I liked the sound of Ani Katz’ A Good Man, even before it started popping up in my Twitter timeline. It seemed to be about a family man who adores his wife and daughter but fails to protect them, something he considers to be his job. I’d had hopes of an interesting examination of how a ‘good man’ might be portrayed but what I hadn’t expected was a superbly drawn unreliable narrator, one of my favourite literary devices.
Married to a beautiful woman, the father of a bright daughter and established in a lucrative career, Thomas Martin appears to epitomise a happy, successful middle-aged man. He and Miriam live with Ava in a smart modern house, a social world away from the run down home inherited by his abusive alcoholic father where his mother and twin sisters still live. Miriam has never had a job, keeping house for Thomas and raising their daughter, rarely seeing her parents in her native France. Thomas has worked hard to afford the home he was determined his family would have, although Miriam’s trust fund helped despite her reluctance to leave the Brooklyn neighbourhood where she was happy. He’s trusted at work, his boss happy for him to pitch to the most prestigious clients, and respected by his two female colleagues. There are worries – dark memories of his difficult childhood, the loss of his elder sister and Ava’s pushing of the boundaries – but life is good. At least that’s the story Thomas tells himself and us but as this carefully controlled existence unravels, we begin to see that there may be other versions to tell, other interpretations to be made.
I want us to have everything I never had, I said. I want to build a shell around us so that we’ll be protected.
Katz keeps the tension nicely taut as she unfolds this story of a man who is convinced of his own best motives while letting slip hints that suggest otherwise. We’ve been primed from the start that things will not end well, and I suspect that ending will come as no surprise, but the denouement is not the point of this novella which explores what constitutes a ‘good man’ in some men’s eyes. What Thomas views as protecting his family, others would construe as coercive and controlling, a word of which he’s very fond. Katz is careful not to portray Thomas as a monster; he’s a man who’s believes himself to be doing what’s best for his family yet his behaviour towards them – and others – proves as toxic as his violent, abusive father’s. There’s a gradual ratcheting up of suspense as Thomas builds towards his story’s inevitable climax, deftly handled by Katz. It’s a smart debut, both compelling and disturbing, delivered with the kind of confidence that makes me keen to see what Katz will come up with next.
William Heinemann: London 2020 9781785152214 214 pages Hardback
Even if you’ve not already read one of Nicola Barker’s novels you’ll gather from its cover – and perhaps its title – that you’re going to be in for a wacky ride with The Cauliflower®. It’s born of Barker’s fascination with Sri Ramakrishna – an avatar, widely regarded as having played a leading role in reviving Hinduism, influencing both Gandhi and Nehru – which has its roots in a free album about Krishna Consciousness which she was handed aged ten in a shopping plaza. Many of us, I’m sure, have waved these offerings away, wary of being drawn into an attempt at conversion but if Barker had followed that line we wouldn’t have this extraordinarily inventive, idiosyncratic interpretation of the avatar’s sketchy story.
Pointless to attempt a detailed synopsis of The Cauliflower®. Suffice to say that it’s Barker’s version of the life of a nineteenth-century man who came to be regarded as a saint thanks to the patronage of a powerful, wealthy woman known as the Rani. As a sunny-natured child, Sri Ramakrishna is given to falling into sudden trances. He eventually becomes a priest, taking up residence at the temple supported by the Rani and her son-in-law who conceives a spiritual infatuation for him. As Sri Ramakrishna’s trances become more frequent, apparently triggered by religious experiences, he attracts a devoted following and eventually is pronounced a saint. Over twenty-five years he’s both cared for and watched in loving frustration by his nephew Hridayram who would dearly love to tread his own spiritual path instead of playing nursemaid to his uncle on the journey which will see him behaving like an ape for the year he espouses Hanuman the monkey-god, dressing as a woman for his goddess Radha period and mastering Tantra, thanks to an orange-robed brahimini whom Hridayram detests.
