There will be lots of fans standing ready for this one, I’m sure. It’s been seven years since the excellent A Visit from the Goon Squad which bagged both the Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award. Manhattan Beach is very different, not least because it’s Egan’s first historical novel. Beginning in the Great Depression, it tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, who has learned to fend for herself after the disappearance of her father, and Dexter Styles who may be able to tell her what has happened to him.
Anna adores Eddie who takes his bright young daughter with him to business meetings. The stock market crash has driven him to the fringes of gangsterism, working as a bagman for the childhood friend he saved from drowning. Eddie steers a careful course, wary of risk but needing to support the wife he adores and their severely disabled daughter a little younger than Anna. One day, Eddie takes Anna to Manhattan Beach where they meet Dexter Styles and his family. This is the beginning of a business relationship which will last until Eddie disappears, having made sure his family are looked after. Years later, Anna is working in the Naval Yard checking parts for warships. Summoning all her grit and determination she finds her way onto the diving programme essential to ship maintenance, defeating its leader’s sneering prejudice. When she spots Styles at one of his nightclubs, she becomes determined to find out what happened to Eddie but finds herself embroiled in more than she bargained for.
Egan’s novel explores the history of mid-twentieth century America through the lens of Anna’s experience. She’s a smart, strong character, taught to interpret the world by her father and wary of what she might give away. She’s different from the women around her: Nell makes her way through sex and what it buys her; Rose is bringing up a child, working while her husband is at war but Anna uses her intelligence and determination to break into a staunchly masculine sphere, earning respect but not without a fight. Styles’ world contrasts with the hard graft of the shipyards, moneyed and comfortable but hanging by a thread of influence. Egan has clearly done a great deal of research for this novel, all framed within an engrossing story replete with some very smart writing: ‘the man raised in him a welt of provocation whose itch he could barely withstand’; ‘No one talked more than men on ships, but the point of the stories they told was to hide the ones they could never divulge to anyone’. It’s an accomplished, enjoyable piece of fiction but all stitched in a little too neatly for me – to say more on that would be to give too much away. I’ll be interested to see what other Egan fans make of it.
It was clear even before I opened Fiona Melrose’s new novel that it was going to be an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway: it follows a set of disparate characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013. Just as Woolf’s novel reflected the preoccupations of her time, so Johannesburg offers us a snapshot of South Africa’s capital on the day after the death of Nelson Mandela, regarded by many as his country’s saviour.
Gini has flown in from New York for four days to arrange her mother Neve’s eightieth birthday party. She knows that Neve is resistant to the idea of celebration, forever carping about small imperfections and making clear her disappointment in Gini’s single, childless state. It’s a day in which she will seek out the finest blooms in the garden, venture into the supermarket to buy chickens and search for the family dog who finds herself on the wrong side of a locked gate. As she sets about her work, constantly anxious that all will go well, Gini will encounter many characters: Peter, now a corporate lawyer his back turned on his socialist past, still unable to shrug off his love for Gini in the twenty years since she left South Africa; Richard, widowed and longing for the solace of the coast; Mercy, the family servant who lives far from home and thinks of her children, and September who has been protesting the violent suppression of a strike. Mandela’s death and the grief surrounding it is the constant background beat to this day which will prove momentous for some and perhaps redemptive for others.
As you would expect there are many nods to Woolf’s celebrated novel throughout Melrose’s own – from Gini’s Aunt Virginia, a writer who excoriated apartheid policies and walked into the sea, to the careful selection of the gorgeously described flowers that will adorn the table at the party. It’s all beautifully done, nothing clunky or self-conscious as Melrose deftly knits the many threads of her narrative together, shifting smoothly between her characters and offering a microcosm of this complex country where white privilege often shuts itself away behind razor wire and navigates the constant stream of black hawkers from comfortable, air-conditioned cars. The dog’s escape takes both Gini and Neve into places that their privileged position has never transported them, despite Gini’s altogether more enlightened attitude to race. It is, of course, far more complicated than that as this absorbing, beautifully structured novel makes clear. Corruption and racism may never be far away but perhaps there is some hope of redemption. ‘I am my brother’s keeper’ spoken by September’s sister is a phrase which resonates throughout this ambitious, expertly executed novel: we are all our brothers’ keepers wherever we live and whoever we are, although some of us seem not to recognise that.
