Aug 03, 2022
The ecstatic mingles with the banal in a novel about lives lived too close for comfort in an apartment block in rust-belt Indiana
“On a hot night in Apartment C4, Blandine Watkins exits her body. She is only 18, but she has spent most of her life wishing for this to happen,” begins The Rabbit Hutch. “The mystics call this experience the Transverberation of the Heart, or the Seraph’s Assault, but no angel appears to Blandine. There is, however, a bioluminescent man in his 50s.”
So whatever happens next, you know that debut author Tess Gunty can nail an opening. What happens next is the gradual, chronology-hopping revelation of who Blandine is, what the mystics have to do with anything, how a glowing middle-aged male got himself involved in all this, and why so many human lives (and one goat) have converged on this one horrible moment. Continue reading...
Feb 09, 2022
A mortuary makeup artist negotiates the landscape of 21st-century sexuality in this sharp debut
Never mind new animals: Ella Baxter’s debut novel looks at first to be a very familiar creature. Main character Amelia (surname Aurelia, a piece of whimsy explained by her taking her stepdad’s surname) is one of those fictional young women who lives in between the morbid and the erotic. She has outrageous sex to swallow her ineffable sadness, and though she’s from Australia rather than Ireland, she could have stepped from the pages of a Sally Rooney novel.
When we first meet her, she’s in bed with a man she barely knows: “We both watched patiently as he prodded my vagina with his hangnailed finger, and we took turns sighing mid-thrust.” She cajoles him into growling “I will ruin you” at her during intercourse, and after he has reluctantly provided satisfaction, she kicks him out and starts arranging her next hookup. In the morning, she’s ready for her job as a mortuary makeup artist, painting the dead into a simulation of their living selves. Continue reading...
Jan 07, 2022
Texts, emails, witness statements: a paper trail of sources relating to an act of violence is assembled in a poet’s debut novel
In simple terms, Nat Ogle’s debut novel is the story of a young nurse called Corina. When she is at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital in London, she’s caring for her patients. When she’s not working, she’s caring for her mother, who has advanced breast cancer. And in between, she’s trying – often failing – to care for herself in the aftermath of a shattering act of sexual violence. “The problem with surviving,” she notes, “is what to do next.”
But In the Seeing Hands of Others does not want to be a simple novel. To that end, it’s presented not in the kind of written-through literary prose where the most jagged element is an artful flashback, but as an assemblage of documents. The spine of the story is told in posts from a blog Corina keeps in 2016, complete with reader comments – some supportive, some not (“Gtfo with your BS and put your face on … tramp”). Continue reading...
May 13, 2021
The third in McInerney’s brilliant series about Cork’s underbelly brings the comic melodrama to a satisfying finale
The Rules of Revelation is the third part of Lisa McInerney’s “unholy trinity” of Cork novels, which began with the Women’s prize-winning The Glorious Heresies in 2015 and continued with 2017’s The Blood Miracles. McInerney’s world is a compellingly sleazy demi-monde of drug dealers, sex workers and property developers, and she has a pleasing disdain for minimalism: here you’ll find big characters and lots of them, having big emotions and going through so much incident that keeping on top of the plot can leave you with the enjoyably dazed feeling of trying to follow a close-up magic trick.
At the centre of this world is Irish-Italian Ryan Cusack. In Heresies he was a teenager torn between his love of music and junior gangster life, and heading for a fall. In Miracles, he served out his purgatory in Naples, where he faced off against the Camorra. Now Ryan is back in Ireland and hoping to make it as a legitimate citizen: he’s out of the drug business and is the singer in a band on the brink of breaking through. Success and redemption seem imminent. Continue reading...
Except that Ryan’s past can’t leave him alone – or Ryan can’t leave his past alone, and the uncertainty about who is holding on to whom is typical of the rich tangle of motivations that animates McInerney’s storytelling. Her characters all share that urge to flee from the city and get free of each other, yet whenever they threaten to succeed, something calls them back.
