Whereas the first part of April’s paperback preview had its feet firmly planted in the States, this second instalment wanders around Europe beginning in the UK with Elizabeth Day’s The Party. Scholarship boy Martin Gilmour meets Ben Fitzmaurice at Burtonbury School, becoming firm friends with him despite their wildly differing backgrounds. Over the next twenty-five years, these two are bound together both by friendship and by a secret about Ben that Martin is determined to keep. However, as the blurb hints, things may be about to change when ‘at Ben’s 40th birthday party, the great and the good of British society are gathering to celebrate in a haze of champagne, drugs and glamour’. Sebastian Faulks is quoted as finding it ‘witty, dark and compelling’.
Over the North Sea in Denmark, Ellinor, the recently widowed narrator of Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy, stands in front of her dearest friend Anna’s grave and tells her about the death of Georg who was once Anna’s husband before she died in a skiing accident together with her lover, Henning, then Ellinor’s partner. Ellinor and Georg had been married for decades but she’s never quite shrugged off the feeling that she’s leading Anna’s life. Now that he’s dead there’s no one she wishes to talk to except Anna. At the heart of this quietly powerful, beautifully crafted novella is a loving, forgiving friendship. It may be a meditation on love and loss yet the title is a reminder that life goes on.
East across the Baltic to Latvia for Eli Goldstone’s Strange Heart Beating in which Seb takes himself off to the birthplace of his beautiful wife Leda after she drowns in the lake at her local park, her boat capsized by a startled swan. Grief and how well we know those we choose to share our lives with are explored in this witty and original piece of fiction which has a rich vein of dark humour running through it nicely offsetting its sombre subject.
We’re turning back on ourselves and heading for Ireland with Molly McCloskey’s When Light is Like Water which rounds off April’s paperbacks. This slim, quietly brilliant novel tells the story of Alice who came to Ireland from Oregon as a young woman and fell in love with an Irishman. Decades later, back from her job with an NGO at a Kenyan refugee camp and blindsided with grief at her mother’s death, Alice finds herself obsessively thinking about her brief marriage.
That’s it for April’s second batch of paperbacks. A click on the first title will take you to a more detailed synopsis and to my reviews for the last three should you want to know more. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch of paperbacks they’re here. New titles are here.
I have a weakness for Irish fiction. It’s often characterised by a restrained clarity – beautiful, elegant prose with a yearning quality about it – or at least the work of authors I favour fits that description. Colm Tóibin, John McGahern, William Trevor, Ann Enright, Deirdre Madden all come to mind and after reading When Light is Like Water I’ll be adding Molly McCloskey’s name to that list. This slim, quietly brilliant novel tells the story of Alice who came to Ireland from Oregon as a young woman and fell in love with an Irishman.
Decades after she first arrived in Ireland, Alice is house-sitting, back from her job with an NGO at a Kenyan refugee camp. Blindsided by grief at her mother’s death, she looks back at her relationship with the woman who raised her alone and at her own brief marriage to Eddie. Alice had come to Ireland when she was twenty-four with no plan in mind, just a need to become herself. She finds a job in a Sligo pub, makes friends then falls in love with a quiet, steady man, older than herself. These two marry, seeming almost to play at it – Alice still without direction, picking up the odd freelance writing gig and keeping house. They move to the country with the possibility of children in the air but neither can quite bring themselves to commit to the idea. Eddie sometimes travels on business, occasionally Alice goes with him but one day, when he’s away, she meets Cauley, a young writer whose radio spots will offer the convenient excuse of the possibility of work for her. We know from the start that Alice and Cauley will have an affair, and that Eddie and she are no longer married. McCloskey’s novel unfolds Alice’s memories of that intense summer, interspersed with her mother’s story and her experiences of working for the NGO.
When Light is Like Water is a richly textured novel about the complexities of love in its many forms. McCloskey narrates it through Alice’s quietly contemplative voice, exploring the devastation of her grief for her mother but also for the life that she might have led. Her loneliness is palpable in her frequent visits to the real estate website where she’s found the house she and Eddie made their home, playing the marketing video and noting evidence of children. McCloskey couples lovely descriptive passages with a remarkable acuity, penetrating in its observation: ‘Cauley and I were still in our trance’; ‘If we don’t know where we belong, we can feel homesick for almost anywhere we’ve been’; ’I swung between a lightness of being that bordered on vertigo and a sorrow that made the least movement difficult’. This is a deeply thought-provoking novel: multi-layered, complex and beautifully expressed. McCloskey’s writing career stretches back over a couple of decades during which she’s written a memoir and three works of fiction. I’ll be keeping my eye out for them, you can be sure.