7 July 2020

Lockdown Lit: My Five Favourite Books in June 2020


Like many people, I enjoyed Tayari Jones's acclaimed 2018 novel An American Marriage, and a friend recently recommended I check out Silver Sparrow, which was published in 2011. Silver Sparrow tells the story of two sisters, Dana and Chaurisse, growing up in Atlanta in the 1980s. They are the same age and have a lot in common, but there's a catch: their bigamist father James Witherspoon married Dana's mother Gwen out of state having already married Chaurisse's mother Laverne years earlier. And although Dana knows who her father is and spends time with him in private, this secret must be closely guarded. The asymmetry of information results in dramatic irony in the second half of the novel, when the narration shifts from Dana to a blissfully unknowing Chaurisse. 

The narrative presents some other interesting questions, such as which of James's families, if any, is really better off. Gwen and Dana like to think that they are 'better' than Laverne and Chaurisse — more intelligent, harder working and more deserving of James's love and money, which they receive in only limited amounts — whom they think are unappreciative of their own privilege. But when we get Chaurisse's side of the story, it soon becomes apparent that the grass really is always greener, and that ignorance is not always bliss. Throughout the novel, Jones also shines the light on the stories of both girls' extended families, and we see tragedies and betrayals, plus a few kindnesses, repeated across the generations. Jones's prose is moving and compassionate, and her portraits of the two girls, intrinsically connected by a shared father and a shared sense of loneliness, are richly drawn.

If you read my last blog post, you'll know that I've been on a Suede rediscovery kick this year and it was an interview with bassist Mat Osman about his debut novel, The Ruins, which reopened that rabbit hole for me. And I'm happy to say that I enjoyed Osman's melancholic mystery as much as I've long loved his music. The Ruins is a tale of music and mania, brotherhood and betrayal. Set in London in 2010, it is, by turns, brooding and mysterious, sharp and darkly funny. Adam Kussgarten, quiet and serious, is shocked by the sudden death of his estranged twin brother Brandon, the erstwhile lead singer of a once-popular band. Brandon left a few written and musical clues, as well as a partner and young son back in LA, which fuel Adam's quest to find out what happened to his brother. 

Osman's London is claustrophobic and confusing ("taking pleasure in London's illegibility"), familiar but with more than a hint of the uncanny about it, and a dash of China Miéville in the extensive and intricate model city (and the city) Adam has constructed in his flat. As you'd expect from Osman's pedigree, there's a fair bit of inside baseball about the music industry, but in such a way that the music world's seedy underworld is as integral to the narrative as strings on a guitar. Eagle-eyed readers — especially Suede fans — will spot plenty of musical references and jokes, from lines like, "any fucker can play the bass", (ha!) and references to a character going "all Damon Albarn on me", to orbiting a character's "dark star," and to "skin like suede". Even Bowie's name becomes a pivotal plot point. "Music, if you do it right, is making the impossible come to life," one character writes. By contrast, Osman's evocative, keenly observed writing has made an almost-possible London and his cast of outsiders come to life very well indeed.

Leesa Cross-Smith's Whiskey & Ribbons is a story of love, loss and family. In the present day, former ballerina Evangeline is literally snowed in at her Louisville home with her brother-in-law Dalton and young son Noah. Her narrative alternates with accounts of those earlier, happier days from her husband Eamon, a police officer who was murdered in the line of duty, and from Dalton. It's one of those novels where you know right from the beginning what has happened but Cross-Smith's elegantly crafted story gradually clues in the reader in on how and why Evi and Eamon met and fell in love, but also on the story of how Dalton — who was adopted by Eamon's parents — and Eamon came to be brothers and about their deep, deep bond. In Evi's chapters, the complicated relationship she has with Dalton slowly becomes clear, giving the novel a pleasing symmetry, as well as a beautiful rhythm. 

Along the way, long-buried secrets come to light, and knowing the tragedy at the start of the novel does not make the ending any less powerful. On a lighter note, I particularly loved this line: "He stood there, drinking my Chemex, drinking my Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. I felt a rush of love for him." As I have some Yirgacheffe beans from Amoret in my hopper at the moment, I concur that Dalton has great taste in coffee!

A coming of age novel set in Hong Kong, Exciting Times introduces us to Ava, a 22-year-old Irish woman who has arrived in the Special Administrative Region to teach English grammar to schoolchildren. "I dented fricatives for a living," she explains, one of Naoise Dolan's many brilliant turns of phrase. Ava doesn't have much of a longer term plan, but things start to fall into place when she meets Julian, a banker a decade older, who could politely be described as 'distracted', or less politely as 'a bit crap'. She moves in with him, officially to save money, and a more-than-friends-but-not-really-a-couple relationship develops. Unsurprisingly, this is not the stuff of great romance and while Julian is travelling for work, an unsatisfied Ava grows closer to Edith, who comes from a local wealthy family. But this relationship is not without its complications either, and Ava ends up even more confused about what she wants and what she wants to do with her life by the end of the novel than she was at the start. Some may find this lack of closure to be an anticlimax, but although Ava can be frustrating, she is highly relatable, and you get the sense that she probably will be OK in the end — whenever that is.

As regular readers know, I'm always on the lookout for well written detective novel series, and the opener of Ausma Zehanat Khan's Detective Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty series certainly left me keen for the next instalment. Set in in the Toronto suburbs, the novel follows Khattak, head of the Community Policing Unit, and his partner Getty as they investigate the death of a local businessman, Christopher Drayton. His financially motivated fiancée is devastated, her world-weary teenage daughters less so, and his connection to a local Andalusia museum is also a puzzle. And when the detectives find documents in Drayton's safe that suggest links to the Srebrenica genocide in 1995, they begin to wonder if there may be more clues to be found among the local Bosnian Muslim community. Cleverly constructed and broad in scope, Zehanat Khan's novel kept me guessing almost until the end. The obligatory detective demons made their début too, although they remained mainly in the wings...for now.

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