The first quick-fire round-up went down well last week, prompting lots of shares and interesting conversations, which was the whole idea. Thanks to you I also added a few promising titles to my own TBR list. Today I’m going to dive straight in with four more novels I’d recommend as there’s lots to say about them.
This is one of the first releases from new imprint V+Q who specialise in translated Geman fiction and they’re off to a brilliant start. This all too brief novel offers English speakers something unique with its perceptiveness and dark humour – I can’t think of any other book that’s made me repeatedly laugh out loud this year. (Admittedly it’s not been that kind of year.) Betty and Martha, both around forty and best friends for twenty years, set off on the ultimate in depressing road trips, to take Martha’s terminally ill father Kurt to an assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland. Only that’s not quite how it turns out… First person narrator Betty is so cool, complicated and relatable, like a real person who’d be fascinating to know. As a rusty German speaker I could sense the original text and its linguistic agility and punchiness behind Sinéad Crowe’s compelling translation. (In fact, her Translator’s Note is a good read in its own right.) Through a series of weird events and improbable encounters, Lucy Fricke nails the common feeling of being lost in the middle of your life; I envy anyone who has yet to read it and hope her three previous novels will now be translated into English.
Brandon Taylor draws heavily on his own life as a gay man from the south who was the only Black student on his PhD programme at a midwestern university, lending the same experience to his protagonist, Wallace. This novel is a unrestrained takedown of white privilege and the covert/overt racism embodied by Wallace’s insufferable friends, fellow students and supervisor; it conveys the cumulative pain, isolation and exhaustion of having to face it every day. Wallace isn’t easy company but it would be hard not to empathise with him over the many traumas he has suffered, and to understand what might sometimes appear frustrating or passive responses through his lens – this to me was the book’s defining strength and makes it a serious contender for the Man Booker Prize. It certainly isn’t a run of the mill campus novel – I found it bleak and often painful to read, although the writing is beautiful. Some significant developments go unexamined, especially regarding Wallace’s relationship with his lover, and as it’s set over a long weekend, there isn’t that satisfying sense of him being in a different place to at the start. But on its own terms it makes complete sense; I’m very aware this novel wasn’t written to please me and anyway, real life is never that neat.
I’ve read several novels related to the Manhattan Project and jumped at the offer to read this ahead of publication because the subject fascinates me. It’s refreshing that this time a female character is centre stage, as a scientist – albeit one now selling jewellery in a Chicago department store – rather than in the usual desperate housewife role, although those entirely valid frustrations are touched on too. Rosalind Porter is wracked with guilt over the destruction and loss of life she facilitated as a physicist who worked on the atomic bomb, and scarred by the rejection and betrayal of her former colleague and lover, Wheeler. Roz is a great character and the author excels in recreating the place and era on a political and social level. When FBI agent Charlie enters the scene, the romance angle and her vacillation between the two men takes over; I was invested in how this would play out primarily because one of them was a more nuanced character. Overall the writing impressed, although the numerous references to ‘lovemaking’ set my teeth on edge (the actual scenes were good). That minor gripe aside, I really enjoyed this novel and think it’ll have wide appeal.
It’s eleven years since the publication of Susanna Clarke’s huge (in all ways) bestseller Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I loved the TV adaptation but if Piranesi hadn’t been chosen by my book group I wouldn’t have rushed to read it as I’m not usually drawn to things fantasy/supernatural/other world. Well! This novel confounded every expectation I went in with and kept doing it throughout. Before the pandemic I didn’t enjoy fiction on audiobook; it’s since transpired that it can work if the narrator doesn’t come between me and the story. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers this strange, dreamlike mystery to perfection. (If you want a niche tip, it’s the ideal companion to walking in the pouring rain – you’ll see why.) It’s mind-bending what Susanna Clarke accomplishes in a novel that’s not long and mostly consists of internal monologue (many characters are mentioned, but few materialise) and lengthy, though gorgeously poetic, description of the House. It also proves that the often derided concept of escapism via fiction doesn’t have to be superficial. This novel is intellectual, philosophical and surreal but at the same time, through the touchingly naïve perspective of Piranesi himself, it’s simply about personal identity, good and evil and longing for connection. Actually, that’s just one of many possible interpretations; this will be a brilliant book to discuss.