Tag Archives: J. Robert Lennon

Paperbacks to Look Out for in January 2018: Part One

This first batch of January paperbacks kicks of with my book of 2017: Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 which 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.

Identity theft seems to be the theme of Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story The person doing the stealing is L., Delphine’s best friend with whom she has become enthralled. L. is the kind of beautifully turned out woman who seems to know what to do in every circumstance. Chillingly, she begins to dress like her new friend, offering to answer her emails and finding her way into every aspect of Delphine’s life until she takes control of it. It sounds quite riveting, and all the more so given that the author has given her protagonist both her name and her profession, not to mention that title. It’s an intriguing idea and I very much enjoyed the somewhat lighter No and Me a few years ago.

Heading further into dark territory, Phillip Lewis’ The Barrowfields tells the story of a family afflicted by tragedy set against the backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains. Lawyer Henry Aster sets up house with his wife and children in a crumbling mansion so that he can take care of his ailing mother. Henry spends his nights writing and drinking, slowly sinking into a deep depression. Years later his story is told by his son, burdened with his own tragedy. Lewis knows how to spin a story, managing to keep my attention over the novel’s 300+ pages despite a few too many Southern gothic touches.

J, Robert Lennon’s Broken River also has a touch of the gothic mashed up nicely with a slice of noir, this time in upstate New York. In a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage, a couple moves to freshly renovated house, taking their precociously bright twelve-year-old with them, Unbeknownst to them, the house has been empty for twelve years since the unsolved murder of the family that lived in it. Lennon’s deftly handled plot revolves around a web of coincidence and misunderstandings which finally unravels. Not an unalloyed success for me but it’s well worth a read.

That’s it for the first January paperback preview. A click on a title will either take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with January’s new titles they’re here and here. Second batch of paperbacks to follow shortly…

Familiar: Same, same but different

Cover imageI’ve been looking forward to J. Robert Lennon’s new novel having been a fan for some time. This one has a particularly daring premise and a very startling opening. As scientist Elisa Macalaster Brown makes her way home from her annual visit to her son’s grave in their old home town she experiences something strange and inexplicable. Concentrating on a crack in her windscreen she enters what could be described as a fugue state, coming to and finding herself and her car entirely changed. She’s wearing different clothes, there’s a conference badge pinned to her smart jacket and her car is coolly air-conditioned as opposed to her customary beat up old Honda. She returns home to find the house subtly different, her husband more attentive and, alarmingly, a family photograph showing Silas several years older than the day he was killed in a car crash.

Elisa finds ways to adapt to her new life, trawling her inbox for hints about her job, telling her worried husband first that she thinks she’s had a stroke, then that she seems to have a strange amnesia. But there are puzzling aspects to this new life: what are the rules that she has agreed to with their creepy twice-divorced therapist, why is she such great friends with the previously despised Judith and why do she and Derek have no contact with their sons who, when she does break the rules and visit them, she finds locked into the same dysfunctional relationship she remembers from her old life. Elisa’s old and new lives begin blur: she rejects many of the strictures of the new preferring the old despite the awful grief of losing her difficult, troubled son whose estrangement and the reasons behind it in her new life are almost as painful. Over it all looms the question how could this have possibly happened to her.

The concept of parallel worlds enables Lennon to explore the way in which our choices shape our lives – career options narrow or widen, parenting decisions influence the adults children become, battles fought or not fought within a marriage may result in separation or understanding – posing the question would we remain the same people we are if our choices had been different. Part of the fascination of this novel is wondering just how Lennon will resolve the conundrum of Elisa’s experience. When it comes, the resolution seems a little confused but it’s hard to see how it could have been otherwise. What came before is such an accomplished piece of writing that it almost doesn’t matter.