Tag Archives: Bloomsbury Books

Happy Little Bluebirds by Louise Levene: A Hollywood romp

Cover imageI reviewed Louise Levene’s The Following Girls here just over four years ago. I loved it – a pitch-perfect satire on ‘70s schoolgirl life whose period detail rang more than a few bells for me. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of that detail in Happy Little Bluebirds, set in Hollywood just over a year before the attack on Pearl Harbour pulled the United States into World War Two, but the humour undercut with a serious edge makes her new novel equally enjoyable. Multilingual Evelyn is pulled out of Postal Censorship and sent to Hollywood to assist a British agent who needs a translator but when she gets there HP – Saucy to his friends – has bunked off to Bermuda.

Evelyn has a facility for languages. She’s fluent in nine of them including Esperanto. Married to the dour Silas, she’s now a war widow but still lives with her sister-in-law in their mother-in-law’s Woking house. When she’s presented with an assignment helping to keep an eye on the Hungarian film director keen to persuade America into the war, she’s not entirely sure what she’s supposed to do. Off she goes in her drab but serviceable British clothes, only to find that her British contact has disappeared. She catches the Super Chief from New York to Los Angeles, stopping for a makeover in Chicago and seeing spies at every turn. Once in Hollywood, she’s welcomed with open arms by some, sharp-tongued sarcasm by others. Soon she’s caught up in a round of parties, finally meeting Zandor Kiss who has an adaptation of The War of the Worlds in his sights. Kiss’ enthusiasm is welcome but needs to be curbed for the Foreign Relations Committee, keen to keep America out of the war. The once-dowdy Evelyn is settled into her new glamorous life, still somewhat puzzled as to what her job is and wary of watching eyes, when she receives news from home which to others might seem welcome but to her is not.

Happy Little Bluebirds is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through a Hollywood for whom the war is just so much background noise. Letters from her sister-in-law remind Evelyn of the sober events at home but, serious and dutiful as she is, she finds it impossible to resist the delights of California once over the culture shock, not least the matinée idols. Levine has a great deal of fun with the movie industry, mocking the extravagance of the moguls while showing solidarity with the poor put upon writers. The adaptation plans for War of the Worlds are a particular delight and the novel is stuffed full sharp one-liners:

Silas hadn’t cared for it and said so repeatedly while he cleared his plate

 He looked faintly unreal; too smart, too handsome for everyday use

 She’s filled the blasted swimming pool with gardenias again

As with all the best satire, there are serious points to be made: the constant hum of casual racism, the contrast between the largesse of Hollywood life and the austerity of wartime Britain are slipped into the narrative. Altogether a thoroughly entertaining novel and the ending is all you’d expect from Hollywood. Dentists, a constant motif throughout the novel, finally come into their own.

Two Days in Madrid, Five Days in Toledo and Just One Book

After a difficult winter which seemed never-ending, we were in dire need of a bit of sun and some relaxation so took ourselves off to Spain, flying to Madrid early on Thursday evening. Our second visit to the city started much like the first with a walk around the botanical gardens. Irises were in glorious full bloom then but this time it was tulips of which I’m not hugely fond – some are a little too gaudy for my taste – but the lovely watercolour exhibition from the Society of Botanical Artists together with a few particularly luxuriant camelias made up for that. The other notable difference was the frantic cacophony at the frog pond where the mating season was apparently in full swing.

We plumped for lunch at the CaixaForum just across the road. Owned by one of the big Spanish banks who go in for supporting culture in a way that I wish ours would, it was hosting an exhibition about Adolf Loos. A contemporary of the Viennese Secessionists, Loos was an architect who believed in putting humans rather than design first and as a result his architectural plans are very pleasing. Sailing Boat (Edward Hopper)

The following day was also something of a rerun, a trip to the wonderful Thyssen-Bornemisza walking past the long queue standing in the rain (yes, I’m afraid so) for the Prado. The attraction of the Thyssen is Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza’ s collection of fabulous pieces by artists you may well never have heard of. My favourite, though, is Edward Hopper’s gorgeous ‘Sailing Boat’, as lovely as I remembered it. Its radiant light made a stark contrast with the increasing gloom outside.

