Award-winning Australian author London (The Good Parents, 2008, etc.) illuminates lives touched by polio and World War II in her third novel, set in a convalescent home in Perth.
A children's polio clinic called The Golden Age serves as the book's focus. Beside it stands the Netting Factory, operating noisily day and night. The children, brought up never to waste electricity, find the factory "breathtakingly extravagant." It seems to promise "No one will ever die here." In short, vivid chapters, London draws the reader into her characters' lives. Thirteen-year-old Frank Gold, a Jewish refugee from Hungary, discovers poetry. When asked how he knows the word "nostalgia," Frank thinks: "How could he not? Nostalgia was everywhere. It had a special voice, and special time—sunset, Sunday nights." He falls in love with another patient, Elsa, who's mourning the loss of her bike, Malvern. Meanwhile, Frank's parents, Meyer and Ida, try to adjust to a city wholly unlike their beloved Budapest. Ida, a concert pianist, has refused to play since Frank contracted polio. London's work has garnered many Australian prizes—the Prime Minister's Award for Fiction, the Patrick White Literary Award, and others—for good reason. Her writing is cleareyed, generous-hearted, never sentimental: "Meyer sat down humbly on the white cover, next to his son's wasted legs....This is why the human race goes on having children, he thought. To remind us of the bliss of being loved." The horror and unfairness of the disease exist alongside the tenderness of human connections. At its heart, the book is about people living in places they never chose: the polio clinic, for the children in wheelchairs and calipers; Australia, for Frank's cultured parents. In one of the book's most moving scenes, Ida plays the piano for a charity benefit. In front of sleepy children and townsfolk "fresh-shaven, with big, clean ears," she nonetheless strives for perfection. "This was the land in which her life would take place....This was her audience....She must do her very best."
Every character, however minor, comes to life in these pages. Like her fictional pianist, London is a virtuoso.
Like an intense, beautiful, and deeply moving piece of music, Tremain’s captivating historical novel hits all the right notes.
When we first meet Gustav, the protagonist of Tremain’s (Merivel: A Man of His Time, 2012, etc.) exquisite novel, he is 5 years old and living with his none-too-happy widowed mother, Emilie, in their extremely modest apartment in the small Swiss town of Matzlingen. The year is 1947, and the postwar mood is grim, yet Gustav finds patches of color, flavor, and beauty in the drab, gray world he and Emilie inhabit: the dark purple of a nearly new lipstick he discovers in the gratings of the church he and his mother clean to supplement her income from working in a cheese cooperative; the taste of Emilie’s knodel; the bloom of the cherry tree in their building’s courtyard. Gustav’s mother has offered him one chief lesson: he must “master himself,” as, she says, his late father did before him. “You have to be like Switzerland,” she tells him. “You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong. Then, you will have the right kind of life.” Into this relatively cheerless world walks Anton, a talented yet moody Jewish musical prodigy who becomes Gustav’s most treasured friend. In concert with Gustav’s story, Tremain, who won the 2008 Orange Prize for The Road Home, also tells that of his father, Erich, a strong, handsome assistant police chief who followed his conscience and his heart. Eventually, Gustav’s lifelong friendship with Anton helps him to unlearn the stern lessons of his mother and unlock the secrets and yearnings of his own heart.
Spanning the decades from 1937 to 2002, Tremain’s novel is less sprawling than it is deeply intimate, a soul-stirring song about friendship, conscience, and love.
Prentiss’ sweeping debut follows three intertwining lives through the swirling energy, burning excitement, and crushing disappointment of New York City’s rapidly shifting art world at the dawn of the 1980s.
It’s Dec. 31, 1979, and James Bennett, a synesthetic rising star of art criticism, and his also-brilliant pregnant wife are toasting the new decade at the kind of swanky art-scene party they prefer to avoid. Also at the party: painter Raul Engales, a charismatic Argentinian expatriate who's done his best to erase his past life and is now poised, though he doesn’t know it yet, to become the darling of the art world. And: in a bar downtown later that night, Raul catches the (gorgeous) eye of 21-year-old Lucy Marie Olliason, recently transplanted from Ketchum, Idaho, in love with the city, and ready to fall in love with the artists in it. Their stories crash into each other like dominoes—the critic, the artist, and the muse—their separate futures and personal tragedies inextricably linked. The particulars of their connections, romantic and artistic, are too big and too poetic to be entirely plausible, but then, this is not a slice-of-life novel: this is a portrait of an era, an intoxicating Manhattan fairy tale. Prentiss’ characters—rich, nuanced, satisfyingly complicated—are informed not only by their emotional lives, but also by their intellectual and artistic ones; their relationships to art are as lively and essential as their relationships to each other. But while the novel is elegantly infused with an ambient sense of impending loss—this is New York on the cusp of drastic gentrification—it miraculously manages to dodge the trap of easy nostalgia, thanks in large part to Prentiss’ wry humor.
