I was delighted when I spotted Good Riddance in my Twitter timeline. I have such fond memories of reading Elinor Lipman’s novels. She writes the kind of sharply observed, absorbing and entertaining fiction that‘s just the ticket when you’re after an intelligent bit of escapism. With its story of a young woman, her widowed father and the high school yearbook left to her by her mother, Lipman’s new novel proved to be exactly that.
Daphne decides to declutter her tiny New York apartment, the only one she can afford after her less-than-one-year marriage turned out to be one of convenience for her philandering husband, enabling him to get his hands on his inheritance. After the shortest of dithers she dumps the heavily annotated yearbook dedicated to her mother by the class of ’68. Clearly their favourite teacher, her mother had attended every reunion dressed to the nines and kept a coded record of the changes she’d observed, not always complimentary. Off it goes to recycling where Geneva, a fellow tenant, picks it up and decides it’s the perfect subject for a documentary. Daphne’s second thoughts count for nothing with Geneva who insists that the two of them attend the next reunion together. Meanwhile, Daphne’s father has moved to New York a mere ten minutes away from his daughter who’s more than happy to have him there and she’s made the acquaintance of her across-the-corridor neighbour, Jeremy, an attractive bit player in a teenage soap opera. The final ingredient for an enjoyable caper is the bombshell dropped at the class reunion which turns Daphne’s world upside down.
Good Riddance is the literary equivalent of a smartly turned out rom-com, following a close-to-thirty woman, flailing around for something to do with her life after her unfortunate marriage, who has the carpet pulled out from under her feet a second time. Lipman narrates her story in Daphne’s sometimes waspish voice, serving it up lightly laced with a few farcical moments and a good deal of sly wit. It’s a pleasingly perceptive comedy of manners whose slightly old-fashioned style would suit Frasierfans well. Lightning Books are publishing a second Lipman novel – On Turpentine Lane – at the same time as Good Riddance. Another treat in store.
It was its structure that attracted me to Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation. That and its cover image of two women alongside each other rather than face to face intrigued me. Popkey’s debut tells the story of an unnamed woman through the conversations she has with other women at various points in her life beginning when she’s twenty and ending seventeen years later.
Our narrator’s first conversation is with the mother of the twins she’s looking after on holiday in Italy. She’s there both as a nanny and as the friend of her charges’ sister but her most intimate connection proves to be with their mother. From there, our narrator takes us to a messy, post-party apartment with her grad student friends, listening to a story of seduction and abandonment. Almost a decade later she’s consoling a friend about her break-up, surrounded by images of female subjugation by a Swedish artist. The last five years see her angry at the friend who’s moved in with her parents when her marriage breaks down, recalling a one-night stand, listening to a woman recount her memories of Norman Mailer’s wife covered in blood at a party, drunkenly exchanging stories with other single mothers, listening to a stranger’s tale of giving up her child, cringing at her mother’s exhortation to start dating and, finally, exchanging news with her babysitter. By the end of her conversations, our narrator has taken us from young adulthood to early middle-age by way of marriage, divorce and motherhood.
I am often thinking of the better story because the actual story is so boring.
The narrator of Popkey’s episodic novel constructs her own story from her exchanges with other women, revealing herself to be much more attracted to the immediacy of intimacy with a stranger than to the slow maturing of a long friendship. She is, as she frequently reminds us, a supremely unreliable narrator, constantly shifting perspective, not knowing what she wants to be or how to be it. She’s one paper away from finishing her PhD, unsure whether she wants a child, would much rather be told what to do than live with a man who expects her to be and do what she wants. At the end of her book, Popkey includes a long list of ‘Works (Not Cited)’ which is almost as fascinating as her novel, ranging from specific episodes of Mad Men to novels such as Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be to Antony Minghella’s screen adaptation of The English Patient. It’s an impressive debut, clear-eyed in its depiction of life’s messy confusion and indecision, which leaves you with a great deal to think about. Definitely a book to revisit.
