In surely one of the most captivating opening scenes in British literature, O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker, takes us to the vaulted hall of a remote Scottish castle. Here, in a crumpled heap on the flagstones, beneath a tall stained-glass window, lies sixteen-year-old Janet, dressed in her mother’s black lace evening dress, and covered in blood. Unloved and misunderstood in life, she has met a ‘murderous death.’ Moonlight filtering through the stained-glass picks out the legend Moriens sed Invictus; dying but unconquered. In Barker’s glorious and darkly funny portrayal of an outsider heroine’s short and intense life, the truth of this proves undeniable.
Amanda and Clay – a successful, liberal New York couple – are staying in a smart rental summer house in the Hamptons with their kids. When the phone and internet connections go down and a black couple, Ruth and G.H., claiming to be the owners of the house, knock on the door asking for shelter, Amanda and Clay’s proclaimed tolerance is put to the test. Who is this couple? Can they be trusted? And why doesn’t the communications network function? Cyberattack? Terrorism? War? Nuclear accident? Catastrophe looms in Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, the most unsettling and frighteningly believable novel I’ve read in a long time.
One chilly January morning in 1957, a man discovers two dead bodies on a Japanese beach. A young woman in an immaculate kimono and a gentleman with polished shoes. Curiously, both corpses are rosy cheeked, an anomaly explained away by the police doctor as a sign of cyanide poisoning. It’s almost certainly a classic love suicide pact, but in Tokyo Express by Seichō Matsumoto, we’re reminded to challenge even the most elementary assumptions, particularly when one of the deceased is a government official implicated in a bribery scandal. A meticulously (some might say obsessively) plotted 1958 Japanese crime classic, it’s a deliciously knotty read.
The non-fiction book The Wager was one of my reading highlights this summer so when I heard of Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann I jumped on it. This time, Grann takes us to early 20th century Oklahoma, a state established to house the many displaced Native Americans. After being forcibly moved away from fertile land, the Osage tribe were assigned a rocky patch of no apparent value until, that is, oil in large quantities was discovered. The Osage became immensely rich – at the time they were the wealthiest people in the world – and lived comfortable lives. For a while.
The opening scene of the brilliant Berg by Ann Quin takes us to a post-war seaside boarding house, where Alistair Berg, hair-restorer salesman and furtive masturbator, lies uneasy in his bed. In the flimsily-partitioned room next door, Berg’s father resides with his flirtatious mistress, unaware of his son’s presence. A ‘scoundrel of the first order,’ the old man deserted Berg in babyhood, and now his vengeful son has come to kill him. In Quin’s 1964 absurdist cult classic, we follow Berg as his tendency towards vacillation causes his master plan to unravel, in the face of a string of farcical events and unhinged decisions.
I’ve just devoured a superb non-fiction book in the you-couldn’t-have-made-it-up category. The Wager by David Grann is the story of a doomed secret mission during England’s conflict with Spain in the 1740s. It’s a barely credible story of shipwreck, murder, in-fighting and hardship on an epic scale in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Fuelled by a combination of imperial ambition and arrogance, the mission of the Wager exposes one of the more megalomaniac periods in British history. An unmissable read.
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.
Aptly described as ‘Lynchian’, Brutes by Dizz Tate is a slice of dark-hearted, small-town Americana, centring on a brood of intense and voyeuristic teenagers. At the heart of the novel’s unfolding events in Falls Landing, Florida, their all-seeing eyes note fellow residents every move, in particular their girl-crush, Sammy, the kooky daughter of a local preacher. When Sammy suddenly goes missing, the friends follow the search proceedings with binoculars from their bedroom windows, their gaze torn between ‘the blue streaks of sirens,’ and the silent, still lake beyond. The monsters of Falls Landing are about to surface in Tate’s deliciously febrile debut novel.
Short stories and I don’t always get along but Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez turned out to be an exception. All set in Enriquez’s native Argentina, the stories usually start out in pretty innocuous domestic settings only to veer into something far darker and more troubling. Often set in impoverished slums we encounter corrupt police officers, mysterious disappearances, human bones emerging from the ground, brutal murders, self-harm and apparitions of people long gone. There are some pretty gruesome details in these stories but thanks to Enriquez’s skills as a writer it doesn’t feel like gratuitous violence, but rather a portrait of a people and a country still living in the shadows of its bleak past.
The artist Marina Abramovic’s endorsement of Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima piqued my curiosity and, sure enough, this book really is something else. A fast-moving, surreal noir novel originally published in 1968, Life for Sale is about a man who offers his life up for sale. What he expects to be a carefree, albeit lethal, experiment, turns out to be a whole lot more complicated involving gangsters, vampires, hallucinogenic beetle powder and poisoned carrots. Darkly comic and totally twisted, this book will appeal to all fans of surreal fiction and Japanese literature.