Tag Archives: The Necessary Angel

Paperbacks to Look Out for in August 2018

Cover imageI’ve read all but one of August’s paperbacks, or at least the ones that have caught my eye, which means a nice cheap month for me. I’ll begin with Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come which explores modern Australia through the stories of a disparate set of characters linked by their relationship to one rather infuriating woman. Hard to encapsulate this episodic novel in a neat synopsis but de Kretser executes it with a deceptively light touch and a hefty dollop of dry, often waspish humour underpinned with compassion.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone is also notable for its compassion, examining the plight of refugees through the lens of a recently retired, widowed academic. Richard finds himself faced with a blank future until his interest is piqued by a hunger strike staged by a group of African refugees which leads to his involvement with the occupation of Oranienplatz. Erpenbeck humanises the occupiers through their stories of the often calamitous events that made them leave their homes and the appalling difficulties of their journeys. It’s a much more conventional narrative than either The End of Days or Visitation, the other novels I’ve read by Erpenbeck, but there’s the same consciousness of Germany’s own fractured past running through it.

The past is very much present in Nicole Krauss’ Forest Dark in which two very different New Yorkers are drawn to Tel Aviv, briefly staying in the city’s Hilton: one a retired lawyer who has taken to giving away his valuables; the other a middle-aged novelist, stuck both in her writing and her marriage, lured by the familiar setting of childhood holidays. Krauss alternates Jules Epstein’s relatively straightforward story with Nicole’s discursive, highly literary narrative, building an expectation that they will meet at some point which – a little frustratingly – is unfulfilled. Rich in ideas and beautifully expressed, Forest Dark is far from an easy read but it’s Cover imagea rewarding one.

Studded with a multitude of literary allusions – even the cops read Modiano – C. K. Stead’s The Necessary Angel is about a professor at the Sorbonne who lives in a state of comfortably amicable estrangement from his wife. Max conceives an unexpected passion for a junior colleague, then a young British postgraduate appears in his study, charming him with both her flattery and eccentricity. While his wife is on holiday, a painting thought to be a Cézanne disappears from her apartment and Max finds himself in a fix. Stead’s novel manages to be both cerebral and thoroughly entertaining.

Continuing the literary allusion theme, Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg is an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway which follows a diverse set of characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013. Melrose shifts smoothly from one character to another offering her readers a snapshot of South Africa’s capital on the day after the death of Nelson Mandela. It’s an ambitious, expertly executed novel which made me wonder why I hadn’t read Melrose’s first book, Midwinter.

Set in early twentieth-century Brooklyn, Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour is the story of Annie, rescued from poverty by the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor when her husband commits suicide leaving her pregnant and bereft. It bears all the hallmarks I’ve come to expect from a McDermott novel: understated yet lyrical writing; empathy in spades; astutely drawn characters, Cover imageall gathered together to form a quietly glorious whole infused with gentle humour.

My last August paperback is Akhil Sharma’s A Life of Adventure and Delight which I’ve yet to read. Comprising ‘elegant, unsparing and intimate stories’, Sharma’s collection combines ‘the minimalism of Chekhov and Carver with a flair for dark comedy’ say the publishers setting the bar rather high although having read the Folio Prize-winning Family Life I’d say they may well be right.

If you’d like to know more, a click on any of the first six titles above will take you to a full review here or to a more detailed synopsis for A Life of Adventure and Delight, and if you’d like to catch up with August’s new books they’re here, and here.

All Day at the Movies by Fiona Kidman: The story of a family

Cover imageLike that old joke about buses, after not reading a novel by a New Zealand author in a very long time I’ve read two in just over a month – first C. K. Stead’s The Necessary Angel and now Fiona Kidman’s All Day at the Movies. I remember reading a post at Word by Word about Kidman in which Claire mentioned that she was little known outside New Zealand and Australia which seems a shame. With luck this story of a family, spanning over sixty years, will bring her writing a little more attention, here in the UK at least.

Irene Sandle has taken a job in the tobacco fields. A widow who spent the war working in her local library and raising six-year-old Jessie, she‘s unused to the sheer hard graft of manual labour but determined to reclaim her independence. Fending off the foreman’s attentions, she’s won over by the small acts of kindness of another, gentler man. After a disaster in which Bert is killed, Irene finds it expedient to accept the bullying Jock, marrying him and having three more children. When Irene dies, her neighbour steps neatly into her shoes, turning her face away from Jock’s abuse and dealing out her own cruelty. Jessie takes off, heading for the city, then Belinda is taken in by Jock’s sister leaving Janice and Grant at the mercy of Jock and Charm, a misnomer if ever there was one. These four will lead very different lives: Jessie building a glittering journalistic career; Belinda marrying her first love and becoming a documentary maker; Janice running from the man she thought would save her from Jock, and Grant searching for a new identity, distancing himself from his toxic upbringing.

A family saga is a very old-fashioned structure but if handled well it can be immensely satisfying, and Kidman does it beautifully. Beginning in 1952 and ending in 2015, this engrossing novel follows the four siblings down the disparate roads they choose or are taken down, bringing them back to the root of what has formed them, while offering snapshots of New Zealand’s story along the way. Themes of racism, violence and abuse run through the novel, all explored with admirable humanity. Even the less sympathetic characters are well-rounded with backstories compassionately told.  It took me a little while to get into as a multitude of characters were introduced but after the first few chapters I was hooked. This is such an accomplished novel, thoroughly absorbing with all its loose ends neatly tucked in. Like C. K. Stead, Kidman is a mature author with an extensive backlist which I’m looking forward to exploring.