As affecting as it is absorbing. A thrilling debut.
Smith’s latest novel (Bright and Distant Shores, 2011, etc.) is a rich and detailed story that connects a 17th-century Dutch painting to its 20th-century American owner and the lonely but fervent art student who makes the life-changing decision to forge it.
Marty de Groot, a Manhattan lawyer plagued by infertility and the stuffiness that comes from centuries of familial wealth, has one special thing to his name: a collection of 17th-century Dutch paintings, including rare pieces by female artists of the era. At the Edge of the Wood is the only work attributed to Sarah de Vos, and it’s hung above the marital bed in Marty’s Park Avenue triplex for generations. Until one fall day in 1957 it’s plucked off his wall and replaced by a meticulously executed forgery. Behind this deception is not a mastermind but an Australian graduate student named Ellie Shipley, who was approached by a secretive art dealer to replicate the painting. Ellie lives and thinks like a member of the Dutch golden age, boiling rabbit pelts in her claustrophobic Brooklyn apartment for glue, pulling apart antique canvases to understand their bones, and building them up again layer by layer. This is a woman who sees herself in de Vos and would do anything to merge their legacies together. In showing how this is a monumental occasion in Ellie's life, a truly intimate experience for her, Smith turns forgery into art, replication into longing, deceit into an act of love: Ellie works in “topography, the impasto, the furrows where sable hairs were dragged into tiny painted crests to catch the light. Or the stray line of charcoal or chalk, glimpsed beneath a glaze that’s three hundred years old.” The narrative stretches from a period of grief in de Vos’ life that compelled her to paint At the Edge of the Wood, to 1950s New York to the year 2000 at a museum in Sydney where original and forgery meet—in turn reconnecting Ellie with Marty. “Here comes Marty de Groot, the wrecking ball of the past”: just one example of the suspense Smith manages to carry throughout his narrative, suspense bound up in brilliant layers of paint and the people who dedicate their lives to appreciating its value.
This is a beautiful, patient, and timeless book, one that builds upon centuries and shows how the smallest choices—like the chosen mix for yellow paint—can be the definitive markings of an entire life.
Life as opera: the intrigues and passions of a star soprano in 19th-century Paris.
She was the last surviving member of a Minnesota farm family swept away by fever; "Lilliet Berne" is a name she borrowed off a gravestone by the East River on her way to board a ship to Europe in search of her mother's people. That mission is eventually abandoned as her original identity is buried under a succession of new incarnations and schemes for survival. She becomes a circus equestrienne, a high-level courtesan, a maid to the empress of France, a spy, and, ultimately, a "Falcon," the rarest breed of soprano—but double dealings, false steps, and bad bargains mark the way. When she is at the pinnacle of her fame, a writer brings her a book he plans to transform into an opera, hoping she will create the central role in its premiere. Reading it, she realizes with horror that the main character is her and that whoever has written it knows all her secrets. To find out who that is, she unfurls the whole of her complicated history and its characters, among them a tenor who's obsessed with her, a comtesse who uses her, her one real friend, and her only love. The story goes through the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, and the Third Republic, with cameos by Verdi, Bizet, P.T. Barnum, George Sand, and others. If the plot of Chee's (Edinburgh, 2002) second novel is overly elaborate, the voice he has created for his female protagonist never falters. Always holding a few cards close to her chest, Lilliet Berne commands the power of "the ridiculous and beloved thief that is opera—the singer who sneaks into the palace of your heart and somehow enters singing aloud the secret hope or love or grief you hoped would always stay secret, disguised as melodrama; and you are so happy you have lived to see it done."
Richly researched, ornately plotted, this story demands, and repays, close attention.
The complex relationship among three women and the film world drives this tale of technology and its discontents.
