Mitchell’s latest could have been called The Rime of the Ancient Marinus—the “youthful ancient Marinus,” that is. Another exacting, challenging and deeply rewarding novel from logophile and time-travel master Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, 2004, etc.).
As this long (but not too long) tale opens, we’re in the familiar territory of Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (2006)—Thatcher’s England, that is. A few dozen pages in, and Mitchell has subverted all that. At first it’s 1984, and Holly Sykes, a 15-year-old suburban runaway, is just beginning to suss out that it’s a scary, weird place, if with no shortage of goodwilled protectors. She wants nothing but to get away: “The Thames is riffled and muddy blue today, and I walk and walk and walk away from Gravesend towards the Kent marshes and before I know it, it’s 11:30 and the town’s a little model of itself, a long way behind me.” Farther down the road, Holly has her first inkling of a strange world in which “Horologists” bound up with one Yu Leon Marinus and, well, sort-of-neo-Cathars are having it out, invited into Holly’s reality thanks to a tear in her psychic fabric. Are they real? As one strange inhabitant of a “daymare” asks, “But why would two dying, fleeing incorporeals blunder their way to you, Holly Sykes?” Why indeed? The next 600 pages explain why in a course that moves back and forth among places (Iceland, Switzerland, Iraq, New York), times and states of reality: Holly finds modest success in midlife even as we bone clocks tick our way down to a society of her old age that will remind readers of the world of Sloosha’s Crossin’ from Cloud Atlas: The oil supply has dried up, the poles are melting, gangs roam the land, and the old days are a long way behind us. “We live on,” says an ever unreliable narrator by way of resigned closing, “as long as there are people to live on in.”
If Thatcher’s 1984 is bleak, then get a load of what awaits us in 2030. Speculative, lyrical and unrelentingly dark—trademark Mitchell, in other words.
An exquisitely tuned exploration of class in post-Edwardian Britain—with really hot sex.
It’s 1922, and Frances Wray lives with her mother in a big house in a genteel South London neighborhood. Her two brothers were killed in the war and her father died soon after, leaving behind a shocking mess of debt. The solution: renting out rooms to Leonard and Lilian Barber, members of the newly emerging “clerk class,” the kind of people the Wrays would normally never mix with but who now share their home. Tension is high from the first paragraph, as Frances waits for the new lodgers to move in: “She and her mother had spent the morning watching the clock, unable to relax.” The first half of the book slowly builds the suspense as Frances falls for the beautiful and passionate Lilian and teases at the question of whether she will declare her love; when she does, the tension grows even thicker, as the two bump into each other all over the house and try to find time alone for those vivid sex scenes. The second half, as in an Ian McEwan novel, explores the aftermath of a shocking act of violence. Waters is a master of pacing, and her metaphor-laced prose is a delight; when Frances and Lilian go on a picnic, “the eggs [give] up their shells as if shrugging off cumbersome coats”—just like the women. As life-and-death questions are answered, new ones come up, and until the last page, the reader will have no idea what’s going to happen.
Waters keeps getting better, if that’s even possible after the sheer perfection of her earlier novels.
In film director Cronenberg's first novel, an odd (to say the least) Parisian couple—Naomi, a tabloid reporter who uses spying techniques, and Nathan, a photojournalist who shoots controversial medical procedures—have extreme sexual adventures while competing with each other for the ultimate scoop.
Naomi is investigating the disappearance of a famous French philosopher, Aristide Arosteguy, who is suspected of killing his wife, Célestine—and consuming chunks of her. She tracks him down to Japan, where she trades sex for his confessions—and much more. Her lover, Nathan, contracts a rare sexually transmitted disease after coupling with the cancerous patient of a discredited Hungarian surgeon. He goes to Toronto to meet the researcher his disease was named after. He has strange encounters with the researcher's daughter. Unsettling surprises are in store for everyone. Cronenberg's fascination with human flesh and its relationship to and interaction with technology—in this case, a full regalia of laptops, cellphones, iPads and cameras—will be familiar to those who have seen his films. The rampant couplings, as you might guess, are anything but titillating. But Cronenberg, who has never made what could be called a comedy, delivers one here in detailing his hapless characters' misadventures. Stripped of their obsessions and digital equipment, Naomi and Nathan are empty vessels. Like many of us, they've spent so much time in an artificial world that it's eaten away at the meaning in their lives.
