Tag Archives: Richard Bausch

Paperbacks to Look Out For in February 2016: Part 1

Cover imageSpoilt for choice this month: two posts for new titles, and now two for paperbacks. I’ll start the first selection with one of my books of 2015. I have to confess that I didn’t get on with Emily Woof’s first novel, The Whole Wide Beauty. It was lauded to the skies by all and sundry but I gave it up. The premise of The Lightning Tree was so appealing, though, that I decided to give her a second try and I’m very glad I did. The bare bones are this: girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, lefty activist parents – meets boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties. I find this structure a particularly attractive one: lots of lovely space for character development.

A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple also follows a relationship over many years. That name may ring a few bells for some readers – he’s the author of Snowdrops a hugely successful literary thriller set in Moscow in the 1990s, published back in 2010. His new novel begins in 1993 with two young British men, Neil and Adam, who meet on holiday in California. They instantly click then both become involved in a dubious moral act which dogs Adam, in particular. The book charts their friendship over nearly twenty years, picking out the tensions between them – Neil’s resentment of Adam’s casual privilege, career ups and downs, marriage and children with their attendant worries. Miller’s novel was an enjoyable piece of holiday reading for me last year which may explain why I remember it so well.

I think Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie would have stayed with me wherever I read it. As with Cover imageEmily Woof, I wasn’t particularly keen on Attenberg’s much praised The Middlesteins but the background to her new novel was so intriguing that it piqued my interest. The eponymous Mazie was the subject of a short essay by Joseph Mitchell first published in The New Yorker and included in his excellent collection Up in the Old Hotel. Like many of Mitchell’s subjects Mazie’s story is a fascinating one – an ordinary working-class New York woman who did something extraordinary. Attenberg has taken Mitchell’s essay and re-imagined Mazie’s life using fictionalised interviews and autobiography extracts with her diary as the novel’s backbone. Mazie is an unforgettable character, and Joseph Mitchell’s story is almost as interesting as hers.

Still in New York but fast forwarding several decades, Richard Bausch’s Before, During, After is an unusual take on the events of September 11th, 2001. As its title suggests, Bausch’s novel is set in the months before, during and after the terrorist attacks, exploring what happened very effectively by drawing parallels between the personal and the political. Michael and Natasha are newly in love, soon to be married. On the day of the attacks she’s in Jamaica with a friend, he’s in New York for a wedding. What follows is devastating for them both. It’s a profoundly involving novel – quite cerebral at times, but also emotionally engaging

Cover imageNow to one I haven’t read but am very much looking forward to: Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono. On the same day a retired Parisian police inspector receives a letter from a woman who claims to be his daughter, he finds a stranger waiting for him at his apartment. Professor Tadashi Omura tells Inspector Jovert his extraordinary life story which has surprising parallels with Jovert’s own. It sounds intriguing and comes from Tinder Press who seem to have developed a sharp eye for talent.

That’s it for the first batch of February paperbacks. A click on the title will take you to my review for the first four while The Snow Kimono will take you to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with February’s new novels they’re here and here.

Before, During, After: Acts of terror, both personal and political

Cover imageThe events of September 11th, 2001 have spawned scores of novels, some subtle – Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies ends with the redemption of his main protagonist who walks out into the early morning of that bright, blue-skyed autumn day, full of hope – some not so much. Fourteen years later, it seems that this particular vein of fiction is far from exhausted. Richard Bausch’s new novel, set as its title suggests in the months before, during and after the attacks, explores it most effectively, drawing parallels between the personal and the political. Michael and Natasha are newly in love, soon to be married. On the day of the attacks she’s in Jamaica with a friend, he’s in New York for a wedding. What follows is devastating for them both.

