Tag Archives: Chatto & Windus

The Evening Road by Laird Hunt: A long dark night

Cover imageI’m not sure how I’ve managed to miss Laird Hunt’s fiction before now – he’s written six novels besides The Evening Road. I remember Neverhome being published but somehow failed to get around to reading it, something I’ll be putting right very shortly. Set in 1920s Indiana, Hunt’s odyssey follows two women through a searing summer’s night on which a lynching is to take place: one white, making her way to what she sees as a show; one black, travelling in the opposite direction.

Ottie Lee Henshaw is saddled with a lecherous boss and an increasingly withdrawn husband with whom she refuses to have a child. When Bud gets wind of a lynching in Marvel, he offers Ottie a lift, picking up her husband Dale on the way. Bud drops in at a church fish supper to pass the word around, knowing he’ll pick up a few life assurance sales once death has been stared in the face. They visit a Quaker prayer vigil, pick up another passenger, suffer a catastrophic blowout while avoiding two bloodhounds wearing neckties then commandeer a mule wagon. This somewhat quarrelsome party trundles along, swigging whiskey, telling stories and shooting the breeze until both Ottie and Dale fall out of the wagon. Then Ottie hears a shot and sees Calla Destry with a gun. Calla has been travelling away from Marvel, having stolen her adoptive parents’ automobile, too grand for a black family to be seen driving in the daytime without arousing suspicions. She’s been to see the site of the lynching, hoping to help the boys escape then deliberately provoked the crowd’s anger before fleeing. She’s eaten her first orange, thought about her lover who’d failed to join her at their picnic then stolen a wagon from his mother after seeing him speechifying at a prayer meeting. Both these women travel a short distance down a very long road, their paths crossing back and forth

Hunt narrates his characters’ stories through their own voices – first Ottie, then Calla – weaving them together neatly through the episodes and incidents in which each of them unwittingly plays a part in the other’s fate. Ottie’s voice is sassily sardonic, a mask for her secret loss and fears. Calla’s is angry, her narrative darker. Smart and curious, she’s incandescent at the way black people are mistreated by whites. The writing is striking, both in its chillingly dark comedy and its vibrant descriptions. ‘The man was so filthy he looked like he’d rolled around in bacon grease then taken a long nap under the tail of a sick cow’ observes Ottie; ‘Nobody out but old Turner Jenkins trickling false hope onto his doomed geraniums with a beat-up watering can’ thinks Calla. The two women’s paths crisscross until they are brought face-to-face, each incident mirrored and illuminated by the other’s narrative. Throughout it all is the prospect of the lynching: a festive event in prospect for Ottie; a source of fury and fear for Calla. We never get to Marvel, nor should we. Hunt has very effectively shown us both sides of this sorry story, each told by women who have more in common than they might imagine. It’s quite riveting, shocking at times, very funny at others, and vividly memorable.

Reading Hunt’s novel prompted me to check the date of the last lynching in the US: shockingly, it’s 1981. In Mobile, Alabama, Michael Donald was first beaten then killed by several Ku Klux Klan members who hung his body from a tree. I’ll leave you with that.

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich: Imagining the unimaginable

Cover imageSometimes you come across a debut so striking that it leaves you wondering how the author’s second novel can possibly match it. It’s already happened to me once this year with Jennifer Down’s compassionate, clear-eyed and lovely Our Magic Hour. Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho is very different but equally impressive, both in its writing and its treatment of a difficult subject: Down’s novel explores the effect of a friend’s suicide on a group of young people while Ruskovich’s looks at the murder of a young child in the most shocking of circumstances. It comes garlanded with praise from the likes of Andrea Barrett, Chinelo Okparanta and Claire Fuller, all thoroughly deserved.

One hot August day, Wade and Jenny Mitchell take their two girls off to gather wood for their winter store. They’re an unremarkable family, facing life’s difficulties as best they can. Six-year-old May and nine-year-old June have had only themselves for company in their remote mountain home but June no longer wants to play the elaborate games that have kept them whispering together for years. Jenny quietly notes May’s unhappiness and June’s withdrawal, aware that her eldest daughter is already conceiving passions for boys. Wade has been taking piano lessons in a vain attempt to stave off the early onset dementia that has struck several generations of the Mitchell family, taught by the music teacher at June’s school. The afternoon they set out in their pickup to collect wood will end with an appalling crime which will leave one child dead and the other missing. Wade will divorce Jenny, later marrying Ann, his piano teacher, who will find herself constantly speculating about what happened that afternoon and why, unable to talk to Wade about it or to fathom what he might remember of that dreadful day as his memory fades.

