Tag Archives: The Repercussions

Books to Look Out For in April 2016: Part 1

Cover imageWith luck those of us who’ve been struggling with a grey, damp – or worse – winter will be able to see a bit of light glimmering on the horizon by now. Far too early with that observation according to H but I’m forever the weather optimist and if I’m proved wrong there are a few books to take refuge in the first of which I have very high hopes for: Georgina Harding’s The Gun Room. She’s one of those authors who takes her time but whose novels are always worth the wait. This one follows a war photographer whose shot of a burning Vietnamese village makes his career but who remains haunted by what he’s seen. Hardly original, I know. Many novels have dealt with this theme, from Catherine Hall’s The Repercussions to William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, but Harding’s writing is always so beautifully crafted that I suspect this will be well worth reading.

I’d expect to be feeling the same pleasurable anticipation for a new Curtis Sittenfeld novel – Sisterland and American Wife were both excellent – but Eligible is a tribute novel, the kind of thing that makes my heart sink. It’s a retelling of Pride and Prejudice with the Bennett sisters transported to 1930s America, both successful career women summoned home from New York to Cincinnati to nurse their father where they meet Chip Bingley and his haughty friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy. I’m going to have to grit my teeth in order to start this one but Sittenfeld’s such a good writer it’s got to be done.Cover image

I may have to do the same with Nicola Barker’s wacky looking The Cauliflower. You may feel that she’s a Marmite author but I’ve loved some of her novels and failed miserably to get on with others. Whatever you think of her she’s rarely anything but original. This one follows a nineteenth-century guru who must, at all costs, be protected from that most bland of vegetables, the cauliflower. ‘Rather than puzzling the shards of history and legend together, Barker shatters the mirror again and rearranges the pieces. The result is a biographical novel viewed through a kaleidoscope. Dazzlingly inventive and brilliantly comic’ says the publisher. We’ll see – brilliant jacket, though.

Rick Moody is another author whose books I’ve read and enjoyed. You may remember his name from The Ice Storm which tells of the accidental death of a young boy and was made into a devastating film directed by Ang Lee. Hotels of North America is set in lighter territory. Motivational speaker Reginald Edward Morse has a talent for the witty anecdote, exercising his skills at the RateYourLodging website but perhaps giving away more than he thinks. ‘Always funny, unexpectedly tragic, this is a book of lonely rooms, long lists, of strong opinion and quiet confession, by one of America’s greatest novelists’ say the publishers. Well worth a look by the sound of it.

Cover imageFinishing off this first batch of books to look out for is a debut but by a name you may well know already. Award-winning poet and rapper Kate Tempest has turned her hand to fiction with The Bricks that Built the Houses. Set in London, it spans several generations telling the story of Becky, Harry and Leon who turn their backs on the city in an old Ford Cortina with a suitcase stuffed with money leaving behind Becky’s boyfriend at his own party. ‘Moving back in time – and into the heart of London – The Bricks that Built the Houses explores a cross-section of contemporary urban life with a powerful moral microscope, giving us intimate stories of hidden lives, and showing us that good intentions don’t always lead to the right decisions’ say the publishers which certainly whets my appetite.

That’s it for April’s first selection. Quite a mixed bunch as is the second, all by authors new to me. As ever, a click on the title will take you to a more detailed synopsis.

The Repercussions: War, what is it good for…

Cover imageI’m an assiduous viewer of Channel 4 News – I’d probably be a happier person if I wasn’t – and have often wondered how it feels to report on the dreadful mess of human misery that is war. I’ve thought the same when looking at those stark images you see in newspapers, some becoming emblematic of particular conflicts. The moral dilemma of bearing witness as opposed to getting stuck in and helping those in distress is an eternal conundrum. And what does it do to those who make it their life’s work? These are the themes that Catherine Hall explores in her moving and thought-provoking novel.

It begins with Jo’s narrative addressed to her ex-lover, Susie. Jo has just returned from Afghanistan, taking refuge in her Aunt Edith’s Brighton flat, now hers since Edith’s death a few weeks ago. She’s in a state of shock, in desperate need of unburdening herself. This has been her second stint in the country. The first was a decade ago, just after 9/11. There have been many wars in between her two visits, many atrocities witnessed, but this time the horror was more personal. Not entirely sure why she had decided to return, Jo settled on a set of photographs about the commonplace domestic violence dealt out to women by their husbands and male relatives in the name of honour, enlisting the help of Rashida freshly graduated from her journalism course. Things did not end well. To distract herself, Jo reads the diary she finds tucked away in her aunt’s desk. It’s the journal of Elizabeth Willoughby who worked alongside the medical staff at Brighton Pavilion where Indian Army casualties were cared for during the First World War, well away from their white British comrades.

It’s a far from uncommon device to have a character stumble across a diary written long ago, then alternate its contents with a present day narrative. It can often be horribly clunky – the worst example I can think of is Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong – but if done well each can illuminate the other, and Hall manages this beautifully. The strictures on the behaviour of women in Afghanistan are echoed in the forbidding of Elizabeth from nursing Indian soldiers thereby compromising her reputation. Her fiancé’s – to our eyes – obvious shell shock is echoed in the nightmares in which the many atrocities Jo has seen are re-enacted. Historical context is lightly delivered, deftly wrapped into both narratives. Hall’s exploration of the morality of war photography and its effects on those who practice it are vivid and immediate. All this is achieved in an intensely involving story – moving, poignant and often surprising. It’s a novel which succeeds in treating a deadly serious subject in a gripping, humane and thoroughly engrossing way. I’m looking forward to seeing what Hall does next.