Tag Archives: Neil Hegarty

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2020: Part One

April’s paperback preview falls neatly into two parts – those I’ve already read and those I’ve yet to read. I’m beginning with the former, the first four of which were on my last year’s books of the year list. Hard to know which one to kick off with but I’m plumping for Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, the story of an unusual house, almost a work of art, and the obsessions it sparks. It’s also the story of the Conroys, the family whose history is indelibly marked by this house whose huge glass windows leave them exposed to the world. Patchett’s writing is smoothly polished but it’s her storytelling, laced with an elegant wit, that kept me gripped, wondering what would happen to these characters whose lives are hedged around with secrets and silence. Altogether a treat: a book to curl up with and I think we could all do with one of those at the moment.

I’m sure the Conroys’ house was as important to them as the eponymous work in Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel was to its creator. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s novel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. This is Hegarty’s second novel and it did that rare thing: exceeded the high expectations raised by his fine debut, Inch Levels. I’m already looking forward to his third.

When I read that Jill Dawson’s 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 Cover imagespeculation 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 the media portrayal which reduced her to ‘the lovely young nanny’ rather than a vibrant 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.

Paul Lynch’s Beyond the Sea is from Oneworld who’ve  bagged not one but two Booker Prizes in the last few years. Written in that spare, pared-back style which I so admire, this intense novella explores themes of faith, madness, survival and existential crisis through the story of two fishermen cast adrift after a dreadful storm. Hector and Bolivar are thrown upon themselves and each other in order to survive. As a bond forms between them, each begins to tell the other about their lives, their secrets and their fears but while Hector sees faith as their saviour, Bolivar puts his trust in resourcefulness.

Anna Hope’s  Expectation narrowly missed my books of last year list only because I was wary of stretching readers’ patience a little too far. Very different from her first two novels, Wake and The Ballroom, it has the kind of structure I find irresitsible, exploring friendship, motherhood, love and feminism through the lives of Hannah, Cate and Lissa who share a house together in their twenties. Hope bookends her lovely, empathetic novel with two sunny Saturday mornings, the first in 2004 when Hannah and Cate buy breakfast to share with Lissa at home and the second in 2018 when the three, now in their mid-forties, meet for a picnic. Much has changed in between – betrayal, grief, disappointment, pain have all been suffered along with forgiveness, joy and hope. I loved it.

I’ve not read anything by Laura Beatty before but I found Lost Property’s synopsis intriguing. A woman finds herself in a state of despair at her country’s apparent indifference to the suffering and poverty on its streets and decides she must find a way to understand how such a state has come about. This witty yet profound novel of ideas takes us across Europe in a second-hand camper van on a road trip through history, following our unnamed narrator’s quest for meaning. It’s not an easy Cover imageread but it’s a richly rewarding one, and it’ll make you think.

Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands follows a man woken by a vivid dream of his wife’s infidelity, convinced of its truth. He takes himself off to the airport, boards the first plane that will take him as far away as he can get, ending up in Japan where he becomes involved with a young man intent on suicide. It’s a playful yet poignant novella which I enjoyed although I was a wee bit surprised to see it shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker International Prize.

That’s it for the April paperbacks I’ve read. A click on a title will take you to my review should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the month’s new titles they’re here and here. Into uncharted april paperback territory soon…

I should be rushing off to catch the train to Ghent after posting this but with Belgium closing restaurants and museums thanks to covid-19 there seems little point. Never mind, It’ll still be there when all this is over. Take care and keep washing those hands.

Books of the Year 2019: Part Four

We’re on the home stretch, now, heading towards the end of 2019, and already anticipating the shiny and new in 2020. September, which I like to call late summer stretching that in to October weather permitting, began with Etgar Keret’s Fly Already a collection of twenty punchy, inventive short stories, some no longer than a page or two. A few of Keret’s pieces are disconcerting – more than a little wacky – others are pure comedy, often using humour to make a point, but all are memorable. The complications of humanity are sweetly satirised and even the rich, who come in for some thoroughly justified lampooning, are treated with a sympathetic understanding. It’s a hugely enjoyable collection, full of surprises. I’d not heard of Keret before although I gather he’s acquired an international reputation. Richly deserved, if Fly Already is anything to go by.

