This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction. I still remember being excited at the prospect of this prize when it was first announced and my delight when Helen Dunmore’s A Spell in Winter was the inaugural winner of what was then called the Orange Prize. The 2020 longlist will be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2019 and March 31st 2020 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in predicting what took the judges fancy but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as previous years, 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 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction:
There are some notable omissions from my list including Anne Enright’s Actress which I’m sure deserves a place but I’ve yet to read it. I may be stretching the rules a bit with Olive, Again, technically linked short stories rather than a novel but, hey, it’s my fantasy list. I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention – fingers firmly crossed.
What about you? Any titles you’d love to see on the judges’ list?
Early summer, which seems so very long ago now, was packed with literary goodies for me, particularly May which began with A Stranger City, Linda Grant’s portrayal of a post-referendum London through a set of disparate characters brought together by their connection with a woman whose body has been pulled from the Thames. Each character’s story is subtly woven through the others’ into a bright tapestry – some of it ragged and frayed – of a city Grant clearly loves but about which she’s deeply concerned. Her book reveals a London which is always in flux, shaping and reshaping itself to fit the constant flow of people drawn to it – a Brexit novel if ever there was one. I ended Part One by saying I’d try to avoid politics in the next instalment but as you can see, I’ve already failed.
Flotsam, May’s second favourite, is by Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press. Set on the German coast in the 1950s, this strange, unsettling book is a beautifully expressed exploration of the legacy of war and the grief it brings through the story of a young girl and her mother. Told in often lyrical yet spare, clean prose, first from Trine’s perspective then Anna’s, it’s the briefest of novellas yet it provokes more thought than many books three times its length. Far from an easy read but certainly a rewarding one, Ziervogel’s book leaves much for readers to deduce and is all the better for it.
Vesna Main’s Good Day? sported the second jacket I fell in love with this year, fitting its book as perfectly as the gloriously pink cover of Aylet Gundar-Goshen’s Liar, which popped up in Part One. Always a joy when publishers use an image which is both strikingly original and appropriate. Main’s Good Day? recounts a daily conversation between a Writer and her Reader, who is also her husband, describing the progress of her novel about a couple whose marriage is strained to breaking point. It’s such a clever piece of writing and a daring one, too. To write a novel almost entirely in dialogue and carry it off as well as Main does requires quite a degree of chutzpah. Thoroughly deserving of its place on this year’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.
May’s last choice is much more straightforward, a piece of fictionalised biography which introduced me to a someone I’d never come across but who turned out to be an internationally popular figure. Eva Meijer’s Bird Cottage is based on the life of Len Howard who, aged forty, threw up her life as a violinist in London and took herself off to Sussex to pursue her lifelong passion for birds, determined to devote herself to researching their habits. Using simple, clean prose, Meijer lets her subject tell own story, weaving through it observations of Star, one of Howard’s favourites. A delightful book, the story of a true English eccentric.
June began with another piece of fictionalised biography by Jill Dawson who often chooses that form for her work. When I read that The Language of Birds was based on the notorious Lord Lucan affair my heart sank but far from being a rehash of the infamous murder replete with the usual speculation as to Lucan’s fate, Dawson’s book reimagines the story from the nanny’s perspective. Her careful, compassionate and compelling novel honours Sandra Rivett’s memory, tipping the balance away from a media which reduced her to ‘the lovely young nanny’ rather than a vibrant young woman with a life of her own. For me, it’s one of Dawson’s best, and that’s saying something after The Crime Writer, a wonderful piece of literary fan fiction starring Patricia Highsmith.
The first half of 2019’s books of the year ends with Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers, an inventive and imaginative piece of storytelling which takes its readers from 1902 to 1974 with a tale of castaways and mannequins, the like of which had never been seen before. Not just one story but several nested within each other, this is a novel haunted by madness and grief with more than a touch of the gothic brightened with moments of humour. Absolutely gripping – I loved it.
All of the above are linked to my reviews here if you’d like to know more. Part Three takes us into high summer with the return of Jackson Brodie after a nine-year hiatus, a tale of love, jealousy and betrayal in the Bauhaus and another beautiful jacket, perfect for its book’s contents. If you missed the first quarter on 2019’s favourites and would like to catch up, it’s here.
