There’s a quote from the Washington Post on the back of my proof comparing Joan Silber to Alice Munro which both piqued my interest and made me a little wary when approaching Improvement. Munro’s quietly insightful writing, uncluttered with fussy ornament, is right up my literary street but such comparisons so often lead to disappointment. Not this time. Silber’s novel traces the repercussions of a fatal accident through a set of characters – some directly affected by it, others barely linked to the event at all – exploring themes of love and redemption.
Reyna is hoping that her aunt, Kiki, will look after four-year-old Oliver while she visits Boyd in prison. Boyd has just three months to serve for a crime so petty that if he were white he might not have been locked up at all. Kiki has concerns about Boyd and is happy to voice them. Reyna’s judgement is not all it could be when it comes to men but Kiki, herself, has been keeping schtum for decades about her reasons for leaving her husband and returning home from her beloved Turkey about which she so often waxes lyrical. When Boyd gets out of prison, money is tight. His friends cook up a scheme smuggling cigarettes from Virginia to New York. All they need is a name to put on the vehicle ownership form which Claude’s sister is happy to provide. All goes swimmingly: money flows freely; Boyd, who Oliver adores, spends most of his leisure hours with Reyna and Claude seems to have met the love of his life in Virginia. One day, when they need a driver Reyna is pressed into service but her concerns for Oliver result in her stepping down at the last minute. Claude takes the wheel with tragic results.
Improvement is a carefully constructed novel that reads almost like a series of tightly linked short stories beginning and ending with Reyna. Silber explores the ripple effects of Claude’s accident through a range of characters from his Virginia girlfriend, left with no news of this man she’d grown to love, to the three Germans whose visit to Kiki’s Turkish home resulted in her departure decades before the carpet she brought back to the States contributes to Reyna’s redemption. Silber’s characters are sharply observed, her writing subtly understated leaving her readers to draw their own conclusions. Her exploration of love in its many forms and the stories we tell ourselves is insightful and pleasing. In short, that comparison seems spot on to me. I found myself wondering why I’d not snapped up everything Silber’s written some time ago but as far as I can see Improvement is her only book published here in the UK. All I can say to her publishers is ‘more please’.
A few years ago, I reviewed Seth Greenland’s I Regret Everything, a smartly witty love story which I enjoyed very much. I’d intended to track down the rest of Greenland’s novels but somehow never got around to it so when The Hazards of Good Fortune popped up in Europa Editions’ catalogue I jumped at it despite its doorstopping 600+ pages. Greenland’s novel is the story of Jay Gladstone, a fabulously wealthy man whose staunch belief in his own integrity leaves him primed for a fall.
Jay is the head of the corporation his realtor father set up. The family business has property throughout New York City but its influence has expanded far beyond the expectations of the son of a Jewish refugee plumber. A proud liberal, Jay is a respected philanthropist. He’s played golf with the President and has plans for a legacy which will tower over Brooklyn but his dearest love is his basketball team whose star player is not quite delivering the goods. There are other troubles in paradise: Jay’s cousin may well be cooking the books; his daughter ignores his texts and his wife of five years seems a little too fond of a drink. Nevertheless, when Jay takes off for South Africa to check on the eco-development he hopes to expand, all seems set for a continuation of his glittering life. When business concludes early, he boards the plane reconsidering his decision not to have the child Nicole seems suddenly so desperate to bear and arrives home planning to tell her so. What he finds will lead to a catastrophic downturn in his fortunes involving an ambitious District Attorney, a frustrated activist and a media who smell blood.
Beginning in 2012, just a few weeks after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, The Hazards of Good Fortune explores racism within the framework of Jay Gladstone’s story with a pleasing satirical edge. Christine Lupo weighs the indictment of a policeman for the shooting of a disturbed black man against Jay’s case in terms of political traction. Black anti-Semitism is put under the microscope at an excruciating Passover to which Jay’s daughter has brought her black activist girlfriend. Jay prides himself in his relationship with his coach and players then discovers he has no black friends. Swipes are taken at the media, social and otherwise, eager to celebrate the downfall of a man who has so publicly prided himself in his integrity but who falls into desperate legal and moral straits. Garland is careful to avoid caricature with Jay, painting him as essentially a good man but one whose self-belief blinds him to reality. All of this is wrapped up in a story which bowls along nicely if rather wordily: there were a few too many long contextualising descriptions for my taste. Tom Wolfe’s potboiler Bonfire of the Vanities came to mind a few chapters in but despite its bagginess The Hazards of Good Fortune is very much better than that.