October saw two novels that exemplified beautifully crafted, immersive storytelling, the first of which was Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. It’s the story of an unusual house, almost a work of art, and the obsessions it sparks. It’s also the story of the Conroys, the family whose history is indelibly marked by this house whose huge glass windows leave them exposed to the world. Patchett’s writing is smoothly polished but it’s her storytelling, laced with an elegant wit, that kept me gripped, wondering what would happen to these characters whose lives are hedged around with secrets and silence, who seem to fall under the influence of this house even when trying to resist it. Altogether a treat: a book to curl up with, well turned out, absorbing and satisfying. I would love to have seen it on the Booker longlist, at the very least.

I’m sure the Conroys’ house was as important to them as the eponymous work in Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel was to its creator. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s novel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. This is Hegarty’s second novel and it did that rare thing: exceeded theCover image high expectations raised by his fine debut, Inch Levels. I’m already looking forward to his third.

November’s favourites were heralded by a book for which I had even higher expectations, and once again they were fulfilled. This year saw the return of the irascible yet essentially warm-hearted Olive Kitteridge, familiar to fans of Elizabeth Strout’s eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 2008. Olive, Again takes the same form, comprising thirteen closely-knit short stories in which Olive is often the central character, sometimes a co-star and occasionally a bit-player. Ordinary everyday day life is filled with events unremarkable to others but extraordinary to those who live through them. Epiphanies are had. Time passes. Olive grows old but not always alone. It’s a triumph. I’m deeply suspicious of sequels but delighted that Strout took me back to Crosby to meet Olive again. My hope is that Frances Mcdormand, who was such a thoroughly convincing Olive in HBO’s miniseries, is already practicing her lines.

Karina Sainz Borgo’s It Would Be Night in Caracas tells the story of a woman in a very different set of circumstances. Now middle-aged, Adelaida grew up against a backdrop of the Bolivarian Revolution. Food shortages have become starvation for many and a source of wealth for others. Abductions are commonplace, gunshot frequent, medicine hard to come by and expensive. When an opportunity presents itself, Adelaida finds herself engaged in the unthinkable in a determined effort to escape the city’s mayhem. Borgo’s novel effectively humanises the horrors taking place on the streets of Caracas through the story of one woman. Publishers’ lists are full of dystopian fiction, often depicting post-apocalyptic events, but if you want to see what a real dystopia looks like, this is it. In the here and now

Rather fittingly, given that I’ve read so many of them over the past few years, I’m bringing 2019’s favourites to a close with a novella. Written in clean bright prose Hanne Ørstavik’s Love tells the Cover imagestory of a mother and her son on the eve of his ninth birthday, a milestone she’s forgotten and he’s convinced she’s secretly planning to celebrate. Over the course of a frigid Norwegian night – each of them outdoors, unbeknownst to the other – their paths will almost cross several times, both returning home to a day which will be far from what either of them might have anticipated. Altogether a very polished, powerful piece of writing, beautifully expressed.

And if I had to choose? That would be a challenge I’d rather not take, but if push comes to shove I’d have to plump for The Dutch House, The Jewel and Olive, Again, although don’t ask me to rank them. As ever, the trimming down to just twenty-four was a painful process, particularly dropping Faces on the Tip of my Tongue, Lot and Echoes of the City, all of which are superb. I hope your year has been as filled with literary excellence as mine.

Just one more review to come before devoting the rest of my posting year to looking forward, previewing some of the delights publishers have in store for us in January 2020. In the meantime, all the above titles link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first three instalments of 2019’s favourites they’re here, here and here.

The Jewel by Neil Hegarty: A multi-faceted gem

It’s three years since I reviewed Neil Hegarty’s first novel, Inch Levels, describing it as ‘quietly impressive’. It’s a subtle, perceptive piece of fiction which I enjoyed very much but it’s often the case that second novels fall far short of debuts. Not so with The Jewel which not only met but far exceeded my expectations. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s book explores the lives of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime.

