There are some books that, for a range of reasons, I read but just didn’t get around to reviewing in full this year. Because I’d like to start the new year without a pile of books I haven’t reviewed yet glaring at me I thought I’d do a couple of round-ups instead. Today it’s fiction, later in the week will be non-fiction.
The Vanishing Futurist – Charlotte Hobson
In 1914, Gerty Freely moves from Cornwall to Moscow and becomes a governess. Narrated in Gerty’s old age from the house in Hackney where she lived with her husband until his death sixth months previously, The Vanishing Futurist tells a story of the Russian Revolution through Gerty’s involvement with Nikita Slavin and the commune they establish with friends. We know from the prologue that Slavin, an inventor, disappeared in January 1919. The official story is that he left in an invention of his own making but Gerty reveals the truth. A smart and ultimately heart-breaking novel about the price of freedom from social norms.
Speak – Louisa Hall
Five voices tell the story of the evolution of Artificial Intelligence. In 2040, Stephen R. Chinn, incarcerated in Texas State Correctional Institution, tells of how he designed babybots to help children with their speech. The babybots were programmed to respond to the things their owner told them, storing details in their memory. In transcripts from Chinn’s trial, we meet Gaby Ann White who talks to the voice of a former babybot called Mary3. Through the discussion we learn about the bond these children developed with their babybots before they were taken from them. In 1968, Karl Dettman writes to his wife, Ruth, who is using the computer he’s designed, called Mary, as a child substitute, causing tension in their marriage. The fourth voice are letters from Alan Turing which chart his friendship with Chris Morcom and his thoughts regarding Artificial Intelligence. Finally there’s The Diary of Mary Bradford, a pilgrim girl from the 1660s, which Ruth Dettman is editing – and has named her husband’s voice activated computer programme after. Hall weaves the five voices together showing a society both enamoured with and frightened of AI. A superb novel which should have garnered far more attention than it has.
The Big Lie – Julie Mayhew
A counterfactual novel in which the Nazis have won World War Two and the UK is part of the Greater German Reich. Jessika Keller is the daughter of a high-ranking official, loyal to the state and a promising ice skater. When Jess is seven, the Hart family move onto her street and their daughter, Clementine, becomes her best friend. But Clementine and her family aren’t like the Kellers. Clementine is a rebel and soon her attitude starts to have an effect on Jess. And what would happen in a right-wing state if Jess were to fall in love with the wrong person? Beautifully written and all the more chilling considering current world events.
LaRose – Louise Erdrich
LaRose begins with Landreaux accidentally shooting dead his neighbour’s young son. Following traditional example, Landreaux and his wife, Emmaline, send their young son, LaRose, to live with their neighbours in place of the dead son. LaRose not only tells the story of the fallout of the death, the switch and the impact on both families, it tells the families’ backstories. There had been a LaRose in each generation of Emmaline’s family for over a hundred years. We follow the story of Emmaline’s ancestor LaRose and discover the relationship between Landreaux and Romeo Puyat, who used to be classmates and now despise each other. A complex, engrossing, family/community saga that explores how earlier generations affect and influence the present.
The Girls – Emma Cline
No doubt you’ve already heard of Emma Cline’s debut The Girls. Set in California in 1969, Cline details the summer when her narrator Evie becomes enamoured with a group of girls and becomes part of a cult. This leads to an encounter with a Manson-like figure. The summer and adolescence are well-captured. Evie rebels against her mother, pushing boundaries at home, as well as legally, in her desire to be part of an adult world she doesn’t understand. However, Cline inserts chapters told in a present day in which Evie is staying at a friend’s apartment with her friend’s son and his girlfriend. This gives Evie the opportunity to reflect upon what happened in 1969, commenting on some of the behaviour displayed by the two young adults she finds herself living with. Not only are these chapters not as vivid and atmospheric as those from Evie’s adolescence but knowing Evie survives to middle-age also serves to undercut the tension of the 1969 scenes. Cline’s a writer with a promising future but The Girls fails to live up to its promise.
Thanks to Faber and Faber, Orbit, HotKey Books, Corsair and Chatto & Windus for the review copies.