Tag Archives: Fiona Melrose

Paperbacks to Look Out for in August 2018

Cover imageI’ve read all but one of August’s paperbacks, or at least the ones that have caught my eye, which means a nice cheap month for me. I’ll begin with Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come which explores modern Australia through the stories of a disparate set of characters linked by their relationship to one rather infuriating woman. Hard to encapsulate this episodic novel in a neat synopsis but de Kretser executes it with a deceptively light touch and a hefty dollop of dry, often waspish humour underpinned with compassion.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone is also notable for its compassion, examining the plight of refugees through the lens of a recently retired, widowed academic. Richard finds himself faced with a blank future until his interest is piqued by a hunger strike staged by a group of African refugees which leads to his involvement with the occupation of Oranienplatz. Erpenbeck humanises the occupiers through their stories of the often calamitous events that made them leave their homes and the appalling difficulties of their journeys. It’s a much more conventional narrative than either The End of Days or Visitation, the other novels I’ve read by Erpenbeck, but there’s the same consciousness of Germany’s own fractured past running through it.

The past is very much present in Nicole Krauss’ Forest Dark in which two very different New Yorkers are drawn to Tel Aviv, briefly staying in the city’s Hilton: one a retired lawyer who has taken to giving away his valuables; the other a middle-aged novelist, stuck both in her writing and her marriage, lured by the familiar setting of childhood holidays. Krauss alternates Jules Epstein’s relatively straightforward story with Nicole’s discursive, highly literary narrative, building an expectation that they will meet at some point which – a little frustratingly – is unfulfilled. Rich in ideas and beautifully expressed, Forest Dark is far from an easy read but it’s Cover imagea rewarding one.

Studded with a multitude of literary allusions – even the cops read Modiano – C. K. Stead’s The Necessary Angel is about a professor at the Sorbonne who lives in a state of comfortably amicable estrangement from his wife. Max conceives an unexpected passion for a junior colleague, then a young British postgraduate appears in his study, charming him with both her flattery and eccentricity. While his wife is on holiday, a painting thought to be a Cézanne disappears from her apartment and Max finds himself in a fix. Stead’s novel manages to be both cerebral and thoroughly entertaining.

Continuing the literary allusion theme, Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg is an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway which follows a diverse set of characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013. Melrose shifts smoothly from one character to another offering her readers a snapshot of South Africa’s capital on the day after the death of Nelson Mandela. It’s an ambitious, expertly executed novel which made me wonder why I hadn’t read Melrose’s first book, Midwinter.

Set in early twentieth-century Brooklyn, Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour is the story of Annie, rescued from poverty by the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor when her husband commits suicide leaving her pregnant and bereft. It bears all the hallmarks I’ve come to expect from a McDermott novel: understated yet lyrical writing; empathy in spades; astutely drawn characters, Cover imageall gathered together to form a quietly glorious whole infused with gentle humour.

My last August paperback is Akhil Sharma’s A Life of Adventure and Delight which I’ve yet to read. Comprising ‘elegant, unsparing and intimate stories’, Sharma’s collection combines ‘the minimalism of Chekhov and Carver with a flair for dark comedy’ say the publishers setting the bar rather high although having read the Folio Prize-winning Family Life I’d say they may well be right.

If you’d like to know more, a click on any of the first six titles above will take you to a full review here or to a more detailed synopsis for A Life of Adventure and Delight, and if you’d like to catch up with August’s new books they’re here, and here.

My wish list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018

The longlist for the only UK award that really excites me these days, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, is due to be announced next Thursday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2017 and March 31st 2018 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in my suggestions but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what the judges think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. The judges are restricted to twelve on their longlist but given that this is my indulgence I’ve decided to ignore that and include two extra that I couldn’t bear to drop. I’ve followed the same format as 2017, 2016 and 2015, limiting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog. So, in no particular order here’s my wish list for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction:

The End We Start From                   The Lie of the Land               Conversations with Friends

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Johannesburg                                        Home Fire                                   Sugar Money

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The Ninth Hour                                    The Life to Come                                 Sisters

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The Break                                                Asymmetry                  Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves

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All Day at the Movies                           Before Everything

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I’ll be happy if even one of these takes the judges’ fancy. A click on a title will take you to my review should you want to know more..

