Gael Foess, the antiheroine of Caoilinn Hughes’ debut novel, is a trickster. When we first meet her in Dublin in 2002, the 11-year-old is promptly kicked out of school for trying to sell other girls “virginity pills.” As the years pass we see her con her way into a London Business School interview, self-assuredly teach a literature class when her professor doesn’t show up, pretend to be a journalist to get an exclusive interview, and use deception to try to boost the careers of both her mother, Sive (a conductor), and her younger brother, Guthrie (a painter and single dad). In the title metaphor, which refers to an orchid species that lures pollinating wasps, Gael is the seductive flower that gets what it wants. We’re also invited to think of her, with that typically Gael-ic name, as an incarnation of mythological Irish hero Cúchulainn.
The novel spans about nine years: a politically turbulent decade that opens with Iraq War protests and closes with the Occupy movement in New York City. The financial crisis temporarily jolts Gael and Guthrie’s father, Jarleth, a high-flying Barclays banker who leaves the family in 2008. The biblical parable of the talents, which he recounted to Gael when she was a little girl, comes back to resonate: It’s a potent reminder that money and skills don’t get distributed fairly in this life. When Gael gets to New York in 2011, she plans to redress the balance in two paradoxical ways: living in the Occupy camp and taking part in protests; and secretly earning her brother a fortune on his modern art. For even while decrying her father’s privilege, she indulges her own love of fine things; even if ironically, she says that she aspires to be in the 1%, too.
With all her contradictions, Gael is an unforgettable character. I also found Guthrie fascinating. It was serendipitous that I read this novel alongside Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book, Brainstorm. Guthrie was a mystically religious child and suffered from seizures, which doctors determined weren’t due to epilepsy but to somatic delusions – psychological rather than physiological. The seizures, ironically, became a boon because they inspire his art: “they’re hallowed and each aura is an absolution – a benison – and not just a synaptic blip.”
Hughes is wonderfully adept at voices, bringing secondary characters to life largely through how they speak. I especially warmed to Art, Sive’s boyfriend, who’s a Yorkshireman; and Harper, Gael’s OCD-plagued flatmate from Las Vegas. Even a brief run-in with American officialdom gets the perfect deadpan rendering: “United States Customs has no interest in surprises. Matter of fact, we hate surprises.” The novel often has a frenetic pace – an energy that’s well matched by the virtuosic use of language, with wordplay, neologisms, and metaphors drawn from art, music and nature. An orchestra is compared to a flock of starlings; a despondent Sive “began to resemble a bass clef.” The Irish are like radishes: “Pink on the outside, white underneath. Speck of mud on their cheeks.” Harper’s entire upbringing is pithily reduced to an “only-childhood of sprinkler weather, window glare and doughnut glazing.” I also loved this tiny poem of a phrase: “sobbing hampers syntax.”
My only real misgiving about the novel is the ending: After Gael comes back from New York, things sort of fizzle out. I even wondered if the story line could have stopped a chapter earlier. But in a way it makes sense to get no tidy closure for our protagonist. Gael is still only 20 years old at the book’s end, so it’s no surprise that she remains a restless wanderer. I certainly wouldn’t object to hearing about her further adventures in a sequel. Hughes is an exciting writer who has rightfully attracted a lot of buzz for her debut, and this is sure to be one of my novels of the year. It’s a perfect follow-on read from Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher, and I’d also recommend it highly to fans of Sweetbitter, The Art of Fielding, The Nix, and The Life and Death of Sophie Stark. Watch out for it in two weeks’ time.
Orchid & the Wasp will be published by Oneworld in the UK on June 7th. It’s not out in the USA until July 10th (Hogarth). My thanks to Margot Weale for a proof copy for review.
Lisa Ko’s exceptional debut novel, The Leavers, was hand-picked by Barbara Kingsolver for the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction in the States, and is now the launch title for Little, Brown UK’s new imprint, Dialogue Books, which will feature “stories from illuminating voices often excluded from the mainstream,” specifically those “for, about and by readers from the LGBTQI+, disability, working class and BAME communities.” I highly recommend it to fans of Nathan Hill’s The Nix, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. It’s an ambitious and satisfying novel set in New York and China, with major themes of illegal immigration, searching for a mother and a sense of belonging, and deciding what to take with you from your past.
