Category: Fiction Reviews

2017 Fiction Picks from Rosemary & Reading Glasses

I asked Carolyn Oliver of Rosemary & Reading Glasses for her top fiction picks from 2017 and she came up with this list of 13 cracking recommendations. I doubt you’ll be able to resist adding at least one of these to your TBR.

 

Best 2017 Fiction: A Baker’s Dozen

These were my favorite works of fiction published (in the United States) in 2017, listed in the order I read them. One caveat: as I write this, there are 22 days left in 2017, so I may find another favorite; there are some heavy hitters (Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing comes to mind) that haven’t found their way to my nightstand yet.

 

Human Acts, Han Kang: I admit, this book, which traces the human costs of the brutally repressed Gwanju Uprising, is difficult to read. Worth the effort, though, for its urgent questions about the nature of humanity.

 

Pachinko, Min Jin Lee: A twentieth-century family saga about Korean immigrants in Japan. Expansive and richly textured.

 

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry: A recently widowed natural historian and a village curate spar over rumors of a returned prehistoric serpent. Sumptuous.

 

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders: The resident ghosts look on with consternation as Abraham Lincoln visits their cemetery to mourn over the body of his son, Willie. Polyphonic; extraordinarily moving.

 

The Wanderers, Meg Howrey: Three astronauts undertake a long-term simulation of a mission to Mars, leaving their loved ones behind. Wonderful literary sci-fi, absorbing in its physical and psychological detail.

 

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid: Two young lovers become part of a global migration through mysterious doors that connect locations all over the world. Intimate and tender.

 

My Darling Detective, Howard Norman: A tale of family secrets set in 1970s Halifax, featuring plainspoken people and delightful use of radio drama. From my review: “noir with a spring in its step and a lilt in its voice.”

 

Days Without End, Sebastian Barry: Irish immigrant Thomas McNulty chronicles his survival in the American West (and the Civil War) and his love for fellow soldier John Cole. Fearsomely beautiful.

 

The Mountain, Paul Yoon: Six exquisite short stories, set in different locations over the past 100 years, from a master of the form.

 

The Stone Sky, N. K. Jemisin: The blistering final book in Ms. Jemisin’s stunning Broken Earth trilogy (must be read in order, so start with The Fifth Season if you’re new to the series). Superb speculative fiction.

 

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng: The complexities of race, class, and motherhood swirl in a Cleveland suburb (my hometown) in this deft, compassionate novel.

 

Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado: Short stories grounded in the body but shot through with elements of horror and fantasy. Won’t take it easy on you, but you won’t want to stop reading, either. Brilliant.

 

The Power, Naomi Alderman: Women harness a power within themselves that turns the tables on men. Atwoodian dystopia at its finest.

 

 


A huge thank-you to Carolyn for this guest blog!

Which one of her picks do you want to read first?

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November’s Novellas: A Wrap-Up

Yesterday was my husband’s birthday. Baking him the world’s most complicated cake on Wednesday evening and taking Thursday off for a birthday outing to Salisbury for the Terry Pratchett exhibit at the town’s museum and the Christmas-decorated rooms at Mompesson House are my collective excuse for not writing up the last of November’s novellas until now.

For the most part I had a great time reading novellas last month. However, there were three I abandoned: Mornings in Mexico by D.H Lawrence (p. 11), whose random, repetitive observations lead to no bigger picture; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (p. 28), which is understated to the point of nothing really happening; and Jaguars and Electric Eels by Alexander von Humboldt (p. 6), which has that dry old style that’s hard to engage with. (I’ll plan to encounter snatches of his writing via Andrea Wulf’s biography instead.)

To my disappointment, I find I can’t make generalizations about the correlation between a book’s page count and its quality: a great book stands out no matter its length. But as Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son) said of his latest work, a set of four short novels, a novella should be “all killer, no filler.” Three of the five I review today definitely meet those criteria, impressing me with the literal and/or emotional ground covered.