Michael and Natasha meet at a Washington party in April. She has just left her post as a senatorial aide and is recovering from an affair; he has recently resigned from the Episcopal ministry after twenty years. When they find they both hail from Memphis, a strong connection is formed which soon turns to passionate love. Within a few months plans have been made – a return to Memphis for both of them where they will set up house, then marry. In early September, Natasha travels to Jamaica for the holiday her friend Constance arranged for them both many months ago. It is there that she learns about the terrorists’ attack, knowing that Michael is staying close to the Twin Towers. Distraught and unable to contact him, Natasha shrugs off Constance’s reassurance then irritation, walking alone on the beach while her friend drinks herself into a stupor. Unscathed by the attacks, Michael takes the long, strange journey home by train, travelling through a country whose population is both grief-stricken and furious. When they are reunited, Natasha is inexplicably distant and emotionally volatile; Michael is at a loss to understand quite why. What had at first seemed the beginning of a happy, loving life together full of hope becomes poisoned with mistrust – Natasha has been raped but has told no one.

Bausch’s descriptions of the post-9/11 shock, grief and paranoia that seized Americans after the attacks are extraordinarily vivid, both in his depiction of tourists stranded in Jamaica drinking themselves to distraction and of Michael’s train journey in which strangers exchange intimacies and talk of a country changed forever. The aftermath of Natasha’s rape, her guilt, shame and inability to talk to anyone about it ring all too true while Michael’s bewilderment, anguish and the beginnings of his mistrust are poignantly described. Two appalling events have taken place, both very different in scale: the one, dramatic and devastating for so many with such far-reaching effects; the other deeply personal but equally devastating for Michael and Natasha. It’s a brave man who tackles the subject of rape but Bausch succeeds in wrenching our hearts for Natasha for whom everything has changed. This is a profoundly involving novel – quite cerebral at times, but also emotionally engaging. Having made a start with Peace a few years ago, it’s to be hoped that Atlantic will publish Bausch’s extensive backlist here in the UK.

Books to Look Out For in February 2015

A Spool of Blue ThreadFebruary is my least favourite month: dank, drizzly weather here in the UK; little or no colour in the garden; countryside bedraggled and grubby looking – ugh, I hate it. It’s not always a sparkling month in the publishing schedules, either, although given all the above there’s plenty of encouragement to stay indoors reading. This year, however, there’s a huge treat in store: Anne Tyler’s new novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, her twentieth. Abby and Red Whitshank live in the house Red’s father built in the 1930s. It’s where they brought up their four children, all of whom have assembled to help decide what Abby and Red  will do in old age, and what will happen to their beloved family home. Secrets, rivalries and tensions – all the bagage of family life – come into play as Tyler unfolds their story. If previous Tylers are anything to go by this will be a beautifully nuanced, acutely observed piece of fiction. And what a brilliant jacket.

Nicci Cloke’s Lay Me Down is about a very different stage of life. Eight months after their first kiss Jack and Elsa have moved to San Francisco from London after Jack secures his dream job working on the Golden Gate Bridge but he finds himself obsessed with thoughts of the Jumpers, suicides who make their leap from the bridge. Cloke’s narrative explores both Jack and Elsa’s past before they met – their failed relationships and mistakes – asking the question is their relationship strong enough to withstand their regrets. Handled well, this could be an absorbing read, and it’s a paperback original – always a plus.

Richard Bausch’s Before, During and After is also set in relationship territory, this time against the backdrop of 9/11. Michael and Natasha are apart when the Towers come down – Natasha in Jamaica where she suffers her own trauma and Michael in New York. Bausch explores the effect of both events on their love affair and whether it can survive. The tragedy that struck New York in 2001 seems an irresistible theme for a multitude of novelists and I might well have dismissed this one as just another 9/11 novel but I enjoyed Bausch’s Peace so much that I’m prepared to give it a go. For my money, the best novel written about 9/11 is Amy Waldman’s The Submission in which a woman, widowed in the attack, fiercely defends the architect picked to design its memorial when his Muslim identity is revealed. Let’s see if Bausch can better that.