Cronenberg's literary debut is not for everyone, but those who enjoyed eXistenZ and Naked Lunch will find much to like here.
Smiley (Private Life, 2010, etc.) follows an Iowa farm family through the thick of the 20th century.
We first meet Walter Langdon in 1920 as he anxiously surveys his fields. Milk prices are down, and anyway “worry-shading-into-alarm [is] Walter’s ever-present state,” thinks wife Rosanna. The freakish accidental death of a toddler daughter is the only incident here that really justifies Walter’s apprehensions (it wouldn’t be a Smiley novel without at least one cruel twist of fate), but underpinning the comparatively placid unfolding of three decades is farm folks’ knowledge that disaster is always one bad crop away, and luck is never to be relied on. (The sardonic folk tale “Lucky Hans” is retold several times.) The Langdons raise five children to varied destinies. Smart, charismatic Frank leaves home for college and the Army. Steady, sensitive Joe stays home on the farm, its perennial round of backbreaking labor somewhat alleviated by such innovations as tractors and commercial fertilizer. Golden girl Lillian marries a government employee who gets Frank involved in spying on suspected communist agents after the war—ironic, since Rosanna’s sister Eloise is a Trotskyist. Times are changing: Henry, the family intellectual, will clearly end up in academia; Lillian and Frank are both living in Eastern suburbs. Youngest daughter Claire is less vivid than her siblings, and the names begin to blur a bit as the postwar baby boom creates a burgeoning new generation, but for the most part Smiley juggles characters and events with her customary aplomb and storytelling craft. The novel doesn’t so much end as stop, adding to the sense that we’ve simply dropped in on a continuing saga. Smiley is the least sentimental of writers, but when Rosanna and Walter look at the 23 people gathered at Thanksgiving in 1948 and “agreed in an instant: something had created itself from nothing,” it’s a moment of honest sentiment, honestly earned.
An expansive, episodic tale showing this generally flinty author in a mellow mood: surprising, but engaging.
A long-awaited—and brilliant and disquieting—novel of faith and redemption by Scotland-based writer Faber (The Crimson Petal and the White, 2002, etc.).
Eschatological religion and apocalypse make a natural fit. Throw in a distant planet that's not populated by L. Ron Hubbard acolytes, and you have an intriguing scenario prima facie. Peter (think about the name) is a minister who, aspiring to be useful, signs up for a stint, courtesy of one of the world’s ruling corporations, on far-off Oasis, a forbidding chunk of rock on which the crew of the Nostromo, of Alien fame, wouldn’t be out of place. “This was not Gethsemane: he wasn’t headed for Golgotha, he was embarking on a great adventure.” So he thinks, allowing for his habit of casting events in religiously hallucinogenic terms. The natives are shy—and who wouldn’t be, given the rough humans who have come there before Peter—but receptive to his message, which deepens as Peter becomes more and more involved with his mission. Trouble is, things aren’t good back on Earth: His wife, with child, is staring what appear to be the end times in the face, even as life on Oasis, as one human denizen snarls, turns out to be “sorta like the Rapture by committee.” Is Peter good enough to make it through the second coming? He’s lived, as we learn, a fully charged sinner’s life before becoming saintly, and he’s just one crisis of faith away from meriting incineration along with the rest of the unholy; good thing the alien-tongued aliens of Oasis will put in a good word for him, even though their tongue may not be entirely comprehensible. Faber’s novel runs a touch long but is entirely true to itself and wonderfully original. It makes a fine update to Walter M. Miller Jr.’s Canticle for Leibowitz, with some Marilynne Robinson–like homespun theology thrown in for good measure.
What would Jesus do if he wore a space helmet? A profoundly religious exploration of inner turmoil, and one sure to irk the Pat Robertson crowd in its insistence on the primacy of humanity.
Murakami (IQ84, 2011, etc.) turns in a trademark story that blends the commonplace with the nightmarish in a Japan full of hollow men.
Poor achromatic Tsukuru. For some inexplicable reason, his four best friends, two males, two females, have cut him off without a word. Perhaps, he reckons between thoughts of suicide, it’s because they can pair off more easily without a fifth wheel; perhaps it’s because his name means “builder,” while all theirs have to do with colors: red pine, blue sea, white root, black field. Alas for Tsukuru, he “lacked a striking personality, or any qualities that made him stand out”—though, for all that, he’s different. Fast-forward two decades, and Tsukuru, true to both his name and his one great passion in life, designs train stations. He’s still wounded by the banishment, still mystified at his friends’ behavior. Helpfully, his girlfriend suggests that he make contact with the foursome to find out what he’d done and why he’d deserved their silence. Naturally, this being a Murakami story, the possibilities are hallucinogenic, Kafkaesque, and otherwise unsettling and ominous: “Gray is a mixture of white and black. Change its shade, and it can easily melt into various gradations of darkness.” That old saying about not asking questions if you don’t want to know the answers—well, there’s the rub, and there’s Tsukuru’s problem. He finds that his friends' lives aren’t so golden (the most promising of them now hawks Lexuses and knowingly owns up to it: “I bet I sound like a car salesman?”); his life by comparison isn't so bad. Or is it? It’s left to the reader to judge. Murakami writes with the same murky sense of time that characterized 1Q84, but this book, short and haunting, is really of a piece with older work such as Norwegian Wood and, yes, Kafka on the Shore. The reader will enjoy watching Murakami play with color symbolism down to the very last line of the story, even as Tsukuru sinks deeper into a dangerous enigma.
Another tour de force from Japan’s greatest living novelist.
Four sisters are McCullough’s avatars of women’s progress in Depression-era Australia.
In the fictional town of Corunda, New South Wales, two sets of twins are born to Anglican rector Thomas Latimer. Edda and Grace are the progeny of the reverend’s first wife, who dies in childbirth; Kitty and Heather, nicknamed Tufts, are born to Maude, his redoubtable second wife. Stunning Kitty is her mother's favorite, which poisons Maude's relationship with all four girls. Largely to escape Maude, the twins, upon reaching young womanhood, train as nurses at the local hospital. (Edda’s dream of medical school has been dashed, thanks to Maude.) This rambling, episodic tome follows the women into their 30s. Dreamy Grace, who’s obsessed with steam locomotives, marries fellow train enthusiast Bear. Edda begins a discreet affair with Jack, one of two heirs to the vast Burdum family fortune. Spinsterish Tufts has a similarly intense but platonic friendship with Liam, a pathologist. Charles Burdum, raised in England, returns to claim the lion’s share of his family's wealth. Determined to enter politics and marry Kitty (not necessarily in that order), he achieves both goals but can’t tame Kitty’s volatility or modulate her foul mouth. Edda surprises everyone by marrying Melbourne politico Sir Rawson—since he's gay, this is another deep but platonic friendship. The chief attractions here are the dissection of Australian society during the Great Depression and the detailed exposure of sex discrimination and feminist struggles, Australian style. This is clearly territory that McCullough knows well, but she doesn't manage to endow her story with much conflict or narrative drive.
Armand, Seth, Akasha and, of course, Lestat de Lioncourt are back with a vengeance—and, natch, they’re looking to put the bite on someone.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Lestat fans had reason to fear they’d seen the last of their—well, man, maybe, depending on how you define “man.” After an 11-year dry spell since Blood Canticle (2003), though, Rice has resurrected her Vampire Chronicles, picking up where one of the earlier books, The Queen of the Damned (1988), left off. A lot’s happened since that time. For one thing, the vamps have plenty of new technology to play with, with Lestat himself, the rock star manqué, in love with his iPod and with that undead popster Jon Bon Jovi, “playing his songs over and over obsessively.” That adulation is about the most frightening thing in Rice’s latest; it’s not that the novel is without its spine-tingling moments so much as that Rice has prepared the ground too well, with not just her own legacy, but also a legion of lesser imitators (Charlaine Harris, Stephenie Meyer, et al.) competing with her on the sanguinary-moments front. The latest installment finds the vamps at war with themselves, crowded on a planet with plenty of competition, indeed, but with plenty of juicy humans to nibble on: “So rich, so healthy, so filled with exotic flavors, so different from blood in the time he’d been made.” Rice extends the Chronicles even farther into the past, rounding out storylines stretching into ancient Egypt, while reintroducing a large cast of familiars and adding some new characters to the mix. Suffice it to say, first, that the vamps are no longer limiting their recruitment to liberal arts majors, to the poets and singers of yore; suffice it also to say that the busy intergenerational (and inter–planes of existence) conflict that ensues screams out for at least one sequel, if not a string of them.