Another year, another Man Booker Prize longlist in the offing, except this year its reverted to the Booker Prize, thanks to a change of sponsorship with Crankstart stepping into the funding breach as of June 1st this year. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2018 and 30th September 2019, and have been written in English. Regular readers will know that any similarity between my wish list and the judges’ longlist is likely to be entirely coincidental. The judges usually allow themselves twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen and this year I have, too. Their list will be revealed on Wednesday, 24th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions – in no particular order, with links to my reviews.
It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here before September 3rd when the shortlist is announced but I’m sticking to the tried and tested. And if I had to choose one? That’s a tough decision this year. It’s a toss-up between A Stranger City, The Dutch House and Land of the Living, although there are several others I’d be loath to relinquish.
What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?
After three tries by Linda Grant’s patient and determined publicist, A Stranger City finally arrived through my letter box. I’ve no idea what happened to the other two copies but I hope someone’s enjoying them somewhere and telling all their friends about it. Grant’s novel paints a picture of a post-referendum London through the stories of a set of characters brought together by their connection with a woman whose body is pulled from the Thames and who remains unclaimed and unidentified for four years.
Pete Dutton is the detective in charge of the investigation into the identity of DB27, the label given to the woman who is the twenty-seventh corpse retrieved from the river that year. Intrigued by her anonymity, Pete becomes obsessed, his thoughts turned away from his wife who is recovering from cancer at home. He contacts Alan McBride, a film-maker, whose attention has already been caught by a missing person alert on Twitter for the brash young woman he saw crushed by her slick hipster companion’s comment overheard on his way back from viewing a house with his wife Francesca. Pete wants Alan to make a film about DB27 which Alan broadens to include Chrissie, who turned up alive and well, and Marco, her flatmate who set up the alert, regretting his sharp remark. Chrissie is a nurse who quickly comes to the aid of Rob when he’s caught up in a terrorist attack, forging a friendship with him that will result in the eventual revelation of DB27’s identity. Grant’s novel explores the rich and varied lives of these characters revealing a London which is always in flux, shaping and reshaping itself to fit the constant flow of people drawn to it.
This many-layered, vibrant portrait of London encompasses a multitude of themes – privacy and exposure, interconnectedness and isolation, gentrification and poverty – the most prominent of which is the racism and its close relative xenophobia, unleashed since the 2016 referendum.
We won’t hear that in twenty years. If they stay, their kids will speak English as their first language and no new people will be coming. It’ll be a time machine, taking us back to the past
Each character’s story is subtly woven through the others’ into a bright tapestry, some of it ragged and frayed, of a city Grant clearly loves but about which she’s deeply concerned. Dickensian London is summoned up in a dreamlike episode when Francesca, the quintessential smart West Ender, uncomfortable in her new North London home, is taken to an area known as the Island by two neighbours. Pete’s love of his hometown and the river which runs through it is neatly contrasted with the superficial gloss of Marco’s PR world. It’s a structure that could easily have become bitty and overly-fragmented in less capable hands but Grant is too deft for that. I loved it – a novel with something to say which draws you in and keeps you rapt to its end. Well worth the wait.
May’s second batch of new titles begins with Linda Grant’s A Stranger City which seems to use the discovery of a body in the Thames to explore the nature of community in London, or the lack of it, through a policeman, a nurse and a documentary-maker. ‘The wonderful Linda Grant weaves a tale around ideas of home; how London can be a place of exile or expulsion, how home can be a physical place or an idea. How all our lives intersect and how coincidence or the randomness of birth place can decide how we live and with whom’ according to the publishers which sounds promising. I’ve not always got on with Grant’s fiction but enjoyed her last two novels: Upstairs at the Party and The Dark Circle.
I’m not entirely sure about Mary Loudon’s My House is Falling Down which sees a marriage under strain when Lucy falls in love with Angus. Lucy is determined not to deceive her husband but is shocked by his reaction to her affair. ‘Infused with her trademark precision, clarity and dark humour, Mary Loudon’s searing, highly-charged novel My House is Falling Down is a fearless exploration of what infidelity means when no one is lying, and how brutal honesty may yet prove the biggest taboo in our relationships’ say the publishers which suggests an original take on the somewhat hackneyed theme of middle-aged infidelity.
Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted could also go either way which seems to be becoming a theme for this post. A physics professor is determined to get to the bottom of why she’s received a phone call from a friend when she knows he died two days ago. ‘Helen is drawn into the orbit of Charlie’s world, slotting in the missing pieces of her friend’s past. And, as she delves into the web of their shared history, Helen finds herself entangled in the forgotten threads of her own life’ according to the blurb which leaves me a little mystified but I enjoyed Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds enough to give it a try.
