Summer reading: Fiction
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Travelling Sprinkler, by Nicholson Baker, Serpent’s Tail, RRP£8.99/ Blue Rider Press, RRP$26.95
In this latest expert dissection of everyday life, we are plunged headlong into the mind of Paul Chowder, the none-too-successful poet of Baker’s 2009’s novel The Anthologist , now struggling to deal with the sagging disappointments of middle-age. Chowder’s rants about everything from US foreign policy to his ex-partner form a web of connections brought together with symphonic skill.
The Strangler Vine, by Miranda Carter, Fig Tree, RRP£14.99/ Putnam Adult, RRP$26.95
Carter’s rip-roaring debut novel takes us to the India of the 1830s, where the violent Thugee sect are at large. We follow Old India hand, Jeremiah Blake, along with Lieutenant William Avery, on their hunt for Xavier Mountstuart, a poet obsessed with the Thugs. A rattling good yarn with a sceptical view of imperialist propaganda.
Every Day is for the Thief, by Teju Cole, Faber, RRP£12.99/ Random House, RRP$23
After the success of his 2011 novel Open City , Nigerian-American writer Cole returns with this genre-bending mix of travelogue, memoir and essay (first published in Nigeria in 2007, and now updated) in which a nameless narrator returns to his homeland after a 15-year absence. But the main character here is the city of Lagos, with its Danfo buses, colourful markets and entrenched corruption.
Literary people can be snooty about Donna Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch (Abacus), yet this is a book written for the reader’s sheer pleasure. There is plot – and then some. There are memorable characters. There is sharp writing. There is even a deep philosophical bit at the end. Indeed, the book was such a treat that I am left bereft on finishing it. I have turned to Philip Roth, knowing he hardly ever disappoints. But halfway through American Pastoral, I find the sacrilegious thought crossing my mind: couldn’t he take a leaf out of Tartt’s book and write more for the reader and less for himself?
Can’t and Won’t, by Lydia Davis, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£16.99/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux, RRP$26
“The dramas and ironies of [Davis’s] short – often very short – stories,” wrote Claire Messud in these pages, “are those of our everyday lives, held up before us as if for the first time.” From breezy, delightful riffs, to more substantial and often moving tales, Davis’s writing is idiosyncratic and joyous.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris, Viking, RRP£16.99/ Little, Brown, RRP$26
A dazzling comic novel about midlife crisis which, as our reviewer put it, also “has some important, timely and well-researched things to say about dentistry”. Protagonist Paul O’Rourke is a successful New York dentist struggling to feel at ease in the modern world, who finds himself governed by obsessive ritual and obsessive pursuit of women from different creeds. Exuberant and enjoyably ramshackle.
In the Wolf’s Mouth, by Adam Foulds, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux, RRP$26
Foulds tells the story of an English field security officer and an Italian-American infantryman in the north African campaign of 1942, and later in Sicily, where they become embroiled with a local mafioso. A poetic exploration of the horrors of war that builds to a denouement that has all the pacy tension of a political thriller.
Everland, by Rebecca Hunt, Fig Tree, RRP£12.99
After her light-hearted debut Mr Chartwell , Hunt’s second novel is quite a departure. Everland is a deftly interwoven tale of two Antarctic journeys, a century apart – the first loosely based on Scott’s mission, the second a contemporary field trip. The author spent a month in the Arctic Circle, and she conjures the breathtaking starkness of the landscape expertly.
All the Rage, by AL Kennedy, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99/ New Harvest, RRP$24
Billed as a set of love stories, Kennedy’s sparely written collection is more a study of the alienation, dismay and misery that love, or lovelessness, can generate. If her characters would “only connect” as Forster would say – but their attempts are woeful.
Redeployment, by Phil Klay, Canongate, RRP£15/ Penguin Press, RRP$26.95
A relentless and compelling collection of short stories based on Klay’s experiences as a soldier in Iraq. With a focus on the pain and pleasure of homecoming, these tales are unified by combatants’ attempts to cope with what comes after violence – and to rationalise what they saw and did. Taut and sharply observed.
The Last Word, by Hanif Kureishi, Faber, RRP£18.99
Kureishi takes on the slippery subject of biography. Young gun Harry is commissioned to write a life of an evasive literary grandee, Mamoon Azam. Installed in Azam’s country estate, their lengthy conversations soon turn into a peacock display, masking a heady level of sexual and intellectual competition. Can Harry divine the truth about the old man?
Author of ‘To Rise Again at a Decent Hour’ (Viking)
My favourite novel of 2014 is Zachary Lazar’s I Pity The Poor Immigrant (Little, Brown). Lazar is part of a new wave of writers – I’d include Rachel Kushner and Dana Spiotta with him – who have taken up the mantle of Didion and DeLillo in their preoccupations with the elusiveness of truth and the historical forces that shape, whittle, destroy the individual. I Pity The Poor Immigrant is the multilayered story of, on the one hand, the writer Hannah Groff’s investigation into the murder of David Bellen, an Israeli poet, and on the other, the mid-century Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky and his crimes. But it’s the telling that’s most thrilling. Deploying narrative techniques ranging from memoir, essay, photography, and journalism, Lazar shows how history is an act of storytelling and how storytelling is constructed bit by bit from our desperate and limited human perspectives.
On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee, Little, Brown, RRP£13.99/ Riverhead, RRP$27.95
Lee’s latest engrossing fable is set in a near-future dystopia, a disturbing civilisation in which humans belong to one of three categories: decadent elites, quiescent labourers or fearful migrants. This is the story of how Fan, a teenage runaway, upsets the status quo.
The Medici Boy, by John L’Heureux, Astor & Blue, RRP£14.99/$24.95
A tremendous historical tale evoking the creative fervour of Renaissance Florence. Narrator Luca, apprentice to the great sculptor Donatello, witnesses the creation of a masterpiece: his “David”, the first full-size bronze nude for 1,000 years. Inspired by a coquettish 16-year-old, the sculpture is at heart a portrait of an artist’s suffering over the love of his life.
Kinder than Solitude, by Yiyun Li, Fourth Estate, RRP£14.99/ Random House, RRP$26
A bold, unsettling novel from the award-winning Chinese-American novelist about three friends and their attempts to rebuild their lives after a tragic incident. A fascinating and finely wrought study of sentimental America versus unyielding China, the lure of both and the impossibility of moving on.
Leaving the Sea, by Ben Marcus, Granta, RRP£16.99/ Knopf, RRP$25.95
American writer Marcus has established himself as a leading practitioner of bleak, experimental fiction. His new darkly humorous collection centres largely on middle-aged men and their perceived failures in life. These linguistically adventurous stories showcase Marcus’s interest in the playful potential of modern storytelling.
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride, Faber, RRP£7.99
McBride won this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction for her extraordinary debut (first published last year by a independent imprint and since picked up by Faber). Written as a stream of consciousness, this is a soul-wrenching tale about a girl’s relationship with her brother, who is suffering from a brain tumour.
Bark, by Lorrie Moore, Faber, RRP£14.99/ Knopf, RRP$24.95
Sixteen years since her last volume of stories and five years since her last novel, Moore returns with what our reviewer called a “collection of taught, coherent, breathtaking enchantments”. On the surface these eight stories revolve around ordinary people and their familiar discontentments, yet Moore’s gift is to question just what “ordinary” means or if, indeed, it really exists.
Family Life, by Akhil Sharma, Faber, RRP£14.99/ WW Norton, RRP$23.95
Sharma’s autobiographical novel, 12 years in the writing, tells of a terrible swimming pool accident that left his family in disarray shortly after they arrived in the US from India. Through the voice of young Ajay, we see life before and after the incident, and his family’s individual attempts to adapt to the painful reality of their new situation. A heartbreaking achievement.