There are two narrative strands running through Barker’s novel, neither chronological: one is told through the voice of the put-upon but devoted Hridayram, the other is Sri Ramakrishna’s story as told by the author of The Cauliflower®. Barker punctuates her novel with haiku and extracts from the Song of Solomon together with a multitude of diversions and devices – from recounting dreams to imagining the goings-on in the temple through the eyes of a swift equipped with a tiny camera – frequently pulling the rug out from underneath her readers’ feet, contradicting and questioning what has gone before. It’s often very funny not to mention vivid. Kali, the goddess to whom Sri Ramakrishna devotes himself, is described as an ‘all-singing, dervish-dancing, ecstatically stomping, bloody-sword-wielding Beyoncé Knowles’. Barker has clearly researched her subject long and hard – there’s a bibliography accompanied by enthusiastic recommendations – but, as she’s the first to admit, this is not a biography of Sri Ramakrishna. In her own words it’s ‘a painstakingly constructed, slightly mischievous and occasionally provocative/chaotic mosaic of many other people’s thoughts, memories and experiences’. Apart from one very irritating passage – too many ‘parp-parps’, if you’re interested – it worked beautifully for me but it’s a Marmite novel, no doubt about it.
I’m not a natural Lauren Groff fan. The writing I most admire is the pared back prose of Colm Tóibin, Kent Haruf and John McGahern – Groff’s is baggy, extravagant, almost baroque at times, yet there’s something about it that sucks me in. I read The Monsters of Templeton when working on a magazine, not really expecting to enjoy it but needing to check out whether it was worth reviewing or not, and found myself transfixed. Fates and Furies is the portrait of a marriage and if you’ve read Groff before you’ll know that this isn’t just any run-of-the-mill, everyday sort of marriage: Lotto and Mathilde are a shiny beacon of the perfect relationship but as we all know that can’t be true, and what a dull novel it would be if it was.
Fates and Furies begins with the glittering image of Lotto and Mathilde, freshly – and secretly – married at twenty-two then switches to Lotto’s story. He’s the son of the beautiful Antoinette and Gawain, tall, hirsute and lonely but rich on bottling Floridian water. Gawain dies young, leaving a grief-stricken Lotto to go off the rails with the local riff-raff – on whom he will never quite turn his back – before being sent off to boarding school. College brings hopes of acting – his aura of specialness and generosity of spirit drawing women irresistibly to him. At his final performance as Hamlet he and Mathilde meet in the most dramatic of circumstances, marrying a mere two weeks later. Their life together unfolds in a series of parties. Lotto’s acting career flounders but another more brilliant future lies ahead. Just over half-way through the novel the perspective shifts to the seemingly unknowable Mathilde whose story is quite different from what we have been led to believe. A childhood tragedy has left her bundled up like a parcel, passed from one distant relative to another, left to find her own surprising way. Lotto’s and her apparent coup de foudre may not be quite what it seems. The smile she always takes care to wear hides something much more complex and more interesting.
The novel’s two-part structure – first the Fates then the Furies – sets us up for dramatic revelations, presenting an apparently perfect marriage seen through both parties’ very different eyes. It’s stuffed full of little side stories, some of which go nowhere, some of which are picked up again and sewn neatly in. Shakespearian and fairytale elements sit well in the context of Lotto’s work not to mention the title with its nod to Greek mythology. There’s a healthy seam of feminism running through the book – ‘Somehow, despite her politics and smarts, she had become a wife, and wives, as we all know, are invisible’ – and Mathilde’s character is much the more satisfying of the two. It’s also about appearances and reality: there’s a striking image of a passerby who glances into a house and sees the Satterwhite family singing at Christmas in the glow of a fire ‘the very idea of what happiness should look like’ when the opposite is true. There’s a great deal to admire but a few irritations, too: the bracketed interpolations at first seem witty but eventually pall and at nearly four hundred pages, it needs an editorial trim. That said it’s an absorbing, intriguing and satisfyingly complex novel: the self-consciously iconoclastic English teacher’s discussion of drama and comedy at Lotto’s school fits it well. Another curate’s egg, then, but a much tastier one than Up Against the Night.
I’ve had my eyes on Sara Taylor’s beautifully packaged debut for some time now. It’s not just the gorgeous jacket that attracted me, it’s also the novel’s structure: a set of interconnecting stories that span a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia. The Shore is the name given to the islands, all within a stone’s throw of each other, and Taylor’s novel focuses on the two families who dominate them – one impoverished the other prosperous – both intertwined through marriage.
