October Releases by Rachel Mann, Sigrid Nunez and Ruth Janette Ruck

A calmer month for new releases after September’s bumper crop. I read a sophisticated mystery set at a theological college, a subtle novel about empathy and being a good friend, and a memoir of raising one of Britain’s first llamas.

 

The Gospel of Eve by Rachel Mann

Last year I dipped into Mann’s poetry (A Kingdom of Love) and literary criticism/devotional writing (In the Bleak Midwinter); this year I was delighted to be offered an early copy of her debut novel. The press materials are full of comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History; it’s certainly an apt point of reference for this mystery focusing on clever, Medieval-obsessed students training for the priesthood at a theological college outside Oxford.

It’s 1997 and Catherine Bolton is part of the first female intake at Littlemore College. She has striven to rid herself of a working-class accent and recently completed her PhD on Chaucer, but feels daunted by her new friends’ intelligence and old-money backgrounds: Ivo went to Eton, Charlie is an heiress, and so on. But Kitty’s most fascinated with Evie, who is bright, privileged and quick with a comeback – everything Kitty wishes she could be.

If you think of ordinands as pious and prudish, you’ll be scandalized by these six. They drink, smoke, curse and make crude jokes. In seminars with Professor Albertus Loewe, they make provocative mention of feminist theory and are tempted by his collection of rare books. Soon sex, death and literature get all mixed up as Kitty realizes that her friends’ devotion to the Medieval period goes as far as replicating dangerous rituals. We know from the first line that one of them ends up dead. But what might it have to do with the apocryphal text of the title?

I didn’t always feel the psychological groundwork was there to understand characters’ motivations, but I still found this to be a beguiling story, well plotted and drenched in elitism and lust. Mann explores a theology that is more about practice, about the body, than belief. Kitty’s retrospective blends regret and nostalgia: “We were the special ones, the shining ones,” and despite how wrong everything went, part of her wouldn’t change it for the world.

My thanks to publicist Hannah Hargrave for the proof copy for review. Published today by Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd.

 

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez

A perfect follow-up to The Friend and very similar in some ways: again we have the disparate first-person musings of an unnamed narrator compelled to help a friend. In Nunez’s previous novel, the protagonist has to care for the dog of a man who recently killed himself; here she is called upon to help a terminally ill friend commit suicide. The novel opens in September 2017 in the unfamiliar town she’s come to for her friend’s cancer treatments. While there she goes to a talk by an older male author who believes human civilization is finished and people shouldn’t have children anymore. This prophet of doom is her ex.

His pessimism is echoed by the dying friend when she relapses. The narrator agrees to accompany her to a rental house where she will take a drug to die at a time of her choosing. “Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia,” the ex jokes. And there is a sort of slapstick joy early in this morbid adventure, with mishaps like forgetting the pills and flooding the bathroom.

As in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, the voice is not solely or even primarily the narrator’s but Other: her friend speaking about her happy childhood and her estrangement from her daughter; a woman met at the gym; a paranoid neighbor; a recent short story; a documentary film. I felt there was too much recounting of a thriller plot, but in general this approach, paired with the absence of speech marks, reflects how the art we consume and the people we encounter become part of our own story. Curiosity about other lives fuels empathy.

With the wry energy of Jenny Offill’s Weather, this is a quiet novel that sneaks up to seize you by the heartstrings. “Women’s stories are often sad stories,” Nunez writes, but “no matter how sad, a beautifully told story lifts you up.” Like The Friend, which also ends just before The End, this presents love and literature as ways to bear “witness to the human condition.”

With thanks to Virago for the proof copy for review.

