Richard Hopton reviews two first novels, a new book by a best-selling French author and a collection of short stories… w elcome to The Reading List. The Reading List
This is your monthly list of the newest books to curl up with, whether by the fire in winter or on the beach come summer. Richard Hopton’s done the hard work for you of rifling through each month’s newest releases, bringing you the best reads that will accompany you on many a journey, sleepless night and cosy Sunday…
Why not challenge yourself to read one a week? This month, we recommend
The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Jay Rubin, Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan, Jeeves and The King of Clubs by Ben Schott, and My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite.
Check back every month for new recommendations…
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The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories
Edited by Jay Rubin
Japanese literature is not widely read in the West. This anthology reveals a rich mosaic of Japanese life and culture. There is the gory horror of ‘Patriotism’, which describes a hara-kiri in all its fanatical devotion to duty and honour, incongruously wrapped in a shroud of eroticism. There are some affecting stories about the disasters which have struck Japan, including the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the 2011 tsunami. But there is humour and beauty, too: ‘The 1962/1982 Girl from Ipanema’ is a whimsical tale of nostalgic memory.
Penguin Classics, £25
Delphine de Vigan
Delphine de Vigan is a best- selling novelist in her native France; her new novel weaves together four separate stories which deal unsparingly with the effects of divorce, betrayal, child alcoholism and loneliness. The four strands of the narrative, the stories of two 13-year-old boys, Theo and Mathis, their teacher Helene and Mathis’ mother, Cecile, engage and disengage with each other as the book progresses. It’s a deceptively simple novel, an impression enhanced by the unfussy prose, shorn of literary flourish or artifice, but a powerful, thought-provoking one.
Jeeves and The King of Clubs
Ben Schott, he of the eponymous Miscellany, has published his first novel, ‘an homage to PG Wodehouse’. It succeeds triumphantly, both as light entertainment and as a tribute to the Master. Schott resurrects some of Wodehouse’s best-loved characters: Aunt Dahlia, Madeline Bassett and the sinister Roderick Spode, amongst others, all of whom have a part to play. He captures perfectly Bertie Wooster’s empty-headedness and cheerful philistinism and has a fine Wodehousian turn of phrase. A club bar is described as being ‘so full of boozy congeniality and pink gin that it might have been a Gillray cartoon sprung to life.’
My Sister, The Serial Killer
Blood, they say, is thicker than water – but it is also more difficult to get out of the carpet. Oyinkan Braithwaite’s first novel is a story steeped in the stuff: it opens with the narrator helping her sister, Ayoola, remove all traces of blood from the bathroom in which she has just murdered her boyfriend and is dominated by the visceral strength of the blood ties which, for better or worse, bind families together.
Set in Lagos, Nigeria, the central characters, are two sisters, Korede and Ayoola. Korede, the elder, is a nurse at a local hospital while Ayoola is a fashion designer. As siblings, they present a striking contrast: Korede, the guardian angel, is kind, loyal, and altruistic, if perhaps misguided; Ayoola, the femme fatale, is manipulative, selfish, shallow and, repeatedly, murderous. Where Rekede is reserved, mildly self-conscious, and kind, Ayoola is grasping, beautiful and cruel.
The sisters come from a comfortable, middle-class Nigerian background overshadowed by their late father, domineering, unfaithful and violent man, feared and despised by his family. His behaviour, glimpsed in flashbacks, may, we are invited to conclude, explain if not excuse his younger daughter’s murderous contempt for men.
My Sister, The Serial Killer is a darkly comic, highly enjoyable novel. Braithwaite writes with deadpan humour which, combined with a delicious, oblique turn of phrase, prevents the novel from becoming depressing or overly serious. The subject matter may be deadly, but in Braithwaite’s hands it never loses its humour or its sense of mischief.
It comes across as a spare, stripped-down story – reflected in the prose – one which concentrates on the murderous and comic essentials. In fact, the novel is more complex, addressing starkly the eternal conflict of Good and Evil and the capacity of family loyalty to corrupt the most scrupulous of consciences. There is no such thing, Braithwaite seems to be saying, as immutable morality, absolute right and absolute wrong: family and blood trumps all.
