Archive for February, 2013

February 28, 2013

Communion Town: Sam Thompson

by Andre

Sam Thompson COMMUNION TOWNNovels depicting cities tend towards prolixity – Edward Rutherfurd’s doorstop volumes are intimidating me from the Riverside shelves as I write this – but Sam Thompson’s debut is a perfectly formed narrative that relies on its idiosyncratic characters: you wander the streets in their shoes rather than having to swallow endless descriptions of historical buildings and byways. Thompson’s unnamed, imaginary city (Communion Town is just one of its districts) leaves you both mystified and awestruck over the course of 10 ‘chapters’; it’s not really a novel, though it did make the Man Booker Prize longlist, presumably because the writing was just too good to ignore.

There are loosely connected stories of odd couples, unequal friendships and isolated workers whose frailties are exposed by the city’s indifference. Communion Town is speculative rather than realist fiction and there’s a haunting, recurring image of the flâneur that lends a dream-like quality to the prose. Thompson’s trump card is his magpie approach to genre including Chandler-esque detective fiction, a Sherlock Holmes style adventure with a metaphysical twist, and the sort of visionary horror that Arthur Machen employed to turn London into a sinister dreamscape. Communion Town is a book that will benefit from repeated readings: each time you pick it up, the imaginary streets will feel as alive with possibility and strangeness as our own metropolis.

February 18, 2013

The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares: Joyce Carol Oates

by Andre

Joyce Carol Oates THE CORN MAIDEN AND OTHER NIGHTMARESWith a 50-year career that takes in novels, short stories, young adult fiction, poetry, reviews, and edited anthologies as well as book-length memoirs and essays ranging from widowhood to boxing, keeping up with the astonishing literary output of Joyce Carol Oates is a job of work. But it’s an occupation that never feels like a chore, such is the emotional pull of her prose and the thrilling sense of dread in her stories.

Her latest collection – though another one will probably turn up any minute – is lyrical, elegant and shocking in a way you might not anticipate from such an admired woman of letters. The novella that gives the book its title is the case of a missing girl told from multiple perspectives in which Oates adroitly pairs adult emotions of guilt, regret and loss with an adolescent rage that threatens to explode into ritual killing. There’s also a brace of tales about evil twins, a devastating story about a jealous sibling and a breathless account of a plastic surgeon losing his grip – literally – that’s just plain nasty. Edgar Allan Poe is clearly a lifelong influence on Oates’s intricate, intoxicating horror. Once you wander in, the temptation to lose yourself in her literary backlist may be hard to resist.

February 2, 2013

Alys, Always: Harriet Lane

by Andre

Harriet Lane ALYS, ALWAYSThis concise novel of quiet obsession is plastered with quotes from critics comparing it to Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell and Daphne Du Maurier. That’s a daunting triumvirate to live up to for Harriet Lane, but Alys, Always quickly sucks you into its chilly psychological drama. After witnessing the aftermath of a traffic accident involving the titular Alys, narrator and protagonist Frances Thorne inveigles herself into the life of Alys’s husband, a respected author, and their children.

The success of the novel is due in large part to the voice of Frances, a darkly complex literary creation. She may be a downtrodden newspaper books pages sub-editor who’s ‘pale, nondescript, as dull as my clothes’ yet Frances demonstrates burgeoning powers of manipulation and casts a cold eye on friends, rivals and family. Her suburban mother has a ‘deep-seated fear of vulgarity, as if it might suddenly overpower her in a dark alley’, while the London literary crowd and their privileged offspring are skewered with gleefully mordant phrases. It’s an assured debut that shows flashes of the suspense, bleak humour and cold psychological insight of her literary forebears.