Much like Spiotta's previous novel, Stone Arabia (2011), this book is anchored by a fringe artist: Meadow built her career on experimental, Errol Morris–esque documentaries on tough subjects like the Kent State shootings and the Argentine Dirty War. That work brought her controversy but also acclaim and the freedom to write her own ticket creatively. So why, as the story opens, is she spinning a tale on a film blog about how she spent a year after high school as a consort to an aging Orson Welles? The answer isn’t plain or immediate, but Spiotta, master of austere indirection, introduces a pair of additional characters who hint at an answer. One is Jelly, a woman who for years insinuated herself into the lives of Hollywood producer types, cold-calling them with no ambition beyond building a friendship over the phone. (She calls it a " 'pure' call experience.") The other is Meadow’s childhood friend Carrie, who for years gamely indulged Meadow’s avant-garde film geekery before pursuing a career creating more mainstream, crowd-pleasing fare. Which of them has followed the most authentic artistic path, and how much does her chosen media facilitate or stand in her way? In Meadow, Spiotta has imagined an emotionally robust character who struggles with these questions at turns with humor (as when she films a boyfriend getting drunk for a Warhol-esque essay film), empathy (as when Jelly becomes her subject), or, later, tragic pathos when she discovers the crushing extreme of what her dispassionate film style can uncover. Early on, she feels “her camera was a magic machine that made people reveal themselves whether they liked it or not.” There’s some darkness to that magic, Spiotta argues, but she also finds something miraculous in how technology can reveal us to ourselves. It’s as true of this novel as of Meadow’s oeuvre.
A superb, spiky exploration of artistic motivation.
In McKeon’s exquisite second novel, two Dublin young people—poet and student Catherine and aspiring art photographer James—tumble into a friendship that, though its lines shift and blur, ultimately helps bring their identities into focus.
From almost the first moment they meet, Catherine and James are inseparable. They talk on the phone for hours and write long letters to each other when they're apart, walk arm in arm, and share a special common language when they're together. Although Catherine, still adjusting to life at university and away from her rural childhood home, is studying art history and English, James, who also grew up outside the city and is just back from a stint working as an assistant to a well-known photographer in Berlin, seems (to her, at least) to know far more about, well, everything than she. With James, Catherine learns to be bold and take risks—intellectual, emotional, physical. James, too, finds a path to himself and to his future. But as their relationship, tracked over the course of a little more than a year, in 1997-'98, becomes increasingly complex and weightier and takes on new dimensions, it begins to fracture. McKeon, whose debut novel, Solace, won the 2011 Faber Prize and was voted the Irish Book of the Year, captures something essential about friendship, vulnerability, love, and longing. As it explores the push-pull of this achingly intimate, increasingly obsessive relationship—the way James and Catherine attract and repel each other as if they were two strong magnets turned this way and that—the story throbs with the tension between them. This is youth; this is yearning. These are the lessons we learn about desire and disappointment, discovered strengths and regrettable weaknesses—and how to forgive ourselves for the mistakes we made when we did not yet know how to keep ourselves from making them.
McKeon regards the characters in her keenly wrought love story—for all their flaws and fragility—with insight, sensitivity, and a compassion that proves contagious.
Middle-aged parents and hormone-addled teenagers all have some growing up to do—entertainingly—in the course of one hot Brooklyn summer.
Straub’s last novel, The Vacationers (2014), took place on Mallorca and was a perfect vacation between two covers. Her new book is set in a grittier locale, but in Straub’s fond gaze, it too feels like an enchanted land out of a Shakespearan comedy: “Ditmas Park was great in the summertime. The sycamores and oaks were full and wide, leaving big pools of shade along the sidewalks. Families were on their porches…Neighbors waved.” She takes us inside two of the area’s rambling yet run-down Victorian houses and introduces their owners: Elizabeth, a real estate agent, and Andrew, whose family trust has allowed him to get to his late 40s without much of a career, and their sweet son, Harry; and Zoe and Jane, who own a busy restaurant and live with their daughter, Ruby, who describes herself as having a “bad attitude.” Years ago, Elizabeth, Andrew, and Zoe were in a band together at Oberlin, which would have been completely forgotten except that their fourth band mate, Lydia, had a smash hit as a solo artist with one of Elizabeth’s songs, “Mistress of Myself,” before dying of an overdose. Now Hollywood has come calling, wanting to make a movie about Lydia, but for some reason Andrew doesn’t want to sell their rights to the song. Meanwhile, Zoe thinks she wants a divorce, Harry and Ruby start sleeping together when they’re supposed to be studying for the SAT, Andrew is hanging out at a creepy yoga studio, and Elizabeth frets that their idyllic life might be changing and tries to hold them all together. In chapters whose points of view rotate among the players, Straub pays close and loving attention to what foods her characters eat, what they have hanging on their walls, where their money comes from and goes, and the subtle fluctuations of their varying relationships. She’s a precise and observant writer whose supple prose carries the story along without a snag.
