May 02, 2021
Set in 1980s San Francisco, this evocative novel views disappearances in a wealthy suburb through the uncertain prism of adolescence
As 13-year-olds in 1980s San Francisco, Eulabee and her girlfriends own the streets of their affluent, coastal neighbourhood. Sea Cliff is famed for its unbroken views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and to keep it that way, everything ugly is hidden. Even so, menace swirls with the chilly fog that rolls in: Eulabee’s art-dealer father bought their house on the cheap, after the previous owners’ sons – the evocatively known “Prospero boys” – careened off the rails; one of her friends, Faith, is named after the child her parents lost before adopting her; and of course there are the rocks and the crashing waves, which the girls have learned to navigate by timing the tides.
They have altogether less control over their changing bodies, which as well as bestowing new powers are becoming magnets for a different kind of threat. After a man pulls over to ask them the time on their walk to school one morning, Eulabee’s closest friend, Maria Fabiola, claims to have witnessed a lewd act. The others agree, and Eulabee’s refusal to back her up leaves her ostracised. Continue reading...
Apr 19, 2021
Pushy demons, spirits and dead babies haunt a jet-black collection of short stories set in everyday environments
When it comes to book reviewing cliches, the word “haunting” is surely among the tattiest, yet Mariana Enríquez’s newly translated short story collection restores to that tired adjective all its most mysterious, fearful strangeness.
The Dangers of Smoking in Bed shares the exuberantly macabre sensibilities of her English-language debut, Things We Lost in the Fire, which it in fact predates. Its dozen tales, each as pitchy as the next, conjure up spirits, demons and dead babies, turning them loose in bougie shopping districts, seaside hotels and slums. Continue reading...
Apr 05, 2021
A former Londoner and her family fight for survival in the seaside town of the future in a sparkling apocalyptic novel
It’s hard to write about Rosa Rankin-Gee’s apocalyptic Dreamland without channelling aquatic metaphors. Water courses through its pages, as rising sea levels heighten inequalities, buoy populist politicians and wash away every certainty of civilisation. But there’s also the novel’s prose – its liquid grace and glinting sparkle – and the sheer irresistibility of a narrative that sweeps along with a force that feels tidal in its pull.
The setting is Margate, sometime in the all too near future. “Shoreditch-on-Sea”, as it once was known, has gone from offering “charity shops, chip shops, shut shops” to food banks and “kem”, a drug on which the locals are hooked. Narrator Chance arrived as a small child, funded by the government to leave an overcrowded London along with her protective big brother, JD, and Jas, their young mother, an art school dropout whose brightness is dimmed by addiction. Eventually, JD’s pumped-up, volatile business partner, Kole, joins their band and later a baby boy named Blue arrives. Continue reading...
Mar 23, 2021
This debut novel about a woman in her 50s who decides to carry a baby for her daughter is full of drama but weighed down by its desire to educate
At 54, Ruth Furnival is powerful, successful, and fast becoming invisible. Having left her working-class Cornish roots far behind to become the director of her own TV production company, along the way wedding charming barrister Adam and launching two talented daughters, she’s surprised to discover that she minds the waning of her sexual attractiveness a great deal. There’s more than a smidgen of vanity, therefore, in her decision to subject herself to monster doses of hormones and become a surrogate for her eldest daughter, Lauren, who has just suffered her seventh miscarriage.
Surrogacy stirs up a complex swirl of ethics and emotions, easily lending itself to sensationalism. It’s a trap that Spindler’s intimate, equitable debut novel dodges, even as the ramifications of Ruth’s decision predictably blow the happy Furnival family apart. Instead, this is a book that’s overly burdened by its mission to educate, meaning that, despite deft structuring, the early chapters tend to get bogged down in meticulous probing of moral and biological boundaries, often via some pretty clunky dialogue. As the plot quickens, however, the prose improves; when it comes to describing a crisis, of which there are plenty, it soars. Continue reading...
