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Really Underrated Books (Part One)

My Really Underrated Books week which ran in November last year proved to be quite popular, and I received a lot of kind comments about how much you enjoyed the series.  What better, then, to champion fifty other underrated books, which look of interest, and are certainly worthy of one seeking them out?  Each day this week, I will be finding ten interesting books which have fewer than five hundred ratings on Goodreads, bringing them to your attention, and hopefully to a wider readership.

1. They Were Counted (The Transylvania Trilogy, #1) by Miklos Banffy 9781910050903
Painting an unrivalled portrait of the vanished world of pre-1914 Hungary, this story is told through the eyes of two young Transylvanian cousins, Count Balint Abády and Count László Gyeroffy. Shooting parties in great country houses, turbulent scenes in parliament, and the luxury of life in Budapest provide the backdrop for this gripping, prescient novel, forming a chilling indictment of upper-class frivolity and political folly, in which good manners cloak indifference and brutality. Abády becomes aware of the plight of a group of Romanian mountain peasants and champions their cause, while Gyeroffy dissipates his resources at the gaming tables, mirroring the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself.’

 

2. The Book of Hrabal by Peter Esterhazy
An elegant homage to the great Czech storyteller Bohumil Hrabal, The Book of Hrabal is also a glowing paean to blues music, saxophones, and the mixed blessings of domestic life. It is also a farewell to the years of communism in Eastern Europe. And it is a treatise on the ongoing relationship between God and humankind as reflected in the lives of a Hungarian writer and his wife. The novel centers on Anna, the blues-singing housewife and mother of three (soon to be four) who suffers through her husband’s often impossible writing experiments. She addresses her reminiscences and reflections to Hrabal, his current subject. Her thoughts swing from domestic matters to the injustices suffered by her family during the Stalinist 1950s, the police harassment in subsequent years, and the many strains on her marriage. Her husband, in turn, is so hopelessly entangled in his project celebrating Hrabal that he is incapable of actually writing it. The story develops into a literary love triangle, as Hrabal becomes Anna’s confidant and an invisible participant in the marriage. Meanwhile two angels shadow the house, disguised as secret policemen and speaking with God via walkie-talkie in a surprising blend of celestial and urban slang. Their mission: to prevent Anna from aborting her fourth child. When this outcome is in doubt, God himself (aka Bruno) enters the scene; he chats with Hrabal, takes saxophone lessons from an irreverent Charlie Parker, and plays the sax for Anna to try to dissuade her from ending the pregnancy. Unfortunately the Lord is tone deaf, and his love for jazz and blues is matched only by his utter lack of musical talent. A brilliant stylist, Esterhazy creates a complex and playful novel through deft manipulation of language, tone, and perspective.

 

97818739823033. The Opal and Other Stories by Gustav Meyrink
Meyrink’s short stories epitomised the non-plus-ultra of all modern writing. Their magnificent colour, their spine-chilling and bizarre inventiveness, their aggression, their succinctness of style, their overwhelming originality of ideas, which is so evident in every sentence and phrase that there seems to be no lacunae; all this captivated me, and seemed to me to provide the proper antidote to all the adjectival prose and shallow, false romanticism of the immediate preceding generation.

 

4. Goose of Hermogenes by Ithell Colquhoun
The heroine of this story (described only as “I”) is compelled to visit a mysterious uncle who turns out to be a black magician who lords over a kind of Prospero’s Island that exists out of time and space. Startled by his bizarre behavior and odd nocturnal movements, she eventually learns that he is searching for the philosopher’s stone. When his sinister attentions fall upon the priceless jewel heirloom in her possession, bewilderment turns into stark terror and she realizes she must find a way off the island. An esoteric dreamworld fantasy composed of uncorrelated scenes and imagery mostly derived from medieval occult sources, Goose of Hermogenes might be described as a gothic novel, an occult picaresque, or a surrealist fantasy. However one wants to approach this obscure tale, it remains today as vividly unforgettable and disturbing as when it was first published by Peter Owen in 1961.

