Here We Are by Graham Swift—This as a very English novella—spare prose, emotion compressed. It concerns the life of one small boy, removed to the countryside during the London Blitz. As if by magic, his impoverished and difficult life is transformed, though he remains the same haunted, solitary little boy. The price of his new easeful and beautiful life is the loss of any real relationship with his mother. He is shown the intricacies of magic and, indeed, becomes a magician. He teams up with a born showman and, abracadabra!, the perfect, beautiful assistant answers his advertisement. The trio are ever so successful during the summer seaside seasons of the 1950s, right up to the moment that the magician makes himself disappear. Life goes on, but he is never seen again. The story unfolds beautifully. Fate really does look like sleight of hand; a series of arrivals and disappearances. (Due March 2020). Judy
Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh—I loved the way this played on ideas of writing and narration to ask what we become in all the stories we tell. An elderly widow moves to a small town with her dog. Her mind grinds in circles of self-talk and narration—all bunctious and pitch black… you want to laugh along, but she gets mean. When she discovers evidence of a murder in a forest near her house, she takes it upon herself to solve the case, writing herself into an amateur detective story within the novel. Moshfegh’s clear prose gives you a brilliantly eerie space to ponder just what her investigation might reveal. (Due April 2020) Jon
Berlin Finale by Heinz Rein—This is a most fantastic companion to one of my favourite ever books, Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone (or Alone in Berlin if you read it under its uninspired UK translation). Also written in the immediate aftermath of WW2, Berlin Finale follows the citizens of Berlin as the bombs fall on their thousand year Reich, and the allies close in on the German capital. Many Berliners, still in thrall to the Nazi propaganda machine (either because they remain true believers, or are afraid to attract the ever watchful eye of the SS or Gestapo) are ready to fight to the last man, woman and child, while the resistance are conducting dangerous conversations and attempted conversions to undermine Hitler’s desire to take every German with him to the grave. A bestseller in post war Germany, the book was ‘revised and improved’ by Rein in 1980.
This new translation has a few clunky moments I blame on the lack of editorial and proofing at publishers these days, but that aside, I loved it. In these post-truth days, the de-nazification process is a schooling in how to talk those in utter denial off a ledge, into acceptance and maybe even action. I also ripped through American Dirt by Jeanne Cummins one recent hot and sleepless night. A middle class Mexican bookseller with a cartel-offending journalist husband is hurled, with her 8 year old son, into the stream of refugees heading to ‘el norte’ when her family is massacred. Cummins’ intention is to individualise and humanise the so-called Trump ‘caravans’ of rapists and criminals—and she does it very well. All the violence happens off the page—and this lack of sensationalising the horror makes it even more gripping. Using a middle class protagonist, who herself has to confront her own previous eye-averting complicity is a masterful move. No one leaves their home, comfortable or otherwise, unless they are forced to. Viki
I’ve just finished Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel; her dark-as-pitch suburban comedy of a medium and her assistant/manager as they traverse the outer suburbs of London and the home counties, playing dingy pubs, clubs, and community halls. A slow burn corker of a book; deft prose and ultimately a staggeringly awful, sad, and vicious inspection of what lies hidden beneath the surface of suburban life. I also am mightily enjoying Actress by Anne Enright; on the glimmering surface (Enright’s prose is as perfect as ever) this novel is an attempted biography of a very famous Irish actress by her only daughter, carefully chronicled from the fifties to the late seventies; but delicate fissures in the narrative reveal surprising depths in the pair’s relationship. Andy