Mar 16, 2021
First published in the US in 2004, this subtle, original collection of short stories quietly subverts racial stereotypes
The protagonists in Percival Everett’s newly published short story collection include a closet romantic novelist, a man whose marriage is saved by a giant talking trout and a sandwich bar owner who takes in a handyman with an uncanny knack for fixing things. They share plenty in common – these are men who live in the American west or south, are often fond of fly fishing and are appealingly frank. They also happen to be black, though in all but two of the dozen tales here, race is backgrounded in a way that feels downright subversive.
The exceptions are Alluvial Deposits and The Appropriation of Cultures. In the first, a hydrologist (Robert Hawks from Everett’s novel Watershed) comes up against an n-word-flinging, gun-firing old lady. In the end, he feels sorry for her – and then feels silly for doing so. What he doesn’t do is get angry about racism any longer. “It doesn’t do any good to get mad at a tornado or a striking snake; you just stay clear,” he says. Continue reading...
Mar 08, 2021
The Irish writer’s debut conjures an unhealthy relationship with passion, wit and insight
There are toxic relationships, and then there’s the relationship at the centre of Megan Nolan’s fearless debut. From compulsive beginning to violent end, the love affair between the novel’s narrator, a young university dropout in Dublin about whom we learn everything – everything – but her name, and the older Ciaran, a half-Danish poet, is supremely messed up.
For a start, there’s the sheer weight of expectation that Nolan’s heroine brings to it. Love is “the great consolation”, she insists. She finds Ciaran so beautiful she worships him, rhapsodising about his truffle-scented mouth. Readers may not be so charmed. For a start, he doesn’t like modern fiction. He also loathes seeing his girlfriend drunk, which is problematic given that she marked the night of their meeting by getting so lit she burst the blood vessels around her eyes throwing up. Continue reading...
Feb 28, 2021
A neuroscientist tries to make sense of the loss of her father and brother in Gyasi’s shrewd follow-up to her award-wining debut, Homegoing
In her award-winning 2016 debut, Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi used a multi-generational family saga to trace slavery’s complex legacy in America and west Africa. Family is central in her second novel, too, which tells a piercing story of faith, science and the opioid crisis. Rather than multiplying and fanning out across the world, however, this particular family is shrinking, its domain narrowing. “There used to be four of us, then three, two. When my mother goes, whether by choice or not, there will be only one,” observes Gifty, the narrator of Transcendent Kingdom.
Seventeen years earlier, sunk by grief and depression, Gifty’s Ghanaian mother tried to kill herself. Now she’s again taken to her bed – or rather, her daughter’s bed, since her concerned evangelical pastor has managed to get her on a plane from her Huntsville, Alabama, home to Stanford, where Gifty is studying for a PhD in neuroscience. Their prickly mother-daughter dynamic is haunted by absence: first, of the patriarch who abandoned them to return to Ghana when Gifty was small, and then of Nana, her older brother, a high-school basketball star who died of a heroin overdose as a teenager. Continue reading...
Feb 01, 2021
The author skilfully combines a coming-of-age story with the plot of a thriller in this convincing debut novel
On the last day of the school year, widowed single mum Faye Gallagher is driving her five bickering kids home when she snaps. Swerving on to the hard shoulder, she forces 12-year-old Ellen to get out of the car and walk the last five miles. Hours later, darkness has fallen and still Ellen hasn’t made it back.
Don’t be misled. While Una Mannion’s debut ably fulfils the promise of its suspenseful start, providing carefully orchestrated lawlessness, bare-fisted violence and a long-haired predator sinisterly named “Barbie Man”, this is no crime novel. As the story unfurls, its deeper menace and mystery will derive not from child abduction but from secretive family dysfunction and the ever-confounding travails of adolescence. Continue reading...
Oct 25, 2020
The west of Ireland teems with canny characters and vivid language in the author’s third collection
Kevin Barry’s darkly glimmering third collection of short stories arrives prefaced with a quote from the film-maker Jane Campion, all about the romantic impulse. “It’s a heroic path and it generally ends dangerously,” she cautions. That isn’t always the case for the protagonists of these 11 tales. One character, himself a writer, steps back just in time. Another’s lot turns out to be happiness – the single outcome he professes himself unable to handle. But by and large, passion proves hazardous for the loners and oddballs who drift through Barry’s forceful landscape.