At first glance, Joanne Ramos’ The Farm is some way outside my usual literary territory but it comes garlanded with praise from all and sundry including Sophie Mackintosh and Gary Shteyngart. A young Filipina immigrant hopes to improve her life and her child’s, taking a job at Golden Oaks a luxury fertility clinic run by an ambitious business woman who’s spotted a gap in the market. Described by the publishers as ‘a brilliant, darkly funny novel that explores the role of luck and merit, class, ambition and sacrifice, The Farm is an unforgettable story about how we live and who truly holds power’ which reminds me a little of David Bergen’s Stranger. It’s the dark humour and class theme that attracts me to this one.
I suspect there’ll be some dark humour in Paulo Maurensig’s A Devil Comes to Town set in a Swiss village where everyone’s a writer so absorbed in their work they’ve failed to notice the inauspicious signs, all but the new parish priest that is. When the devil turns up in a flash car claiming to be a publisher, the village’s harmony is shattered as literary rivalries are let loose. ‘Maurensig gives us a refined and engaging literary parable on narcissism, vainglory, and our inextinguishable thirst for stories’ say the publishers of a novel which could well be a great deal of fun.
I’m rounding off this second instalment of new titles with Being Various: New Irish Short Stories put together by guest editor Lucy Caldwell. It’s the sixth volume in a series from Faber, apparently – I’ve clearly got a lot of catching up to do. Following In the footsteps of Kevin Barry, Deirdre Madden and Joseph O’Connor, Caldwell has assembled a stellar list of contributors which includes Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney, Stuart Neville, Sally Rooney, Kit de Waal and Belinda McKeon. I’m sure there will be more than a few gems with writers of their calibre involved, and that’s a fabulous jacket.
That’s it for May. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis if you’d like to know more, and if you want to catch up with the first part of May’s preview it’s here. Paperbacks soon…
I seem to have been on a bit of a Oneworld roll recently: first They Know Not What They Do – not without its faults but worth reading – then The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao, which looks set fair to be one of my books of 2017, and now Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste. Someone there has a very sharp editorial eye. Sukegawa’s fable-like novella is about the relationship between an elderly woman who walks into a confectioner’s shop, hoping to fill the vacancy advertised in its window, and the reluctant young baker who agrees to take her on. From its jacket and premise you might be forgiven for expecting a sweet treat but it’s much more than that.
Sentaro is assembling dorayaki ready for the morning rush when Tokue comes into his shop. In debt to Doraharu’s owner as the result of a spell in prison, Sentaro wants nothing more than to pay what he owes and shut up shop. He opens every day selling his pancakes filled with sweet bean paste to rowdy schoolgirls and passers-by. When Tokue steps into the shop, eager to make her own version of the paste, Santaro is deeply sceptical – she’s seventy-six, frail and her hands are deformed – but she offers to work for next to nothing. Soon, sales are steadily climbing. Sentaro sees a speedy way out of his debt and the schoolgirls are delighted with Tokue who listens to their problems, quietly offering advice, despite Sentaro’s remonstrations. All seems well until sales begin to fall. Rumours of Tokue’s Hansen’s disease – once known as leprosy – have spread, bringing to the surface a deep-seated prejudice and fear. Tokue tells Sentaro her story of state-enforced confinement despite the early cure of her condition, contracted when she was just fourteen. A bond grows between these two outcasts, joined by Wakana, the young girl who unwittingly triggered the bakery’s decline.
Sukegawa unfolds his tale in simple, straightforward prose, exploring themes of friendship, hope and awakening through the disparate characters of Sentaro, Tokue, and Wakana. As he makes clear in his author’s note, there’s a conscious vein of spirituality running through the book illustrated in Tokue’s urging Santaro to ‘listen’ to the world – to pay attention – but it’s never laboured. Their friendship transforms Sentaro from an automaton with his eyes on the exit into someone who has discovered a belief in himself but it’s Tokue who’s the star of the show: gentle, perceptive and completely lacking in the bitterness her experience might have engendered. The social effects of Hansen’s disease, long eradicated in Japan but still a source of stigma and prejudice, provide a sobering backdrop to this tale which reminded me of Linda Grant’s 1940s-set The Dark Circle about tuberculosis in my own country. How pleasing it would be to assume that those were more ignorant times but a similar stigma raised its head again during the AIDs epidemic in the ‘80s and is still alive and kicking around mental illness today. As Sentaro thinks to himself, struggling at the prospect of meeting Tokue’s fellow inmates: ‘They were just people’.