Below are the novellas I didn’t manage to get to this past November. Perhaps they’ll hang around until next year, unless I get a burning urge to read one or more of them before then:

(On the Kindle: Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami and Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki.)

 

The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery

(translated from the French by Alison Anderson)

[112 pages]

Pierre Arthens, France’s most formidable food critic, is on his deathbed reliving his most memorable meals and searching for one elusive flavor to experience again before he dies. He’s proud of his accomplishments – “I have covered the entire range of culinary art, for I am an encyclopedic esthete who is always one dish ahead of the game” – and expresses no remorse for his affairs and his coldness as a father. This takes place in the same apartment building as The Elegance of the Hedgehog and is in short first-person chapters narrated by various figures from Arthens’ life. His wife, his children and his doctor are expected, but we also hear from the building’s concierge, a homeless man he passed every day for ten years, and even a sculpture in his study. I liked Arthens’ grandiose style and the descriptions of over-the-top meals but, unlike the somewhat similar The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester, this doesn’t have much of a payoff.

A favorite passage:

“After decades of grub, deluges of wine and alcohol of every sort, after a life spent in butter, cream, sauce, and oil in constant, knowingly orchestrated and meticulously cajoled excess, my trustiest right-hand men, Sir Liver and his associate Stomach, are doing marvelously well and it is my heart that is giving out.”

 

Silk by Alessandro Baricco

(translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman)

[104 pages]

The main action is set between 1861 and 1874, as married French merchant Hervé Joncour makes four journeys to and from Japan to acquire silkworms. “This place, Japan, where precisely is it?” he asks before his first trip. “Just keep going. Right to the end of the world,” Baldabiou, the silk mill owner, replies. On his first journey, Joncour is instantly captivated by his Japanese advisor’s concubine, though they haven’t exchanged a single word, and from that moment on nothing in his life can make up for the lack of her. At first I found the book slightly repetitive and fable-like, but as it went on I grew more impressed with the seeds Baricco has planted that lead to a couple of major surprises. At the end I went back and reread a number of chapters to pick up on the clues. I’d had this book recommended from a variety of quarters, first by Karen Shepard when I interviewed her for Bookkaholic in 2013, so I’m glad I finally found a copy in a charity shop.

 

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

[151 pages]

Hardwick’s 1979 work is composed of (autobiographical?) fragments about the people and places that make up a woman’s remembered past. Elizabeth shares a New York City apartment with a gay man; lovers come and go; she mourns for Billie Holiday; there are brief interludes in Amsterdam and other foreign destinations. She sends letters to “Dearest M.” and back home to Kentucky, where her mother raised nine children. (“My mother’s femaleness was absolute, ancient, and there was a peculiar, helpless assertiveness about it. … This fateful fertility kept her for most of her life under the dominion of nature.”) There’s some astonishingly good writing here, but as was the case for me with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, I couldn’t quite see how it was all meant to fit together.

Some favorite passages:

“The stain of place hangs on not as a birthright but as a sort of artifice, a bit of cosmetic.”

“The bright morning sky that day had a rare and blue fluffiness, as if a vacuum cleaner had raced across the heavens as a weekly, clarifying duty.”

“On the battered calendar of the past, the back-glancing flow of numbers, I had imagined there would be felicitous notations of entrapments and escapes, days in the South with their insinuating feline accent, and nights in the East, showing a restlessness as beguiling as the winds of Aeolus. And myself there, marking the day with an I.”

 

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

[110 pages]

West was a contemporary of F. Scott Fitzgerald; in fact, the story goes that when he died in a car accident at age 37, he had been rushing to Fitzgerald’s wake, and the friends were given adjoining rooms in a Los Angeles funeral home. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a very American tragedy and state-of-the-nation novel. “Miss Lonelyhearts” (never given any other name) is a male advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch. His letters come from a pitiable cross section of humanity: the abused, the downtrodden, the unloved. Not surprisingly, the secondhand woes start to get him down (“his heart remained a congealed lump of icy fat”), and he turns to drink and womanizing for escape. Indeed, I was startled by how explicit the language and sexual situations are; this doesn’t feel like a book from 1933. West’s picture of how beleaguered compassion can turn to indifference really struck me, and the last few chapters, in which a drastic change of life is proffered but then cruelly denied, are masterfully plotted. The 2014 Daunt Books reissue has been given a cartoon cover and a puff from Jonathan Lethem to emphasize how contemporary it feels.