The Necessary Angel by C.K. Stead: Reality and the world

Cover imageThe title of C. K. Stead’s novel may ring a few bells for some. It’s taken from a collection of essays on poetry by Wallace Stevens. I wish I could tell you that bit of knowledge was lodged in my brain, ready to be slipped neatly into this review but the reference is made clear towards the end of this erudite novel through which the phrase runs, meaning different things to different people. Set in Paris in 2014, The Necessary Angel is about a professor at the Sorbonne from New Zealand and the three women who play significant parts in his life during the year the novel spans.

Max Jackson has lived in Paris for many years. His wife, Louise, is also an academic, senior to him and currently finishing what she hopes will be the definitive edition of Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. Max lives in an apartment in the same building as Louise and their two children. Their estrangement seems comfortably amicable – often he eats with the family, sometimes the couple compares professional notes. In the process of devising a conference to celebrate the First World War poets, Max conceives a passion for Sylvie, his junior colleague, already living with her married German lover. Then a young British postgraduate appears in his study, enthusiastically praising a poem Max published years ago and declaring herself mad. Helen is bipolar, precariously managing her illness with a mixture of lithium and Buddhism. Max is charmed by her eccentricity while still yearning for Sylvie and wondering quite what his relationship is with Louise. While Louise is on holiday, a painting thought to be a Cézanne disappears from her apartment and Max finds himself in a fix.

Stead’s novel manages to be both cerebral and thoroughly entertaining. Max is an engaging character, an outsider with intimate knowledge, both at home in his adopted country and not entirely comfortable as he listens to his children’s chatter, knowing that he’ll never quite capture its nuances. Stead’s wry wit and astute insight into the workings of French society, particularly the haute bourgeoisie, are smartly amusing and the writing is all you’d hope for from an award-winning poet laureate, summoning up Paris in all her glory. A multitude of literary allusions stud the novel – even the cops read Modiano. Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest pops up frequently and when Francois Hollande’s ex-partner Valérie Trierweiler’s Thank You for That Moment sells out the local bookseller pointedly assures his customers that Balzac, Dumas and Maupassant’s works are still in plentiful supply. Max’s year plays out against a background of music, art, film and politics. Tragedies may consume the news but life with all its petty and not so petty concerns goes on. Polished, witty and immensely intelligent, The Necessary Angel is a triumph. Stead has a long and distinguished career as a poet, novelist and literary critic. I’m looking forward to exploring his backlist.

Books to Look Out for in February 2018: Part One

Cover imageFebruary’s shaping up quite nicely with lots of new titles and paperbacks to ease us through those dark, dank days and long nights here in the Northern Hemisphere. I’ll begin with Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Woman at 1000 Degrees whose eighty-year-old narrator lives alone in a garage, laptop and hand grenade at the ready. Herra recounts her adventurous life in a voice ‘by turns darkly funny, bawdy, poignant, and always, always smart’ taking us from ‘war-torn Europe, then to Argentina and finally to post-crash Iceland where the last pieces of this haunting puzzle fall into place’ according to the publishers, putting me in mind of the excellent Himmler’s Cook.

We’re sticking with an Icelandic author although not the country for Hotel Silence by Auđur Ava Ólafsdóttir whose wonderfully eccentric Butterflies in November was a treat for me. Divorced, lonely and despairing, Jonas takes himself off on holiday not caring where he goes and with no thought of return. He fetches up at the dilapidated Hotel Silence in the middle of a war-torn country. As he learns more about his hosts and the horrors they’ve endured, his own troubles begin to dwindle into insignificance and he pitches in to help. Very much looking forward to this one.Cover image

Jillian Medoff’s This Could Hurt is set in an American HR department which may not sound the most riveting of backdrops but those of us who’ve done (or are still doing) time in offices know that they’re fertile ground for quiet drama. Five colleagues are hoping their small company will weather the economic storm, led by a steely head of the department. ‘Compelling, flawed, and heartbreakingly human, these men and women scheme, fall in and out of love, and nurture dreams big and small. As their individual circumstances shift, one thing remains constant – Rosa, the sun around whom they all orbit’ say the publishers going on to describe it as ‘achingly funny’ which makes it sound very attractive.

My next choice takes us to Paris where C. K. Stead’s The Necessary Angel sees a New Zealand academic involved in a complicated love life which encompasses his estranged French wife, his younger colleague and a troubled young English student. A missing Cézanne throws a further spanner into the works. ‘As much an ode to the power of literature as a nuanced exploration of love, fidelity and the balance of power within relationships’ say the publishers. I like the sound of that.

I’m ending this first batch of new titles, still in Paris, with one I’m not entirely sure about: Alicia Drake’s I Love You Too Much. Largely ignored by the adults around him, thirteen-year-old Paul watches from the fringes of his mother, her lover and his father’s lives. Before long he’s seen something he shouldn’t but finds unlikely consolation in Scarlett, a rebellious classmate. ‘I Love You Too Much is a novel of extraordinary intelligence and heart, a devastating coming-of-age story told from the sidelines of Parisian perfection’ say the publishers. It’s the potential for cliché that niggles me here but we’ll see.

That’s it for now. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. There’ll be another selection of February treats shortly.