Sad to say I’ve not found many titles that appeal in the October paperback lists. Lots of commercial big names but the more literary variety seem to be even further in the back seat than usual. I’ve reviewed only one so I’ll start with that. Per Petterson’s I Refuse seems even more sombre than his previous novels to me. Two men, close friends when they were young, meet briefly one morning by coincidence. Expensively dressed, Tommy has just parked his car when he spots Jim, shabby in his old reefer coat. Each recognises the other despite the thirty years since their last meeting. Tommy’s remarks about his expensive Mercedes are made perhaps more from embarrassment than anything else but they bite. The rest of the novel is an overlapping mosaic of memories framed within the events of that September day. It’s a fine novel – melancholic yet beautiful in its simplicity.
In Julia Franck’s WestNelly Senff is desperate to escape her life in East Berlin and the constant surveillance of the Stasi. She and her children are held in Marienfelde, a refugee processing centre and no-man’s-land between East and West where she meets several others hoping to make a new life – and John, a CIA man looking for possible Stasi spies. I read Back to Back two years ago, set just as the Wall was going up, and had mixed feelings about it but West sounds intriguing and I’m a sucker for novels which explore that East/West divide, particularly after visiting Berlin.
I’m afraid that’s all I have to offer apart from the welcome reissue of Louisa Young’s Anglo-Egyptian trilogy: Baby Love, Desiring Cairoand Tree of Pearls. I read and enjoyed these three back in my bookselling days. None of them seemed to get the attention they deserved but I suspect Young’s publishers are hoping to gain a wider readership off the back of her successful First World War novels, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You and The Heroes’ Welcome. Angeline Gower is the star of all three, bringing up the daughter of her sister killed when riding pillion on a motorbike driven by Angeline whose belly dancing career took a tumble thanks to her own injuries. Her sister’s shady past threatens Lily’s safety when Angeline gets into trouble with the police. This may all sound a little improbable and that’s a particularly fluffy shade of pink in the background of the new jacket but, trust me, it’s a thoroughly entertaining set of novels with a nice edge of suspense running through it.
That’s it for October, perhaps the shortest preview so far this year. As ever, a click on any title apart fromI Refuse will take you to Waterstones for a more detailed synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with the decidedly meatier selection of hardbacks for the month they’re here.
You don’t read Per Petterson for his cheeriness but I Refuse seemed even more sombre than usual to me. In it two men, close friends when they were young, meet briefly one morning by coincidence. Expensively dressed, Tommy has just parked his car when he spots Jim, shabby in his old reefer coat. Each recognises the other despite the thirty years since their last meeting. Tommy’s remarks about his expensive Mercedes are made perhaps more from embarrassment than anything else but they bite. The rest of the novel is an overlapping mosaic of memories framed within the events of that September day.
Neither Tommy nor Jim are from conventionally happy families: Jim’s mother has told him nothing about the father he’s never seen and Tommy takes on the role of comforting his sisters, protecting them from his violent father after his mother disappears. Each is very different from the other but their friendship is the brightest thing in their lives. When eventually Tommy turns on his father after a particularly nasty beating, his family is broken up and scattered. Tommy moves in with Jonsen, the mill owner for whom he eventually works. The friends see less of each other, their bond strained even further by Jim’s move to another town and the months he spends in a psychiatric hospital. The bedrock of their lives has shifted. By the time of their chance meeting Tommy is a wealthy trader, moving money around on his computer screen while Jim has been sick for a year, his benefits about to be cut off. Now in their fifties neither is happy, both wrestling with what their lives have become and unable to find peace.
Through carefully layered first person and third person narratives from Jim and Tommy, occasionally interspersed with the memories of others, Petterson meticulously reconstructs their friendship and their lives over the past thirty years. Many passages are introspective – sometimes claustrophobic in the way that spending too much time in your own head becomes – punctuated by occasional dramatic events: the novel opens with a man lurching in front of Jim’s car, the appalling beating after which Tommy finally turns on his father, the sound of ice cracking on the frozen pond on which the two friends skate. Show not tell is the order of the day – small details click into place and by the end of the novel you feel that you know these men and the pain they have suffered. This is very fine writing – melancholic yet beautiful in its simplicity. Petterson once again proves himself thoroughly deserving of the many prizes heaped upon him. And Don Bartlett’s translation is a triumph.