A thirty-minute train journey took us to the ancient walled city of Toledo and La Hacienda del Cardenal, once an 18th century bishop’s palace but now a hotel.  Hard not to gush about this place which reminded me of a Moroccan riad with its walled gardens full of secluded corners in which to lounge and rooms with touches of Moorish architecture, a welcome contrast to our hipper-than-thou Madrid gaff. These five days were to be all about taking it easy, preferably loafing in the sun but an early Easter put paid to that. Being British we were prepared: Monday’s riverside walk through an impressive gorge was taken wearing four layers and a beanie before the rain set in. We stiffened our upper lips and consoled ourselves with a particularly delicious lunch. Toledo is in Castilla-La Mancha, Don Quixote country and the home of scrumptious cheese: we didn’t find any windmills to tilt at but we did eat a lot of scrummy food, some of it Manchego. 

When we weren’t eating and it wasn’t raining, and sometimes when it was, we wandered around this beautiful city whose history can be read in many of its buildings which blur Muslim, Jewish and Christian architectural traditions, nicely exemplified in the Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca, possibly the oldest in Europe, whose name Toledo stationsays it all. This pleasing Mudéjar style suggests that all three religions lived in harmony and so they did for many years but sadly the usual skirmishes, violent suppressions and massacres intermittently reared their ugly heads not least in the form of Spanish Inquisition. Other Mudéjar highlights included the Iglesia de San Román whose gracefully arched interior reminded me of the mezquita at Cordoba, the fabulous station and the tiny but near-perfect Cristo de la Luz once a mosque then a church.

Back to Madrid for our last day which ended very pleasingly, buying an American import of William Stegner’s Recapitulation at the excellent Central bookshop we’d visited four years ago. A very pleasant break, then, although not entirely what we were hoping for in the way of weather however here’s a little reminder from the entrance to Toledo’s Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes to enjoy life while you can. I suspect that’s not quite Cover imagethe message the artist intended, though.

And the book? That was Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac, an erudite, absorbing brick of a book which carried me through most of the holiday. It’s about a man cursed with a genius for maths, an addictive personality and a distinct lack of humility whose son inherits the first two traits and worries about passing them on to his children. Well worth reading, but not so much that I wasn’t relieved to lose its weight from our luggage.

Brother by David Chariandy: ‘Complicated grief’

Cover imageDavid Chariandy’s Brother is the second novel I’ve reviewed this year that I first spotted on Naomi’s Consumed by Ink, hoping that it would buck the British publishing trend of ignoring Canadian gems. The first was Katherena Vermette’s The Break, which lived up to the Margaret Atwood plaudit adorning its cover. Fingers crossed there’ll be more given the excellence of both the Vermette and Chariandy’s eloquent exploration of grief and loss set against a backdrop of urban immigrant poverty.

Michael has cared for his mother since the death of his older brother Francis, shutting himself off from the friends he and Francis once shared. When Aisha contacts him, telling him about her father’s death, he issues an uncharacteristic invitation triggering memories of the years leading up to Francis’ death. Born and raised in Canada, the brothers visited their mother’s Trinidadian home just once. Their Indian father had left when they were barely out of nappies. Determined to lift her two sons out of poverty and sensitive to the judgement of others, Ruth constantly drummed into them strict codes of behaviour and the need to do well at school. Just one year older than Michael, Francis was the cool one growing into a thoughtful man, protective of those he loved yet sassy and adventurous enough to attract the authorities’ attention. A shooting at the development where they lived marked a turning point for him, and for Michael. Francis began to spend more time with his friends, listening to music and falling in love with Jelly, a brilliant DJ in the making. When Aisha comes home, ten years after Francis’ death, it’s Jelly she invites back to the apartment Michael shares with his mother. Her clear-eyed perception offers Michael a way out of the cage of grief he’s locked himself into.

Brother packs a quietly powerful punch for such a short book. Chariandy explores themes of grief, racism and social deprivation, weaving. Michael’s memories of Francis through Aisha’s visit. The introductory page sets the tone for evocative often understated prose which ranges from the colourful – I will beat you so hard your children will bear scars. Your children’s children will feel! – to poetic observation: It was difficult not to feel something for him sitting there, catching snatches of sleep, other times growing old in the squinting smoke while the orders were shouted at him. Chariandy’s characterisation is both astute and compassionate: it’s impossible not to care deeply about what happens to these two young men, both bright and ambitious but thwarted by their circumstances. Brother was longlisted for last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, an award well worth looking out for. Competition must have been very stiff indeed for this beautifully crafted piece of fiction not to have made it onto the shortlist.

