"Cacoyannis is known for his introspective protagonists, but in this exceptional novel he delves even deeper, excavating the darkest corners of the psyche."– Kirkus Reviews
A grieving mother embarks on a mind-expanding journey in this novel.
Lily, or “Lily the Pink,” as she is known at “naked yoga,” is a 60-something woman who is a member of the “strictly-by-invitation-only” website “come-to-woody.com.” The site allows “perfectly respectable” professionals to meet for anonymous sexual encounters in a “secret little wood somewhere north of Hampstead Heath,” London. She has a strained relationship with Gemma, her 29-year-old daughter, who “doesn’t approve of” her lifestyle. And yet elements of Lily’s hedonism are linked to her first child, Tommy, who died at 8 after slipping out of the hands of his irritated father, Frank, at bathtime and suffering a fatal fall. During one of her ventures to Hampstead Heath, the air-conditioning on Lily’s classic Mercedes fails. In the heat, she begins to experience strange phenomena. She sees her dead son in the eyes of a fly she identifies as the angel Ithuriel. She later encounters two men, one of whom she instantly recognizes as “the devil incarnate.” All the while, Lily consults with her alter ego, Bella, nicknamed the “Unexploded Bomb.” As in his previous novels, Cacoyannis (The Madness of Grief, 2018, etc.) deftly builds complex psychological portraits of his characters. Here, his fiction employs magic realism to both blur and sharpen Lily’s shifting mindscape. As she sits in the suffocating heat of the car, her altering vision is at first understandable: “Trickles of sweat had already found their way into her eyes, but she could see. The slight blurriness—the effect was of an old-fashioned photograph fuzzy from the grain of excessive enlargement.” Aberrations in her vision later become the “colourful brushstrokes” of a migraine aura, but she also inexplicably sees, behind a fly’s “ruby domes,” unmistakable eyes far more piercing than hers, belonging to her dead son. The author delights in leading readers to the unsteady territory between the possible and the impossible. His writing is intentionally disorienting and unnervingly addictive as readers grapple to make sense of two or more separate realities sewn seamlessly together. Cacoyannis is known for his introspective protagonists, but in this exceptional novel he delves even deeper, excavating the darkest corners of the psyche.
An erudite, richly layered, and unsettling psychological tale.
In this literary novel set in England, a teenager learns startling revelations about people close to her.
In the sultry London of July 1969, Jane Hareman is 16 years old, making her first steps into maturity as humanity is taking its first steps on the moon. She has a comfortable relationship with her best friend, Karl Schmidt-Smith, a talented pianist and composer a year older than Jane. But then he says the words that turn her “whole world upside down: ‘Let’s go upstairs to my room.’ ” Jane, an intelligent girl who enjoys reading Kafka and philosophy, isn’t sure how she feels about that. She also has other things on her mind, such as the nearly 10-year anniversary of her mother’s death. Jane’s household consists of her father, George, once a magician known as “Mr. Magikoo,” and his girlfriend, Mia-Mia. A frequent visitor is George’s sister, Ada, a second mother to Jane. After the accidental onstage electrocution of his wife, for which neither Jane nor Ada has ever forgiven him, George eventually retired from performing to run his magic shop—but not before roping young Jane into appearing as “Little Magik Matchstick” in a terrifying theatrical illusion. Ada put a stop to this when Jane was 8, but the teen adds the experience to the list of things she can’t forgive. Returning home after watching the moonwalk on TV with Karl and his mother (who thinks it’s a hoax), Jane finds her world upended again when Mia-Mia reveals several important truths about herself, George, and Ada. Enlightened, Jane can now forgive her father, telling him: “I understand now that everything, even Little Magik Matchstick, was part of the madness of grief.” But Jane’s rapprochement and her understanding of the truth are soon upended yet again through betrayal and tragedy. Helped somewhat by the humanity of a few people in her world, Jane must find strength in turmoil.
As in his previous novels, Cacoyannis (Polk, Harper & Who, 2017, etc.) again shows his perceptive understanding of the many layered elements that make up the psyche. Jane’s view of Karl, for example, undergoes seismic shifts after he attempts rape. Is he unforgivable? Is it his mother’s fault? Does his sublime piano composition in her honor excuse what he tried to do? As Jane yields “to what I felt like doing today, already one absolute certainty had sweepingly overridden another.” The uses, attractions, and dangers of lies, fictions, magic, and illusion run through the story in thought-provoking ways (“One of Mr. Magikoo’s best-known tricks involved pulling a rabbit out of two different hats…by sleight of hand the mutilation of the rabbit was concealed”). Telling the truth can have dire consequences; sometimes lying is necessary to protect the innocent; magic’s enthrallment depends on the audience’s feelings of horror. Cacoyannis’ characters, even minor ones, are equally complex and multifaceted, with histories that he brings out skillfully. Jane in particular is an appealing young person with her honesty, cleverness, openness, and desire to do the right thing. Flashes of absurdist dark humor provide a welcome note in the book’s dramatic events.
A well-written, richly complicated, and deeply engaging coming-of-age tale.
In this literary novel, family secrets, friendship, and the resilience of love play out in a dinner party between two couples.