Painted on Irish linen by a once-obscure nineteenth-century artist, The Jewel is Emily Sandborne’s finest work, folded into her coffin at her request after her suicide then later disinterred. It’s gorgeous; the malachite set into its mounted subject’s armour glittering against the distemper which never seems to fade. This is the prize stolen from the refurbished Irish National Gallery on the eve of its reopening. Distemper is the medium, chosen by John – painter, self-confessed counterfeiter and thief – whose childhood Deptford home was demolished much to his mother’s disgust, reluctant to move to the council’s much-vaunted tower block. Roisin grew up in rural Ireland, escaping tittle-tattle and judgement to study art history in London but not the childhood tragedy which has left her feeling forever responsible. Ward works for an EU-funded agency, tasked with helping police solve art theft. Born in Dublin, he lives in London, seemingly locked into a dysfunctional relationship with his partner. The theft of Sandborne’s masterwork brings these three together, each with their own many-layered story to unfold.

The Jewel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of its three main protagonists, each of whose alternating narratives follows them from childhood to the early-hours theft. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. The loss of home is a common thread, whether under duress or a need to escape what turns out to be inescapable. Each of the character’s narratives is anchored in a strong sense of place as if underpinning this loss, vividly evoked by Hegarty’s striking writing – the descriptions of Deptford are particularly atmospheric while the claustrophobia of small-town ‘80s Ireland is sharply portrayed. He’s just as smart in nailing organisations:

And the agency was just this sort of place: a bit bitchy, incestuous, like a university department, like the Borgias in the matter of rivalry and career development

As ever, writing about a book with which I’ve been so struck is much more difficult than reviewing one I’ve simply enjoyed. There’s so much to think about and to admire in this engrossing, accomplished novel that I’ve barely done it justice. Best just read it.

Head of Zeus: London 2019 9781789541809 368 pages Hardback

Books to Look Out for in October 2019: Part One

This October sees a nicely varied selection of tempting new titles on offer including one by an author whose name I’ve been hoping to spot in the publishing schedules for some time. I loved Mary Costello’s quietly beautiful Academy Street, one of my books of 2014. Her new novel, The River Capture, is about a man whose solitary existence is interrupted when a young woman knocks at his door, presenting him and his family with a dilemma. ‘This is a novel about love, loyalty and the raging forces of nature. More than anything, it is a book about the life of the mind and the redemptive powers of art’ say the publishers promisingly.

Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel sounds as if it’s also about art, although possibly not its redemptive powers. The final work of a woman who committed suicide hangs in a Dublin gallery, a piece she’d intended as her shroud. A collector covets it so much he’s prepared to pay to have it stolen. Hegarty’s novel follows the thief he commissions, the curator who loves the piece and the man charged with recovering it. ‘The lives of these three damaged people, each evoked with a calm, moving sympathy reminiscent of Michael Cunningham or David Park, come together around the hauntingly strange Victorian painting’ say the publishers, whetting my appetite nicely. I enjoyed Hegarty’s debut, Inch Levels, very much.

There’s something of a theme emerging here. In Jon Fosse’s The Other Name a widowed ageing painter is looking back on his life. Asle lives on the west coast of Norway and has just two friends – his neighbour and his gallerist who lives in Bjorgvin as does another Asle who is also an ageing painter leading a very different life. ‘Written in hypnotic prose that shifts between the first and third person, The Other Name calls into question concrete notions around subjectivity and the self. What makes us who we are? And why do we lead one life and not Cover imageanother?’ It’s the doppelganger idea that intrigues me with this one which is the first in a trilogy, apparently.

There’s geographical link rather than an artistic one to Lars Saabye Christensen’s Echoes of the City which has been hailed a Norwegian masterpiece. It charts the changes in an Oslo neighbourhood through its inhabitants as the city emerges from wartime austerity. ‘The minutes of the local Red Cross meetings give an architecture to the narrative of so many lives and tell a story in themselves, bearing witness to the steady recovery of the community. Echoes of the City is a remarkably tender observation of the rhythms and passions of a city, and a particular salute to the resilience of its women’ according to the publishers which sounds very inviting.