 

Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner

[134 pages]

This was very nearly a one-sitting read for me: Clare gave me a copy at our Sunday Times Young Writer Award shadow panel decision meeting and I read all but a few pages on the train home from London. Famously, Matthew Weiner is the creator of Mad Men, but instead of 1960s stylishness this debut novella is full of all-too-believable creepiness and a crescendo of dubious decisions. Mark and Karen Breakstone have one beloved daughter, Heather. We follow them for years, getting little snapshots of a normal middle-class family. One summer, as their New York City apartment building is being renovated, the teenaged Heather catches the eye of a construction worker who has a criminal past – as we’ve learned through a parallel narrative about his life. I had no idea what I would conclude about this book until the last few pages; it was all going to be a matter of how Weiner brought things together. And he does so really satisfyingly, I think. It’s a subtle, Hitchcockian story, and that title is so sly: We never get the totality of anyone; we only see shards here and there – something the cover portrays very well – and make judgments we later have to rethink.

 


Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?

Classic of the Month: Under the Net (#IMReadalong)

I plan to dip in and out of Liz Dexter’s two-year Iris Murdoch readalong project to increase my familiarity with Murdoch and get through some of the paperbacks I happen to own. Even though I don’t own it, I decided to join in with Under the Net (1954) to see how her fiction career began. My university library copy is a rebound 1960s Penguin paperback, so – alas! – has a generic cover. See Liz’s introductory post for the different cover images and to get a peek at some of the recurring Murdochian themes that make their first appearance here.

Under the Net is narrated by Jake Donoghue, a translator who arrives back in London after a trip to France to find that he’s being kicked out of the flat where he’s been living for free with his friend Finn. In his desultory search for where to go next he takes readers along to Mrs Tinckham’s cat-filled shop, his Jewish philosopher friend Dave’s place, and the theatre where a former girlfriend, Anna Quentin, is in charge of props. (One of my favorite scenes has him accidentally locked into the theatre overnight; he has to sleep among the costumes.)

Anna’s sister Sadie, an actress, offers Jake a role as her bodyguard; she has a stalker of sorts, fireworks manufacturer and film studio owner Hugo Belfounder – whom, it turns out, Jake already knows. Together they were guinea pigs for an experiment on the common cold, and Jake secretly worked up Hugo’s conversations into a poorly received book called The Silencer. “Hugo was my destiny,” Jake muses; even though he’s embarrassed to see Hugo again, he gets drawn back into a connection with him.

One of the central themes of the novel, playing out with various characters, is the difficulty of seeing people clearly rather than resting with the image of them you’ve built up in your mind. I enjoyed Jake’s contrasting of physical and intellectual work, and his (sometimes contradictory) reflections on solitude and introversion:

I sometimes feel that Finn has very little inner life. I mean no disrespect to him in saying this; some have and some haven’t. I connect this too with his truthfulness. Subtle people, like myself, can see too much ever to give a straight answer.

I hate solitude, but I am afraid of intimacy. The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself which to turn into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction. The company which I need is the company which a pub or a café will provide.

If like myself you are a connoisseur of solitude, I recommend to you the experience of being alone in Paris on the fourteenth of July.

Many readers probably expect Murdoch’s books to be dense and difficult, bogged down with philosophical ideas. But what I most noticed about this first novel is how humorous it is: it’s even madcap in places, with some coming and going via windows and Mister Mars, the film star dog, playing dead to get Jake out of a sticky situation. Over at Liz’s blog we’ve been discussing whether Murdoch is a typical ‘woman writer’; if her books had been published anonymously or under her initials, would it have been assumed that she was a man? I think so, given her success in creating a male narrator and her focus on the world of work and less traditional domestic arrangements.