Eleven-year-old Deming Guo and his mother Peilan (nicknamed “Polly”), an undocumented immigrant, live in New York City with another Fuzhounese family: Leon, Polly’s boyfriend, works in a slaughterhouse, and they share an apartment with his sister Vivian and her son Michael. Deming gets back from school one day to find that his mother never came home from her job at a nail salon. She’d been talking about moving to Florida to work in a restaurant, but how could she just leave him behind with no warning?
Ten years later, Deming is Daniel Wilkinson, adopted and raised in upstate New York by a pair of white professors, Peter and Kay. He’s made a mess of his life with drinking and an addiction to online poker, and has been expelled from college. Now the guitar is his life, but even his best friend and bandmate Roland Fuentes isn’t willing to cut him any slack when he doesn’t show up for rehearsals and performances. Peter and Kay are pulling strings to get Daniel accepted into their college, but he keeps screwing up every chance he’s given. He can only hope his efforts to reconnect with his birth mother will be more successful.
The novel shifts fluidly between a third-person account of our protagonist then (Deming) and now (Daniel) and a first-person confession as Polly explains all: her upbringing in poverty in China, her pregnancy out of wedlock, her illegal entry to the United States, and why she had to leave Deming so suddenly. Polly and Deming/Daniel are vibrant characters, and I ached for their struggles. Both have the sense of being split between lives, of “juggling selves.” Their collective story is about figuring out who you are, what can be made right, and what to leave behind as you move forward in life. It’s such a beautiful novel, and an impressive debut from Lisa Ko.
The Leavers will be published in paperback by Dialogue Books on April 26th. My thanks to Little, Brown for the free copy for review.
Below I’ve chosen my top nine fiction releases from 2017 (seven by women!), followed by the backlist titles I loved the most this year. Many of these books have already featured on my blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, as with my nonfiction selections I’m mostly limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
- Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: This atmospheric novel reminiscent of Iris Murdoch is no happy family story; it’s full of betrayals and sadness, of failures to connect and communicate, yet it’s beautifully written, with all its scenes and dialogue just right. I recently caught up on Fuller’s acclaimed 2015 debut, Our Endless Numbered Days, and collectively I’m so impressed with her work, specifically the elegant way she alternates between time periods to gradually reveal the extent of family secrets and the faultiness of memory.
- The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico: You may remember that our shadow panel chose this as our winner for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award: we were blown away by this linked short story collection set in a drug-fueled Colombia in which violence and its aftermath are never far away. For the originality of the setup and the sheer excellence of the writing, this can’t be topped.
- The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber: The name Margery Williams Bianco might not seem familiar, but chances are you remember her classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit. This is about Margery and her daughter, Pamela Bianco, a painter and child prodigy troubled by mental illness, and the themes of creativity, mental health and motherhood are nestled in a highly visual debut novel full of cameos by everyone from Pablo Picasso to Eugene O’Neill.
- The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker: The cartooning world and the Kentucky–New York City dichotomy together feel like a brand new setting for a literary tragicomedy. Though it seems lighthearted, there’s a lot of meat to this story of the long friendship between two female animators as Whitaker contrasts the women’s public and private personas and imagines their professional legacy.
- In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist: While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir: Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one. Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting his protagonist’s bewilderment at the sudden loss of his partner and his new life as a single father.
- How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza: As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about a woman’s life: loneliness, the patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give a fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream.
- Elmet by Fiona Mozley: The dark horse on this past year’s Man Booker Prize longlist, this is a twisted fable about the clash of the land-owning and serf classes in contemporary England. It’s a gorgeous, timeless tale balanced between lush nature writing and Hardyesque pessimism.
- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: A multi-layered story about many facets of motherhood: adoption, surrogacy, pregnancy, abortion; estrangement, irritation, longing and pride. 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.
And my fiction book of the year was:
- The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne: A wonderful seam of humor tempers the awfulness of much of what befalls Cyril Avery – born in Dublin in 1945 – for whom homosexuality seems a terrible curse. It’s an alternately heartbreaking and heartening portrait of a life lived in defiance of intolerance and tragedy.
