I must admit, I am severely partial to a narrated life-story, which includes twists and turns in the forms of death and romance, transforming the readers into the detectives. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood fulfils this criteria in the most evocative and powerful way. Carefully balanced, the author ensures the novel’s pendulum never swings too far into the excessively-narrative, nor the aloof. With Iris Chase as our narrator, we are invited to re-live the loss of her sister, Laura. This tumultuous story line is interrupted by a novel within a novel: here we are presented with a nostalgic and illusive glimpse into a perilous romance which sings of alacrity.
Mr Ethan Frome still cuts an imposing figure in Starkfield, despite being left ‘but the ruin of a man,’ by a terrible accident some years previously. As mute and melancholy as the wintry New England landscape he inhabits, Ethan stoically shoulders the burden of a cruel past. In Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, we uncover the story of his joyless existence and his one shot at blazing, beautiful love. An intense and compelling addition to our Classics archive, this certainly isn’t a tale for lightweights.
In his acclaimed poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Dylan Thomas exhorts us to resist death when it comes knocking, to ‘rage against the dying of the light.’ But did he take his own advice? We find out in The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe, a curious and captivating look at the end days of five famous writers, namely Dylan Thomas, John Updike, Sigmund Freud, Maurice Sendak, and the seemingly inextinguishable Susan Sontag. Selecting writers who she feels were ‘especially attuned to death,’ albeit in extremely different ways, Roiphe considers whether their personal insights can bring us consolation and courage.
After reading a few contemporary duds, I’ve taken refuge in the haven of mid-20th century American literature and read The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. I adore literature from this era for it’s well-edited, unpretentious yet profound writing and I haven’t been disappointed this time either. We’re in 1930’s New York. Sarah and Emily are sisters and the children of divorced parents Pookie and Walter Grimes. The opening sentence sets the stage: ‘Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.’ Expect no happy ending.
You don’t need to be paranoid to suspect the world is skewed towards men – mainly white men. Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez demonstrate, with data, the ways in which it is and some of her research should come as a surprise to even the most well-informed feminists. From what qualifies as deductible work expenses, the way streets are cleared of snow, the design of playgrounds to medical research, women remain invisible. An eye-opener.
At the beginning, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead feels like a typical American slave novel (think Beloved, The Polished Hoe, 12 Years a Slave and Roots) with horrifying details of physical and sexual abuse and a particularly evil plantation owner. Whitehead has a surprise in store for us, though, and that’s what makes this novel so original and intriguing.
Remember being thirteen? Or rather not? We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida will take you back to your teens the way Sally Rooney took you back to your first love in Normal People. The insecurities, dramas, hopes, lies, friendships, crushes, embarrassments; Vida reminds us what a roller-coaster of emotions puberty is through the story of headstrong Eulabee and her best friend, the bewitchingly beautiful and charismatic Maria Fabiola. Addictive reading.
The Hare With the Amber Eyes transported us to the rarefied world of the unimaginably wealthy Ephrussi family. Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal follows another Jewish family, the Camondos, neighbours of the Ephrussis and, eventually, family by marriage. In 1936, following the death of Count de Camondo’s only son, their grand residence was donated to Paris as museum and remains untouched to this day. This is their story.
Dysfunctional doesn’t even begin to describe the family in My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley. There’s no violence or abuse going on, just a devastating inability to communicate, a staggering lack of empathy, and some more or less genuine attempts at reaching out which, like two repelling magnets, always fail. If Bridget, our narrator, is to be believed, it’s all her mum Helen’s fault. But is she to be believed? If you’re interested in complex family relationships My Phantoms has lots to offer, some of it very funny; just don’t expect lovable heroes because there aren’t any.
There’s something seductive about Fitzgerald’s writing, it’s so gentle and light that it almost seems effortless. It’s not, of course, and that’s the genius of it. No wonder Fitzgerald has become a writer’s writer, with hoards of author fans. If you enjoy a well-written book, I suspect you will like her novels too. Be warned, though, Innocence, like her other books, is not action packed, but rather a funny, contemplative story where a lot more goes on than meets the eye.