Years ago, in the very early days of this blog, I reviewed Susan Fortes’ Waiting for Robert Capa which introduced me to Gerda Taro, an unsung hero of war photography. Helena Janeczek’s The Girl with the Leica is also about Taro, telling her story through several characters attending her funeral held on what would have been her twenty-seventh birthday and placing it firmly in the context of the time. ‘Gerda Taro is at the heart of this kaleidoscopic novel but another of its main characters is the era itself, the 1930s, with economic depression, the rise of Nazism, hostility towards refugees in France, the century’s ideological warfare, the cultural ferment, and the ascendency of photography as the age’s quintessential art form’ say the publishers. I’m very pleased to see such attention devoted to Taro who, I was annoyed to discover, is barely given a mention at the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Centre which we visited in Budapest.

Cover imageI’m sure Zadie Smith would have shared that annoyance. I’m rounding this first October batch off with Grand Union, her first published collection. Smith’s stories take us from the last day of an Antiguan immigrant’s life in 1959 to a meditation on the nature of desire to a policeman in disgrace, apparently. ‘Moving exhilaratingly across genres and perspectives, from the historic to the vividly current to the slyly dystopian, Grand Union is a sharply alert and prescient collection about time and place, identity and rebirth, the persistent legacies that haunt our present selves and the uncanny futures that rush up to meet us’ say the publishers which sounds good to me.

As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. Part two to follow soon.

That’s it from me until the end of the week. I’m off to see a friend who lives in Holmfirth in Yorkshire where I believe there’s a spanking new indie bookshop…

Paperbacks to Look Out for in March 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThe second part of March’s paperbacks stays here in the UK for a while then wanders around all over the place finally arriving at one of my favourite literary destinations. Stella Duffy’s London Lies Beneath begins in August 1912 and follows three friends who have grown up together in the slums of Walworth where they’re expected to live out their lives. When the more adventurous of the three hears of a scouting trip he’s determined to go, taking the other two with him with tragic results. The blurb describes it as ‘a song of south London, of working class families with hidden histories, of a bright and complex world long neglected’. I’ve enjoyed Duffy’s previous London novels – she has a knack for catching the atmosphere of the place, and what a great jacket.

London – or at least the City – is the old stomping ground of sixty-year-old Matthew Oxenhay who is driving along the A303 towards Barnet, leaving Somerset behind him in Jim Powell’s Trading Futures. Whether he continues in that direction depends on his wife not answering her phone. If she does answer it, he’ll tell her he’s leaving her, turn around and head back to Anna in Somerset. Matthew’s story unfolds through his own waspish, darkly funny inner monologue. He’s a ‘60s rebel for whom the very idea of a career as a futures trader would have been despicable all those years ago. Sharply observed and grimly funny, in the end Matthew’s journey is a sobering one.

Marriage and infidelity also run through Anna Raverat’s Lover. Kate’s marriage begins to unravel when she discovers her husband’s dalliance with another woman. Work offers no comfort as her boss becomes increasingly demanding. Amidst this turmoil, Kate’s priority is to protect her daughters but her life is in tatters. ‘Told with warmth and lightness, even as it also mines real depths of sorrow, Lover is a novel about the hand that life can deal you, and how to play it with grace. Beautifully observed, full of wisdom, poetry and humour, it asks what it means to be true in all things, and in so doing, how to live’ say the publishers, which makes it sound like a nice piece of intelligent, absorbing fiction.

Keeping it in the family, Elizabeth Hay’s His Whole Life is a coming-of-age novel which follows Jim Cover imageand his mother over seven difficult years as the bond between them deepens ‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’ asks ten-year-old Jim from the back seat of the family car. This is the question that will recur throughout Hay’s richly complex and intimate portrait of an extended family, each time revealing more about its characters. I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Hay’s nuanced understated fiction – her Late Nights on Air is one of my favourite novels. If you haven’t read her yet, please do. You won’t be disappointed

Complex family dynamics are a theme of Neil Hegarty’s adroit Inch Levels, set in Derry against the background of the Troubles, about a young man with only a few weeks to live, wrestling with a dilemma and the tortured family history that has led him to it. As Patrick’s recollections unfold they reveal a family whose emotions have been smothered: a mother closed off, unable to express affection; a father doing the best he can but unable to compensate and two children, confused and resentful but knowing that each is all the other has. It’s an engaging novel which shows rather than tells, richly repaying close attention.

