Tag Archives: Amercan contemporary fiction

Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight: A six-cornered love story with a botanical twist

Cover imageFive years ago I reviewed The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein, as she was known then, describing it as ‘a quirky bit of escapism’. You can see why, given our current predicament, I was keen to read Hex hoping for something similar. Garlanded with praise from the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer and Emma Straub, covering quite a literary gamut, Knight’s new novel takes the form of three notebooks written over six months by Nell Barber addressed to her advisor, Dr Joan Kallas.

After one of her peers accidentally kills herself while studying toxins in the lab they share at New York’s Columbia University, Nell abandons her own studies, stealing two of Rachel’s poisonous plants, determined to discover their antidote. She and her colleagues have been expelled from the university but Nell continues her illicit study, visiting Joan who is not only her advisor but the object of her passion. Nell has recently split with the beautiful but vacuous Tom. She gossips with her lovely best friend Mishti, following the progress of Mishti’s love affair with Carlo whose sights are set on becoming rich, while spying on Joan’s philandering husband Barry. As the autumn term progresses, these six characters become ever more entangled with each other, some more than others, as love and desire take centre stage until things come to a head at Joan’s Christmas party.

Hex has the same idiosyncratic, slightly other worldly style that I remember from The Sunlit Night. Nell is an eccentric narrator, consumed with a passion for Joan which, for some time, she doesn’t entirely understand. Delivered in short chapters, her narrative is punctuated by botanical pen portraits as she devotes herself to finding a way to neutralise the toxins that killed the woman she wishes she could have saved. There’s pleasing thread of humour running through Knight’s novel, witty with a few farcical moments as relationships between the six main players become ever more convoluted.  Although it’s entirely diferent, Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors popped into my head several times. Must be all those botanicals.

Bloomsbury Circus: London 9781526611406 215 pages Hardback Ebook

Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony: A winning combination of taxidermy and politics

Cover imageSeveral times recently I’ve enjoyed novels I might have otherwise dismissed thanks to a puff from authors whose own work I particularly enjoy. In the case of Jessica Anthony’s Enter the Aardvark it was the ‘fresh, witty and smart’ comment from one of my all time favourites, Kate Atkinson, that sealed the deal. Without it, I’m not sure I’d have picked up this book that manages to combine nineteenth-century taxidermy, twentieth-century genocide and twenty-first century political satire all in just under two hundred pages.

Alexander Paine Wilson, firmly in the closet even to himself, is running for re-election to Congress on a platform so loosely based on his putative ancestor Thomas Paine’s philosophy as to be unrecognisable to anyone but him. One hot day, FedEx delivers a large, bulky package to the house he shares with two other Congressmen which turns out to be a stuffed aardvark purportedly from his lover Greg Tampico, until recently the head of a charity devoted to Namibians in need. Wilson decides the only thing to do is deliver it right back to Tampico, discovering in transit via the many messages on his phone that his lover is dead. Pulled over by the police for ‘distracted driving’, Wilson finds himself in further contravention of a law forbidding illegally poached wild animals thanks to the aardvark stuffed into the boot of his car. It’s an aardvark with a long history, caught by naturalist Richard Ostlet in 1875 and returned at his request to celebrated taxidermist Titus Downing whose reputation for uncannily lifelike poses was renowned. Shortly after Downing took delivery of the aardvark, he received a letter from Ostlet’s widow. Would he come to visit her in London? There he found something both perplexing and macabre.

Anthony alternates the narratives of Wilson and Downing, two very different men whose stories almost mirror each other. Downing is the perfectionist taxidermist, loath to welcome the public through the door of the workshop where he channels his subjects until he captures their spiritual essence. In contrast, Wilson is consumed with ambition and a lust for luxury, obsessed with Ronald Reagan, accessorising himself and his house with Ronnie memorabilia. Both narratives are very funny, Downing’s more understatededly so than Wilson’s which wanders into the farcical. Like all good satire, Anthony’s novel has serious points to make not least about colonialism and its legacy, political corruption and greed. For the squeamish, of which I’m one, there are some look-away moments concerning eyes but these are easily skipped without losing track or sense of the story. It’s slightly bonkers and to begin with I wasn’t at all sure that it would work but it does.

If I’ve whetted your appetite you might like to wander over to Annecdotal where Anne’s hosting a giveaway. Best be quick, though: the deadline’s midnight on 30th April and it’s for UK residents only. Good luck!

Doubleday: London 2020 9780857526991 192 pages Hardback

Weather by Jenny Offill: A novel for our times

Cover imageIf 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

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman: The Big Chill reprised

Cover imageThe Gunners is built around a structure that rarely fails to attract me: a group of people, once friends as children or young adults, are brought together by an event which affects them all. Weddings and funerals are a favourite trigger for this kind of reunion and in the case of Rebecca Kauffman’s novel it’s a funeral just as the friends enter their thirties. The five remaining members of the group that dubbed themselves the Gunners are brought together by the suicide of the sixth who none of them had heard from since she left the group aged sixteen with no explanation.

Mikey is the only one of the five who stayed close to their Ohio childhood home town. Jimmy has long since moved into finance making enough money to have a palatial summer home nearby to which he’s invited the other four for a lavishly catered meal. Sam has flown in from Georgia and appears to have taken to religion; Alice arrives with her girlfriend, as loud and tactless as ever while Lynn and her partner make up the party, both musicians now running an AA group. These five who have been friends since they were six years old are only loosely in touch, having drifted apart after Sally’s unexplained departure. There’s a great deal of catching up to do but overarching it all are two questions: why did Sally not only desert the Gunners but determinedly avoid contact with Mikey, once her best friend, and why did she take her own life.

If you’re of a certain age you may well have seen The Big Chill which has one of the best opening sequences I’ve seen, complete with the Marvin Gaye’s sublime ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ playing over it. Shortly after starting The Gunners, I was struck by what a good film it would make, then I realised it had already been made. This is not to criticise the novel which I thoroughly enjoyed. Kauffman’s charactericisation is strong, the flitting back and forth between childhood memories to adult reunions deftly developing each of them. Secrets are revealed, and if the two big questions are not entirely answered it doesn’t detract from the novel merely reflecting what might well happen in real life. This is a satisfying, often poignant read. There’s not a huge amount of bite to it but once I’d settled into The Big Chill vibe I was more than happy to enjoy the ride.