I have a weakness for debuts. There’s always the hope that I’m about to be introduced to an author who will make their mark or take me somewhere I haven’t been before. It’s not unusual, either, for a writer’s first novel to be their best. Perhaps it’s all that time spent perfecting the writing, none spent on the endless round of promotion that authors must indulge us readers in once they’re published. Merritt Tierce’s debut Love Me Back repaid that hope handsomely. It’s the story of Marie – smart, professional and hard-working on the outside – who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. It may not sound the stuff of literary excellence but believe me that’s what Tierce fashions it into.
Pregnant at sixteen and divorced by seventeen, Marie conceived her daughter while volunteering on a church project in Mexico, scuppering her chances of going to Harvard. Briefly married to Ana’s eighteen-year-old father, Marie finds herself unable to cope with motherhood, moving out of the marital home and finding work as a waitress. Working her way up, she lands a job at The Restaurant, catering to the demands of the Dallas rich. She knows exactly how to work her clients, what she has to do to reap the rewards of the staggeringly large tips that take her from living in a sleazy apartment to a smart duplex. Coolly collected, beautifully turned out in her starched bistro apron and meticulously pressed shirt, Marie is the reliable one, always stepping in to fill a shift vacancy but careful to dodge any chance of promotion so that she can spend weekends with Ana. Beneath her apparently calm exterior she struggles to keep herself together, unable to resist the welcome numbing of drugs, self-harm and the kind of sex that leaves her empty.
Tierce’s writing is often graphic, sometimes uncomfortably so – descriptions of Marie’s abasement make difficult reading but that, of course, is what makes her character so vivid. It can also be strikingly poetic: ‘I don’t hear my whole life being written for me inside my body’ thinks Marie of the morning after Ana’s conception while ‘Her body was like an outfit she never took off’ neatly fits the startling figure of a regular with whom so many men seem besotted. The novel’s structure is episodic rather than linear – snippets of Marie’s story trickle into a stream of anecdotes about restaurant life – a brave choice for a first novel but it works, intensifying the chaotic inner life disguised by Marie’s carefully constructed professional persona. Inevitably Tierce’s novel brought to mind Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential with its portrayal of high adrenaline restaurant life. Hard to imagine that Tierce hasn’t spent some time working in the trade. Altogether a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.
I’ve admired Rupert Thomson’s work for some time. His novels are never predictable, always exploring unexpected terrain from the advertising world, satirized in Soft!, to the Medici court in Secrecy‘s seventeenth century Florence. The last one’s my particular favourite. Famously, Davie Bowie’s is The Insult which appeared as one of his 100 Must-Read Books of All Time. I’m sure Bowie didn’t come up with that tag which sounds straight out of Soft! to me. The ones I’ve read all have an element of suspense but they’re very much more than thrillers. What kept me on edge in this new novel was the fate of the eponymous Katherine who seems to put herself in ever increasing danger.
Nineteen-year-old Katherine was what used to be called by the tabloids a test tube baby. Conceived using IVF, her embryo was implanted into her mother eight years after its conception. Her mother died when Katherine was sixteen from a cancer Katherine has convinced herself was the result of her own implantation. Her father is a journalist at CNN. Rarely at home in Rome where they settled when Katherine’s mother was still alive, he’s more often to be found in the Middle East reporting on the latest conflict. Katherine has won a scholarship to Oxford but in the September before she’s due to go she decides to disappear. Overhearing a conversation in a cinema about a man in Berlin she convinces herself it’s a message to her and takes herself off there. So begins a series of adventures in which Katherine will meet several older men while travelling from Rome to Archangel then on up into the Arctic Circle where she finds a kind of peace, far away from anyone she knows and anyone who knows her. Throughout her odyssey she fantasizes that her father is looking for her, alerted to her disappearance by the rendezvous she’s set up for them in Berlin – which she knows that she will not make – hoping to snare the attention she craves from him and dangerously courts with other men.
