The first batch of March’s paperbacks fell neatly into a time sequence whereas this one jumps about all over the place both in terms of period and theme. I’ll begin with a one of my 2018 favourites: Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea, a carefully crafted, moving novella which explores love, loss and connection through the stories of three very different men, bringing them neatly together at its end. Farouk is a bereaved refugee, Lampy helps out at the local care home, spending much of his time in a rage, and John is fixer, bent on the corruption of good men. It’s a tricky manoeuvre to tell your characters’ stories in discrete parts then merge them as subtly as Ryan does here but he pulls it off beautifully, writing in prose which has a lilting rhythmic beauty.
A description which could also be applied to many of the stories in Helen Dunmore’s Girl, Balancing, a posthumous collection put together by her son Patrick Charnley. Many of the themes running through these stories will be familiar to Dunmore fans. Family, friendship, memory, love and passion, and, of course, women and their place in the world, are all adroitly explored. As ever with Dunmore, so much is said in a few precisely chosen words. There’s not one dud in this collection which captures its author’s wonderful facility with language and acute observation.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s first collection, You Think It, I’ll say It, is another treat for short story lovers. its overarching theme is the gulf between our perception of ourselves and other people, and theirs of us. Characters’ initial impressions are often proven entirely, sometimes comically, wrong. Gender is firmly to the fore – women and childcare, expectations of female beauty, distribution of domestic chores are all deftly and effectively handled. Altogether an intelligent, satisfying collection which neatly skewers modern social mores with a sly, occasionally waspish wit.
Chloe Caldwell’s Women is so short – a mere 130 pages – that it could almost pass as a lengthy short story but for all that it took me far longer to read than I’d expected. It charts her narrator’s passionate, destructive affair with a woman much older than herself, ending just a year after it began. There’s a feverish intensity about the first-person narrative which makes it feel raw and confessional, all the more so given that Caldwell has made no secret of drawing on her own experience for this book. For me, it was a book to admire for its stripped down, meticulously crafted writing rather than enjoy.
Tortured relationships are also the subject of Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage. Ray and Celeste are staying in a hotel when he is hauled off in the middle of the night, falsely accused of rape just eighteen months into their marriage. Jones charts the effects of his imprisonment on their relationship from both Ray’s and Celeste’s perspectives. Racism, class and marriage are put under the microscope as are absent fathers and attitudes towards women in this tightly controlled, powerful novel.
I’ve yet to read James Wood’s Upstate in which two sisters – one a philosopher, the other a record executive – are still coping with the emotional fallout of their parents’ bitter divorce. When Vanessa suffers a crisis, Helen and her father travel to upstate New York where over six days the family struggles with life’s big questions. ‘If, as a favourite philosopher of Vanessa’s puts it, “the only serious enterprise is living”, how should we live? Rich in subtle human insight, full of poignant and often funny portraits, and vivid with a sense of place, Upstate is a perceptive, intensely moving novel’ say the publishers of what sounds like a weighty piece of fiction.
Finally, Paolo Cognetti’s The Eight Mountains has a particularly appealing premise: two very different Italian boys meet in the mountains every summer. Pietro is a lonely city boy who comes to the Alps for his holidays while Bruno is the son of a local stonemason. These two explore the mountains together, becoming firm friends but take widely diverging paths as they become men. Annie Proulx has described Cognetti’s novel as ‘Exquisite… A rich, achingly painful story’. It sounds right up my street.
That’s it for March’s paperbacks. A click on the first five titles will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the other two, and if you’d like to catch up with both the first instalment and March’s new titles, they’re here, here and here.