Tag Archives: Gwendoline Riley

Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2017: Part One

There’s an abundance of paperback treats coming up this September, so many that I’ve split them into two posts. Top of my list is Jake Arnott’s rollicking tale of thieves and whores, The Fatal Tree, set in 1726. Told to us by Billy, a confessional writer with his own story, it’s about Edgeworth Bess, banged up in Newgate Gaol awaiting trial for possession of stolen goods which may well lead her to Tyburn’s gallows. Replete with period detail, salaciousness and vivid descriptions, Arnott’s novel is both nicely taut and very funny at times. A wonderful piece of historical storytelling as atmospheric as Michel Faber’s The Crimson and the White.

Nathan Hill’s The Nix is an entirely different kettle of fish, although parts of it are set in 1968, certainly classed by my contemporary historian partner as history. Samuel is an assistant professor in his mid-thirties when the story of the Packer Attacker breaks: a woman in her sixties is facing prosecution for throwing stones at the Governor of Illinois. The woman turns out to be Samuel’s mother who left the family home when he was just eleven. Hill takes Samuel and Faye’s stories from the heady liberalism of the ‘60s to 2011, the world still reeling from the global financial crisis. Riveting stuff for me, full of striking writing and it’s very funny, too: Hill hurls well-aimed barbs at all manner of things from social media to advertising, publishing to academia – the latter spot-on according to H – to mention but a few.

Michael Chabon’s Moonglow also takes a long hard look at American history by the sound of it, drawing on stories told to him by his grandfather. The novel takes the form of a deathbed confession in which an old man tells his grandson stories long-buried, revealing a life far more adventurous than the grandson could ever have expected. ‘From the Jewish slums of pre-war Cover imagePhiladelphia to the invasion of Germany, from a Florida retirement village to the penal utopia of a New York prison, from the heyday of the space programme to the twilight of ‘the American Century’, Moonglow collapses an era into a single life and a lifetime into a single week’ say the publishers. Given Chabon’s storytelling skills this should be unmissable.

The next three titles are on a much more domestic scale beginning with Karl Geary’s Montpelier Parade described by the publishers as ‘luminous and moving’. Set in Dublin, it’s about Sonny who falls for Vera, both of them from very different backgrounds. ‘Unfolding in the sea-bright, rain-soaked Dublin of early spring, Montpelier Parade is a beautiful, cinematic novel about desire, longing, grief, hope and the things that remain unspoken’ say the publishers which sounds very appealing.

Gwendoline Riley’s Baileys Prize shortlisted First Love could be described as exploring similar territory although the relationship between Neve and Edwyn may not seem like love to everyone. Neve is a writer, working at home and living with Edwyn who is much older than her, often cranky and unpredictable. As we learn more about Neve’s life we begin to understand why she puts up with the stream of insults hurled at her. Riley leavens her spare, pin-point sharp novella’s bleakness with spikes of humour. Unsettling and thought-provoking, it ends on a note of frail hope.

Cover imageLove and its difficulties also runs through Laura Kaye’s engaging outsider’s view of rural life, English Animals, about a young Slovakian woman who leaves London to work as an au pair for a couple at Fairmont Hall, the house which is both their home and a financial millstone around their necks. Mirka arrives to the sound of bickering but despite their turbulent relationship, Richard and Sophie warmly welcome her into their home where she is surprised to find herself learning taxidermy, Richard’s new money-making scheme. A thoroughly enjoyable novel, peopled by well-observed characters and very funny at times although the squeamish may want to skip the more detailed taxidermy descriptions. I’m delighted to see that the publishers have kept that striking jacket for the paperback edition

That’s it for the first instalment of September’s paperbacks. Should you wish to learn more, a click on a title will take you to a full review for those I’ve read, and to a more detailed synopsis for Moonglow and Montpelier Parade. And if you want to catch up with September’s new titles they’re here. Second batch of paperbacks to follow soon…

Ties by Domenico Starnone (translated by Jhumpa Lahiri): Three sides of a marriage

Cover imageI seem to have reviewed several books about marriage in the first few months of this year – from the comparatively happy Wait for Me, Jack, to the decidedly bleak First Love, to the seemingly inextricable entanglement of A Separation – each one very different from the other, as are relationships of course. Domenico Starnone’s Ties is about another marriage, first broken then apparently reconciled. I’d have been attracted by it anyway but when I found out that it was Jhumpa Lahiri’s first piece of translation I had to read it having been intrigued by In Other Words, her memoir about her love affair with the Italian language.

Vanda and Aldo have been married for well over four decades. They live in a comfortable apartment in Rome with a view of the Tiber. They married in their early twenties and have two children, Sandro and Anna. Twelve years into the marriage, when Sandro was nine and Anna five, Aldo confessed his infidelity with Lidia, a passing fancy or so he thought. Furious, Vanda threw him out, lambasting him for his betrayal and eventually winning full custody of their children. Four years later, Aldo began to feel that he’d let his children down, resuming some sort of relationship with them and eventually proposing a rapprochement with Vanda. Reconciliation came at a high price: Vanda commandeered the moral high ground while Aldo lay low, accepting whatever punishment was doled out to him, quietly continuing along his path of infidelity. Their children grew into unhappy adults: Anna, filled with bitter resentment and determined not to have children; Sandro charming all and sundry, leaving a trail of ex-partners and children in his wake. Things come to a head when Vanda and Aldo return from their summer break to find their apartment ransacked and their cat missing.