This final books of the year post leapfrogs from August to October. Not sure what happened in September but I suspect it may have something to do with riding the Central European railways for several weeks. October’s reading made up for it starting with Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, to which I had been looking forward a little warily after a few disappointments with Patchett’s novels in recent years. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel crisscrosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, Commonwealth is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.
I had similar reservations about Donal Ryan’s third novel. Both his previous books had been praised to the skies which raised my expectations too high to be met, I suspect. Perhaps it’s because I’d learnt my lesson that this time around they were exceeded. Written in gorgeously lyrical prose, All We Shall Know tells the story of Melody Shee’s pregnancy and the unexpected friendship she finds with a young Traveller woman. The story is structured in brief chapters, each one covering a week of Melody’s pregnancy in which she lets slip details of her life. Ryan’s writing is clear and clean yet often poetic and his ear for dialect is superb – characteristics familiar from his previous novels – but what stood out in this one was his story telling. For me, it’s his best novel yet.
Expectations were sky-high for Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist –A Whole Life, which told the tale of one man’s life lived almost exclusively in an Austrian alpine village, was one of my books of last year. Beginning in 1937 in the months before Germany annexed Austria, The Tobacconist is very much darker, following the progress of a young man from his country bumpkin arrival in Vienna where he takes up an apprenticeship. As Franz’s character develops, Seethaler shows us Vienna through eyes which become increasingly appalled by what they see, often using simple slapstick comedy to throw the dreadful events unfolding into stark relief. Plain, clipped writing is studded with vivid images, all beautifully translated by Charlotte Collins who did such a fine job on A Whole Life.
This year is rounded off with a November favourite: Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle which celebrates the introduction of the NHS through the stories of a set of patients suffering from tuberculosis in a rather posh sanatorium, all of them hopeful that the new treatment rumoured to be on its way to Britain will save them. Grant portrays a subtle subversion of the status quo through the Gwendo’s inmates, many of whom come in contact with people of a different class and race for the first time. It’s a richly satisfying piece of storytelling with a bright thread of humour running through it and a cast of vivid, sharply observed characters .
And if I had to choose? I think it would come down to Kim Echlin’s beautiful paean of praise to female friendship Under the Visible Life, Ann Patchett’s immensely satisfying Commonwealth, or Hiromi Kawakami’s quietly charming The Nakano Thrift Shop. Who knows what 2017 will bring – I fervently hope that it will be better for the world than 2016 – but whatever it is at least there will always be books and storytelling to solace ourselves with, if only for a little while.
If you’d like to catch up with the previous three books of the year posts for 2016 they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Next week it’ll be time to look forward to what’s on offer in January.
Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party was one of my favourite books of 2014. It was something of a nostalgic read for me, set around the time I was a student with a cast of all too recognisable characters – excruciatingly so in some cases. The Dark Circle is entirely different. Opening in 1949, it follows a handful of tuberculosis patients in a palatial sanatorium at the dawn of the NHS, all of them hopeful that the new treatment rumoured to be on its way to Britain will save them.
En route to an Army medical, eighteen-year-old Lenny Lynskey chucks his chopped fish on rye sandwich at a rabble-rousing anti-Semite. Hearing police sirens, his twin sister Miriam, dashes out of the florists’ where she works and recognises her brother, about to be punched on the nose. Niftily, she knocks his attacker off his feet with a bouquet. When we next meet these two, they’re in an ambulance heading for the Gwendo, a rather posh sanatorium in Kent, both diagnosed with TB. Miriam is sent off for bed rest, lying alongside Valerie, freshly graduated from Oxford, outside on the veranda where they stay – quite literally – for months come rain or snow. Lenny is allowed more freedom, even taking himself off into the woods for an ill-advised walk in his Italian shoes and Teddy Boy drape. Both are fed on a rich diet, cautioned against excitement and subjected to a constant regime of temperature taking. Like everyone else in the Gwendo, they succumb to a mind-numbing boredom. Into this stultifying world strides Arthur Persky, with his rock and roll records and his cockiness. When the longed for streptomycin treatment arrives, which only seven patients will receive, Lenny and Arthur take things into their own hands with shocking results. During the year that Lenny and Miriam have spent at the Gwendo, both their lives have changed irrevocably.
