Review: Betty by Tiffany McDaniel

9781474617536“A girl comes of age against the knife… but the woman she becomes must decide if the blade will cut deep enough to rip her apart or if she will find the strength to leap with her arms out and dare herself to fly in a world that seems to break like glass around her.”

Inspired by generations of her own family, Tiffany McDaniel’s “Betty” is the story of Betty Carpenter’s agonising childhood. Born in a bathtub in 1954 — the sixth of eight siblings — to a white mother and a Cherokee father, Berry’s childhood is suffused with tragedy and heartbreak, pockmarked by the poverty, racism and violence imbedded within the DNA of Breathed, Ohio; degraded further by the corrosive secrets imbued within each Carpenter, which gradually corrupts their familial unity. This toxicity is more potent in certain members than it is others, which comes to the fore as the novel ratchets towards its climax. Some are broken; others merely damaged; but nobody is untouched.

Reading “Betty” reminded me of Roxane Gay’s “An Untamed State,” Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life,” and Sofie Laguna’s “The Choke.” It is viscerally confronting with its depictions of violence and abuse. It is not for the faint of heart. Certain scenes — which should be discovered during Betty’s narration rather than spoiled in a review — will be lodged in my memory forever, both for their unflinching depiction, and their heartbreaking consequences for our young protagonist.

The narrative thrums with evocative descriptions of the landscape, and marinates in Betty’s father’s stories about native Cherokee traditions. We witness how Betty’s endless exposure to brutality shapes her view of the world, and fear what it means for her future. We hope, and pray, that she finds agency through the power of words, even as she buries her scrawled recounts of the horrors she has witnessed deep in the dirt. McDaniel offers no reprieve. She pulls no punches. She tears into the noxiousness of patriarchy; the aftermath of abuse; the trauma of unrepentant racism. What does it take for a young girl to survive that?

“Betty” is an absolutely gut-wrenching coming-of-age story, graced by powerful and poetic prose.

ISBN: 9781474617536
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 464
Imprint: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 18-Aug-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Love by Roddy Doyle

9781787332287I’m a latecomer to Roddy Doyle, but was enraptured by Smile (2017) — a bleak novel about the legacy of institutional abuse in Ireland — and Charlie Savage (2019) — a collection of a year’s worth of hilarious, self-effacing and often poignant anecdotes, first published in the Irish Independent, about a middle-aged Dubliner reconciling with his own mortality. But Love is mysteriously expunged of the guffaw-inducing humour of the latter, or the shocking revelations of the former. And without either element, his latest is disappointingly bland, and by Doyle’s lofty standards, oddly prosaic.

Love shines the spotlight on two men in their late middle ages, who walk into a pub to drink and talk and reminisce. Several decades and hundreds of miles have separated Davy and Joe, but tonight they’re united, their conversation becoming increasingly drunken and sloppy, and pockmarked with revelations, the most significant (we think, until the novel’s latter stages) that Joe recently left his wife for Jessica, a woman he first met in one of the pubs he and Davy frequented in their youth.

Doyle’s the master of dialogue, and that’s showcased here, as he demonstrates the exacting nature of discourse between two emotionally stunted men, who are desperate to unveil their feelings, but burdened by the expectations of toxic masculinity. There are machinations on family and fatherhood, love and friendship, as they talk around their emotions; hide sentiment behind crude banter. Some of it is poignant, but much of it is exhausting. For a good hundred pages we are treading water, waiting for the novel to get to its point. I can’t help feeling this is a novel begging for a leaner page count.

ISBN: 9781787332287
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 336
Imprint: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 14-May-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Adversary by Ronnie Scott

9780143796640This is one of those books where not a lot happens — but, prospectively, a lot happens, or is about to, depending on how the reader extrapolates its ending. It doesn’t manifest in action on the page, nor in a significant obtaining of wisdom that would pigeonhole it as a conventional “coming-of-age” tale. It is a novel whose magnitude is measured in precise, smaller moments, in which its author microscopically examines the evolution of a close friendship between two gay men as a scorching Melbourne summer ignites.

The Adversary eschews a traditional narrative structure, and casts the reader into the mind of its unnamed protagonist, exposes us to the vicissitudes and complexities of his life — noteworthy for its ordinariness, unembellished by genre-trappings — lays out the jump-start cable necessary to revive him from his almost-paralytic physical and emotional indolence, then shunts the reader out again. It reads like a bridging novel; we are witnessing an essential interval in a young man’s life, unbeknownst to him, and not pockmarked by elaborate embellishment or genre-surreality, that is leading towards something undefined. It is brilliantly true to life and relatable.