This is my sixth Murdoch book. I didn’t enjoy Under the Net as much as the Booker Prize-winning The Sea, The Sea or The Bell (), but liked it more than The Black Prince and An Unofficial Rose () [I’ve also read one of her philosophy books, The Fire and the Sun (; I could make neither head nor tail of it)], so it falls in the middle for me so far at a solid . I’m looking forward to participating with several more of the readalong books next year, starting with A Severed Head in March.

Another favorite line, spoken by Hugo: “One must just blunder on. Truth lies in blundering on.”

 


Have you read anything by Iris Murdoch? Do you enjoy her work?

Join us for one or more of the readalong books!

Final Young Writer of the Year Award Shortlist Reviews

A quick roundup in advance of our shadow panel decision meeting on Friday. I struggled with these two books for different reasons. A 640-page biography of a figure I’d never heard of was always going to be a hard ask; and science fiction is not one of my go-to genres. But I’ll try my best to do them justice with these short reviews.

 

Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman

By Minoo Dinshaw

Historian Steven Runciman’s life spanned most of the twentieth century: 1903 to 2000. Though born in Northumberland, he considered himself Scottish and was for a time the Laird of Eigg, an island his father, Walter, purchased in 1925. This biography often reads like a who’s-who of the upper classes. Walter led the Board of Education in Prime Minister Asquith’s cabinet, and young Steven was school chums with the PM’s son, Anthony “Puffin” Asquith. At Eton Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) was his closest pal; at Cambridge he was photographed by Cecil Beaton – as in that splendid cover image. His brother married novelist Rosamond Lehmann. He was friends with E.F. Benson, Edith Wharton and the Queen Mother. A young Patrick Leigh Fermor wandered into Bulgaria while Runciman was there for the 1934 International Byzantine Congress, and Fermor and Freya Stark turn up frequently thereafter. Our hero also spent time in China, Japan, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Borneo. My favorite odd interlude in this wide-ranging, adventurous life was a time in Hollywood advising George Cukor on Empress Theodora (to be played by Ava Gardner).

Dinshaw draws a fine distinction between his subject’s professional and private selves. When talking about the published historian and thinker, he uses “Runciman”; when talking about the closeted homosexual and his relationships with family and friends, it’s “Steven”. This confused me to start with, but quickly became second nature. Occasionally these public and private personas are contrasted directly: “Runciman was a great romantic historian; but in his personal affairs Steven had come to be more admiring of that epithet ‘realistic’ than of any height of romance.” Indeed, Steven once confessed he had never been in love. At the shortlist event on Saturday, Dinshaw summed him up as “an old-fashioned, courtly queer.”

Dinshaw doesn’t shy away from his subject’s less flattering traits like vanity, envy and mischievousness. He also gives a good sense of Runciman’s writing style for those readers who may never read his history books – such as a three-volume history of the Crusades and a work on Sicilian prehistory – for themselves:

Runciman does owe some of his lucid style and sardonic humour to Gibbon.

The opening of Romanus established the practice of resonantly gnomic first lines in Runciman’s work: clear in style, epic in resonance, cynical in import and without immediate application to the particulars of the subject.

Chapter titles are mainly taken from relevant tarot cards (for instance, Chapter 22, “The Hanged Man,” primarily concerns Steven’s homosexuality), which also feature on the book’s endpapers. The text is also partitioned by two sets of glossy black-and-white photographs. The book’s scope and the years of research that went into it cannot fail to impress. I never warmed to Steven as much as I wanted to, but that is likely due to a lack of engagement: regrettably, I had to skim much of the book to make the deadline. However, I will not be at all surprised if the official judges choose to honor this imposing work of scholarship.


