Tag Archives: Any Human Heart

Paperbacks to Look Out For in May 2016: Part 2

Cover imageTwo of May’s second batch of paperbacks made it on to my 2015 ‘books of the year’ list, my favourite of which was Belinda McKeon’s Tender which I’d hoped to see on the Bailey’s Prize longlist. Catherine and James meet in Dublin in 1997 and almost instantly click. He’s tactile and outgoing, yet tender-hearted, while she’s self-conscious, buttoned-up and naïve. Before too long everyone’s convinced they’re a couple. When James tells Catherine he’s gay, she basks in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those James has not yet told. Then things take an altogether different turn towards obsessive and impossible love. The novel ends in 2012 with Catherine and James established in their adult lives – one happy, one not. It’s a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate – and a very moving one.

There’s a good deal of compassion in William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, a welcome return to Any Human Heart territory after one thriller too many for me. It follows the life of Amory Clay whose photography takes her from snapping socialites to documenting war in a career spanning much of the twentieth century. Like so many of his generation, her father returned from the First World War a changed man, unable to show the affection Amory craves. Her Uncle Greville’s gift of a camera offers solace, setting Amory off on a path which leads her across the world. Boyd is a masterful storyteller with a magpie-like eye for bright period detail. There’s even a bit of the thriller in it, but essentially this is a book about war and its consequences. A fine novel, both entertaining and enlightening.

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Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children follows on from her previous novel, picking up Ally and Tom’s story from where Bodies of Light left off. Newly married, they face separation as Ally practices as a doctor at Truro’s asylum – albeit unpaid – and Tom travels to Japan to advise on building lighthouses. Lonely and still mourning the sister she believes drowned nine years ago, Ally gives in to her mother’s demands to put her skills to better use in Manchester, briefly suffering a relapse in her own mental health before returning to Cornwall. Meanwhile, Tom’s loneliness is exacerbated by plunging into a culture of which he knows nothing. Slowly, he comes to understand the beauty of this endlessly puzzling country, forging a friendship with the man assigned as his guide. It’s a beautifully executed novel which asks big questions, many of which are as relevant now as they were in Ally’s time. Shame about that jacket, though. The hardback edition’s lacked the female figure which appears to be stuck-on.

I’ve not read either of the next two titles. Kathleen Alcott’s Infinite Home is about the tenants of a Brooklyn brownstone – each very different from the other and each challenged in some way – who come together when their home is threatened. It’s billed as ‘a poignant story of how a community is built and torn apart, and how when lives interweave a beautiful and unusual tapestry is made’ which could be interpreted as sentimental schlock but it’s an attractive premise and I’ve enjoyed novels based on apartments blocks as communities before.

Cover imageMy last choice for May is Elizabeth Day’s Paradise City which follows four Londoners –an asylum seeker, a self-made millionaire, a recently widowed woman and a young journalist – ‘each inhabitants of the same city, where the gulf between those who have too much and those who will never have enough is impossibly vast’, apparently. An ‘inexcusable act’ uncovers connections between these four in what could be a nice bit of state of the nation fiction. We’ll see. And, once again, the hardback jacket was so much more attractive

That’s it for May. A click on the first three titles will take you to my review if you’d like to know more, and to Waterstones website for the last two. And if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment of paperbacks it’s here. Hardbacks are here and here.

Sweet Caress by William Boyd: A welcome return to Any Human Heart territory

Cover imageOh joy! William Boyd’s back on form with his new novel which has its feet firmly planted in Any Human Heart territory. Boyd set off on a thriller trajectory with the excellent Restless, picked up by Richard and Judy back in 2007, which I followed loyally despite an increasing disappointment: Waiting for Sunrise ended up in the charity shop just before my aunt announced that her reading group had chosen it. I’d all but given up on him but the synopsis for Sweet Caress was hard to resist. It follows the life of Amory Clay whose photography takes her from snapping socialites to documenting war in a career spanning much of the twentieth century.

