The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (2020)

Another book from my What I Should Have Read In 2020 post (I’ve now managed to get through 60% of these).  Here was one I suspected  that I would really like but I enjoyed it even more than I imagined.  This is American author Brit Bennett’s second novel and after this I would certainly be keen on seeking out her 2016 debut “The Mothers”.

This, however, is the book that has established her breakthrough into the big time, appearing on so many Best Of The Year lists and has been shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for fiction.  The hype has built up which is often a dangerous thing for me and my expectations, but I’ll emphasise this, my expectations were exceeded here.

I came to it knowing roughly what it was about but there was so much more to it . Two light-skinned black twin sisters disappear from their small-town home and head for the excitement of New Orleans.  One, Desiree, eventually pairs up with an abusive, dark skinned man and has Jude, whose blue-black darkness of her skin shocks the residents of her home town, Mallard (where its black residents generally have a much lighter tone) on her return whereas her twin, Stella, ditches Desiree to disappear once again and decides to “pass” and live her life as a white woman.  In a decades spanning time frame we have as our starting point 1968 when Desiree returns to Mallard with her young daughter. 

There are so many discussion points in this novel regarding identity that one might expect it to feel issue-driven but no, plot and characterisation are both very strong and that together with its immersive readability provides an extremely impressive rounded work.  Those plot lines and unpredictable turns do drive the reader forward.  It’s not without a healthy dollop of melodrama and on a few occasions the authors use of cliff-hangers resembles the soap operas that one of the characters makes a name for herself on, but this is also a good thing, making it feel highly commercial, this together with its relevance where its publication alongside the media coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement created publicity at a time when lockdown ensured the usual avenues of publicising their work were not open to most authors.  This book deserved the exposure, however, not because it was of the moment but because of the sheer quality of the handling of all areas of the book.

Performance has a major part to play.  Many of the characters are donning a disguise and playing a part, some professionally and some within their lives and even within their closest relationships.  I found the implications and repercussions of this fascinating.  It has the unusual advantages of being both a thought-provoking important novel and a great holiday read and I hope many more people will discover this work over the summer.  My only criticism of a book I found very difficult to put down is that perhaps the ending felt a little flat and less defined than I would have hoped but that may have been because it was the end of the novel and there was no more to read about these characters. 

The Vanishing Half was published in the UK by Dialogue Books in 2020.  The paperback edition is out now.

The Broken House- Horst Kruger (Bodley Head 2021)

This is the first English translation of a German memoir originally published in 1966 as “Das Zerbrochene Haus” and subtitled “Growing Up Under Hitler”.  In the Afterword the author (who died in 1999) reflects that it was a book which was developed backwards, in a way.  As a journalist in 1964 he was invited to attend the Auschwitz trials.  This forms the closing section of the book and is the most powerful and it was his attendance which caused Kruger to look back on his life.  In the 1960s he was stunned by how perpetrators of unthinkable crimes at the concentration camp had assimilated into society before having to answer for their actions at the trials.  I think if this book had been written more recently this central moment would have been the starting point but back in 1966 Kruger chose to employ a chronological approach which leads from his childhood outside Berlin, in Eichkamp, in an apolitical family where his environment would have made the rise of Adolf Hitler seem even more extraordinary.  Alongside this are the family dramas, the suicide of his oldest sister in 1939 and his own dallying with resistance and its repercussions.

There is a sense of detachment throughout which may feasibly be from the translation but I would imagine it is from the original text which does affect the flow and holds the reader at arm’s length.  There is little of Kruger’s own participation in the hostilities, it jumps to the end of his war, and indeed, this is acknowledged by the author in the Afterword which was written in 1975 and reflects back on the work, but this absence of this part of his life does seem a little odd.

In parts, it is magnificent, especially the second half of the book where Kruger feels to be on more certain ground, the actual growing up under Hitler sections in Eichkamp can feel a little tentative but there admittedly would have been so much that the town’s inhabitants would have been unsure about at the time.  It is not quite the masterpiece I had hoped but the author provides many moments that will linger long in my memory.

The English translation of “The Broken House” is by Shaun Whiteside. The book is published on 17th June 2021. The hardback is published by Bodley Head, the e-book by Vintage Digital. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Promise – Damon Galgut (Chatto & Windus 2021)

The me of 16 years ago read this South African author’s breakthrough novel which had been shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize.  I had to check back through my records to see that in the winter of 2005 I quite enjoyed “The Good Doctor”, his tale of a remote rural hospital and thought it well-written but I felt it had failed to draw me in and my verdict was that it was unexceptional.  To be honest, I had forgotten all about this opinion when I was invited by the publishers to review his latest title.  I was assured a novel “confident, deft and quietly powerful” and “literary fiction at its finest”.  I was intrigued.

If “The Good Doctor” failed to draw me in 16 years ago then things were soon put right with this.  I was very involved early on and it is the self-assurance of the writing and his handling of life-changing events which kept me hooked.  The Swart family live on a farm outside Pretoria and we visit them at various moments in their lives.  It is the tale of four deaths and the coming together of those left. Linking these occasions is a promise 13 year old Amor believes she has heard her father making to her dying mother, a promise which is denied, ignored or postponed for decades due to circumstances within the country and within the family.  The strength is in the characterisation and interactions between the family members. The tragic trigger points which cause the reunions roll back the preceding years with great economy and truth by the author.  I loved the structure of this novel, some demises are tragic, some violent, some tragi-comic but all imbued with a sense of South African history which is extremely effective.  There is an appealing calmness which runs alongside the tragedies.  It makes me think that the older me might have a greater appreciation of  “The Good Doctor” and I would be very interested in discovering more work (Galgut’s published oeuvre consists of novels, short story collections and plays) by this author.

The Promise will be published in the UK by  Chatto & Windus on 17th June 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. The Kindle/ebook edition is published by Vintage Digital.

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line- Deepa Anappara (2020)

This debut has been on my radar since pre-publication and it featured on my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” post (this is now the 5th book on this list I’ve since read).  At that time I said I hadn’t actually seen a copy, perhaps it was initially lost amongst the impossible to promote debuts which appeared in the early months of 2020 but this has now become a very visible title (helped by its striking front cover in hardback, less striking in the paperback edition which appeared on 3rd June 2021.)  There is still a good buzz about this book which suggests it should be a strong seller in paperback.

It deserves success.  It’s an impressive book with characters that will linger for a long time and a lightness of touch which belies some very serious issues.  We begin with street children scavenging for survival for a man called Mental in a preface which suggests this may be dark reading but within a few pages we are into a first person narrative from 9 year old Jai, a child living with his child-like concerns of school, friends and TV, poor but happy in the slum-like conditions of his basti with his parents and sister.  When local children start to go missing Jai takes on detective duties with his two friends, the academically successful Pari and Faiz, a Muslim minority within their Hindu environment.

The authorities are not taking the disappearances seriously, they demand bribes for even basic policing and threaten demolition of the basti.  It is up to the children to find out more.  The superstitious Faiz believes it is the work of the supernatural, namely, djinns.  Pari and Jai remain unconvinced but do not recognise the daily dangers they face closer to home.

These three children are the life-blood of this book and it is impossible not to be drawn in by their outward confidence and swagger.  Anaparra worked for years as a journalist amongst such children and seems to have got her portrayals just right.  The fact that there’s a touch of the “cosy crime” novel about this when behind the façade much is horrific actually serves to intensify its power.  This is a strong work.  It will be interesting to see if Anaparra gives us more from these children in future as her reading public might demand or whether this will remain an enthralling stand-alone novel.

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line was first published in the UK in hardback in 2020.  The paperback edition is out now published by Vintage.

Yes, Daddy – Jonathan Parks-Ramage (HMH Books 2021)

I’m a sucker for any title marketed as “Modern Gothic” and I was also tempted into reading this book as the author and I share an unusual surname.  He is no relation, however, this is an intriguing debut from an author from Los Angeles.  At times I thought it was stunningly powerful and gripping but for me it ran out of steam meaning I finished the book feeling a little flat from an author with so much potential.

This is the tale of Jonah, an aspiring playwright who sets his sights on seducing an older, successful dramatist who then finds he gets considerably more than he bargained for.  As a character his motives are often very questionable which is no bad thing (see John Boyne’s “Ladder To The Sky”, for example, for another ruthless lead ) but some readers’ responses to this book may be affected by his limited likeability.

We begin at a trial so we know from the start that something has gone awry in their relationship, there’s an early twist and then a shuffle back in time to relate the whole story in a first-person narrative by the ambitious, emotionally damaged younger man.  It’s not that long before it gets really good, at a point where Jonah feels woozy at a dinner party and although there’s not a hint of demonic possession here the tension of the writing and the surface of respectability hiding much darkness reminded me of Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby”, a book I love.

There are many plot turns along the way but the last third feels as if the build-up dissipates greatly to find an acceptable resolution and I rather think that this resolution might feel more acceptable to an American audience.

There are issues raised which are relevant to the #MeToo campaign and LGBT considerations here given a powerful, fresh dimension and I’m not sure how Parks-Ramage could have otherwise found his way out of the plot he has weaved but I feel he might have let his dramatic peaks appear too early in the narrative denying me the really splendid reading experience I thought I was going to get with this book.

Yes, Daddy was published on 18th May 2021 by Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt Books.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

A Little Devil in America – Hanif Abdurraqib (2021)

Ohio resident Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist and music critic and is both critically acclaimed and a good commercial proposition in his homeland.  This non-fiction work is something we’ve been seeing a fair bit of recently- a mash-up of memoir and analysis.  At times it feels like a collection of essays but I don’t think it is.  Linking the pieces together is the theme of the black performer in America and coming from that is the significance of dance.  Saying it like this, however, is very much simplifying matters.  Abdurraqib, being a poet sees things in terms of metaphor and the notion of dance and performance is used to touch on many aspects of the American experience, and especially the African-American experience.

Also, being a poet Abdurraqib does not see things the way many of us do, he has the ability to zoom in on a detail and expand out from that.  It’s often a moment in a life he finds fascinating and what it tells us about that particular life and the environment in which it was lived and that in itself is intriguing.  In terms of the performers examined there is a very good range and I find much of his writing illuminating.  With Aretha Franklin, he examines her funeral, and what the “sending home” of the ritual says of a life and then moves backwards to the filmed version of her live gospel recording “Amazing Grace”- the biggest selling gospel live album of all time.  With Whitney Houston he focuses on the response of the black audience and how that changed.  There’s a lively section about the antagonism between two demonstrative performers, Joe Tex and James Brown.  The issue of “blackface” is dealt with through William Lane known as Master Juba who Charles Dickens saw perform and how casual racism caused a latter day TV tribute by Ben Vereen to this black minstrel who performed in blackface to become meaningless because his performance was cut inappropriately. 

People who have not fitted in to what was expected of them are examined including Sammy Davis Jnr, Michael Jackson and the always amazing to read about Josephine Baker.

This is where this book is the strongest for me, a white British reader, I can see the common threads and follow the arguments.  When the author veers away from this central theme I miss the tightness of the structure although I am still impressed by the writing.

And the writing is impassioned, creative, energetic and very often enthralling.  Culturally, very few will get all the references initially because of the broad timescale Abdurraqib employs in this work.  If this looseness of structure and digressive style which I have mentioned before (most recently in “Gay Bar” by Jeremy Atherton Lin) is going to become commonplace I’m just going to have to get used to it because to ignore it would mean missing out on impressive, quality writing.

A Little Devil in America was published in the UK by Allen Lane on 30th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Many Different Kinds Of Love – Michael Rosen (2021)

I’ve mentioned here before that Michael Rosen is one of my literary heroes, especially for his work with children.  On a number of occasions I have been lucky enough to experience how this man can totally captivate a school hall full of children who hang on his every word.  His “Quick, Let’s Get Out Of Here” collection is one of my favourite children’s books ever.  And last year we almost lost him, hospitalised with Covid just around the time the first lockdown started, his illness made everything seem more grim and even more scary.

After 13 days in bed with what was diagnosed as just a viral illness the writer was hospitalised when a GP friend witnessed his blood oxygen reading of 58, the lowest she had ever seen on a conscious person. Following time in intensive care he was put in an induced coma on a ventilator remaining in the ICU ward for 46 days before beginning rehabilitation and having to relearn basic functions the disease had stripped from him like standing up and walking.

This collection is subtitled “A Story Of Life, Death & The NHS”.  In a sequence of prose poems Rosen catalogues his illness and recovery.  Alongside this is the extraordinary response from the staff who cared for him who maintained a diary throughout to boost his recovery.  These people were exhausted, often redeployed from their usual job and no doubt stressed beyond belief but they made the time to communicate with this comatose man in this way and these diary entries form an extremely moving section of the book.  Above the bed they placed a copy of his “These Are The Hands” poem produced for the 60th anniversary of the NHS.

I really always enjoy Michael Rosen’s poetic style, direct, closely observed and dealing here with painful honesty the effects this cruel virus has had on him.  When we are moaning about lockdown restrictions and posing conspiracy theories it’s important to feel the voice of those affected and Michael Rosen’s experience speaks for the thousands who have been similarly affected and for those thousands we have lost.

He always has the ability to find humour in the ridiculous even in the darkest moments.

“They’ve been worried

about my low blood pressure

but they’ve brought me the Daily Mail

so it’ll be fine in a moment.”

I read this on the anniversary of the first lockdown and there was no better way to get me to reflect on the year’s events and how it has hit this very special person.  This is a magnificent work which has been beautifully put together by the author and Penguin Books.  It will prove to be a lasting testament to the talent and tenacity of this man and of a reminder of the strange times we have been living in.

Many Different Types Of Love was published by Ebury Press, a division of Penguin Random House 18th March 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Hot Stew- Fiona Mozley (John Murray 2021)

Fiona Mozley’s debut “Elmet” was my pick from the shortlist for the 2017 Booker Prize which I described as a “traditional, poetic, literary novel which packs a good punch”.  I found it haunting with a sense of timelessness about it all and that “plot and characterisation gives it a commercial pull”.  It lost out to George Sanders’ “Lincoln In The Bardo” which in my opinion fell short of Mozley’s achievement.

Here comes her second novel and it is very different from the first showing an author with real versatility.  The rural lyricism is replaced with an episodic, very urban tale.  I was impressed enough by this prospect to make this book one of my potential highlights of 2021 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post.  First things first, I did very much enjoy it.  It’s written in the present tense which is something I don’t always warm to but here it is very readable.  It’s been picking up very good reviews but I don’t think there’s anything within it which will remain with me in the way “Elmet” did.  I liked the feel of a harsher world in the debut which gave it, I felt, a 1970’s air, here, although the setting is also contemporary it has an 80’s feel as redevelopers threaten the traditional ways of life in Soho.  The echoes I felt here stirring in my subconscious was of Nell Dunn’s 1981 play “Steaming” where a group of women stand up against eviction.

Fiona Mozley introduces us to a range of characters, perhaps the central is Agatha, aiming to redevelop the investments of a father she never knew.  Of all of the characters she feels a little cartoony.  Pitched against the pretensions of big business is the oldest profession in town represented by sex workers Precious and Tabitha who lead the resistance against eviction.  A group of homeless people residing in a cellar under the brothel and regulars of a local pub add to this hot stew of characters.  Not all characters contribute much to the central plot and so exist as vignettes of their lives in and around Central London.  It’s all likeable and in a way I can appreciate those that are seeing this as modern day Dickens but it all feels a little unresolved which Dickens would not be.  I am certainly applauding an author prepared to go off in a very different direction for a second novel and her publishers who have supported her in this.

Hot Stew is published by John Murray in the UK on 18th March.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Girl In The Walls -A J Gnuse (4th Estate 2021)

This debut is an unusual and highly effective thriller.  There’s been good buzz about it pre-publication.  This was one of the titles I highlighted to watch out for in my Looking Back Looking Forward post.  We were promised a Gothic spooky house novel with comparisons made to Shirley Jackson.  I’m not sure I am on board with the comparison although it was this which attracted me to the title.  It is, however, highly enjoyable with a more original feel than the comparison might suggest.

Set in 2005 (judging by songs mentioned playing on the radio) just south of New Orleans, main character 11 year old Elise, having lost both her parents in an accident, escapes from her foster carers to return to a house her family formerly lived in now owned by the Mason family with two teenage boys.  There, unbeknownst to them she resides in the house, within gaps between walls, in hidden chutes and in the attic emerging when the family are not around or otherwise occupied.  This is working chillingly well until a younger boy turns up unannounced at the house and the teenagers in the family begin to have suspicions about the things going bump in the night.

I found the premise fascinating but did struggle with the geography of the house which would allow such a thing to be possible.  The tension is cranked up incredibly well when the boys begin to act on their suspicions and then environmental factors, particular to the region, begin to play a part.

As I was reading it I was aware of an easy option Texan author Gnuse could have taken and I was hoping he wouldn’t (he doesn’t) which means the story-telling is satisfactory throughout.  There are lots of unusual touches, including Elise’s fondness for Norse mythology and the characters of the neighbourhood boy and Eddie, the younger of the teenagers both give the novel a quirky feel (as does one character I don’t even want to talk about here in the interest of not revealing too much plot).  I was pulled in to the story, rather like Elise being pulled into the walls, found some section breath-takingly tense and all in all this ends up a quality commercial thriller with good literary touches which could also work splendidly as a TV or film adaptation.

Girl In The Walls will be published by 4th Estate in the UK on 18th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Lamplighters – Emma Stonex (Picador 2021)

This entertaining novel sees Emma Stonex (her first written under her own name)  taking as her inspiration the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in the Outer Hebrides in 1900.  She moves the action 72 years forward relocating it to the Maiden Lighthouse in Cornwall and within her fictional account attempts to unravel this mystery.

In many ways it is a classic locked room thriller.  The men are found missing from the lighthouse which is bolted on the inside with food preparations on the table and clocks stopped at the same time. 

Alongside this narrative the author focuses on twenty years later and the wives and girlfriend of the three missing men as they are approached by a novelist wanting answers for his latest book.

What I feel is done very well is the 70’s set lighthouse sections which conveys the intensity and boredom of the three men cooped up together.  I felt that the more modern sections did not establish the characters as well, although, obviously, it is within these parts that the secrets of the past are revealed in first and third person narrative and through letters.

I was most intrigued by the almost romantic allure that the lighthouse had for the keepers whilst also acknowledging the reality of spending their working lives in a small inescapable space cooped up with others.  The book both builds up the appeal of this work as well as illustrating the downsides.  After months of lockdown I think we are all in a better position to appreciate better Stonex’s writing and have stronger ideas of these lives than we would have done a year or two ago, making this a very commercially apposite proposition.

The author makes no assumptions as to what happened during the real-life disappearance in 1900 but comes to a conclusion as to her characters.  At times I felt this might go in some outlandish direction but it all feels plausible and in some ways that felt a little anti-climatic, I almost wish she had left things a little more open-ended, which was an unusual response because surely the motive behind reading the book would be to find out what happened..

This was one of the titles that I highlighted for 2021 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post . I enjoyed Emma Stonex’s writing and look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

The Lamplighters is published by Picador in the UK on Thursday 4th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.