The Hour I First Believed
By Wally Lamb
Lamb’s brave, ambitious and for the most part brilliantly executed third novel melds fiction with fact, chronicling the real-life events that took place in Columbine High School in 1999, when two students killed 12 students and a teacher in a horrific gun rampage. Lamb uses the real names of the killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, and the students who were involved that day. Lamb’s two fictional lead characters are school nurse Maureen Quirk and her 47-year-old husband, Caelum Quirk, an English teacher at the school who is called away from home the week of the shootings because his aunt in Connecticut is ill. This book is rarely straightforwardly shocking; more often, it’s probing and investigative of human emotions. Lamb’s sense of pace and capacity for plotting are impressive: it’s 150 pages into the intensively researched narrative before the shootings begin. Lamb’s previous two novels, She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True, were picked for the Oprah Winfrey book club and became No 1 New York Times bestsellers. This book is over 700 pages, but don’t let that put you off — though there are a few too many subplots, it’s a great read.
By Philip Roth
Jonathan Cape, $20
Over the course of more than four decades, America’s most renowned contemporary novelist, Philip Roth, has arguably done his best work on large canvases, offering up a reflection of society through the creation of pleasurably vivid, kaleidoscopic tapestries of character lives. But Indignation – his 29th novel – is a slimmer, more narrowly focused affair. It’s also a glorious novel: a surprisingly easy read, packed with colourful detail and with a cleverly etched moral about the folly of youth at its heart. Spirituality, philosophy and kosher butchery are explored, but there are traces, too, of the kind of comic humour through which Roth first made his name. Unlike his relatively morose recent novel Everyman, Roth has injected fierce life into Indignation.
Ironically, this comes courtesy of his lead character Marcus, a hotheaded 19-year-old who wastes little time in informing us that he is actually dead. Stuck six feet under with forever to ”muck over a lifetime’s minutiae”, Marcus relays the sorry story of his all-too-brief existence. He and his father were close companions, but as Marcus grew older, his father changed, fretting continually that Marcus would get himself into trouble. At 19,Marcus, unable to stand the pressure, changes college, fleeing to a campus in the farm country of north-central Ohio, where there are hardly any other Jewish boys. Against the minutiae of college life, filled with Marcus’s engagingly prissy thoughts about sex, religion and romance, all of which Roth outlines with skill and occasional glee, looms the shadow of the Korean War. Marcus believes that, by being an A student and taking all the right classes in military science, he may be able to enter the army as an officer – and thus avoid combat. But being an outstanding scholar proves to be a little more challenging than Marcus would have imagined.
Events take a turn for the worse when Dean Caudwell, seeing Marcus’s failure to blend in well with his roommates, calls him to a meeting where he points out to Marcus that he never tries to solve his problems by working through them; instead he just leaves. Marcus responds by pompously quoting Bertrand Russell at him before energetically vomiting his breakfast onto the carpet. It’s a vintage Roth scene: combining philosophy with lashings of comic energy. Although it’s possible to view this novel as a little short on depth and substance – it has the feel of a fable at times – there’s so much here to like in terms of character portrayal, narrative flow and enjoyably evocative comic realism that such flaws are easy to forgive. This isn’t a Roth novel on the scale of American Pastoral or The Human Stain, but nor is it intended to be. Instead, it’s a fine, sharp portrait of a young life lived anxiously and chaotically. Highly recommended.
By Colm Tóibín
Brooklyn is the first novel from Irish author Colm Tóibín since his Impac award-winning 2004 work The Master. As such, it’s easily one of the most eagerly anticipated and important novels to be released this year. It’s also one of the best books I have read this year: effectively and evocatively written, and featuring a masterful, hypnotic style of unobtrusive storytelling that builds quietly to a minor-key epiphany. The book reveals the life of Eilis Lacey, a young girl brought up in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, in the 1950s. She emigrates to America in search of the kind of life her well intentioned mother and elder sister Rose, trapped in drab, small-town Ireland, believe she should have. When Eilis reaches Brooklyn, although she remains desperately homesick, it’s an exciting part of the book – all bright city colours after the faded greys of her Irish hometown. Advised and protected by her mentor Father Flood, Eilis gets a job in Bartocci’s department store on Fulton Street. Although the book doesn’t trade in laugh-out-loud humour, there are smiles to be had, particularly when Eilis begins to face up to her staunchly conservative landlord, Mrs Kehoe on Clinton Street – and you sense a more fiery personality beginning to emerge. There’s a thrill of a different kind when Eilis meets her first suitor at a dance. Her Italian-American boyfriend Tony Fiorello plays a pivotal role in the novel’s development, with Eilis buoyed by Tony’s attention, but concerned that her feelings for him might not be strong enough. Throughout the novel, Tóibín reveals his narrative in an old-fashioned way, with an interesting sense of distance existing between character and author. Tóibín describes the feelings of his characters, but he does so sparingly. Thus, many passages have the quality of a little shockwave that passes from the page to the reader – as you realise, belatedly, what is truly happening between the lines. Eilis’s mother refuses to show how sad she feels about her daughter emigrating, but she cannot hide her distress when a neighbour unexpectedly quizzes her. Likewise, even as Eilis denies her homesickness, Eilis’s sister Rose keeps quiet about a secret that will affect them all. Every decision is weighted, fraught – and none more so than the decision Eilis must make at the novel’s end. Right until the last few pages, Tóibín keeps you guessing as to what will happen. A masterful, moving work.
