Jen Beagin’s Pretend I’m Dead comes adorned with a ‘laugh-out-loud’ puff on its jacket, although it was the New Mexico setting that was the attraction for me. It’s about twenty-four-year-old Mona who cleans houses for a living, falls hard for a junkie who disappears then takes herself off to Taos. Not perhaps the most inspiring of synopses but it’s Beagin’s whipsmart humour and Mona’s idiosyncratic take on life that keep you reading.
Mona loves to vacuum, sees dirt wherever she goes and indulges in self-portraits, playing dead in her clients’ houses often wearing at least one item of their clothing. Her parents split when she was twelve, packing her off to her father’s cousin the other side of the country. Once a week she volunteers at the local needle exchange where she meets Mr Disgusting, twenty years older than her and determined to get clean. These two damaged misfits get to know each other, fall in love and plan to set up home together but then he disappears leaving Mona with nothing but an idea in her head that she would fit right into Taos. She takes off for New Mexico where she sets up shop as a cleaner again. Her neighbours spend an hour looking at the sunset ever night, meditate, eat a macrobiotic diet and think she should do the same. Business picks up but she’s lonely, worrying away at the puzzling childhood memories that resurface now and then.
Nothing much happens in Beagin’s debut: it’s all about the characters, not least Mona from whose sharply sardonic perspective the novel unfolds. Little bombs are dropped into the narrative revealing a childhood that has led her to jump to dark conclusions about her clients. Beagin demonstrates a nice line in satire with her New Mexico characters, from her neighbours Nigel and Shiori, or Yoko and Yoko as Mona likes to call them, to Betty the psychic who may be a sharp-eyed charlatan or more prescient that Mona first thinks. There are some great slapstick moments and it’s stuffed with pithy one-liners. A few favourites should give you a flavour:
Rather than a photo, Mona kept a list of her mother’s phobias in her wallet
Like cancer, he had a way of trivialising other aspects of her life
She didn’t believe he’d accidentally killed himself. He was too attached to his problems
There’s a superb one towards the end which made me laugh out loud as promised by that puff but you’d have to read the book to understand why. I loved this novel with its dark, witty and confident writing. Can’t wait to see what Beagin comes up with next.
I’d heard nothing about An American Marriage before it arrived, its cover adorned with an Oprah’s Book Club selection tag which always reminds me of Jonathan Franzen’s pompous refusal to have anything to do with Winfrey’s endorsement of The Corrections, considering himself to be part of the ‘high art literary tradition‘. Well, la di da. Anyway, it certainly didn’t put me off nor Michael Chabon who also rated it highly as did Amy Bloom, one of my favourite writers. Tayari Jones’ novel lays bare a marriage in the first flush of love when the husband is wrongfully imprisoned.
Roy and Celestial are visiting his parents in small town Louisiana. They met briefly when she visited her best friend Andre in college but their relationship began properly four years later. Roy is a publishing rep, easy, charming and very successful at what he does while Celestial is a doll maker whose work is just beginning to catch the art world’s eye. They’re an attractive young couple, bright successful and in love, part of Atlanta’s growing black middle class. Celestial is a little nervous about the visit, never feeling she quite measures up to her mother-in-law’s exacting eye. Roy has booked them into a local hotel much to her relief. When he meets a woman at the ice machine, her arm in a cast, they briefly chat and he helps her to her room, opening her door for her before returning to Celestial. In the early hours of the morning, the police burst into their room, hauling Roy off to the station where he is accused of rape and later sentenced to twelve years in prison. Jones’ novel explores the fallout of this awful calamity.
Jones unfolds her story from both Roy and Celestial’s points of view with occasional interpolations from Andre. Married for just eighteen months, they’re still very much caught up in each other. Roy is a confident, slightly brash young man from a respectable blue-collar background while Celestial has enjoyed the privileges of a wealth, a divide captured well by Jones in their very different voices, particularly Roy’s: If my childhood were a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread. Racism, class and marriage come under the microscope as do absent fathers and attitudes towards women which may sound a little ambitious but it’s all tightly controlled and smoothly executed in this powerful novel which avoids the saccharine. Lots to talk about here for book groups – I’m not surprised Oprah plumped for it and I’m sure Jones was more than happy that she did.