 

5. The Devastating Boys by Elizabeth Taylor 9780860683605
Here is the collection of Elizabeth Taylor’s greatest short stories. Varied in their settings and characters, they are nevertheless the quintessence of all that is most distinguished, and witty, in her art. We meet women, children and men, often ostensibly ordinary, who follow their paths of ruthlessness and ambition, each in pursuit of happiness, love, or power – each a classic creation.

 

6. The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism by Nicola Humble
“Middlebrow” has always been a dirty word, used disparagingly since its coinage in the mid-1920s for the sort of literature thought to be too easy, insular and smug. Aiming to rehabilitate the feminine middlebrow, Nicola Humble argues that the novels of writers such as Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, Stella Gibbons, Nancy Mitford, played a powerful role in establishing and consolidating, but also in resisting, new class and gender identities in this period of volatile change for both women and the middle classes.

 

97818784487437. Trutor & the Balloonist by Debbie Lee Wesselmann
Trutor and the Balloonist has it all: mystery, Victorian riddles, contemporary issues, art mirroring a most unusual life, eccentric and lovable characters, suspected and surprise villains, domestic strife, and conflicted romance. Michelle Trutor accepts the task of compiling the biography of deceased Caroline Wharton, sifting through shocking materials forbidden to the Balloonist and his family in the will, and guarded by an overly zealous attorney. Readers are invited into the sleuthing as Caroline’s riddles are revealed – as if she planned the visits with Michelle’s all along.

 

8. Bright Day by J.B. Priestley
The novel was written towards the end of World War II. J.B. Priestley disclaimed any autobiographical roots in the work, but it is nontheless resonent with his early youth and coincided with JBP’s recoil from the commercial film world. Bright Day was the only serious novel that he wrote in the first person.  Gregory Dawson, the novel’s hero, is a middle-aged film script writer who goes off to Cornwall to complete a script. At his hotel he spots Lord and Lady Harndean, and realizes that they are the Malcolm and Eleanor Nixey he knew when he worked as a clerk in a Bruddersford wool firm. They represent the beginning of the break-up of the bright day which had preceded the year 1914, and thus the story starts to unfold…

 

9. The Misses Mallett by E.H. Young the-misses-mallett-e-h-young1
She sat there, vividly conscious of herself, and sometimes she saw the whole room as a picture and she was part of it; sometimes she saw only those three whose lives, she felt, were practically over, for even Aunt Rose was comparatively old. She pitied them because their romance was past, while hers waited for her outside; she wondered at their happiness, their interest in their appearance, their pleasure in parties; but she felt most sorry for Aunt Rose, midway between what should have been the resignation of her stepsisters and the glowing anticipation of her niece.

 

10. The Tudor Wench by Elswyth Thane
A novel of the young Queen Elizabeth I, first published in 1932, subsequently a play in London. Beginning with six year old Elizabeth puzzled by Anne Boleyn’s life and death, rocky relationship with her father, King Henry VIII, and her own instinctive, evolving regal role. Four sections: child, maid, princess and woman. Imaginative early years of the Elizabethan force based on extensive historical research, actual letters and compelling writing.

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‘Wake’ by Anna Hope ****

‘Remembrance Day 1920: A wartime secret connects three women’s lives: Hettie whose wounded brother won’t speak; Evelyn who still grieves for her lost lover; and Ada, who has never received an official letter about her son’s death, and is still waiting for him to come home. As the mystery that binds them begins to unravel, far away, in the fields of France, the Unknown Soldier embarks on his journey home. The mood of the nation is turning towards the future – but can these three women ever let go of the past?’

9780552779463I had heard only good things about Wake, and some of my very favourite book bloggers have absolutely loved it, which was reason enough for me to pick up the relatively hefty hardback when I spotted it in the library.  I love historical fiction, but do not feel as though I’ve read much of it at late.  It perhaps goes without saying that had high hopes for the novel.

Wake is set across five days in November 1920, beginning in Arras in northern France (a city which I’m very familiar with) and then following several characters in London (ditto).  Its short span does not stop the novel from containing an awful lot.  Hope’s prose is so well structured, and I very much liked the way in which she drew protagonists from different places and walks of life.  We follow a single woman, a dancer working in a Hammersmith hall, a mother whose son is dead but who does not quite believe it, and an ex-Army Captain.  Each character has been broken in some way by the First World War, whether physically, emotionally, or mentally.  Every single one changes, or is changed, over the course of the five day period; Hope has clearly put a lot of thought into the realistic emotional changes which could occur, given the situations which each has been put into, or scenes which they encounter during this time.  Not quite knowing for the most part what would transpire for each protagonist, it made for a very rich, textured reading experience.