My poetry read of the year was:
All the Spectral Fractures: New and Selected Poems, Mary A. Hood: There is so much substance and variety to this poetry collection spanning the whole of Hood’s career. A professor emerita of microbiology at the University of West Florida and a former poet laureate of Pensacola, Florida, she takes inspiration from the ordinary folk of the state, the world of academic scientists, flora and fauna, and the minutiae of everyday life.
And here’s a quick run-through of the seven best backlist titles I read this year:
- To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis: Time travel would normally be a turnoff for me, but Willis manages it perfectly in this uproarious blend of science fiction and pitch-perfect Victorian pastiche (boating, séances and sentimentality, oh my!).
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Brings together so many facets of the African and African-American experience; full of clear-eyed observations about the ongoing role race plays in American life.
- Days Without End by Sebastian Barry: Contains the most matter-of-fact consideration of same-sex relationships I’ve ever encountered in historical fiction. Heart-breaking, life-affirming, laugh-out-loud: those may be clichés, but it’s all these things and more.
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami: Mesmerizing and bizarre, but in the best possible way: it questions our comfort in the everyday by contorting familiar elements like dreams do. I’m a definite Murakami convert.
- The Nix by Nathan Hill: A rich story about family curses and failure, and how to make amends for a life full of mistakes. Hill is a funny and inventive writer.
- Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss: Simply superb in the way it juxtaposes England and Japan in the 1880s and comments on mental illness, the place of women, and the difficulty of navigating a marriage whether the partners are thousands of miles apart or in the same room.
My overall most memorable fiction read of the year, to my great surprise, was:
- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler: I’ve been lukewarm on Anne Tyler’s novels before – this is my sixth from her – but this instantly leapt onto my list of absolute favorite books. Its chapters are like perfectly crafted short stories focusing on different members of the Tull family. These vignettes masterfully convey the common joys and tragedies of a fractured family’s life. After Beck Tull leaves with little warning, Pearl must raise Cody, Ezra and Jenny on her own and struggle to keep her anger in check. Cody is a vicious prankster who always has to get the better of good-natured Ezra; Jenny longs for love but keeps making bad choices. Despite their flaws, I adored these characters and yearned for them to sit down, even just the once, to an uninterrupted family dinner of comfort food.
What were some of your top fiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be naming some runners-up and listing a few other superlatives.
The more I examined the architecture of my life, the more I realized how fraudulent were its foundations.
This is a book that wasn’t even on my radar until fairly late on in the year, when I noticed just how many of my Goodreads friends had read it and rated it – almost without fail – 5 stars. I knew John Boyne’s name only through the movie version of his Holocaust-set novel for younger readers, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and didn’t think I’d be interested in his work. But the fact that The Heart’s Invisible Furies was written in homage to John Irving (Boyne’s dedicatee) piqued my interest, and I’m so glad I gave it a try. It distills all the best of Irving’s tendencies while eschewing some of his more off-putting ones. Of the Irving novels I’ve read, this is most like The World According to Garp and In One Person, with which it shares, respectively, a strong mother–son relationship and a fairly explicit sexual theme.
A wonderful seam of humor tempers the awfulness of much of what befalls Cyril Avery, starting with his indifferent adoptive parents, Charles and Maude. Charles is a wealthy banker and incorrigible philanderer occasionally imprisoned for tax evasion, while Maude is a chain-smoking author whose novels, to her great disgust, are earning her a taste of celebrity. Both are cold and preoccupied, always quick to remind Cyril that since he’s adopted he’s “not a real Avery”. The first bright spot in Cyril’s life comes when, at age seven, he meets Julian Woodbead, the son of his father’s lawyer. They become lifelong friends, though Cyril’s feelings are complicated by an unrequited crush. Julian is as ardent a heterosexual as Cyril is a homosexual, and sex drives them apart in unexpected and ironic ways in the years to come.
For Cyril, born in Dublin in 1945, homosexuality seems a terrible curse. It was illegal in Ireland until 1993, so assignations had to be kept top-secret to avoid police persecution and general prejudice. Only when he leaves for Amsterdam and the USA is Cyril able to live the life he wants. The structure of the novel works very well: Boyne checks in on Cyril every seven years, starting with the year of his birth and ending in the year of his death. In every chapter we quickly adjust to a new time period, deftly and subtly marked out by a few details, and catch up on Cyril’s life. Sometimes we don’t see the most climactic moments; instead, we see what happened just before and then Cyril remembers the aftermath for us years later. It’s an effective tour through much of the twentieth century and beyond, punctuated by the AIDS crisis and focusing on the status of homosexuals in Ireland – in 2015 same-sex marriage was legalized, which would have seemed unimaginable a few short decades before.
