What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this August.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Tinder Press, 2020
This divine book is a new favourite for me. The premise is the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet but the offering is way beyond that. It’s also about his wife and parents, his other children and extended family. This is a story about the plague, loyalty, parents and children, old lore and knowledge.
As a reader you are fully immersed. To be honest, I didn’t want to come up for air. As a writer, I was looking for clues. How is she doing this? How is she spinning this story into such a wonder? It’s one of the few present tense narrations that never felt affected. The POV was always a perfect match for the character at hand. Shakespeare actually has the least air play of everyone and in this story, that’s as it should be. This one will be a re-read for me and a re-re-read no doubt. I want an in on the alchemy at play.
After you’d gone by Maggie O’Farrell, Review 2001
I picked this straight up after finishing Hamnet and it was interesting to go from her first novel to her most recent. In between there was 20 years and another eight or so books.
She was already doing interesting things in this book, confident and assured enough to toggle back and forth in time and also from first-person to third-person without the awkwardness you might expect.
This is Alice Raikes’ story but it is also that of her mother and grandmother. One day Alice steps out into traffic. She is left in a coma and it’s uncertain whether it was intention or accident. The story circles back to where it all began and we see how the tangled threads of family history can still trip us up years later. Maggie O’Farrell is sooo good at her job.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Head of Zeus, 2017
This has been sitting on the bookstack since I started the bookstack. It’s a total tome at over 500 pages and whenever I looked at it, I thought ‘too hard’. But if you don’t read a book like that in lockdown then you never will.
And it isn’t too hard at all. It was completely absorbing and exactly what I didn’t know it needed. It’s an epic that follows four generations of a Korean family in Japan from 1932 to 1989. By the end of it, you know them all so intimately. You’ve seen people scrimp and survive and you’ve seen babies grow up and have their own babies. The family offers such rich detail and dynamics but alongside that is the history and context of Korea and Japan. For Koreans in Japan, language, culture, status and identity remain a negotiation for every generation.
Last Night by Mhairi McFarlane, Harper Collins, 2021
I’d never heard of Scottish writer Mhairi (pronounced Vah-Ree) McFarlane before but am happy to know she’s got a good-sized back catalogue cos I just devoured this book (lying in bed after my 2nd Pfizer vaccine).
Eve, Susie, Justin and Ed have been friends since high school. A sudden accident changes everything and brings old secrets and deep loss with it. Whip-smart, of the times and somehow able to orchestrate grief and a good humour without diminishing either. One of those books where I often found myself thinking, ‘Yes! Yes, that’s exactly how it is!’.
I demand that it be turned into a smart British rom-com immediately!
Car Crash by Lech Blaine, Black Inc., 2021
When Lech Blaine was 17, he survived a car crash that killed three of his friends. This memoir is about grief and depression and the toxic masculinity that disallows young men to feel them. There has always been such honesty and eloquence to his journalism and he brings this to his memoir as well.
Before the crash he was a product of his own expectations of what sort of man he should be; I was totally beholden to a holy trinity of influences: Christianity, masculinity and capitalism.
Masculinity still hasn’t evolved as this year’s string of revelations from parliamentarians to school boys has shown. Put this on some reading lists, make it a high school text and we can hope that maybe it might.
The Spill by Imbi Neeme, Penguin, 2020
Sisters Nicole and Samantha aren’t exactly what you’d call close. Their family split a long time ago with Nicole and their Mum, Tina, on one side and Samantha, their father and whoever his current wife is on the other. No one wants it to be this way or stays civil long enough for it to be any different.
When their mum dies from liver failure, it’s finally time for the sisters to get answers from each other and the past. Spanning the decades and a fair stretch of Western Australia’s coastline this one is also good as a home grown read. Sometimes you just need to read about a climate that’s familiar and places you recognise.
Lucky’s by Alex Pippos, Picador 2020
This is a sprawling family saga that crosses continents and generations. During what he thinks were his best years, Lucky owned a franchise of cafes all over Australia. They were usually run by Greeks, like Lucky, but the décor and menu were intentionally American. But times change, families split up and as an old man, Lucky wants to get back some of what he’s lost over the years.
At the same time Emily comes to Sydney chasing the ghost of her father and a commission for the New Yorker. She thinks that Lucky has answers for her and he hopes that her interest could be a final chance to change his luck. Like Pachinko, this is another one where you’re with the family long enough to see babies have babies and witness how the migrant dream changes with the next generation.
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