A richly satisfying piece of storytelling peopled with vivid, sharply observed characters, The Dark Circle is also a paean of praise to the NHS. Without the newly introduced health service neither Lenny nor Miriam would have had access either to the dubious therapies of the Gwendo, or to the streptomycin which proved to be the cure that virtually stamped out TB in Britain. Grant effectively explores a more subtle subversion of the status quo through Gwendo’s patients, many of whom are in contact with people of a different class and race for the first time. Lenny’s mind is broadened by his discussions with Valerie about books, quizzing Hannah about how Kafka’s Metamorphosis reads in the original German. In turn Valerie finds herself reassessing her attitude to this ‘hairy Jewish ape’ who turns out to be far more intelligent than her Edgbaston prejudices might have led her to believe. There’s a bright thread of humour running through the novel – Persky’s womanising with his ‘special skills’, passed on to future lovers; Miriam and Valerie’s attempts to find common ground – which lifts it out of its sober context. A thoroughly successful novel, then, the basis for which came from a story told to Grant by a TB survivor. Astonishing as it seems, it turns out that being confined to a bed on a veranda for months, despite freezing conditions, really was considered to be beneficial. Who knows, maybe future generations will look back on chemotherapy with the same level of amazement.
A new Zadie Smith novel is always the cause of a great deal of pre-publication anticipation. Twitter has been all agog for some time ensuring that Swing Timewill turn up in quite a few Christmas stockings. Moving between Smith’s home territory of north-west London to West Africa and New York, it spans the years from the 1980s to the present following two childhood friends who meet at a ballet class. ‘Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them’ say the publishers which reminds me of Kim Echlin’s wonderful, Under the Invisible Life, a novel which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved.
The subject of Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out is something of an attention-grabber. It looks at assisted suicide through the experiences of Evan, a hospital nurse who helps people to die, something he keeps firmly under his hat from his friends. A tricky love life, his increasingly unwell mother and his supervisor’s concerns as he sails ever-closer to the wind in terms of morality and law add further spice in what the publishers describe as ‘a brilliantly funny and exquisitely sad novel that gets to the heart of one of the most difficult questions each of us may face: would you help someone die?’ ‘Brilliantly funny’ may be the best approach to engage readers with this dilemma with which many countries, including the UK, frequently wrestle but never manage to resolve.
Mette Jakobsen’s What the Light Hides explores suicide but in a rather different way. Vera and David live in the Blue Mountains, still passionately in love after twenty years of marriage. Jakobsen’s novel begins five months after their son apparently took his own life in Sydney where he was at university. Vera is coping but David cannot accept his son’s death, taking himself off to Sydney to try to make sense of things. ‘Mette Jakobsen’s gifts of delicate and empathetic observation are on display in this tender and moving novel’ say the publishers. I’ve read several excellent novels from the Australian Text Publishing and have high hopes for this one.
Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle sounds a world away from her last novel Upstairs at the Party which I loved. It’s set against the backdrop of a TB sanatorium in Kent at the beginning of the 1950s, where a teenage brother and sister ’living on the edge of the law… … discover that a cure is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched’ according to the publisher. I haven’t enjoyed all of Grant’s novels but this sounds well worth a try.
Sara Stridsberg’s The Gravity of Loveis set in another kind of hospital, just outside Stockholm. Jimmie Darling’s daughter visits her father in the psychiatric institution where he is in the charge of Edvard Winterson, happy to take his patients for the odd night out. When her mother disappears on holiday, the hospital becomes Jackie’s world and she makes the acquaintance of what sounds like a vivid cast of characters. ‘In Sara Stridsberg’s breathtakingly beautiful novel, the psychiatric hospital, set in a lovely park close to a lake, takes on near-mythic dimensions, both as an avenging angel and as a redeemer of lost souls’ say the publishers which sounds a little overblown but it’s been much praised in Stridsberg’s native Sweden.
Gerard Reve’s The Evenings is set in one of my favourite European cities which is one of its draws for me. It’s the story of ten evenings in the life of Frits van Egters as he walks the streets of post-war Amsterdam. That may seem a tad dull but it’s been voted one of the greatest novels of all time by the highly literary Dutch. Described by the publishers as ‘edgy, mesmerising, darkly ironical’ it sounds quite intriguing.