Set in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Joseph Cassara’s debut was inspired by the House of Xtravaganza, celebrated in Paris is Burning, a documentary about Harlem’s drag ball scene. That alone would have piqued my interest but it’s also from Oneworld Publications, one of my favourite publishers. The House of Impossible Beauties focuses on four characters: Angel, Venus, Juanito and Daniel. Angel and Venus are transsexual while Juanito and Daniel are not. All of them are runaways, looking for a home.
Young, sassy and beautiful, Angel inveigles herself into the dressing room of a New York drag scene star where she meets the love of her life. She and Hector dream of setting up their own house but this is 1980: AIDs is cutting a devastating swathe through the gay community and Angel is soon left alone. When she meets Venus they form an alliance which will last years, scraping enough money together turning tricks at the city’s piers to establish Angel’s longed for drag ball establishment. Soon Juanito joins them, a genius with fabric and delighted with the sewing machine Angel buys him. Then Venus spots Daniel, horribly naïve and ripe for exploitation, taking him home with her. Together these four make up the House of Xtravaganza, the first Latino house on the drag ball circuit and a place of sanctuary from a harsh world with Angel at its centre.
The strength of Cassara’s novel lies in his four central characters, each very different from the other but each looking and hoping for love. Angel buries the pain of losing Hector, channelling it into a fierce protectiveness; Venus falls into the trap of thinking she’s found her man only to discover he’s married; the delicately beautiful Juanito whose childhood still haunts him finds love with the adoring Daniel. AIDs is the grim backdrop to this novel, loss and sadness always in the background together with the straight world’s prejudice and ignorance, but there’s a bright thread of humour running through it, lightening its tone. Cassara was born long after the horrors wreaked by AIDs but he writes with empathy and humanity, evoking the pain of it all heartbreakingly well. When I first started this novel, I wondered if it might prove too long but I found myself drawn into its glittering, tragic world and caring deeply about what happened to its characters.
Sometimes books arrive with stories about how they came to be written which are almost as fascinating as what’s inside them. Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Woman at 1,000 Degrees grew out of a canvassing phone call he made on behalf of his partner, a candidate in Iceland’s municipal elections. The third name on his list turned out to belong to an eighty-year-old woman living in a garage who kept him talking for nearly an hour. A few years later, Helgason chased down the identity of his late conversationalist to find that she was Brynhilder Georgía Björnsson, granddaughter of Iceland’s first president. Renaming her Herra, which is both a woman’s name and Icelandic for ‘mister’, Helgason spins a tale which is funny and tragic, hanging it on the bare bones of Björnsson’s story.
Herra lies on a bed in a rented garage, her trusty laptop and ancient hand grenade at her side. She’s made herself an appointment at the crematorium, determined not to see out another Christmas. She keeps herself occupied with her many stolen Facebook identities, causing havoc by merrily hacking her daughter-in-law’s email and telling us her story. Born in 1929, Herra is the daughter of a country girl and a diplomat’s son, brought up for seven years on one of Iceland’s many islands before her father finally got around to acknowledging his daughter taking her and her mother to Denmark where his father was Iceland’s ambassador. They settle into society life then war breaks out. Denmark is occupied by Germany while Iceland, then part of Denmark, is taken by the British. Herra’s father opts to become a Nazi, welcomed into the party with open arms as a child of the fabled Aryan island. Herra’s mother thinks the less of him, staying in Copenhagen while he takes himself off to Lübeck, but these two find it difficult to stay apart. In 1941, dispatched to Germany with promises to follow, Herra waits on Hamburg station for her mother until her father says he can stay no longer leaving his twelve-year-old daughter alone in what is already a wreck of a city. For the rest of the war Herra fends for herself: homeless, hungry, prey to rapists, she survives on her wits occasionally encountering kindness and love. When the war ends, she and her hapless father find their way to Argentina where another chapter begins.