Boyne also sustains a dramatic irony that kept me reading eagerly: the book opens with the story Cyril’s birth mother told him of her predicament in 1945, and in later chapters Cyril keeps running into this wonderfully indomitable woman in Dublin – but neither of them realizes how intimately they’re connected. Thanks to the first chapter we know they eventually meet and all will be revealed, but exactly when and how is a delicious mystery.
Along with Irving, Dickens must have been a major influence on Boyne. I spotted traces of David Copperfield and Great Expectations in minor characters’ quirks as well as in Cyril’s orphan status, excessive admiration of a romantic interest, and frequent maddening failures to do the right thing. But there are several other recent novels – all doorstoppers – that are remarkably similar in their central themes and questions. In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Nathan Hill’s The Nix we also have absent or estranged mothers; friends, lovers and adoptive family who help cut through a life of sadness and pain; and the struggle against a fate that seems to force one to live a lie. Given a span of 500 pages or more, it’s easy to become thoroughly engrossed in the life of a flawed character.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies – a phrase Hannah Arendt used to describe the way W.H. Auden wore his experiences on his face – is an alternately heartbreaking and heartening portrait of a life lived in defiance of intolerance and tragedy. A very Irish sense of humor runs all through the dialogue and especially Maude’s stubborn objection to fame. I loved Boyne’s little in-jokes about the writer’s life (“It’s a hideous profession. Entered into by narcissists who think their pathetic little imaginations will be of interest to people they’ve never met”) and thanks to my recent travels I was able to picture a lot of the Dublin and Amsterdam settings. Although it’s been well reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic, I’m baffled that this novel doesn’t have the high profile it deserves. I am especially grateful to Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves for naming this her book of the year: knowing her discriminating tastes, I could tell I’d be in for something special. Look out for it on my Best Fiction of 2017 list tomorrow.
I got just four books for Christmas this year, but they’re all ones I’m very excited to read. I looked back at last year’s Christmas book haul photo and am impressed that I’ve actually read seven out of eight of them now – and the eighth is a cocktail cookbook one wouldn’t read all the way through anyway. All too often I let books sit around for years unread, but I will try to keep up this trend of reading books fairly soon after they enter my collection.
I was wary of Nathan Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, as I always am of big ol’ books. Six hundred and twenty pages of small print: was it going to be worth it? Luckily, the answer was a resounding yes. If you’ve loved The World According to Garp, City on Fire, The Goldfinch, and/or Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, you should pick this one up right away. From the first few pages onwards, I was impressed by Hill’s carefully honed sentences. He mixes up the paragraph arrangement in a particularly effective way, such that long thoughts are punctuated by a killer one-liner given a paragraph of its own. Here’s one: “How easily a simple façade can become your life, can become the truth of your life.”
In 2011 Samuel Anderson and his estranged mother, Faye, find themselves in strange situations. Samuel is an assistant English professor at a small suburban Chicago college. Once the Next Big Thing, feted by Granta for a brilliant short story, he has never delivered his contracted novel and spends more time in the World of Elfscape online game than he does engaging in real life. Now Laura Pottsdam, a student he caught plagiarizing a Hamlet essay, is on a mission to take Samuel down. Meanwhile Faye is awaiting trial for throwing rocks at Governor Packer, a conservative presidential hopeful from Wyoming. It’s been 23 years since Faye walked out on Samuel and his father, but her lawyer still hopes Samuel will be willing to write a character reference to be used in her defense, prompting their awkward reunion.
This is a rich, multi-layered story about family curses and failure, and how to make amends for a life full of mistakes. Along with 2011, the two main time periods are 1968, when Faye was a would-be radical caught up in student violence; and 1988, the summer before Faye left, when Samuel met twins Bishop and Bethany Fall, two friends who would still be having an impact on his life decades later even though they moved away after a few months. Although most of the action takes place in Iowa and Chicago, there’s also a brief interlude set in Norway when Faye tries to track down the ghosts of her father’s homeland. He’d told her stories of the nisse and the Nix, a house spirit and a water spirit in the form of a giant horse: both lead greedy children to their doom, a terrifying prospect for an anxious girl like Faye.
