A murder investigation centering on postwar London brings together two very different people in Busby’s last novel.
Busby, who died in 2012 after a long illness, wrote her book while in the final stages of cancer. Reflecting the abject bleakness of daily life following World War II, when necessities were rationed and men newly returned from the front lines found there was no work to be had, Busby’s story simultaneously follows Lillian Frobisher in the last days leading up to her murder in a bombing and the longings of a police investigator for the kind of relationship that eludes him. Divisional DI Jim Cooper is assigned to solve the killing of a woman whose body is discovered by schoolboys, but her death only serves to underscore his own loneliness. Deserted when the war broke out by the woman he loved, Cooper finds his life sad and repetitive and despairs of ever finding love again. Meanwhile, Cooper and the policewoman who has been assigned to drive him around London in connection with the case are piecing together the events leading up to Frobisher’s murder one small bit at a time. When police identify her as the wife of a returned serviceman who cares for her elderly mother in a bombed-out home, they inch closer to finding out who actually killed the woman. The story of two desperately lonely individuals whose lives have become meaningless, Busby’s novel is based on an actual murder that took place after the war. Set against the bleakness of a London that’s short on everything and still in tatters from bombings and splintered relationships, the book captures the hopelessness and desperation of the times. Busby’s husband prefaces his wife’s book with a beautifully written tribute to his late wife and her talent, which makes the reading experience even more poignant.
A moody gem of a novel that gives moving testament to the exemplary talent that is Busby's lasting legacy.
A layered, mannered, beguiling yarn, longlisted for the Booker Prize, by New Zealander novelist Catton.
When Walter Moody arrives on a “wild shard of the Coast”—that of the then-remote South Island—in late January 1866, he discovers that strange doings are afoot: A local worthy has disappeared, a local belle de nuit has tried to do herself in, the town drunk turns out to possess a fortune against all odds, and the whole town is mumbling, murmuring and whispering like Sweethaven in Robert Altman’s Popeye. Indeed, when Moody walks into his hotel on that—yes, dark and stormy—night, he interrupts a gathering of 12 local men who are trying to get to the bottom of the matter. Moody, as it turns out, is trained as a lawyer—“By training only,” he demurs, “I have not yet been called to the Bar”—but, like everyone else, has been lured to the wild by the promise of gold. It is gold in all its glory that fuels this tale, though other goods figure, too, some smuggled in by the very phantom bark that has deposited Moody on the island. Catton’s long opening, in which the narrative point of view ping-pongs among these 13 players and more, sets the stage for a chronologically challenging tale in which mystery piles atop mystery. Catton writes assuredly and with just the right level of flourish: “He was thinking of Sook Yongsheng, lying cold on the floor inside—his chin and throat smeared with boot-black, his eyebrows thickened, like a clown.” She blends elements of Victorian adventure tale, ghost story, detective procedural à la The Moonstone and shaggy dog tale to produce a postmodern tale to do Thomas Pynchon or Julio Cortázar proud; there are even echoes of Calvino in the author’s interesting use of both astronomy and astrology. The possibilities for meta cleverness and archness are endless, and the whole business is too smart by half, but Catton seems mostly amused by her concoction, and that’s just right. About the only fault of the book is its unending length: There’s not an ounce of flab in it, but it’s still too much for ordinary mortals to take in.
There’s a lovely payoff after the miles of twists and turns. It’s work getting there but work of a thoroughly pleasant kind.
The big, bad Borgia dynasty undergoes modern reconsideration in the best-selling British author’s epic new biofiction.
Eclipsing her earlier period novels in scope, Dunant’s (Sacred Hearts, 2009, etc.) latest is an impressively confident, capable sweep through the corrupt politics and serpentine relationships of a legendary family. Marshaling a mass of material, including contemporary research, Dunant delivers a colorful, sensual and characteristically atmospheric account of Rodrigo Borgia’s ascent to the papacy as Alexander VI in 1492 and his subsequent tireless efforts to build a power base through the strategic use of his four children. Cesare is the sly, shrewd son, a match for his father in guile but with a colder heart, who moves ruthlessly from cardinal to soldier as politics and advancement dictate. Beloved daughter Lucrezia makes one strategic marriage after another while nursing a powerful attachment to Cesare. Two more sons play similarly useful roles, forging alliances. The politics are complicated, but Dunant’s clear account is balanced by oddly affectionate character portraits informed by her interest in the psychology of these larger-than-life figures. Closing at a bittersweet moment that fuses family fortunes and realpolitik, the author promises a second volume.
Dunant’s biggest and best work to date, this intelligently readable account of formative events and monster players has Hilary Mantel–era quality best-seller stamped all over it.
This multigenerational story of a privileged family’s vacations on Massachusetts’ Buzzards Bay is as much about the place as the people.