It begins in 1995 with a story narrated by thirteen-year-old Chloe – the end of which will take your breath away – then crisscrosses through time from the founding of the families in 1876, ending in 2143. Much of the narrative takes place in the twentieth century as the islands slide into decline, the only source of work the chicken slaughterhouse with its all-pervasive stink. It becomes the kind of place where shacks ‘could be toolsheds or could be meth labs, you can’t tell until one blows up’. Fortunes are made and lost, children born, marriages made, blind eyes are turned – people leave but despite its disadvantages the Shore lures many back with its beauty and a sense of belonging. Rather like Judy Chicurel’s If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go, these stories are so closely interlinked that despite its determinedly non-linear narrative the book is very much a novel rather than a collection.
It’s an ambitious structure for a debut, but Taylor keeps the many strands of her narrative pleasingly under control so that what could have been a baggy, rambling mishmash gels nicely. You need to keep your wits about you: characters pop up then disappear only to reappear again. You’ll find yourself frequently consulting the family tree that prefaces the novel but Taylor is careful to tie in every loose end meticulously. There’s a good deal of violence – some of it graphic – and much of it against women but these are strong, resilient women who find ways to deal with what is meted out to them. It’s also about decline, the way in which communities dwindle when economic hardship hits and young people are drawn out of them. If this all sounds a little hard-going, a little worthy – it’s not: Taylor’s writing is striking, her characters believable and her storytelling entrancing. I would have preferred that the novel had remained bookended by Chloe’s narrative but others may feel that the final chapter is part of the point. Either way, The Shore is thoroughly deserving of its place on the Baileys longlist. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find it shortlisted.
I don’t think I’ve read a book in which the prologue is at the back before and in case you’re thinking of correcting me – it isn’t an epilogue. Rebecca Makkai’s novel is a backward looking history of Laurelfield which we first enter as a family home, albeit a somewhat dysfunctional family. You may know Makkai’s name from her lovely, engaging first novel, The Borrower, the story of a librarian who goes on the run with her favourite customer, a ten-year-old boy whose Evangelical mother is worried about his sexuality. Her second is entirely different, but just as entertaining.
The Hundred-year House opens in 1999 with Zee and Doug renovating the gatehouse of the estate owned by her mother Grace. Neither of them particularly wants to live with her parents but finances are precarious and for Doug there’s the added lure of the Laurelfield artists’ colony where Edwin Parfitt, the subject of his thesis, once lived. When Bruce’s son loses his job, he and his wife Miriam become unwelcome guests at the gatehouse. Zee is convinced that Doug will fall in love with Miriam but he’s busy writing pre-teen fiction when he should be working on his Parfitt monograph. Meanwhile, Bruce is ordering supplies for his Y2K apocalypse obsession (remember that?) and his son seems to be succumbing to the fabled supernatural powers of the house, watched over by the portrait of Zee’s ancestor the beautiful Violet who supposedly haunts the place. Fast forward, or rather backward, to 1955 and Grace is a young woman married to George, a womanising drunkard with an eye for the servants. Grace finds a surprising ally in Max, their chauffeur and general factotum, who seems to know the house so well it’s as if he’s always lived there. Back we go again to 1929, when the eight artists who make up the colony are awaiting the owner’s son, convinced that he plans to shut it down. Together they hatch an ingenious plan and secure a twenty-five year tenure, breaking a few hearts along the way. Finally, we end up at the prologue and the very beginning of Laurelfield.
Each of the novel’s sections is very different. The first, and by far the longest, has an almost farcical tone at times with its cross-purpose misunderstandings and occasional slapstick humour but there’s a wonderfully unexpected twist, further unravelled in the next, much more sombre section which in turn sets up more questions to be answered in the third. Satisfyingly, the significance of small, seemingly trivial details – a small jade statue, the mystery of a photograph, Zee’s name – become a little clearer each time history is wound back. It’s a very clever structure – hard work to keep it all straight while writing it, I imagine, but it works. The ghost motif running through all three sections was a little strained for me but even that has its point as the story coalesces. It’s one of those novels that the more you think about it the more accomplished it seems.
There was a great deal of marketing hoo-ha around Nick Harkaway’s first novel which always makes me wary, so much so that I avoided it but when Angelmaker was published so many readers whose opinions I respect jumped up and down proclaiming it a masterpiece that I though I’d better take a dekko. It’s a science fiction thriller so regular readers of this blog will understand why I wasn’t so keen but more fool me for prejudging what turned out to be a riveting novel of startling invention. Tigerman isn’t quite in the same league for me – it was the sheer wackiness of Angelmaker that was so captivating and this one’s more conventional if that’s a word that could ever be applied to Harkaway’s work – but it still had me gripped, amazed at one point by its twistiness.