Other shadow panel reviews of Outlandish Knight:

Annabel’s at Annabookbel

 

The End of the Day

By Claire North

Charlie is the Harbinger of Death, a role that involves a lot of free travel and some sticky situations. But really, it’s a job like any other:

When he got the job, the first thing he did was phone his mum, who was very proud. It wasn’t what she’d ever imagined him doing, of course, not really, but it came with a pension and a good starting salary, and if it made him happy…

The second thing he did was try and find his Unique Taxpayer Reference, as without it the office in Milton Keynes said they couldn’t register him for PAYE at the appropriate tax level.

After all, they say there are only two things you can’t avoid: death and taxes.

Charlie is Death’s John the Baptist, if you will: “I’m the one who’s sent before. … My presence is not the end. Sometimes I am sent as a courtesy, sometimes as warning. I never know which.” His destinations include Peru, Greenland, Syria, Nigeria and Mexico. In between these visitations – during which he talks to the person in question and gives them something meaningful, like tea or a figurine of a deity – Charlie strives to lead a normal life back in Dulwich with Emmi, whom he met via Internet dating.

I loved the premise of the novel, and its witty writing should appeal to Terry Pratchett and Nicola Barker fans. The more fantastical elements are generally brought back to earth by unremitting bureaucracy – I especially enjoyed a scene in which Charlie is questioned by U.S. Border officials. But the book’s structure and style got in the way for me. It is episodic and told via super-short chapters (110 of them). It skips around in a distracting manner, never landing on one scene or subplot for very long. Ellipses, partial repeated lines, and snippets of other voices all contribute to it feeling scattered and aimless. North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is terrific, but her latest didn’t live up to my expectations. Hopefully this is just a one-off; I’m willing to try more from North in the future.


Other shadow panel reviews of The End of the Day:

Annabel’s at Annabookbel

Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books

Dane’s at Social Book Shelves

Eleanor’s at Elle Thinks

Novellas in November, Part 1

This is my second year of joining Laura (Reading in Bed) and others in reading mostly novellas in November. I’ve trawled my shelves and my current library pile for short books, limiting myself to ones of around 150 pages or fewer. First up: four short works of fiction. (I’m at work on various ‘nonfiction novellas’, too.) For the first two I give longer reviews as I got the books from the publishers; the other two are true minis.

 

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg

(translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak)

[146 pages]

I heard about this one via the Man Booker International Prize longlist. Quirkiness is particularly common in indie and translated books, I find, and while it’s often off-putting for me, I loved it here. Greg achieves an impressive balance between grim subject matter and simple enjoyment of remembered childhood activities. Her novella is, after all, set in Poland in the 1980s, the last decade of it being a Communist state in the Soviet Union.

The narrator (and autobiographical stand-in?) is Wiolka Rogalówna, who lives with her parents in a moldering house in the fictional town of Hektary. Her father, one of the most striking characters, was arrested for deserting from the army two weeks before she was born, and now works for a paper mill and zealously pursues his hobbies of hunting, fishing, and taxidermy. The signs of their deprivation – really the whole country’s poverty – are subtle: Wiolka has to go selling hand-picked sour cherries with her grandmother at the market even though she’s embarrassed to run into her classmates; she goes out collecting scrap metal with a gang of boys; and she ties up her hair with a rubber band she cut from an inner tube.

Catholicism plays a major role in these characters’ lives: Wiolka wins a blessed figure in a church raffle, the Pope is rumored to be on his way, and a picture of the Black Madonna visits the town. A striking contrast is set up between the threat of molestation – Wiolka is always fending off unwanted advances, it seems – and lighthearted antics like school competitions and going to great lengths to get rare matchbox labels for her collection. This almost madcap element balances out some of the difficulty of her upbringing.

What I most appreciated was the way Greg depicts some universalities of childhood and adolescence, such as catching bugs, having eerie experiences in the dark, and getting one’s first period. This is a book of titled vignettes of just five to 10 pages, but it feels much more expansive than that, capturing the whole of early life. The Polish title translates as “Unripe,” which better reflects the coming-of-age theme; the English translator has gone for that quirk instead.