Mar 20, 2021
Hauntings, destructive passions and killer wasps ... this glorious doorstep of super-queer terror is presided over by the ghost of Shirley Jackson
“I wish some one would write a book about a plain, bad heroine so that I might feel in real sympathy with her,” wrote the North American memoirist Mary MacLane in 1902. Plain Bad Heroines wears its debt to MacLane on its sleeve, starting with an excerpt from her teenage confessional The Story of Mary MacLane, and then repaying that debt with not one, not two “plain bad heroines”, but a whole cast of them, scattered across the 20th and 21st centuries, doing their bad deeds from Rhode Island to California and back again.
Why those places? Because they’re the twin capitals of American horror, birthplaces respectively of HP Lovecraft and his nightmare derangements (one of Danforth’s chatty footnotes points out that the inscription on Lovecraft’s gravestone is “I am Providence”, Rhode Island’s state capital), and the slasher movie. And Plain Bad Heroines is a horror novel, a proper one: a big fat doorstep of super-queer terror that never runs out of ways to keep you deliciously disturbed. Continue reading...
Dec 11, 2020
A village runs its own brutal system of justice, in this slippery fable of mob morality
This is a dark, compelling novel about the only two things humans really have to fear: each other, and being alone. We are apex predators: if another creature kills you, it will usually be one of your own kind. But your own kind can hardly be avoided. A life outside society – no aid, no warmth, no walls, no one to share the labours of survival with – will be a short and unpleasant one. This irreconcilable need and repulsion explains how we come to find Duncan Peck at the start of this novel, an outsider in the mists of Dartmoor, running from people who terrify him, and towards people who might not be much better.
The Last Good Man seems to be set in the near future. Ecological collapse is hinted at; social collapse is explicit. Peck has fled an unnamed city, a place of fire and violence where people eke out existence on a dwindling supply of tinned food. Life there is an act of constant vigilance: “In his final few days in the city, he had been a pair of eyes and little else, watching the struggles of his few remaining neighbours from behind a window.” All his hopes now lie in a nameless village, to which he has been invited by his cousin James Hale. Hale’s letter promised a new home of unimaginable plenty, but on first approach it looks a lot like another fiefdom of nightmares. Continue reading...
Aug 13, 2020
Characters are tethered to a virtual world of surveillance and misinformation in an exhausting satire on technology
This novel starts off annoying in one way, becomes annoying in a whole other way, and ends up as probably the most annoying book of 2020. But what did you expect? Booker winner DBC Pierre has always been a literary brat – explosive, funny, exhausting, hurling the stuff of the universe together and daring the reader to make sense of it all. And if in the end the book is too obvious in its sloganeering and too opaque in its storytelling, well, you can’t say Pierre hasn’t gone all out in trying to give you a good time.
Meanwhile in Dopamine City is set in the imminent future, in an unnamed company town that functions as a kind of city state. The characters are tethered via their phones and devices to a virtual world of judgment, surveillance and misinformation – so far, so Facebook. This parallel plane of gamification and punishment is the Dopamine City that gives the book its title. “Every second an arm like a blade combs the surface of the earth for dopamine, yours and mine, our whims and arguments, our relationships with others, our attempts at love, our anger, our caring, to embezzle it as revenue for a dozen male college dropouts,” warns Dr Cornelia Roos, a sceptical technologist hired by the company to figleaf its activities. Continue reading...
Apr 29, 2020
Intended to rally home cooks during the second world war, this is food writing that addresses privation ‘with grace and gusto’
‘Essential” has become the most wearing word of the lockdown. The order is to only leave your house for “essential supplies”, but what counts as essential? Every venture into public, every social contact, comes with the possibility of spreading death or bringing it back with you. “Popping to the shop” is obscene, impossible. The way of eating that I’ve learned as a comfortably-off adult – a casual, desire-led, last-minute way of eating, where I could decide what I fancied for dinner at 6 and have shopped for and cooked it by 7 – no longer works.
This is hardly the first era to be forced through such an adjustment. “There are very few men and women, I suspect, who cooked and marketed their way through the last war without losing forever some of the nonchalant extravagance of the 20s. They will feel, until their final days on earth, a kind of culinary caution,” wrote MFK Fisher in How to Cook a Wolf. First published in 1942, Fisher’s cookbook was reissued after the war with Fisher’s later commentary on her work incorporated in square brackets; in one of my favourite bits, she rebukes her past self for speaking only of her sons and neglecting the daughters. Continue reading...