How about you? Any titles you’d love to see on the longlist?

Books of the Year 2017: Part Three

Cover imageSummer’s favourites wander around the world a little taking in novels from Scandinavia, South Africa and the USA, beginning in June with Monte Carlo, a book by a Belgian author. Ending on the night of the first moon landing in 1969, Peter Terrin’s novella tells the tale of a God-fearing mechanic who becomes obsessed with the actress whose life he saves when she’s caught in a conflagration. He’s badly burnt, but she’s unscathed. Jack arrives home a hero but as the year passes with no word from DeeDee, no acknowledgment of his sacrifice, his obsession with her deepens. From its vividly dramatic opening, this beautiful dreamlike novella had me in its grip. I’m hoping that more of Terrin’s fiction will be translated soon.

Tom Malmquist’s In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is a piece of autofiction that also deals with trauma, this time the death of his partner a few weeks after the premature birth of their daughter, beginning with Karin’s emergency hospital admission and ending with their daughter’s first day at pre-school. Stunned by grief and exhausted by lack of sleep, Tom finds himself caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare in which he must prove himself to be Livia’s father. The novel plumbs the depths of Tom’s grief through which shine flashes of joy as he learns how to take care of his beloved daughter. I’m not entirely taken with the idea of autofiction but this is an intensely immersive, heart-wrenching book which I hope proved cathartic for its author.

June ended with Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land which explores the divisions between town and country through the clever, involving story of the Bredin family. Lottie – furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him – finds a dilapidated house in Devon and takes the entire, thoroughly metropolitan family off there, renting out their London house in the hope of raising enough money so that both she and Quentin can buy separate homes. What she hasn’t bargained for is something nasty in the woodshed. A little like a modern Trollope, Craig is a vivid chronicler of the way we live now. I’m looking forward to the next instalment of her loosely linked state-of-the-nation novels.Cover image

Just one book from July but it’s a particularly lovely one. In Victoria Redel’s Before Everything five women, friends since school, come together when one of them is dying having called a halt to the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the constant conversation the five of them share, struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin.

Death and friendship are also themes in the first of August’s two favourites: Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy. Ellinor stands in front of her dearest friend Anna’s grave and tells her about the death of Georg who was once Anna’s husband before she died in a skiing accident together with her lover, Henning, then Ellinor’s partner. Georg and Ellinor were married for decades but she has always felt she was leading Anna’s life. She’s a stepmother who has never felt the children were hers; accepted by the family but standing at its edge. Now that Georg has died there is no one that she wishes to talk to except Anna. Ellinor’s grief is such a private, painful thing, not a rending of garments or tearing of hair but a constant ache of absence as much for Anna as it is for Georg. This loving, forgiving friendship is at the heart of Grøndahl’s quietly powerful novella.

Cover imageSummer’s last book is Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg, an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway which 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. 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. It’s an ambitious, expertly executed novel which made me wonder why I hadn’t read Melrose’s first book, Midwinter.

That’s it for summer, a season I cling on to for as long as I can. Autumn gets off to a darker start although not as Gothic as I was expecting…

All links are to my reviews on this blog. If you’d like to catch up with the first two instalments of my 2017 books of the year they’re here and here. And for those of you who’re flagging, it’s the home straight on Monday.

Books to Look Out for in October 2017

Cover imageThere are three titles competing for top of my October wish list. Hard to choose which to grab first so I’m plumping for the one I’ve been waiting for the longest: Jane Harris’ Sugar Money. It’s been eight years since Gillespie and I was published, a novel which features a superbly unreliable narrator, and eleven since The Observations which I included in my Blasts from the Past series. Gillespie and I leapt the second novel hurdle with flying colours so hopes are high for Harris’ third, set in eighteenth-century Martinique where two brothers have been instructed to return to their home island of Grenada to smuggle back forty-two slaves from a hospital plantation. ‘With great characters, a superb narrative set up, and language that is witty, bawdy and thrillingly alive, Sugar Money is a novel to treasure’ say the publishers encouragingly.

