Tag Archives: Jenny Offill

Paperbacks to Look Out For in March 2015

Dept of SpeculationSpring really does seem to have sprung in the March publishing schedules, stuffed to overflowing as they are with both hardback and paperback goodies. I’ve reviewed  all but one of the paperbacks already so I’ll start with those. Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation featured in a multitude of ‘books of the year’ lists last year although I know opinion was divided in my part of the Twitter woods. The story of a marriage told in fragment, it’s Offill’s second novel and was quite some time in coming – her first was published in 1999. It won’t suit those wanting a plot but the writing is superb.

Probably best skip on a little if it’s linear narrative you’re after – Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World is a collection of documents relating to artist Harriet Burden all collated by I. V. Hess who introduces the book. From the start Hess warns us that Harriet is a self-confessed trickster, telling us that she had shown her installations pseudonymously, hiding behind three male ‘masks’ while planning to reveal her female identity to the resolutely masculine New York art world once the exhibitions were over. Such a short summing-up hardly does the novel justice: it’s erudite, cerebral and challenging but well worth the effort.

Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone made it on to my own ‘books of the year’ list as did Cover imageseveral other novels out in paperback in March. Opening in 1914 it interweaves the stories of Qayyum Gul, who lost an eye at Ypres fighting in the British Indian Army, and Vivien Spencer who is working as an archaeologist in Peshawar. Just as she did with Burnt Shadows, Shamsie takes complex universal themes and humanises them through the lives, loves and passions of her characters.

Timur Vermes’s Look Who’s Back, another of my books of 2014, is very funny satire which sees Hitler waking up with a terrible headache in August 2011, more than a little bemused but soon all too plausibly back in the frame. Satire can go horribly wrong but Vermes is right on the button. Not surprisingly, it caused a bit of a stir in Germany when it was published, storming up the bestseller charts and staying there for seventy weeks.

Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I read in 2014. On New Year’s Eve in 1965 Eileen meets Ed Leary on a blind date and when they kiss at midnight she is sure that this quiet, thoughtful man is the one she’ll marry. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.

Cover imageJust one title that I haven’t read already: Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music. I wasn’t amongst the many fans of Room, cleverly executed as it was, but Frog Music has a very appealing synopsis. Based on real events it’s set in San Francisco during the 1876 smallpox epidemic and is about three former stars of the Parisian circus now holed up in China Town: Blanche who dances at the House of Mirrors, her lover Arthur and his companion Ernest. We’re promised the unravelling of secrets, murder and intrigue in a novel which is ‘elegant, erotic and witty’.

That’s it for March paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a review on this blog for all but Frog Music and if you’d like to see which hardbacks caught my eye just click here.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill: A long time coming but well worth the wait

Cover imageDept. of Speculation is Jenny Offill’s second novel. Her first, Last Things, was published way back in 1999, so long ago that I confess I have no memory of it except that I know that it must have been good as it’s still on my shelves having survived the series of charity shop culls over the past fifteen years necessary to make way for new books. You have to work hard to keep your place on my shelves these days. A quick look at Goodreads tells me that it’s narrated by eight-year-old Grace whose parents both want different things for her and whose family is slowly disintegrating.

Dept. of Speculation takes us back to similar territory, this time narrated by a wife who tells the story of her marriage – its early joys, shared parenthood, and the battering it takes when mid-life crisis hits. It’s funny, sad and beautifully observed. There are no names which makes the later pain all the more raw, somehow. It’s stuffed with erudition, from Keats to Simone Weil, advice from a nineteenth century marriage manual to Buddhism. Written in short paragraphs and broken up into chapters of only a page or two, it’s the kind of book that could easily be swallowed in one gulp but much better to take your time and savour the carefully crafted sentences Offill slips into her snapshots of married and family life: ‘I remember the first time I said the word to a stranger. “It’s for my daughter,” I said. My heart was beating too fast, as if I might be arrested.’; ‘Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits.’; a post-it from her single days reads ‘”WORK NOT LOVE!”… It seemed a sturdier kind of happiness.’; the relationship therapist works in the ‘Little Theatre of Hurt Feelings’. At one point a colleague says to the wife ‘Where is that second novel?….Tick tock. Tick tock’ which is either heartfelt or perhaps Offill having a little joke with her patient readers. It all seems so effortless, like those quintessentially English herbaceous borders that look as if they’ve been thrown together but which are the product of a great deal of skill, knowledge and hard graft. This isn’t a book with a plot – nothing out of the ordinary happens – but the writing is superb and I’m pretty sure that’s why Last Things is still on my shelves. Perhaps it’s time for a little rereading.