Book Review: Asymmetry

by Lisa Halliday

Assymetry by Lisa HallidayTwo novellas set in different countries with apparently unrelated characters – plus an ingenious tailpiece. There is a connection, but you need to be on the qui vive to see it coming.

Asymmetry, as the title implies, is a novel about life’s lack of symmetry. A young woman has an affair with a man considerably older than herself. He is a rich, successful, world-famous writer, she a lowly editorial assistant. His health is failing. He is needy and lonely. She is grateful and acquiescent. They bond over a mutual passion for baseball.

An Iraqi-American economist is detained at Heathrow Airport on suspicion of… what exactly? We are never quite sure, but we can hazard a guess. Prior to his passport being seized, his intention had been to spend a couple of nights in London before flying out to visit his brother in Kurdistan. During his interminable wait for immigration officers to make enquiries, fill out forms and return to him with a decision, we are privy to his innermost thoughts as he relives his past and recalls events from the Iraq War.

Granta Books acquired the UK and Commonwealth rights to Asymmetry in a seven-way auction in 2016. The editorial director, Bella Lacey, has described the author as an “exceptional new American writer” and the book’s release on 1st March 2018 as “a major publishing event” – and yes, it’s quite true that the novel has generated excitement in literary circles. But why?

The Milan-based author, Lisa Halliday has written a startling début about power-play, in which literary and musical references abound. The characters are believable and likeable misfits, and the dialogue sharp and frequently amusing. I enjoyed the first part of the book, entitled Folly, far more than the second (II Madness), for its droll wordplay and New York-Jewish humour, although there were times when I found the pernickety Pulitzer Prize-winning Ezra Blazer extremely irritating and so much wished Alice would be more assertive.

Asymmetry is a story in which nothing and nobody is equal. It is inventive, compelling and altogether unforgettable. We should expect to hear a great deal more of its promising author over the coming months.

Many thanks to Granta Publications for supplying an advance review copy of this title.
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Book Review: The Reservoir Tapes

By Jon McGregor

reservoir13

First there was Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor’s highly acclaimed 2017 novel in which a teenage girl on holiday with her family goes missing. Eight months later we have The Reservoir Tapes, a companion piece, offering insights into the events leading up to Becky Shaw’s perplexing disappearance.

Set in a rural village in England’s Peak District – an upland area at the southern end of the Pennines – The Reservoir Tapes was first aired on BBC Radio 4 as a specially commissioned short fiction series (read by Neil Dudgeon), and has now been published as a volume of fifteen ‘prequel’ stories.

McGregor is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, where he also edits the in-house literary journal, The Letters Page. Born in Bermuda in 1976, he grew up in Norfolk before moving to Nottingham, where, in 2002, he wrote the first of his four novels, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, while living on a narrowboat. Since then he has won the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, Betty Trask Prize, and Somerset Maugham Award, and has twice been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

He now gives us the opportunity to scrutinize the thoughts and actions of individual villagers associated with the Reservoir 13 investigation, looking back at events in their lives and focusing on their precise memories of the girl. He is a perspicacious observer of ordinary folk – in this case an old quarry worker, a cleaner, a young wife, park rangers, the local butcher, a newspaper delivery lad, an adolescent boy, a journalist, a prostitute and several others – giving us a tantalizing coup d’œil of a community with its own tale to tell.

McGregor is equally attentive of the surrounding wildlife and writes with exactitude of a deep, unstable quarry reclaimed by the natural world. A quarry at the very centre of this mystery. He leaves us wanting more.

Many thanks to 4th Estate for supplying an advance review copy of this title.

Book Review: The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle

by James Dixon

Edinburgh – capital of Scotland – a delightful, stimulating, multi-ethnic city, which draws workers and visitors from all corners of the globe. It is the second largest financial centre in the UK, and from its ancient castle overlooking the bustling streets to the wonderful architecture of its Old and New Town, one can see why it was chosen as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

For those who care to look a little closer, however, Edinburgh, like so many beautiful old cities, is notorious for its homelessness.

Writer, James Dixon, a south Londoner by birth, lives in Edinburgh with his wife, the psychologist Dr Lauren Hadley. In this, his latest novel, he has created an offbeat protagonist in Willem Gyle: a slow thinking, hard working labourer who loses everything – his job, his mother, his home, his dog – in a short space of time, and is henceforth divested of his dignity by sneering bureaucrats and pettifogging officials until he winds up living on the streets.

What happens to Willem doesn’t make pretty reading. He is pitched into a filthy, vicious, desperate world where every proffered lifeline is a deceit, and self-respect becomes an absurd impedimenta – so that eventually he is brutalised beyond salvation.

