A subtly and sweetly subversive novel which seems more characteristic of its author as it becomes increasingly multilayered and labyrinthine in its masterful manipulation of the relationship(s) between fiction and truth.
Both the title and the tone make this initially seem to be an uncharacteristically light and playful novel from McEwan (Atonement, 2002, etc.). Its narrator is a woman recounting her early 20s, some four decades after the fact, when she was recruited by Britain’s MI5 intelligence service to surreptitiously fund a young novelist who has shown some promise. After the two fall in love, inevitably, she must negotiate her divided loyalties, between the agency she serves and the author who has no idea that his work is being funded as an anti-Communist tool in the “soft Cold War.” Beautiful (as she recognizes such a character in a novel must be) and Cambridge-educated, Serena Frome seems perfect for the assignment of soliciting writer Tom Haley because, as one of her superiors puts it, “you love literature, you love your country.” The “Sweet Tooth” operation makes no attempt to control what its authors write and doesn’t reveal to them exactly who is funding them, but provides financial support for writers who have shown some resistance to fashionable radicalism. Though Serena’s reading tends toward “naive realism,” favoring novels where she would be “looking for a version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favourite old shoes,” the relationship between Tom’s fiction and his character, as well as the parallels between the creative inventions his job demands and those of hers, illuminate the complexities of life and art for Serena and the reader as well. “In this work the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can get very blurred. In fact that line is a big grey space, big enough to get lost in.” The “work” being discussed is undercover intelligence, but it could just as easily be literature.
Britain’s foremost living novelist has written a book—often as drily funny as it is thoughtful—that somehow both subverts and fulfills every expectation its protagonist has for fiction.
Hazzard's most spacious fiction yet, spread over large expanses of time and situation that somehow remain intimate—a comic, social book that turns into a wise, sad one. Caroline and Grace Bell, Australian orphan sisters, board after World War II at the home of a famous old English astronomer. Ted Tice, a young colleague of the famous man, falls in love with Caro (whose book this mainly is—excepting one luminous chapter in which an older Grace falls in love with her son's doctor). Caro, though, loves Paul Ivory, a playwright; and when he marries a lovelessly bitchy society woman (we later learn why), his betrayal feels so great that Caro can't properly bind the wound until she meets and marries a rich American with a social conscience, Adam Vail. After Adam's death in New York, Paul Ivory, his son dying of leukemia, calls on Caro to make a terrible confession—a murder by negligence, a witness (Ted Tice) silent all these years—that literally upends Caro's entire picture of her past, a whole life revised in an instant; Hazzard's finest stroke is making this true and real and horrible. How she does it is through a huge but lightsome charity toward the people in the book, as short or long as they come. A species of hyper-smart romantic fiction is avoided by the insistence not only on Venus' transit but on the wisdom of love, especially as women know it yet cannot keep it. And though the prose is at first a little daunting, unmodernly rich ("She was watching with some large feeling, less than love, in which approval and exasperation merged to a pang that Ted Tice should supply, in a little scene of varnished attitudes and systematic exchanges, the indispensable humanity"), once you get to know the characters, these Jamesian boluses dissolve. A novel of empathy and depth, to be read with slow savor.
At the age of 33, Helen, the youngest and latest-blooming of the five Walsh girls, has suffered yet another setback.
She’s been forced to give up her beloved, eccentrically decorated flat and move back in with Mum and Dad. Since her detective work has all but dried up, thanks to the economic taming of the Celtic tiger, she grudgingly accepts a missing person case from an old flame, Jay, who is managing the reunion tour of a former Irish boy band, the Laddz. Only four Laddz are on board—the fifth, front man Docker, has gone on to mega-stardom in movies and is now a full time globe-trotting philanthropist. Wayne, the wackiest of the Laddz, goes abruptly AWOL four days before opening night. The other Laddz, including John Joseph and his new wife, Middle Eastern singing sensation Zeezah, not to mention Jay and a gangster named Harry, all stand to lose big-time if Wayne isn’t found. Helen’s investigation turns up no clues except a phone message from a woman named Gloria on the eve of Wayne’s disappearance from his home on a Dublin cul-de-sac called Mercy Close. Highly illegal checks of his cellphone and financial records turn up nothing. Neither Wayne’s closest associates nor jealous ex-girlfriends have any idea who Gloria could be, and a bludgeon-wielding assailant warns Helen to give up her quest. On the personal front, Helen’s new boyfriend, Artie, a cop, seems to be too amicably divorced, and his three children have mixed feelings—ranging from adoration to hatred—toward their mother’s potential replacement. Throughout, flashbacks detail Helen’s bouts of despair, related in her quirky voice, with mordant asides about psychotropic drugs and the logistics of a good suicide plan. (Hint: Avoid dog walkers while attempting to drown self.)