Atlantic Books, £12.99
The British in India
The British in India is a dazzling, beautifully written panorama of the lives of Britons in India over more than three centuries. The breadth of Gilmour’s coverage is extraordinary, chronologically, geographically and socially, roaming over the entire subcontinent, taking in the whole of the British experience of India. His cast ranges from squaddies to governors, via planters, railwaymen, boxwallahs and bureaucrats. Nor does he forget the women who, often reluctantly, followed their menfolk to India, or those on the periphery of the Raj, the Eurasians, floating hybrids, not wholly British but not wholly Indian either. Allen Lane, £30
The Quest for Queen Mary
James Pope-Hennessy, edited by Hugo Vickers
In 1955 James Pope-Hennessy was commissioned to write the authorised biography of Queen Mary, consort of King George V. This new book contains his notes made of the interviews he conducted with the baubles of minor European royalty and aristocracy while researching the book, edited with hushed reverence by Hugo Vickers. It is, in effect, the out-takes of a royal biography and much of it is very funny. Pope-Hennessy had an acute eye: he interviewed one German princess who was ‘enormously fat, with a huge red face like an old baby’. Zileika, £30
Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England
Devices and Desires is by no means the first biography of Bess of Hardwick, that formidable Elizabethan matriarch, builder and woman of business, nor the only book about Hardwick Hall, but it is an enjoyable retelling of Bess’s long and remarkable life – she died in 1608 in her mid-eighties – and her astonishing impulse to build. In all, she built four houses but her principal memorial is Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, built in the 1590s. Chatto & Windus, £20
Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975
The Vietnam War, from the mid-1960s until 1975, was violently controversial: its protracted agony divided nations and generations, causing political upheaval and civil unrest on an unprecedented scale. It was the Great Event of its time. Yet, in this country certainly, I suspect that the majority of people under the age of 60 know very little about it. There is a miasma of myth, half-truths and downright lies surrounding the war which Sir Max Hastings’ new history dispels utterly.
Hastings writes with the benefit of personal experience: he reported on the war, both from the United States and Indo-China itself, and met some of the leading protagonists. He was helicoptered out of the US embassy compound in Saigon in April 1975 as the waters of defeat and humiliation closed over the Americans. He has folded into the narrative the accounts of scores of participants from both sides, giving the book an electrifying immediacy. It imparts vividly the terror of the American infantryman – the ‘grunt’ – inching through the jungle or wading through a swamp never knowing where the next trip wire was or when the Vietcong would open fire. Likewise, Hastings brings to life the airborne war: ‘the clatter
of rotor blades,’ was, he writes, ‘the struggle’s orchestral music.’
Vietnam begins with the French struggle after 1945, subsidised by the Americans, to defend their colonies in Indo-China against the communists. It charts the gradual enlargement of the American presence in South Vietnam under Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy up to the point when President Johnson overtly committed US forces to the theatre. Hastings lays bare the self-deceptions and equivocations which dogged American policy throughout the war as well as exposing the North Vietnamese regime for
the brutal totalitarian regime it was.
Hastings has a historian’s grasp of narrative and a journalist’s eye for the story and the telling detail. His consistently lively, engaging prose rattles along making light of the book’s 650 pages. This is important, gripping history: read it. William Collins, £30
Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees
There are more than 20,000 species of bee on the planet, inhabiting every continent bar Antarctica. Man’s relationship with the bee goes back to prehistory. ‘No other group of insects has grown so close to us, none is more essential, and none is more revered.’ For millennia, honey was man’s best source of sweetness and its wax invaluable for lighting, writing and sealing.
Buzz is an engaging mix of science, history, anecdote and geeky good humour. Hanson, an American biologist, wears his learning lightly, getting the science across without being dull or pedantic.
Bees developed as a strain of vegetarian wasp. Wasps kill and eat other creatures but bees adapted to feed only on pollen from flowers. From this they fed themselves and their young and made honey for the winter. In the process they took on the vital function of pollination. Flowers, in order to propagate, began to make themselves alluring to bees by adopting colour and scent. It is evolution’s virtuous circle in action.
And, of course, it is pollination that makes bees so important to us. ‘It’s often said,’ writes Hanson, ‘that every third bite of food in the human diet relies upon bees.’ It is why the recent decline in bee populations – known scientifically as Colony Collapse Disorder – matters greatly. Hanson lists 150 crops, many of them staples, which require pollination by bees. To illustrate his point he conducted a cod scientific experiment: deconstructing a Big Mac, separating the elements derived from sources which require pollination from those which do not. He concludes that ‘we could still eat in a world deprived [of bees], but eating would be extremely dull (and not very nutritious).’
As a cautionary tale of what can happen when bee populations collapse, Hanson tells the story of the Maoxion Valley apple orchards in China. The swift decline in bee numbers in the valley – caused by pesticides and loss of habitat – wiped out the orchards leading to the mass felling of the trees. Bees do matter.
