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.
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.
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.
Arthur, Bill and Vince are the lighthouse keepers on The Maiden Rock, a remote lighthouse that rises from the sea off Land’s End. One night in 1972 they all go missing, leaving two clocks stopped at the same time, a log describing a storm that never happened, a meal set for two and the door locked from the inside. The case is never closed. Twenty years later a writer sets out to investigate what really happened, by interviewing those left behind and trying to piece together what evidence remains. The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is a beautifully evocative tale of loneliness, loss and misunderstanding.
Readers of this blog might have noticed that I have a soft spot for novels set on sailing ships. The wilder the storms and the longer the journeys, the better, so when I came across the recently published The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton, I wasn’t hard to convince. Set in the 17th century on a ship crossing from Batavia (Jakarta) to Holland, Turton’s book is packed with wild storms, betrayals, demons, murders and a plot to make your head spin. If you enjoyed Ian McGuire’s The North Water or indeed Turton’s last book The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, this book will be for you.
The cynical, whiskey drinking, mac-wearing sleuth Philip Marlow is one of crime literature’s most enduring characters. Written in 1936, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler has stood the test of time despite a dash of homophobia and sexism which, today, seem so outlandish it just makes you laugh. The story involves the wealthy General Sternwood, his spoilt, unruly daughters Carmen and Vivian, and blackmail. Chandler was in a league of his own when it came to astute observations of people and places and it’s this that sets The Big Sleep apart from so many others in the genre.
I’m finding that bitesized, escapist fiction suits my concentration levels these days and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, perfectly fits the bill. The story of two mysterious sisters living with their ailing uncle in a grand, ivy-covered Vermont house is unsettling from the word go. We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson’s – the American queen of ghost and horror stories – last and, many think, best novel.
Sixteen people at a family birthday party are mowed down by gunmen in the shocking opening scene of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The sole survivors, Lydia and her 8-year-old son Luca, flee towards ‘el norte’ with Acapulco’s most feared narco baron, Javier Crespo Fuentes, and his henchmen at their heels. Sounds like an action film? Yep. And that’s both the appeal and the trouble with this gripping Mexican refugee novel.
Can’t think of a better escape right now than the 1938 novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, a glorious cocktail of jealousy, obsession, opulence and mystery. Our modest, unglamorous heroine works as a companion to a well-healed woman on holiday in Monte Carlo. There she meets the wealthy, dashing widower Max de Winter and an unlikely relationship begins. They marry and return to Manderley, de Winter’s palatial estate in England, where the ghost of de Winter’s dead wife Rebecca and the ghoulish housekeeper Mrs Danvers rule. An extraordinary psychological thriller.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, was published a few weeks ago. The dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale was a game-changer when it came out in 1985, painting a terrifying picture of a totalitarian society in which women had been reduced to birthing machines. The arrival of Trump and religious extremism propelled the book back on the best-seller lists and inspired Atwood to write a sequel. Any follow-up to a brilliantly conceived, ground-breaking creation is a tall order and as much as I found this book an interesting, page-turner (always the case with Atwood, in my opinion), it also feels like a slightly paler version of The Handmaid’s Tale.