Straub’s characters are a quirky and interesting bunch, well aware of their own good fortune, and it’s a pleasure spending time with them in leafy Ditmas Park.
A Colombian political cartoonist has second thoughts about a takedown he delivered decades earlier.
As Vásquez’s spare but powerful novel opens, Javier is comfortably settled into a long career as an acclaimed satirist: luminaries pack a theater for an event celebrating his life, culminating with the announcement of a postage stamp bearing his likeness. (Even his estranged wife is in attendance.) The good feelings are wrecked the next day, however, with the arrival in his remote home of Samanta, who wants to discuss some history. Twenty-eight years earlier she was a friend of Javier’s daughter, Beatriz, and one evening the pair of 7-year-olds accidentally got drunk on the dregs of the glasses at a party. The next day Javier, projecting his anxieties, drew a cartoon suggesting a congressman who attended the party was a pedophile, though he wasn’t near the girls. From there, Vásquez (The Sound of Things Falling, 2014, etc.) contemplates the fickle nature of reputations and how callowness and selfishness can engineer their destruction. “Life turns us into caricatures of ourselves,” Javier bemusedly observes during the celebration of his career, but as the story progresses it’s clear he’s spent little time thinking that he himself might be affected by a lifetime of exaggerating flaws and mocking foibles—and ignoring his own anger and neglectfulness. Samanta and Javier’s investigation of the fate of the ruined congressman and his family troubles those around him: “The last thing you want to do is start asking questions,” his editor tells him, a peculiar utterance from a newspaperman. Though the scope is less broad than Vásquez’s other novels, it has plenty of philosophical bite, and he’s savvy about our private urges to preen and elevate ourselves.
A brisk and sophisticated study of a conscience in crisis.
A keen, controlled novel about dance and blackness steps onto a stage of cultural land mines.
Smith, who wowed the world at 24 with her debut novel, White Teeth (2000), once again crafts quicksilver fiction around intense friendship, race, and class. She opens with a scene of that social media–fueled nightmare: public humiliation. “I’d lost my job, a certain version of my life, my privacy,” the unnamed narrator tells us. She was “put on a plane, sent back home, to England, set up with a temporary rental in St. John's Wood.” From this three-paragraph prologue, the story jumps abruptly back 24 years to 1982, when the narrator, a “horse-faced seven-year-old,” meets Tracey, another brown girl in North West London arriving for dance class. The result is a novel-length current of competition, love, and loathing between them. Tracey has the tap-dancing talent; the narrator’s gifts are more subterranean: “elegance attracted me. I liked the way it hid pain.” Tracey struggles for a life onstage while the narrator flies aloft, becoming personal assistant to Aimee, an Australian pop star: “I scheduled abortions, hired dog walkers, ordered flowers, wrote Mother’s Day cards, applied creams, administered injections, squeezed spots, and wiped very occasional break-up tears.” Smith is dazzling in her specificity, evoking predicaments, worldviews, and personalities with a camera-vivid precision. The mothers of the two women cube the complexity of this work, an echo of the four protagonists in Smith’s last novel, NW (2012). All their orbits are distorted by Aimee, the Madonna/Angelina Jolie–like celebrity impulsively building a girls’ school in West Africa. The novel toggles its short chapters between decades and continents, swinging time and geography. Aimee and her entourage dabble in philanthropy; Tracey and the narrator grope toward adulthood; and Fred Astaire, dancing in blackface in Swing Time, becomes an avatar of complexity presiding over the whole thing. In her acknowledgements, Smith credits an anthropological study, Islam, Youth and Modernity in the Gambia. Its insights flare against a portrait of Aimee, on the other side of the matrix, procuring “a baby as easily as she might order a limited-edition handbag from Japan.”
Moving, funny, and grave, this novel parses race and global politics with Fred Astaire’s or Michael Jackson's grace.