3

‘Weather’ by Jenny Offill ****

Jenny Offill is an author whose work I very much enjoy; I was enraptured whilst reading both Dept. of Speculation and Last Things. Her newest novel, Weather, appealed to me on several levels, and I was eager to dig in.

The protagonist of Weather is Lizzie Benson, who managed to slide ‘into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree.’ Whilst this causes animosity with some of her colleagues, it also gives her ‘a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: as an unofficial shrink.’ Lizzie comes from a difficult familial background; her mother is ‘God-haunted’, and speaks to her of ‘the light, the vine, the living bread’, and her brother is a troubled, recovering addict.

From the outset of the novel, we are introduced to some of the library’s patrons, and their very particular quirks. There, is, for instance, ‘The man in the shabby suit [who] does not want his fines lowered. He is pleased to contribute to our institution. The blond girl whose nails are bitten to the quick stops by after lunch and leaves with a purse full of toilet paper.’ There is some wonderfully strange imagery at play throughout Weather; for example, ‘But the man in the shabby suit tells me things I want to know. He works for hospice. He said that it is important when a loved one dies to try to stay alone in the house for three days. This is when the manifestations occur. His wife manifested as a small whirlwind that swept the papers off his desk.’

Lizzie’s old mentor, Sylvia Liller, was responsible for getting her young protégée her job. Sylvia is currently well-known for her ‘prescient podcast’ about the state of the world, entitled ‘Hell and High Water’. She proposes to Lizzie that she could build her career by answering the mail which she receives in response to the podcast; this is from ‘left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of Western civilization.’

As she is considering whether to take the job, Lizzie reveals: ‘I ask her what sorts of things she gets. All kinds, she tells me, but everyone who writes her is either crazy or depressed. We need the money for sure, but I tell her I have to think about it. Because it’s possible my life is already filled with these people.’ She decides to accept, and begins to move in a different trajectory to that which her librarian job offers. As Lizzie becomes a part of this highly polarised platform, she finds that ‘the voices of the city keep floating in – funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.’

Offill has cleverly woven together several different elements, allowing us to really get to know her characters and their foibles. Alongside musings about Lizzie’s career, she worries deeply about motherhood, and protecting her young son, Eli: ‘I’m not allowed to think about how big this school is or how small he is. I’ve made that mistake after other drop-offs. I should be used to it by now, but sometimes I get spooked all over again.’ Offill gives us a real insight into her protagonist and what matters to her, as well as the tiny cruelties which play on her mind, and the more philosophical questions which she considers.

I warmed to Lizzie very quickly, and appreciated the character arc which is taken throughout the novel. She is a highly complex individual, who muses about such interesting things. One particular foible of Lizzie’s which I loved was her ‘bookish superstition about my birthday… I like to see what Virginia Woolf said about an age in her diaries before I reach it. Usually it’s inspiring.’ This could well be something which I choose to adopt in my own life, so taken with the idea was I!

There is always something in Offill’s novels which feels original, which is uniquely hers. Weather is no different. At just 200 pages, it is a relatively quick read, but so much fills it. It is a realistic novel, but at the same time, there is an almost magical, otherworldly quality to it. The structure of paragraph-long vignettes which have been used work marvellously. I really enjoyed the approach taken, and felt connected with the story from beginning to end. I sank into Offill’s prose from the very first page, and did not want to finish reading.

5

The Book Trail: From ‘The Fire Starters’ to ‘Piranesi’

This edition of The Book Trail begins with a novel which I very much enjoyed when I read it last year; I found its depiction of The Troubles quite surprising, and also highly chilling at times. As ever, I have used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature to generate this list.

1. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson
‘Dr Jonathan Murray fears his new-born daughter is not as harmless as she seems. Sammy Agnew is wrestling with his dark past, and fears the violence in his blood lurks in his son, too. The city is in flames and the authorities are losing control. As matters fall into frenzy, and as the lines between fantasy and truth, right and wrong, begin to blur, who will these two fathers choose to protect? Dark,propulsive and thrillingly original, this tale of fierce familial love and sacrifice fizzes with magic and wonder.’

2. Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan
‘In 1973 Moll Gladney goes missing from the Tipperary hillside where she was born. Slowly her parents, Paddy and Kit, begin to accept that she’s gone forever. But she returns, changed, and with a few surprises for her family and neighbours. Nothing is ever the same again for the Gladneys, who learn that fate cares little for duty, that life rarely conforms to expectation, that God can’t be relied upon to heed any prayer. A story of exile and return, of loss and discovery, of retreat from grief and the saving power of love.’