If you spend any time in the literary corners of Twitter you will have heard of Gabriel Tallent’s debut already. Lots of readers fervently singing its praises at every turn. I knew from the blurb that it would be a tough read but had no conception of just how gut-wrenchingly nerve-wracking. I nearly gave it up but Tallent’s writing is so compelling that I couldn’t leave it alone. It’s the story of fourteen-year-old Turtle who lives with her survivalist father in Northern California.
Turtle’s mother died when she was a toddler. She downs a couple of raw eggs every morning, tosses her father a beer and discourages him from walking her to the school bus. Martin is careful to abide by enough of society’s rules to avoid social services removing Turtle from him. She’s well-versed in survival skills, has her own gun – regularly stripped down and cleaned ready to fire – but she has no school friends and refuses to work at her studies. Her grandfather, Daniel, lives close by and tries to keep an eye on her, upbraiding Martin for the way he’s bringing the girl up, only to be met with abuse from the son who loathes him. Martin has systematically broken Turtle down and reformed her. She watches him carefully, wary of provoking him. She hates herself and everyone else, her head full of anger. Two events change the course of this twisted relationship: Daniel’s death which precipitates Martin’s abandonment of Turtle for several months, and her acquaintance with two boys, one of whom falls in love with her and takes her home. For a few short months, Turtle comes close to a normal family life. When Martin returns, bringing a ten-year-old girl with him, Turtle understands that she will soon be faced with a momentous choice.
Tallent tells Turtle’s story from her own perspective, wisely choosing a third person narrative rather than the first person the intensity of which would have been too much to bear. Martin’s psychopathic behaviour and stream of misogynistic abuse alternating with excessive professions of love have made Turtle mistrustful and vigilant yet incapable of withholding love from the only person apart from her grandfather who has shown her affection, no matter how perverse. Martin is a chillingly monstrous character yet carefully crafted to avoid the cartoon villain. Turtle is expertly drawn: a silent observer at school, constantly trying to decipher the codes of social behaviour. Tallent stretches his story taut with a series of graphic scenes which had me shrinking away yet unable to stop reading. When Turtle contemplates killing Martin, you can only cheer her on. Amongst the drama of the novel’s storyline are some beautiful descriptions of the natural world but it’s Turtle that keeps your attention. This is real heart in mouth stuff, unsparing of its readers. It ends with a much-needed possibility of hope.
Catherine Lacey’s second novel arrived with a press release mentioning Margaret Atwood. I tend to ignore these bits of paper until I’ve finished the book, preferring to read it with an open mind. A few chapters in, however, Atwood’s was the name that popped into my head. Not such a cheeky comparison after all for this satire which takes a dystopian view of relationships, our obsession with celebrity and the seemingly inexorable march of technology into even our most private moments. It’s about a social experiment, a scientific study commissioned by movie star to investigate what makes us fall in love and stay that way.
Mary is in desperate straits. Afflicted with many and varied symptoms, medical bills piling up, her only relief derived from Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia – the therapy recommended by her best, and only, friend – she has to find a way to make some money. A notice in a health food store seems to offer a solution, albeit one cloaked in mystery. She jumps through the many hoops of the recruitment process – her main qualification seemingly her ignorance of Kurt Sky, the household name behind this strange assignment – until she’s initiated into the Girlfriend Experiment. She’s to be Emotional Girlfriend alongside Angry Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend and Mundane Girlfriend, to name but a few of the participants. Each of them must take part in choreographed and scripted Relational Experiments with Kurt, closely monitored by the Research Division who have their own agenda. As the experiment proceeds, it seems that Mary’s interactions with Kurt are the most successful. The job becomes full-time and as the Research Division interpolate their own ideas into the experiments, Mary’s feelings become increasingly confused. Meanwhile, she continues her PAK therapy with Ed, complete with crystals, gnomic pronouncements and incense burning.
