Fictional Herons – 28 May 2023

It periodically occurs to me that much of my time is spent shopping. I peruse publisher’s newsletters, comb through reviews, talk to all the bookish people I meet, read advanced proofs – all with an eye to whether I should buy a title for the shop. There are no impulse purchases here. OK, except for that copy of Clarissa, without which I believed the shop would be incomplete.

I read several books at once. Early morning is for poetry; Sunday afternoons are for non-fiction; before sleep is an ever-shifting book mood; if I’ve had bad news, I want to read something familiar (Dodie Smith, Elizabeth Taylor); if I’m lounging in the sun with a gin and tonic, fiction or essays will suit nicely (that is, Joan Didion is perfect). This is quite different from the cold night, warm fire and glass of red wine which might accompany curling up with Georges Simenon and different again from the urgency which seizes one to read everything by James Baldwin.

This week I have been happily shopping for fiction and even more happily reading my way through a pile of great new titles. So, if you will indulge this, even if you usually stick solely to chunky histories or recondite science books, here’s to a list of brilliant novels:

The Happy Couple by Naoise Dolan – the cynic in me thought that following the much-hyped and very enjoyable debut that was Exciting Times would be tricky. The Happy Couple is superb and I have taken a bank holiday from cynicism. It’s a complicated will-they won’t-they following an engaged couple whom no one thinks should get married. Least of all the couple themselves. The couple are a man and a woman, both bisexual, both with former lovers who are now “just” friends, both lying by omission and apparently intending to get married in a Catholic church. Dolan explores the implications brilliantly. (A few signed copies are currently available.)

The Guest by Emma Cline – a young woman who owes a lot of money to at least one shady older man and who has just crashed the car of her current sugar daddy finds herself homeless, low on funds and with a broken phone. She just needs to survive a few days amid the faceless, morally vacuous wealthy of Long Island. There are American Psycho vibes with fewer stomach crunches, fewer chainsaws, similarly elegant satire and rather more for women to say.

Soldier Sailor by Claire Kilroy – Kilroy delivers a raging, meandering, soul-baring monologue from a mother, Soldier, addressed to her young son, Sailor, addressing all of her fears, frustrations and desires as part of the claustrophobic double-act of early motherhood. Soldier Sailor, Kilroy’s first novel in a decade, has been garnering the highest of praise from all quarters and deserves all of it and so much more.

The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng – another decade-long wait is ended with Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng publishing his first novel since the Booker-shortlisted The Garden of Evening Mists (which we are reading for June’s fiction book group). The House of Doors traces the imagined interconnections of the novelist W. Somerset Maugham, the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen and an expat housewife in 1910s Malaya. It beautifully explores the fictions of imperialism and the imperiousness of fiction.

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov – nostalgia: it isn’t what it used to be, as Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov’s Time Shelter makes clear. A maverick doctor sets up a clinic for dementia sufferers that recreates their memories to help ease their distress, although he soon learns that not all memories are to be trusted. Nevertheless, the clinic is so successful its appeal spreads to the unafflicted, but nostalgia and a safe space from the present are not always the answer to our problems. This lively and moving translation won the International Booker this week.

Yellowface by Rebecca F. Kuang – everyone has their ‘Sliding Doors’ moment: struggling author June Hayward’s comes when her friend and best-selling rival takes an importune bite of pancake and chokes to death, leaving June with the sole typescript of her unpublished historical epic. She can’t be responsible for what happens next…

Because I Don’t Know What You Mean and What You Don’t by Josie Long – this debut short-story collection from the comedian and broadcaster Josie Long displays all of the flights of fancy and committed enthusiasm that fans will recognise, alongside a more wavering insecurity.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw – now released in paperback, Deesha Philyaw’s collection of short stories gives voice to a variety of church-going black women in the US, exploring their lives, loves, hopes and… bodies. It’s delicious.

In Memoriam by Alice Winn – I wrote about this back in March. Alice kindly popped into the shop this week so we are now well stocked with signed copies if you needed an extra nudge to read this stunning story of love between two young men, finding fleeting solace in one another, whilst fighting in the First World War.

Having trailed an all-fiction newsletter, I shall make one non-fiction recommendation. Next Saturday, 3rd June, we have an event with Doreen Cunningham, author of Soundings. In this moving nature-writing/travel memoir, we follow the author and her young son on their epic journey with pods of whales from Mexico to Alaska. They watch the whales and, sometimes, the whales watch back. Do come along to our little pod at 5pm on 3rd June.

Mentioned in the Newsletter…