3. After the Silence by Louise O’Neill
‘Nessa Crowley’s murderer has been protected by silence for ten years. Until a team of documentary makers decide to find out the truth. On the day of Henry and Keelin Kinsella’s wild party at their big house a violent storm engulfed the island of Inisrun, cutting it off from the mainland. When morning broke Nessa Crowley’s lifeless body lay in the garden, her last breath silenced by the music and the thunder. The killer couldn’t have escaped Inisrun, but no one was charged with the murder. The mystery that surrounded the death of Nessa remained hidden. But the islanders knew who to blame for the crime that changed them forever. Ten years later a documentary crew arrives, there to lift the lid off the Kinsellas’ carefully constructed lives, determined to find evidence that will prove Henry’s guilt and Keelin’s complicity in the murder of beautiful Nessa. In this bold, brilliant, disturbing new novel Louise O’Neill shows that deadly secrets are devastating to those who hold them close.’

4. A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghiofra
‘A true original. In this stunningly unusual prose debut, Doireann Ni Ghriofa sculpts essay and autofiction to explore inner life and the deep connection felt between two writers centuries apart. In the 1700s, an Irish noblewoman, on discovering her husband has been murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary poem. In the present day, a young mother narrowly avoids tragedy. On encountering the poem, she becomes obsessed with its parallels with her own life, and sets out to track down the rest of the story. A devastating and timeless tale about one woman freeing her voice by reaching into the past and finding another’s.’

5. Actress by Anne Enright
‘Katherine O’Dell is an Irish theater legend. As her daughter Norah retraces her mother’s celebrated career and bohemian life, she delves into long-kept secrets, both her mother’s and her own. Katherine began her career on Ireland’s bus-and-truck circuit before making it to London’s West End, Broadway, and finally Hollywood. Every moment of her life is a star turn, with young Norah standing in the wings. But the mother-daughter romance cannot survive Katherine’s past or the world’s damage. With age, alcohol, and dimming stardom, her grip on reality grows fitful and, fueled by a proud and long-simmering rage, she commits a bizarre crime. Her mother’s protector, Norah understands the destructive love that binds an actress to her audience, but also the strength that an actress takes from her art. Once the victim of a haunting crime herself, Norah eventually becomes a writer, wife, and mother, finding her way to her own hard-won joy. Actress is a book about the freedom we find in our work and in the love we make and keep.’

6. Weather by Jenny Offill
‘Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience–but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks . . . And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in–funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.’

7. Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings
‘In a small Western Queensland town, a reserved young woman receives a note from one of her vanished brothers—a note that makes question her memories of their disappearance and her father’s departure. A beguiling story that proves that gothic delights and uncanny family horror can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun, Flyaway introduces readers to Bettina Scott, whose search for the truth throws her into tales of eerie dogs, vanished schools, cursed monsters, and enchanted bottles. In these pages Jennings assures you that gothic delights, uncanny family horror, and strange, unsettling prose can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun.’

8. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
‘Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house. There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.’

Have you read any of these books? Which of them pique your interest?

8

Most Popular Books Published in 2020

I love a good book list.  Although I have tried my best not to look at any for quite some time as my TBR lists are bursting at the seams, I could not resist perusing the Goodreads list of the most popular books published during 2020.  Although I read a lot of contemporary fiction, I had read just three of the 149 which appear here at the time of compiling this list.  Rather than write about those, all of which I found underwhelming (My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, One of Us is Next by Karen M. McManus, and Mr Nobody by Catherine Steadman), I thought I would pick out ten books which pique my interest.

1. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett 51791252._sx318_sy475_
The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?  Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.  As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise.

438349092. Long Bright River by Liz Moore
In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. They don’t speak anymore, but Mickey never stops worrying about her sibling.  Then Kacey disappears, suddenly, at the same time that a mysterious string of murders begins in Mickey’s district, and Mickey becomes dangerously obsessed with finding the culprit–and her sister–before it’s too late.  Alternating its present-day mystery with the story of the sisters’ childhood and adolescence, Long Bright River is at once heart-pounding and heart-wrenching: a gripping suspense novel that is also a moving story of sisters, addiction, and the formidable ties that persist between place, family, and fate.’