Political protest is a thread running all through the novel, though it never drowns out the centrality of the mother–son relationship: the 1968 Grant Park protest Faye attends in Chicago, the anti-Iraq War march Samuel and Bethany go on in 2004, the Occupy demonstrations taking place in 2011, and Faye’s odd transformation into the Packer Attacker. Hill makes cogent comments on contemporary America, where the “pastime is no longer baseball. Now it’s sanctimony.” Young people parcel emotions into easy categories for social media, which also markets ready-made heroes (pop singer Molly Miller) and villains (Faye).
Hill is a funny and inventive writer; a few of his more virtuosic moments include an argument with headings indicating its logical fallacies, a relationship presented as a Choose Your Own Adventure story, and a nearly-eleven-page sentence in which a character has a health crisis. These sections are almost too long – Come now, you’re just showing off, I thought. But changing up the structure like that does mean that the novel is never boring, and its reflections on self-knowledge and how we get lost, stuck in patterns of our own creating, made me think deeply. This is one debut that really does live up to the hype; look out for it, and for the upcoming television adaptation directed by J.J. Abrams and starring Meryl Streep.
First published in August 2016, The Nix was released in the UK in paperback on September 21st. My thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
We’re off to continental Europe again on Monday. This isn’t a major trip like last summer’s; it’s just a one-week break to take advantage of my husband presenting a paper at a landscape ecology conference in Ghent, Belgium. Though we’ve been to Ghent before, it’s a lovely town, so in between keeping up with a normal editing workload I’ll enjoy being a flâneuse on the streets and seeing the few sights we missed last time. Afterwards we head to Amsterdam for several days; it’ll be my first time there and I’m excited to take it all in.
Coincidentally, I recently read Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break for a BookBrowse review. It’s about a retired couple, Stella and Gerry, facing up to past trauma and present incompatibility during a short vacation in Amsterdam. They visit a number of the city’s most famous tourist destinations: from the art treasures of the Rijksmuseum to a drink taken in the dubious red light district. It was fun to take a virtual tour with them. We’ll see how much of our itinerary overlaps with theirs – the Anne Frank House, certainly; maybe I should also stop by the Begijnhof since it means so much to Stella.
When possible I like to do some geographically appropriate reading, so I’ve saved up a couple of Dutch-themed novels to take along on the trip:
- The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker [published as Ten White Geese in the USA]: By a Dutch novelist, with a plot split between Amsterdam and rural Wales.
- Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach: Set in 17th-century Amsterdam and with an art theme (there are some full-color plates of works by Dutch masters); this was recommended by Annie Spence.
I’m mostly focusing on short fiction in September – short stories, novellas, and novels that are perhaps too long to technically be called novellas but still significantly under 200 pages – so may also pack the following:
- Before She Met Me by Julian Barnes: I don’t know much about it (adultery + film?) but it’s one of just a few of his books I haven’t read yet.
- Dangling Man by Saul Bellow: I recently read The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas, about becoming a biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow. It’s stellar, quite possibly my book of the year, and whetted my appetite to try some Bellow. I imagine The Adventures of Augie March would be the better place to start, but I picked this up in Oxfam Books the other day.
- Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita is the only Nabokov I’ve read thus far; I liked the sound of this comic novel set on a college campus.
I also have to decide whether to take any of the books I currently have on the go, including my Classic (Madame Bovary) and Doorstopper (The Nix) for the month. Luckily we’re going by train, so space and weight limitations aren’t really an issue, though it would probably be prudent not to pack too many print books. I’ll probably at least take the Etgar Keret short stories: they’re flash fictions perfect for reading two or three at a time in a short sitting.
At any rate, I’ll be continuing my two e-books in progress: Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, about the crazy world of wine obsessives and would-be top sommeliers; and Honeydew, short stories by Edith Pearlman. If I get bored, my Kindle has another 330 titles to choose from. (Isn’t it amazing? – a nearly weightless library!)
We’re back late on the 18th; I’ll be scheduling a couple of posts for while we’re away.