Helgason narrates his novel in Herra’s voice, injecting a good deal of black humour into a story which spends much of its time exploring the worst of human behaviour, managing to both entertain and horrify. Herra adopts a carapace of sharp-tongued wit, determinedly hiding the pain of lifelong grief, loss and suffering. Much of the novel is taken up with the war but there are some nicely discursive episodes – Herra returns to Hamburg in the ‘60s where she’s snogged by John Lennon who’s appalled to find she’s nearly thirty; the 2009 scenes take a few digs at the crookery of the Icelandic financial industry via one of Herra’s sons. It’s a novel that took me a little while to get into – there’s a good deal of family background to get through in the first few chapters – but once Herra’s credentials were established her story took off and I was hooked. Helgason’s acknowledgements are well worth reading, ending on a nice note thanking his readers for sticking with him to the end: Without your support the writer is just a tree falling in the forest.
I reviewed The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman here three years ago. It often pops up in my top posts which pleases me no end. It’s a little gem: funny, endearing and sufficiently wacky to steer itself well clear of the twee. I ended the review by mentioning that there was a second volume in the works which has been some time in coming but fans of Denis Thériault’s letter-opening postman, caught in the grips of poetic passion for Ségolène far away in Guadeloupe, are unlikely to mind the wait once they get stuck into its sequel.
Tania is a waitress so skilled that her swift, smiling service appears balletic. She delights in anticipating her customers’ desires, none more so that Bilodo, the postman who appears at lunchtime, regular as clockwork, for whom she’s conceived a passion. So shy is Tania that her only expression of love is a daily double portion of Bilodo’s favourite lemon tart. She notices Bilodo practising calligraphy and begins to foster an interest, moving on to haiku about which they chat. A misunderstanding leads to horrified embarrassment when Tania reads a love poem she thinks is for her. Attempts to bury her love fail dismally. She summons her courage, tracks down Bilodo and is astonished to find him dressed as Gaston, a fellow café customer killed by a truck exactly a year ago to the day. After an awkward exchange, she flees only to return and find Bilodo splayed across the road, apparently lifeless. Against all odds, Tania saves Bilodo’s life, faithfully visiting him in hospital and finangling her way into his apartment. When Bilodo regains consciousness, he has no memory of the last five years. Tania scents an opportunity and an elaborate attempt at hoodwinking begins.
Readers of The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman will probably recognise parts of that synopsis. Thériault switches perspective in his sequel, unfolding it from Tania’s point of view rather than Bilodo’s but retaining many of the hallmarks of the first instalment – a gentle humour which becomes downright exuberant towards the end, eccentric yet endearing characters and sufficient darkness to avoid any hint of schmaltz. These two novels were published over a decade apart in the original French but so seamlessly are they knitted together it’s as if they were written alongside each other. Bilodo’s second outing is a delight – you could read it without visiting his first but I can’t imagine why you’d want to.
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’.
A friend recommended this book to me and another lent me a copy. Hopes were high, then, if a little nervously so. There’s always the possibility of that awkward moment when you both realise that you’ll have to agree to disagree. C’s a proofreader which is how she first came by Martha Batalha’s novel. She’s also a bookseller and I suspect has been pressing this novel into as many hands as she can. From its exuberantly colourful jacket to its playful author’s note, The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao is an absolute treat. It spans twenty or so years in a Brazilian housewife’s life, beginning in the 1940s.
