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.
Regular readers may have noticed I have a weakness for novels which follow a handful of young people from the time they first become acquainted through the first few years of adult life. Lots of space for character development which is what attracted me to Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens. Smart, funny and sometimes exhausting, it follows four Stanford graduates through 2008, with occasional flashbacks to their college days.
We’re introduced to Linda, Cory, Will and Henrik on a day out from San Francisco that no one seems to be enjoying. Linda’s back from a drug-fueled couple of years in New York with no place to stay; Cory works for an event organiser with a social conscience and spends most of her energy trying to do the right thing; Will’s stinking rich having taken the IT route, constantly on the alert for possible racist jibes at his Asian ethnicity, and Henrik seems to be struggling to stay awake. Linda and Henrik were involved in a relationship as students which defines dysfunctional. She’s a pathological liar and waspish with it while he’s bipolar with the kind of peripatetic background which makes him long for stability. Over the course of Tulathimutte’s novel Will becomes so enamoured with the gorgeous Vanya that he makes a shocking and tragic sacrifice, Cory dips her toe into the corporate world by accident, Linda turns to the most unlikely way of supporting herself and Henrik tumbles into a breakdown. Throughout it all Tulathimutte hurls barbs at a multitude of noughties tropes, from hipsters to social networking, motivational speakers to rapacious capitalism disguised as cuddly new ageism.
Tulathimutte’s novel is often very funny but don’t expect much in the way of joy. He has a nice line in jaded observations – ‘Days like this you have to have fun or you’ll hate yourself when you’re older’; Roopa was rigid, the way free spirits often were’; ‘San Francisco, this little ukele-strumming cuddle party’ are a tiny sample – and his characters are drawn with a scalpel. Just as I felt I’d met many of Linda Grant’s characters in Upstairs at the Party, I’m sure Tulathimutte’s will seem all too familiar to Millennials. His quartet lurches from crisis to crisis with only Henrik, perhaps the sketchiest of the four, engaging much in the way of a sympathy. It’s a clever piece of social satire but a little too long for me – all that razor-sharp social dissection can feel a bit relentless after a while. That said, it’s an impressive first novel and it’ll be interesting to see what Tulathimutte chooses to take a swipe at next.
Sweetbitter is one of those books that turned out to be very much better than I expected. Its blurb reminded me a little of Merrit Tierce’s viscerally intense, short, sharp Love Me Back with its restaurant backdrop, the location changed from Texas to New York. I knew I’d probably read it but Tierce’s book had so impressed me that I expected Stephane Danler’s debut to fall short, going as far as to describe it as ‘fluff’ in my June preview. That’ll teach me to judge before reading. It follows twenty-two-year-old Tess who turns her back on smalltown Ohio and talks her way into working at a top New York restaurant.
In late June 2006 Tess drives to New York, finds herself a place to live in a ratty Williamsburg apartment and heads off to what her roommate calls the best restaurant in New York, determined to work there. She’s interviewed, somewhat eccentrically, by the general manager and is convinced she’s failed to get the job but Howard spots a ‘fifty-one percenter’, someone prepared to dedicate herself to the constant demands of the restaurant. Tess begins her training, subjected to endless snipey backchat, shouted at, given the dirtiest jobs and expected to know everything without being told. As she proves her mettle, she’s pulled into after-work trips to the Park Bar, joining in the excesses, sometimes a little too enthusiastically. Eventually she gains the attention of Simone, so accomplished with guests that her tips are a steady twenty-seven per cent. Tess is entranced, thrilled to be singled out and inducted into Simone’s esoteric knowledge and expertise. She also has her eye on Jake, aloof and well-known for his promiscuity. Tess is drawn further and further into the orbit of these two who are, it seems, more than close.
Danler has a keen eye for characterisation. Tess’s gaucheness, occasional flashes of brash confidence and her aching obsessive yearning for both Jake and Simone’s attention are sharply drawn. There’s a touch of Les Liaisons Dangereuses about these two, both magnetic but damaged personalities locked into a deeply dysfunctional relationship in which Tess becomes entangled. Small, subtle touches mark the passage of her year – she becomes ‘Tess’ when she passes her training, no longer the generic ‘new girl. Danler writes beautifully about food and delivers some neatly turned out phrases: Jake takes Tess on ‘a rough pantomime of a date’; staff are ‘fluent in rich people’. The sheer hard physicality of restaurant work coupled with maintaining the appearance of polished urbanity despite the controlled chaos of a working kitchen behind the scenes is vividly conveyed. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, hard to put down, and an acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her. Sweetbitter comes complete with a paean of praise from Mr Bright Lights, Big City himself, Jay McInerney, and more than lives up to it. In other words, not fluffy at all…