That’s it from me for a week or so. After a rather tough winter, H and I are off to Spain tomorrow evening in the hope of catching some sun, a bit of culture and reading one or two books.

Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan (transl. by George Miller): Fact or fiction? Truth or lies?

I’m not a thriller fan, although I have been known to read one or two. Metafiction on the other hand fascinates me which is what attracted me to Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story whose narrator, Delphine, finds her life entirely taken over by a woman she meets at a party. Hard to avoid all the clichés associated with the genre when talking about this one  – ‘gripping’, ‘riveting’, ‘unputdownable’ – take your pick. All apply to this shockingly accomplished novel which has had its heart a debate about fiction and truth.

Exhausted after a lengthy author tour publicising her latest book, Delphine finds herself uncharacteristically accepting an invitation to a party. She’s approached by a chic, assured woman who engages her in easy conversation, following it up a few days later with an invitation to coffee. Delphine is preparing to say goodbye to her twins, off out into the world to start their lives. Her lover is often away but like most writers, solitude comes naturally to her and she is just at the point where she is ready to begin her next book. L. quickly becomes the centre around which her world revolves. They have so much in common – experiences, books read, films considered formative. When Delphine talks to L. about her writing plans, a debate about fiction and truth is sparked in which Delphine sees a new, angry side of L. Pure fiction is not what readers want insists L, demanding that Delphine write the ’hidden book’ she mentioned when discussing her last novel, a piece of intimate autofiction. As the year proceeds, Delphine becomes increasingly isolated until L. is her only contact with the outside world. Who is this woman who seems to know so much about Delphine’s life, who turns up unexpectedly and seems to be watching Delphine’s every move?

Combining elements of a blockbuster thriller with a sophisticated literary debate, Based on a True Story is a fiendishly smart piece of writing. De Vigan narrates her novel through Delphine’s voice as she looks back over the year L. insinuated herself into her life. We know from the beginning that L. has had a sinister influence on Delphine, creating a psychological state in which she is unable even to send an email let alone begin her next book. The result is a constant feeling of claustrophobia, persistent doubts and questions. L. is chillingly convincing – manipulative, plausible and ultimately terrifying. This is the hook on which de Vigan hangs a debate about fiction and truth – how much veracity do we as readers expect from our novelists, what do we want in terms of authenticity and to what extent do novelists blur the line between fact and fiction whether consciously or unconsciously. Even now I can’t quite classify this book – thriller, literary novel, autofiction? It requires more than one pigeonhole. Given that it’s a piece of suspense I’ve no intention of revealing the resolution, although that’s to assume there is one which I’m not entirely sure there is. I do have my own theory, though, and I will say that the last two words are breathtakingly, diabolically clever.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie: Antigone redux

Cover imageIt’s been three years since Kamila Shamsie’s last novel, A God in Every Stone, a book I confidently expected to appear on the following year’s Baileys longlist. This year’s Man Booker judges have followed suit, longlisting Home Fire which I’m sure would have appeared on my own wishlist had I read it in time. It’s a retelling of Antigonethose who know their Sophocles won’t be expecting a happy ending.

On her way to begin a PhD in America, Isma is waylaid by the British border authorities and subjected to a humiliating interrogation. Once there, she settles into a pleasing routine, setting up her laptop in a local café most mornings. Her nineteen-year-old sister regularly Skypes her from home in London. Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz also appears online, a frequent but silent presence. One day Isma recognises a handsome young man in the café. He’s the son of the British Home Secretary, a Muslim known to be a hardliner, determined to clamp down on extremism no matter how unpopular it makes him. Eamonn and Isma become comfortably familiar with each other but Isma is careful not to reveal her history until she trusts him. Her father died when she was a child, a terrorist on his way to Guantánamo. Hers is a family used to secrecy, tightly knit and even more so after the death of her mother when Isma took the upbringing of the twelve-year-old twins upon herself. When Eamonn offers to take a package home for her, he decides to deliver it in person, meeting Aneeka with whom he becomes smitten. To his surprise, she returns his interest and an affair begins but Aneeka has an ulterior motive – a determination to bring her beloved brother back from Syria.

