Tag Archives: Things We Nearly Knew

Things We Nearly Knew by Jim Powell: The enigma of other people

Cover imageThere’s nothing like getting your reading year off to a good start. Jim Powell’s Things We Nearly Knew continues 2018’s satisfying trend for me with its slice of American smalltown life seen through the eyes of an unnamed bartender. I’d enjoyed Powell’s second novel, Trading Futures, a couple of years back, admiring its narrator’s waspishly funny inner monologue. His new novel is infused with a gentler humour, the themes it tackles much weightier and all the better for it.

Our narrator runs a bar with his wife Marcie on the edge of the small town he’s lived in all his life. He looks after the evening trade, she does the lunches. They’re the perfect professional combination: he knows how to keep secrets, which questions to ask and which to leave unasked; she knows how to interpret the answers. However, they differ wildly in their approaches to life: he wants things cut and dried; she grasps the messiness of it all. One day Arlene walks in, all glamour and sophistication, asking for a vodka martini and whether they’ve heard of a man named Jack. She becomes a regular, if an intermittent one, telling only the stories she wants to tell. Marcie and the bartender are intrigued. She begins a romance with one of the other regulars, more from mutual loneliness than any sense of passion. Then the roguish Franky turns up, not seen for thirty years but barely changed. It seems that Franky and Arlene are made for each other despite his distinctly flexible relationship with honesty. Marcie and the bartender lie in bed at nights mulling it all over but they have their own stories to tell – one which he has been determined to bury but she has not, and another he knows nothing about.

Questioning, speculating, interested in other people and their problems – although blind to his own troubles – Powell’s narrator is the consummate bartender complemented beautifully by the astute Marcie. It’s such a clever device: backstories abound and anecdotes are legion as befits the profession. The story unfolds beautifully through our narrator’s memories as he looks back on the nine months Arlene occupied her bar stool, telling us her tale while slipping in details of his seemingly prosaic marriage, less transparent than he might have thought. Powell’s characterisation is intelligent and perceptive, his writing more striking that I remembered it:

Arlene was someone who invited protection, then declined it when it was offered.

Marcie and I have no secrets from one another. We tell that to each other constantly, so it must be true

Later, we’d take off the masks we’d worn for the occasion, pack them away, and put on our usual masks the next morning.

Overarching it all is the question how well do we know those we think we know? How well do we even know ourselves? A thoroughly enjoyable piece of storytelling, well turned out in every sense. If the rest of 2018’s reading is as good as this I’ll be delighted.

Books to Look Out for in January 2018: Part Two

Cover imageMy first batch of 2018 titles included a volume of short stories and this second selection is led by another. It seems I really am a reformed character. I’m sure even my if views on the short story hadn’t undergone a transformation I would have been jumping up and down about Jon McGregor’s The Reservoir Tapes, a collection of fifteen pieces which can be read as ‘prequels’ to the stunning Reservoir 13. Still completely bemused as to why that didn’t make it on to the Man Booker shortlist. The stories were commissioned by BBC Radio 4: some of you may have heard them already but if not they’re available on iPlayer.

It sounds as if landscape may be as important in Kerry Andrew’s Swansong as it is in McGregor’s writing. Polly Vaughan heads for the Scottish Highlands, fleeing the guilt of a ‘disturbing incident’ in London. She finds escapism in the form of drink, drugs and sex in the local pub but is haunted by visions then fascinated by a man she comes upon in the forest seemingly ripping apart a bird. Andrews ‘comes from a deep understanding of the folk songs, mythologies and oral traditions of these islands. Her powerful metaphoric language gives Swansong a charged, hallucinatory quality that is unique, uncanny and deeply disquieting’ say the publishers, promisingly.Cover image

Dominic da Silva is also dealing with a crisis, grappling with a diagnosis of terminal cancer in David Hargreaves’ Under the Table. He turns to the diaries he’s kept from his boarding school years to his early thirties and finds a picture emerging of both himself and of Britain through the ‘60s and into the ‘80s, revealing a life which ricochets from grand house parties to arrest and disgrace in what the publishers describe as ‘a powerful homage to truth and friendship – and a recognition of the toughness upon which both depend’. I quite like the sound of that.

There’s a fair amount of unravelling in Jim Powell’s Things We Nearly Knew . Marcie and her husband have been together for thirty years, running a bar at the edge of town. One day Arlene appears expecting to find a man she’d once known. Then Franky returns hoping that his previous mistakes have been forgotten. As Arlene gets closer to the truth things begin to fall apart. ‘Powell invites us to consider how much we know about the ones we love and finally asks: would you want to know the truth?’ says the blurb. Powell’s darkly funny debut, Trading Futures, was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Cover imageRegular readers of this blog may have noticed that I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction although the paradox is that some of my favourite novels are just that: Ingenious Pain, The Crimson Petal and the White, The Essex Serpent and The Observations spring to mind. All are delivered with more than a spark of flair and originality which is what I’m hoping for in Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. In 1785 a ship’s captain takes a wizened little figure, said to be a mermaid, to a merchant in Deptford. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. These two meet at a society party and embark on a dangerous new course together in a ‘spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession’ according to the publishers. There’s also mention of coffee shops, parlours and brothels which has me hoping for a romp along the lines of The Fatal Tree. We’ll see

That’s it for January’s new books. A click on a title will take you to detailed synopsis should you want to know more, and if you want to catch up with the first part it’s here. Paperbacks to follow shortly…