Wake is compelling.  The way in which Hope approached the novel was both sympathetic and well researched; I found myself interested in every character, and every scene.  As a debut novel, it is incredibly accomplished, and I come away feeling no surprise whatsoever that so many readers have raved about it.  It did not quite reach the heady heights of a novel which I adored, but I very much admired Hope’s effort, and will not hesitate to pick up another of her books in the near future.

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One From the Archive: ‘Under the Tripoli Sky’ by Kamal Ben Hameda

Kamal Ben Hameda’s Under the Tripoli Sky – which has been nominated for various worldwide prizes – is Peirene Press’ third publication of 2014, and their fifteenth title in total.  It is the final book in their ‘Coming of Age’ series, and presents ‘a fascinating portrait of a pre-Gaddafi society on the verge of change’.  Under the Tripoli Sky has been translated from its original French by Adriana Hunter.

The novella takes place in Libya’s capital city during the 1960s, when it was ‘a sweltering, segregated society’.  The extract which Hameda has chosen to open Under the Tripoli Sky with, from The Book of Flies, sets the tone of the piece immediately: ‘The natives of this region were savage, hairy, toothless barbarians whose rutting season never came to an end, so they mated constantly, like their neighbours the monkeys’.  Hameda’s work is very dark in terms of its setting: ‘The land was surrounded by steep cliffs and impenetrable mountains…  The ground seethed with giant black snakes which fed on ostriches and antelope’.

Under the Tripoli Sky is told from the first person perspective of Hadachinou, a lonely young boy living in Tripoli.  From the first, his narrative voice is strong, as is the way in which he presents things: ‘I walked through the rooms filled with silence and a thousand motes of dust rising in sunbeams, spiralling steadily in apparent chaos towards a secret, absent centre’.  The majority of the scenes which unfold are vividly imagined.  There is a sense of gritty darkness from the beginning, when we realise, along with our protagonist, that Hadachinou’s family have been preparing for the circumcision of he and his brothers.  His naivety as a young character shines through here; upon the act, he says, ‘only now, at last, do I gauge the extent of the threat and try to get away’.

The real strength in Under the Tripoli Sky comes with the way in which Hameda demonstrates how bleak the city – and, indeed, Libya as a whole – was for its female inhabitants.  The rigid patriarchal society of the mid-twentieth century makes no bones about the way in which women are used only to keep the population going.  The men have not yet learnt to respect them, and the women are made to feel inferior through their actions.  Through Hadachinou, who watches those around him, Hameda shows the importance of women in Tripoli at the time; how much work they were involved in to prepare just a single meal, for example, and how they tended so lovingly to their families for no thanks whatsoever.  Violence and fear are woven into Hadachinou’s life, and all of the women around him have something to be frightened about.  His Aunt Hiba, for example, ‘didn’t want to show her broken teeth or her face with its fresh bruises from the latest blows inflicted by her husband…  He beat her whatever state he was in, drunk or first thing in the morning, and on any grounds’.

Whilst Under the Tripoli Sky is not the strongest novella on the Peirene list, it is both thought-provoking and powerful, and really does give a taste of Libyan life during the turbulent 1960s.

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Reviews: ‘The Sisters Brothers’ and ‘The Suicide Shop’

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt **** 9781847083197
‘Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. Across 1000 miles of Oregon desert his assassins, the notorious Eli and Charlie Sisters, ride – fighting, shooting, and drinking their way to Sacramento. But their prey isn’t an easy mark, the road is long and bloody, and somewhere along the path Eli begins to question what he does for a living – and whom he does it for. The Sisters Brothers pays homage to the classic Western, transforming it into an unforgettable ribald tour de force. Filled with a remarkable cast of losers, cheaters, and ne’er-do-wells from all stripes of life-and told by a complex and compelling narrator, it is a violent, lustful odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier that beautifully captures the humor, melancholy, and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence, and love.’