Serpent’s Tail: London 2020 9781788164047 240 pages Paperback
I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, although in a good way, introducing yet another preview as full to bursting with potential goodies beginning with Anne Tyler’sRedhead By the Side of the Road billed as ‘an offbeat love story’. Micah sounds a bit of an eccentric. Odd yet fondly regarded by family and friends, he’s quite content with his life until his partner tells him she’s to be evicted because of a cat. Then a teenager knocks on his door claiming to be his son further discombobulating him. ‘Redhead by the Side of the Road is an intimate look into the heart and mind of a man who sometimes finds those around him just out of reach – and a love story about the differences that make us all unique’ say the publishers. A new Tyler is always cause for celebration for me.
Haleh Agar’s debut, Out of Touch is also about ambivalent family reunions by the sound of it. A woman is knocked down by a man who visits her in hospital, bringing her flowers in apology together with the letter she dropped when she fell. Her brother has received the same letter in New York telling him that their estranged father is dying and wants to see them both. ‘With sharp wit and sensitivity, Out of Touch is a deeply absorbing story about love and vulnerability, sex and power, and the unbreakable bonds of family’ say the publishers promisingly. Quite a lot of brouhaha in my neck of the Twitter woods over this one and it does sound intriguing.
There’s a good deal of that surrounding Naoise Dolan’s debut, Exciting Times, which is about Ava, fresh from Dublin and teaching rich children English in Hong Kong, Julian, a banker who pays Ava a good deal of sexual attention but little of any other kind, and Edith, a lawyer who likes to take Ava to the theatre and listens to what she says. ‘Politically alert, heartbreakingly raw, and dryly funny, Exciting Times is thrillingly attuned to the great freedoms and greater uncertainties of modern love. In stylish, uncluttered prose, Naoise Dolan dissects the personal and financial transactions that make up a life and announces herself as a singular new voice’ say the publishers. I do like the sound of stylish, uncluttered prose.
Nicolas Mattieu’s And Their Children After Them follows a young boy over four summers, beginning in 1992 when fourteen-year-old Anthony steals a canoe, an act which will lead him to his first love, apparently. He and his friends are desperate to escape their small town which is caught in nostalgia and decline. ‘Winner of the Goncourt Prize and praised for its portrayal of people living on the margins of French society, Nicolas Mathieu’s eloquent novel becomes a mirror for the struggles of society today’ according to the blurb.
Elizabeth Ames’ The Other’s Goldfollows a set of friends from young adulthood into later life, a catnip structure for me. Four students, all with childhood demons to face down, become roommates in their first year. Each of the four will make a dreadful mistake as they move from their wild student days into motherhood. ‘The Other’s Gold reveals the achingly familiar ways our life-defining turning points prompt our relationships to unravel and re-knit, as the women discover what they and their loved ones are capable of, and capable of forgiving’ say the publishers whetting my appetite further.
Ilaria Bernardini’s The Portrait narrows the focus to just two people. A well-known author is horrified when her prominent lover is struck down with a massive stroke, finding a way into his family home by commissioning his wife to paint her portrait. These two women become entranced with each other, apparently, sharing the stories of their lives while one sits and the other paints. ‘…as the portrait takes shape, we watch these complex and extraordinary women struggle while the love of their lives departs, in an unforgettable, breathless tale of deception and mystery that captivates until the very end’ according to the publishers which sounds excellent to me.
Grief is also a theme for my last choice, Conor O’Callaghan’s We Are Not in the World about a man trying to escape the pain of a long drawn out affair by taking a job driving a truck through France in the company of his twentysomething daughter, unkempt and disturbed. ‘As the pair journey down the motorways and through the service stations of France, a devastating picture reveals itself: a story of grief, of shame, and of love in all its complex, dark and glorious manifestations’ according to the blurb. Given that it was praised to the skies by the likes of Donal Ryan and John Banville, I’ve no idea how I managed to miss O’Callaghan’s debut, Nothing on Earth, but I did.