Readers who find some topics too serious for irony be warned—nothing is sacred in Helen’s world.
Imagine a Dickens novel freed of the restraints imposed by Victorian propriety. There’s no other way to describe this enthralling melodrama from the British author of Under the Skin (2000).
Set in 1870s London, Faber’s second outing is a brilliantly plotted chronicle of the collision between high and low, as played out in the complex relationship binding would-be writer William Rackham, heir to a perfume-maker’s fortune and an inveterate whoremaster, and a cunning prostitute known as Sugar, whose special erotic talents inflame the smitten Rackham to the extent that he installs her in his home, ostensibly as his young daughter’s governess; in fact, as the mistress who distracts his attention from the illnesses and “fits” endured by his frail (and possibly “mad”) wife Agnes. Faber tells this story through the voice of a cajoling omniscient narrator implicitly likened to a whore luring her customer on, incidentally providing a thickly detailed panorama of 19th-century urban life. And the characters: not only the egoistic, self-justifying Rackham, the fascinating Agnes (a keen study in what used to be called “female hysteria”), and the calculating Sugar (herself a secret authoress, of “a tale that throws back the sheets from acts never shown and voices never heard”)—but also William’s priggish brother Henry, who wishes to reform prostitutes but suffers “nightmares of erotic disgrace”; Henry’s cohort in benevolence, “Rescue Society” bluestocking Emmeline Fox; the Hogarthian procuress Mrs. Castaway and the ghastly Colonel Leek; “eminent swells” Bodley and Ashwell, William’s companions in depravity and the exploitation of women—these and many others leap from Faber’s crowded pages, as the whore Sugar’s progress clashes with the sanctity of the Rackham hearth, Agnes’s runaway manic-depression, William’s inexplicable recovery of love for his wife and eventual dismissal of her replacement—and leads to Sugar’s horrific climactic revenge. It’s hard to imagine that any contemporary novelist could have appropriated with such skill and force the irresistible narrative drive of the Victorian three-decker, or that readers who hunger for story won’t devour this like grateful wolves.
A perfect wife’s disappearance plunges her husband into a nightmare as it rips open ugly secrets about his marriage and, just maybe, his culpability in her death.
Even after they lost their jobs as magazine writers and he uprooted her from New York and spirited her off to his childhood home in North Carthage, Mo., where his ailing parents suddenly needed him at their side, Nick Dunne still acted as if everything were fine between him and his wife, Amy. His sister Margo, who’d gone partners with him on a local bar, never suspected that the marriage was fraying, and certainly never knew that Nick, who’d buried his mother and largely ducked his responsibilities to his father, stricken with Alzheimer’s, had taken one of his graduate students as a mistress. That’s because Nick and Amy were both so good at playing Mr. and Ms. Right for their audience. But that all changes the morning of their fifth anniversary when Amy vanishes with every indication of foul play. Partly because the evidence against him looks so bleak, partly because he’s so bad at communicating grief, partly because he doesn’t feel all that grief-stricken to begin with, the tide begins to turn against Nick. Neighbors who’d been eager to join the police in the search for Amy begin to gossip about him. Female talk-show hosts inveigh against him. The questions from Detective Rhonda Boney and Detective Jim Gilpin get sharper and sharper. Even Nick has to acknowledge that he hasn’t come close to being the husband he liked to think he was. But does that mean he deserves to get tagged as his wife’s killer? Interspersing the mystery of Amy’s disappearance with flashbacks from her diary, Flynn (Dark Places, 2009, etc.) shows the marriage lumbering toward collapse—and prepares the first of several foreseeable but highly effective twists.