Born in 1908, Amory enjoyed an unremarkable childhood. Her father, whose one writing success paid for the family’s comfortable middle class life, entertained his children with handstands, happy to play the fool until, like so many of his generation, he returned from the First World War a changed man. Her uncle Greville’s gift of a camera offers solace, setting Amory off on a path which will lead her across the world. Aged nineteen, after a dramatic end to her studies, Amory finds herself working as Greville’s assistant – hunting down subjects for his London society photographs – then taking the photographs herself. Clearly frustrated by the triviality of her work, Amory takes up Greville’s suggestion of a few weeks in Berlin – famed for its decadence – embarking on an adventure whose photographic results will land her in court. Her encounter with Cleveland Finzi, editor of the American pictorial magazine Global-Photo-Watch, results in both an affair and a further twist in her career leading her to New York, then back to London – documenting the British Union of Fascists with disastrous personal results – then to France, now at war, where she will come into herself. Amory’s life, loves and work play out against the backdrop of events upon the world’s stage in much the way that Logan Mountstuart’s did in what many regard as Boyd’s best novel, Any Human Heart.

Boyd at his best is hard to beat. He’s a masterful storyteller with a magpie-like eye for bright period detail, seamlessly threading historical bits and pieces through his narrative. As Amory looks back on her life from her cottage on a remote Scottish island in 1977, she weaves vibrant memories through her journal, telling her story and augmenting it with hindsight, scattering hints foreshadowing future events here and there. Just as  W. G. Sebald did in his novels, Boyd punctuates his narrative with photographs adding a touch of verisimilitude and allowing him to explore historical asides. His characters are wonderfully fleshed out, entirely believable, and his story is vividly told – the Berlin scenes are particularly striking. There’s even a bit of the thriller in it, but essentially this is a book about war and its consequences: from her father’s psychiatric problems to the Australian photographer with whom she has a brief last fling in Vietnam, war has left a string of casualties running through Amory’s life. A quick check of the acknowledgements tells you that Sweet Caress is a tribute to women war photographers, many of whom Amory encounters from her Berlin friend Hannelore Hahn to the veteran Mary Poundstone who helps establish her in Vietnam. A fine novel, then, both entertaining and enlightening. What a relief!

Books to Look Out For in September 2015: Part 1

Sweet CaressJust back from my Baltic states jaunt – of which more in a few days – and barely unpacked so here’s one I made earlier. September’s traditionally a big month for publishing – Christmas is on the horizon for booksellers even if the rest of us are busy sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring it. Consequently there are some starry names shining out from the schedules but you won’t find all of them here, just the ones that appeal to me.

I’ll kick off with a novel by one of those stars, albeit one I’ve become a bit disenchanted with lately. I was a great fan of William Boyd’s Restless, the first of his novels that could be called a thriller. He’s continued in that vein for the last three or four books but the novelty’s worn off for me; Waiting for Sunrise very nearly put the kybosh on my Boyd fandom. Sweet Caress, however, looks like a welcome return to Any Human Heart territory. It follows the life of Amory Clay  whose Uncle Grenville fills the gap left by her emotionally and physically absent father and who gives her a camera setting her on a path that will take her from snapping socialites in his London studio to Berlin in the ’20s, New York in the ’30s and on to a career as a war photographer. Lovers, husbands and children flesh out a life fully lived, apparently. Sounds like a thoroughly enjoyable return to form to me.

Truth be told I’ve also fallen out of sympathy with Margaret Atwood’s novels over the past few years but I like the look of The Heart Goes Last. It’s about Stan and Charmaine, living in desperate economic straits. An advertisement for the Positron Project, a social experiment offering stable jobs and a home, seems to be the answer. All they have to do is give up their freedom on alternate months, swapping their home for a prison cell. Soon they’re in the Cover imagegrips of an obsession about the couple who live in their house when they’re not there. ‘A sinister, wickedly funny novel about a near-future in which the lawful are locked up and the lawless roam free’ according to the publishers.