Thomson’s writing is often very striking. The Prologue in which Katherine recounts her own in vitro conception is extraordinarily vivid. Later, ‘His eyes are damp too. When he looks at me they seem to leave a deposit, as snails do’ describes a masculine leer perfectly while the image of the September sun in Rome ‘richer, more tender, the colour of old wedding rings’ was a gorgeous thing to read on a dank November day. Thomson is equally vivid in his exploration of the effects of Katherine’s origins. She often feels watched, as if the other embryos implanted with her accompany her on her journey. At times she feels emotionally absent ‘Sometimes I suspect I haven’t quite thawed out yet.’ Her meetings with increasingly shady men seem part of the process of making herself feel alive. Her guilt about her own survival and her mother’s death are made all the more poignant by her vibrant memories of her mother while her elaborate fantasies of her father’s pursuit convey an aching need for his attention. Wittingly or unwittingly, Katherine has left a trail of clues for anyone determined enough to find her. It’s a clever piece of work, and a fascinating theme to explore – one which is not so very far from home for Thomson as this interview reveals.
Quite some years ago now I read Michael Crummey’s The River Thieves while on holiday. Having thoroughly enjoyed it, I eagerly snapped up Galore when it was published but, sadly, was a little underwhelmed – it wasn’t a bad book but lacked the impact of his previous novel, at least for me. The 2011 IMPAC judges clearly disagreed: they shortlisted it. Still hopeful, I decided to give Sweetland a try. Set on the eponymous tiny island, just off Newfoundland, it tells the story of Moses Sweetland, descendent of the island’s first settlers.
Sweetland is an obdurate old man, just one of two people standing out against the resettlement package offered to the island’s inhabitants by the Canadian government. It’s an ageing population with just a few children including Jesse, Sweetland’s grand-nephew, who adores the place. Despite Sweetland’s reluctance to acknowledge it, he and Jesse share a bond that runs as deep as their mutual attachment to the island. Support for the package must be unanimous and Sweetland knows he’s the object of annoyance – anonymous letters find their way into his unlocked home, rabbits caught in the traps he sets are horribly mutilated and his landing stage is set on fire. Eventually, persuaded by his niece, Sweetland makes public his decision but tragedy strikes throwing the cards up into the air again. Obstinate to the end, Sweetland finds a way round the problem of his departure that only he could have devised.
Sweetland is as much about a passing way of life as it is about the man. As the island’s population dwindles so it becomes uneconomic to maintain the services needed by the few inhabitants left. The cod quota has made inroads into their livelihoods, young people leave and no fresh settlers arrive – yet these are people who have lived alongside each other all their lives, keeping their secrets close but helping each other through difficulties, not least the vagaries of the inhospitable climate. Crummey’s portrait of this small community is vividly evocative. His characters are strikingly drawn: the romance-reading Queenie who hasn’t left her house in years; Loveless, perhaps better named useless given his inability to do anything for himself; and, of course, Sweetland who has only left the island briefly, returning scarred and irascible. Sweetland’s sense of place is dramatic – this is an island where the weather dictates survival or not. Just one quibble, and it’s one I often have – the second part of the novel felt too long despite the suspense and tension running through it. Not a match for The River Thieves, then, but well worth reading, nevertheless.
