Friday, 28 August 2015
Book Reviews: 28 August
The Lady reviews of the latest books available to buy or download now
OUT NOWThe Crossing by Andrew Miller (Sceptre, £18.99; offer price, £14.99)
Maud, the protagonist of Miller’s visceral and exquisitely written novel, likens herself to plain water – and few characters are so neutrally, impassively masterful. In her silence she is magnificent: a supreme creation.
We observe her rather bewilderedly at first, largely through the eyes of her partner Tim, when she is a scientist and becomes a mother. Conspicuously different, she wordlessly repels sympathy. When later she cuts her hair close and decides to make a lone voyage across the Atlantic, it is not altogether unexpected.
But it is no odyssey of selfdiscovery. Maud has seemed prematurely aware of her inner strength and what it might translate into. The voyage over the waters is fuelled by her own unique personality, but it soon becomes clear that a shattering external event is also behind her choice of risk and isolation.
The various stages of the novel are strikingly different, but in Maud herself the change is subtle throughout. The grand solitude of the sea passage, dialoguefree and with a punchy simplicity reminiscent of Hemingway, follows on beautifully from the judgement of those on land, who regard Maud with curiosity. We do the same, and Miller, wisely, hardly analyses her. But the portrayal of this practical, disconcerting figure is wildly emotional.
GOING UP: To Cambridge And Beyond – A Writer’s Memoir by Frederic Raphael (The Robson Press, £25; offer price, £20)
Now in his 80s, writer Frederic Raphael has enjoyed a brilliant career. He is the author of more than 20 novels, the most celebrated being The Glittering Prizes, which became an acclaimed TV series.
The second volume of his autobiography looks back on his childhood, Cambridge and Fleet Street days of the 1950s – a time when English society was changing with disconcerting speed.
For most of his life Raphael has kept notebooks to record the details of his everyday life, so he has been able to draw on these to recreate deliciously indiscreet conversations with friends and enemies that occurred 60 years ago. He is very acerbic about those who slighted him, or gave his plays bad reviews.
At Cambridge he wrote sketches for Footlights, made many lasting friendships and discovered playing bridge – and sex. He fell in love with his future wife, Beetle, to whom he has been devoted for more than 60 years. His glittering circle included novelist Simon Raven, theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, broadcaster David Frost and Joan Bakewell, who would later appear, thinly disguised, in his novels.
Hugely entertaining – though, alas, it has no photographs or index.
BOOK OF THE WEEKPortrait of the artist as a thief
THE BLUE GUITAR by John Banville (Viking, £14.99; offer price, £12.99)
A painter who can no longer paint is at the heart of Banville’s latest, a brilliant study of memory, regret and inescapable alienation within relationships: ‘a union is no longer forged than the seed of separation sprouts’.
When his love affair with a friend’s wife turns sour, Oliver Orme retreats to his childhood home and looks back on his life. It is shaped by his obsession with stealing, from his first theft of a tube of paint to his final, life-altering pinching of someone’s wife.
Unreliably but engagingly narrated by Orme – ginger-haired, pot-bellied, searingly candid about his flaws, but prone to emotional blind spots – the story takes the form of a disenchanted, introspective meditation: ‘my loves, my losses, my paltry sins’.
Trapped in a marriage blighted by the death of a child, Orme and his wife Gloria fall into a stifling love quadrangle. On the buried subject of his dead daughter, Orme laments ‘the sinkholes I’ve sunk in the seabed of memory’ – a line with all the ancestral, alliterative pull of an Old English elegy.
But earthiness and humour, along with a poet’s mastery of imagery and exquisite phrasing, lift what could have been a fictional misery-memoir into something altogether more pleasurable. A portrait of human frailty, it is unexpectedly uplifting.
COFFEE TABLE BOOKBEATON (Jonathan Cape, £50; offer price, £40)
Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) was one of the greatest portrait photographers of the 20th century, but his achievements in that field were eclipsed during his lifetime by his success as an awardwinning costume and set designer for film and theatre – and a sparklingly stylish society figure.
His output was extraordinary in its breadth and variety: he photographed everyone from the Queen to Mick Jagger, and his subjects included some of the century’s creative leading lights (Picasso and Lucian Freud, among others). Introduced by Annie Leibovitz, this exquisite book showcases the magnificent work of the man who made the beautiful people of his day look even more timelessly, sublimely beautiful.
The Rubbish Picker’s Wife by Elizabeth Gowing (Elbow Publishing, £9.99; offer price, £9.49)
Kosovo. Courageous Hatemja and her family survive in wardestroyed Fushë Kosovë by trawling rubbish tips. Elizabeth, who moved to Pristina from the UK , is a philanthropic writer and teacher. When a chance encounter brings the two together, the unstoppable Elizabeth initiates an education scheme in Hatemja’s neighbourhood, which develops as poignantly as their friendship.
The learning curve on both fronts is steep, with many obstacles – financial, religious and bureaucratic. But, as they forge unshakeable bonds, the project flourishes, soon embracing myriad welfare issues. Gowing’s impassioned account makes a powerful case for literacy as a basic human right, and the overwhelming power it can wield.
Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry (HarperLuxe, £17.82; offer price, £13.99)
Set in New York in 1895, this is a depiction of the city from an outsider’s perspective.
Sylvan Threadgill finds a newborn baby while cleaning out the tenement privies. Odile and Belle Church were part of a sideshow act in a circus. Alphie wakes up in an asylum; the last thing she remembers is blood on the floor and her mother-in-law screaming. Belle was committed alongside her, and when she coughs up a pair of scissors, Alphie knows this young woman harbours a dark secret. These complex characters strive for acceptance in the city’s underworld.
Expertly written, this jarring depiction of the misfit’s plight will stay with you long after the show is over.
THE LADY'S HOLIDAY READSOur pick of this summer’s essential reading, no matter where you are enjoying a well-deserved break. By Victoria Clark
AT THE BEACH
The Santa ngelos by Jackie Collins (Simon & Schuster, £20; offer price, £16)
From the doyenne of beach literature comes the return of the ever-youthful Lucky Santangelo. With exotic locations and a cast of immaculate women and ever-more-handsome men, this book ticks every box. Lucky and her kin respond to a threat from the past that spreads its tentacles through family and friends, and she must delve deep within herself to survive.
IN THE CITY
A Little Hist ory of the United States by James West Davidson (Yale University Press, £14.99; offer price, £13.49) This is a spritely romp through America’s story from Columbus to Reagan. Packed with anecdotes – once buffalo hides became popular with an urban population, the plains were left littered with stinking carcasses – and in easy-to-read short chapters, this is a go-to book for anyone with an interest in US history.
IN THE GARDEN
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain (Virago, £14.99; offer price, £12.99)
A fictionalised account of the life of Beryl Markham, who flew solo across the Atlantic. Brought up in Kenya at the turn of the 20th century, Beryl ran wild in her childhood. Obsessed with horses, she gained her trainer’s licence while conducting affairs with Denys Finch Hatton and the Duke of Gloucester, as well as marrying several times. A racy, riveting read set in the heart of the Happy Valley set.
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