In 1942, wheelchair-bound insurance executive Mr. Porter (shades of FDR), his stoic wife, three daughters—beloved oldest son Charlie is off training to be a pilot—and gardening expert mother, along with assorted staff, are one of the few families summering at Ashaunt Point, where an Army base has been temporarily set up nearby. Graver (Awake, 2004, etc.) introduces the family members, particularly the bright, slightly rebellious 16-year-old Helen, in sharp, nuanced sketches while focusing on Bea, the family’s Scottish nursemaid, who is devoted to youngest daughter, Jane. After the first true romance of her life, 34-year-old Bea turns down a soldier’s marriage proposal in order to remain with the Porters. By 1947, Helen takes the story’s center stage. Studying abroad, newly in love with ideas and a man, she writes reflective but girlishly innocent letters home. By the ’60s, when Hurricane Donna hits Ashaunt, all three sisters have married. While Jane seems conventionally happy and middle sister Dossy suffers from bouts of clinical depression, Helen is still trying to find her way. Pregnant with her fourth child while enrolled in graduate school, she feels torn between love of family and growing intellectual ambitions. A decade later, Helen’s troubled oldest son, Charlie, named after the uncle who was killed in World War II and always Helen’s favorite, moves into a cabin on the peninsula, which he finds threatened by encroaching development. Helen and Charlie’s difficult but enduring mother-son relationship is particularly moving, but every character is given his/her emotional due. As one generation passes to the next, Ashaunt Point remains the gently wild refuge where the Porters can most be themselves.
A lovely family portrait: elegiac yet contemporary, formal yet intimate.
Spanning World War II to 9/11, Australian novelist Jordan delivers a witty and wise family saga.
The novel begins in 1939 with Kip Westaway, a 15-year-old resident of a working-class Melbourne suburb. His father has recently died (having fallen, drunk, off a trolley car); they’ve had to take in a boarder; Kip has quit school to do odd jobs for the furniture shop next door. Kip goes about his day: a scolding from his sour mother, Jean, the usual jousting with his twin brother, Francis, a bloody knee thanks to the neighborhood hoodlums, comfort from his beloved older sister Connie, a brief chat with the most beautiful girl in Melbourne, the gift of a shilling from his kindhearted employer, Mr. Hustings—inconsequential events that begin to resonate with each ensuing chapter. Sixty years later, we find Kip’s daughter Stanzi in her office, preparing to frame her dad’s lucky shilling, until it disappears; perhaps her kleptomaniac client is to blame. This is followed by Jack’s story: The only son of Mr. Hustings, Jack has just returned from a rural sheep station and is at a crossroads: He wants to go back to the country but feels the pressure to enlist and fight the Nazis, then he sees Connie from his bedroom window and can think of nothing else. Skipping back and forth in time, from one character to another, Jordan builds a gorgeously layered story examining the innocent choices that shape a life, a family: the failures of favored son Francis, Kip’s grandson Alec’s fateful discovery, his mother Charlotte’s unplanned pregnancy, Jean’s heartbreaking maternal advice. Jordan closes the novel with Connie’s chapter. By now, everyone’s fate is known, but the love story between Connie and Jack—inspired by the novel's cover, a striking archival photo of a woman being hoisted up to a train window to kiss a departing soldier—is so romantically tragic, it feels that the story’s really been about them all along.
A small treasure, from the author of the wonderful romantic comedy Addition (2009).
In McBride’s version of events, John Brown’s body doesn’t lie a-mouldering in the grave—he’s alive and vigorous and fanatical and doomed, so one could say his soul does indeed go marching on.
The unlikely narrator of the events leading up to Brown’s quixotic raid at Harpers Ferry is Henry Shackleford, aka Little Onion, whose father is killed when Brown comes in to liberate some slaves. Brown whisks the 12-year-old away thinking he’s a girl, and Onion keeps up the disguise for the next few years. This fluidity of gender identity allows Onion a certain leeway in his life, for example, he gets taken in by Pie, a beautiful prostitute, where he witnesses some activity almost more unseemly than a 12-year-old can stand. The interlude with Pie occurs during a two-year period where Brown disappears from Onion’s life, but they’re reunited a few months before the debacle at Harpers Ferry. In that time, Brown visits Frederick Douglass, and, in the most implausible scene in the novel, Douglass gets tight and chases after the nubile Onion. The stakes are raised as Brown approaches October 1859, for even Onion recognizes the futility of the raid, where Brown expects hundreds of slaves to rise in revolt and gets only a handful. Onion notes that Brown’s fanaticism increasingly approaches “lunacy” as the time for the raid gets closer, and Brown never loses that obsessive glint in his eye that tells him he’s doing the Lord’s work. At the end, Onion reasserts his identity as a male and escapes just before Brown’s execution.
McBride presents an interesting experiment in point of view here, as all of Brown’s activities are filtered through the eyes of a young adolescent who wavers between innocence and cynicism.
