Tag Archives: Austin Duffy

Paperbacks to Look Out for February 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThe first instalment of February’s paperback preview took a few steps outside my comfort zone but this one’s stuffed with tried and tested favourites, four of which made it onto my books of 2016 lists, and the fifth narrowly missed doing so only because things seemed to be getting out of hand.

My only disappointment with Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton is that it hasn’t won the shedload of prizes I was hoping it would. There’s much to think about in this slim novel in which the eponymous Lucy records her life, full of reflections, memories and ambiguities as she looks back on the nine weeks she spent in hospital over thirty years ago. Written in impressionistic episodes, Lucy’s narrative flits backwards and forwards through her life exploring her relationship with her mother and the effects of a childhood bereft of affection. It’s beautifully expressed, written with great compassion, as are all Strout’s novels, and it ends, I’m relieved to say, on a note of optimism.

Expectations were also high for The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson, another favourite writer of mine. The titular crime writer is Patricia Highsmith for whose work Dawson has a self-confessed addiction. Her novel is based on Highsmith’s sojourn in Suffolk where she set herself up to be close to her married lover. Dawson divides her narrative between first and third person, making Highsmith the quintessential unreliable narrator and unsettling her readers with her protagonist’s ceaselessly questioning and claustrophobic inner monologue. Dawson has a talent for working historical figures into her fiction – most notably Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover – but The Crime Writer is the ultimate in literary fan fiction. Absolutely engrossing even if, like me, you’re not a Highsmith aficionado.Cover image

Sjón’s writing was a new discovery for me last year. Moonstone is set in 1918, this fable-like novella follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni Steinn over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through Reykjavík. Mani funds his expensive movie habit by turning tricks, always on the lookout for Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, the very image of Musidora, the star of Máni’s favourite movie. There’s a gorgeously poetic, dreamlike quality to this slim novella whose ending is extraordinarily beautiful – both fantastical and moving. Kudos to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing

Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter was one of those books that took me by surprise, much better than its slightly fluffy synopsis suggested. It’s set against the backdrop of a high-end restaurant in New York where Tess has fetched up having turned her back on smalltown Ohio. After proving her mettle, Tess catches the eye of both Simone, the restaurant’s expert sommelier, and Jake, its rakish bartender, and is drawn into the orbit of these two damaged personalities. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, hard to put down, and an acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.

Cover imageMy last February paperback is Austin Duffy’s This Living and Immortal Thing in which our unnamed narrator works in cancer research. Sitting outside on the smokers’ bench one day he meets a young Russian woman who introduces herself as a translator. He can’t help but be interested in this attractive young woman given to wry pronouncements about doctors and their well-meaning uselessness. It seems their friendship might become something else until the real reason for Marya’s presence in the hospital becomes apparent. There’s a welcome vein of quietly dark humour running through Duffy’s book, leavening its cool, slightly melancholic tone. It’s an unusual novel and it does that thing that good fiction so often does – educates us and helps us understand what it’s like for others.

That’s it for February.  A click on any of the five titles will take you to my review. If you’d like to catch up with the first part of the paperback preview it’s here. New books for February are here and here.

This Living and Immortal Thing by Austin Duffy: Of mice and men

Cover imageHospital dramas abound on TV – Holby City, Gray’s Anatomy, ER, House – they’re not quite as ubiquitous as crime but it seems odd that they’re notable by their absence from fiction given their enduring popularity. Its setting was partly what attracted me to Austin Duffy’s novel; that and the fact that he’s a practising oncologist. I was hoping for something along the lines of Gabrielle Weston’s quietly elegant Dirty Work with its compassionate story of a gynaecologist who performs abortions. Rather a lot to expect but Duffy’s novel doesn’t fall too short of that with its clear-eyed but humane story of a clinical researcher brought uncomfortably face-to-face with the disease he’s studying.

Our unnamed narrator has been working in his New York hospital for a couple of years having left Ireland shortly after his marriage ended. He spends his days tucked away in a lab monitoring cancerous mice injected with either the current drug under observation or a placebo. Not, as he muses, that mice are likely to experience a placebo effect. Sitting outside on the smokers’ bench one day, he meets a young Russian woman who introduces herself as a translator, a volunteer who helps the many Russians who find themselves in the hospital unable to understand what’s happening to them. Soon she’s popping up all over the place in her canary yellow sweater, making notes at lectures, attaching herself to rounds and translating oncologists’ prognostications, often choosing to soften them. Our narrator has his own preoccupations – it seems that his estranged wife is pregnant, possibly with one of the embryos they left frozen – but he can’t help but be interested in this attractive young woman given to wry pronouncements about doctors and their well-meaning uselessness. It seems their friendship might become something else until the real reason for Marya’s presence in the hospital becomes apparent.