If you demand redemption for your fictional characters then this book is definitely not for you, but if you have a taste for gritty, unrelenting realism, this twenty-first-century allegory is well worth your time.

Many thanks to Thistle Publishing for supplying a review copy of this title.

Book Review: Love

by Hanne Ørstavik

Winters are bitingly cold in northern Norway, with an average temperature of around -17°C. Yet it is to a bleak little village in this region that Vibeke moves with Jon, her eight-year-old son, in order to make a fresh start. The story begins as the circus arrives, on the eve of his birthday.

Both mother and son are intense, cerebral individuals, who lose themselves in daydreams and struggle to communicate their thoughts and feelings to others – she chain-smokes, he continually blinks. Even so, they are overly trusting of strangers and have oddly naïve personalities. The greatest void, however, is between the two of them, and they seem to view each other from opposite sides of a wide crevasse. There is love (adoration on his part), but it is ill-defined, unfocused.

“She gets through three books a week, often four or five. She wishes she could read all the time, sitting in bed with the duvet pulled up, with coffee, lots of cigarettes, and a warm nightdress on.”

Voted the sixth best Norwegian book of the last 25 years, Love, by Hanna Ørstavik (originally published as Kjærlighet in 1997), has been translated into English by Martin Aitken, and is due for release in February 2018. It is an existential novel, with narratives drifting back and forth between Vibeke and Jon – they all but merge when either one or both of them become anxious. As the story develops, Ørstavik skilfully effects a feeling of dread – an unpleasant, tense, vaguely sinister sensation of impending catastrophe pervades the icy air.

Has anything significant been lost in translation? I think there probably has, but as an inveterate unilingual English-speaker I simply cannot judge. Nevertheless, I am able to say with certainty that Love is an intelligent, thoughtful, if melancholy tale, which demonstrates what can happen if we become too internalised and fail to be mindful of those we love.

Many thanks to Steerforth Press for supplying an advance review copy of this title.

Book Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

by Matthew J. Sullivan

Author Matthew J. Sullivan, a bona fide Denverite, has set his debut novel in the Lower Downtown district of Denver, Colorado, and the City is as much a character in his story as the patrons (fondly known as BookFrogs) of the Bright Ideas Bookstore.

LoDo has evolved from skid row to hip and happening neighbourhood in a relatively short space of time – urban reinvestment producing a sort of cultural renaissance – and protagonist, Lydia Smith, whom I suspect is (like myself) on the autistic spectrum, finds these changes somewhat unsettling. She has worked in the book shop for a number of years and has developed a soft spot for the shabby male misfits and eccentrics whose isolated lives are made endurable only by this sanctuary amongst the shelves.

One BookFrog in particular, the intriguing but emotionally damaged Joey Molina, brings out Lydia’s maternal instincts. However, his horrific suicide leads to a concatenation of unexpected developments involving defaced books, the reappearance of peeps from the past and the gradual disclosure of deeply buried secrets. It also forces her to confront memories of her intensely traumatic childhood – something she has endeavoured to suppress almost as much from herself as from her boyfriend and colleagues.

The plot rattles along like the Platte Valley Trolley with each fresh revelation leading to an ever more vexing question, and ciphers discovered between the pages of seemingly unrelated books – the twists and turns emerge thick and fast.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is not a cosy or frivolous tale, more a disquieting mystery set against the background of a changing city, which should appeal to crime fiction readers and bookish literature lovers alike. It has a few rough edges, but no more so than one would expect from a first novel. In the main it is a cracking read and would make an ideal gift for a whodunnit aficionado.

Many thanks to Random House UK for supplying a copy of this title for review.

Book Review: Life After Life

by Kate Atkinson

It is difficult to know how to define Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s 2013 Costa Book Award winning novel. It is part Historical Fiction because of its authentic depiction of English life both during and between the World Wars, however, since the protagonist is repeatedly reincarnated into the same life, it could more precisely be placed in the Sci-fi sub genre category of Time Travel.

It all begins (and keeps beginning) on 11th February 1910, during a particularly heavy snow storm, but the end date varies according to what at first appear to be quite minor decisions on the part of Ursula – the third child of Sylvie and Hugh Todd – which only too often lead to devastating, life-changing and not infrequently tragic consequences for herself and those around her.

This is a book about second chances and what-ifs. It also reveals hidden secrets, explores love in its myriad forms and displays sheer British pluckiness in the face of nightly bombing raids during the Blitz. All this is borne with understated humour and stiff upper lip by the Todd family as they move through varying versions of the same life.

Kate Atkinson’s ingenious novel shows us how small changes of behaviour can have seismic repercussions throughout history. She also left me wondering how some of the terrible events of the 20th century might have been avoided.

Incidentally, this is the first in a duology about the Todd family, the second being A God in Ruins (2015).