The Sisters Brothers has been on my radar since its 2012 Man Booker Prize nomination, and the hype which inevitably followed.  In terms of cinema I’m not at all a fan of Westerns; in fact, I go out of my way to avoid them for the most part.  Despite that, I was rather intrigued by the novel.  The four- and five-star Goodreads reviews which stated that it was not at all what the reader in question would usually pick up really spurred me on (pardon the pun).

I was pleasantly surprised by The Sisters Brothers.  DeWitt’s writing is great, as is the pace he has created here.  Eli’s narrative voice is incredibly realistic, and I loved the structure with its short, snappy chapters.  The Sisters Brothers is a completely new genre experience for me, and I’m still, three weeks on, a little surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did.  As a character study alone, it has such depth.  There is historical context here, as one would, of course, expect, but at no point does it oversaturate or muffle Eli’s voice.  Instead, DeWitt sets the scene perfectly; how the Sisters brothers live is marvellously evoked, and one feels as though one is there, panning for gold alongside them.  I will definitely be reading more of DeWitt’s work, and will be branching out to deliberately select books of genres which I have not read before, or have been reluctant to read for whatever reason.

 

The Suicide Shop by Jean Teule
9781906040093‘With the twenty-first century just a distant memory and the world in environmental chaos, many people have lost the will to live. And business is brisk at The Suicide Shop. Run by the Tuvache family for generations, the shop offers an amazing variety of ways to end it all, with something to fit every budget. The Tuvaches go mournfully about their business, taking pride in the morbid service they provide. Until the youngest member of the family threatens to destroy their contented misery by confronting them with something they’ve never encountered before: a love of life.’

I have been wanting to read Teule’s books for quite a while, and haven’t come across any physical copies of them to date.  When I spotted The Suicide Shop on Netgalley, therefore, it seemed fated that this was the Teule which I would begin my foray into his work with.  The novella – for that is what the book essentially is – has been well written and well translated.

Throughout, Teule works with an incredibly simple yet clever concept, the like of which I have not come across in fiction before.  The progression of time which he works with fitted marvellously with the whole, as did the dark humour which peppered the whole.  An inventive novel, which has made me want to go and find the rest of Teule’s work – and fast!

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‘The Wilding’ by Maria McCann **

‘This is a novel of secrets and revenge within a seventeenth-century English family. Longlisted for the Orange Prize 1672. A generation after the Civil War, Jonathan Dymond, a cider maker, has so far enjoyed a quiet life. But when he discovers a letter from his dying uncle, hinting an inheritance and revenge, he is determined to unravel the mystery in his family. Under the pretence of his cider business, Jonathan visits his newly widowed aunt and there meets her unruly servant girl, Tamar, who soon reveals that she has secrets of her own…’

9780571251872I purchased The Wilding because I have seen it around rather a lot lately, and one of my favourite bloggers (Jane at Beyond Eden Rock) gave it a four-star rating.  For me, <i>The Wilding</i> was rather a slow starter.  After reading many of the reviews of McCann’s <i>As Meat Like Salt</i>, I was expecting that her prose would blow me away, but I was left a little disappointed by it.  There was nothing wrong with her writing, per se, but it just didn’t tick many boxes for me.

Oddly, there was no real sense of history for the most part; I felt as though the story could have easily been transplanted into almost any place or time period without many of the details having to be altered.  I ultimately found the story very hard to connect with.  Generally when reading historical novels I feel swept away at points, but I did not have that experience here.  The relationship between Jonathan and his parents felt too close for this period too; they were forever smothering him and making loving physical contact, which is far removed from the historical realism which I’ve read in and around this period to date.

There is little vividness in the sparse descriptions given, and so little depth to the whole.  At no point did I feel compelled to keep reading, and could happily have given up on it and moved on to another tome at any point.  There was no real consistency in <i>The Wilding</i>, and whilst it isn’t an awful novel by any means, it’s not one which I would recommend.  The pace was rather slow, and the plot twists predictable.  I am left with rather a disappointed feeling.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Uninvited Guests’ by Sadie Jones ****

First published in 2012

The Uninvited Guests is Sadie Jones’ third novel. It is set in April 1912 in a country house which goes by the name of Sterne. The story begins on protagonist Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday.