Chasing the Ghost
This book tells of Peter Marren’s campaign to locate the 50 species of British wild flower – there are more than 1,400 in all – which had eluded him in a lifetime’s botanising. His quest takes him from England’s south coast to the northernmost shores of Scotland with many a wood, bog and moor along the way. It is a charming, somewhat eccentric book, part botanical adventure, part rumination on man and nature with a dash of anecdote and autobiography thrown in. At its heart are wild flowers which, Marren writes, offer ‘a kind of inner calm, a feeling of oneness with nature.’ Square Peg, £16.99
Till the Cows Come Home
‘It is impossible to overstate the services rendered by the ox to the human race.’ So says Philip Walling at the beginning of his book about man’s relationship with bovines. Cattle have been domesticated for 12,000 years and there are now more than a billion of them on the planet. Walling, a farmer-turned-barrister, explores this long relationship and investigates some of the better-known breeds – including the Longhorn cattle of America’s Wild West and Spain’s fighting bulls. The book is also a hymn to the benefits of humane husbandry and the proper management of land, practices often at odds with ecological ideology and fashion.
Atlantic Books, £14.99
The Weather Detective
Peter Wohlleben is a German forester, a man with deep connections to the natural world, and his book is a treasure trove of fascinating information about the environment, a primer for the scientifically illiterate but curious gardener: for example, the formation and ring-ageing of hailstones or the reasons why one should not overwater one’s garden in a heatwave. He also offers easily digestible summaries of wider matters such as global warming and soil damage. A book to browse and then think to yourself, ‘Oh, so that’s why.’
Tony Kent’s debut novel is a contemporary political thriller
set in London and Ireland. The plot is exciting if perhaps a little far-fetched in places while the hero who, like the author is a barrister, seems on occasion to be imbued with superhuman powers. Some of the action scenes are shockingly, callously violent but brilliantly described. The book, although occasionally let down by the irritatingly staccato prose and its willingness to resort to cliché, is a fine achievement for a first novel. Kent, a well-known figure at the Old Bailey, has signed up with the publisher for another 13 novels so we shall be hearing more of him. Elliott & Thompson, £12.99
Here is a pacy, enjoyable thriller which describes the kidnap in Iran of the British Foreign Secretary and the operation to rescue him. Frank Gardner, who has been the BBC’s Security Correspondent since 2002, tells the story with a verve and expertise born of long experience of the subject. The operational and governmental detail is convincingly authentic. It is the thriller writer’s trick to blur the boundary between current affairs and invention, to make the unthinkable thinkable and exciting. In this, Gardner succeeds triumphantly. The short, one-subject chapters and the taut prose keep the pages turning right to the end.
Bantam Press, £12.99
The Restless Sea
Vanessa de Haan
The Restless Sea is a historical romance, a tale of love and class, set during World War II against the unusual background of the Russian convoys. Charlie, an upper-class Fleet Air Arm pilot and Jack, an East End scallywag who joins the Merchant Navy to escape the law, compete for the affections of Olivia. The action sequences – as when Charlie’s squadron of Swordfish attack a German battleship – are well done and de Haan’s grasp of the history is sound. The characters can seem somewhat stereotyped, and the prose breathily overwritten in places, but overall it’s an enjoyable romp.
Harper Collins, £14.99
The Devil’s Half Mile
Paddy Hirsch’s first novel is a gripping crime thriller set in New York City in 1799. It straddles the rough world of the docks where the rival immigrant groups fight for dominance and the supposedly more civilised world of Wall Street – the Devil’s Half Mile of the title – where greed and hypocrisy run riot. In both worlds casual violence is never far from the surface.
The novel’s hero, Justice Flanagan, lawyer, amateur pathologist and detective, has a foot in both camps: he dresses well but carries a flick-knife. He had taken part in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, where he learned to defend himself and inflict pain with speed and precision but is also at home in the coffee houses and brokers’ clubs. His father had been ruined by financial speculation and fraud while his uncle, a slum landlord and racketeer, controlled the city’s waterfront and wharves.
As Justice digs deeper into the story of his father’s death,
he unearths a sleazy, violent world of slavery and prostitution. Hirsch creates a vivid portrait of New York at the end of the 18th century. It is a city of stark contrasts: the slums, the poverty and the degradation of the masses contrast with the stone houses, carriages and wealth of the upper classes. His descriptions of the crime, filth and stench of the city are reinforced by the slangy idiom and patois with which the characters speak. It’s a compelling story with strong characters and some scenes of extreme violence, convincingly (and wincingly) rendered.