Writing with the assurance and authority that belies his status as first-time novelist, Ronnie Scott reveals the contradictions of the human heart and the complexities of friendship, love and sexuality. Compulsively readable, and memorable for its lack of clear-cut finality. The story – the narrator’s life – continues beyond the page.

ISBN: 9780143796640
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 256
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Publish Date: 15-Apr-2020
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

9780857526137Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel is more than a dazzling and seductive alternate history about a world in which Hillary Rodham decided not to marry Bill Clinton to maintain her independence. It’s a searing commentary on the unjust compromises and aspersions faced by female politicians compared to their male counterparts, and how much harder it is for women to make their way in politics, or any facet of public life; any walk of life, in fact.

Hillary is merely the vehicle Sittenfeld uses to showcase this inequality; but saturating her fiction in the texture of Hillary’s reality, with one major twist, adds a brilliant vitality to the work, and a layer of verisimilitude that using a totally fabricated character would not have allowed. This narrative decision is utterly seductive, and Sittenfeld clearly had great fun contemplating the seismic ramifications that one different decision might’ve produced. Where is Donald Trump in this new world? Barrack Obama? Indeed, what actually happened to Bill Clinton; did he achieve his political ambitions without Hillary as his first lady? Sittenfeld answers all of these questions, and more. I was addicted to learning more, and incredibly impressed by her ability to humanise Hillary, and turn her into a sympathetic character rather than a caricature. I’ve no doubt it’ll be one of my favourite books of the year.

ISBN: 9780857526137
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 400
Available: 19th May 2020
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd

Review: Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

9781784743482“The thing about old girlfriends, Micah reflected, is that each one subtracts something from you. You say goodbye to your first great romance and move on to the next, but you find you have less to give the next. A little chip of you has gone missing; you’re not quite so wholly there in the new relationship. And less there in the one after that, and even less in the one after that one.”

This is comfortably familiar fiction by Anne Tyler; remorselessly poignant, rendered with a unique blend of melancholy and warmheartedness that is distinctly her own style. Redhead by the Side of the Road is another beautifully written gem; and although I do wish Tyler would demonstrate slightly more ambition in the latter part of her stellar career, I’m inevitably enchanted by the subtlety and delicate touch of her writing.

Micah Mortimer’s life is strictly governed by a self-imposed, extremely regimented routine. Think you’re organised? Think again; you ain’t got nothin’ on Micah. He wakes, every morning, at 7:15am for his run, then starts his work as a freelance tech consultant for his small business ‘Tech Hermit,’ and then in the afternoon manages tasks in the apartment building where he’s s the live-in super. Micah’s life is ordered; carefully coordinated for maximum efficiency. To the extent that, from our omniscient perspective, he appears straitjacketed by his habits; emotionally blanched. Until two events destabilise Micah’s system: his “woman friend” reveals she is facing eviction from her apartment; and a teenager shows up at his door claiming to be his son.

As Tyler strips Micah of his delusions, she conveys the texture of human emotion with graceful precision. As ever, she plays to her strengths, and as always, she has created a wonderfully complicated character who lingers in your imagination long after the final page.

Published: 15 April 2020
ISBN: 9781784743482
Imprint: Chatto & Windus
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 192
RRP: $29.99

Review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

9781509882816“There is exquisite lightness in waking each morning with the knowledge that the worst has already happened.”

Emily St. John Mandel’s highly-anticipated follow-up to Station Eleven is a masterpiece of operatic proportions, spanning more than thirty years, and involving a disparate cast of characters impacted by the catastrophic collapse of a financier’s Ponzi scheme.

It opens in December 2018, with Vincent Smith falling overboard from a container ship near the coast of Mauritania, into the annihilating cold of the water below. The narrative then unsnarls backwards, disclosing how the book’s key players are linked by the Hotel Caiette, a five-star architectural triumph on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island — owned by Jonathan Alkaitis, whose fraudulent investment scheme will derail so many lives — and the night a menacing message was scrawled on its primary window: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” 

Exploring ghosts, guilt, heartache and corruption, The Glass Hotel is a virtuoso display of overlapping storylines, that bounce backwards and forwards in time, and into a surreal “counterlife,” interweaved via character, theme, and plot. This is genius storytelling by one of my favourite writers.

ISBN: 9781509882816
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: 31/03/2020
Imprint: Picador
Pages: 256
Price: $29.99

Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

9780571230587Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance is an extraordinary novel; one of those books I’m ashamed I haven’t read sooner, but at the same time, am so glad I’ve read at a point in my life when I can truly appreciate its magnificence. It is a timeless, masterful epic; without question, one of my favourite novels of all time, so brilliantly gripping, I couldn’t put it down until its heartbreaking final pages. I haven’t been haunted by a book like this since Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life; but I’d say the scope and architecture of A Fine Balance is even more impressive.