Vanda and Aldo’s marriage feels very much of its time: Vanda finds herself financially dependent on Aldo, keeping house and looking after the children while Aldo is surprised at her angry reaction to his infidelity, assuming that she will tolerate his self-expression in the new era of sexual liberation. Starnone cleverly structures his novel to reflect the repercussions of their actions. First there are the angry letters from Vanda to Aldo during their separation, so filled with fury that they feel like a smack round the head. This short, very sharp, section is followed by Aldo’s version of events as he searches for photographs of Lidia tucked away for years but now missing in the disorder of the wrecked apartment. The third brief section offers Anna’s point of view, filled with bitterness at the behaviour of her parents and its apparent acceptance by her brother. Each of these narratives is in the first person making them all the more powerful. Starnone deftly switches perspectives, reflecting his characters’ point of view through language, from Vanda’s viscerally furious letters to the slightly puzzled, faintly martyred tone of Aldo’s musings. What’s missing is Sandro’s version which left me feeling that the novella was incomplete. That said it’s an extraordinarily powerful piece of work, elegantly slim but delivering a sucker punch.

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017

I tend not to get caught up in literary prize fever these days but there is one for which I make an exception – The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction whose longlist is due to be announced next Wednesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2016 and March 31st 2017 qualify for the award. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably to predict who the judges will select but truth be told I much prefer to indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might favour. This year there will be fewer titles on the judges’ list – they’re restricted to twelve – but given that this is my indulgence I’ve allowed myself three more. I’ve followed the same format as 2016 and 2015, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog apart from one yet to be posted. In no particular order then, here’s my list of wishes rather than predictions for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017:

Idaho                                              The Cauliflower                          Sweetbitter

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The Gun Room                               The Crime Writer                       The Lauras

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Conrad and Eleanor                        Commonwealth                     Harmless Like You

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Our Magic Hour                                Swimming Lessons                 Another Brooklyn

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First Love                                          A Line Made for Walking           Birdcage Walk

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Who knows which of these, if any, will appear on next week’s list but for what it’s worth they’ve they’ve earned their place on mine. A click on a title will take you to my review for all but Birdcage Walk which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. Next year, of course, the prize will be called something else as it’s in search of a new sponsor: let’s hope they find one soon.

What about you?  I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, predictions or wishes welcome.

First Love by Gwendoline Riley: A pin-point sharp novella

Gwendoline Riley is one of those authors whose work I feel I should have read before now but for some reason I’ve never got around to it. She’s quietly gathered a good deal of acclaim over the years since her first novel, Cold Water: First Love is her fifth. Given its title, you could be forgiven for thinking you might be in for a little light romance but Riley’s spare, sharp novella is having none of that. It’s about a woman in her mid-thirties married to an older man and how she’s come to be with him.

Neve is a writer who’s lived on scraps for years, getting by with jobs in bars and the occasional grant. Now married to Edwyn, she’s devoting her days to writing while he goes out to work. Edwyn is much older than Neve, often cranky and unpredictable – showering her with pet names and cuddles one minute, abusing and undermining her the next and frequently reminding her of the single drunken night he cleaned up after her. Theirs is a marriage born of practicality rather than passion although Neve craves love. She grew up with a bullying father who ate himself to death, and a mother who fills her life with busyness rather than thinking about her second broken marriage and why she has no friends. Reflecting on the series of missteps and stumbles punctuated by disastrous relationships which has been her life so far, she tries to find a way to live with Edwyn and his carping. What is she to do with this husband who blows hot and cold, who shies away from intimacy, physical or otherwise, and uses his health as a manipulative tool against her? Perhaps this is love? As we learn more about Neve’s life we begin to understand why she puts up with the insults hurled at her. Emotional intelligence is not one of her family’s strengths – it seems that Neve has no idea how to conduct a relationship, platonic or otherwise.

Riley tells her story through Neve’s slightly perplexed voice, leavening her novel’s bleakness with spikes of humour. Each sentence is brightly honed, spare and pin-point sharp: ‘There were all sorts of satisfactions to be had, for the restless bully about town’ thinks Neve of her father who torments her as a child, later trying to buy her time with concert tickets; ‘he had a picture of me that he needed to deface’ she thinks of her casually on-again/off-again boyfriend while her attempts to distract Edwyn are ‘throwing sausages at a guard dog’.  Riley’s characters are funny, sad and discomfiting: her ditsy mother is a walking sartorial disaster whose speech is littered with italicised emphasis and catchphrases while Edwyn’s querulous defensiveness becomes increasingly nasty, punctured by his ridiculous ‘fall’ in a last-ditch attempt to gain sympathy.  Throughout it all, Neve is constantly undermined not least by herself: there’s hardly a mention of her writing although we know from a casual aside she’s published at least one book. An unsettling, thought-provoking novel which ends on a note of frail hope.