Published a few years ago, Gregoire Delacourt’s charming The List of My Desires had a super-sweet jacket but a nicely sharp edge. In The First Thing You See young car mechanic Arthur Dreyfuss opens his apartment door one day to find a distressed Hollywood starlet but neither Arthur nor Jeanine Foucamprez, with her fake American accent, are quite what they seem. I’m hoping for some thoughtful insight wrapped up in a nice little story.

This one may seem an obscure choice but Beate Grimsund’s A Fool, Free sounds intriguing. It looks at mental illness through Eli Larsen, a talented and successful author and film-maker who has heard the voices of Espen, Erik, Prince Eugen and Emil in her head since she was a child, but kept them secret. Described as a ‘candid and beautiful novel’, Grimsund’s book won the Norwegian Critics Prize.

Cover imageI’ve enjoyed all five of Tessa Hadley’s novels. She writes the kind of quietly intelligent books packed with shrewd observations that I associate with Carole Shields. In The Past three sisters and a brother share a few hot summer weeks together in their grandparents’ old house which is to be put up for sale. Inevitably all does not run smoothly as past and present tensions take hold. I expect lots of entertaining sniping amongst the reminiscing, and we’re promised ‘an ugly secret in a ruined cottage in the woods’. Sounds excellent.

That’s it for the first batch of September titles – a click on the title will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. And if you’re still catching up with August, here are the hardbacks and here are the paperbacks. Part two will be here in a week or so.

Himmler’s Cook by Franz-Olivier Giesbert (transl. by Anthea Bell): A romp through twentieth-century misery

Cover imagePerhaps it’s because those of us in the privileged developed world are living longer – that and the advent of a new century – but there seems to be a little trend for novels written from the point of view of a centenarian bystander, someone who’s rubbed shoulders with those who’ve shaped our world for good or ill: Any Human Heart, The End of Days and The Hundred-Year-old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared spring to mind. Himmler’s Cook, is another along these lines and it was this that made me pick it up although its clever jacket was another draw. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest.

Rose makes no bones about other people: she can’t stand complainers as she says from the start. When she’s mugged by a young man calling himself the Cheetah, she suspects he’s from a comfortable middle class home and decides to put the frighteners on him. Rose hasn’t lived through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband, to put up with being threatened by some young punk, so she does what she always does: takes revenge. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant having learnt the joys of cooking from her adoptive mother. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ easing the pain of tragedy by means of her beauty and wit to extract the latter while enjoying the former to the full. Giesbert takes his sassy heroine from her early years in Armenia to her confrontation with ‘the Cheetah’ – aka Ryan – after his second transgression, taking in a good deal of blood-spilling, cooking, lovemaking and adventure, not to mention a surprisingly long passage on sheep castration, along the way.

Already a bestseller in France, I suspect Himmler’s Cook is aimed firmly at the Jonasson market here in the UK. Rose is a vividly memorable character, announcing ‘History is a bitch’ then going on to explain just why. Her favourite song is The Jackson Five’s Can You Feel It? and she’s a great admirer of Patti Smith. She believes in living each day as if it’s her last, proclaiming ‘rid yourself of self-esteem or you will never know love’ despite her own supreme self-confidence. Well known names pepper her narrative – Sartre and de Beauvoir regularly dine in her restaurant, Himmler’s bewitched by both her body and her food while Felix Kirsten advises her on how to handle Hitler’s police chief. There’s quite a lot of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters. Altogether an enjoyable romp although I felt that Giesbert skated over Rose’s long Chinese sojourn, cramming it into a few short chapters. There’s a lovely description of her adoptive mother that those of us who feel they should read less and get out more will appreciate: ‘ she had never travelled further afield than to Manosque, but thanks to the books she read she had lived a full life.’ Quite so.