The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant is an unjustly neglected American gem. A deliciously peculiar novel, comic and melancholic in equal parts, it takes us to a down-at-heel New York at the turn of the 1950’s and the dreary life of daydreamer and rent collector, Norman Moonbloom. Norman’s days are spent chasing rent from hapless tenants, whilst attempting to dodge their numerous demands, complaints, and often riotous domestic dramas. Too sensitive for the world of the mercenary slumlord, he will undergo a quiet epiphany against a disintegrating backdrop of leaking taps and treacherous wiring.
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All’s not well in the Ghorami family, although not even its own members are fully aware of that. Yasmin, daughter of Bengali immigrants is a trainee doctor to the immense pride of her self-made GP father. Her mother, Anisah, is the perfect Indian housewife, endlessly cooking fragrant dish upon fragrant dish. Arif, Yasmin’s younger brother, is the only one showing the cracks as he struggles to find out what to do with his life. When Yasmin starts planning her upcoming marriage to fellow junior doctor Joe, darker secrets emerge. Love Marriage by Monica Ali is her first book in 15 years. Will this one be a match for her 2003 mega best-seller Brick Lane?
With the most English sounding of titles, Egyptian 1964 classic Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali portrays Ram, a penniless and charming Egyptian Copt who lives well off his wealthy aunts, his own father having lost a fortune on the ‘bourse’. Seduced by the sophistication of Europe, Ram and his friend Font travel to London to immerse themselves in the political and cultural ideas of the time. Meanwhile, Egypt is going through its own political upheaval with the end of British imperialism, Nasser’s revolution and a burgeoning Communist movement. Which side, if any, will Ram come down on?
If your experience of transformative insect fiction is limited to the Kafkaesque, then it’s high time you met the ‘heralding quiver’ of cockroach antennae in The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector. A novel that demands the utmost concentration, this Brazilian modern classic tells the story of a somewhat intense sculptress, who discovers a large cockroach in her home. Her initial attempt at extermination leaves the creature slowly dying in front of her eyes, a protracted process that sparks a full-blown existential crisis. Enlightenment, madness, or possibly both, await.
There are voices we don’t hear from often enough in literature. Shuggie, the young son of an alcoholic in Shuggie Bain, is one example; Kristina, or Inni, in The Antarctica of Love by Sara Stridsberg, another. A drug addict and prostitute about to be murdered in the most gruesome way imaginable, invisible to society until, for a fleeting moment, she grabs the public’s attention as a victim of a horrific crime. Inni, talks to us from the afterlife, taking us through the day of the crime and how she got there. It’s a tough read this book, mainly because of the graphic violence but perhaps even more because it holds up a mirror to ourselves and our society’s failure to see people like Inni. Shell shockingly good.
Briefly an 80’s pop star before becoming a vicar and beloved broadcaster, the Reverend Richard Coles was often teasingly referred to by his late partner, David, as ‘a borderline national trinket.’ It’s a rueful irony that this book has likely propelled him from trinket to treasure, for The Madness of Grief by Richard Coles is an eloquent, incredibly affecting, and often beautiful account of David’s death. Providing solace for similarly bereaved readers, this poignant memoir is also a testament to abiding love.
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?
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.