By Damon Galgut
At 44, Galgut has won two major awards, the CNA Prize (the highest literary honour in South Africa), and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book from the Africa Region. Galgut is often seen as the natural heir to the throne occupied by South African writer JM Coetzee – and, in many respects, the comparison seems quite appropriate. Although Galgut is a less controversial writer than Coetzee, like the Nobel Prize-winning writer, he has forged an international career from keeping his thumb pressed firmly down on the country’s pressure points. His most recent novel, The Impostor, has had praise showered on it from all quarters. It deserves to: the post-apartheid chronicling novel is a weighty, impressive, beautifully measured and politically charged work. It came as a shock when it failed to make the Booker prize longlist, even as many less well-received novels found themselves a spot. The Impostor tells the story of Adam Napier, a young man in Johannesburg who loses his job to the black intern he has been training for the past six months. ”His boss had been apologetic, talking about racial quotas and telling him it was nothing personal. But how could it not be personal? Afterwards, remembering this scene, what he felt most keenly was humiliation that he hadn’t seen it coming.” Seeking to leave behind his old life, Napier solicits the help of his wealthy younger brother who happens to own a house – more accurately defined as a hovel – in the Karoo. Recalling his adolescent dreams of making a career as a poet, Napier believes fancifully that he will go into the house and write poetry books – ”he was the real soul of the country. He was at the centre of things”. In the countryside, however, with a blank page that ”outstared him every time”, Napier quickly becomes side-tracked. He meets a wealthy old schoolmate named Canning who recalls Napier with huge affection and invites him to meet Baby, his black wife whom Canning adores – he tells Napier proudly that they are ”a new South African couple”. Napier falls in with them and their glitzy crowd, neglecting to mention to Canning that he does not remember him from school. Although all appears smooth on the surface, little is truly as it seems. Baby merely tolerates Canning; she has dragged herself up from poverty by her fingernails and will use any method necessary – including marriage – to keep herself in comfort. Adam’s reclusive next-door neighbour, meanwhile, turns out to be anything but the person that Adam has first imagined.
This Charming Man
By Marian Keyes
Superficially a very light tale – the story of three Irish women and their relationships with the dangerous, charismatic politician Paddy de Courcy – Marian Keyes’s latest novel can equally accurately be defined as a dark and disturbing story that weaves in sub-plots involving abuse and alcoholism. Over 650-odd pages, Keyes provides the reader with several narrative voices: there is Lola, the funny, engaging, Bridget Jones-like stylist who has become the latest victim of Paddy de Courcy’s behaviour; there’s Grace, the analytical journalist who wants to bring de Courcy down; and there’s Marnie, Grace’s beautiful, vulnerable alcoholic twin sister who lacks any sense of self-worth and has suffered at Paddy’s hands in the past. Keyes has a masterful ability to move, seemingly effortlessly, from wrenchingly bleak, authentic and well researched scenes to brilliantly, unexpectedly funny scenes. Although Lola has retreated to the country to have her nervous breakdown quietly, it’s not long before she is navigating her way through situations involving cross-dressing dole officers and dairy farmers. Although the plot involving Paddy’s eventual comeuppance feels a little ropey at times – there’s no sustained attempt made to make it seem realistic – there’s a wonderfully effortless feel to the novel overall; Keyes’s tone is always consistent and, in writing from so many different perspectives, she offers the reader an engaging, acutely well observed portrait of modern-day Ireland.
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
By Rebecca Miller
Miller might be better known as the daughter of the playwright Arthur Miller and the wife of Daniel Day-Lewis, but she’s also a very talented writer and film-maker in her own right. Having previously authored the short story collection, Personal Velocity, which she later made into a well received film, Miller’s first novel tells the story of Pippa Lee, a 50-year-old housewife who is described as “a happily married, well off woman, a dedicated mother, generous hostess, a woman who seemed to those who knew her to be among the most gracious, the kindest, the loveliest, the most unpretentious and most reassuring ladies they had ever met.” Pippa lives for “giving pleasure”. So when her husband Herb, a renowned, physically frail ublisher 30 years her senior, suggests they move into a gated retirement community, Pippa readily agrees, seeing it as no less than her duty. But shortly after their arrival, Pippa begins sleepwalking and smoking cigarettes in her sleep. Soon, she begins to wonder if she’s having a nervous breakdown. Fashioned with assiduous care, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is a compelling and ambitious work that examines what happens to women when their sense of identity and self becomes subsumed by the needs of their families. The film adaptation of this is due in June 09.