This week: a literary thriller with more than its fair share of limericks…
This week there’s a romcom set in New York City that illustrates, as a lot of current novels do, the danger of the internet and smartphones; there’s a novel about a family blown apart, set on the picturesque east coast of England; there’s Margaret Atwood’s superb new anthology of short stories and there’s a literary thriller with more than its fair share of limericks…
The Choice, Penny Hancock, Pan Macmillan, €12.99
Dysfunctional families are such a ten-a-penny phenomenon these days, it seems there’s no such thing as a functional one, but then again defining these functions and dysfunctions makes for a whole industry in itself.
And it’s an industry that relationship therapist Renee Gulliver is part of. What her clients see is her successful career, her lovely home on the estuary, her perfect marriage and grown-up family, her darling little grandson Xavier. What they don’t see is Renee’s struggles behind the façade of perfection.
She’s looking after a husband who is a stroke victim, a mother with dementia, her son is still suffering mentally and physically from a horrific childhood accident and her daughters, well… let’s just say this family isn’t the Waltons.
But when Renee fails to pick up her little grandson from school and he goes missing, her whole life falls to pieces, along with the family’s. Old secrets and lies, half-forgotten truths and wholly remembered ones, never to be mentioned, come back to haunt. And still little Xavier is missing. It’s a gripping yarn, but beautifully written too, and Hancock is brilliant on the minutiae of family dynamics.
Old Babes in the Wood, Margaret Atwood, Chatto & Windus €24.99
This is wry, sly, dripping in style and the kind of quiet confidence that only a writer of Atwood’s talent and vintage could possess. One would quickly run out of superlatives in describing her latest offering, a short story anthology as full of social commentary as it is of imagination and memorable characters.
Atwood was always well known in reading circles, but maybe not so much in the rest of the world until the arrival of The Handmaid’s Tale on TV, and more recently her sequel, The Testaments. She’s written a large stack of novels but she’s also a gifted short story writer and this is her first collection in more than a decade.
Highlights include ‘Morte de Smudgie’, exploring the grief felt at the death of a cat, and ‘My Evil Mother’, indicating why so many of us end up exactly like our parents. An interview with George Orwell through a medium is unexpectedly funny and in ‘Metempsychosis’, a snail discovers its soul has been lodged in the body of a human, much to its chagrin. Atwood’s imagination is boundless and her feel for the ridiculous is as finely tuned as ever. This is a gem.
In A New York Minute, Kate Spencer, Pan Macmillan, €12.50
A very contemporary romantic comedy, this one, with the fingerprint of social media all over it and I must admit it scared me a bit. Franny is an interior designer in New York who clocks in for work one morning and is told her job is gone. She leaves the premises and as she heads home, she rips her dress.
Enter a handsome stranger who insists she take his Gucci jacket, and this moment of chivalry is caught on phone cameras by bemused onlookers. The Sir Galahad move hits social media, and a generous gesture of gentlemanly courtesy goes… er… viral. Viral is a word I associate more with The Covid than The Twither! The gentleman in question, Hayes Montgomery, is a bean counter not short of a few beans himself.
As the world eggs this mismatched pair on towards romance, Franny and Hayes find they have nothing in common. But social meeja must be fed. Funny, slick and surprising, this novel is a reminder that Big Brother may not be watching you, but those innocent looking passers-by most certainly are!
The Kind Worth Saving, Peter Swanson, Faber, €16.99
Henry Kimball, ex-English teacher and ex-cop is now working as a private investigator. An old school pupil of his hires him to gather evidence of an affair her husband is having, in the hope of taking the husband to the cleaners. Kimball takes the job and pretty soon he finds himself in a dubious situation with ‘the other woman’. And pretty soon after that, the bodies begin to mount.
In a series of flashbacks, the reader is taken back to the school shooting that led Henry out of teaching and into the police, and then to the case involving the mysterious Lily that led him out of the police force. Kimball is now a typical hard-boiled private eye, a loner with just a cat for company and also writer of limericks (I kid you not).
Joan Grieve is the client who has hired Kimball for this adultery case. And Henry is to discover that Joan Grieve is not all she seems. She has a past, and a connection with a psychopath who’s intent on getting his 15 minutes of fame.
This is a superior detective novel and although set in the present, there’s more than a nod to the pared-back style of American noir novels of the 1950s here, both in content and in the characters. Not a word is wasted in Swanson’s cool, clean style. And the limericks have a function too!
This is my first Swanson novel, but I can’t imagine it will be my last.
The Holy Hour: A Requiem for Brendan Behan has opened in the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI) in Dublin. Created by Patrick McCabe (The Butcher Boy, Breakfast on Pluto), this audio-visual installation goes beyond the hellraiser in search of the man and the writer.
Tickets from moli.ie. You should also keep an eye out for a book being published by Lilliput next month, A Bit of a Writer: Brendan Behan’s Collected Short Prose. And watch this space.
The Stinging Fly is hosting an information evening about this year’s summer school in creative writing – a tough one to get a place on but could be worth the effort – on Tuesday April 4 at 7pm. Eventbrite tickets can be booked through their website on stingingfly.org.