At the heart of the novel is financial chicanery, slavery, racism and hypocrisy: part of the plot revolves around an early example of a Ponzi scheme. Speculators, lured by big returns, are happy to turn a blind eye to the human misery off which they feed and the wider consequences of their actions. Silently, Hirsch invites his readers to consider the parallels between the mores of Wall Street in the 1790s and the 21st century.
This life of Suzanne Valadon is as much a history of the French art world between the 1880s and the 1930s as it is a biography. Valadon was born in obscurity in 1865 but moved to Paris as
a child. She began modelling for artists as a teenager and posed for a number of well- known painters, including Puvis des Chavanness, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec; with most of whom she also had affairs. By the mid-1890s, she was an accomplished artist in her own right, with a reputation which grew steadily throughout the rest of her life. Icon, £25
The Krull House
Set in a small town in rural France on the eve of the Second World War, this story – first published in 1939 – is about hostility to outsiders and how easily suspicion and distrust can descend into violence. The trouble starts when a local girl is found in the canal having been raped and murdered. Suspicion falls on Hans, an amoral, louche cousin of the Krull family, German immigrants who run a local bar and grocery, setting neighbour against neighbour and the family against itself as the story reaches a sad, violent end.
Penguin Classics, £10.99
Patrice des Moutis was a French aristocrat who waged war on the P.M.U., France’s state-owned betting system. In the late 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s he won huge sums playing the tiercé, a combination bet in which the punter predicts the first three horses home in a race. The P.M.U. did all it could to stop des Moutis winning and gradually the story darkens before reaching a tragic end. Reid’s prose rattles along, bringing vividly to life the glamour and turmoil of France in the three decades after the war.
France: A History From Gaul To De Gaulle
John Julius Norwich
Despite the fact that more than 5.5m Britons visit France each year, we remain woefully ignorant of its history. As Lord Norwich points out: ‘We may know a bit about Napoleon or Joan of Arc or Louis XIV, but for most of us that’s about it.’ This enjoyable book, covering two millennia of French history at a brisk canter, is his attempt to fill this lacuna. It is old-fashioned history, recounting the deeds of emperors and kings, dukes and popes, heroes and villains.
It has nothing to say about economics or industry and little about France’s wondrous culture, her architecture, art and literature, let alone her food or her wine.
The tone of France is avuncular, worldly and witty; it is like having dinner with an urbane, well-read uncle. It is spiked with commonsensical judgments: ‘The Crimean War… was a ridiculous affair which should never have occurred at all.’ Norwich has been visiting France all his life; indeed, his father, Duff Cooper, was British Ambassador in Paris immediately after the Second World War. The book is enlivened by the author’s own anecdotes: for example, he recounts his father presenting medals to veterans of the Resistance with tears pouring down his cheeks.
This is a history of France but reading it, you are forcibly reminded how closely intertwined it is with Britain’s own story. From the time of Julius Caesar great tracts of British and French history are incomprehensible without the other. For long periods in the Middle Ages English kings claimed to rule swathes of western France; the Hundred Years’ War and much of the history of the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries is the story of conflict – and periodic cooperation– between the two nations. Indeed, on occasion Norwich has to remind himself that he is writing French history. If you are planning a trip to France this summer, buy this book and dip into it as you sit soaking up the Provençal sunshine, pastis in hand. You won’t regret it.
John Murray, £25
How Britain Really Works
Stig Abell, former editor of the Sun and now in charge of the Times Literary Supplement, has written a brisk, readable account of how our most important institutions work. He casts his eye over the economy, politics, the NHS, the military, the police, the justice system and the media. His views are left-leaning – tellingly, he defends political correctness despite the fact that it ‘limits free expression, and precludes honest debate’ – but in general he favours common sense over ideology. There is a good deal of humour in the book too, much of it squirrelled away in footnotes.
John Murray, £20
Modernists & Mavericks: Bacon, Freud, Hockney & The London Painters
Martin Gayford is The Spectator’s art critic whose latest book is the fruit of three decades of interviews with London’s leading painters. It embraces those mentioned in the title but also Auerbach, Bomberg, Hodgkin, Riley and many others. It offers a comprehensive account of their careers as well as tracing the stylistic development of the various schools between 1945 and 1970. The art historical weight of the book is leavened by anecdote. In the 1950s, for example, someone suggested that Francis Bacon should live in Switzerland to which the great man retorted: ‘All those fucking views’.
