Dimitri Verhulst – The Latecomer

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Désiré Cordier is 74 and has pretty much had it with life it seems. He reflects on his fondness for alcohol and the effect it has had on his marriage. This has become a real chore and he seems fed up with the nagging from his wife and the quality of life he has now. He plots a scheme to make people think he is losing his mind so he can bury himself away from the world by tucking himself into a home.

The book starts with him talking about having to regularly soil his nappies at night so he can keep up the act and not be found out. He’s been playing the role for months at this stage and it’s hard not to think of the people that are really going through this experience when reading The Latecomer. Here, in Winterlight Home for the Elderly, Désiré worries about his sleeping pills knocking him out so much he’ll be exposed but he awakes in his own excrement. He says that people here mean well but they all tend to shout or talk very loud when speaking to him.

The life with his wife certainly seems to have been an unhappy one. She comes across quite petty to say the least, with Désiré highlighting that she once abandoned him as he farted in bed. They were downsizing their house, which would save his back from all the repair work that needed to be done but it meant they would be living in a more confined space. Their sex life was rather ropey and they had taken to sleeping in separate rooms.

The book is excellent in showing how people deal with this situation. Désiré reckons from an early stage that people will blame his condition on all kinds of things, such as not eating enough fish or not reading newspapers. He’s ripped off by people he’s known for years and young people laugh at him in the street during a particularly extravagant set piece when he’s trying to convince the world of a particular personal state of mind. The cruelty of the world is on display here and we can have some empathy with the reasons why Désiré ultimately wants to withdraw from it.

The Latecomer is full of humour, with witty commentary on everyday things like alarms and more dramatically moments like his treatment of the religious objects his wife has surrounded him with. There’s joy when the memory choiris discussed and the book is full of wit and heart. This is contrasted beautifully with sadness about what some people are suffering through and the neglect they experience. The book is full of light and shade and things take a dark turn when we see the impact this charade has on his daughter. The Latecomer is a mighty little book that says a lot about society and our place in it.

Ragnar Jonasson – Snowblind

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Snowblind is the first book in the Dark Iceland series, a series of books that have already been optioned for television. This is Ragnar Jonasson’s debut and it sets out the stall for what should surely be a compelling series.

It starts with the vivid image of a blood in the snow in a very tense place, a place where people prefer to stay in and look out at the white outdoors rather than going out to play. Later, a child leaves a woman lying out in the snow, not wanting to disturb the snow angel. Our leader character Ari Thor sees the scene as almost artistic before snapping back to the reality of what is happening.

Ari Thor is a man who has been unable to finish things, including a Theology and Philosophy course, and he has enrolled in police college and bulked up. He hadn’t been doing Theology because of any major faith, but rather hoped it’d instil something in him. He likes the buzz of police work, poring over books is not really for him.

His girlfriend Kristin flies through her exams and there’s some tension as he can’t understand why she can’t be happy about the new job he’s got. He’s been passed over for previous jobs and he’s not going to be deterred from this one. After he arrives he’s unsure if he’s made the right decision moving to a tight knit community. He’s told people don’t lock their doors, that nothing ever happens here and he wonders what he’s got himself into.

The landscape plays a big part in Snowblind, it adds to his feeling of claustrophobia and really ramps up the sense of dread that I felt while reading it. There’s a sense of an outsider trying to get to grips with the everyday interactions of the people and trying to make sense of what is happening. All of this while feeling shut off from the rest of the world as the climate can be so overwhelming.

Ari has been affected by loneliness all his life and the situation he finds himself in in this small village certainly increases this. He lost his parents when he was young and many of the characters in the book appear haunted by the loss of close family members.

One of the main events in the book is the death of Iceland’s foremost author. It’s believed to have been an accident by some but Ari is keen to get to the bottom of it, delving deep into the politics of the Dramatic Society and beyond to establish the background. While he’s doing this he also has friendly dealings with a woman called Ulga, something that leads him to question his relationship with Kristin. He’s very much immersed in a whole other world now.

Snowblind is a delight to read. I was involved in the world of Ari from the start and Jonasson craftily puts together a bleak feeling of claustrophobia that draws us into this inner world. I’m very much looking forward to reading Nightblind, the second book in the Dark Iceland series, very soon indeed.

Ian McEwan – The Children Act

Some of my favourite books have been written by Ian McEwan, especially Saturday and On Chesil Beach. The Children Act is another fairly short one, but it’s a book that packs a fair amount of power.

Fiona believes she’s bringing some sort of reason to desperate situations. She’s a top High Court judge dealing with some particularly stressful cases. The focus of The Children Act is on the case of Adam, a young man refusing medical treatment on religious grounds. It’s down to the court to decide whether they should step in to ensure he gets the treatment against his will.

While all this is happening Fiona’s marriage appears to be in pieces, her husband claims to love her but is putting forward the idea of having an affair. She’s made to feel like she’s brought this on herself as she’s too immersed in her work. It makes for fairly cold reading, as relations become increasingly frosty and her husband lays the blame at her door.

Fiona wants to get to know Adam a bit better, to find out his mentality before reaching any decisions. He’s almost 18 but has been brought up with this religious mentality and she needs to be sure he’s the driver of his decision. She’s offering him an alternative, a mindset removed from the religion and Adam is certainly appreciative of someone taking this level of interest in him.

This is not a perfect book by any means as the two stories don’t flow just as well as I would’ve liked, but the moral dilemma of the situation and the eventual outcome makes it a worthwhile read and certainly another very good addition to McEwan’s excellent cannon of work.

Mary Costello – Academy Street

I often wonder what it’s like to move to another country, to leave your life behind and start afresh somewhere new. It’s been the experience of many Irish people over the years and it has become increasingly prevalent in recent times. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is the latest novel to give an insight into this experience and certainly marks the arrival of a very important new voice.

She creates a great vision of the experience of growing up in Ireland and the landmark events in her life. Costello captures the beauty of the sunlight on the coffin of Tess’s mother, the feeling of the ground being taken away, the world turning on its head when her mother is taken away from her. There’s a powerful image of the loneliness of her father when he’s coming toward the house, his life will no longer be the same and his behaviour will change utterly. The house is filled with silence and there’s no longer room for the sound of the radio. It’ll be many years before Tess can fully realise what he’s endured, the great sorrow that has overcome him.

Tess moves over to New York and finds a whole new world waiting for her. She has to get used to the rhythm of her new home, effectively having to learn a new language and experience an entirely different way of life. She suffers the loneliness that comes surely from her past experiences and there’s a sense that happiness brings danger. The world becomes new with the close bond between a mother and a child, but connection is not always easily found. Costello carefully examines the connection to place, to Academy Street and to where Tess came from originally and the problems faced by a woman that has a child before marriage.

The only thing I could possibly fault with this book is I felt it could’ve been a bit longer. It’s a whirlwind of a life and it really flies by. Costello has given us a character that moves with a quiet grace in her attempt to create a new life for herself in a world completely different from the one she came from. It’s beautiful stuff, and something that you’ll probably want to enjoy in a single sitting.

Academy Street will be pubished by Canongate on October 30.

Rachel Joyce – The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

It’s always a bit risky going back to characters that we’ve come across before, especially when they’re people loved by so many readers of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I had a fairly terrible time recently trying to grind my way through The Rosie Effect and I was a little bit weary of this one even though I’ve loved all of Rachel Joyce’s work so far.

This book is very much a companion piece to the predecessor rather than a sequel or prequel. Queenie is aware of Harold’s journey to see her and she sets about trying to put forward her side of the story. She feels she’s got a lot to confess and there’s so much she needs to tell him. We go right back to their first meeting and their time spent working alongside each other. It’s an extraordinary relationship, with her loving him but never confessing it without ever announcing it to him. She lives for his happiness and treasure his companionship, seeing him as a great, gentle man. She didn’t want to be anything more to him, Queenie herself a quiet person that wouldn’t wish to disrupt his life in any way, content just to enhance it any way she can.

The story of the life of this woman is a remarkable one. She gains the trust and support of those around her in building her home and her garden is a labour of love. She has to live without Harold knowing that she loved him and has great secrets she feels she must get across to him when he arrives. She reflects deeply on her interaction with Harold’s wife and son, their words and actions haunting her all this time.

Queenie is suffering through a disfiguring cancer but telling her story gives her a new life. There’s great joy in the hospice as the wait for Harold touches the lives of all, giving them something to look forward to, his words in his postcards generating great delight. Books like this could easily stray into wishy-washy sentimentality but Joyce hits the right notes just perfectly and this book is at least as good as it’s predecessor, and possibly even a little bit better.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy will be published by Doubleday on October 9.

Willem Jan Otten – The Portrait

I must confess to feeling a little bit uneasy when I read a blurb saying this has echoes of Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Picture of Dorian Grey as I felt this could only pale in comparison. I was delighted when I actually read it and realised it’s one of the best books I’ve read in some time.

The book uses a very clever narrator who wonders when the moment will come to become something, to be fully realised. The method of narration gives us a window in the world of art that would rarely be open to us in fiction or otherwise.

The artist is a man of some renown, famed for his portraits. He has the ability to focus on the things people would possibly want to hide. Those that admire is work feel they really know the people in the portrait. His talent brings him to the attention of a wealthy man who requests for him to draw from death rather than life for the first time. He’s been working through his paintings, thinking of how many more he needs to raise the money to buy the property he wants. The funds from this commission prove impossible to turn down.

He realises that everyone he paints will die and he’s thinking throughout about how people will be viewing paintings after the subjects have died. These people he usually paints may be alive now but what way will they be seen in the future? The narrator is willing him on to make something that affects people and will mean something to those that have lost people. The painter wants to capture the eyes, the notion of looking, something that’s not available to him as the person isn’t present. Speech is also more important than he’d previously thought and of course it isn’t available in this case.

When he finishes the piece his wife sees there’s someone else in the picture. The book really highlights how we bring our own experiences to art, even in a picture of another person we have things we want to put across, we’re always drawing on our own lives.

The Portrait presents questions about the nature of existence, of humanity, of the fear of death and of money and ownerships. It asks about who we are, what we want to be and what we want to bring into the world. The story reveals itself brilliantly over the short length of this book and we see how people see a situation differently based on their perspective and what they’re bringing to it. It’s a great book that’ll stay etched in the head for a long time.

DBC Pierre – Breakfast with the Borgias

Ariel Panek is supposed to be making his way to a convention but he gets sidetracked when his plane is grounded in London as a result of heavy fog. We find him making his way to a random guesthouse which he plans on making a sharp exit from and getting on the road again.

DBC Pierre has produced something of a horror story in more ways than one. Ariel is pining for Zeva here, hoping to make contact with her and let her know where he’s at. The modern terror of losing phone and internet connectivity is a fairly clever one and Ariel struggles with this throughout the book. He requests a room at the top so he can try and make some kind of contact, something that’ll be familiar to anyone running around the house years ago trying to get a signal.

He’s crying out for a generic hotel, somewhere where he can lock himself in his room away from the oddball family he has to spend his time with. I had a little bit of fun with these guys as I tried to work out what might be in store as the book progresses but it was ultimately as predictable as I’d initially thought.

Breakfast with the Borgias tries to make some clever statements about us being lost in the world and our struggle to keep contact which each other, as well as playing on our fears of losing modern comforts. It’s very poorly executed though and ultimately more than a little bit tiresome.