Lacey’s novel is stuffed full of barbs aimed at modern society, from our determination to find perfect romantic love to our obsession with celebrity, reserving a few for the wackier alternative therapies. Mary tells her own story in the beginning and end sections of the book while the experiment forms the middle. There were a few too many girlfriends popping up at one point – I began to feel we might be losing track of Mary – but that said Lacey’s writing is both acerbic and penetrating. The idea of a man, numbed by constant and insistent attention, trying to track down how love feels, is both poignant and repellent yet convincing. Lacey has some trenchant comments to make about our pursuit and expectations of love: ‘It was painfully clear then, so painfully clear, that people fell in love to find something in themselves that they’d had all along’ thinks Mary, watching two lovers. Altogether a sharply observed satire, smartly delivered with a hefty dollop of caustic humour, which – echoing that press release – brought Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last to mind.
All That’s Left to Tell caught my eye on Twitter – just a few tweets, nothing shouty but it sounded intriguing. Two people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. These are the bare bones of Daniel Lowe’s novel which engrosses you utterly, shifting the ground beneath your feet so deftly it’s hard to believe it’s his first.
Marc has come to Pakistan against all advice from his friends and family. He’s been spotted wandering in a slum neighbourhood, wanting to know how poor Pakistanis live as he later tells the woman he comes to know as Josephine. A taxi-driver picks him up, apparently concerned about his welfare, then delivers him into the hands of kidnappers. His guards speak little English although he manages to strike up a relationship with one of them. Every evening they blindfold him before the entrance of Josephine who engages him in conversation, coaxing details about his life from him: the departure of his wife a few months before his arrival in Pakistan; the recent murder of his daughter,Claire. Disoriented and lonely, Marc’s guard begins to drop. He lets slip more information which Josephine weaves through the stories she tells him of the life Claire might have led until it becomes more real to him than his own predicament. She warns him that time is running out for them both but Marc is desperate to know how Claire’s story ends. This puzzling interrogator with her American accent and her uncanny knowledge spins stories within stories until Marc is entirely caught in her web – as are we.
It’s hard to avoid that tired old cliché ‘unputdownable’ when writing about this novel. Lowe has chosen an extraordinarily ambitious structure which draws you in, leaving you wondering how he will bring Josephine’s storytelling to a conclusion. When it does come, he pulls the rug from under your feet yet again making you reassess all that’s come before. Josephine cleverly unfolds Claire’s story for Marc, amplifying his grief and loneliness by weaving vivid word pictures from the information she gleans from him, leaving him vulnerable and unguarded in his response to her. The apparent intertwining of her own story with Claire and Marc’s further intensifies the intimacy of the strange relationship that has grown between them. The result is utterly immersive and the epilogue is a masterstroke, throwing all the cards up in the air. This is a clever subtle piece of fiction all about storytelling at which Lowe excels, neatly ending his novel with the line ‘Tell me a story’. I’m already wondering how he’s going to follow it.
Sometimes 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.
It was impossible for me to read this collection without thinking of breach, Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes’ short stories about refugees living in Calais’ now disbanded Jungle. Whereas breach is based on Popoola and Holmes’ research carried out in and around Calais, The Refugees was written by an author who fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. Comprising eight stories written over a period of twenty years, it explores the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. A particularly timely read given the current state of affairs in America
Nguyen considers themes of memory, love, family, identity and belonging – or not belonging – from a variety of points of view. In ‘Black-eyed Women’ a young woman who resolutely refuses to believe in the ghosts her mother insists she sees, is forced to reconsider when the brother who died protecting her suddenly reappears. A young man is disconcerted to discover that he’s living with a gay couple, one of whom is his sponsor, in ‘The Other Man’ then finds himself behaving in ways he doesn’t recognise. ‘War Years’ sees a man remembering his mother challenging a fellow Vietnamese asking for money to combat a Communist resurgence then thinking better of it, faced with her own relative good fortune, while in ‘The Americans’ a Vietnam vet is invited to visit his daughter, now living in the country he last saw from a B-52, and bitterly resents what he sees as her accusations. These are carefully crafted, contemplative stories which often end with a sentence that makes you consider – or reconsider – all that came before.