A favorite passage:

“Then I sat at the table, which was set with plates full of pasta, laid my head down on the surface and felt the pulsating of the wood. In its cracks and knots, christenings, wakes and name-day celebrations were in full swing, and woodworms were playing dodgeball using poppy seeds that had fallen from the crusts of freshly baked bread.”


Thanks to Portobello Books for the free copy for review.

 

A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg

[126 pages]

Written somewhat in the style of a bird field guide, this is essentially a set of flash fiction stories you have to put together in your mind to figure out what happens to two seemingly conventional middle-class families: the Harrisons and the Hungates, neighbors on Long Island. Frank Harrison dies suddenly in 2008, and the Hungates divorce soon after. Their son Gabe devotes much of his high school years to drug-taking before an accident lands him in a burn unit. Here he’s visited by his girlfriend, Lacey Harrison. Her little brother, Tommy, is a compulsive liar but knows a big secret his late father was keeping from his wife.

The chapters, each just a paragraph or two, are given alphabetical, cross-referenced headings and an apparently thematic photograph. For example, “Entertainment,” one of my favorite stand-alone pieces, opens “In the beginning was the Television. And the Television was large and paneled in plastic made to look like wood. It dwelled in a dim corner of the living room and came on for national news, Cosby, Saturday cartoons, and football.”

This is a Franzen-esque take on family dysfunction and, like City on Fire, is best devoured in large chunks at a time so you don’t lose momentum: as short as this is, I found it easy to forget who the characters were and had to keep referring to the (handy) family tree at the start. Ultimately I found the mixed-media format just a little silly, and the photos often seem to bear little relation to the text. It’s interesting to see how this idea evolved into the mixed-media sections of City on Fire, which is as epic as this is minimalist, though the story line of this novella is so thin as to be almost incidental.

Favorite lines:

Depending on parent genotype, the crossbreeding of a Bad Habit and Boredom will result in either Chemistry or Entertainment.”

Though hardly the most visible member of its kingdom, Love has never been as endangered as conservationists would have us believe, for without it, the Family would cease to function.


Thanks to Vintage Books for the free copy for review.

 

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

[100 pages]

This is the earliest McEwan work I’ve read (1981). I could see the seeds of some of his classic themes: obsession, sexual and otherwise; the slow building of suspense and awareness until an inevitable short burst of violence. Mary and Colin are a vacationing couple in Venice. One evening they’ve spent so long in bed that by the time they get out all the local restaurants have shut, but a bar-owner takes pity and gives them sustenance, then a place to rest and wash when they get lost and fail to locate their hotel. Soon neighborly solicitude turns into a creepy level of attention. McEwan has a knack for presenting situations that are just odd enough to stand out but not odd enough to provoke an instant recoil, so along with the characters we keep thinking all will turn out benignly. This reminded me of Death in Venice and The Talented Mr. Ripley.

 

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

[167 pages – on the long side, but I had a library copy to read anyway]

Neve tells us about her testy marriage with Edwyn, a Jekyll & Hyde type who sometimes earns our sympathy for his health problems and other times seems like a verbally abusive misogynist. But she also tells us about her past: her excess drinking, her unpleasant father, her moves between various cities in the north of England and Scotland, a previous relationship that broke down, her mother’s failed marriages, and so on. There’s a lot of very good dialogue in this book – I was reminded of Conversations with Friends – and Neve’s needy mum is a great character, but I wasn’t sure what this all amounts to. As best I can make out, we are meant to question Neve’s self-destructive habits, with Edwyn being just the latest example of a poor, masochistic decision. Every once in a while you get Riley waxing lyrical in a way that suggests she’s a really great author who got stuck with a somber, limited subject: “Outside the sunset abetted one last queer revival of light, so the outlook was torched; wet bus stop, wet shutters, all deep-dyed.”

