Tag Archives: Dominic Smith

Books of the Year 2017: Part Two

Cover imageJanuary and February boasted six reading treats for me but things were spread a little more thinly over the following three months. March began with what I knew would be a favourite author’s last book. Helen Dunmore’s, Birdcage Walk, is set in her home town of Bristol against the backdrop of the French Revolution raging across the Channel while Britain looks nervously on. It’s the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge. Politics, both national and domestic, runs through Dunmore’s novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling. Dunmore quietly delivered some of the finest writing produced by her generation. Even when writing of facing her own death she was gracefully, elegantly restrained. An enormous talent – how I will miss that frisson of delight that greets the announcement of a new book from her.

April’s favourite is by another writer whose work seems underrated to me. Although longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 was omitted from the shortlist much to my – and many other readers’ – amazement, then it missed the Goldsmiths Prize. It traces the effects of a young girl’s disappearance from a village in the north of England over the course of thirteen years, one for each of her life. The rhythms of the natural world hum through its pages, a background to the small tragedies, joys, disappointments and achievements that make up the villagers’ lives. Beneath it all there’s a consciousness of the missing girl and what may have happened to her. Deeply compassionate, written in quietly lyrical prose and peopled with astutely observed, well-rounded characters, this is a superb novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Fingers firmly crossed that the Costa judges see sense.Cover image

Three books stood out for me in May, the first of which was all about storytelling. Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell sees 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. Disoriented and lonely, Marc begins to let slip information which Josephine weaves through the stories she tells him until they become more real to him than his own predicament. Lowe draws you in with his extraordinarily ambitious structure, frequently pulling the rug from under your feet. The result is utterly immersive and the epilogue is a masterstroke, throwing all the cards up in the air. A very clever, subtle piece of fiction.

I’ve no idea how I managed to miss Duncan Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos when it was first published here in 2016. Three timelines run through this tightly plotted, inventive novel: Sara’s 17th-century narrative, the theft of her painting from the de Groot family in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000 when its curator is faced with a youthful indiscretion which could destroy her reputation. Smith juggles his narrative stands with admirable deftness, linking all three neatly and satisfyingly together. His writing is elegantly crafted and there’s a nice thread of suspense running through the novel. It’s that rare though often promised thing – a literary page-turner, both entertaining and illuminating.

Cover imageI wasn’t at all sure about Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From which looked distinctly dystopian, not the kind of distraction I was looking for in a year spent trying to escape the real world, but she’s a poet and in my experience poets often write beautifully crafted novels. A mere 140 pages long – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence –  it’s the story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives. This is a highly ambitious first novel but Hunter carries it off beautifully – flashes of humour shine out, her use of language is captivating, the risky structure tackled with great confidence and it ends on a ringing note of much-needed optimism.

The next three months kick off with another bumper selection in June, including one often described as a Brexit novel. Can’t seem to get away from it…

All the above are linked to full reviews on this blog and if you missed my January and February favourites, they’re here.

Five Australian Novels I’ve Read

Given that I nicked this idea from Kim over at Reading Matters, an Australian blogger, albeit one living in the UK, it seems Cover imageonly fair to round up five books I’ve read by Australians. I should say I’ve read considerably more Australian fiction than that but these are five novels I’ve particularly enjoyed. The last three are linked to a full review.

David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon begins on a sweltering day in the mid-nineteenth century with a strange and ragged figure dancing out of the bush and into the lives of a small group of white settlers. Gemmy Fairley has spent almost sixteen years living with indigenous Australians. At first his eccentricities are greeted with amusement but as the settlers attempt to impose their own kind of order on an environment they see as hostile, many of them find Gemmy’s presence both unsettling and threatening. Where do the loyalties of this man, who is white like them but seems to have more in common with aboriginal people, lie? Every word counts in this slim, dazzlingly vivid novella.

Most British readers would probably name Peter Carey if pushed to come up with an Australian author. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed all Carey’s novels but one stands out for me, so good I’ve read it three times: the 1988 Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda. The gawky, misfit, son of a preacher, Oscar Hopkins stumbles upon a method of paying his way through his theology studies, becoming an obsessive but successful gambler, convinced that he’s following God’s will. Equally the misfit, Lucinda Leplastrier, unexpectedly in possession of a large fortune and the proprietor of a glassworks, is well aware of the scandalous nature of her gambling addiction. When these two meet on board a ship bound for Australia, they form an unlikely bond which results in a calamitous misunderstanding as both wager their futures on a fantastical glass church. Set against the backdrop of nineteenth-century colonialism Oscar and Lucinda is a wonderfully witty, vibrant pastiche of a Victorian novel.

Romy Ash’s Floundering begins with Loretta swinging by her parents’ home to pick up her twoCover image sons who she’d left on their doorstep a year ago because ‘things just got complicated’. They’re on the road for days: what’s needed along the way is shoplifted; they sleep in the car; the heat is suffocating; insects bite mercilessly but Tom, who narrates the novel, manages to remain cheerful although increasingly uneasy and at times downright scared. He and his older brother bicker while Loretta – never to be called Mum – chivvies them, often hungover, sometimes drinking at the wheel. They finally arrive at a campsite where Loretta slowly unravels, the heat bounces off everything and their next door neighbour can’t stand to have little boys around. Things go from bad to worse. Through Tom’s voice, Ash manages to capture the panicky fear of an eleven-year-old unsure of what his increasingly chaotic and unpredictable mother will do next.

Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a tightly plotted, inventive novel through which run three timelines: the titular Sara’s seventeenth-century narrative, the theft of her painting in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000. In 1957, a beautifully executed copy is substituted for the only extant de Vos painting which has been in the de Groot family for centuries. Marty de Groot’s investigations take a somewhat unorthodox route leading him to Ellie Shipley, a PhD student turned conservator who – decades later – will become the acknowledged expert on de Vos, her career celebrated in an exhibition which will have the de Groot’s painting as its centrepiece. Still in a private collection, its owner is delivering the work himself. Then a collector in Leiden offers the same painting to the gallery’s director. Smith deftly weaves the story of the painting and its creator through Ellie and Marty’s narratives, linking all three satisfyingly together in this entertaining literary page-turner.

Cover imageI’ll end this with a novel that I hope grabbed more attention in Australia that it seemed to here in the UK. Jennifer Down’s debut, Our Magic Hour, follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend Katy kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability. When her dearest friend dies, it’s Audrey who looks out for everyone else while her partner tries to take care of her. Down’s novel is a masterclass in elegant understatement. Her writing is so restrained that, like Audrey, we’re brought up short when details let slip alert us to her state of mind. Its quiet intimacy draws us into her circle making the loneliness of her life all the more wrenching but it can also be very funny: This could easily have been an overwhelmingly bleak book but Down steers it neatly clear of that. The result is a very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely.

Any Australian novels you’d like to recommend?

Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThis second instalment of September paperbacks starts with a book that I wanted to love but couldn’t quite manage to. If you’re a fan of Jay McInerney’s series of novels which began with Brightness Falls 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 their story around the time of 9/11. Bright Precious Days begins in 2006 with the global financial crisis not yet on the horizon. Russell runs a small independent publishing house while Corrine works for a charity, feeding the city’s poor. It’s a much better book than The Good Life but It doesn’t match the brilliance of Brightness Falls for me.

Art thrillers seem to be a bit of a thing at the moment. I read the wonderful The Last Painting of Sara de Vos earlier this year and if anyone’s looking out for a late summer read I’d recommend it. Coincidentally Bernhard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs also has an Australian connection. A ‘lost’ painting is donated to a Sydney gallery much to the amazement of the art world and the three men who’ve loved the women it portrays. Each of them comes to her isolated cottage to face their tangled past. ‘The Woman on the Stairs is an intricately crafted, poignant and beguiling novel about creativity and love, about the effects of time passing and the regrets that haunt us all’ say the publishers. It sounds appealing and I’ve enjoyed Schlink’s work in the past very much.

There’s a fair amount of regret in Donna Morrissey’s The Fortunate Brother which comes with a hearty endorsement from the excellent Ron Rash. Set in Newfoundland, it’s the story of a murder which sets the small fishing village in which it takes place abuzz with speculation. When the local bully’s corpse is washed up, thought to be drowned then found to be stabbed, almost everybody falls under suspicion including the brother of a family still suffering a terrible burden of grief. Tensions run high almost to the end of Morrissey’s taut atmospheric novel. I guessed Cover imagethe perpetrator correctly early on but that didn’t stop me from changing my mind right up until their identity was revealed.

Fiona Melrose’s much praised Midwinter explores similar emotional territory by the sound of it. It’s about a Suffolk farming family who have worked their land for generations. Cecelia died when her youngest was just a child leaving two sons and their father who have stoically buried their grief and got on with their work but something about the dreadful winter which comes upon them makes them snap. ‘Tender and lyrical, alive to language and nature, Midwinter is a novel about guilt, blame, lost opportunities and, ultimately, it is a story about love and the lengths we will go to find our way home’, apparently. Having recently reviewed the very fine Johannesburg which made it on to my Man Booker wishlist, I can’t imagine why I haven’t read this one already.

Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others sounds like an entirely different kettle of fish. Film-makers Meadow and Carrie grew up together in Los Angeles. When Meadow becomes involved with a woman whose seductive powers of listening are the subject of one of her documentaries, she sets in train her own downfall. ‘Heart-breaking and insightful, Innocents and Others is an astonishing novel about friendship, identity, loneliness and art’ say the publishers. It sounds intriguing.

Cover imageI’m ending September’s paperbacks with what’s been called a Brexit novel which I’m even more eager to read after reviewing Anthony Cartwright’s The Cut, Peirene Now!’s response to the referendum whose result shocked and dismayed many of us to the core. It’s Ali Smith’s Autumn, set in 2016 when Daniel is a century old and Elisabeth is thirty-two. ‘Smith’s new novel is a meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means. This first in a seasonal quartet casts an eye over our own time. Who are we? What are we made of?’ say the publishers. It sounds unmissable.

That’s it for September’s paperbacks. A click on a title will either take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here, and September’s new titles are here.