The novel opens with the character of Charlotte, the wife of Edward Swift who was cruelly crippled at the age of 23, and mother to Emerald, Clovis and Smudge. After Clovis and Emerald make an appearance in the novel, Charlotte’s youngest child Imogen, a girl with a ‘sooty halo’ who is affectionately and inexplicably known as Smudge throughout, is soon introduced. The children are left to their own devices and are masters in their own upbringings. It is clear that the Torrington Swift family in its entirety are not part of the ‘local set’. Jones has given the novel a sense of them being almost entirely isolated from their community.

The Uninvited Guests is a rather amusing novel. Charlotte’s children from her first marriage, Clovis and Emerald, dislike their mother’s new husband – ‘single arm notwithstanding, they found he did not fit’. They despise the fact that he is so unlike their deceased father Horace, both in terms of his looks and demeanour.

Jones includes a wonderful array of character details from the outset. Charlotte is portrayed as almost saintly and accommodating at first, and Edward as infinitely patient. Clovis and Emerald come across as incredibly spoilt and put upon by everything which is asked of them, but their characters alter believably as the novel progresses. The personality traits which Jones has used are incredibly interesting. Perhaps the best examples of these are Emerald who ‘favoured the wearing of a rakish bowler but could not always find it’, Charlotte ‘who had many good qualities, but was ruthlessly self-serving’, and local businessman John Buchanan who ‘was the most geometric of men: absolutely symmetrical with no tricky corners or contours to describe to the onlooker’.

The ‘uninvited guests’ of the novel’s title arrive at Sterne as the consequence of a ‘dreadful accident’, where a train careered from the tracks miles away from any station. Those affected have to be ‘put up’ at the house. The characters from the crash are a motley assortment who soon break down the class divide at Sterne. They disrupt the routines which have been set in stone for years, and change the outlooks of those in the house as a consequence. They serve to shake the very foundations of the house and those within it. Like the lives of its young inhabitants, Sterne begins to crumble into disrepair.

Jones’ descriptions, particularly those of Sterne’s scenic surroundings, are vivid, enabling the setting to come to life before the reader’s eyes. The images which the author sculpts are very original in places. The grounds of Sterne, for example, are compared to a ‘cake-stand left behind in the landscape by some refined society of giants’, and blades of grass are depicted as ‘claws’. Some of the sentences are incredibly long and complex in their construction, and are reminiscent of the writing style which Virginia Woolf is famous for.

The Uninvited Guests seems almost farcical in places, essentially a comedy of manners. Theatrical elements are entwined throughout the story, meeting with exacting Edwardian standards and a cast of colourful characters, ranging from the adorable and naïvely hilarious Smudge to the mothering Emerald, from reticent Ernest to headstrong Florence.

The third person perspective which is used throughout allows Jones to follow all of her characters with equal vigour and patience. The dialogue is often witty and shows clashes between differing characters very well. Examples of this include the sibling rivalries between Clovis and Emerald and teasing exchanges between those who know each other well, particularly the case with Charlotte and Florence. The dialogue also brings new characters into the dimensions of the story, when they are described within the conversations of others.

To conclude, Jones’ writing has certainly matured since The OutcastThe Uninvited Guests seems like a far more grown-up novel. This was an incredibly interesting read, so unlike her previous novels in terms of its style and execution. The only small reservation I had with the book is that two of the characters, Ernest and Myrtle, do seem rather flat in comparison with their counterparts. The overall story, however, is a riveting and wholly enjoyable read.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Giant’s House’ by Elizabeth McCracken *****

First published in 2012

The Giant’s House is told in retrospect from the first person perspective of librarian Peggy Cort. Thirty-five years after her story begins, Peggy is looking back on her life. From the outset, Peggy’s narrative voice is original and startling in places. She is such a charismatic, likeable narrator. Her narrative voice certainly has a distinctive style and is simultaneously chatty and eloquent, allowing the reader to be absorbed into her world from the outset. The novel addresses the audience as ‘you’ throughout which really makes the reader feel part of her story. We are consequently able to identify and empathise with Peggy completely.

