Advertisement - Content continues below
Books

A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself, William Boyle; Permission, Saskia Vogel

Doug Johnstone hails the spirit underpinning the tale of a mismatched female trio on the run from the mafia

I spent a lot of last year singing the praises of William Boyle, the American author who was my top writerly discovery of 2018. He published two sublime, loosely interconnected novels, Gravesend and The Lonely Witness, set in the same unfashionable end of Brooklyn, and they were masterclasses in modern noir, beautifully crafted books that took the reader to unexpected places around the edges of the crime genre.

And now we have his latest offering, A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself, and it’s even better. My proof copy of the novel comes with the elevator pitch across the top: ‘Thelma & Louise meets Goodfellas’, and while that of course sounds utterly terrific, in truth A Friend… is an even more rounded and accomplished piece of writing than that potted summary suggests.

The action starts again in Brooklyn, where elderly mob widow Rena hits an old neighbour on the head with an ashtray to fend off his unwanted advances. In a panic she flees to her estranged daughter in the Bronx, where she meets her teenage granddaughter Lucia and Lucia’s neighbour Wolfie, a middle-aged former porn star.

And so the wheels are set in motion as the fallout from Rena’s initial actions have devastating consequences. The three women – Rena, Lucia and Wolfie – have to escape and end up on a road trip from hell, with various dangerous mobsters, hitmen and police in pursuit.

His portrayal of three generations of women is very tenderly handled,

This set-up is obviously a whole heap of fun, and Boyle makes the most of a very dark sense of humour, giving some of the action a definite screwball energy. But much more than that, his portrayal of three generations of women is very tenderly handled, and the reader is rooting for all of them to escape the fate that awaits them right from the first few pages.

There are no missteps in this exemplary writing. The action and plotting are convincing and surprising, the characterisation is nuanced among all the mayhem, and the description and dialogue immerse the reader in the setting and the scenario. This is riveting and unusual crime fiction that has depth, heart and soul, and I can’t wait to read what Boyle writes next.

Advertisement - Content continues below
Advertisement - Content continues below

Across to the American west coast next with the more understated but equally skilful Permission by Saskia Vogel. It’s the debut literary novel from a journalist and translator, and it deals with sexual politics, power and consent in a subtle and convincing way.

The story is effectively a kind of love triangle, but more complex than that phrase implies. Echo is a young woman grieving for her father, who was swept away by a freak wave in Los Angeles. She meets a new neighbour Orly, an older woman who works as a dominatrix, and Piggy, a middle-aged man who lives with Orly as a submissive houseboy.

The narration is divided between Echo and Piggy, so we move deftly from the slow awakening of Echo from her catatonic grief to Piggy’s eloquent and considered backstory, how his relationship with Orly is not as simple as it might seem to outsiders.

Given the subject matter, Permission could’ve been sensationalist or titillating, but Vogel negotiates her story with a real sense of empathy and understanding for all her characters. In precise, elegant prose, she delivers an alternative feminist love story for the modern age.

A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself by William Boyle (No Exit, £12.99)

Permissionby Saskia Vogel(Dialogue Books,£14.99)

Image: Omar Morgan

Advertisement - Content continues below

Support your local vendor

Give your vendor a hand up and buy the magazine. Big Issue vendors are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. But, at the same time, they are micro-entrepreneurs. By supporting their business, you can help them overcome homelessness, financial instability and other social disadvantages that hold them back.

Recommended for you

Read All
Book reviews: Something New Under The Sun and The Black Locomotive
Books

Book reviews: Something New Under The Sun and The Black Locomotive

Top 5 books on railways, featuring Terry Pratchett and a handbook from 1866
Books

Top 5 books on railways, featuring Terry Pratchett and a handbook from 1866

From 13th-century monks to Google, we're all index-linked
Books

From 13th-century monks to Google, we're all index-linked

Author Charles Foster: 'Unless we rediscover our stories we’re finished'
Books

Author Charles Foster: 'Unless we rediscover our stories we’re finished'

Most Popular

Read All
Only 30 MPs turn up to debate cutting universal credit
1.

Only 30 MPs turn up to debate cutting universal credit

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick sacked in cabinet reshuffle
2.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick sacked in cabinet reshuffle

More than 70 MPs back motion to stop ministers lying in parliament
3.

More than 70 MPs back motion to stop ministers lying in parliament

Universal credit: What is it and why does the £20 increase matter?
4.

Universal credit: What is it and why does the £20 increase matter?