Thames & Hudson, £24.95
Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life
Rosie is a clear-sighted memoir of the author Rose Tremain’s upbringing. Abandoned by her father at the age of ten and unloved by her selfish, bulimic mother, it was her nanny who provided the love that enabled Rose to survive her emotionally suppressed childhood. This memoir is exquisitely wrought, full of telling details recalled with astonishing freshness despite the passage of time. The book is studded with footnotes explaining how specific incidents from her life surfaced in her novels, an interesting insight into how an author draws on life in writing fiction.
Chatto & Windus, £14.99
Wendy Cope’s new collection is a gentle celebration of life’s joys as she takes stock at the age of 70. She recalls childhood homesickness, ruminates on her father’s volumes of Shakespeare and grins at the memory of watching the 1972 Olympics on TV in a haze of dope. There is much humour, too, as when she. contemplates the notion of an archbishop jogging: ‘There’s no reason at all why he shouldn’t keep fit./It’s commendable. You can’t help sneering a bit.’ Cope’s poems may be deceptively simple, shorn of literary flourish, but they succeed brilliantly.
Faber & Faber, £10.99
The Killing of Butterfly Joe
Llewellyn Jones is a directionless young Welshman who falls in with the Bosco family and sets off across America with them selling butterflies. This rollicking, entertaining road novel is as much about make-believe and truth, loyalty and friendship as about the agonies of cold calling: ‘every sale you attempt contains the possibility of failure, rejection and a kind of death’. The prose is a marathon of brilliantly sustained folksiness and linguistic invention, a riot of erudition, both faux and real. A triumph.
Happiness is a richly variegated and enjoyable novel.
On one level it is about London and the extraordinary variety and contradictions of the city. Aminatta Forna brings to life the polyglot cultures which thrive cheek by jowl in London and takes us into surprising corners of the city, not least the nocturnal world of the urban fox. Both the principal protagonists are sympathetic characters who have become, for different reasons, cut off from their roots. Jean, an American naturalist who studies urban wildlife, is forging a new life in London following her divorce. Attila is a Ghanaian psychiatrist who has spent many years travelling the world, flitting from one disaster zone to another, helping the survivors come to terms with their experiences. He is a citizen of everywhere and nowhere; he feels comfortable in many places but at home in none of them. Both have lived lives in which work has taken priority over family. It cost Jean her marriage and turned Attila’s wife into a grass widow, destined to die alone.
From the moment Attila and Jean bump into each other on Waterloo Bridge, their lives – and those of many other, disparate characters – become ineluctably entwined. Forna, whose novel The Memory of Love won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, writes understated, gliding, keenly observed prose. Her description of a care home’s smell as ‘sweet, stale air and nickel taint of medicine’ is perfect.
The novel, as the title suggests, is also about happiness. It is a hymn to the adaptability of the human spirit: many of the characters in the book have made new lives for themselves in London, far from home. This message is mirrored in the way in which foxes and coyotes have adapted so successfully to life in an urban environment. Change, even upheaval, can be a good thing; life is not, and cannot be, composed entirely of the bland and
the harmless. As Attila muses to himself at one point, ‘Was there no human experience that did not merit treatment now?’ Bloomsbury, £16.99
Territory Of Light
(trans. by Geraldine Harcourt)
Yuko Tsushima, who died in 2016, was a much-garlanded Japanese writer whose novel tells the story of a young woman recently separated from her husband and infant daughter. The novel has an allusive, elliptical feel – perhaps the result of the fact that its 12 chapters were published serially over the course of a year in the late 1970s. Set in Tokyo, it charts the young woman’s struggles with the demands of divorce, work and parenthood. Dreams play an important part in the novel, contrasting the young woman’s ‘inner’ life to her everyday, ‘outer’ existence.
Turning For Home
This is Barney Norris’s second novel; his first, Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, won a Betty Trask award. Turning for Home, set over one weekend in a rambling house in the English countryside, is a moving and subtle portrait of Kate, a damaged, vulnerable, anorexic young woman, and her grandfather, Robert. As the weekend progresses and the rest of the family arrive to celebrate his 80th birthday, Kate’s story and Robert’s career in British intelligence in Northern Ireland reveal themselves. This is an entertaining and clever novel about family, love and loyalty.
The Only Story
Julian Barnes’ latest novel is a thoroughly rewarding book – a compassionate, touching and funny account of a lengthy relationship between a young man, Paul, and a much older, married woman. Late in life, Paul reconstructs the story from memory, at the mercy of the tricks, gaps and elisions of time. As the story progresses, the tone darkens as Paul’s youthful optimism evaporates. It is a novel about love, alcoholism, loss, disintegration, memory and the passage of time. A profound book, it compels one to think about one’s own life.