3. The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James 45885644
The secrets lurking in a rundown roadside motel ensnare a young woman, just as they did her aunt thirty-five years before, in this new atmospheric suspense novel from the national bestselling and award-winning author of The Broken Girls.  Upstate NY, 1982. Every small town like Fell, New York, has a place like the Sun Down Motel. Some customers are from out of town, passing through on their way to someplace better. Some are locals, trying to hide their secrets. Viv Delaney works as the night clerk to pay for her move to New York City. But something isn’t right at the Sun Down, and before long she’s determined to uncover all of the secrets hidden…’

51907346._sy475_4. All Adults Here by Emma Straub
When Astrid Strick witnesses a school bus accident in the center of town, it jostles loose a repressed memory from her young parenting days decades earlier. Suddenly, Astrid realizes she was not quite the parent she thought she’d been to her three, now-grown children. But to what consequence?  Astrid’s youngest son is drifting and unfocused, making parenting mistakes of his own. Her daughter is intentionally pregnant yet struggling to give up her own adolescence. And her eldest seems to measure his adult life according to standards no one else shares. But who gets to decide, so many years later, which long-ago lapses were the ones that mattered? Who decides which apologies really count? It might be that only Astrid’s thirteen-year-old granddaughter and her new friend really understand the courage it takes to tell the truth to the people you love the most.  In All Adults Here, Emma Straub’s unique alchemy of wisdom, humor, and insight come together in a deeply satisfying story about adult siblings, aging parents, high school boyfriends, middle school mean girls, the lifelong effects of birth order, and all the other things that follow us into adulthood, whether we like them to or not.’

5. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia 53152636._sx318_sy475_
After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.   Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.  Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.   And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.’

375062286. Weather by Jenny Offill
Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience–but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks . . . And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in–funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.

7. Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas 51934838
‘Catherine House is a school of higher learning like no other. Hidden deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania, this crucible of reformist liberal arts study with its experimental curriculum, wildly selective admissions policy, and formidable endowment, has produced some of the world’s best minds: prize-winning authors, artists, inventors, Supreme Court justices, presidents. For those lucky few selected, tuition, room, and board are free. But acceptance comes with a price. Students are required to give the House three years—summers included—completely removed from the outside world. Family, friends, television, music, even their clothing must be left behind. In return, the school promises its graduates a future of sublime power and prestige, and that they can become anything or anyone they desire.  Among this year’s incoming class is Ines, who expects to trade blurry nights of parties, pills, cruel friends, and dangerous men for rigorous intellectual discipline—only to discover an environment of sanctioned revelry. The school’s enigmatic director, Viktória, encourages the students to explore, to expand their minds, to find themselves and their place within the formidable black iron gates of Catherine.  For Ines, Catherine is the closest thing to a home she’s ever had, and her serious, timid roommate, Baby, soon becomes an unlikely friend. Yet the House’s strange protocols make this refuge, with its worn velvet and weathered leather, feel increasingly like a gilded prison. And when Baby’s obsessive desire for acceptance ends in tragedy, Ines begins to suspect that the school—in all its shabby splendor, hallowed history, advanced theories, and controlled decadence—might be hiding a dangerous agenda that is connected to a secretive, tightly knit group of students selected to study its most promising and mysterious curriculum.  Combining the haunting sophistication and dusky, atmospheric style of Sarah Waters with the unsettling isolation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Catherine House is a devious, deliciously steamy, and suspenseful page-turner with shocking twists and sharp edges that is sure to leave readers breathless.’

459927178. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves.  Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?  With The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion, and courage.’

9. If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha 52696537._sy475_
Kyuri is a heartbreakingly beautiful woman with a hard-won job at a “room salon,” an exclusive bar where she entertains businessmen while they drink. Though she prides herself on her cold, clear-eyed approach to life, an impulsive mistake with a client may come to threaten her livelihood.  Her roomate, Miho, is a talented artist who grew up in an orphanage but won a scholarship to study art in New York. Returning to Korea after college, she finds herself in a precarious relationship with the super-wealthy heir to one of Korea’s biggest companies.  Down the hall in their apartment building lives Ara, a hair stylist for whom two preoccupations sustain her: obsession with a boy-band pop star, and a best friend who is saving up for the extreme plastic surgery that is commonplace.  And Wonna, one floor below, is a newlywed trying to get pregnant with a child that she and her husband have no idea how they can afford to raise and educate in the cutthroat economy.  Together, their stories tell a gripping tale that’s seemingly unfamiliar, yet unmistakably universal in the way that their tentative friendships may have to be their saving grace.’