Ruskovich’s novel crisscrosses the years, from Jenny’s first pregnancy to 2025 when she and Ann finally meet, smoothly shifting its point of view throughout. Each character, from the main protagonists to those who only make the briefest of appearances, is skilfully rounded in their depth and complexity. The storytelling is engrossing – there’s a slow reveal which makes me a little reluctant to go into too much detail – but it’s the writing which is most striking, managing to be both spare and vibrant in what is essentially a dark novel: Ann and Wade ‘made love under the scratchy wool blanket, found surprise in each other’s ordinariness, safety in each other’s pleasure’; ‘Winter was far away, a mere superstition, already defeated in their minds by the county’s plows that had been promised would come’ sums up prairie-dwelling Wade and Jenny’s  dangerous inexperience of mountain winters while ‘Outside the coyotes’ howls bore tunnels through the frozen silence’ vividly conveys their reality. Ruskovich explores the aftermath of the devastating crime with compassion and humanity, defying expectations with her characters’ kindness in the most difficult of circumstances. There’s no black and white here, no neat resolution: questions remain unanswered and it’s all the better for that.  Barely two months into the year and I already have two debuts on my awards wishlist.

The Girls by Emma Cline: Time for girls to become women

Cover imageThe Girls is another one of those novels about which there’s been a good deal of brouhaha – lots of Twitter love and advance anticipation for months – but like The Nest and The Essex Serpent, similarly lauded to the skies, it succeeds in living up to all that hype. I’m going to have to think about putting my sceptical hat into storage if this carries on. As you may already know, Emma Cline’s debut is loosely based on the infamous exploits of the cult which became known as the Manson Family, several of whose members committed the shocking murder of Sharon Tate – eight months pregnant with Roman Polanski’s son – and her friends in 1969.

One day in a Californian park, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd catches sight of a group of girls flaunting their tatty splendour and laughing in the faces of the staring locals, her attention snagged by the dark-haired one she will later know as Suzanne. Evie’s parents have recently divorced and her unquestioning love for her mother has soured into adolescent scorn. She and her best friend Connie are inseparable but Evie is tired of her prosaic smalltown life. When Evie spots Suzanne, thrown out of the local supermarket, she seizes her chance and finds herself invited to a summer solstice party. Soon she’s is a frequent visitor to the dilapidated ranch where the charismatic Russell holds sway over a collection of runaways, living off the donations of rock star Mitch Lewis and whatever they can filch from the town. When Russell’s ambitions to secure a record deal are thwarted, the mood at the ranch changes. The violence Evie has briefly seen but excused to herself becomes more tangible. Now middle-aged, living on the fringes of other people’s lives, Evie looks back on the events of 1969 as she watches an old friend’s young son and his besotted girlfriend.

The strength of Cline’s novel lies in her portrayal of adolescent girls on the brink of discovering their sexual power, vulnerable and constantly judging themselves and other women by the way they look. Their awkwardness, self-absorption and craving for the slightest sliver of recognition is painfully caught: ‘We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intention in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to be the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.’ Lonely and eager, Evie is ripe for Suzanne’s attention – her uncritical adulation tinged with desire all too believable. Cline wisely keeps her as a bit-player at the ranch, engaging our sympathy and making her a credible witness. The murders are foreshadowed with enough suspense to make it gripping but this is a character-driven novel – the killings and their immediate aftermath take up very little of it. It’s both absorbing and thought-provoking, a little overwritten in places for me – a few too many similes – but that’s a small criticism. As Evie looks back on that summer, watching Sasha subsume herself in Julian’s scant regard, hoping for another glimpse of the sassy young woman who emerged briefly in his absence, you long for all young girls to shrug off their girlhood and become women, happy in their own skins, regardless of who looks at them.

A Spool of Blue Thread: Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel, and counting…

Cover imageWhen I think of Baltimore two things come to mind: Anne Tyler and The Wire, polar opposites in terms of subject matter but both supreme exemplars of their particular form of entertainment. The Wire tackles the gritty problems dogging Baltimore city – drugs, racial inequality, corruption – while Tyler specialises in nuanced portraits of family life on the other side of the tracks. But you probably don’t need me to tell you that. She’s won a Pulitzer and been lauded to the skies by the likes of Sebastian Faulks, Nick Hornby and Roddy Doyle. I’ve chosen an all-male list deliberately after being told by H that he’s never read a Tyler mainly because he didn’t feel he was her audience. We’ll soon put that right.