Jonathan Cape, £16.99
The Necessary Angel
Max Jackson is a New Zealander who lives in Paris and lectures at the Sorbonne. The Necessary Angel tells the story of his tangled relationships with three women: his estranged wife, a younger academic colleague and an English student. The novel reaches a climax which is surprising and unusual but apt. It is an enjoyable book, worldly and detached in tone, ruminative and amused, sophisticated without being pretentious. Stead captures the essence of Paris, its certainties and its contradictions, while simultaneously invoking the power of literature to alter and direct lives.
Allen & Unwin, £15.99
This is a story of loss, grief and thwarted opportunity. Set in a run-down quarter of Toronto, it recounts the lives of a family of Trinidadian immigrants, a mother and her two sons. It is a moving tale of the tribulations facing immigrant communities, especially the ever-present racial prejudice, expressed both casually and violently. It has much to say about the shabby way in which western societies treat immigrants but also about the ties of love and duty that bind families, and the sacrifices parents make to better their children.
Alfred Döblin (trans. Michael Hofmann)
Set in Berlin in 1928 and first published in 1929, this flashing kaleidoscope of a novel recounts Franz Biberkopf’s struggles to earn an honest crust following his release from prison. He’s a ducker and a diver, who tries his hand at everything, a Del Boy Trotter reincarnated in the Weimar Republic. It is also a portrait of Berlin, showing the tough, seedy, licentious and impoverished side of the city glamorised by Christopher Isherwood. In Michael Hofmann’s translation the prose is slangy, conversational and unstructured, mimicking the argot of the street, which gives it a vivid immediacy.
Mary Lynn Bracht
White Chrysanthemum is a novel about guilt, love, the brutality of war and the power of the human spirit. Set in 1943, it tells the story of Hana, a teenage girl from Jeju Island off the southernmost tip of Korea, who is abducted by the occupying Japanese and forced to work in a military brothel in Manchuria. They – and there were thousands of them – were known, in a grotesque euphemism, as ‘comfort women’, but their story is little known in the West.
The chapters dealing with Hana’s experiences in the military brothel are the stuff of nightmares: living in squalid conditions, she is repeatedly and brutally raped by numerous Japanese soldiers. The soldiers’ bestial behaviour and the cowed reaction of the women represent the low point of the story, when Hana realises that henceforth perpetual rape is all that life has to offer.
She has nothing to live for. All hope is extinguished. From that moment, the darkness gradually lightens
as a combination of luck, the kindness of others and Hana’s own indomitable spirit begin to roll back the black clouds.
The second strand of the novel tells the story of Hana’s sister Emi as she, in old age, travels from Jeju Island to Seoul in December 2011 to visit her children. Emi has heard nothing of Hana since she was snatched by the Japanese in 1943 and is wracked by guilt. Her sister sacrificed herself so that Emi might survive. Gradually, the story of Emi’s life and the tragic saga of Korea’s post-war history is unwrapped as she searches for some sign of her beloved sister.
Mary Lynn Bracht is an American author of Korean descent; this is her first novel. It is written in calm, unflashy prose; the horror and power of the story needs no literary flourish to engage the reader.
It is an original, shocking novel, contrasting mankind’s capacity for cruelty with the unquenchable strength of the human spirit, even in the most dire of circumstances. Chatto & Windus, £12.99
This spellbinding debut novel is set in Neverness, a primitive, imaginary island community; a pre-industrial society whose citizens live by the rhythms of nature and the superstitions of their forefathers. There is a prelapsarian, Norse, folkloric feel to the book, as if Beowulf were let loose in the Garden of Eden.
Gilbert’s prose is simple, deliberately down to earth: ‘A cured stick for a stirrer. A sturdy one for a sweeper. Brittle sticks for tinder. A green branch to hang the pot. A forked one for ceremony.’ The names, too, have a primitive Old English resonance to them: Ivy Rincepan, Clotha, Madden, Gad, Turpin, Werrity, Shilla, Linnet and Pike. Her prose is also beautiful, describing Neverness’ countryside and fauna with acutely imagined detail, conjuring up a world tinged with magic and a powerful sense of the supernatural. One of the characters, Verlyn Webbe, has a wing where an arm should be; an oddity presented as being perfectly normal.