Euridice is a clever little girl. Everything she puts her hand to, she excels at. Her older sister Guida is the worldly one. Beautiful and flirtatious, she’s a skilled tutor in the art of catching a man. These two help out at their parents’ shop – Euridice when she’s done her homework, Guida when she has no choice. When Euridice is told her musical talent will take her to the conservatoire she and her parents become locked in a battle so intense that a mere exchange of glances is enough to reignite their anger. It’s her first act of rebellion but then Guida disappears leaving Euridice with a gaping hole in her heart and parents who pin all their hopes on her. She marries a respectable banker who fails to understand his wife’s brilliance, channelled first into cooking, then into sewing. When both these projects are firmly squashed along with her hopes, Euridice retreats quietly into herself again. One day, out of the blue, Guida knocks on Euridice’s door.
Euridice’s story is expertly told, liberally laced with a smart, playful humour sharp enough to flag the serious side of this tale of frustrated housewifery and self-sacrifice. Batalha peoples her novel with a vividly drawn cast of characters, each rounded out with their own backstory. Her women are strong, resourceful and capable; her men likely to become caught up in worries about the absence of blood on the wedding sheets. There’s a broad, deep vein of humanity running through this book: even the malicious Zélia, whose sole joy is spreading poisonous gossip through the neighbourhood, has a sad story of bitter disappointment which she keeps to herself. A salutary tale about the dangers of becoming a good girl entertainingly told, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable novel. I’d echo C’s recommendation loud and clear.
The last Finnish novel I read was Philip Teir’s The Winter War, a witty, engrossing novel about love, marriage and divorce. Jussi Valtonen’s They Know Not What They Do encompasses much more than that but it begins with the marriage between Joe, an American neuroscientist, and Alina, the Finnish woman he meets at a conference with whom he falls in love and has a child, a relationship which lasts just a few years. Two decades later it seems that Joe may be about to pay the price of turning his back on his son and returning to the States.
Joe never quite comes to understand the Finnish, seeing them as insular and self-contained in contrast to his American colleagues. With Alina caught up in caring for Samuel, no longer sharing the details of the work with which they were both involved, their marriage begins to unravel. Fast forward twenty years and Joe is settled in Baltimore, running a university research project and living in the suburbs with his second wife and two daughters, one of whom has become involved with a shady marketing company. When Joe becomes the target of animal rights activists, the family’s carefully choreographed routines breakdown. Joe is jolted by a phone call from Alina telling him that Samuel is in the States. Given Samuel’s part in bringing down a powerful firm involved in animal testing, it seems all too likely that he’s one of those targeting Joe. Bodyguards are engaged along with the services of a techie whose job is to root out the smallest clue lurking in the interstices of the internet. This long complex novel follows Joe, Alina and Samuel, ending unexpectedly one hot Baltimore night
Valtonen begins his novel in 1994 when Joe and Alina first get together, shifting his perspective from one to the other as he unfolds each side of the story. The novel addresses a multitude of themes wrapped up in a carefully plotted story with a thread of suspense running through it. The way in which technology has invaded our lives is particularly sharply portrayed, chillingly extrapolated in the shape of the iAm, the insidious gadget Joe’s teenage daughter has been given by a marketing company masquerading as a campaign for children’s welfare. The organisations whose tentacles are deeply embedded in so many aspects of our lives are unsettlingly well drawn – step forward Google – and the plotting is cleverly executed. It wasn’t an unalloyed joy for me, however. The scope is a little too ambitious – I would have preferred it if Valtonen had concentrated more on the technology theme – and it’s over long. That said, it’s a novel that offers its readers a good deal to think about not least what sort of trail they’re leaving on the web.
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut comes from the same publisher as Marlon James’ Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, complete with a ringing endorsement from Mr James himself on its inviting jacket. Set in Dennis-Benn’s native Jamaica in 1994, it’s been picked by the BBC as one of its ‘ten new beach reads to devour’. I’m not a beach read devourer – is that a word? – but it’s something I associate with fluffiness or thrillers rather than tragedy on a Shakespearian scale which is what Here Comes the Sun turns out to be.
