I’ve read just one of this second selection of May paperbacks – Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal which picked up a bit of attention when it was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. It sees fortysomething Sonja attempting to learn to drive, something she feels she really should have done some time ago, while failing to find a place for herself in the world. Nothing much happens in Nors’ sharp, very funny novella. Sonja stumbles from perplexity to perplexity, occasionally making stands, constantly finding herself out of step with everyone else until one day she has an epiphany.
With her pleasing eccentricities, Sonja wouldn’t be out of place in one of the seven stories comprising Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women if past performance is anything to go by. Each of them bears many of the hallmarks no doubt familiar to fellow fans – ’vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles’ – promises the publishers who also quote the author on writing short stories in the book’s blurb: ‘I find writing novels a challenge, writing stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.’
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Gravel Heart will no doubt be rather more sombre than Murakami’s stories. It moves between revolutionary Zanzibar in the 1960s and 1990s London, following writer Paradise Salim whose happy childhood is disrupted by his father’s departure from his brother’s house where the family has been living. ‘Evoking the immigrant experience with unsentimental precision and profound insight, Gravel Heart is a powerfully affecting story of isolation, identity, belonging and betrayal, and is Abulrazak Gurnah’s most dazzling achievement’ say the publishers. Gurnah’s By the Sea remains one of the most powerful depictions of exile I’ve read.
I’m hoping for some light relief with Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation after that. It’s about modern marriage, a second marriage to be precise. Graham is charmed by the fun-loving, spontaneous Audra but tired out by her. When his first wife turns up again, Graham finds himself in a quandry: ’How can anyone love two such different women? Did he make the right choice? Is there a right choice?’ ask the publishers which doesn’t sound entirely up my street and there’s every possibility that I’ve been persuaded to look at it by Twitter, something I’ve had cause to regret in the past. We’ll see.
Francesca Segal’s The Awkward Age also tackles modern family life through Julia who has fallen in love with James. All looks set for happiness but their teenage children put several spanners in the works. ‘Uniting two households is never easy, but the teenagers’ unexpected actions will eventually threaten everyone’s hard-won happiness’ say the publishers which, once again, sounds a little outside my usual literary purview but I enjoyed Segal’s The Innocents very much
I’m ending this preview with a book by an author whose first novel is still sitting on my shelves unread although it is now the next in line. Paula McGrath’s A History of Running Away follows three women: one wanting to box at a time when boxing is illegal for women in Ireland; the second contemplating a job offer but wondering if she can bring herself to abandon her mother in her nursing home; and a third who takes up with a biker gang as a means of escape. ‘A History of Running Away is a brilliantly written novel about running away, growing up and finding out who you are’ say the publishers, promisingly.
That’s it for May. A click on a title will take you to my review for Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and to a more detailed synopsis for the other titles. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch of May’s paperbacks they’re here, new novels are here and here.