped by this gorgeous piece of architecture. Themes of motherhood, privilege, obsession and communication, or the lack of it, run through the Conroys’ story, told from the perspective of Danny who seems intent on replicating his father’s life even if he doesn’t realise it, self-knowledge not being his strong suit.

She might have packed her disappointments away in a box, but she carried the box with her wherever she went

Patchett’s writing is smoothly polished but it’s her storytelling, laced with an elegant wit, that kept me gripped, wondering what would happen to these characters whose lives are hedged around with secrets and silence, who seem to fall under the influence of this house even when trying to resist it. Altogether a treat: a book to curl up with, well-crafted absorbing and satisfying.

Bloomsbury Publishing: London 2019 9781526614964 337 pages Hardback

That’s it from me for a week or so. H and I are off to Portugal to explore the Alentejo and probably read a book or three.

Books to Look Out For in November 2019: Part One

Cover imageI’m relieved to say there are sufficient attention-grabbing titles for a two-part November preview, although there’s no contest as to which one tops my list. As fans will already know, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again sees the return of Olive Kitteridge. Olive is both the star of the show and a bit player in these closely linked stories set in the small town of Crosby. The ‘spiky, obdurate and disarmingly human anti-heroine Olive Kitteridge [returns] for a fine chronicle of late love and generational division, set in the coastal Maine community that Strout has made her own’ promise the publishers and they are entirely right. Review to follow next month.

From a book by a thoroughly seasoned writer to a debut with Shannon Pufahl’s On Swift Horses set in 1950s San Diego where newlywed, Muriel, works as a waitress picking up tips from the denizens of the Del Mar racetrack but unwilling to split her winnings with her husband. It’s Lee’s brother who Muriel wants to share her good luck with but he’s patrolling the Las Vegas casinos where he meets and falls in love with Henry. ‘Through the parks and plazas of Tijuana and the bars and beaches of San Diego, On Swift Horses mesmerisingly charts the journeys of Muriel and Julius on their separate quests for freedom, new horizons and love’ say the publishers. Very much like the sound of this one.

Moving west, Daniel Handler’s Bottle Grove begins with a wedding in a forest followed by what sounds like a raucous party. ‘Set in San Francisco as the tech-boom is exploding, Bottle Grove is a sexy, skewering dark comedy about two unions–one forged of love Cover imageand the other of greed–and about the forces that can drive couples together, into dependence, and then into sinister, even supernatural realms’ say the publishers. I’m a little worried about that mention of the supernatural but I like the setting and the promise further on in the blurb that everyone has a secret.

Parties are on the agenda in Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Rabbits for Food, which begins on New Year’s Eve when writer, Bunny, finally falls to pieces. Once admitted to a classy New York psychiatric hospital, Bunny refuses all meds and instead begins to write a novel about her fellow patients and what’s brought about her own breakdown. ‘Rabbits for Food shows how art can lead us out of-or into-the depths of disconsolate loneliness and piercing grief. A bravura literary performance from one of America’s finest writers’ according to the publishers. I have to admit I hadn’t heard of Kirshenbaum before but this does sound interesting.

I enjoyed Ben Lerner’s 10:04 very much when I read it back in 2015 but didn’t get on at all well with Leaving the Atocha Station. The Topeka School is about Adam Gordon, a senior at Topeka High School in 1997, who seems to be good at just about everything but whose efforts to include the class loner end disastrously. ‘Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, The Topeka School is a riveting story about the challenges of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a startling prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the tyranny of trolls and the new right, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men’ says the blurb which sounds extraordinarily ambitious to me.

Cover imageI’m finish with a book by the only British author in the batch – Sara Hall’s collection, Sudden Traveller which comprises seven stories whose settings range from Turkey to Cumbria. ’Radical, charged with a transformative creative power, each of these stories opens channels in the human mind and spirit, as Sarah Hall once more invites the reader to stand at the very edge of our possible selves’ say the publishers rather grandly. Jon McGregor has sung her previous work’s praises as has David Mitchell and Jessie Burton. I think it’s about time I read some of her stories.

That’s it for the first part of November’s preview. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that’s snagged your attention. Part two soon…

Six Degrees of Separation – from Three Women to Flying Finish

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 other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with Lisa Taddeo’s’ Three Women which has been all over my Twitter feed for months. I haven’t read it but I know it’s about female desire.

As is Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, a catalogue of female sexual fantasies, very popular years ago when I was a bookseller. Copies used to turn up all over the shop, furtively shoved on to inappropriate shelves when shy browsers felt on the verge of being discovered, I imagine

Friday’s book is not to be confused with The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson-Burnett, a much-loved children’s classic in which a lonely little girl’s life is transformed when she finds the key to a locked garden.

Taking the garden link a step further, after a tour of the world’s miseries Voltaire’s eighteenth-century satire, Candide, ends with an exhortation to tend your garden.

Candide is regarded as a seminal Enlightenment text. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses, about the corruption of a young girl, was also published during the Enlightenment. Renamed Dangerous Liasons, it was made into a film starring Glenn Close.

As was Meg Woltizer’s The Wife which features a celebrated male author whose spouse is the real star of the literary show, a part Close played beautifully.

Which leads me to Dick Francis’ Flying Finish. Francis’ wife did a great deal of the research for his novels, learning to fly for this one, apparently. Unlike Wolitzer’s character, Francis was only too happy to credit his wife’s contribution, describing them as a team

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a book which explores female desire to transporting race horses. 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.