Finding his family is on the mind of an American student with debts to settle in Miroslav Pensov’s Stork Mountain. He heads for the village of Klisura, deep in the Strandja Mountains on the Bulgarian side of the border with Turkey within spitting distance of Greece, hoping to sell his family’s land and track down his incommunicado grandfather. Beautifully expressed and often very funny, Stork Mountain weaves folklore, dreams and history through its long and winding narrative, often turning back on itself. It’s not an easy read, occasionally bewildering with its many stories, myths and legends overlapping with history, but it’s worth the effort.

Klisura once found itself part of the Communist state, the eventual result of the turbulent political upheavals which twenty-two-year-old Gerty Freely finds herself caught up in. Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist follows Gerty to Moscow where she takes up a position as a governess. Three years after her arrival, revolution transforms the city throwing the bourgeois into panicky bag-packing but Gerty decides to stay, becoming involved in a communal living experiment led by a charismatic inventor. His sudden disappearance leaves Gerty alone and vulnerable.

Cover imageStraining for a link to Pamela Erens’ Eleven Hours but I think I it’s beyond me.  Set in New York, the novel reveals the lives of two women – one in labour, the other her Haitian midwife. It’s the ‘taut sensitive prose’ of the publisher’s blurb that attracts me to this one together with the interweaving of the stories of two women from very different backgrounds. The ‘sometimes harrowing’ description is a little off-putting but at least we’ve been warned.

That’s it for March’s paperbacks which are many and varied, studded with several gems. Should you be interested, a click on a title will take you to my reviews for Trading Futures, His Whole Life, Inch Levels and Stork Mountain, or to a fuller synopsis for the others. If you’d like to catch up with part one, it’s here – March hardbacks are here and here.

Inch Levels by Neil Hegarty: Pay attention…

Cover imageHistory, family and otherwise, is woven through the fabric of this accomplished first novel which seems appropriate given that Neil Hegarty’s previous books deal with the subject. Set in Derry against the background of the Troubles, Inch Levels is about a young man with only a few weeks to live, wrestling with a dilemma and the tortured family history that has led him to it.

Barely into his thirties, Patrick Jackson has been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. He lies in his hospital bed listening to the ringing of the bell in the nearby school where he taught, trying to stave off his pain with memories. He has much to contemplate, his reverie interrupted by the visitors he doesn’t want to see, the sometimes patronising attentions of the nurses he would rather not have to endure. Each day his mother, Sarah, or his sister, Margaret, come to visit him but it’s only Margaret who’s welcome. Patrick’s reflections are studded with vivid memories – a day with his family at the beach; a march in his hometown of Derry which ended in bloodshed; the loving attentions of Cassie the only person Sarah seemed able to trust – but the memory which haunts him is not his own: the events leading to the death of an eleven-year-old girl one autumn day in 1983. As Patrick’s recollections unfold they reveal a family whose emotions have been smothered: a mother closed off, unable to express affection; a father doing the best he can but unable to compensate and two children, confused and resentful but knowing that each is all the other has.

Hegarty’s writing is often striking, particularly when describing the natural world: ‘the landscape was a palette of greens, changing with height into the deeper green-brown of bracken, purple of heather, hard silver glint of scree-strewn slopes’ vividly summons up an Irish hillside. It’s a novel which shows rather than tells, repaying close attention. Piece by piece Hegarty slowly reveals what has led Sarah into her emotional vacuum and the consequences it has had. Written in the main from Patrick’s point of view, the narrative smoothly shifts from character to character, answering questions but often prompting more. It’s adroitly done: so much is left unsaid in this family haunted by events that only one of them understands. Quietly impressive and wholly engrossing, Inch Levels is a fine debut which gently leads its readers to a resolution entirely in keeping with what’s gone before.