One of those rare thrillers whose revelations actually intensify its suspense instead of dissipating it. The final pages are chilling.
McEwan’s latest, both powerful and equisite, considers the making of a writer, the dangers and rewards of imagination, and the juncture between innocence and awareness, all set against the late afternoon of an England soon to disappear.
In the first, longest, and most compelling of four parts, McEwan (the Booker-winning Amsterdam, 1998) captures the inner lives of three characters in a moment in 1935: upper-class 13-year-old Briony Tallis; her 18-year-old sister, Cecilia; and Robbie Turner, son of the family’s charlady, whose Cambridge education has been subsidized by their father. Briony is a penetrating look at the nascent artist, vain and inspired, her imagination seizing on everything that comes her way to create stories, numinous but still childish. She witnesses an angry, erotic encounter between her sister and Robbie, sees an improper note, and later finds them hungrily coupling; misunderstanding all of it, when a visiting cousin is sexually assaulted, Briony falsely brings blame to bear on Robbie, setting the course for all their lives. A few years later, we see a wounded and feverish Robbie stumbling across the French countryside in retreat with the rest of the British forces at Dunkirk, while in London Briony and Cecilia, long estranged, have joined the regiment of nurses who treat broken men back from war. At 18, Briony understands and regrets her crime: it is the touchstone event of her life, and she yearns for atonement. Seeking out Cecilia, she inconclusively confronts her and a war-scarred Robbie. In an epilogue, we meet Briony a final time as a 77-year-old novelist facing oblivion, whose confessions reframe everything we’ve read.
With a sweeping bow to Virginia Woolf, McEwan combines insight, penetrating historical understanding, and sure-handed storytelling despite a conclusion that borrows from early postmodern narrative trickery. Masterful.
Does identity come from biology, upbringing or our own choices? The question becomes urgently concrete in the bleak final entry of this blockbuster dystopian trilogy.
After the explosive climax of Insurgent (2012), Tris, Tobias (or “Four”) and their friends manage to escape a city torn between the tyranny of the factionless and the uprising of the Allegiant, who want to restore virtue-based divisions. Once outside, they run into the Bureau, which secretly controls the city as a generations-long experiment in healing “genetic damage.” Revelations pile upon revolutions, revenge fights with reconciliation, until Tris and Tobias are each led to their ultimate choices—where courage, selflessness, peace, wisdom and truth converge into love. Tris and Tobias alternate narrating brief chapters in unfortunately indistinguishable voices. Their choppy, staccato prose, interspersed with occasional arresting images, is a style well suited to the opening and closing sections of dramatic action but only accentuates the dragging pace of the repetitive, overstuffed middle. While the “science” behind the Bureau’s machinations is impossible gobbledygook, the corrosive effects of bigotry ring painfully true. The tragic conclusion, although shocking, is thematically consistent; the bittersweet epilogue offers a poignant hope.
Though flawed, the story provides a thought-provoking metaphor for crucial conflicts of adolescence, as have its predecessors.
(Dystopian adventure. 12 & up)
A vivid infusion of 1980s culture gives this near-future dystopia an offbeat, Philip K. Dick aura.
Her father’s recent death and the move from New Zealand to Toronto with her mother and sister in 1985 have left Freya Kallas seriously disoriented and plagued by headaches. Worse, her memories have puzzling gaps. She can’t recall her best friend Alison’s taste in music or how it felt to kiss her old boyfriend, Shane. Some events feel unreal, while others (like the guys who hit on her at parties, something she’s sure never happened before) don’t engage her. What do Freya’s dreams of living another life mean? Something is seriously out of joint, and Freya is sure the boy she spots on a school field trip has the answers she needs. Though she doesn’t know his name and he doesn’t recognize her, Freya, increasingly desperate, can’t let him go. A thicket of exposition slows the narrative briefly, but the pace picks up, and the action accelerates to a gripping climax. Sympathetic, well-drawn characters compensate for a rather flimsy instant dystopia and rubber science. The cultural homage is nostalgic fun, from Care Bears to MacGyver. But for delivering that uniquely ’80s flavor, nothing beats music.
