04 September 2020

Lockdown Lit: My 5 Favourite Books of August 2020

The Vanishing Half — Brit Bennett

Blame Francine Pascal, whose Sweet Valley High novels I devoured during my tween years, but I've always had a certain fascination with novels featuring twins. Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half, which tells the story of light-skinned Black twin sisters Desiree and Stella. Although parts of it are set in California and although Stella's daughter might not be too out of place in Sweet Valley, it's otherwise worlds apart.

Spanning several decades and generations, the story opens in the 1950s when the 16-year-old twins run away from their poor Louisiana town to New Orleans. During a job interview Stella 'passes' as white and gets hired, eventually marrying her boss and raising a blonde, blue-eyed daughter in California. In order to do this, however, she has to erase her past and abandon her family — even Desiree, who remains haunted by the ghost of her sister for decades to come. She raises her own daughter whose skin is 'blueblack' alone and  when Jude goes to college in California, all of the secrets Stella has worked so hard to protect and the truths Desiree has craved. Told from the viewpoint of various characters, Bennett's narrative is incredibly compelling and the characters richly portrayed. I knew very little about passing before I read The Vanishing Half and the choices depicted in the novel are truly heartbreaking.

The Flight — Julie Clark
Although very different thematically and tonally from The Vanishing Half, Julie Clark's The Flight (also published as The Last Flight) also tells the story of two women desperate to escape from their lives, and the lengths they are willing to go to extract themselves from their impossible situations. From the outside, rich, beautiful Claire has the perfect life: she is married to a charismatic man from a powerful political family, lives in a gorgeous Manhattan townhouse and does philanthropic work. Her husband, however, is also controlling, abusive and dangerous, and Claire manages to craft a way to disappear. 

But everything goes wrong when her husband changes her travel plans at the last moment, and instead, she swaps passports and tickets with Eva, a woman she meets at the airport, and flies to Berkeley instead. When she lands, she finds out that the flight she was supposed to take crashed with no survivors, and as she starts to navigate Eva's world, she starts to understand why Eva too was so desperate to check out that she was willing to swap places with a random woman at an airport. Although the story is somewhat implausible at times, albeit well-explained, The Flight is a real page-turner, as we follow Claire in the present day, while also discovering in alternate chapters what brought Eva to make the decision she did. 

Skin Deep — Sung J. Woo 
There's a running joke in Skin Deep where its Korean-American narrator Siobhan O'Brien, who was adopted by a Norwegian mother and an Irish father, has to explain her Irish name to almost everyone she meets. It's not really funny, of course, but Siobhan deals with it in the same droll fashion she does almost everything. As the novel opens, the owner of the private investigation company where Siobhan is training dies leaving the agency to Siobhan. There isn't a lot of money or much in the way of assets, but an old friend soon hires Siobhan to search for her missing daughter, a student at the exclusive Llewellyn College. The college recently admitted its first male students, a move which has not been well received by all parties, and the more Siobhan investigates, the clearer it becomes that there is something rotten in the state of Llewellyn — and plenty of very strange characters. At times, the bonkersness of it all did get out of hand, but the mystery is complex and well-plotted, and Siobhan is a great character: funny, smart and independent. This is the first in a series of Siobhan O'Brien novels, so if you like her, stay tuned!

Such a Fun Age — Kiley Reid
At the start of Such a Fun Age, twenty-something Emira professional babysitter is persuaded to head across Philadelphia late one night at very short notice to look after of young charge Briar, while the child's parents deal with an issue at home. Emira, who is Black, takes Briar, who is white, to a fancy grocery store and is promptly questioned by a security guard who is concerned she might have kidnapped the child, until Briar's father comes down to 'clear things up'. 

The novel then alternates between Emira's perspective and that of Alix, Briar's mother, a wealthy influencer who made a name for herself by writing to companies to ask for free things. Emira, meanwhile, doesn't really know what she wants to do with her life, but as more of her friends get 'real' jobs, she becomes increasingly unhappy with her own situation and her hourly salary, with no benefits. Alix is desperate to do right by Emira, but often struggles to realise what that might be and as a consequence, makes some atrocious decisions. At times Such a Fun Age is an uncomfortable read — a gently cautionary tale — but the story is engaging, and the characterisation and dialogue are really on point.

The Searcher — Tana French
Tana French's name is no stranger to the book reviews section of this blog, and her 'Dublin Murder Squad' novels are one of my favourite crime series. I was excited to hear that French had a new novel out, even if it was a standalone novel (her last standalone, The Witch Elm, made it into my top 10 books of 2018). Unusually for French, a) the novel is set in rural western Ireland rather than Dublin, and b) the story is told in the third person. 

The protagonist is grizzled, retired Chicago cop Cal, who moves to Ireland after his divorce and buys a falling-down cottage in a small town. He is hoping for the quiet life, but soon begins a strange almost-friendship with young Trey, a troubled child from the notorious Reddy family. Trey's older brother disappeared suddenly several months earlier and wants Cal to find out what happened. Cal initially refuses and yet somehow finds himself on this fool's errand, becoming increasingly drawn into the mystery and into the town itself. But not everyone is happy about his new mission, and asking the wrong questions of the right people might make Cal regret ever crossing the Atlantic in the first place. Like many of French's novels, The Searcher is a slow burner, but if you stick with it, you'll be rewarded with a deeply satisfying psychological thriller, in which the sense of place is evoked as powerfully as the keenly observed characters.

Disclaimer: The Searcher will be published by Penguin/Viking on 5 November 2020. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

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