Mistry’s second novel is an impassioned indictment of India’s corrupt and horrifically cruel society during India’s “State of Internal Emergency” of the 1970s.  Its four protagonists — Dina, in her forties, poor and widowed; her two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om (deemed ‘untouchable’ by the caste system); and Maneck, the son of an old School friend of Dina’s — are all victims of the times, whose sufferings are disparate, but equally devastating.

It’s so effortlessly Dickensian; virtuosically exploring grand themes with poised and measured grace. A Fine Balance is as close to perfection as a novel gets.

ISBN: 9780571230587
Format: Paperback / softback (198mm x 126mm x 37mm)
Pages: 624
Imprint: Faber & Faber
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publish Date: 14-Oct-2006
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

9781526614940Ann Patchett cemented her reputation long ago as a writer capable of examining families with ruthless intimacy. Compassionately, powerfully, understatedly and effortlessly she has stripped bare the dynamics of families, each novel quivering on the brink of being a masterpiece. Well, The Dutch House is it; her tour de force; as good a novel as you will ever read, this year or any year, about two siblings who plummet from riches to rags and form an everlasting bond as a result.

At the end of World War II, Cyril Conroy surprises his wife, Elna, by purchasing a mansion — so named the “Dutch House” because of its former owners, the VanHoebeeks — in the Elkins Park neighbourhood of Philadelphia. It’s a luxurious, fully-furnished estate, embellished with domineering portraits of the VanHoebeeks, and staffed by a servant girl named Fluffy. The perfect home to raise a family, you might think; but Elna can’t stand its decadence, and soon abandons her children — Danny, aged three, and daughter Maeve, aged ten —  to be cared for by the household staff and their gruff, inattentive father. Then a stepmother and stepsisters enter Danny and Maeve’s lives; both parties equally uncongenial, but content to live within each other’s orbits; until tragedy strikes, uncoupling the Conroy children from the Dutch House, thrusting them into a new reality wholly separate from the affluence they once knew.

Narrated by Danny, Ann Patchett unspools the lives of the Conroys with customary grace, rendering the ageing of her ensemble cast over many decades with profound authenticity.  The magic of Patchett’s work is her ability to spin ordinary lives into operas; to take the patchwork of moments that comprise our lives, the comedy and pathos, and turn it into revelatory, enthralling art.

ISBN: 9781526614957
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Publish Date: 24-Sep-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

9780241410912.jpgMary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes is a wrenching American generational saga about the heavy burdens of family and guilt, and the redemptive power of love.

Narrated from multiple perspectives, whisking readers from the early 1970s until today, it probes the depths of human trauma — physical and emotional — and our capacity for forgiveness, as it highlights the defining moments in people’s lives.

At times Keane’s third novel reminded me of my favourite experiences with Anne Tyler and Ann Patchett; deeply involving, emotionally rich, a book to settle into fully, even as it breaks your heart and opens it up. There’s nothing pretentious about it; just a good story, with characters you love, alongside strong themes, perfectly crafted. A must-read cocktail.

ISBN: 9780241410912
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Michael Joseph Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 28-May-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley

9781787331112.jpgThe story of Christine, Alex, Lydia and Zachary — a quartet of friends; two couples — is not a wildly original one. Following the sudden death of Zachary, “the one we couldn’t afford to lose,” muses Christine, the equilibrium of their relationships is thrown wildly off kilter; tested, pulled, and contorted like never before. Over the course of its pages, Late in the Day recounts the evolution of their friendships, ignited in their early 20s, and retained now, in their 50s. No wheels are being reinvented here: like Elizabeth Strout an Anne Tyler, Tess Hadley peers into the familiar world of family and friendships with merciless intimacy. But the execution is so gloriously appealing and beautifully measured that surrendering to its charms feels like the only option.

Hadley has a sharp, penetrating eye for the nuances of human relationships. Her rendering of Christine, Alex and Lydia struggling to reconcile the loss of Zachary is exquisitely deft, as it warps from anguish over his absence from their lives, to the total destabilisation it causes. Late in the Day is a candid and intensely realised examination of grief; psychologically astute, beautifully written, it is my first sampling of Hadley’s work, and will not be my last. A few years back I became infatuated with Anne Tyler; then Elizabeth Strout. I can already tell — this will be the year of Tessa Hadley.

ISBN: 9781787331112
Format: Hardback
Pages: 288
Imprint: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 14-Feb-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom