It’s that time of year again. I had thought I might ignore the whole kit and caboodle this time around but I was prodded into action by an analysis of trends in Man Booker winners subtitled ‘Male and Middle-aged in Third Person’. On that basis mine is a list of no-hopers, or close to it, with just two men making the grade and only one of those middle-aged. It wasn’t planned that way just the way this year’s cookie crumbled. That said, isn’t it about time that the judges paid a little more attention? Or perhaps that should be publishers. They, after all, are the ones who nominate titles to be considered, aside from the odd one or two that the judges call in. And while we’re on that subject, why is it that the more titles a publisher has longlisted in previous years, the more they’re allowed to nominate in following years? Seems to favour the big boys and girls to me.
Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included published before 30th September – Sara Taylor’s The Lauras, for instance or Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall – but I’m determined to include only the tried and tested. The judges will reveal their list on Wednesday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:
Garth Greenwell’s debut is one of those novels about which there was a good deal of brouhaha long before it was published. As regular readers may have noticed that kind of thing tends to bring out the cynic in me but several of the names praising it to the skies are the kind of people who know what they’re talking about – Edmund White and Claire Messud, for instance. Couched in elegant prose, it’s a story of sexual obsession and loneliness in which a teacher at the American School in Sofia finds himself in thrall to Mitko, the beautiful young man he encounters when cruising for sex.
When our unnamed narrator meets Mitko in the toilets of Bulgaria’s National Palace of Culture he finds himself entranced with Mitko’s casual grace, gripped by a desire he finds impossible to shrug off. It’s the beginning of a relationship which slips and slides between a contract as the narrator terms it and a friendship as Mitko calls it. Unable to resist Mitko, the narrator invites him into his home, watching him as he skypes his other ‘friends’, recognising his veiled requests for money, his calculating manipulations, but powerless to turn him away. In turn, Mitko invites the narrator to his home town, disarmingly proud of its beauty and his standing in it. Mitko begins regularly turning up at the narrator’s apartment, slowly but surely slipping into poverty, homelessness and drunkenness. Sometimes he disappears for months, then two years after what the narrator believes to have been their final meeting he appears again. This will not be the last time our narrator sees Mitko but the spell has been broken. Interwoven into the narrative are memories of the American’s childhood, stories of his father and his sisters which draw the reader into a fuller understanding of his life.
What Belongs to You is a slim novel but it’s intensity is such that it’s best read in short bursts rather than swallowed whole. Greenwell’s prose is suffused with a painful loneliness as our narrator unfolds this discomfiting dissection of tortured desire. The episodes from his childhood serve to accentuate and explain his feelings of exclusion; his attempts to build a life in Bulgaria seem strained, a last ditch attempt at adulthood. Mitko’s character is carefully drawn – Greenwell neatly avoids caricature presenting him as gracious and charming, his obvious yet artless calculation explained by his poverty. The consciously chosen grey understatement of the narrator’s life contrasts starkly with Mitko’s rackety vividness. Greenwell’s writing is often striking: the narrator’s desire runs ’alongside my life like a snapping dog’; a colleague is ‘my friend or almost friend’ conveying the tenuous nature of his life in Bulgaria. It’s a difficult read, bleak at times and often uncomfortable, but all that brouhaha turns out to be justified after all.
This second batch of April titles kicks off with a book that’s been getting a fair bit of attention in my neck of the Twitter woods. Not always a good sign but it’s been from the kind of people who usually know what they’re talking about. Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to Youis set in Bulgaria where an American teacher looking for sex encounters a hustler in one of Sofia’s public toilets. What begins as a transaction turns into an obsession in what sounds like a powerful debut. ‘Lyrical and intense, it tells the story of a man caught between longing and resentment, unable to separate desire from danger, and faced with the impossibility of understanding those he most longs to know’ say the publishers.
Also getting a bit of Twitter attention a little while back, David Szalay’s All That Man Is follows nine men, all of whom are away from home, each at different stages in their lives. Set in a variety of locations, from the suburbs of Prague to a Cypriot hotel, it’s ‘a portrait of contemporary manhood, contemporary Europe and contemporary life from a British writer of supreme gifts – the master of a new kind of realism’ say the publishers. The structure is a very appealing one although the predominantly male set of characters may become a bit wearing.
‘Postmodern’, a word that crops up in the blurb for the next novel, tends to run up a warning flag for me but the synopsis for Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death is hard to resist. It begins with a brutal tennis match in which Caravaggio takes on the Spanish poet Quevedo before an audience which includes Galileo and Mary Magdelene. According to the publishers ‘there are assassinations and executions, hallucinogenic mushrooms, bawdy criminals, carnal liaisons and papal dramas, artistic and religious revolutions, love and war. A blazingly original voice and a postmodern visionary, Álvaro Enrigue tells the grand adventure of the dawn of the modern era, breaking down traditions and upending expectations, in this bold, powerful punch of a novel.’ There’s every chance, of course, that it’s the kind of book that’s just too tricksy for its own good.
Anais, the main protagonist of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, was one of those characters who stayed with me for quite some time: bright, sassy and fierce – she was extraordinarily vividly drawn. I’m hoping for something similar with The Sunlight Pilgrims which seems to be set in the near future on a Scottish caravan park. It tells the story of a small community who are beginning to think that the freak weather spells the end of the world. Strange things are happening, the economy has collapsed and public services are in the hands of volunteers. I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction but Fagan’s writing is so striking that I’ll be making an exception for this one.
My final choice for April new novels is Barney Norris’s Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain. I’ve included it partly because it’s set in Salisbury, not a million miles from where I live, and partly because it sounds like a piece of good old-fashioned storytelling. A car crash results in the intersection of five lives each disastrously effected by the accident. ‘As one of those lives hangs in the balance, the stories of all five unwind, drawn together by connection and coincidence into a web of love, grief, disenchantment and hope that perfectly represents the joys and tragedies of small town life’ apparently. It could, of course, be hopelessly sentimental but I think I’ll give it a try if only for its setting.
That’s it for April’s new books. Just click on whichever title catches your attention if you’d like a little more detail. If you missed part one and would like to catch up with it, here it is.