A Spool of Blue Thread is the story of the Whitshanks told through the history of their house lovingly built back in the 1930s by Red’s father for whom it was the epitome of perfection. Now in their seventies, both Red and Abby are showing signs of ageing and Abby’s ‘absences’ – short periods when her ‘brain jumps the track’ – have become a concern. What to do? Three of their children live close by while Denny, the black sheep, lives who knows where. Stem and his wife decide to move in; then Denny turns up determined to play his part, resentful of Stem as ever. Amanda and Jeannie look on, dropping in now and again, discussing their parents over the phone and learning bits and pieces about the family they thought they knew inside out. Abby and Red, deluged with more help than they need, try their best to accommodate their children and adjust to their new status, not quite ready to hand on the baton.

This post could so easily degenerate into a paean of praise or even a gush but it’s hard to fault Tyler’s wonderfully perceptive dissection of family life with its exploration of that difficult and unsettling role reversal which takes place when parents are no longer in the driving seat. As ever she’s a master of ‘show not tell’, slipping in details of the Whitshank history, quietly fleshing out her characters, recounting affectionate stories as if she’s having a conversation with you about a family dear to her – then dropping the occasional bombshell so that all the cards are thrown up into the air. It’s familiar territory for fans like me but none the less satisfying for that. Her writing reminds me of a particular sort of English cottage garden, awash with summer colour: it all looks thrown together with the greatest of ease yet you know it’s an effect only achieved with supreme skill and attention to detail. Her canvas isn’t broad but her incisive intelligence, her sharp observation and her gentle yet sometimes barbed humour ensures that her fiction remains entertaining, vibrant and relevant. This is her twentieth novel and I hope it will be far from her last.

I am China: A love story in fragments

I am ChinaXiaolu Guo’s ambitious new novel is neither easy to read nor to write about. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of a love story, chock-full of well-aimed barbs fired at Chinese politics past and present, and it takes some getting into but don’t let that put you off – it’s well worth the effort, a book that leaves you with much to think about.

Iona Kirkpatrick has been sent a package of jumbled documents, some scrawled almost illegibly on scrappy bits of paper. She’s a translator and the package is from a publisher with very little explanation of what the documents are about or what they plan to do with her translation. She begins to realise that the papers form a love story between Chinese punk musician Kublai Jian and Mu, his poet lover. In order to tell their story Iona must assemble the many pieces of the jigsaw, researching as far as she can given the impenetrability of Chinese internet censorship. Gradually their story emerges and with it clues to Jian’s identity. He and Mu met at university and are polar opposites – Jian expressing his anger though his politicised music and the manifesto which resulted in his expulsion from the country while Mu follows the Misty Poets whose work was carefully coded protest against the Cultural Revolution. His family is part of the political elite, hers is poor and ill-educated. He insists that politics is the only way to bring about change while she favours a quieter route. Iona thinks herself self-sufficient with her work and the occasional one-night stand when she makes clear that even breakfast is out of the question but as each clue is uncovered, each new piece of the jigsaw falls into place, she’s pulled further into the love story between these two, and what has happened to them since Jian was seized on stage by the police shortly after marching in the Jasmine Revolution. She desperately wants to bring them back together. It’s no longer just another assignment: it’s taken over her life.

Diary extracts, letters with the occasional photos and illustrations – not necessarily in chronological order – make this a fragmentary novel; one which turns its readers into literary detectives just as Iona becomes. You’ll find yourself googling the many references to Chinese politics and culture, wondering if there’s a real Jian out there. The passion and vibrancy of the letters, the aching loss and the chasm between Jian and Mu’s differing beliefs draw you into this sad story of lovers wrenched apart yet with a long history of estrangement. Guo pulls no punches in her depiction of the Chinese political elite, their iron grip and closely watching eyes. In the end, the message of the book seems to be the final line of Jian’s manifesto ‘I am China. We are China. The people. Not the state.’ A tough read, then, but a thought-provoking one.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer: more than lives up to its title