Magic and fantasy are a serious matter. As a result, for all its charm and imagination, Folk is wholly lacking in humour. It’s as if the author realises that the slightest hint of a joke would prick the illusion, reducing the whole enterprise to the level of a Monty Python spoof of the Vikings or a Blackadder series set among the medieval peasantry.
It’s also debatable whether Folk can properly be considered a novel. It reads more like a collection of short stories and, as the publishing history makes clear, many of the chapters have already been published as separate pieces. ‘Tether’, the concluding story, is an unconvincing attempt to tie the collection together into a novel. The individual stories have characters in common and they share the environment of Neverness, its civilisation and culture. Certainly, the cumulative effect of the stories is to establish Neverness in the reader’s imagination but perhaps this makes it more of a travelogue of the mind than a novel. Bloomsbury, £14.99
The Life To Come
Michelle de Kretser
A rumination on friendship, memory and loss. Set on the fringes of Sydney’s literary and academic world, The Life to Come gently sends up the absurdities of modern life. At one point, a character announces that, ‘My naturopath has me on a caffeine-free protocol’. Likewise the novel is scathing about the pretensions of the literary world: one scene describes a public reading of a ‘cross-genre work narrated by a cell phone’. De Kretser writes with a light descriptive touch; the novel is well observed without being overbearing. A quietly satisfying, enjoyable book.
Allen & Unwin, £16.99
This is the second novel in Tim Pears’ West Country trilogy. It tells the story of the wanderings of Leo Sercombe through rural Devon and Cornwall in the years immediately before the First World War. The novel unfolds slowly but its real charm lies in Pears’ beguiling descriptions of the West Country as it was a century ago, its primitive, unmechanised farming and ancient landscapes. It is also a treasure trove of long-forgotten country practices and folklore. The counterpoint to Leo’s ramblings are the well-ordered lives of the landed, aristocratic Prideaux family. Bloomsbury, £16.99
The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth
The author’s latest book contains seven short stories and two longer ones, The Vanishing Game: An Adventure and the title story. At over a hundred pages, this is almost a novella, a study of ambition and the random chances of life. In these stories, Boyd’s characters have lives which are, generally, enviable but which on closer acquaintance are also frayed. There is a sense of slight underachievement, of human frailty. Boyd’s style is engaging, worldy and witty, the collection a treat for enthusiasts of his work and new admirers alike. Viking, £14.99
The Country House Library
Libraries can stir long-buried yearnings for the contemplative life. This book, with its stunning photographs of many of Britain’s finest private libraries, adds a dash of old-world style and comfort to the mix. For a moment we can all sit at our own library table surrounded by elegant shelves of leather-bound volumes. Mark Purcell’s book is also a serious contribution to the history of the English country house, filling the gap left by architectural historians who concentrated on the libraries as building and decorative schemes rather than as collections of books. Yale, £45
Rooms with a View: The Secret Life of Grand Hotels
Rooms with a View is a potted history of 50 of the world’s best-known hotels, from London’s Savoy to Delhi’s Imperial via Venice’s Gritti Palace and Marrakech’s La Mamounia. The grand hotel is a 19th-century concept which thrived in the early decades of the 20th and, surviving wars, depressions and the democratisation of travel, now flourishes as never before. Mourby tells the story of each hotel from its foundation alongside anecdotes about its famous guests: Hemingway weaves drunkenly through the book, Burton and Taylor scatter stardust, while Coward and Maugham sparkle and bitch. Icon Books, £12.99
The Secret Life of The Owl
This is a little jewel of a book, a cocktail of mythology and ornithology. The book begins and ends with vivid descriptions of the author’s own co-existence with the tawny owl – Old Brown – on his farm in the Welsh Marches. The book has a poetic quality about it, as if to reflect the mysterious nature of the owl and its nocturnal otherworldliness. Lewis-Stempel takes us through the varieties of owl which live in Britain, and their lifecycles, while pondering the bird’s reputation for wisdom and its longstanding association with death.
Woods: A Celebration
Published to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Great Storm of October 1987, which blew down 15 million trees in Great Britain, Robert Penn’s new book is sumptuously illustrated and his prose stands up well to the glory of the photographs. He leads the reader season by season through the woodland’s eternal cycle, noting that ‘the continual process of death and renewal is at the heart of our woodland story’. Penn clearly has a deep affinity with woods and wood: he lives in a wooded valley in South Wales and helps out in a local woodland project. His last book, The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees, described the felling of an ash tree and its transformation into
a host of objects from dominoes to kitchen worktops.
