Elizabeth is Missing: Emma Healey

★★★★

This book had been sitting unread on my Kindle since August 2018, but I sought it out just before Christmas. I wanted to read it before watching the celebrated but very raw TV adaptation, with Glenda Jackson on splendid form in the lead role. Maud is an elderly woman, fiercely independent even though her world is becoming increasingly confusing. Her social life centres on visiting her best friend Elizabeth but, for some reason, Elizabeth doesn’t answer the door now when Maud goes to call. Where is she? Maud is determined to find out, and is baffled when her daughter Helen doesn’t seem to understand the urgency. As Maud turns detective, her mind begins to slip between past and present with ever-increasing frequency, for Elizabeth isn’t the only one who has disappeared. Maud’s present sense of loss echoes her distress when her elder sister Sukey disappeared back in the late 1940s, one mystery spilling into the next. But can any mystery be solved when you can’t even keep the days straight in your mind?

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Affections: Rodrigo Hasbún

★★★

Desire to read more widely in 2020 brought me to this novel by the young Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún, published in a translation by Sophie Hughes by Pushkin Press. Family saga meets political history in this turbulent story of three German-Bolivian sisters, their complex relationship with their father, and their growth to maturity in the violent years of the 1960s and 1970s. My knowledge of South American history at this period is embarrassingly patchy, despite an early teenage flirtation with Che Guevara, and so I learned a great deal from Hasbún’s book in that respect (more, as it turned out, than I realised!). As a novel, however, it feels strangely restrained – told through vignettes, there is much left unsaid and it feels more like flicking through a family photo album than a real chance to get to know these three very different women.

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The Man on the Middle Floor: Elizabeth S. Moore

★★★½

If Standard Deviation showed us a picture of a modern family dealing with autism in a compassionate, caring and progressive way, The Man on the Middle Floor offers a picture of what can happen when people don’t get the support they need. We zoom in on Kilburn, North London, where three people share a converted Victorian house. They live the typical atomised lives of Londoners, who are often strangers even to their neighbours. On the ground floor there’s Tam, invalided out of his beloved police force by a bullet to the leg and taking (far too much) solace from his local pub. Upstairs there’s Nick, determined to succeed at the challenge of living alone despite his Asperger’s. Finally, on the top floor, there’s Karen: specialist in autism, devoted to her work at the expense of her family, certain that her next article will finally bring her the recognition she deserves. Three lives, about to be linked in the most unexpected way.

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Love Without End: Melvyn Bragg

★★½

A few days ago, Helen reviewed Love Without End, which reminded me that I’d read a galley of this novel back in August and had, embarrassingly, failed to do anything about it. I’d been attracted to the book by its story of Abelard and Heloise, the brilliant medieval scholars whose love story captivated me at university and who have never quite released their hold on me. Bragg’s novel, however, is not straightforward historical fiction, as it weaves another story in and out of the past, entwining Abelard and Heloise’s story with that of the modern writer Arthur. He (we’re told) is the author of the historical chapters that we read and, in the modern chapters, we’re invited to follow his progress as he wanders through Paris, having long lunches and intellectual conversations with his daughter Julia. The major difficulty that Bragg faces with the book is that intellect is prized over humanity, which may mean that we get closer to what Abelard and Heloise actually believed, but robs the reader of any chance of truly engaging with them.

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Standard Deviation: Katherine Heiny

★★★★

In the fictional world, there’s a certain milieu in New York society where clever (and slightly bored) people in immaculate apartments spend their time having casual affairs and profound conversations at dinner parties. While Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation is related to this kind of literary life, its characters have considerably more heart. Its lynchpin is Graham Cavanaugh, a man on his second marriage who finds himself weighing up his two former wives. To some extent the women are types: the ex is a cool, self-contained, refined lawyer; the present wife a kooky, exuberant socialiser. How on earth, thinks Graham, did he become attracted to these two women, who are so drastically different? How can they both attract and repel different parts of himself? And how can he balance his relationship with both of them, in order to bring a kind of sense to his life? A funny, warm exploration of a mid-life crisis, Heiny’s novel considers what it means to be human through the prism of one family’s experiences.

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Different Class: Joanne Harris

★★★½

The Malbry Novels: Book 3

At one point in this novel, a character comments that nothing ever happens in Malbry. I can only assume they were being ironic, or haven’t been paying attention, because this Yorkshire village has recently played host to intrigue, murders, scams and full-on psychopathy. We return to the world of Gentlemen & Players and blueeyedboy for a third time, slipping back within the walls of St Oswald’s School and back into the company of the tweedy Latin master Roy Straitley. It’s the year after the events in Gentlemen & Players and the school is still struggling to recover, with a new Head taking over the reins in an attempt to bring the school into the modern era and to brush off unpleasant associations. Many of the new initiatives are anathema to Straitley, but it isn’t just the corporate-speak of the modern education system that makes him feel threatened. For Straitley recognises the new Head – a man who was a boy at St Oswald’s thirty years ago, at another time of scandal and misfortune – and senses that all is not well. It clearly isn’t accidental that Johnny Harrington is back; but what’s his plan?

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In/Half: Jasmin B. Frelih

It takes a lot for me not to finish a book. In the past, I’ve forced myself through novels in the hope they’ll suddenly improve, because I hate leaving things incomplete. But now, dear reader, I have been defeated. Perhaps it’s my time of life. Being in your mid-thirties brings a deeper awareness of mortality, and the fact that time is finite. Perhaps I have less free time than I used to have, and am disinclined to spend that time on things that don’t actually bring me pleasure. Or perhaps it really is the case that this book, like an obnoxious person at a party, just wants to show off that it’s far cleverer than anyone else in the room. That’s how it felt to me, much of the time. And so, in the interests of a full disclaimer, this is not technically a book review because I’ve stalled at 30%.

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The Thing About Clare: Imogen Clark

★★★

The sprawling Bliss family revels in the kind of chaos you’d expect when you have four characterful siblings, a wordy, slightly feckless father and a doughty Irish mother. The children have, with varying amounts of grace, embraced the roles thrust on them by their order of birth: Miriam, the eldest, the organiser; Sebastian, the unexpected baby, coddled and charming; Anna, the cherished, spoiled favourite, who has been supported no matter what she does. And then Clare, the second child: troubled, troublesome and fractious. As we follow the Bliss siblings through their lives, we gradually come to understand them better and to grasp the complicated network of allegiances and obligations that binds them together when we first meet them, as adults, standing around the grave of their mother. But Dorothy Bliss, deceased, has one final surprise to levy upon her children.

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The Water Cure: Sophie Mackintosh

★★

This seems to be a ‘love it or hate it’ kind of book: literary Marmite. The omens were good. The publishers managed to get a cover blurb from Margaret Atwood, and implied that this was a new feminist classic: the Handmaid’s Tale for the next generation. It was longlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize and, to give credit where it’s due, the writing is beautiful – but in the way that an art-house film is beautiful: stylised and a little self-indulgent. Hyped as a fable for the #MeToo era, this unsettling story centres on three sisters living on a remote island: Grace, Lia and Sky. They have been raised in isolation from infancy, protected from the poisonous toxins of the mainland, and treated with therapies to contain their burgeoning emotions. Complicated rituals devised by their New Age parents protect them further. But what are they being protected from? No one will explain. One day, shortly after their father disappears, they face an unprecedented threat. Two men and a boy wash up on their beach, disrupting the balance. The island’s prophylactic seclusion will never be the same again.

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Blueeyedboy: Joanne Harris

★★★

On a web-journal mailing list, blueeyedboy holds court. He is the ringmaster of his own little circus, the svengali to his audience of adoring readers, the puppetmaster of their fantasies. World-weary and nihilistic, he begins to tell the fable-like story of three brothers, brought up by their widowed mother and each, for ease, given their own signature colour: Black; Brown; and Blue. Struggling against each other, and against the mercurial furies of their dangerous, unpredictable mother, the boys try to carve out their own identities in their bleak little town. But this isn’t just a story of three boys coming of age. It’s a tale of ambition, obsession and, most fascinating of all, murder. Don’t get over-excited, though, blueeyedboy coyly reassures his readers: it’s only a story. The problem is that not everyone seems to believe him. Setting her story in the same town as her St Oswald’s novels, though in a far less privileged neighbourhood, Joanne Harris invites us to come down the rabbithole of internet anonymity, where everyone wears avatars and usernames, and no one is quite what they seem.

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