Cover imageHaving read all but one of her novels I was looking forward to Meg Wolitzer’s new book. It has the kind of structure much beloved by film and TV writers – a group of young people form an enduring friendship which survives the buffeting of adulthood and all that the outside world throws at it – putting me in mind of that old 80s favourite thirtysomething but Wolitzer keeps it fresh. In her novel six teenagers meet at a summer camp run by a couple determined to foster artistic talent. Julie is the aspiring comic actress, ashamed of her background a few rungs down from her new friends. Ash is the privileged beauty, determined to work in the theatre while her arrogant brother Goodman is the bad boy. Cathy is the sexy girl already lumbered with a body too voluptuous for her longed-for dancing career. Jonah is the beautiful boy, son of a fading folk singer, quiet and musically talented. And Ethan is both the artist who devises the cartoon world of Figland to escape his parents’ eternal rowing, and the moral compass of the group. These six dub themselves the interestings in that ‘ironic’ way that fifteen-year-olds do, while Julie becomes the altogether more acceptable Jules. Over three years, Jules and Ash become best friends, while Ethan falls first for Jules then Ash whom he will marry. Life happens: Jules is saddled with envy of Ash and Ethan’s extraordinary wealth as Figland becomes a worldwide TV phenomenon and her acting dreams fail; Dennis, Jules’ husband, struggles with depression; Jonah’s musical talent is stifled by a horrible act of exploitation. Friends come and go but these central four remain steadfast, even under the strain of Goodman’s sudden departure in dreadful circumstances which throws a long dark shadow over them.

Beginning in 1974, The Interestings criss-crosses the fifty years it spans with the greatest of ease, filling in a back story here, flashing back to a memory there, all the time weaving in details of the enormous social change taking place with the lightest of touches. This is the post-Vietnam generation – indeed it’s Woltizer’s own. She was born in 1959, the same year as her characters. It’s a time of huge social upheaval: changing expectations for women and their disappointments, the horror of AIDS and its easing, 9/11 and its fallout, the internet and its effects, the financial collapse are all touched on but never with a heavy hand – the only surprising omission is the election of Obama which hardly gets a mention. Wolitzer’s characters are engaging and fallible, her story utterly absorbing – if there’s a quibble it’s that Ash is a little too good to be true but it’s a small one. This is a novel to sit back and lose yourself in. The interestings may not have become what they had hoped back in 1974 – and who does manage to achieve everything they wanted at fifteen – but I found them riveting and I’m going to miss spending time with them.

Things We Need: As Close to Anne Tyler as You Can Get

Cover Image When a book arrives with a press release proclaiming its author to be the new Anne Tyler it sets off alarm bells. Tyler’s fans love her for her wryly witty observations on social manners. Her novels are filled with the kind of characters her readers recognise in themselves, their families and friends. It’s much to Jennifer Close’s credit, then, that I hadn’t actually read the press release before I found myself comparing Things We Need to Tyler’s work. It’s the real deal.

It opens with Claire, still sore from her broken engagement to Doug, lurking in her apartment, facing yet another demand for rent she can’t pay and realising that the only option is to go home to her parents. Her sister Martha, bereft of social skills and something of a drama queen, has also returned home and is the obsessively tidy manager of a clothing store after finding that nursing wasn’t quite what she expected it to be. Weezy, their helicopter mother, is only too pleased to have them back while their father spends more and more time in his increasingly messy study. Add to this their younger and much loved brother Max, still in college but about to graduate, his eye poppingly gorgeous girlfriend Cleo and an unplanned pregnancy, and you have all the ingredients for a novel which explores the modern phenomenon of grown up children who won’t or can’t leave home. Close handles this social comedy beautifully, smoothly shifting her narrative so that each character’s voice sings out. Martha’s attention seeking neediness is cringe worthy as she takes every opportunity to parade her lesbian cousin’s credentials in front of her gay colleague convinced of her own liberal coolness. Claire finds herself sleeping with her ridiculously handsome high school crush, both of them obsessively dissecting their broken engagements. Weezy continues to have meetings with Claire’s wedding planner long after her split with Doug, unable to let go of the attention she’s been enjoying. Cleo, daughter of a single mother coolly focussed on her successful career, is so aghast at her pregnancy she tries to cover it up by wearing sweaters in summer. All of this delivered with a sly, affectionate wit. Close is undoubtedly stronger on female characters than male but this is a small criticism of what is a highly entertaining and enjoyable novel which leaves the Coffey family just that bit better adjusted than when it opened. More, please!