That’s it for April’s first instalment of new novels. Quite a promising selection, I hope you’ll agree. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that take you fancy. More soon…
I have fond memories of reading Carol Anshaw’s Carry the One way back in 2012 when it was published here in the UK so was keen to get my hands on her new novel, Right After the Weather. Set in Anshaw’s home town of Chicago in the months before and after the 2016 election, it explores both the state of the nation and the nature of friendship through Cate, a 42-year-old theatrical set designer determined to anchor her precarious way of life in a more secure future.
Cate is designing the set for a play she knows will bomb but she’s doing her best to rescue it. Her own life is in need of attention: her income made up of meagre fees, part time teaching and handouts from her divorced parents; her affair with Dana at end, although not in either of their hearts; her new girlfriend somewhat over keen and her conspiracy-theory obsessed ex-husband holed up in her spare room with his dog. The one sure thing is her friendship with Neale who lives close by with 12-year-old Joe. Cate potters along, trying her best to overlook Maureen’s over-zealous communications, visiting Neale and Joe regularly, taking the closure of At Ease in her stride and thrilled when the two doyennes of New York theatre commission her to design the set for their new play. It seems at least one part of her plan has come to fruition. Then, one day, keen to hear a favourite track promised by her car radio’s DJ after the weather forecast, Cate interrupts an appalling act of violence which will throw all the cards of her life up into the air, affecting both herself and her relationships with others in surprising and deeply unsettling ways.
They’re like two people who years ago had rooms in the same boardinghouse, a time neither looks back on fondly.
Anshaw unfolds this wonderfully perceptive novel from Cate’s perspective, drawing you in to her boho liberal life, the state of the nation a constant background hum. She’s an engaging character, troubled by Maureen’s revelations, material excesses and determined attention. Anshaw’s exploration of the fallout from violence is well done, its effects on her characters sharply observed, and her wit is often pithy, a pleasing thread of wry humour running through her narrative.
Frances is what Cate would describe as recently pretty.
Even the dog is a triumph. I try to avoid spoilers but if, like me, the appearance of dogs in fiction makes you anxious about their fate, you need have no worries about the lovely Sailor. If anything, he’s the note of hope on which this intelligent absorbing piece of fiction ends. At one point, it emerges that Neale loves Elizabeth Strout’s writing and although I’m sure Anshaw was paying Strout a compliment rather than fishing for comparisons I’m more than happy to draw one. A quietly brilliant novel, so good, I included it on my Women’s Prize for Fiction wishlist. Fingers crossed…
Fig Tree: London 2020 9780241392805 269 pages Hardback
This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction. I still remember being excited at the prospect of this prize when it was first announced and my delight when Helen Dunmore’s A Spell in Winter was the inaugural winner of what was then called the Orange Prize. The 2020 longlist will be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2019 and March 31st 2020 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in predicting what took the judges fancy but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as previous years, limiting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog. So, in no particular order here’s my wish list for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction:
There are some notable omissions from my list including Anne Enright’s Actress which I’m sure deserves a place but I’ve yet to read it. I may be stretching the rules a bit with Olive, Again, technically linked short stories rather than a novel but, hey, it’s my fantasy list. I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention – fingers firmly crossed.
What about you? Any titles you’d love to see on the judges’ list?
I’ve read three of the books featured in the second part of March’s paperback preview, beginning with a novel by an author I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. Benjamin Myers’ The Offing sees an old man remembering the summer after the Second World War when he tramped out of the pit village where his family lived for generations, eager for adventure. Along the way he meets Dulcie Price, a woman quite unlike anyone he’s met before. Robert camps in her overgrown field exchanging manual work for conversation until a friendship grows which will change both their lives irrevocably. Myers’ novel is filled with evocative descriptions of the natural world, while the forthright, eccentric Dulcie is a delight.
Lila Savage’s Say Say Say explores the relationship between caregivers, those they care for and their families through Ella, a bright young woman, close to thirty, Jill, the brain damaged woman she cares for, and Bryn, Jill’s devoted husband. Ella is simply to sit with Jill, to ensure that she doesn’t harm herself. Through her head runs a multitude of concerns – about Jill, about Bryn and how he is coping, about the life they once had together and whether she’s fulfilling their needs – while fretting about what she should be doing with her own life. It’s a thoughtful, and compassionate meditation on the toll caregiving exacts, both on loved ones and professionals, which draws on the experience of more than a decade Savage spent as a caregiver.
Small town life is the setting for Elizabeth McCraken’s Bowlaway in which Bertha Truitt is found unconscious in a New England cemetery with a bowling ball, a candlepin and fifteen pounds of gold at the beginning of the twentieth century. From this intriguing start, she goes on to scandalize the town, eventually opening a bowling alley and changing it forever. ‘Elizabeth McCracken has written an epic family saga set against the backdrop of twentieth-century America. Bowlaway is both a stunning feat of language and a brilliant unravelling of a family’s myths and secrets, its passions and betrayals, and the ties that bind and the rifts that divide’ say the publishers which sounds just the ticket.
I’m rounding March off with two short story collections, one of which I should really have read by now. Julia Armfield’s salt slowwas the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year’s shadow judges wining choice. It focuses 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, Armfield, Nicole Flattery has been the recipient of The White Review Short Story Prize. Her Show Them a Good Time came garlanded with praise from Jon McGregor and Sally Rooney, both clearly smitten with Flattery’s writing. Comprising ten stories – some quite short, others lengthier and one which, at over ninety pages, is almost on its way to becoming a novella – her collection explores relationships, gender roles and trying to find a place for yourself in the world. Puzzling, sometimes disconcerting and a little off the wall, they’re oddly captivating, both funny and sad. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it but her collection certainly made an impression, and her writing is superb.
That’s it for March’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you either to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for any that snag your attention, and if you’d like to catch up with the first batch it’s here while new novels are here and here.
Australian writer Favel Parrett’s beautifully expressed When the Night Come made quite an impression on me when it was published in the UK back in 2014. It was its Antarctica setting that first attracted me but it was Parrett’s gorgeous writing that left me wanting more. It’s clear from its dedication that There Was Still Love is a tribute to her beloved grandparents, borne out by her note at the end of this lovely novel that takes us back and forth from Prague to Melbourne in the early ‘80s, following two sisters separated in 1938 at the beginning of the German occupation.
In 1980, Ludĕk runs up and down the streets of Prague before flying home to his grandmother’s tiny flat. It’s just the two of them. Ludĕk’s mother is a dancer, on tour with the Black Theatre, only allowed out of the country if her son stays at home, and his father is dead. Meanwhile, his cousin Malá Liška lives with her grandparents in a Melbourne apartment decorated as if it’s been transported from Prague. Once an engineer, her grandfather works as a night watchman. He and her grandmother cut every corner so that Máňa can visit her sister Eva and their grandnephew, Ludĕk, every four years. Malá Liška has never met her cousin, staying with her uncle for six weeks while her adored grandparents are away. The sisters’ reunions are full of reminiscence. Eva and Máňa talk while Ludĕk and Bill walk the city, often revisiting the house that Bill lived in when he was called Vilém. Ludĕk doesn’t know his Aunty Máňa and Uncle Bill’s story but he knows not to mention the war. When his mother returns with her partner and a baby, the new family moves away leaving Ludĕk’s whole world behind. One day, Malá Liška will see pictures of this cousin she’s never met when his grandmother comes to Australia.
Parrett unfolds her story in impressionistic episodes, much of it from Ludĕk’s perspective, punctuated with snapshots of the family’s history reflecting the cataclysmic events that overtook Czechoslovakia. Ludĕk’s sections are fresh and immediate, the language clear and bright as he seizes his freedom, making Prague his own running through its streets when his grandmother thinks he’s playing in the park. There’s an aching homesickness underpinning the novel with its recurrent motif of suitcases. Máňa and Bill still live like exiles, recreating Prague in their tiny Melbourne flat, each forced to leave the country they loved through circumstance. While Bill is more pragmatic, Máňa yearns for her sister. Parrett’s tender portrayal of this couple who love each other and their granddaughter dearly is beautifully executed. Such a touching novel, a work of fiction as Parrett makes clear in her author’s note, but undoubtedly a testament to the lives of the grandparents she adored.
Sceptre Books: London 2020 9781529343557 224 pages Hardback
Maybe it’s just coincidence or maybe it’s a trend but this is the third novel set in a boarding school I’ve read in as many months: both Scarlett Thomas’ Oligarchy and Magda Szabó’s Abigail share the backdrop of a girls’ school although the latter was originally published over fifty years ago. Rachel Donohue’s debut explores themes of love, betrayal and jealousy in the eponymous Temple House, once a grand mansion now a Catholic school for girls.
Twenty-five years after the disappearance of a sixteen-year-old scholarship girl and her art teacher, a young journalist has decided to write a series of articles about the case, more in an attempt to understand its circumstances than to solve it. Accustomed to being the star pupil at her state school, Louisa was a weekly boarder at Temple House, cloaking herself in defensive irony in this bastion of entitlement. First seen lounging with Mr Lavelle in the summer house where he teaches art to the select few, Victoria singles out Louisa and the two become inseparable, much to the head girl’s undisguised disquiet. Mr Lavelle likes to think he’s opening the girls’ minds, a counterpoint to the nuns and their hellfire preaching, carefully cultivating his charisma as he does so. As the autumn term wears on, Louisa wishes the weekends away, longing to be with Victoria again unheeding of the warnings from her roommate about Victoria’s predilection for starring in her own drama. Louisa continues to shine academically but it’s the art classes she most eagerly anticipates, noting a special relationship between Victoria and Mr Lavelle. Towards the end of term, a letter appears along with a poem which will result in the disappearance of Louisa and Mr Lavelle, an unsolved mystery which has fascinated our journalist since her childhood, living opposite Louisa’s parents.
Donohue narrates The Temple House Vanishing through the voices of Louisa and the unnamed journalist. It took me a little while to become absorbed in it but once hooked the mystery of what happened to Louisa and Mr Lavelle nagged at me. Louisa is a convincing character, confident in her intellectual ability yet uncomfortable in this claustrophobic, hothouse atmosphere where entitlement runs deep – wide open to the manipulative Victoria for whom she conceives a passion. Obviously, this will be a spoiler-free zone but suffice to say that none of my resolutions – one of them admittedly a little outlandish – proved to be the right one. I spotted a Twitter post a little while back which voiced annoyance at being alerted to twists but I think you’d be disappointed if this kind of novel failed to provide one. A little out of my usual literary territory, but an enjoyable read that keeps you guessing before delivering its denouement and that twist.
Corvus: London 2020 9781786499387 336 pages Hardback
March looks like another great month for paperbacks which will either please you or make you groan at the prospect or yet more additions to the TBR, or perhaps both. I’m beginning with a book many of you may well have already read but I’ve yet to do so. Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other surprised and delighted many last year by winning the Booker Prize. The judges chose to call it a tie with The Testaments, something which Margaret Atwood graciously acknowledged while managing to suggest that Evaristo ought to be the sole winner, or at least that’s how I chose to interpret her speech. It tells the story of twelve very different characters, 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. Evaristo’s Mr Loverman was an absolute joy raising my hopes for this one.
Letitia Colombani’s The Braid tells the story of three, rather than twelve, very different women all of whose lives intersect unbeknownst to each other. Smita is a Dalit, an untouchable, determined that her six-year-old will have a better life. Giulia works for her father in Sicily, preparing hair for wig makers in a family business whose finances are revealed to be precarious. Sarah is a partner in a Montreal law firm who hides her cancer diagnosis, scheduling her treatment to fit in with work. All three of these women change their lives for the better on their own terms in this heartening fable-like story.
Set in rural Malaysia, We, the Survivors tells the story of a man born into poverty, a decent man whose attempts to better himself end in tragedy. When the staff of the fish farm he manages succumb to cholera, Ah Hock turns to an old friend for help. On the night Keong has arranged to meet his Bangladeshi contact, Ah Hock is horrified to find that he’s armed with a knife. Aw’s writing is contemplative and perceptive, his characters well drawn and convincing.
Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans explores the fallout from a hit and run accident which kills a Moroccan immigrant who had been running his restaurant in a small Californian desert town for decades. Lalami tells her story in short chapters through a diverse set of characters whose backstories are meticulously sketched in. It’s a quietly powerful novel which seemed to have had less coverage than it deserved here in the UK.
It was its Berlin setting that first attracted me to Adrian Duncan’s Love Notes From a German Building Site, an irresistible backdrop for me. Duncan’s debut follows a couple in their mid-thirties who have left Ireland for Germany. Paul is a structural engineer refurbishing a building in the old East Berlin while Evelyn is waiting to start a job in a Cologne museum. As the project nears its end, tempers on site become dangerously frayed, crises flare and Paul feels himself increasingly out of kilter, grappling with a language which constantly eludes him. Written in spare, elegant prose, this beautifully crafted novella is wonderfully atmospheric.
That’s it for this first part of March’s paperback preview. A click on any title that catches your eye will take you either to my review or to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with the month’s new novels they’re here and here. Second instalment soon…
If you’re a reader who prefers a neat plot within a linear, well-defined narrative best steer clear of Jenny Offill’s new novel. If, like me, you’re a fan of Dept. of Speculation and have been hoping for a little while to see Offill’s name pop up in the publishing schedules, you’re in for a treat. Set against the backdrop of Trump’s America and the ever more urgent climate crisis, Weather follows Lizzie as she tries to take care of everyone while disappearing down an apocalyptic wormhole, responding to the emails of listeners to the podcast, Hell and High Water.
Lizzie works as a librarian, answering the many and various questions of its members, watching the comings and goings of the meditation class which she decides to join and fretting about her recovering drug addict brother, Henry, her husband Ben and their son, Eli. When Sylvia offers her work answering emails to her environmental podcast, Lizzie accepts, diligently researching and answering the concerns of both doomsday and evangelical listeners attracted by its name. Lizzie’s domestic worries continue to multiply: dodging the mother she offended at Eli’s old school, wondering if they’ll ever rid themselves of mice without upsetting Eli, taking in Henry when his marriage founders and toying with the idea of a fling, all while researching a ‘doomsted’ plan. By the end of this sharp, witty novella, the mice are still in situ, Henry has been six months clean and Lizzie has finally gone to the dentist but the planet, of course, is still warming.
Can pets be saved in Christ and go to heaven? If not, what will happen to them?
Offill delivers Weather in bite-sized chunks, paragraphs of whatever is preoccupying Lizzie, punctuating her narrative with questions from podcast listeners, anxious as to what they might do to prepare, where they might be safest, how to feed themselves and their families. Lizzie spends her time trying to solve everyone else’s problems with little emotional energy left over for Ben, Eli or herself. There can be no resolution to her many concerns, domestic or global. It’s impossible to save everyone – even Sylvia seems to have given up:
Of course, the world continues to end,” Sylvia says, then gets off the phone to water her garden
Weather approaches the crisis facing our planet with wit and panache, a constant ever darkening backdrop to Lizzie’s everyday dilemmas. It’s a triumph: fragmented, non-linear and discursive, it really shouldn’t work yet it does so beautifully.
Granta Books: London 2020 9781783784769 224 pages Hardback