Sticking with the long gap between novels theme, my second choice Is Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach published seven years after the excellent A Visit from the Goon Squad. It opens in Brooklyn against the backdrop of the Great Depression, with young Anna Kerrigan taken by her father to the house of a rich man. Years later, Anna works in the shipyard during the war, earning the money that has kept her family since her father’s disappearance. When she meets the man she remembers from her childhood she begins to question what has happened to her father. ‘Mesmerizing, hauntingly beautiful, with the pace and atmosphere of a noir thriller and a wealth of detail about organized crime, the merchant marine and the clash of classes in New York, Egan’s first historical novel is a masterpiece, a deft, startling, intimate exploration of a transformative moment in the lives of women and men, America and the world’ say the publishers which sounds very ambitious but given Egan’s past novels may well not be an exaggeration.

In any other month Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour would have had no competition in topping my list. I’m an ardent fan as regular readers may have gathered. McDermott excels at that pared-back yet lyrical prose that I love – I’ve yet to read anything by her I’ve not enjoyed. Thankfully she’s a little more prolific than Harris and Egan although it’s been four years sinceCover image Someone, her last novel. Set in Brooklyn, her new book follows three generations of an Irish immigrant family in the ‘40s and ‘50s. A man takes his own life, leaving his young wife pregnant. Sister St Saviour offers her work in the convent’s laundry, saving her from destitution but although never spoken of, her husband’s suicide remains a stigma. ‘In prose of startling radiance and precision, Alice McDermott tells a story that is at once wholly individual and universal in its understanding of the human condition. Rendered with remarkable lucidity and intelligence, The Ninth Hour is the crowning achievement of one of today’s finest writers’ say the publishers whetting my appetite further.

And now for something entirely different. Gabe Hbash’s Stephen Florida is about a college student, an amateur wrestler with his eye set on a championship. Not a premise that would usually appeal but the publishers‘ description is an intriguing one: ‘Profane, manic and tipping into the uncanny, this is Florida’s chronicle of loneliness, obsession, and the drive to leave a mark. With echoes of The Art of Fielding and the film Foxcatcher, Gabe Habash’s daring, revelatory debut journeys into the mind of a young man teetering between control and rage, grief and elation, genius and insanity’. That reference to The Art of Fielding was inevitable, I suppose, but it did catch my eye.

Tony Peake’s North Facing has as its backdrop the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when the world appeared to be on the point of catastrophe. Rather than simply telling the story of the American/Russian face-off, Peake’s novel views it through the lens of a group of South African schoolboys, one of whom is discovering his sexuality and the politics of his troubled country. Now in his sixties and drawn back to Pretoria, Paul recalls that time which saw both the Sharpeville massacre and the arrest of Nelson Mandela. I’m particularly drawn to this novel after reading Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg, set on the day after Mandela’s death.

Cover imageMy final choice is Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste. Set in Japan, it’s about a disillusioned man with a criminal record who makes the titular paste for the pancakes sold in the confectioner’s where he works. When an elderly disabled woman enters the shop, offering to teach him her own recipe, a friendship begins. The publishers describe Sukegawa’s book as ‘a quietly devastating novel about the burden of the past and the redemptive power of friendship’ which sounds very appealing.

That’s it for October. A click on any title that’s piqued your interest will take you to a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks soon…

Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose: Mrs Dalloway goes to South Africa

Cover imageIt 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.

My 2017 Man Booker wish list

Despite swearing off Man Booker predictions a few years back I can’t seem to keep away although I must emphasize that my track record is pretty dismal so don’t go laying any bets on my suggestions. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2016 and 30th September 2017 and have been written in English. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here published before 30th September but I’m sticking to novels I’ve already read. Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Their list will be revealed on Thursday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order:

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The Fatal Tree                                             Birdcage Walk                             Reservoir 13

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The End We Start From                      The Answers                      Conversations with Friends

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A Line Made by Walking               Before Everything                            The Nix

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The Hearts of Men                     Johannesburg                              Forest Dark

Usually several titles jostle for position as my top choice but this year there’s no contest – Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. No reflection on the merits of the other books: McGregor’s writing is sublime and this is quite possibly his best work yet. I’ll be searching for a hat to eat if it doesn’t make it on to the longlist at the very least. If you’d like to read my review, a click on a title will take you to it. A reviews of Forest Dark to follow soon, as will a what I got up to on my holidays post later in the week for those who might be interested.