Several years on from 2001, Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations sees Anne, once a documentary photographer, meet her beloved grandson, a captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers and fresh from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Both have secrets which begin to emerge, taking them on a journey back to the old Blackpool guesthouse where Anne once had a room. I haven’t read an O’Hagan for some time but this one sounds interesting.

Last year I read John Ironmonger’s The Coincidence Authority which explored the human need to make sense of coincidence through a sweet love story. There were a few ‘here’s the science’ moments but I enjoyed it enough to try Not Forgetting the Whale in which a young man is washed up at St Piran in Cornwall, stark naked and convinced that his computer program, which is predicting an oil crisis, a virulent disease and a Middle East conflict, is about to plunge the world into a banking collapse – some of which sounds horribly familiar. Not entirely convinced but we’ll see.

I’m also a little unsure about Laird Hunt’s Neverhome but apparently Paul Auster’s a big fan so who am I to be sceptical. It follows the fortunes of Gallant Ash, American Civil War soldier, leader of men, legendary figure – and a woman, secretly, of course. Sounds intriguing.Our Endless Numbered Days

One of my weekly treats is Claire Fuller’s post at her flash fiction site where she uses a photograph as a starting point for the shortest of short stories. They’re often thought-provoking, occasionally funny and have sometimes fed into her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, apparently. It’s set in 1976 when Peggy Hillcoat is eight and happy. Her survivalist father takes her from London to a remote cabin in a wood somewhere in Europe and tells her the world has disappeared. I have great hopes for this one.

That’s it for February which I hope will be brighter than my doomy expectations. If you want a fuller synopsis of any of these titles a click will take you to Waterstones website.

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli (transl. Sam Taylor): Seeing the world in shades of grey

Cover imageThree German soldiers – Bauer, Emmerich and an unnamed narrator – stride out into the frigid Polish winter, their minds on keeping warm and their empty stomachs. They’ve missed breakfast, determined to avoid the daily round of executions by volunteering to hunt down Jews and bring them back to the camp. Emmerich frets about his son, enlisting the help of the other two to try to get him to stop smoking. Bauer occasionally bellows out advice while our unnamed narrator muses on last night’s dream of the three of them riding on a tram. Despite the constant gnawing hunger, the dangerous numbing cold anything is better than serving another turn as executioner. When Emmerich spots signs of a hideout, the three flush out a young Jewish man, a prize which will ensure that they will be sent out to hunt again tomorrow rather than man the firing squad. Bauer reveals that he’s stolen enough food to make soup and spotting an abandoned cottage they set about lighting a fire, interrupted by the arrival of a Polish hunter and his dog. What ensues frays the bonds between the three soldiers, opening divisions between them and forcing them to face the moral dilemma of what to do with their captive.

This short, spare novella will take you little more than two or three hours to read but it will remain in your thoughts for some time. Hubert Mingarelli’s prose, expertly translated by novelist Sam Taylor, is stark and bare: no words wasted on distracting descriptions. We learn that the soldiers no longer share their dreams so often filled with the horrors they’ve witnessed. Hunger and cold are viscerally described. Bauer and our narrator treat Emmerich’s anxiety with touching concern. The narrator hates the little maternal touches he finds in many of his quarry – an embroidered snowflake on a cap, a ribbon – bringing him face to face with their humanity. We humans long to see the world in black and white – it makes things so much easier – but the genius of Mingarelli’s compassionate novel is to show ordinary German soldiers, horrified by what they have seen and done, trying to find ways of coping while managing to retain their humanity. It’s a triumph for both the novelist and the translator.

Almost as soon as I started reading A Meal in Winter I thought of Richard Bausch’s Peace, Cover imageanother slim, understated novel that speaks of the horrors of war. This time three American soldiers pick their way down a mountainside in the freezing cold after their sergeant has murdered a young woman in the final days of the Second World War. We’re about to be deluged with novels about the First World War given next year’s commemorations but I wondered if anyone had any recommendations of novels that have already stood the test of time. Birdsong, The Ghost Road and All Quiet on the Western Front spring to mind. Anyone know of any others?