Tag Archives: Year of the Drought

Paperbacks to Look Out for in June 2018: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of June paperbacks begins with a book from a favourite author. Comprising nine stories, two of them pleasingly lengthy, William Boyd’s The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth ranges from a philandering art dealer who gets his comeuppance to a novelist fleeing eviscerating reviews who bumps into one of his worst maulers and spots an opportunity for revenge. There’s much to enjoy here, not least the thread of humour reminiscent of the comedy in Boyd’s earlier work. Both writing and film feature but it’s the art barbs that are the most satisfying reminding me of the Nat Tate trick he and David Bowie pulled off back in the ’90s. Well worth reading even for those who aren’t short story fans.

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko was one of last year’s literary bestsellers no doubt prompting the re-issue of Free Food for Millionaires which I remember reading and enjoying when it was first published here in the UK eleven years ago. It’s about Casey Han, the daughter of working-class Korean immigrants, whose years at Princeton have left her with a decent education and a set of expensive habits but no job. She and her parents both live in New York but they inhabit very different worlds. ‘As Casey navigates an uneven course of small triumphs and spectacular failures, a clash of values, ideals and ambitions plays out against the colourful backdrop of New York society, its many layers, shades and divides…’ say the publishers. I remember Casey as a particularly endearing character.

Roland Buti’s Year of the Drought tells the story of the Sutters who have farmed the same patch of Swiss land for many years but for whom the events of the long hot summer of 1976 will prove momentous. Thirteen-year-old Gus spends the summer holidays helping his father and his cousin Rudy who has Down’s Syndrome. When a young woman turns up, clad in a long patchwork dress and spouting hippie ideas, Rudy becomes besotted but it’s Gus’ mother who’s the object of Cécile’s attentions. Buti unfolds his story from Gus’ perspective as he looks back on the dramatic events of that summer.

In contrast to the Sutters Josephine’s life is spent almost entirely indoors in Helen Cover image Phillips’ gripping parable, The Beautiful Bureaucrat. Unemployed for many months, Josephine is offered a job by an oddly faceless bureaucrat with a nasty case of halitosis. All she has to do is input the relevant date for each ID-number in a constantly replenished pile of files. When she sees a newspaper listing casualties from a plane crash whose names seem familiar she begins to think about what her work means. Phillips’ strange compelling novella unsettles from the get-go. Not one for readers currently engaged in repetitive, seemingly pointless bureaucratic employment.

That’s it for June’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a longer synopsis for Free Food for Millionaires and to my review for the other four novels should any have snagged your interest. If you’d like to catch up with the first part of the paperback preview it’s here. New titles are here and here.

Year of the Drought by Roland Buti (transl. by Charlotte Mandell): Coming of age in 1976

Cover imageI have to admit it was nostalgia that drew me to Roland Buti’s Swiss novella set in 1976. Anyone who was alive and conscious in that year will remember the long hot summer which those of us not yet working luxuriated in throughout Europe. Rather more recently, H and I were walking in the Swiss Alps through a similar landscape to the one in which Buti has set his story of the Sutters who have farmed the same patch of land for many years but for whom the events of 1976 will prove momentous.

Thirteen-year-old Gus spends the summer holidays helping his father and his cousin Rudy who has Down’s Syndrome. He visits the family’s ancient horse with whom his grandfather sleeps in a nearby stable, preferring to bed down in hay than stay in his flat. When a young woman turns up, clad in a long patchwork dress and spouting hippie ideas, Rudy becomes besotted but it’s Gus’ mother who’s the object of Cécile’s attentions. His taciturn father becomes increasingly morose until village tittle-tattle proves too much. His wife moves out, his daughter throws herself into practicing for a school concert and Gus frets about what’s to become of them all. Meanwhile, the aged dog faints from the heat, the new chickens roast in their hen-house and the sun beats relentlessly down. The inevitable storm brings disaster with it.

Buti unfolds his story from Gus’ perspective as he looks back on the dramatic events of that summer. His language vividly summons up the deadening heat: ‘The yellow sky, the yellow fields, the car splitting the yellow air on the yellow road… They were all unreal’. Gus’ father is wedded to a way of life that’s fast passing, his plans for a future farming chickens blown apart by the cataclysmic weather. He’s left bereft, puzzled and angry by the behaviour of his wife, unaware of her long unhappiness: ‘Mum was always busy with a multitude of tasks that no doubt helped to keep her from feelings of despair’. There’s a nice thread of humour running through the novel lightening its tone, from the fainting dog to Rudy’s spit-polished red apple handed to Cécile as a token of his adoration. Altogether an enjoyable read and not just because of a double dose of nostalgia.

Speaking of which, Buti’s novel brought back memories of the farm where we stopped for the last lunch of our holiday. We had a cheese plate, looking out at a fabulous view then across to the open stable at the cows who’d produced what we were eating. Idyllic for us, hard work for the family that ran it.