What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?

Books to Look Out for in August 2017

Top of my August list has to be Nicole Krauss’ Forest Dark. I remember taking The History of Love on holiday one year and losing myself in it; one of those books that stayed with me for some time. I wasn’t quite so enamoured with Great House but hopes are high for this one which is about two people: a retired lawyer who takes off from New York for the Tel Aviv Hilton to the mystification of his family and a novelist who has left her husband and children in Brooklyn, heading to the same hotel – familiar from childhood holidays – in the hope of clearing her writer’s block. ‘Bursting with life and humour, this is a profound, mesmerising, achingly beautiful novel of metamorphosis and self-realisation – of looking beyond all that is visible towards the infinite’ say the publishers rather grandly.

Jonathan Dee’s The Locals also features a character fleeing New York, this time for a small town in New England just after 9/11. Hedge fund manager Phillip Hadi employs Mark Firth, recently swindled by his financial advisor, to make his new home secure. These two men are from very different worlds: one rural middle class, the other urban and wealthy. Hadi’s election to mayor has a transforming effect on Firth’s home town, one that will have implications for Firth and his extended family. ‘The Locals is that rare work of fiction capable of capturing a fraught American moment in real time. It is also a novel that is timeless in its depiction of American small town life’ say the publishers which sounds very appealing to me.

One more New York link then we’re off to Boston followed by two jaunts outside of the USA. It seems that the success of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko has prompted her publishers to re-issue Free Food for Millionaires which I remember reading and enjoying when it was first published here in the UK ten years ago. It’s about Casey Han, the daughter of working-class Korean immigrants, whose years at Princeton have left her with a decent education and a set ofCover image expensive habits but no job. She and her parents both live in New York but they inhabit very different worlds. ‘As Casey navigates an uneven course of small triumphs and spectacular failures, a clash of values, ideals and ambitions plays out against the colourful backdrop of New York society, its many layers, shades and divides…’ say the publishers. I remember Casey as a particularly endearing character.

Over to Boston for J. Courteney Sullivan’s Saints for All Seasons which follows sisters Nora and Theresa from their small Irish village to Boston. When Theresa becomes pregnant, sensible Nora comes up with a plan, the repercussions of which will echo down the generations for fifty years by which time Nora is the matriarch of a large family and Theresa is a nun. ‘A graceful, supremely moving novel from one of our most beloved writers, Saints for All Occasions explores the fascinating, funny, and sometimes achingly sad ways a secret at the heart of one family both breaks them and binds them together’ say the publishers which may sound a little over the top but I do love a family secret theme and I remember being completely engrossed by Sullivan’s previous novel, Maine.

It sounds as if dark secrets may be at the heart of Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Often I am Happy, a novel he’s translated himself from his native Danish. Ellinor is addressing Anna, killed forty years ago in the same skiing accident that felled Henning who was both Ellinor’s first husband and Anna’s lover. Anna’s husband, who became Ellinor’s partner, has died and Ellinor is taking stock, looking back over her life and confiding in her long dead best friend ‘because there are some secrets – both our own and of others – that we can only share with the dead. Secrets that nonetheless shape who we are and who we love’ say the publishers, whetting my appetite nicely.

Cover imageI couldn’t quite work up the enthusiasm for reading Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, for some reason. I’m not sure why. Lots of other readers seemed very keen. Johannesburg with its appealing structure sounds much more up my street. The events of the novel take place during the day Nelson Mandela’s death was announced in what sounds like a panoramic story of a scattering of the eponymous city’s inhabitants including a ‘troubled novelist called Virginia’, a polite nod of acknowledgement to Ms Woolf for borrowing her structure. ‘Melrose’s second novel is a hymn to an extraordinary city and its people, an ambitious homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and a devastating personal and political manifesto on love’  say the publishers.

That’s it for August. Let’s hope the sun will be out and those of us who hail from often overcast Northern Europe can get out and read in it. If you’d like to know more about any of the books, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis. I’m off on my hols for ten days on Friday morning, earlier that I can bear to think about, planning to post my Man Booker wishlist on my return.