McDermott’s brief seventh novel (Child of My Heart, 2002, etc.) follows seven decades of a Brooklyn woman’s modest life to create one of the author’s most trenchant explorations into the heart and soul of the 20th-century Irish-American family.
Sitting on the stoop of her apartment building, 7-year-old Marie watches her 1920s Brooklyn neighborhood through the thick glasses she already wears—her ability to see or missee those around her is one of the novel’s overriding metaphors. She revels in the stories of her neighbors, from the tragedy of Billy Corrigan, blinded in the war, to the great romance of the Chebabs’ Syrian-Irish marriage. Affectionately nicknamed the “little pagan” in contrast to her studious, spiritual older brother Gabe, Marie feels secure and loved within her own family despite her occasional battles of will against her mother. Cozy in their narrow apartment, her parents are proud that Marie’s father has a white-collar job as a clerk, and they have great hopes for Gabe, who is soon off to seminary to study for the priesthood. Marie’s Edenic childhood shatters when her adored father dies. In fact, death is never far from the surface of these lives, particularly since Maries works as a young woman with the local undertaker, a job that affords many more glimpses into her neighbors and more storytelling. By then, Gabe has left the priesthood, claiming it didn’t suit him and that his widowed mother needs him at home. Is he a failure or a quiet saint? After her heart is broken by a local boy who dumps her for a richer girl, Marie marries one of Gabe’s former parishioners, has children and eventually moves away from the neighborhood. Gabe remains. Marie’s straightforward narration is interrupted with occasional jumps back and forward in time that create both a sense of foreboding and continuity as well as a meditation on the nature of sorrow.
There is no high drama here, but Marie and Gabe are compelling in their basic goodness, as is McDermott’s elegy to a vanished world.
Oates (Sourland, 2010, etc.) finishes up a big novel begun years before—and it’s a keeper.
If the devil were to come for a visit, à la The Master and Margarita, where would he turn up first? You might not guess Princeton, N.J., long Oates’ domicile, but there “the Curse” shows up, first in the spring of 1905, then in June, on “the disastrous morning of Annabel Slade’s wedding.” No slashing ensues, no pea-green vomiting; instead, the good citizens of Princeton steadily turn inward and against each other, the veneer of civilization swiftly flaking off on the edge of the wilderness within us and, for that matter, just outside Princeton. Woodrow Wilson might have said it differently when he reflected on his native Virginia: “The defeat of the Confederacy was the defeat of—a way of civilization that was superior to its conqueror’s.” It just could be that the devil’s civilization is superior to that of America in the days of the Great White Fleet and Jim Crow, for Wilson—a central figure in the novel and then-president of Princeton University—is no friend to the little people. But then, none of Oates’ male characters—some of them writers such as Mark Twain and Jack London, others politicos such as Grover Cleveland, still others academics plotting against the upstart Massachusetts Institute of Technology and its “devilish business”—are quite good guys: Representatives of the patriarchy, they bear its original sin. The Curse is the one of past crimes meeting the future, perhaps; it is as much psychological as real, though Oates takes pains to invest plenty of reality in it. Carefully and densely plotted, chockablock with twists and turns and fleeting characters, her novel offers a satisfying modern rejoinder to the best of M.R. James—and perhaps even Henry James.
Though it requires some work and has a wintry feel to it, it’s oddly entertaining, as a good supernatural yarn should be.
Eliot Saxby, the collector of the title and narrator of the book, heads for the Arctic in search of the elusive—and perhaps extinct—great auk.
The year is 1845, and Saxby makes his treacherous voyage on behalf of some English gentlemen who have a bet about whether there are any great auks that remain alive. Capt. Sykes is at the helm of the Amethyst, and he heads a crew of hardy and hardened sailors. Incongruously, also on the journey is one Edward Bletchley, an English gentleman, along with his cousin (or perhaps “cousin”) Clara, an attractive young woman. Sykes has been paid to veer off his usual course to accommodate the ornithological pursuit of the naturalist Saxby. Although one mystery in the novel obviously involves the search for the last of the great auks, another involves Saxby’s certainty that, 10 years earlier, he had gotten to know Clara under a different name, “Celeste,” when he worked for her father, though Clara has no recollection of ever having met Saxby. They form a bond, and both become greatly excited when they discover a small colony of great auks on a remote island. Excitement turns to outrage, however, when Sykes announces that he plans to kill the last of the birds and thus guarantee their extinction, and their skins will therefore be immensely valuable to collectors and museums. Saxby watches helplessly while Sykes’ crew methodically kills the auks, but he’s able to conceal an injured auk on board. He and Clara carefully tend the auk, feeding it and nursing it. Miraculously, the auk even lays an egg, assuring the further existence of the species, but Sykes and his duplicitous first mate, Quinlan French, turn out to know more than Saxby suspects.