Margot works at Montego Bay’s Palm Star Resort. Ambitious, smart and efficient, she has a more lucrative trade on the side, offering special services to male guests while her long-running affair with Alphonso Wellington, the hotel’s owner, is a more open secret then she realises. Margot has her sights set on the hotel manager’s job and is prepared to do whatever’s necessary to get it, ploughing everything she makes into her sister Thandi’s future. Fifteen-year-old Thandi is a star pupil at the convent school, caught uncomfortably between the poverty of River Bank where the two sisters live with their mother Dolores, and the privileged lives of her schoolmates, fitting into neither. Margot is determined to shield Thandi from the sexual exploitation of her own childhood while Dolores sees her younger daughter as her ticket to an easier life. As Alphonso expands his empire, River Bank comes under threat but Margot sees a way to realise her own ambition, failing to understand its price. Meanwhile, Thandi does what fifteen-year-olds do – she falls in love.
Here Comes the Sun is not the breezy novel you might expect from its ‘beach read’ billing. There’s a good deal of racism, homophobia, and sexual exploitation which can feel a little relentless but the indomitable Margot keeps you reading. Despite her many flaws, hers is a sufficiently rounded character to engage both sympathy and a degree of admiration. The line between the luxury and indulgence enjoyed by the island’s tourists and the destitution just outside the resort’s compound is sharply drawn, the opportunism of Jamaica’s more privileged class acutely portrayed: ‘They have the accents of moneyed Jamaicans, their English with the right edge of patois to sharpen their innuendos and help them appeal to the common men they exploit’. Jamaica is characterised as a thoroughly corrupt society, from the lazy exploitation of Alphonso, happy to recruit River Bank’s most beautiful girls to satisfy his guests’ desires, to Dolores’ turning a blind eye – or worse – to her daughter’s abuse. Something of a bleak view, then, but given that Dennis-Benn was born and raised on the island, an accurate one, presumably. It’s an engrossing, eye-opening novel: just don’t expect a nice, sunny, feel good read.
Someone at Oneworld has a very sharp editorial eye, or maybe there’s a whole team of them. They managed to bag both the last two Man Booker Prizes, first with Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings then Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. They also published Sweetbitter, one of my favourites from 2016, and The Prison Book Club, an equally impressive piece of non-fiction. Jacqueline Woodson’s elegant, slim novella is another triumph. It’s a book of memory, the story of a teenage girl in the ‘70s which unfolds when a chance meeting after her father’s funeral catapults August back into her past.
August and her brother lived in rural Tennessee until she was eight and he was four when their father took them back to the tough Brooklyn neighbourhood where he grew up. They miss their mother but August comforts her brother, telling him that someday she will join them. Day after day they watch the goings-on in the street from their apartment window, forbidden to leave the house by a father grown fearful after fighting in the Vietnam war. August sees three girls playing, skipping and laughing together on the summer streets. She longs to be a part of their group and, one day, she will. Smart, beautiful Sylvia, whose parents see a bright future ahead of her, welcomes August into her friendship with Gigi and Angela, both talented but less privileged. These four will form an alliance against the world, a refuge from the insistent hum of male attention, until cracks begin to form. By the time of her father’s funeral, August is an anthropologist, an Ivy League graduate who has studied death rituals throughout the world – successful but no longer in touch with the friends who had meant so much to her.
August tells her story in her own voice, unfurling the past in fragments as memories so often do. Woodson’s writing is strikingly beautiful – poetic and often impressionistic yet capable of packing an emotional punch with a single sentence or phrase. Small details, slipped in, slowly reveal why August jumps off the subway before her stop rather than greeting her old friend. It’s a narrative infused with heart-wrenching loss: ‘I thought of my mother often, lifting my hand to stroke my own cheek’ remembers August who comforted her brother as she combed his tangled hair telling him to imagine that hers are ‘Mama’s hands’. Woodson’s portrayal of female friendship is equally arresting: ‘I had Sylvia, Angela and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying Here. Help me carry this.’ Another Brooklyn is a gorgeous book – deeply moving, peopled with vividly drawn characters and beautifully expressed. It will be with me for some time.