It’s been bothering me for a long time that so many of the books I read never get a mention on the Sofa, always including some I’ve really loved (although those do at least make my Books of the Year.) This is the first of what (I hope) will be a regular catch-up to rectify that. It reflects my new reading habits in that not all are recent releases (I’ve held a couple of forthcoming titles back for my Summer Reads selection). These are the six books I read on my trip to Senegal last month, and as you’ll see, they gave me a lot to think about!
PAINTED LADIES by Lynn Bushell
The Pierre Bonnard exhibition is drawing huge crowds to Tate Modern (ends 6 May) and many visitors will be as interested in the key role of his two muses as the work itself (more so, in my case). This perfectly timed debut novel brings Bonnard’s long-term companion Marthe and his younger lover Renée back to life with great insight into the complex emotional dynamics of this troubled triangle and the three of them as individuals. It’s superbly evocative of Paris circa 1917 and the author’s own sensibility as an artist is reflected in her use of language. I’m very interested in art and novels about art, and I absolutely loved this book.
This is an ambitious, big canvas historical novel and it took me a while to get to grips with the large cast and different threads, partly as I hadn’t read The Purchase, the first novel in the Dickinson Family Saga. Once immersed, I really invested in this story of moral conflicts revealing the strength and weakness of individual characters on their quest for freedom and/or a different life, either as enslaved people trying to escape or as pioneers heading westwards. I found it particularly moving having visited the Ile de Gorée in west Africa, a focal point in the transatlantic slave trade, whilst reading the book. The characterisation is nuanced and transformational, 13-year-old Martin an inspired creation, and the prose feels lyrical and epic without tipping into excess.
A debut mentioned in the same breath as Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn, Patricia Highsmith and Hitchcock by Joyce Carol Oates… A seven-figure deal and a forthcoming movie starring Scarlett Johansson… (I was only aware of the former before reading.) I won’t repeat myself re. the pressure on very high-profile books to deliver but unfortunately I didn’t find the characterisation or plot of this 1950s thriller at all convincing. It wasn’t helped by my dislike of casual use (or here, oblique suggestion) of same sex attraction as spice. I found this particularly odd in a first-person narrative, the whole point of which is to expose the reader to the character’s private motivations and desires. All of that aside, with the right people on board it should make for a stylish and atmospheric film.
IN AT THE DEEP END by Kate Davies
26-year-old Julia’s love life consisted of underwhelming encounters with men before drying up completely for three years. Once she realises she’s actually a lesbian, she navigates a new community of different codes, new and renegotiated relationships and ways to have sex with other women. The instruction manual type explicitness of those scenes isn’t my favourite approach to writing about sex but I can see beyond that to applaud the uncensored frankness and focus on female pleasure which don’t exactly get much airtime anywhere. The writing is punchy and often funny (if you didn’t guess from the cover) but there’s also depth and darkness which make this more than an entertaining read. Julia is an endearing, if at times worryingly naïve protagonist and the situations she ends up in will resonate beyond an LGBT and millennial readership.
This global bestselling memoir had a lot to live up to but did not disappoint, reminding me in many ways of Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, not least in its emotional punch and power to shock. It’s deeply upsetting to read of children being subjected to negligence and abuse under the regime of a deluded and obsessive father, and at certain points in this story of a Mormon fundamentalist family in Idaho I had to put the book down. What made me continue was the bravery and honesty of Tara Westover’s account and her incredible ability not only to imagine another kind of life for herself, but to make it happen despite the pull of everything and everyone binding her to the past. It will stay with me for a long time.
et en français
UN ALLER SIMPLE by Didier van Cauwelaert
This novel won the Prix Goncourt way back in 1996. It doesn’t appear to be available in English translation (the title would be One Way Ticket) but would be a good choice for anyone wanting to improve their French as it’s both very short and simply – but beautifully – written. It’s the picaresque tale of a young man forcibly repatriated from the tough quartiers nord of Marseille to his supposed country of origin, Morocco, in the company of a clueless but good-hearted civil servant reluctantly charged with making an example of him following a brush with the law. As a road trip it’s highly implausible; as an exposé of the senseless cruelty of racism, it’s touching and as relevant as ever.
Do let me know if you’d like to see more of this kind of round-up – it’s been fun to write. I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading recently or your thoughts on any of the topics that have come up here.
As my new novel approaches completion, next week I’ll be concentrating on my edits. On 11 April, I’ll be joined by the final author in my Sofa Spotlight series, Lisa Blower with a Writers on Location post on the Staffordshire Potteries, setting for her superb story collection It’s gone dark over Bill’s mother’s.
Yes please, more of these!