Shamsie excels at taking complex themes and humanising them. She structures her novel into five sections, shifting perspective between each of her principal characters so that we are presented with a rounded view of how this tragedy has come about. Her characters are carefully fleshed out and entirely credible, each with a different experience of what it is to be a Muslim in the twenty-first century Western world. Parvaiz is far from a caricature jihadi – a young man who sees his sisters forging ahead in their respective studies but finds his own talents frustrated, easy prey to the older man who flatters and ingratiates himself, grooming him and leading him towards a hell that six months later he’s desperate to escape. Shamsie’s writing is both beautiful and lucid, her depictions of political maneuvering and the media’s lurid sensationalism sophisticated and believable. Tensions between what the state expects and requires, and the pull of familial love are explored in a story which kept me gripped to its dramatic end. This is a very fine novel, perhaps her best yet and thoroughly deserving of its place on the Man Booker longlist.

If you’d like to read another review of Home Fire, Claire over at Word by Word has reviewed it here and Heavenali here.

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss: Lost in the desert with Kafka

You probably know Nicole Krauss’ name already. The History of Love, published back in 2004, was a bestseller here in the UK as well as in her native US, thanks in part to its inclusion in the Richard & Judy book club selection. Lots of literary types tended to sneer at R&J but their choices were frequently far from unchallenging. They also did more than their bit to help keep British bookselling afloat. I remember being captivated by The History of Love, although not so much by Great House, which followed it six years later. Forest Dark falls somewhere in between for me. In it two very different New Yorkers are drawn to Tel Aviv, briefly staying in the city’s Hilton: one a retired lawyer who has taken to giving away his valuables; the other a middle-aged novelist, stuck both in her writing and her marriage, lured by the familiar setting of childhood holidays.

Rich and well-connected, Jules Epstein is a New York Jew born to impoverished parents in Tel Aviv. Throughout his childhood, Edith and Solomon sparred constantly but since their deaths, Epstein has become untethered, divorcing his wife of three decades and giving away bits and piece of his fortune. He takes himself off to Tel Aviv, ostensibly to find a way of commemorating his parents but perhaps there’s more to it than that. On the eve of his departure he meets a rabbi, shabby but confident, who hails him as a descendent of King David, an acquaintance that’s renewed the following day on the plane. Meanwhile, Nicole – we never learn her last name – is suffering insomnia, unhappy in her marriage and unable to write. She experiences an odd feeling of momentary dislocation and decides that she needs to visit the Tel Aviv Hilton with which she’s become obsessed. Her cousin wants her to meet an acquaintance who, it turns out, has his own obsession and a determination that Nicole will help him with it. These two very different characters find themselves led by unreliable guides, each with their own agenda: one will have her world clicked sharply into focus; the other – as we know from the start – will disappear.

Krauss alternates Epstein and Nicole’s narratives, the second of which is in the first person. Epstein’s story is comparatively straightforward while Nicole’s is more discursive, full of introspective musings and erudite explorations of literature and Judaism. That may sound a little off-putting but it’s a gripping piece of storytelling, elegantly written and leavened with a pleasingly dry humour. Epstein is a big character – ‘There was too much of him; he constantly overspilled himself’ – who shrinks as his world becomes less sure. All too easy to assume Nicole stands for Krauss, of course, although it seems a little facile in a book which is anything but that. There’s a great deal about literature in the novel – Friedman’s outlandish theories about Kafka’s life in the desert, brought to an end in 1956, prompt a disquisition on his work and the contents of the suitcase which his literary executor rescued and took to Israel. Religion clearly cannot be ignored in such a setting: Epstein’s down to earth dismissal of ‘the great woolly hat of belief’ which obscures the rational doesn’t prevent him becoming involved with the charismatic rabbi Klausner. Just one gripe: Krauss’ dual narrative structure builds an expectation that the Nicole and Epstein will meet at some point which is unfulfilled. That said, Forest Dark is absorbing, rich in ideas and beautifully expressed – far from an easy read but certainly rewarding one.

The Virginity of Famous Men by Christine Sneed: Short stories with humour and bite

Cover image Rather like buses – you wait for ages then several come along in swift succession – my short story reviews seem be posted in clumps. A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Anna Noyes’ elegant Goodnight, Beautiful Women, attracted by the idea of a linked collection promised by the press release. It was its eye-catching title and the raft of endorsements for Christine Sneed’s The Virginity of Famous Men which snagged my attention this time. It’s nice and meaty too – stories long enough to get your teeth into. Despite having reviewed several collections by now, I still find it hard to avoid turning the whole thing into a lengthy catalogue so forgive me if this post reads a little like a list.