Fans of the Smiths, Depeche Mode, Scritti Politti—this one’s for you
. (Dystopian romance. 12 & up)
A prize-winning, cross-generational love story of missed connections and delayed gratification hits a seam of pure romantic gold.
Star-crossed is an understatement for the ill-fated love between trophy wife Jennifer Stirling and hard-drinking journalist Anthony O’Hare in British writer Moyes’ cleverly constructed, cliffhanger-strewn tale of heartache in two strikingly different eras. Jennifer and Anthony meet in the South of France in that strait-laced time just before the 1960s blew social conventions apart. Jennifer, married to a powerful businessman whose fortunes derive from asbestos, is a Grace Kelly look-alike, beautiful and seemingly blessed with a perfect life. But as the story opens with her attempts to reconstruct her existence after post–traffic-accident amnesia it becomes apparent that her marriage has a cold heart compared to recently experienced passion. Held back by convention and fear, she hesitates to grasp her first chance at happiness. Later, other and larger impediments stand between the two lovers whose commitment finds expression in letters which come to light again 40 years later in the library of a relocated newspaper. Journalist Ellie Haworth, involved with a married man, is moved by the words and starts to piece the story together, in the process coming to a different understanding of what love really means.
A nicely judged sense of period and the author’s full-blooded commitment lend heartfelt emotion to simple characters in a tour de force of its kind.
A man struggles to deal with the death of his wife and the odd messages that appear in her wake.
Gray’s debut novel—following two short-story collections (Museum of the Weird, 2010, etc.)—feels like an old-fashioned gothic tale as rewritten by David Lynch or William S. Burroughs; in her hands an unassuming Ohio town becomes a bottomless repository of strangeness and dread. The hero, David, is a disgraced former dentist who attracts police and media attention after his wife, Franny, is discovered dead in their home under unsettling circumstances: She suffered violent wounds, but David did nothing, staying with her corpse until the authorities arrived days later. David is clearly broken mentally, and he grows more paranoid as he discovers vaguely threatening messages on scraps of paper hidden around their home. (A typical one reads: “I will cross-stitch an image of your future home burning. I will hang this image over your bed while you sleep.”) David’s efforts to resolve the mystery involve a local cop, one of Franny’s former co-workers and a regression therapist who happens to work out of David’s garage. But resolution isn’t really the point, nor is realism. This book is a mood piece about loss and the way the outside world becomes intimidating after an emotional anchor disappears. In that regard, it’s often a very affecting and disturbing book: Gray regularly refers to wasps in the garage, Franny’s ashes and a damp decaying house to evoke disorder and collapse, and her deliberately flat and unaffected sentences increase the tension.
The book falters toward the end, as Gray tries to balance the oddness of her milieu with a sense of closure, making for a conclusion that doesn’t feel ambiguous so much as unfinished. Still, a striking debut novel from a writer eager to shake domestic fiction out of its comfort zone.
Murder has hit Friendship, Wis., (population once 689, now 688) hard; Kippy Bushman hits back harder to find the murderer in this Fargo-like debut.
The 16-year-old is still grieving her mother, who died years ago, when BFF Ruth Fried is found killed in a local cornfield. The grisly details are immediately offset by small-town quirkiness and a thick Wisconsin accent, don’tcha know. While the community’s long list of scorned female teens and the father of one of those teens, inept Sheriff Staake, are ready to indict the high school’s resident scoundrel, Kippy has other theories. When Ruth’s mother gives her Ruth’s journal “to redact the sex parts,” Kippy learns more about Ruth’s clandestine escapades, as well as Ruth’s sometimes-disparaging remarks toward her. The only person who shares Kippy’s desire for the truth and who understood Ruth’s difficult personality is Davey, Ruth’s older brother, who’s returned from active military duty, dishonorably discharged and without a finger. As Kippy goes undercover, her wry humor helps her cope with her touchy-feely, middle school–guidance-counselor father (whose pamphlets and self-help groups don’t seem to cover serial killers), her feelings for Davey, her complicated relationship with Ruth and some harrowing situations that leave the heart pounding. The small town’s big secrets provide enough red herrings to keep readers guessing.
Can a murder mystery be funny? You betcha! (Mystery. 14 & up)