5017541910. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Ava moved to Hong Kong to find happiness, but so far, it isn’t working out. Since she left Dublin, she’s been spending her days teaching English to rich children—she’s been assigned the grammar classes because she lacks warmth—and her nights avoiding petulant roommates in her cramped apartment.  When Ava befriends Julian, a witty British banker, he offers a shortcut into a lavish life her meager salary could never allow. Ignoring her feminist leanings and her better instincts, Ava finds herself moving into Julian’s apartment, letting him buy her clothes, and, eventually, striking up a sexual relationship with him. When Julian’s job takes him back to London, she stays put, unsure where their relationship stands.  Enter Edith. A Hong Kong–born lawyer, striking and ambitious, Edith takes Ava to the theater and leaves her tulips in the hallway. Ava wants to be her—and wants her. Ava has been carefully pretending that Julian is nothing more than an absentee roommate, so when Julian announces that he’s returning to Hong Kong, she faces a fork in the road. Should she return to the easy compatibility of her life with Julian or take a leap into the unknown with Edith?  Politically alert, heartbreakingly raw, and dryly funny, Exciting Times is thrillingly attuned to the great freedoms and greater uncertainties of modern love. In stylish, uncluttered prose, Naoise Dolan dissects the personal and financial transactions that make up a life—and announces herself as a singular new voice.

Which of these books have you read, and which 2020 release was your favourite?

2

‘Lost Things’ by Jenny Offill ****

I very much enjoyed Jenny Offill’s second novel, Dept. of Speculation, and happily hunted down her debut, Last Things, which was published in 1999.  The Irish Times calls the novel a ‘glorious debut’, and The Times writes that ‘Offill creates for Grace a mesmerising imaginary world…  She writes with a heartbreaking clarity… and is dextrously able to evoke emotional extremity through pitch-perfect narrative compression.’ 9781408879719

The protagonist and narrator of Last Things is Grace Davitt, who is seven years old when the novel begins, and who lives in Vermont with her parents.  She finds her volatile mother, Anna, ‘a puzzling yet wonderful mystery.  This is a woman who has seen a sea serpent in the lake, who paints a timeline of the universe on the sewing-room wall, and who teaches her daughter a secret language which only they can speak.’  Her father, schoolteacher Jonathan, is an antithesis to her mother; he trusts only scientific evidence, and ‘finds himself shut out by Anna as she draws Grace deeper and deeper into a strange world of myth and obsession.’

Offill captures her young protagonist’s voice wonderfully and believably.  She weaves in childish fantasies of Grace’s, which are rather lovely at times: ‘I closed my eyes and tried to dream in another language’, for instance.  From its opening pages, the novel is an incredibly thoughtful one.  Grace imparts: ‘Another time, my mother told me that when I was born every language in the world was in my head, waiting to take form.  I could have spoken Swahili or Urdu or Cantonese, but now it was too late.’  Throughout, and with the guidance of both her parents, Grace is trying to make sense of the world around her.  This is made more difficult, as her parents tend to disagree about everything.

Grace’s mother is bound up in stories which she fashions both for her daughter, and for herself.  These stories confuse Grace, and serve only to muddle the truth for her: ‘Sometimes I tried to guess which of my mother’s stories were true and which were not, but I was usually wrong.’  Anna takes Grace to a nearby lake each morning, before anyone else arrives, in order to try and catch a glimpse of a monster which she is convinced lives there.  She has some rather peculiar notions about the world, and how one should behave.  ‘Sometimes,’ Grace tells us, ‘my mother tired of looking for the monster and we’d go to the park instead.  The rule about the park was that we could only go there if we went in disguise.  Otherwise, men might stop and talk to us.’

All of the characters in Last Things have unusual quirks.  Grace’s babysitter, sixteen-year-old Edgar, is a science prodigy, who answers questions only if he is interested in the answer.  One morning, he imparts a dream of his, in which ‘one day entire cities might be illuminated by mold.’  Of her cousin, Grace states: ‘Grooming was important to Mary because she believed her portrait would one day appear on a dollar bill.  The summer before, she had sent away in the mail for a kit to start her own country.  Martyrdom, it was going to be called.  It wasn’t ready yet because there was a lot of paperwork to do, she said.’  Her father carries around a book entitled Know Your Constitution!, which he uses to write letters to the newspaper.

The family dynamic which Offill presents is fascinating.  Offill probes the decisions which Grace’s parents have made, and the sometimes amusing effects which they have had on their only child: ‘I had never been to church because my father had vowed to raise me a heathen.  A heathen was a godless thing, my mother explained.  In some parts of America, it was against the law to be one.  On Sundays, I watched from the woods as the Christians drove by.  The women had on dresses and the men wore dark suits.  Sometimes I threw rocks at their cars and waited to see what God would do.  Nothing much, it turned out.’

I rarely see reviews of Offill’s work, which I feel is a real shame.  I can only hope the this review has piqued someone’s interest in this novel, or her more popular Dept. of Speculation.  This novel is funny, and whilst at times it appears lighthearted, there is a darker undercurrent to it.  The characters are realistic creations, and will stay in your head for weeks afterwards.  Particularly for a debut, Last Things is accomplished, and has such a surety about it.

Purchase from The Book Depository