Last week it was announced that Hodder & Stoughton was to buy Stieg Larsson’s publisher, Quercus, an independent started by Anthony Cheetham back in 2005. For several years it was the book trade’s darling, its success no doubt helped along by Cheetham’s many years of publishing experience combined with his legendary entrepreneurial nous. Finding itself cash-strapped, it had put itself up for sale a few months ago and I had been anxious about who might buy it. It came hard on the heels of the announcement that Little, Brown was buying Constable & Robinson, another independent
I’m very fond of independent publishers – they’re more likely to produce books that are a little out of the mainstream rather than staying on a bandwagon for rather too long. They keep the big boys and girls of the publishing world on their toes but sometimes find themselves swallowed up by the conglomerates as happened to Fourth Estate who caught HarperCollins’ eye. As is often the case with independents their very inventiveness results in a huge success – in this case Dava Soebel’s Longitude which opened up a whole new genre of niche history – attracting the attention of the publishing behemoths. That particular acquisition was accompanied by the appointment of Victoria Barnsley, whose baby Fourth Estate was, to CEO of HarperCollins which ensured that it didn’t entirely lose its personality. Sadly, since her surprise departure last year, Barnsley is longer holding the reins.
I’m a great fan of Quercus – good strong commercial fiction and crime coupled with the literary and translated fiction of Maclehose Press. I’m sure Hodder will take care of them – worries about the takeover of the illustrious John Murray, surely the most venerable of independents, proved unfounded – and that Little, Brown will look after Corsair, Constable & Robinson’s literary fiction imprint, long a favourite of mine. There are a multitude of independents out there, many of them publishing in enterprising and inventive ways: Persephone’s beautifully produced women’s lost classics, originally only sold from their own shop, filled the Virago Classic gap; Profile’s often quirky and original non-fiction is always worth a look; not to mention Alma’s short but carefully chosen list plus And Other Stories’ inventive crowd sourcing, publishing by subscription approach. Some of them have reserves to live off – Faber have a solid backlist of plays, poetry and William Golding while Bloomsbury still has the Harry Potter goldmine. These, along with Canongate who filled that Fourth Estate gap for me, Granta, publishers of the Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, and Atlantic are some of my favourite publishers. I’m sure many of you will have your own treasured independents – I’d love to hear who they are.
Corsair is one of my favourite imprints, a member of a select band that always published far too many tempting books to include them all when I was a reviews editor. One I had to drop, reluctantly, a couple of years ago was Cathleen Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Westport which had kept me entertained on holiday. Fin & Lady is in a similar vein in that it’s an absorbing piece of escapism with enough of a dark edge to steer itself clear of cloying or overly sentimental territory. It’s a story of orphans: Fin, named on his father’s whim after seeing a French film, finds himself in the care of his half-sister, Lady, a 1960s Holly Golightly, beautiful and a little manic with a chaotic way of life thoroughly unsuitable for the guardian of an eleven-year-old boy. She likes to drink martinis, loves to read, takes Fin to unsuitable films, forgets to send him to school then finds a ridiculously progressive one when she remembers and appears to be in need of a guardian herself. Acknowledging the need for a little respectability, she sets Fin the task of finding her a husband: enter Biffi, a Hungarian art dealer, Jack, a student football star, and Tyler, already left at the altar once by Lady. When Fin is sixteen, Lady takes herself off leaving only a note telling him not to follow her, later summoning him to Capri where they first met when Fin was five and Lady was eighteen, fresh from jilting Tyler. It seems that Lady may have finally found her feet, and her match. Slowly we begin to understand that it is not to us that Fin has been telling his story.
Fin is an endearing character, eccentric and loving, busy reading Native Son and Alan Watts when he’s twelve while seeking the solace of friendship with Phoebe, herself the product of slightly odd parents. Schine’s characterisation is deft enough to prevent Lady from becoming a caricature of a rich over-indulged dilettante, her descriptions of Capri are seductive and the novel is replete with period detail but it is Fin who is undoubtedly the star of the show. Schine has a sharp eye for social observation which has led her to be compared with Jane Austen: I wouldn’t go quite that far but if you’re after a polished undemanding slice of entertainment to while away a few winter evenings Fin & Lady would fit the bill nicely.