Tag Archives: Secrecy

Katherine Carlyle: A sense of belonging

Cover imageI’ve admired Rupert Thomson’s work for some time. His novels are never predictable, always exploring unexpected terrain from the advertising world, satirized in Soft!, to the Medici court in Secrecy‘s seventeenth century Florence. The last one’s my particular favourite. Famously, Davie Bowie’s is The Insult which appeared as one of his 100 Must-Read Books of All Time. I’m sure Bowie didn’t come up with that tag which sounds straight out of Soft! to me. The ones I’ve read all have an element of suspense but they’re very much more than thrillers. What kept me on edge in this new novel was the fate of the eponymous Katherine who seems to put herself in ever increasing danger.

Nineteen-year-old Katherine was what used to be called by the tabloids a test tube baby. Conceived using IVF, her embryo was implanted into her mother eight years after its conception. Her mother died when Katherine was sixteen from a cancer Katherine has convinced herself was the result of her own implantation. Her father is a journalist at CNN. Rarely at home in Rome where they settled when Katherine’s mother was still alive, he’s more often to be found in the Middle East reporting on the latest conflict. Katherine has won a scholarship to Oxford but in the September before she’s due to go she decides to disappear. Overhearing a conversation in a cinema about a man in Berlin she convinces herself it’s a message to her and takes herself off there. So begins a series of adventures in which Katherine will meet several older men while travelling from Rome to Archangel then on up into the Arctic Circle where she finds a kind of peace, far away from anyone she knows and anyone who knows her. Throughout her odyssey she fantasizes that her father is looking for her, alerted to her disappearance by the rendezvous she’s set up for them in Berlin – which she knows that she will not make – hoping to snare the attention she craves from him and dangerously courts with other men.

Thomson’s writing is often very striking. The Prologue in which Katherine recounts her own in vitro conception is extraordinarily vivid. Later, ‘His eyes are damp too. When he looks at me they seem to leave a deposit, as snails do’ describes a masculine leer perfectly while the image of the September sun in Rome ‘richer, more tender, the colour of old wedding rings’ was a gorgeous thing to read on a dank November day. Thomson is equally vivid in his exploration of the effects of Katherine’s origins. She often feels watched, as if the other embryos implanted with her accompany her on her journey. At times she feels emotionally absent ‘Sometimes I suspect I haven’t quite thawed out yet.’ Her meetings with increasingly shady men seem part of the process of making herself feel alive. Her guilt about her own survival and her mother’s death are made all the more poignant by her vibrant memories of her mother while her elaborate fantasies of her father’s pursuit convey an aching need for his attention. Wittingly or unwittingly, Katherine has left a trail of clues for anyone determined enough to find her. It’s a clever piece of work, and a fascinating theme to explore – one which is not so very far from home for Thomson as this interview reveals.

Books to Look Out For in November 2015: Part 1

Cover imageWell, knock me down with a feather! I would never have expected to be posting a two-part November hardback preview. Often it’s a rather dull publishing month but here it is: part one of two starting off with a new Jonathan Coe. I’m treating this one with caution as after many years of Coe fandom I’ve gone off the boil with his last few novels although Number 11 apparently features members of the loathsome Winshaw family, characters from the wonderful What a Carve Up!, in what sounds like a lacerating satire on the state of the nation ‘where bankers need cinemas in their basements and others need food banks down the street’. Sounds very promising.

Rupert Thomson’s inventive fiction wanders about all over the place which is part of its charm for me. His last novel, the excellent Secrecy, was set in seventeenth-century Florence but Katherine Carlyle jumps forward four centuries to the twenty-first. The product of an IVF embryo, frozen then implanted into her mother’s womb eight years later, nineteen-year-old Katherine decides to disappear after her mother dies from cancer and her father becomes increasingly distant. A ’profound and moving novel about where we come from, what we make of ourselves, and how we are loved’ say its publishersCover image.

Despite frequently proclaiming that I’m not a short story fan I’ve reviewed several collections here this year and am about to recommend another short story writer – Helen Simpson whose smart, witty collection of linked stories Hey Yeah Right Get a Life had me hooked. The link for Cockfosters is Tube stations which should appeal to London commuters and seems tailor-made for a Transport for London advertising campaign although it does venture outside of the confines of the metropolis, apparently. She’s very funny – sharply observant of human foibles but compassionate with it

cover imageMy last choice for this first batch is Anna Gavalda’s Life, Only Better, two novellas published in one volume. In one a twenty-four-year-old woman changes her life entirely after a man returns the bag she thought she’d lost and in the other, dinner with a neighbour spurs on an unhappy young man to start afresh. I loved Breaking Away with its bright red 2CV adorning the jacket. We used to own one just like it before seeing a distressing number with engines smoking or, once, in flames.

That’s it for the first batch of November titles. You may have noticed a common thread running through this selection, all by authors of books I’ve already read. All but one of the next lot will be entirely new to me. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis, and if you want to catch up with either October’s hardbacks or paperbacks they’re here and here.