Whereas the stories in breach are very immediate – its subjects still in flight from recent conflicts – Nguyen’s collection combines a thoughtful distance with first-hand experience which lends it a quiet power. His writing is beautifully polished, both eloquent and elegant: ‘In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories’, thinks the young ghostwriter in ‘Black-eyed Women’; ‘Marcus had the posture of someone expecting an inheritance, while Liem’s sense of debt caused him to walk with eyes downcast as if searching for pennies’ in ‘The Other Man’. Nguyen shows not tells, subtly alerting his readers to the ordeals his characters have endured: a character’s water phobia, another’s compulsion to own more than he could ever need having left so much behind. A son’s casual assumption of American peace and prosperity since infancy contrast with his father’s quiet acceptance of a job far beneath his capabilities signalling the gulf that can open up between generations. It’s a compelling collection, heartrending yet optimistic. Every refugee – from Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or any of the many conflicts that afflict our world – has their story which will continue to reverberate for many decades. We need to hear them.
Someone at Oneworld has a very sharp editorial eye, or maybe there’s a whole team of them. They managed to bag both the last two Man Booker Prizes, first with Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings then Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. They also published Sweetbitter, one of my favourites from 2016, and The Prison Book Club, an equally impressive piece of non-fiction. Jacqueline Woodson’s elegant, slim novella is another triumph. It’s a book of memory, the story of a teenage girl in the ‘70s which unfolds when a chance meeting after her father’s funeral catapults August back into her past.
August and her brother lived in rural Tennessee until she was eight and he was four when their father took them back to the tough Brooklyn neighbourhood where he grew up. They miss their mother but August comforts her brother, telling him that someday she will join them. Day after day they watch the goings-on in the street from their apartment window, forbidden to leave the house by a father grown fearful after fighting in the Vietnam war. August sees three girls playing, skipping and laughing together on the summer streets. She longs to be a part of their group and, one day, she will. Smart, beautiful Sylvia, whose parents see a bright future ahead of her, welcomes August into her friendship with Gigi and Angela, both talented but less privileged. These four will form an alliance against the world, a refuge from the insistent hum of male attention, until cracks begin to form. By the time of her father’s funeral, August is an anthropologist, an Ivy League graduate who has studied death rituals throughout the world – successful but no longer in touch with the friends who had meant so much to her.
August tells her story in her own voice, unfurling the past in fragments as memories so often do. Woodson’s writing is strikingly beautiful – poetic and often impressionistic yet capable of packing an emotional punch with a single sentence or phrase. Small details, slipped in, slowly reveal why August jumps off the subway before her stop rather than greeting her old friend. It’s a narrative infused with heart-wrenching loss: ‘I thought of my mother often, lifting my hand to stroke my own cheek’ remembers August who comforted her brother as she combed his tangled hair telling him to imagine that hers are ‘Mama’s hands’. Woodson’s portrayal of female friendship is equally arresting: ‘I had Sylvia, Angela and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying Here. Help me carry this.’ Another Brooklyn is a gorgeous book – deeply moving, peopled with vividly drawn characters and beautifully expressed. It will be with me for some time.
I can’t say I embraced the prospect of Wally Lamb’s new novel entirely enthusiastically: I’d read his first, She’s Come Undone, which was praised to the skies by all and sundry but left me cold, and the blurb mentions ghosts which I found distinctly off-putting. You might wonder, then, why I decided to read it. The answer is that it appeared to be a feminist novel by a man, a phenomenon well worth investigating.
Felix Funicello is a sixty-year-old professor of film studies. Divorced, he adores his daughter Aliza, encouraging her in her journalistic career, and is on good enough terms with his ex-wife. He’s the brother of two sisters, both of whom he loves dearly. One Monday night, setting up in the gloriously old-fashioned cinema in which he runs his film club, an apparition appears introducing herself as Lois Weber, a silent movie director much overlooked by her male colleagues and wanting the record put straight. She tells Felix that he’s been chosen as ‘educable’, playing him footage of significant scenes from his life and occasionally directing him to ‘re-enter’ those scenes. As he watches his family, Felix is hit by a wave of nostalgia accompanied by the benefit of hindsight. He overhears his beautiful sister Simone confide her boss’s sexual harassment to their mother and his mother’s inadequate response; he watches his sister Francis throwing herself into the Rheingold Girls beauty pageant election and her terrible struggles with anorexia. As Lois shows Felix more of his life, the pieces of his own personal jigsaw begin to fall into place until he understands the women in his life far better.
Narrated in the first person, Lamb’s novel is written in a very direct, conversational style. It bowls along nicely, interweaving Felix’s family story with historical context and movie trivia. Those worrying ‘ghost’ scenes are carried off with humour, smartly avoiding any painful creakiness. Felix’s hindsight allows Lamb to smoothly make points about the tyranny of beauty, the exploitation of women’s insecurities and the casual dismissal of women’s potential and achievements. Aliza’s blog post towards the end of the novel is a neat riposte to her mother’s angry dismissal of ‘post-feminism’ in which she argues that a new generation of feminists is attacking sexist attitudes using a different set of tools. I’ll Take You There is a very rare thing: an enjoyable, commercial novel with a broad, deep streak of feminism running through it, and it’s written by a man. I won’t be catching up with Lamb’s backlist anytime soon but this one proved to be well worth my time.
This may well be my last review for 2016. The rest of December’s posts are likely to be taken up with looking forwards and back in that time-honoured fashion for the last month of the year.
Having got over my lifelong antipathy to short stories I still find myself drawn more to the linked variety rather than collections of standalones. There’s something about spotting a character familiar from a previous story and wondering how they might develop. Anna Noyes’ debut collection seemed like it might fit that category and although it turned out to be not quite what I was expecting – to be fair the press release does say ‘loosely interconnected’ – it’s immensely satisfying.
Noyes’ stories share the backdrop of smalltown Maine, and they’re about women. Men tend to be somewhere off stage, their presence – or absence – often keenly felt. In ‘Hibernation’, for instance, a woman’s increasingly unhinged husband has drowned, apparently killing himself, but she’s convinced he’s still alive, watching her. A girl ricochets between childhood and womanhood then back again while her widowed father worries about how to discuss the rape of a young woman in ‘Safe as Houses’. ‘The Quarry’ has a ten-year-old taxing her fifteen-year-old sister about her love life and finding out more than she wants to hear. The titular story sees a young woman aghast at what happens when she, her reclusive mother and the man who helped raise her since she was six take a trip out-of-state while in ‘Changeling’ a young nurse constantly searching for a mother after her own left nineteen years ago thinks she may have found her but turns out to have found something else instead. These five give a flavour of the eleven stories which comprise Noyes’ slim, elegant collection.
These are stories about ordinary, everyday people sometimes emotionally damaged, often struggling to get by. Single parents fretting about their kids; children overhearing too much; mental illness and too much alcohol; sexual misadventure and abuse, are recurring themes. Noyes’ writing is arrestingly striking at times, quietly controlled and finely honed: ‘Dad only touched me twice. Both times he was gentle and looked bewildered, like my body wasn’t the one he expected, but it was too late, too embarrassing for both of us to turn back’ exemplifies her empathetic exploration of human complexity. ‘I thought of my mother, who had taken to wearing her robe from morning until evening, and ghosting around the house with her swollen eyes and mottled face’ elegantly expresses depression’s devastating effects on both mother and child. Noyes sketches subtle word pictures of the human state in myriad shades of grey. These women are entirely believable, their lives unfolding in carefully crafted yet immediate prose – sometimes dreamlike, sometimes sharp and clean. It’s an admirable collection. Ron Rash came to mind for me although the Washington Post compares Noyes to Alice Munro with which, I’m sure, her publishers will have been very much more delighted.