Rice fans probably need not fear a drought of her thirst-quenching tales, then. As for this one, it’s trademark Rice: talky, inconsequential, but good old-fashioned fanged fun.
More balm in Gilead as Robinson (When I Was a Child I Read Books, 2012, etc.) returns to familiar ground to continue the saga ofJohn Amesand his neighbors.
Ames, Robinson’s readers will know, is a minister in the hamlet of Gilead, a quiet place in a quiet corner of a quiet Midwestern state. Deceptively quiet, we should say, for Robinson, ever the Calvinist (albeit a gentle and compassionate one), is a master at plumbing the roiling depths below calm surfaces. In this installment, she turns to the title character, Ames’ wife, who has figured mostly just in passing in Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). How, after all, did this young outsider wind up in a place so far away from the orbits of most people? What secrets does she bear? It turns out that Lila has quite a story to tell, one of abandonment, want, struggle and redemption—classic Robinson territory, in other words. Robinson provides Lila with enough back story to fuel several other books, her prose richly suggestive and poetic as she evokes a bygone time before “everyone…started getting poorer and the wind turned dirty” that merges into a more recent past that seems no less bleak, when Lila, having subsisted on cattails and pine sap, wanders into Gilead just to look at the houses and gardens: “The loneliness was bad, but it was better than anything else she could think of.” She never leaves, of course, becoming part of the landscape—and, as readers will learn, essential to the gradually unfolding story of Gilead. And in Robinson’s hands, that small town, with its heat and cicadas, its tree toads and morning dew, becomes as real as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, just as charged with meaning if a touch less ominous, Lila’s talismanic knife notwithstanding.
Fans of Robinson will wish the book were longer—and will surely look forward to the next.
A breezy, comic novel about New-Age pretensions by an author who has since become renowned for more substantial fiction.
Before he received international acclaim with his autobiographical series of Patrick Melrose novels (Mother’s Milk, 2005, etc.)—dark, scathingly funny eviscerations of the British upper class—St. Aubyn seemed like a more conventionally comic novelist in this 1998 work, which is receiving belated American publication. It’s an engaging satire about people trying to achieve some higher cosmic consciousness while distracted by mundane affairs such as sex and money. “What else was there to do with sex and money except have misunderstandings about them?” says an heiress supporting a writer who doesn’t seem to be writing. The most fully fleshed and sympathetic male character, the closest one to a protagonist, is a British banker named Peter, who is even more disillusioned with the course of his life after falling into rapturous lust with and subsequently being forsaken by the libertine Sabine. He doesn’t even know her last name, but in this novel it seems that all roads lead to the spiritual Big Sur retreat of Esalen, where Peter falls into a deeply cosmic love with another woman while searching for clues to Sabine and where a dozen or so other characters converge for a tantric workshop that plays out like a British sex farce. The plot involves preop transsexuals, impotence, rock-star aspirations, a campaign to save the whales from AIDS, the potential for group sex with the elderly, and the smugly condescending “anti-guru guru” Adam and his partner, Yves. (Get it?) Much of the New-Age and Esalen context might have seemed dated even when written in the late 1990s, but the novel is really a romantic comedy at heart: “Everybody knew that being ‘in love’ was a state of temporary insanity, that’s why it was so important to make it last as long as possible.”
Diverting but minor early work from a major novelist.