Flying Under the Radar…but well worth your time

2016 is shaping up to be such a corking year in books (thank goodness, eh, considering the state of everything else…) that I was going to do a books of the mid-year point list. However, when I drew up my longlist I noticed that it split neatly into two categories: those books you already know about because everyone is talking about them and those that I wish everyone was talking about because they’re brilliant and haven’t had the recognition they deserve. So here’s twelve books I’ve read so far this year that I think are worthy of your time and attention. Clicking on the covers will take you to my full review.

Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – Susan Fletcher

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A new patient arrives at Saint-Paul-De-Mausole, an artist called Vincent van Gogh. The story of the novel, however, belongs to Jeanne Trabuc, the warder’s wife. van Gogh serves as a catalyst for a change in her steady, claustrophobic life. A fantastic portrait of a marriage and the power of art to change how you see the world.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun – Sarah Ladipo Manyika

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Doctor Morayo Da Silva is approaching her 75th birthday. Former academic, ex-wife of an ambassador, she’s seen the world and lived it all. Now settled in San Francisco living a steady, reliable life…or so she tells us. The multiple narrators of this fascinating tale might not agree. (This also gives me an opportunity to point you in the direction of this excellent piece recommending more women novelists you might enjoy by Sarah Ladipo Manyika on Vela: Seven Bold and New International Voices.)

Martin John – Anakana Schofield

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You know that reviewers’ cliche about books staying with you long after you’ve turned the final page? Well I read this in December and I still shudder every time I think about it. Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Exiled to London from Ireland, by his mother, following an incident in a dentist’s waiting room, Martin John follows his rituals and circuits to ensure he stays on the right side of the law. But he’s already made a mistake and now Baldy Conscience has stayed too long in Martin’s house they’ll be consequences. John’s mother’s story is also very interesting, equal parts heartbreaking and disturbing.

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta

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A coming-of-age novel in 1970’s Nigeria. Ijeoma discovers her sexuality when she meets Amina. Her mother attempts to ‘correct’ her homosexuality through schooling her in The Bible and manoeuvring her into marriage. Gripping, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful.

Sitting Ducks – Lisa Blower

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The perfect post-Brexit novel if you’re one of those people wondering who was ‘stupid’ enough to vote Leave in those run-down post-industrial towns destroyed by Thatcher and neglected by subsequent administrations. ‘Totty’ Minton’s fed up of being skint, unemployed and living in a house marked for demolition by his former school mate and private property entrepreneur, Malcolm Gandy. Corruption and despair are rife in the lead-up to the 2010 general election and there seems to be no end in sight.

The Living – Anjali Joseph

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Joseph also looks at working class lives. 35-year-old, single mother, Claire, works in one of the UK’s remaining shoe factories and struggles with her teenage son, Jason, while her feud with her mother rumbles on. Arun, a shoe maker and grandfather in Kolhapur, struggles with his health and looks back on his life and marriage. An excellent character study.

Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

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The story of two women, Mahsa Weaver and Katherine Goodnow, who have two things in common: 1) jazz 2) their mixed heritage and the issues which have come with it. Two women who want independence but are prevented from having it in different ways although all under the banner of the patriarchy. Piercingly astute on women’s lives.

If You Look for Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa

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Mallika, Siva’s Amma, becomes pregnant with twins: a boy and a girl. The girl, Tara, arrives with the umbilical cord still around her neck and dies moments later. The boy, Siva, survives. But Mallika wanted a girl and her grief for Tara leads her to reject Siva and accuse her husband of killing Tara. Brought up as a boy by his father and grandmother and a girl by his mother, Siva spends his childhood and adolescence questioning whether he is a boy or a girl. His story is interwoven with that of George Gibbs, an Englishman who used to live in their house. You can read my interview with Sarayu Srivatsa here.

Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore)

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Simon Limbeau is fatally wounded in a road traffic accident. Pulled from the wreckage and transported to an Intensive Care Unit, the novel charts the progress to the point when Simon’s heart becomes that of Claire Méjan. As the heart’s journey progresses, we meet all of the people involved in transporting it from one body to another. Gripping and fascinating.

Masked Dolls – Shih Chiung-Yu (translated by Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland)

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Twenty-three chapters, each one titled ‘Conflict’ and the number of the chapter. Initially these conflicts seem to be individual tales: Judy and her Chinese lover; Jiaying and Lawrence, her Western boyfriend; Jiaying’s father’s stories of World War Two; the person who steals underwear from the flat Jiaying and her friends live in when they’re students; Jiaying’s friend Fat Luo’s increasing hatred of her. But as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that these ideas are thematically linked. Greater than the sum of its parts.

Ghostbird – Carol Lovekin

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In a Welsh village where it rains every day in August, fourteen-year-old Cadi Hopkins begins to ask questions about her dead father and sister and why she’s not allowed to go to the lake. Cadi lives with her mother, Violet, with whom she’s locked in an intensified teenage daughter/mother battle. Cadi’s aunt/Violet’s sister-in-law, Lili, lives next door and acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi. Lili also has a contentious relationship with Violet. Nature, magic realism, secrets and family relationships. Atmospheric.

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

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Eileen tells the story of ‘back then’ when she lived with her alcoholic, ex-cop, father, was a secretary in a boys’ juvenile correction facility and met Rebecca Saint John, the beautiful, intelligent, fashionable director of education who befriends Eileen and leads her down a very dark, twisty path.

The Living – Anjali Joseph

I thought, everyone has something, something they need from other people. Some people want to be loved. Some want to be admired. Some people just need to know you don’t need them to be any way other than they are.

Claire, 35, single mother to 16-year-old Jason, works in one of the remaining shoe factories in the UK.

It’s a long way from the morning till the end of the day, a long long stretch.

At the beginning of the novel, Jason tells her that his gran has phoned asking him to go round. His granddad isn’t well. Claire has only seen her parents occasionally since she left home, pregnant with Jason.

Everything about them makes me angry. Dad because he doesn’t say anything, he just lets her go on. And her because…

She’s working long shifts, trying to convince Jason to apply for college, and plagued by the antagonism between her and her mother.

Are you ill? he said. What are you doing?
Maybe I’m coming down with something, I said.
What does it feel like?
My back was heavy. It feels like I wanted to say like thirty-five years came into my body and forgot to leave. There’s too much time in here. I’m done for.

She meets Damian and thinks things are better. She might finally be moving on from Pete, Jason’s dad.

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In Kolhapur, Arun, a chappal maker and grandfather, struggles with thinking he needs to pee frequently. As his wife and one of his adult sons try to convince him to see a doctor, he thinks about the period of his life when he was an alcoholic and the effect it had on his family. He also considers the affair he had that no one else knows about.

Through his stories about his own behaviour, he also tells us about his wife and the relationship he has with her:

My wife has few flaws, but it’s exhausting to live with some one who’s always right, someone who’s self-sufficient. Since the time we were first married, she’s kept things to herself, what things I wouldn’t know, but there’s always been a part of her that wasn’t available to me.

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Her eyes clouded. Her face looked as I had never seen it – inward, bitter. I was thrilled, yet repelled. The moments when I understood her best, accepted her as she was, were also the moments when I was absolutely without desire for her. As though in being a person it was impossible for me also to be a man.

The Living is a character study of two very different people, living very different lives in two very different places. The only thing that connects the two characters is their work.

Joseph structures the novel so Claire tells half of her story, followed by Arun, and then the second halves of their stories follow in the same order. Initially, I found this irritating – both getting such a big chunk of Claire’s story before being shifted to Arun’s and Claire’s story ending part way through the book. However, three days later, I was still thinking about the book and why Joseph might have structured it in this way. My conclusion is that this gives them equal weight – no story, no person, is more valued than anyone else. These are two ordinary people living life in the best way they can, making mistakes, trying to forge and maintain relationships.

The most impressive thing about the novel though is Joseph’s piercing insight into the human condition. I hope the quotations I’ve chosen manage to convey a sense of this. I highlighted so many sentences where I thought she’d captured how it feels to be exhausted with life, aggravated by family, mortified by your own behaviour and so on.

The Living is the first of Anjali Joseph’s novels I’ve read but it won’t be the last; she’s a superb writer and The Living is a fantastic book.

 

Thanks to Fourth Estate for the review copy.

My Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 Wishlist

It’s almost time! The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist will be announced next Tuesday, 8th March. Once again, I’ll be shadowing the prize and for the second year running, I’ll be doing so with a panel. I’ll introduce you to the members of that panel on Friday.

For now though, here are the books I’d like to see appear on Tuesday’s list. They’re a combination of books I’ve loved and those I’m keen to read based on what I’ve heard about them so far. I’ve had to cull this list significantly to keep it to 20 books so, as usual, anything’s possible with the real one!

To be eligible, books have to be written in English and first published in the UK between 1st April 2015 and 31st March 2016. Publishers can enter three full length novels per imprint plus anything eligible by writers who have previously won the prize.

I’ve reviewed the first eleven titles – click on the covers to go to my reviews – and read the next three as well (reviews coming soon).

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