Page shapes a fascinating historical narrative and has moving insights into our sometimes-dubious relationship to the natural world.
Phillips (Lark and Termite, 2009) fuses the established facts surrounding the 1931 trial of serial killer Harry Powers with her imagined version of the victims’ inner lives and the fictional lives of a handful of characters connected by the crimes.
Financially strapped since her husband’s death, Asta Eicher lives with her three children in a large suburban Chicago house, where she takes in boarders. Devoted to her and the children, former boarder Charles O’Boyle, who has prospered in his business, proposes to Asta while celebrating a joyful Christmas with the family in 1930. Aware he is gay, she turns him down. Instead, she assumes she will solve her problems by marrying Cornelius Pierson, with whom she’s secretly begun corresponding through the American Friendship Society (think snail-mail Match.com). In July 1931, Asta leaves her children with a babysitter while she travels with Cornelius to set up the family’s new home. A week later, Cornelius returns alone to fetch the kids. Phillips brings the Eichers to vivid life—Asta’s guilt, 14-year-old Grethe’s innocence, 12-year-old Hart’s protectiveness, 9-year-old Annabel’s spirit—and wisely eschews the grisly details of their deaths. Months later, the police discover the Eichers’ remains in the basement of a garage belonging to Harry Powers in Quiet Dell, W.V. Charged with the Eichers’ murders, Powers is indicted for the murder of Dorothy Lemke, whose body has also been discovered in the garage, because the circumstantial evidence in her case is stronger. The snippets of actual court testimony and reportage included are harrowing. While digging up dirt on Powers, (fictional) Chicago Tribune reporter Emily Thornhill falls deeply in love with Asta’s (real-life) banker. She also takes in an orphaned street urchin. So in the aftermath of one family’s destruction, Emily creates a new if unconventional “family” of people she loves.
Phillips’ prose is as haunting as the questions she raises about the natures of sin, evil and grace.
Witchcraft in 17th-century England: from the prolific British author (The StoneGods, 2008, etc.), a nightmarish novella that burns like a hot coal.
It was a notorious trial. The Lancashire Witches were tried and executed in 1612. England was jittery. The Protestant king, James I, was intent on hunting down witches and Catholics. The Gunpowder Plot had been a close call; all the Catholic plotters had fled north to Lancashire. Winterson uses the historical framework, grafting her inventions onto it. Entering the past with her is like walking through an open door. You are there. It is a world of rape and pillage. The most conspicuous witches are the Demdikes, a fearsome family of wretched indigents. The gentlewoman Alice Nutter, wealthy from inventing a dye, lets them live in a grim tower on her land. It is Good Friday. The Demdikes are planning a Black Mass. It is Alice’s misfortune to be at the tower when the magistrate arrives. All of them, save Alice, are placed under guard. Alice does not believe in witchcraft, but she does believe in magic, which flickers throughout the narrative. Thirty years before, in London, she had known the alchemist John Dee and the beautiful Elizabeth Southern, one of her two great loves. Then Elizabeth sold her soul to the Dark Gentleman, but Alice stayed young, thanks to Dee’s Elixir of Life. Now she is in danger, for her other great love, the Catholic plotter Southworth, has materialized at her house. The magistrate offers a deal: Give up Southworth and go free, or be tried as a witch with the others. Alice refuses, sealing her fate. As the tension mounts, Winterson weaves into her story a voodoo doll stuck with pins and an eerie meeting on haunted Pendle Hill between Alice and the dead John Dee. There will be torture and false testimony.
A grandson becomes obsessed with his grandmother’s story about a small-town disaster from many years ago.
Set in the Ozarks, the book is inspired by history and is far less noir-tinged than the author's earlier works (The Outlaw Album, 2011, etc.). Loosely based on the real-life West Plains Dance Hall Explosion of 1928, it centers on Alma DeGeer Dunahew, a maid with three children in fictional West Table, Mo. After years of bitter silence, Alma has chosen to unburden her story on her grandson, Alek. “Alma DeGeer Dunahew, with her pinched, hostile nature, her dark obsessions and primal need for revenge, was the big red heart of our family, the true heart, the one we keep secret and that sustains us,” Alek says. Alma’s younger sister Ruby may be a bit wayward, but Alma cherishes her. When Ruby is killed along with 42 other victims in the local Arbor Dance Hall, Alma is determined that the explosion was no accident. From these slim threads, Woodrell gives us many potential culprits, among them an Old Testament preacher and a gang of bank robbers, not to mention all the secrets and lies kept by the good people of any rural village. Short chapters reveal only the most telling and scarce details of Woodrell’s lineup of characters, lending the story a spare, bitter charm. This may be a minor work for this major American writer, but no craftsman toiling away in a workshop ever fashioned his wares so carefully.
A commanding fable about trespass and reconstruction from a titan of Southern fiction.