9780099739913The Giant’s House does primarily deal with a love story, but it goes far deeper than that. The story begins in the autumn of 1950, when James Carlson Sweatt, the ‘giant’ of the novel, walks into the library in which Peggy works, joined by his teachers and classmates. Peggy is twenty-five years old when this happens, and James only eleven. By this point, James is already six foot four. The plot of The Giant’s House is original in that it transcends so many boundaries. In the 1950s, particularly in small-town America, many would not be aware of James’ medical condition which causes him to continually grow at an alarming rate. His classmates and other members of society treat him as an outsider. They are aware of his height towering above them but they do not really notice him as a human being. As the novel progresses, James becomes somewhat famed for his height and people begin to make special trips to Brewsterville in order to spot him.

Peggy’s sheer sense of loneliness is apparent from the outset. She has moved to Brewsterville, an unremarkable town in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, after finishing her course at library school in Philadephia. It seems that she is striving for something new – a fresh start away from everything she has ever known. Peggy, a self-confessed ‘spinster’ who has never before fallen in love, soon cares incredibly deeply for James. She does not just see him as someone too tall to fit in, but as a beautiful young boy who deserves to be loved and respected by his peers and elders. She begins a series of good deeds which eventually allow her to infiltrate James’ life, soon becoming a clear part of it. She begins by finding him different books on his weekly library trips and helping him to research other ‘giants’. The love which Peggy feels for James blossoms slowly at first. The prose is compelling, really making the reader believe in Peggy’s plight.

The Giant’s House transcends different stages in the lives of James and Peggy – stages both lived together and apart. The essence of the novel is about being different, being an outsider, trying so desperately to fit in even though you know your battle will ultimately be fruitless. The story itself builds to an incredibly sad crescendo and really jolts the reader’s heart.

Other characters feature in the novel but James features most heavily of all. He is the most pivotal character of The Giant’s House. The other characters, including Peggy, orbit around James and his wellbeing. He is their common link, an intrinsic fibre of the story and the bond which ties everything together. He really begins to come out of his shell as the story unfolds. The other characters who form different kinds of relationships with Peggy are Astoria Peck, a colleague at the library in which Peggy works, Mrs Sweatt, and Caroline and Oscar Strickland. James’ mother, Mrs Sweatt, seems a little troubled from the outset of the novel. Nobody knows her first name and she is consequently just known as ‘Missus’. She is described as being rather a heavy drinker. Caroline Strickland is the tomboyish aunt of James. She is friendly and humorous in the way in which she says things so matter-of-factly – for example, ‘Well Peggy Cort… You’re not an unpleasant woman’. Oscar Strickland is Caroline’s husband and James’ kindly uncle. At the start, James’ father does not feature in the story. He is being brought up by his mother, Aunt Caroline and Uncle Oscar in a white house painted with flowers.

The entire host of characters in The Giant’s House is incredibly believable. They fit together like people in a real twentieth century society. All of the characters are intriguing in their own ways. Despite the fact that they all live in the same small town, they are remarkably different from one another. This is another reason why they interact so well within the story. None of their dialogue, speech patterns, turns of phrase or elements which build their three-dimensional characters overlap in any way. Their interactions are always fresh and surprising, and nothing mundane is relayed in McCracken’s writing. Her dialogue is wonderful. She adds an extra depth to her characters by making them speak so realistically. Her dialogue becomes intrinsically linked with the bare bones of each character until they are suddenly fully fleshed out individuals walking around the town of Brewsterville as though they have always been there.

With regard to the writing style of the novel, McCracken is unlike many of the contemporary novelists publishing today. The first sentence of The Giant’s House – ‘I do not love mankind’ – immediately places a barrage of questions into the mind of the reader and makes us empathise with Peggy immediately.

The novel is split into three separate parts and the prose itself is haunting in places. The novel is set in the unfolding 1950s but McCracken writes in such a way that the setting and plot are vivid and alive. The reader feels that they are part of the action rather than wholly removed from it.

With each reading of The Giant’s House, new details seem to glow from the page. It is one of those novels that deepens and affects the reader more each time it is read. Something new is taken away with each consecutive reading of the novel. The Giant’s House is a story which seems to grow with the reader, and is a novel which deserves to be recognised as one of the highest peaks of modern literature.

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