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

Review: The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

9780099572237After lavishing Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance with praise last year — in fact, it was named in my Top 10 Books of 2018 — a few readers got in touch lamenting its place in that echelon, labelling Tyler’s novels ‘boring’ and homogeneous. Honestly, I’ve not read enough of her work to confirm or deny those allegations; of her 22 books, I’ve read six of them. All I know is, each one of them has been of a sufficiently high quality to warrant further exploration into her backlist. Sure, many navigate similar themes and locales, and revolve around thoroughly messed-up families but honestly, I can’t name you an author more capable of rendering complex emotions with such devastating clarity and sympathetic intelligence; whose I novels I’ve become increasingly infatuated with. It’s not a matter of if I’ll get around to reading all of Tyler’s novels, but when, and prolonging that process as long as possible.

The narrator of The Beginner’s Goodbye is Aaron Woolcott, who works for a family publishing company, who are the originators of the successful Beginners series, which breaks large topics into manageable increments. So less ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Cooking,’ more ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Boiling an Egg.’ Following a childhood illness, Aaron’s right arm and leg are paralysed, so he wears a brace, uses a cane (when he’s not purposefully leaving it behind) and drives a modified car. He also suffers from a bad stutter. As a result, his mother (now dead) and older sister have sought to protect him from the harsh realities of the world, thinking Aaron hapless prey. Aaron despises that notion — spends his days “fending off the two women in my life” and they try, in his eyes, to “cosset me to death.” Which is why he falls for the brusque, almost aloof, Doctor Dorothy Rosales, eight years his senior, who doesn’t treat him with kid gloves. Even Aaron admits: he deliberately chose a non-caretaker as a wife.

But when Dorothy is killed in a freak accident — so swift and unlikely, it’s almost comical — Aaron is forced to revaluate his life, and his marriage. He begins to perceive its cracks, but also the comfort he garnered from Dorothy’s presence. Their marriage was less than ideal: in moments, told in flashbacks, it feels like there’s no affection between the two at all. But they were a unit, had established a routine, valued their companionship, even if it was at times distant. The Beginner’s Goodbye deftly handles Aaron’s nosedive into grief; his steadfast refusal to accept the offerings from neighbours, and the companionship of friends and family, which climaxes with Dorothy’s “return” from the dead; a mirage conjured from extreme melancholic loneliness. But it’s through his dialogue with Dorothy that Aaron gradually begins to move on.

The Beginner’s Goodbye is a light, engaging, poignant story about love and loss. I adored it until its denouement, which reads a little false, more like a fairy tale, a little too convenient, and far too conventional. Good Tyler; not great Tyler.

ISBN: 9780099572237
Format: Paperback / softback (198mm x 129mm x 17mm)
Pages: 272
Imprint: Vintage
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 17-Jan-2013
Country of Publication: United Kingdom