Coming towards the end of what felt like months of relentless electioneering, I was in need of a well turned out piece of escapism. Something I could lose myself in and forget about the world for a while. Invincible Summer looked just the ticket. It takes four friends who meet as undergraduates in 1997 and follows them up until the year they turn forty – a structure I find irresistible as you may have already noticed if you’re a regular visitor to this blog.
Adams’ novel opens with Eva, Benedict, Sylvie and Lucien lazing around on a sunny afternoon, sharing a bottle of wine. Benedict has a massive if quiet crush on Eva who lusts after Lucien who seems to be working his way through the female population of Bristol University much to his sister Sylvie’s disgust. Each of them follows a very different route after graduation. Benedict becomes a researcher in particle physics. Eva confounds her socialist father by working as a trader in the City. Sylvie takes a multitude of scuzzy jobs, working on her art in her few spare hours. Lucien continues his party-boy antics as a club promoter. Over the twenty years the novel spans, the bright shiny futures they’d assumed were before them become a little tarnished. Marriages are made and unmade, affairs are had, children are born, ambitions are achieved then unraveled but setbacks sometimes turn out to be the best thing that could have happened. The book ends, as it began, with the four friends together, more knocked about than they once were but content and happy in each other’s company.
There’s a touch of David Nicholls about Invincible Summer but with a little more of an edge and a few pleasingly sharp flashes of humour. Adams’ characters are nicely rounded – neither saints nor sinners, although Lucien might fall into the latter bracket for some. Adams knows how to spin a story, drawing her readers in, deftly handling the dynamics of friendship and steering neatly clear of any saccharine-sweet ending. It’s not a book that will set the literary world on fire but I enjoyed it very much: an involving, entertaining, thoroughly believable piece of much-needed escapism. One to pack in your bag if you’re off to the beach this year or in need of sticking your head in the metaphorical sand.
Whereas a family theme – conventional or otherwise – ran through the first installment of June’s paperback preview, this one’s much more of a hodge-podge. Given the time of year, a book aimed fairly and squarely at the summer reading market seems as good a place to start as any. Invincible Summer has a structure that never fails to appeal to me. It follows four young people, inseparable at university, and now facing the realities of life as young adults: Eva’s off to the City; Benedict decides to pursue a PhD; siblings Sylvie and Lucien indulge themselves in a life of art, travel and adventure. Summer reunions bring them back together but recreating the intimate bonds of student friendship isn’t always easy.
Structure was what attracted me to Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s prize-winning Everything I Don’t Remember. It’s the story of a young man who dies one April afternoon in Stockholm, his car wrecked in a crash which some speculate may have been suicide, others are sure was an accident. Khemiri tells Samuel’s story through a series of interviews with those who knew him – some fleetingly, others intimately – conducted by an author planning to write a book about him. Given that the novel is a made up of interwoven fragments it’s remarkably cohesive, not to mention utterly addictive. An immensely enjoyable book, cleverly constructed and completely engrossing.
Struggling for links here but I can just about work structure in again given that Anna Noyes’ Goodnight, Beautiful Women is a collection of short stories. Noyes’ stories share the backdrop of smalltown Maine, and they’re about women. Men tend to be somewhere off stage, their presence – or absence – often keenly felt. These are stories about ordinary, everyday people sometimes emotionally damaged, often struggling to get by. Single parents fretting about their kids; children overhearing too much; mental illness and too much alcohol; sexual misadventure and abuse, are recurring themes. Noyes writing is carefully crafted yet immediate – sometimes dreamlike, sometimes sharp and clean. Ron Rash came to mind for me although the Washington Post compares Noyes to Alice Munro with which, I’m sure, her publishers will have been very much more delighted.
Also about women, I’ll Take You There took me by surprise. It’s that rare thing: an enjoyable, commercial novel with a broad, deep streak of feminism running through it, and it’s written by a man. A divorced professor of film studies, Felix adores his daughter and is on good enough terms with his ex-wife. He’s the brother of two sisters, both of whom he loves dearly. One Monday night, as he sets up in the gloriously old-fashioned cinema in which he runs his film club, an apparition appears introducing herself as Lois Weber, a silent movie director much overlooked by her male colleagues and wanting the record put straight. There’s a nice vein of humour running through Lamb’s novel and although I suspect I won’t be investigating his backlist any time soon, this one’s well worth your time.
My final June choice is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad which was surrounded by a good deal of pre-publication brouhaha in hardback, not least because President Obama took it on holiday with him – remember those halcyon days? Cora is a slave in Georgia, an outcast amongst her fellow slaves since childhood. When Caesar arrives from Virginia he tells her about the Underground Railroad, offering a means of escape from her misery which Cora chooses to take. The novel follows her arduous journey through the South, a slave catcher snapping at her heels. ‘As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day’ say the publishers. A tough read, I’m sure, but not to be missed.
That’s it for June’s paperbacks. Should you be interested, a click on a title will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the ones I’ve not yet read. If you’d like to catch up with June’s new titles they’re here and the first batch of paperbacks is here.
Truth be told, Barkskins is only here out of nostalgia. Like so many readers, I was a huge fan of The Shipping News with its cast of eccentric, affectionately portrayed characters and its depiction of the wilds of Newfoundland. I also became a fan of Proulx’s short stories – Close Range had some wonderful, occasionally shocking and often funny pieces in it. I went off the boil with Accordion Crimes which told me far too much about accordions and not enough about the many cultures in which they’re played. Too much research which may well be an accusation levelled at Barkskins, weighing in at a doorstopping 730+ pages. Beginning in the seventeenth century, it follows Rene Sel and Charles Duquet who arrive in New France, penniless and willing to exchange their freedom for land for three years. Rene is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman but Duquet makes a name for himself, first as a fur trader then setting up a timber business. Proulx’s novel follows these two and their descendants across three hundred years, travelling across North America to Europe, China and New Zealand in what the publishers describe as ‘stunningly brutal conditions’. I wish I could say I was thrilled at the prospect but, in truth, my heart sinks…
I’m feeling much more enthusiastic about The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry’s second novel, set in an Essex village in the 1890s. Rich widow Cora Seabourne moves to Aldwinter where she and the local vicar are soon at odds over the Essex Serpent said to be rampaging through the marshes, taking lives as it does so. At a time when the newly emerging theories about the natural world clash cataclysmically with the Church and all it stands for, Cora, an enthusiastic naturalist, and Will find themselves embroiled in passionate debate. ‘Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take’ say the publishers.After Me Comes the Flood, Perry’s first novel, went down a storm so expectations for The Essex Serpent are high.
Back to the twentieth-first century for the rest of June’s titles, several of which herald the holiday reading season beginning with one that I’ve spotted on Twitter and particularly like the look of. Alice Adams’ Invincible Summeruses an irresistible structure following four young people, inseparable at university, and now facing the realities of life as young adults: Eva’s off to the City; Benedict decides to pursue a PhD; siblings Sylvie and Lucien indulge themselves in a life of art, travel and adventure. Summer reunions bring them back together but recreating the intimate bonds of student friendship isn’t always easy. ‘Invincible Summer is a dazzling depiction of the highs and lows of adulthood and the greater forces that shape us‘ say the publishers. I’m hoping for a nice slice of self-indulgent entertainment although nothing too sickly. This kind of novel needs a little bit of a bite to work for me.
Dean Bakopoulos’sSummerLong is aimed fairly and squarely at readers wanting to immerse themselves in an engrossing piece of entertainment by the look of it. Its main attraction for me is its small-town American setting. Realtor Don Lowry is busy hiding the fact that the marital home is in foreclosure while his wife Claire spends her time lusting after Charles, the failed actor who has come home to put his father’s affairs in order. As the temperature rises, inhibitions fall by the wayside setting the scene nicely for a bit of domestic drama. ‘Summerlong is a deft and hilarious exploration of the simmering tensions beneath the surface of a contented marriage that explode in the bedrooms and backyards of a small town over the course of a long, hot summer’ according to the publishers. Sounds like a winner.
As does Stephanie Danler’s debut Sweetbitterwith its New York restaurant setting. Twenty-two-year-old Tess is determined to escape her provincial home and lands herself a job as a ‘backwaiter’ at a well-known restaurant where her colleagues are convinced that fame and fortune are just around the corner. It’s the restaurant setting – and of course, the young character making her way in New York – that attracts me perhaps in the hope of another Love Me Back, Merritt Tierce’s riveting debut which I read earlier in the year. Setting the bar far too high there, I’m sure, but you never know.
Much more sobering, Jung Yun’s Shelterseems to question the intergenerational debt when Kyung Cho, a struggling academic up to his eyes in money troubles, is faced with what to do when his prosperous parents’ lives are thrown into disarray by an act of violence. Kyung’s childhood was one of material privilege but emotional deprivation. When he decides to take his parents in, he begins to question his own qualities as a husband and father. ‘Shelter is a masterfully crafted debut novel that asks what it means to provide for one’s family and, in answer, delivers a story as riveting as it is profound’ say the publishers which sounds like something to get your teeth into after the fluff of Bittersweet and Invincible Summer.
Ending what’s become something of a mixed bag, Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Everything I Don’t Rememberpicks up the life of Samuel, a young man who has died in a car crash, and tries to piece it together through conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours each of whom seems to have a different view of the young man they knew. It’s also the story of the writer who is re-assembling Samuel’s life ‘trying to grasp a universal truth – in the end, how do we account for the substance of a life?’ A very big question on which to end this second selection of June’s new novels. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more substantial synopsis. And if you’d like to catch up with the first batch, here it is.