Professor Q is a somewhat dull academic, apathetically teaching literature at a middling university and uninterested in his wife, Maria. She, in turn, is just grateful that Q appears to have lost any carnal urges. Supposing that the andropause has come for him, Maria is unaware that her hitherto predictable husband is in love with a mechanical music-box ballerina. Her name is Aliss and he is willing her to life. Both a political allegory and a deep dive into the recesses of the human psyche, Owlish by Dorothy Tse is a subversive and exhilarating affair.
Steel yourself for The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah, one of the bleakest novels I’ve read in a long time, but also one of the most memorable. First published in 1968, this African modern classic explores the rise of disillusionment and corruption in post-independence Ghana, through the weary eyes of an anonymous railway clerk. His noble refusal to become a sell-out invites dismay and derision from his materialistic nearest and dearest, in this acerbic tale of ennui and moral decay.
An oblique novel of sacrifice and survival, Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein tells the story of a young woman who uproots her life and moves to a remote part of Northern Europe, in order to become her brother’s housekeeper and companion. Her martyrish aims to be good, quiet, and to serve others, are taking a toll on her embattled ego, and there’s something else. Something uncanny about her which invites suspicion and hostility from the local residents. Our unnamed protagonist fears that there is something in her blood that makes people recoil, a frisson of foreboding setting the scene for a disturbing tale.
Updating one of Charles Dickens’ iconic novels is a brave thing to do. In Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver we get squalor, poverty and destitution worthy of the master himself, set in modern day America during the opioid crisis. Damon Field aka Demon Copperhead’s story is one of resilience in a society where everything is stacked against someone like him; his mixed race, poverty, his mother’s addiction, the education system, the list goes on. The shocking realisation is how little things have changed since 1850, which is precisely Kingsolver’s point.
A gem from the excellent Penguin European Writers series, A Moth to a Flame by Stig Dagerman is a magnificently moody read. Set in 1940’s Stockholm, it tells the tale of Bengt, a young man broken by the premature death of his mother. Discovering that his father had a secret lover throughout, the devastated Bengt plots vengeance, and in Dagerman’s astute portrayal of Bengt’s slide into existential crisis, we watch as he becomes embroiled in a demented affair with that very same mistress. Laced with sly humour, this novel of grief, loss and love is a provocative treat.
Daniel Costello, Irish celebrity chef and proud holder of two Michelin stars, is headed for the high court, the victim of a patently false rape claim. At least, that’s what he tells us. His distressed wife, Julie, doesn’t know what to think, and ex-waitress, Hannah, is harbouring secrets that she is not ready to share with the world. In the nuanced and compelling Service by Sarah Gilmartin, the story is told through their alternating voices. Three versions with shifting perspectives and perceived truths, provide a fascinating portrait of the frenetic restaurant scene of Dublin’s boom time and an incisive exploration of power dynamics and toxic masculinity.
A novel, an autobiography, a memoir and a diary; four alternative truths. Pulitzer Prize winning Trust by Hernan Diaz is a riveting read, an experimental novels-within-a-novel which deals with the questions of truth, trust and American capitalism. Andrew Bevel is an American gazillionaire banker at the turn of the last century. Incensed by an unflattering roman a clef – which everyone recognises as based on his life – Bevel is keen to set the record straight and hires Ida Partenza as ghost writer for his own (carefully supervised) version of events. Ida, who has a few issues of authenticity herself, starts digging and discovers that all is not what it seems in the Bevel household.
A treat for those with a penchant for camp gothic drama, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane by Henry Farrell is the cult classic that spawned the legendary 1962 film. It chronicles the descent into madness of faded childhood vaudeville star, Baby Jane Hudson. Holed up in a crumbling mansion with her infinitely more famous actress sister, Blanche, the dysfunctional siblings’ tale is one of envy, unaddressed daddy issues, and monstrous villainy. Cinephiles will love how Farrell conjures the scenes that inspired the movie, and Bette Davis and Joan Crawford inevitably become the sisters in the reader’s mind’s eye.
A distinctly European novel, the award-winning Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov combines philosophy and satire with a fascinating premise. Enigmatic therapist, Gaustine, opens a pioneering dementia clinic in Zurich, wherein each floor recreates a different decade, allowing patients to find peace and comfort in their own temporal sanctuary. As the business gains in reputation, even healthy clients begin flocking to this clinic of the past, desirous of escaping their dysfunctional present. In Gospodinov’s emblematic take on 20th century Europe, Gaustine’s experiment morphs into something dangerous as he notes ‘…when you have no future, you vote for the past.’
Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh is a wonderfully enigmatic and mesmerising read, by an author whose presence sings from the Granta Best Young British Novelists 2023 list. An acknowledged purveyor of disquieting fiction, here Mackintosh introduces us to Elodie, a frustrated baker’s wife in post-war provincial France. Spending her days mired in gossip and domesticity, the bored young woman is ripe for seduction. It comes in the form of a dashing young ambassador and his wife, the beautiful and damaged Violet, their arrival heralding a sultry, sexy summer, and a rash of darkly peculiar goings on.