Every new novel by Sebastian Barry creates a ripple of happy excitement, in this house at least. The County Wicklow resident and twice-Booker-nominated writer (but don’t let that put you off) is beloved by his many devotees (including Ali Smith and Tessa Hadley) for his lyrical style, generous spirit and a knack for imaginative storytelling many of his peers would give their eye teeth for.
Tom is a grieving retired policeman rudely interrupted from his old-age hermitage on the Irish coast by an upturned cold case. The revelations are enthralling, the sentences divine, the south coast dialogue entirely convincing. But best of all are the passages when Tom indulges old memories of love, deeply felt and so perfectly evoked they elicited involuntary audible sighs from this reviewer. This is fine, fine writing, with a heart as big as the Ritz.
Catton’s stock has remained high after her globally acclaimed 2013 novel The Luminaries, but one might question how many people actually read all 800 pages of its complex multi-layered multi-character plot twists and turns. Personally I found it exhausting, though there were long sections of fantastic writing, zippy dialogue and genuine surprises. Birnam Wood, at half the length, is a sure-footed distillation of the best things about its decade-old predecessor. The tale of a ‘guerrilla gardening collective’ (not a joke; these environmental warriors are smart, passionate and clued up), whose unity is threatened when they are offered goal-changing funds by a politically questionable billionaire, is all killer no filler. Grappling elegantly with identity politics and the culture wars as it goes, it flies along most enjoyably without a dull moment.
Tomás Nevinson is the final novel by the loved and revered Spanish writer Javier Marias, who died in 2022 at the age of 70. Marias was not only a prolific novelist and essayist, he was also the lauded translator of Conrad, Nabokov, Updike, Hardy, Henry James and Laurence Sterne. He was a prodigious intellectual with an impressive academic background. But unlike many academics (there is a common propensity among the community for long and winding paragraphs which lose themselves and their readers), he could also compose the most elegant and expressive sentences.
Many of his novels are centred around translators or professors, but Marías also enjoyed playing with the tropes of genre fiction – the Tomás Nevinson of the title is a retired MI5 operative revived for one last case; in other words, the spy who came in from the cold. The writer’s unquenched curiosity about people and gift for eloquent phrasing sit easily with both the storytellers’ commitment to a nail-biting mystery, and the journalist’s instinct to provide historical information; in this case about an Eta terrorist on loan from the IRA. It’s 400 pages longer than le Carré’s classic, but remains immersive, pacey and thought-provoking throughout.
If Luke Jennings’s name rings a bell, it probably means you were one of the many who jumped onto the Killing Eve rollercoaster back in the glory days of that terrific first Phoebe Waller-Bridge-adapted series, based on his Villanelle novels. Jennings’ books were not, as is often the case, simply promising grounds on which brilliant minds could build a superior screen drama. Much of the tone and spirit of the show – its deadpan humour, hold-your-breath plot twists and sheer chutzpah – came directly from Jennings’s pen.
He continues in a similarly engaging manner in his new thriller #PANIC, a story about the allure of A-list TV stars, the pleasure of group fandom, and the perils of catching the eye of the Russian mafia, far-right cults and American cops. All the expected high-octane thrills and spills are there, but with a focus on the kids looking for excitement and escape from their small-town troubles, #PANIC also has a big heart.
Russian Gothic by Aleksandr Skorobogatov, translated by Ilona Chavasse
Out on May 9, Old Street Publishing, £8.99
This 1991 short novel by the Belorussian Skorobogatov finally arrives in the UK with impressive fanfare. English language publishers have been dragging their feet regarding what publishers around the globe have hailed a modern masterpiece in the tradition of Gogol’s seminal Diary of a Madman. That comparison is big talk, not entirely warranted, but there are many things to mark Russian Gothic – the tale of an intense, grief-stricken violent marriage blown apart by jealousy and paranoia – as an exciting prospect. Especially for readers with a penchant for the peculiarities of the late-19th century surreal-leaning Russian masters.
The black, droll humour; the hyperbolic expression, both in dialogue and the author’s prose; the bold assumption that is the Russian writer’s job to take on profound truths about humanity’s successes and failures; the seamless switches from short no-nonsense exposition to grand sighs and world-weary cries. The proliferation of melodramatic exclamation marks! If this is the territory in which your own dark soul thrives (mine certainly does), Russian Gothic will be Prokofiev to your ears.
Emma Cline demonstrated a canny understanding of the lives of young women in her smash hit novel The Girls, and she stays on similar ground with The Guest. Alex is an escort beginning to worry about her ability to attract the generous clients who have paid her way through two hot summers of beach trips and pool parties. Now 22, a casual pill-popper and law-bender, she is trying out new cosmetic treatments and wardrobe alterations, fearful that her profile is moving from desirable arm candy to social liability. A single misstep sees her turfed out by the rich older man who’s been hosting her stay in his extravagant home, and she begins to drift; literally, bodily and in mind. Cline has a crime writer’s gift for revelatory storytelling, ramping up tension like an HBO pro. The Guest may well be coming soon to a screen near you.
Fiction aiming to broaden minds and stimulate debate by empathising with ostensibly challenging viewpoints is often didactic, trite, or weighed down by the burden of prioritising message over imagination. In their powerful new novel Mister, Mister, Guy Gunaratne successfully avoids such traps and instead gives us insight into what for many will be an alien mindset, via a convincing and highly entertaining stream of consciousness.
Yahya Bas is a London-born ‘jihadist poet’ of some celebrity, now being held in a UK detention centre after fleeing the conflict in Syria. The novel is his story and his statement; the cultural and political influences which characterised his upbringing in East Ham, the love for poetry and language which bloomed inside him, the hysteria his ‘incendiary’ verses sparked online and in the public places he gave readings in, and his consequent mainstream pariah status. Gunaratne makes significant points about identity, patriotism, nuance and family, but it’s the effervescence and emotional depth of their writing which makes Mister, Mister a knockout.
The popular and critically acclaimed success of Irish writer Naoise Dolan’s debut Exciting Times saw her regularly described as Sally Rooney with humour; a pithy, if crass, summation, but not entirely unjustified. The Happy Couple is a more plot-centred (and TV adaptation-friendly) novel than its predecessor, but don’t be put off by its reductive Tesco-style marketing strategy (“Does happy-ever-after lie at the end of an aisle?”).
All of Exciting Times’s eccentricity, frankness and up-to-date understanding of the language and culture of social media-savvy millennials who know their Dolly Aldertons from their Dolly Partons (and probably love both) remains, undiluted by the pressures of mainstream success, in The Happy Couple. Dolan has suggested that her autism might have given her an edge in seeing things from an alternative viewpoint, and her confidence in her unique voice has flourished and run delightfully rampant in this sexy, canny, hilarious book.
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