Echoes of the City by Lars Saabye Christensen (transl. Don Bartlett): ‘This is a city so small everyone has the same shadow’

Cover imageNorway is the one Scandinavian country I’ve yet to visit, slightly put off by reports of ruinous expense and rain, although I’m sure I’ll go at some stage. It’s part of the reason I was attracted to Lars Saabye Christensen’s first instalment of a planned trilogy, Echoes of the City, set in post-war Oslo where he was born. Opening in 1947, Christensen’s novel takes us to the Fagerborg district where the Red Cross have established a department, telling the story of the city’s emergence from war time austerity through the Kristoffersen family and their neighbours.

Ewald Kristoffersen works for an advertising agency while his wife Maj looks after their seven-year-old son. Jesper’s a little difficult. Restless and given to sudden inexplicable tantrums, he’s a year late starting school. Ewald tends to avoid spending time alone with him if he can, preferring to call in at the Hotel Bristol with his colleagues where the melancholy Enzo plays piano, but when Maj volunteers for the local Red Cross he has no choice. Maj has a talent for accounts and is soon elected treasurer raising hopes that the family might be shunted up the telephone waiting list so that they are no longer summoned upstairs to Fru Vik’s. Maj and Fru Vik have a slightly uneasy relationship. Fru Vik is a little withdrawn, still mourning her husband, but Maj needs her to look after Jesper now and again. When Jesper starts school, he finds it hard to make friends until Jostein, the butcher’s son, deaf thanks to a trolley-bus accident, sits next to him. Jesper begins to ‘hear’ for Jostein and a friendship begins. Over the next few years Jesper will display a talent for the piano, fostered by Enzo, Fru Vik will find a companion despite a good deal of opposition and uneasiness, Maj will shine as the Red Cross treasurer and Ewald will discover just how much he loves his family.

Let us continue, not that there is any rush; on the contrary, we have plenty of time. But to those who wish to accompany us, please adjust to our pace

Echoes of the City begins with a prologue which sees Jesper about to set off to sea on September 22nd, 1957, the day after Norway’s King Hakkon died, then winds back to 1947 as Christensen takes up the Kristoffersens’ story, appending Red Cross meeting minutes to the end of each chapter. It’s a structure that works better than I thought it might at first, providing a backdrop of social history to the lives of Fagerborg’s inhabitants. Christensen’s narrative slips from character to character with ease, while keeping its focus on the Kristoffersens. It’s infused with a gentle, affectionate humour – the Red Cross ladies are a wee bit put out when gratitude for their help is unforthcoming, Jesper is utterly horrified at finding his father naked in all his fatness – coupled with poignancy as the characters’ stories unfold.

As promised in the prologue, this is slow storytelling, carefully constructed, and all the better for it. These are people we come to know and want to meet again. It’s a novel that reads like a love letter both to Oslo and the Red Cross whose role was so important in helping the city pick itself back up again. I’m already looking forward eagerly to the second instalment but in the meantime Grant at 1streading’s blog has recommended The Half-Brother to bridge the gap.

Maclehose Press: London 2019 9780857059154 464 pages Paperback

The Spare Room by Helen Garner: Stretched to the limits

Cover imageI’m sure this isn’t the first reread I’ve reviewed here but aside from Amy Bloom’s Rowing to Eden, which turned out to be made up of several collections of short stories, nothing comes to mind. Australian writer Helen Garner’s The Spare Room was published in 2008 and has recently been reissued. I remember reading it in proof and being impressed with it then and it’s lost none of its power in just over a decade since. Our narrator, Helen, has been asked by a much-loved friend if she can stay for three weeks while she undergoes treatment for cancer. What ensues will test the bounds of friendship to its limits.

Helen met Nicola fifteen years ago, becoming firm friends despite the distance between Nicola’s home in Sydney and Helen’s in Melbourne. Impressed by Nicola’s casual grace, bohemian life and independence, Helen tries not to appear shocked when she arrives, much diminished, or to seem astonished at her faith in the Theodore Institute which claims to cure cancer by administering large doses of vitamin C. Nicola breezily insists she can fend for herself but Helen is having none of it, sizing up the Institute as a bunch of charlatans while trying to keep an open mind for Nicola. As the weeks wear on, Helen becomes exhausted by the night sweats and bouts of pain that summon her to Nicola’s room, increasingly appalled by the wackiness of the Institute’s treatments, their prohibition of strong painkillers and her own mounting fury, both with the so-called doctors and with Nicola’s resolute belief in a cure. When Nicola’s niece, Iris, visits, Helen finds an ally. Between them, they convince Nicola to see an oncologist who advises surgery. At the end of the three weeks, their friendship has been strained but not yet snapped.

That night we took the bottle of Stoly down the rough path to the landing where, sitting on our jackets in the dark, we launched the long conversation that would become our friendship.

Garner’s sharp novella weighs in at just under 200 pages, drawing on her own experience of nursing a close friend to explore friendship, dying and the pernicious hope engendered by desperation. Helen’s anger rings out loud and clear against the cynical exploitation of the terminally ill and against Nicola’s insane optimism, a mask behind which she hides her terror. Glimmers of gallows humour lighten the subject’s grimness as Iris, Gab and Helen dissolve into hysteria, diffusing their fury at Nicola’s doggedly contrary attitude. Nicola is entirely believable: either monumentally selfish or brave in her determination – take your choice – but wholly human in her desperate need to hope. Helen counterbalances her beautifully, all practicality and organisation but helpless in the face of such need. Throughout it all flows compassion and love. Just as powerful the second time around, this is a clear-eyed view of death and our responses to it, explored through both the dying and the rest of us who must do what we can for them knowing that our turn will come.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781786896087 195 pages Paperback