There’s a welcome vein of quietly dark humour running through Duffy’s novel. Marya has a nice line in dismissive comments about doctors and their inability to help their patients. Our narrator is a man well-suited to the forensic observation needed for his work yet compassionate enough to have sought research as a retreat from clinical practise after Mrs X collapsed and died within minutes of him declaring her clear of cancer. His cool, slightly melancholic tone fits the novel beautifully. Duffy is very good at showing us what it’s like to be a doctor, unable not to assess everyone in terms of the symptoms they display: ‘If possible I would like to lose that skill’. His descriptions are striking if sometimes disquieting: an autopsy is often ‘like coming across a burnt village in the middle of nowhere, every inhabitant and piece of Baileys Prize 2016wood charred black. All you can say for certain is that there has been a fire or some other cataclysmic event’ while Mrs X’s liver has ‘”a large tumour burden” as if it were a working animal, unable to support the weight of disease’. It’s an unusual novel, a story well told in a setting unfamiliar to the fortunate among us and it does that thing that good fiction so often does – educates us and helps us understand what it’s like for others. I’ll look forward to Duffy’s next novel, if he has time to write one.

And for anyone interested in how my wishes scored with the Baileys Prize judges, I managed three which gives me lots to explore on the longlist. Naomi and her team will be valiantly shadowing the panel, working their way through the ones they’ve not yet read and reporting back. I’ll be cheering from the sidelines.

Books to Look Out For in February 2016: Part 1

Not long back from my Viennese jaunt  – of which more later in the week – but here’s one I made earlier. February’s the perfect time to draw the curtains on the murky grey outdoors and get on with some serious reading. There’s no shortage of choice this year – so many tasty offerings that despite the fact that it’s the shortest month there’ll be two posts devoted to new books.

Cover imageTop of my list has to be Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. I’m a long-term Strout fan. You may know her work already or perhaps saw HBO’s excellent adaptation of Olive Kitteridge. Sadly, several of her novels have been packaged in the UK in the kind of wishy-washy pastel covers that fail to do her fiction justice.  Much more suitably jacketed, this new novel examines the relationship between mothers and daughters – always fertile terrain – as Lucy’s mother unexpectedly visits her after many years of estrangement. Strout’s a mistress of the understatement, writing in that elegant pared back style that pushes my literary buttons.

New York settings are catnip for me and Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life sounds particularly attractive with its story of female friendship. Katherine struggles with motherhood and an unreliable partner while Mahsa flees her strict guardians in Karachi, only to be faced with an arranged marriage in Montreal. She escapes to New York where she and Katherine become friends, brought together by a shared passion for music. ‘Vividly rendered and sweeping in scope, Under the Visible Life is a stunning meditation on how hope can remain alive in the darkest of times, if we have someone with whom to share our burdens.’ according to the publishers. Very much like the look of this one.

Austin Duffy’s This Living and Immortal Thing is another New York-set novel, although this one’sCover image themes sound sadly universal. An Irish oncologist becomes increasingly disillusioned with city life as he searches for a breakthrough in his research while his marriage disappears down the tubes. Work is a comfort but life begins to look up when he meets a beautiful Russian translator. Perhaps not a particularly interesting synopsis but what caught my eye was the publisher’s descriptions of the writing: ‘Shot through with Duffy’s haunting, beautiful descriptions of the science underlying cancer, which starkly illustrate the paradox of an illness at whose heart is a persistent and deadly life force, This Living and Immortal Thing shows how the cruelty of the disease is a price we pay for the joy and complexity of being in the world.’

New York, again, for Heinz Helle’s debut Superabundance whose nameless narrator is separated from his girlfriend by the Atlantic. Although he loves and misses her he finds himself attracted to every woman he passes on the street. With his own brain in overdrive, constantly buzzing, he wonders at everyone else’s ability to cope with life so easily. I like the idea of this but it could very easily back fire. Well worth a look, though.

Cover imageI try not to succumb to those puffs you see from authors adorning book jackets but when it’s a writer whose work I love it’s difficult to resist. Certainly worked with Sara Leipciger’s The Mountain Can Wait which Nikolas Butler, author of the wonderful Shotgun Lovesongs. rated highly. That ended up being one of my books of 2015. The writer in question this time is Ron Rash who’s sung the praises of Travis Mulhauser’s debut, Sweetgirl. The eponymous girl is sixteen-year-old Percy. In search of her junkie mother, Percy finds herself struggling through blizzard conditions, caught up in an attempt to save a baby girl with the local crook and his henchmen in pursuit.  Given Rash’s endorsement I’m hoping for similarly taut, spare prose from Mulhauser.

That’s my last choice for this first selection of February titles, all American as you may have noticed. The next bunch will be much closer to home. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with January’s offerings the hardbacks are here and here, and the paperbacks are here and here.