My last choice for November is Brad Watson’s Miss Jane which was inspired by the true story of Watson’s great-aunt, Jane Chisolm, born in rural Mississippi in the early twentieth century with, as the publishers put it, a ‘genital birth defect that would stand in the way of the central “uses” for a woman in that time and place – namely, sex and marriage’. ‘From the country doctor who adopts Jane to the hard tactile labour of farm life from the sensual and erotic world of nature around her to the boy who loved but was forced to leave her, the world of Miss Jane Chisolm is anything but barren’ continues the blurb. It sounds like an uplifting read which after several of the novels listed above may come as something of a welcome change.
That’s it for November. As ever a click on the title will take you to a full synopsis should you be interested. Paperbacks soon…
I’ve read all but two of July’s selection of paperbacks and reviewed four of them which makes this an easy post for me. I’ll start with one I haven’t read but have been eagerly anticipating: Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and before you castigate me for that missing ‘u’, that’s the way it’s spelt on the jacket. All four of the eponymous Tsukuru’s schoolfriends’ names have a colour in them: he is the odd one out. After they all turn their backs on him he fails to connect with anyone until he meets Sara. As ever with Murakami, I’m sure there’s much more to it than that.
Josh Emmons’ debut, The Loss of Leon Meed, has largely earned its place here because it comes from The Friday Project whose books are always worth a look rather than its seemingly ubiquitous Jonathan Franzen recommendation. Popping up inexplicably and in the strangest of situations, Leon Meed brings together ten disparate residents of Eureka, California, previously unknown to each other, each of whom has witnessed his appearances and each of whom wants to share their experiences. ‘A canny status report on the American Soul’, according to the Los Angeles Times.
I’ve read but not reviewed Katherine Hill’s The Violet Hour in which Abe throws himself overboard after confronting Cassandra with her infidelity leaving her and her teenage daughter aboard their pilotless yacht. Theirs was an apparently perfect marriage, a fulfilment of the American dream, but Hill’s novel goes on to reveal otherwise. A classy summer read – just the thing for lazing around which is why I took it on my own holiday then failed to get around to reading it.
Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights is also a portrait of a relationship which is not quite what it seems. Narrated by Anna Brown, a celebrated portrait painter, it begins with a cry of anguish at the disappearance of John – husband, lover and the subject of many of her paintings. Anna has told her housekeeper that John is merely in town picking up art supplies but she knows that this is no short absence. Slowly – sometimes in vibrant word pictures, sometimes obliquely – a picture of John and the life they have lived together emerges through Anna’s memories and imaginings. It’s a short novel that repays attentive reading.
Much longer, unsurprisingly given its name, The Hundred-Year House is Rebecca Makkai’s backward looking history of Laurelfield which we first enter as a family home, albeit a somewhat dysfunctional family. You may know Makkai’s name from her lovely, engaging first novel, The Borrower, the story of a librarian who goes on the run with her favourite customer, a ten-year-old boy whose Evangelical mother is worried about his sexuality. Her second is entirely different, but just as entertaining.
As is Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Partywhich had me absorbed from start to finish. It’s a novel about a particular generation, my own, and many of her characters are all too recognisable. This is the second novel in which Grant puts the baby-boomers under the microscope. The first, the hugely enjoyable We Had it So Good, is about the first wave who matured in the 1960s rather than us tail-enders. Upstairs at the Partyhas some familiar Grant hallmarks – young Jewish girl rebelling against her mother, a much-loved uncle figure, an attention to clothes – and is also a thoroughly absorbing, if darker, read. Hard to untangle my own enjoyment from nostalgia but if you’ve liked Grant’s other novels, I think you’ll enjoy this one, too.
My final choice is Emily Gould’s Friendship which didn’t seem to me to get as much attention as it deserved in hardback. We talk about relationship breakups but not the breakup of a friendship although they can be almost as heartbreaking, and in some cases more so. Gould’s novel makes no bones about its subject – it’s obvious from the title – but it’s about much more than that. Through the lens of Bev and Amy’s friendship she examines what it’s like to emerge from your twenties in the modern world, still unsure of what to do with your life.
That’s it for July paperbacks. A click on the title of the three books I haven’t reviewed will take you to Waterstone’s website for a fuller synopsis. If you want to see what I’ve picked out in hardback for July you can find part one here and part two here.