A female English professor and writer loses her best friend and sometimes lover to suicide. A few days later she’s asked to take over the care of his dog, an enormous Great Dane. No small ask as the writer lives in a tiny flat in a Manhattan building where dogs are prohibited. This is the plot of the otherwise plotless but strangely mesmerising The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, a story about love, loss and being an artist, which, had my flight not been over, I would have read in one sitting.
In Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen we’re back in familiar Franzen-territory: the dissection of an all American family. After his more expansive (geographically and thematically) and, in my opinion, less successful Purity, Crossroads feels reassuringly familiar. This is both a blessing, he does it extremely well, but also begs the question: is Franzen a one-trick pony?
Long-listed for The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021, Consent by Annabel Lyon is a dark and twisty tale. At a time when public debate around the principle of consent has often centred on the sexual, the novel’s slightly lurid cover misleads. Lyon is actually intent on exploring the broader meaning of the word, in a cleverly interwoven story of two sets of sisters. In each case, one sister is incapacitated and the remaining sibling compelled to care for her. What appears to be an affecting domestic drama accelerates into a shocking and suspenseful reckoning with guilt and grief.
Set in 1985 in an Irish seaside town, Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan feels like it might as well have been set in 1885. We meet protagonist Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, as he delivers goods to his freezing clients in the run up to Christmas. Poor but happily married with five bright daughters, Furlong takes nothing for granted. Bill was born outside wedlock and owes his relatively harmonious upbringing to the kindness and acceptance of his mother’s employer. Up at the abbey, not everyone has had the same luck.
Winner of the prestigious Akutagawa literary prize, The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura is currently cresting the wave of novels by en vogue female Japanese writers. Set in an unnamed city in Japan, it tells the story of a narrator who refers to herself as the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan. Leading an isolated life, her only diversion appears to be a fascination with a neighbourhood local, the aforementioned Woman in the Purple Skirt. What initially appears to the reader as no more than an odd girl crush, becomes much darker, as our becardiganed storyteller decides to play puppet master with Purple Skirt’s life.
Like many others, I absolutely the bestselling All The Light We Cannot See, so I was excited to read a new novel by the same author was out. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, is a complex and ambitious novel of epic proportions. It contains multiple storylines and timelines that span many centuries. At first, I found this constant jumping between stories and worlds distracted me from the beauty of Doerr’s prose. I found myself preferring one storyline to another and felt irritated when I was forced out of one world and into another. I started racing through the sections I didn’t like so much in order to join my favourites again.
A curious and exhilarating affair, Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett is my stand-out read of the year to date. In this extraordinary novel, Bennett takes the voice of an unnamed female narrator, leading the reader on a stream of consciousness trip from her school days to the present. The twist is that her life is viewed through the prism of the books she’s read and how they have informed her as a woman, a reader and ultimately a writer. It’s intense as hell but the reward is a read touched with brilliance and originality.
At seventeen, Marie is kicked out of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court in France and exiled to a godforsaken abbey in the English countryside. Deemed too ugly to marry, Marie, an orphaned ‘bastard’ with royal blood, is stowed away for life. There’s far more to Marie than meets the eye, however, and soon enough, she has turned the poverty-stricken abbey into a powerhouse. The question is: how does Eleanor feel about that? And, anyway, are women really meant to achieve this much? If a story about nuns in a 12th century abbey sounds dull to you, think again; Matrix by Lauren Groff is an absolutely riveting read.
Leo Gazzara is hovering on the brink of both turning thirty and plunging into an existential crisis. Keen to avoid respectability, his days are spent avoiding hard work, his nights indulging in the hedonistic thrills of city life. Originally published in 1970, Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich is an Italian cult classic. Here translated into English for the first time, it captures those heady days when Rome was the capital of glamour. A boozy, smoky and intoxicating novel, it tells the story of the year Leo’s dolce vita turned sour.
It is 1666 and the plague reaches a remote Derbyshire village of some 360 souls. They decide to cut themselves off from the outside world in order to protect the surrounding villages. Based on a true story, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks is a haunting and poignant novel told through the voice of an 18-year-old village girl. Although published twenty years ago it has, of course, extra resonance for our times.