Woods is a potpourri of a book, taking in many aspects of the woodland. Penn understands the complex nature of our woodlands, their history and man’s relationship with them: an integral part of our landscape and an essential resource yet also a deeply embedded, mystical element of our national identity. ‘Woodlands,’ he says, echoing folk legends such as Robin Hood, ‘are the province of older beliefs, places of lawlessness and havens for the just.’ He invokes authors as varied as R.L. Stevenson and G.M. Hopkins, Louis MacNeice and Robert Burns to illustrate the hold of the British woodland on our imagination.Nor does the book flinch from the science and ecology of woodlands; for example, Penn explains why leaves change colour in the autumn, how trees grow and criticises what he calls ‘the idiocy of 20th-century forestry policy’. The book explores the rich flora and fauna of our woodlands: the flowers, ferns, fungi, lichens and mosses, as well as the birdlife, mammals, insects, butterflies and beetles. Woods is both a hymn to the beauty of our woodlands and a plea for their proper preservation and management. As Penn says, ‘The desire to appreciate and understand trees is part of what it is to be human.’
National Trust, £20
This author’s first novel charts Willa’s progress through adolescence. The catalyst of Willa’s development is Patrick, the younger, beautifully formed son of Willa’s mother’s boyfriend. Willa’s experience contrasts with that of her glamorous elder sister, Joan. Set on America’s west coast, its air of prosperous conformity has sinister, even debauched, undertones which give the novel a discordant, off-key tone. It is printed without quotation marks, which, according to Robertson’s publisher puts her ‘in the tradition of experimental fiction which follows Stein and Joyce’. To others, it is simply a pointless and pretentious discourtesy to the reader. Bloomsbury, £12.99
Sing, Unburied, Sing
This, Jesmyn Ward’s third novel, is neither easy nor comfortable to read. It has much to say about the poverty, discrimination and lack of opportunity endured by the black underclass in the American Deep South. The inequalities and failings illustrated so glaringly by Hurricane Katrina, more than a decade ago, remain unaddressed. The book is relentlessly grim, depressing and frequently sordid, an apt metaphor for the deprivations visited upon the people represented by its characters. That Leonie, its principal protagonist, should be so selfish and self-indulgent scarcely, in the circumstances, comes as a surprise. Bloomsbury, £18.99
At the End of the Century: The Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
German-born Ruth Prawer Jhabvala died in 2013 having enjoyed a much-garlanded career, which included two Oscars and a Booker Prize. This collection of short stories was written between 1963 and her death, and are reflective pieces, concerned with their protagonists’ thoughts and inner lives, tranquil rivers rather than babbling brooks. The stories explore the relationship between India and the West, the mentality of the exile and the artistic temperament. Many
of them are spiked with infidelity and sexual eccentricity and all of them are written in easy, frictionless prose that glides elegantly from page to page. Little Brown, £20
This is a tale of loss, rejection and reconciliation set in New York City during the Second World War. It spans several of New York’s worlds: the Navy, the Mob, organised labour and the Upper East Side. The boundaries of these worlds become progressively blurred and overlapped. The sea, tidal rivers and coastal waters around New York are ever-present, inspiring or menacing, at times almost a character in the novel.
This is Jennifer Egan’s first essay in historical fiction – her last novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction – but she convincingly recreates the ambience of wartime New York. The novel’s heroine, Anna Kerrigan, is a determined young woman who overcomes rampant prejudice to qualify as a Navy diver, an elite job hitherto the exclusive preserve of men. She also flouts the conventions of the time by having a baby out of wedlock, although, tellingly, she does concoct a respectable cover story to explain its existence.
Egan brings to life the world of the Mob, its hierarchy, its shifting loyalties, its greed, its violence and its venal immorality. Manhattan Beach illustrates, too, the extent of the Mob’s influence on New York life at that time. The novel’s anti-hero, mobster Dexter Styles, displays all the bogus respectability, craven
deference to power and willingness to resort to violence which is so characteristic of organised crime.
The most absorbing parts of the novel are the diving sequences. Egan captures brilliantly the careful, courageous deliberation of the divers and the claustrophobic menace and occasional exhilaration of the dives themselves. Somehow, the underwater scenes draw the reader into the story, tightening their eardrums and making it all that much more real.
The chapters dealing with the voyage and sinking of the Liberty Ship, Elizabeth Seaman, are grippingly exciting, taut with the instinct for self-preservation. Manhattan Beach is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, convincingly detailed, cleverly structured and engagingly written. Corsair, £16.99 start the slideshow
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