The thirteen stories that comprise Sneed’s collection explore themes of fame, loneliness, love, family and marriage. ‘Beach Vacation’ sees a woman on holiday, unexpectedly alone with her cocksure handsome sixteen-year-old, coming face to face with her feelings for him. In ‘Clear Conscience’ a brother suffering the very public fallout of his acrimonious divorce has his loyalty stretched to breaking point. A woman reflects on marriage to a handsome movie star, the strangeness of sleeping with a man who so many desire and being in a glaringly spotlit relationship in ‘The First Wife’ while a young man may finally have emerged from the shadow of his father’s fame in the titular ‘The Virginity of Famous Men’. Recognition hits a lonely divorced call centre worker when her newly married colleague appears to be straying, a sixteen-year-old learns the lesson in compassion set by her mother and a woman finds herself charmed by a ghost but comes to understand that a prosaic living lover is better than an overly attentive dead one. These are a small sample of what’s on offer in this collection which grabs your attention and keeps it.

Sneed writes with a clear-eyed sensibility and perception: ‘These murdered women were not their responsibility, the General argued, despite their self-conferred role as the planet’s conscience’ lays bare the hypocrisy of politicians in ‘The Functionary’. She has a keen yet empathetic awareness of the messiness of human vulnerability often leavening her stories with a dash of humour: ‘It went all right, overall, because he didn’t do anything too stupid’ thinks Michael in ‘Clear Conscience’ contemplating his epitaph. After trying her very best for sixteen years a woman is faced with the realisation that ‘it seemed possible that she had turned into a terrible mother’ in ‘Beach Vacation’.  Just one foot put wrong for me and that was the slapstick comedy of ‘The New, All-True CV’, in which a job applicant reveals all – a great idea but a little too long. An interesting collection, then, deserving of all those starry endorsements.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: The many stories of a family

Cover imageI have something of a chequered relationship with Ann Patchett’s writing: I loved The Magician’s Assistant but couldn’t see what all the fuss was about with the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto. I was a little wary of becoming too excited about Commonwealth, then, despite an engaging blurb and a particularly attractive cover, but it completely won me over. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. It’s also about the stories families tell themselves and how those stories can become more public than we might wish them to be.

In 1964 Fix Keating opens the door to a guest at his daughter’s christening party to be met by a face he barely recognises. It belongs to a district attorney, not someone that a policeman like himself would count as a friend. Clutching a bottle of gin, Bert Cousins walks through the door as if he’s been invited when all he’s doing is avoiding Sunday with his own family. Gin at a christening party turns it in to something else entirely, sparking drunken encounters that will change lives irrevocably. A few years later Bert has married Fix’s beautiful wife Beverly and moved from Los Angeles to Virginia. His four children spend their summers with their father: Calvin, who likes to steal his father’s gun and tuck it into his sock; Holly the sensible one; otherworldly Jeannette and troublesome Albie, kept quiet by ‘tic-tacs’ fed to him by his siblings. Together with Caroline, furious at her mother’s desertion, and Franny, whose christening party Bert gate-crashed, these six form a tribe allowed to run wild by Bert and Beverly who would far rather look the other way until tragedy changes everything. As the years pass connections become tenuous, then are renewed. Marriages are made, children are born and Franny meets one of her literary heroes, blocked and in need of inspiration.

Patchett’s intricately constructed novel crisscrosses the years from Franny’s christening party to the present day, telling the stories of the Keatings and the Cousins but always returning to Franny, the novel’s linchpin. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: stories are told and re-told as family members share them with each other – sometimes with illuminating differences. As the family extends itself over a half-century, new characters make an appearance but Patchett never loses her focus on Franny. Points are made but never laboured – both Leon’s exploitation of Franny’s story and Bert and Beverly’s negligent parenting are crucial to the novel’s development but lightly drawn. There’s a vein of gentle wry humour running through the novel: the scene in a hotel lift when Franny is frantically trying to extract the drunken Leon’s room key from him is downright comedic. It’s all beautifully done, loose ends neatly stitched in. Pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling – no need for wariness with this one whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney: Revisiting the Calloways

Cover imageIf you’re a fan of Jay McInerney’s series of novels which began with Brightness Falls way back in 1992, you won’t need to be told who the Calloways are nor will you need to have explained to you why I was thrilled at the prospect of a new one despite my disappointment with The Good Life which picked up Russell and Corrine’s story around the time of 9/11. This one begins in 2006 with an America blissfully unaware of the financial calamity which will be visited upon it and the rest of the world two years later. Russell has found himself a backer and has set up a small independent publishing house while Corrine has turned her back on the corporate world and works for a charity, feeding the city’s poor.