Other favorite lines:

“An illusion of freedom: snap-twist getaways with no plans: nothing real. I’d given my freedom away. Time and again. As if I had contempt for it. Or was it hopelessness I felt, that I was so negligent? Or did it hardly matter, in fact? … Could I trust myself? Not to make my life a lair.”


 

Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?

Blog Tour Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

I’m delighted to be helping to close out the UK blog tour for Little Fires Everywhere. Celeste Ng has set an intriguing precedent with her first two novels, 2014’s Everything I Never Told You and this new book, the UK release of which was brought forward by two months after its blockbuster success in the USA. The former opens “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” The latter starts “Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.” From the first lines of each novel, then, we know the basics of what happens: Ng doesn’t write mysteries in the generic sense. She doesn’t want us puzzling over whodunit; instead, we need to ask why, examining motivations and the context of family secrets.

Little Fires Everywhere opens in the summer of 1997 in the seemingly idyllic planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio: “in their beautiful, perfectly ordered city, […] everyone got along and everyone followed the rules and everything had to be beautiful and perfect on the outside, no matter what mess lay within.” That strict atmosphere will take some getting used to for single mother Mia Warren, a bohemian artist who has just moved into town with her fifteen-year-old daughter, Pearl. They’ve been nomads for Pearl’s whole life, but Mia promises that they’ll settle down in Shaker Heights for a while.

Mia and Pearl rent a duplex owned by Elena Richardson, a third-generation Shaker resident, local reporter and do-gooder, and mother of four stair-step teens. Pearl is fascinated by the Richardson kids, quickly developing an admiration of confident Lexie, a crush on handsome Trip, and a jokey friendship with Moody. Izzy, the youngest, is a wild card, but in her turn becomes enraptured with Mia and offers to be her photography assistant. Mia can’t make a living just from her art, so takes the occasional shift in a Chinese restaurant and also starts cleaning the Richardsons’ palatial home in exchange for the monthly rent.

The novel’s central conflict involves a thorny custody case: Mia’s colleague at the restaurant, Bebe Chow, was in desperate straits and abandoned her infant daughter, May Ling, at a fire station in the dead of winter. The baby was placed with the Richardsons’ dear friends and neighbors, the McCulloughs, who yearn for a child and have suffered multiple miscarriages. Now Bebe has gotten her life together and wants her daughter back. Who wouldn’t want a child to grow up in the comfort of Shaker Heights? But who would take a child away from its mother and ethnic identity? The whole community takes sides, and the ideological division is particularly clear between Mia and Mrs. Richardson (as she’s generally known here).

For all that Shaker Heights claims to be colorblind, race and class issues have been hiding under the surface and quickly come to the forefront. Mrs. Richardson’s journalistic snooping and Mia’s warm words – she seems to have a real knack for seeing into people’s hearts – are the two driving forces behind the plot, as various characters decide to take matters into their own hands and make their own vision of right and wrong a reality. Fire is a potent, recurring symbol of passion and protest: “Did you have to burn down the old to make way for the new?” Whether they follow the rules or rebel, every character in this novel is well-rounded and believable: Ng presents no clear villains and no easy answers.

The U.S. cover

There are perhaps a few too many coincidences, and a few metaphors I didn’t love, but I was impressed at how multi-layered this story is; it’s not the simple ethical fable it might at first appear. There are so many different shards in its mosaic of motherhood: infertility, adoption, surrogacy, pregnancy, abortion; estrangement, irritation, longing, pride. “It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?” Ng asks. I also loved the late-1990s setting. It’s a time period you don’t often encounter in contemporary fiction, and Ng brings to life the ambiance of my high school years in a way I found convincing: the Clinton controversy, Titanic, the radio hits playing at parties, and so on.

Each and every character earns our sympathy here – a real triumph of characterization, housed in a tightly plotted and beautifully written novel you’ll race through. This may particularly appeal to readers of Curtis Sittenfeld, Pamela Erens and Lauren Groff, but I’d recommend it to any literary fiction reader. One of the best novels of the year.