As this story opens in London, Eva Polk (née Harper) reacts with glee to news of a relative’s death, which exposes a big secret she’s kept from her husband of 10 years, Adam. The reasons are explained in the following chapters tracing Eva’s childhood, her father’s remarriage, her friendship with Karen Armstrong, her stellar success in the advertising business, and meeting and marrying Adam, who becomes a successful artist. Shared tastes and mutual passion overcome their differing backgrounds. Eva is white, Adam is of mixed race and adopted; Adam’s father is a plumber, while Eva’s was senior partner in a top-tier accountancy firm. Marriage doesn’t dull their feelings: “Every day they told each other that they loved each other every day more.” After 10 years, they start thinking about children, but Eva’s infertility makes them decide to adopt. At a dinner party with Karen and her husband, Jean-Claude, several truths surface, including an important secret Eva has been keeping. But Adam doesn’t focus on the injury to him; rather, he sees the secret as something she “had borne heavily…from now on Adam wanted her to know that he was bearing it with her—with, not against her,” a sentence that beautifully encapsulates what love is. As in his previous novels, Cacoyannis (Bowl of Fruit (1907), 2015, etc.) uses his familiarity with London, its various subcultures, and the art world to good effect. The themes of adoption and stepparents, as well as the mixed-race characters, reflect the way people live now. At times, and despite Eva’s secrets, the couple can seem too good and too fortunate to be true; apart from a brief episode of Eva’s “melancholia,” they have amazing sex every day. Nevertheless, the author draws forth their layered humanity. The book’s seriousness is relieved, complicated, and strengthened by its trenchant observations of horrible people, along with black humor involving Eva’s dead relative, a rare 1970s biscuit tin, and the wooden sculpture of a bleeding vagina.
A thoughtful, observant, and often humorous tale about real connections.
A London obituary writer is called to the home of a reclusive artist with a mysterious agenda in Cacoyannis’ debut novel.
James Linthwaite works for the Herald, a London tabloid that’s gaining popularity because of his innovative, witty obituaries. He’s become semifamous around town, but his notoriety is nothing compared with his wife June’s. She’s the author of “posh porn” books, including a bestseller called Susan’s Phallacy that’s flying off the shelves. Although James and June consider her writing to be a radical feminist take on erotic fiction, everyone else simply considers it fairly well-written smut. The Linthwaites have a teenage son named Josh who’s just beginning to have some sexual adventures of his own. Amid success at work and at home, James nonetheless finds his life to be inwardly and outwardly in turmoil, as suggestions of affairs, fears about his marriage’s longevity, and a few alcohol-poisoned nights lead him down some seriously confused paths. Then James’ editor asks him to go on a particularly odd assignment to meet an artist in the south of England. A recluse named Max has invited three writers to his home, each instructed to spend time with him and then write his 900-word obituary. The purpose of the exercise will be revealed later, during an art event, and its consequences will affect James and his career in numerous ways. Cacoyannis writes in a breezy yet erudite way, with eloquent language and insight sharing space with truly funny running jokes. James’ life is at once complicated and complete, imperfect and scary, but somehow just as it should be. The depiction of James and June’s marriage is particularly impressive; the author writes with such passion about insecurities, lust, violence, and love that the characters’ faults and flaws only make them more vivid. The Linthwaites are intellectual but not always politically correct, and they love Pedro Almodóvar films and good wine with venison steaks. They live in a London that’s suitably fast-paced and cutting-edge, and Cacoyannis has a firm yet humorous grasp of the vernacular and culture of personal and professional worlds ranging from Fleet Street to Soho and beyond. James has a kind of fame that’s fairly risky: one daring obituary that goes too far could make the industry and the public turn their backs on him. Indeed, all of the characters take risks, and it’s to the author’s credit that this madcap, smart story has an introspective protagonist whose dedication to his rebellious family is so well-imagined.
A sophisticated, comic novel that brilliantly captures the triumph and folly of art, media, and publishing.
In Cacoyannis’ (The Dead of August, 2013) sophomore effort, a London man meets with a mysterious ghostwriter, taking him deep into his past.
Leon Cheam has made a lot of money in his lifetime. He currently lives in a large, semidetached home in London. His talent is painting Picassos—not reproductions but paintings so masterful they could be worthy of being called original unknown works by Picasso himself. He’s also a fan of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, so much so that he’s having some builders construct a replica of Gregor Samsa’s bedroom right in his own home. It’s a quirk, he admits, not craziness—“I am neither a lunatic nor a fanatic. My bedroom is an affectation, not a delusion.” He just wants to see what it will feel like to be abnormal. In the midst of this, a ghostwriter named Anna Tor contacts Leon. She knows about the Picassos, but she also seems to know about Leon’s past. She suggests she could write a book about him, if he’s interested, and out of curiosity he decides to meet her. Leon is intrigued: Anna knows his real name, she has eyebrows like his, and she touches on topics from the past that Leon has yet to resolve. As the two stroll around North London—a marathon talk that lasts upward of 24 hours—Anna and Leon reveal things to each other about their pasts that will take them all the way back to the beginning of the Chilean dictatorship in 1973. Cacoyannis’ talent for connecting art and literature with the personal lives of his characters is on full display. Leon’s artistic talent—not to mention the commerce of it all—is nearly a character unto itself, and recollections of difficult events are adeptly woven into the larger narrative. Anna and Leon are unpretentious, smart compatriots who stomp on familiar ground in London, and their growing connection, as well as the labyrinthine tale that emerges, is as unsettling as it is satisfying. The novel may not be as explosive as his first, but it’s nevertheless a unique tale about secrets and the quixotic nature of artistry.
A lively, multilayered novel that connects two uncommon souls to a shared past.