The Calloways are close to twenty-five years into their marriage: still living in the loft that satisfies Russell’s lingering bohemian yearnings but now with eleven-year-old twins conceived as a result of Corrine’s sister’s egg donation. The golden couple of Brightness Falls has endured, buffeted a little by financial constraints, work disappointments and the odd dalliance by Russell not to mention Corrine’s (undisclosed) affair. They move in rarefied circles – gallery openings here, launch parties there, charity benefits more than a weekly event. Corrine would much prefer to curl up with a good book but Russell relishes the social whirl and has developed an almost fetishistic relationship with food, its provenance and quality. Corrine, like so many of her circle has the opposite problem, avoiding anything with a hint of calorific value whenever she can. Summers are taken up with visits to the Hamptons where their annual party is happily anticipated by the rich and famous as well as old college friends. Like many couple in their fifties, things are a little stale but they are still the kind of couple whose split would shock even the most hardened socialite. Over the two years that  the novel covers a bright shooting literary star appears on Russell’s horizon; he falls for the kind of proposal the rest of us would have avoided like the plague; Corrine becomes re-acquainted and re-entangled with Luke, her fellow soup kitchen volunteer from The Good Life; parties are attended; revelations are made and rows are had. Meanwhile, America’s first African-American president campaigns for election and the world’s worst economic crisis since the Depression brews.

For me, Bright, Precious Days – although far from being without fault – is a much better book than The Good Life which felt like something of an obligatory response to 9/11. McInerney brings us up to date with the Calloways, reminding those of us who need reminding of their and their friends’ history and sketching in the background for readers new to their lives, all smoothly done. Names are dropped, the rich and famous are pilloried although far too gently for my taste but this is McInerney’s world. Russell and Corrine keep their feet firmly planted in the Art and Love camp, as Russell dubs it, rather than Money and Power with which they lightly rub shoulders. There a nice vein of humour running through the novel: ‘especially unwelcome in this Irish community were the hipsters, scruffy chic invaders from the East Village and Williamsburg attracted by the working-class authenticity their presence was diluting’; ‘Tom had pulled himself up by his grandfather’s suspenders’ offers a sample of the lightly aimed barbs. Not one for readers wanting a glimpse of the gritty, dark underbelly of New York or scathing social satire but certainly engaging and involving enough to suit those wondering how the Calloways are getting along. I’d like to think that there’ll be another instalment but let’s hope it‘s not about Russell and Corrine struggling to cope under President Trump.

Blasts from the Past: Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (1998)

Charming BillyThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

I was delighted to see piles of Alice McDermott’s Someone stacked up on tables at the front of Waterstones’ shops a couple of years ago. I’ve long been a fan of her elegantly poetic writing but she seemed to be overlooked here in the UK. Someone is the story of an unremarkable life deftly unfolded in McDermott’s characteristic empathetic understated style. I loved it but Charming Billy remains my favourite. It’s the sad story of Billy Lynch who lost the great love of his life and never recovered.

When Billy’s family and friends adjourn to a bar in the Bronx after his funeral it’s a time for affectionate reminiscing. Billy was someone who everyone loved – a romantic and poetic figure who left an impression on all who met him. But Billy’s death was far from romantic. He died an alcoholic, passed out on the street like a tramp. His life had been marked by heartbreak and many who knew him were convinced that he drank to ease the pain of the loss of his sweetheart many years ago. His devoted cousin, Dennis, came to his aid at any time of the day or night. But it is only after Billy’s funeral that Dennis tells his daughter the truth behind the legend of Billy’s sweetheart and the lie that was at the heart of his friendship with Billy.

For me, McDermott belongs to a small, select band of authors who write slim, elegant novels, each word carefully chosen and none wasted. Much is left unsaid, much for readers to infer, but that’s part of their joy. Her descriptions are wonderfully evocative. Who could fail to identify with Aunt Peg from McDermott’s fifth novel, Child of My Heart, who was ‘only, it seemed, a good night’s sleep away from being pretty.’ McDermott has said ‘I wouldn’t want to spend the energy just telling a story. I’ve got to hear the rhythm of the sentences; I want the music of the prose’, a music which sings out loud and clear in the wonderfully wistful elegiac tone of Charming Billy.

And what about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?