 

Along Came a Llama: Tales from a Welsh Hill Farm by Ruth Janette Ruck

Originally published in 1978 (now reissued with a foreword by John Lewis-Stempel), this is an enjoyably animal-stuffed memoir reminiscent of Gerald Durrell and especially Doreen Tovey. Ruck (d. 2006) and her family – which at times included her ill sister, her elderly mother and/or her sister-in-law – lived on a remote farm in the hills of North Wales. On a visit to Knaresborough Zoo, Ruck was taken with the llamas and fancied buying one to add to their menagerie of farm animals. It was as simple as asking the zoo director and then taking the young female back to Wales in a pony box. At that time, hardly anyone in the UK knew anything about llamas or the other camelids. No insurance company would cover their llama in transit; no one had specialist knowledge on feeding or breeding. Ruck had to do things the old-fashioned way, finding books and specialist scientific papers.

But they mostly learned about Ñusta (the Quechua word for princess) by spending time with her. At holidays they discovered her love of chocolate Easter eggs and cherry brandy. The cud-chewing creature sometimes gave clues to what else she’d been eating, as when she regurgitated plum stones. She didn’t particularly like being touched or trailed by an orphaned lamb, but followed Ruck around dutifully and would sit sociably in the living room. Life with animals often involves mild disasters: Ñusta jumps in a pool and locks Ruck’s husband in the loo, and the truck breaks down on the way to mate her with the male at Chester Zoo.

A vintage cover I found on Goodreads.

From spitting to shearing, there was a lot to get used to, but this account of the first three years of llama ownership emphasizes the delights of animal companionship. There were hardships in Ruck’s life, including multiple sclerosis and her sister’s death, but into the “austere but soul-rewarding life of a hill firm … like a catalyst or a touch of magic, the llama came along.” I was into llamas and alpacas well before the rest of the world – in high school I often visited a local llama farm, and I led a llama in a parade and an alpaca in a nativity play – so that was my primary reason for requesting this, but it’s just right for any animal lover.

With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

13 responses

  1. I’ve just read the Nunez, and although it was excellent, felt the same way about it I felt with Weather by Jenny Offill. The style was so similar, it didn’t feel different enough, although I loved the early revelation of the ex’s identity. Have you read ‘The Spare Room’ by Helen Garner? Another story of a carer looking after a dying friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would love to read The Spare Room — I think Cathy even has it lined up for Novellas in November! I had in mind that my library had a copy, but it must have gone missing or something, as it’s disappeared from the catalogue since I put it on my saved items list.

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      1. I’ve got no stat’s on this, but I feel as though the public libraries must have taken the shutdown opportunity to weed and sort at an unusual rate. Entire shelving units have disappeared in our local branch and the fiction section used to be full-full-full and now many of the shelves have only half their contents (and they all look perfectly arranged, untouched, when I peer at them as I’m picking up my holds, so it’s hard to believe that it’s because readers have borrowed half the branch’s fiction collection)!

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      2. Oh dear, that’s alarming! I know of a big audiobook cull (because I helped with plucking the ones that hadn’t been borrowed for a year or more), but not a book one. I’ll be keeping an eagle eye out…

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  2. I once booked us into a cottage in Cornwall purely because it was on a llama farm. We spent our evenings watching them mincing around their paddock. I was also introduced to several who had been bottle fed.

    Looking forward to reading the Nunez although I have a copy of The Friend to read first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How sweet! Everyone talks about spitting, but they are very gentle creatures.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I too recently read The Friend, and enjoyed it a lot. Have a copy of Salvation City waiting to be read – I like the sound of this new one, too. I liked the description above of llamas ‘mincing’ around their paddock. They have such haughty faces.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m intrigued to try more from Nunez’s backlist.

      I think alpacas, being smaller, seem that bit more approachable and cuddly; they’re even more the darlings of marketing professionals.

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  4. The Friend has been calling to me since it came out, but it’s not at our library so I keep forgetting about it. But now I want to read them both! I think it’s the cat and dog on the covers that are getting me. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unfortunately, a cat plays a very minor role indeed in this one. The Friend is a solid dog book, though.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good to know! 🙂

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  5. I love the contrast between the llama covers; I’d also like to know how they arrived at purple as an appropriate accent colour. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Vintage covers like that are hilarious. If you don’t already, follow @awfullibrarybooks on Instagram for a laugh.

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