It’s a thriller so to dwell too much on plot would be to ruin it. Suffice to say that there’s a flying superhero tiger and another who purrs like an avalanche; a sergeant, wise in the ways of war, longing for a child; a comic-book obsessed, internet-mad boy who seems not to have a family; a volcanic island poisoned by chemical waste on the verge of being blown up to purge it from bacteria; a bomb made of custard powder; good guys, bad guys and a few in between. Over it all looms the presence of the Fleet engaged in all sorts of dodgyness – floating brothels, slave ships, torture vessels – taking advantage of the international legal limbo in which Mancreu exists. It’s told from the point of view of Sergeant Lester Ferris, designated the British representative in this old colony after tours in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, part of whose brief is to keep an eye on law and order. Life ticks along in an unchallenging kind of way until a shootout in the café which Lester and the boy he’s befriended frequent sees the death of their dear friend. Not knowing where to start in his murder investigations, Lester begins with three seemingly unrelated mysteries – some stolen fish, a missing dog and the recurring appearance of a joyous ghost-woman. By the end of the novel all three will be solved in ways you never would have conceived.
There’s serious stuff wrapped up in all this albeit with a nicely satirical, comic edge. Harkaway swipes away at peace-keeping forces, international law and the language of diplomacy – ‘Hearts and minds, bollocks. It was amazing how often that expression was used to describe what had already gone and could not now be clawed back’ – to name but a few. Lester is an endearing reluctant hero, resourceful and used to the hair-raising experiences of war but with a great aching hole where a child should be. Harkaway is given to entertaining little digressions always neatly sewn into his narrative and has a nice line in throwaway rants. ‘Bugger Marathon. And then, irrelevantly: And they call them ‘Snickers’ now, anyway. Old anger. Chocolate bars should not take on new identities. They should be content with who they are’ seems like a heartfelt annoyance in the midst of Lester’s frantic chase. You also get the feeling that Mr Harkaway spends a good deal of his time looking up esoteric facts on the internet – how else would you know that custard powder is combustible – all put to good use, though. Altogether, it’s a virtuoso piece of entertainment which hurtles satisfyingly towards its conclusion after delivering a startling, didn’t-see-that-coming sucker-punch of a twist.
If you’d like to read about how Nick Harkaway sets about his writing, and what prompted him to write Tigerman, Annabel’s House of Books has a lovely account of an evening with him. He sounds like a jolly nice chap to me!
Paul Harding’s second novel is set in the same small Massachusetts town as his first as those who’ve read Tinkers will recognise from its title. It begins with the death of Charlie Crosby’s 14-year-old daughter in a road accident and ends a year later. Shortly after Kate’s death, Charlie’s wife Susan leaves to visit her family never to return. It’s a fragile marriage which doesn’t so much break up as dissolve slowly as Charlie sinks into an all-consuming grief, ignoring Susan’s messages, medicating the anguish of his loss and the physical pain of the hand he broke punching the wall in rage with drink and painkillers. Unable to sleep, Charlie spends his nights walking around Enon, eavesdropping on a couple of young girls just a few years older than Kate as they play out their safe rebellions, and yearning for echoes of his beloved daughter. Charlie has lived in Enon for so long that everywhere he turns is freighted with memories, vividly conjured by Harding: the dignified Mrs Hale telling Charlie and his friends that they sled like girls before showing them how it’s done, feeding birds as a child and marvelling at their landing on his empty hand, visits made with his grandfather, George, to townspeople needing their clocks mended. As Charlie declines into addiction edging closer to madness, his memories of Kate merge with increasingly baroque hallucinations. It’s a powerful novel of grief and the particularly dreadful agony of losing a child although it seemed a little odd that in such a small town no one stretches out a hand to Charlie until the very end. I should confess that despite the rapturous reviews and its Pulitzer Award – or maybe because them – I gave up Tinkers. Perhaps all that approbation had ramped up my anticipation too far but I think I’ll go back to it now. I’ve seen Enon described as a sequel but, for me, it stood alone in its own right. Having written so eloquently about loss and death in both his first and second novels I wonder what Harding will do next.