My rating:


Little Fires Everywhere was published by Little, Brown UK on November 9th. My thanks to Grace Vincent for the review copy.

The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico

Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist review #3

If you’ve been following the shadow panel’s progress on Twitter, you’ll know that we’re all extremely impressed with this one. Marketed as a novel in America but as a short story collection here in the UK, The Lucky Ones is really somewhere in between: it’s a linked story collection in which the 11 chapters could stand alone but are so much richer together. Each generally adds a layer of meaning to the others by filling in the background or following a certain character a decade or more into the future. The book keeps creeping backward and leaping forward to show how terror endured in one’s past never really goes away.

The title certainly seems ironic, as many of the schoolmates, teachers and hangers-on who people these Colombia-set stories face imprisonment, torture or disappearance. The story titles, too, seem innocuous, even sweet. But the first story, “Lucky,” sets the precedent for things turning very dark very fast. Stephanie Lansky’s family leaves for a weekend party at the Montoyas’ country house, but teenage Stephanie stays home, planning to smoke in secret and meet up with a friend at the mall. Scary snatches of radio dialogue about Communist rebels and bombs contrast with her escapist re-reading of Arthurian romances, but the threat becomes real when a man comes to the door to get her. With the maid missing and her parents not answering their phones, she’s effectively a hostage in her own home. The open-ended conclusion is masterly; its “could be,” “maybe” and “It’s still possible” phrases leave the reader to wonder whether Stephanie will be one of the lucky ones or not.

The stories range from 1993 to 2013, and over those two decades we zoom in and out to visit some of Stephanie’s classmates and teachers. For instance, in “Lemon Pie,” my favorite individual story, her teacher, Mr. B., is now a prisoner in a jungle camp and nourishes what little sanity he has left by teaching his old Hamlet lesson plans to groups of leaves and sticks. In the next story, “M + M,” we meet another of Mr. B.’s pupils, a scholarship student who fell out spectacularly with a friend over their differing class status. Ten years later, he’s a guerrilla commander so harsh that he orders deserters executed by their friends.

Seven of the stories are in the third person, but others add in some interesting variety: in “Siberian Tiger Park,” the third graders of Stephanie’s class form a first-person plural voice as they set their vivid imaginations loose on the playground and turn against their former ringleader, and “The Bird Thing,” a slice of horror in which a maid’s traumatic memories feed a monster, is told in the second person. And then there’s “Junkie Rabbit,” a first-person story set among a coca-consuming colony of pet rabbits gone feral. It’s Watership Down on speed. Indeed, drug use and wildness are recurring tropes, and there’s a hallucinatory quality to these stories – somewhere between languid and frantic – that suits the subject matter.

Before starting this I knew nothing about the relatively recent conflict in Colombia. It’s estimated that there were 60,000 forced disappearances on top of the documented carnage. We meet one character who has his hand chopped off for “publishing the wrong kind of articles,” but the country’s atrocities usually show up in asides, woven in so subtly and elegantly that they’re among the most arresting passages in the book:

On Saturdays … you got to run to the riverside, slide down the bank, and go swimming or throw stones or try to catch tiny silver fish with your bare hands, then feed them leftovers from lunch. Except when the bodies were floating in the water. Rumor was that men always floated face up, women face down. Sometimes there were vultures sitting on them and sometimes not. But if there were bodies, you would just go to the little stream instead and that was better. There the fish would eat rice straight from your hand, grains floating through the water like confetti thrown at a wedding.

Almost every story has at least one paragraph that striking. I thought two stories added less than the others and might have been cut to get the page count down closer to 200, but for the originality of the setup and the sheer excellence of the writing this book can’t be topped.

 

More shadow panel reviews of The Lucky Ones:

Annabel’s at Annabookbel

Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books
Dane’s at Social Book Shelves

Eleanor’s at Elle Thinks