This is the west of Ireland, its wild emptiness teeming with lore and legend. As a publican says of his 10-streetlight town: “the winter bleeds us out here”. Come fairer weather, there’s the billowing whitethorn blossom to worry about, laden with doomy superstition. And what of the romance of the place? That gets short shrift, too. “The silly, silly moonlight,” sighs one man, rueing the calamity that comes from its enchantment. Continue reading...
Oct 19, 2020
Two fiftysomething Dubliners go on a pub crawl full of surprises
Alcohol slooshes through Roddy Doyle’s writing, acting as siren, muse and retro marker of masculinity. All the same, the pint tally in his latest novel is such that you expect to find its pages sodden with the black stuff. They are, in a way.
Boldly titled Love, it’s structured around a night-long Dublin pub crawl whose participants, Joe and Davy, are pushing 60. They spent formative time together in their early 20s, also propping up bars, figuring out how to become the men they admired while yearning for women out of their league. Continue reading...
Aug 23, 2020
A compelling debut novel about a mother and daughter’s fight for survival
Plenty has been written lately about the beneficial effects of exposure to nature and it’s a cultural belief that is referred to early on – and, crucially, in the past tense – in Diane Cook’s soulful, urgent debut novel.
Longlisted for the Booker prize, The New Wilderness is set in a not-distant-enough future where no nature remains, except in the protected Wilderness State. It’s there that heroines Bea, a sometime interior designer, and Agnes, her young daughter, have been living like nomads with a group of fellow urban refugees, all of them part of a study on how humans interact with the natural world. Continue reading...
Jun 29, 2020
Two strangers on a train make a deadly pact in a witty state-of-the-nation novel combining romance and social realism
With this year’s getaways so uncertain, summer reading feels less of an indulgence than a vital source of escape. Amanda Craig’s new novel, The Golden Rule, is an ideal contender for such times, offering comfort and wit, compassion and philosophical stimulation, all played out against the backdrop of Cornwall’s subtropical splendour.
Its protagonist is Hannah, whose bookish ways let her succeed where her mum failed, fleeing their ungentrified seaside town for a degree at Durham and a promising career in advertising. Austenesque heroine that she imagined herself to be, she snagged a husband at university, too: handsome, aristocratic Jake, who reveals his ugly side only after Hannah accidentally becomes pregnant. By the time we meet her, she’s a single mum on a council estate, cleaning houses to support their young daughter. Along with her confidence, she’s lost her guiding belief in literature’s life lessons. Continue reading...
Jun 14, 2020
Running the gamut from tragic to funny, Joyce Carol Oates’s immersive new novel is an uncomfortable snapshot of modern-day America
Words spill from Joyce Carol Oates with fabled prolificacy. In a career spanning more than half a century, the laurelled American author has published more than a hundred books, including volumes of poetry and essays, plays and numerous bestselling novels. An enviable backlist, except that its sheer bulk and range has sometimes led her to be taken for granted. Oates’s literary agility proves oddly problematic in the latest addition to her oeuvre, too.
At nearly a thousand pages long, Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. is one of her more ambitious novels. An immersive, discursive chronicle of a family’s reconfiguration following the death of its patriarch, it borrows its title from Walt Whitman’s poem A Clear Midnight, about the soul’s release back into the universe, and an otherworldly chord resonates through portions of its narrative. Continue reading...
Apr 13, 2020
It’s hard to resist this compelling melodrama of two African American half-sisters who suffer the fallout of their father’s secret life
As opening sentences go, Silver Sparrow’s is a belter: “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” declares Dana Lynn Yarboro, setting the pace for a compulsive story that winds back the clock to the 1980s, depositing the reader in Atlanta, the author’s home town and literary terroir. There, two African American half-sisters strike up an uneven friendship that will leave them both changed.
Tayari Jones’s 2011 novel, published in the UK for the first time following her 2019 Women’s prize for fiction win with An American Marriage, finds her already mining some of the preoccupations that define her laurelled later work, including the tangled intersection of womanhood and duty. Continue reading...