Maggie Fergusson chooses eight good books to devour this season, from Graham Swift to Ali Smith, from St Kilda to Lesotho ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2011
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (Bloomsbury, paperback, out now)
In this modern-day “Lord of the Flies”, inspired by the murder of Damilola Taylor in south London in 2000, children are stranded not on a desert island but on an inner-city sink estate. The story unfolds through the wide eyes of 11-year-old Harrison Opoku, newly arrived from Ghana, and he quickly becomes both convincing and lovable: an exuberant, intelligent Haribo aficionado, and the fastest runner in Year 7. Despite his dismal surroundings, Harrison radiates humour and hope. So when he turns amateur detective and falls foul of the notorious Dell Farm Crew, the sense of loss is shocking.
There but for the by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, hardback, June 2nd)
At a dinner party in Greenwich a guest locks himself into his hostess’s spare bedroom and won’t budge—for weeks. Friends from his past remonstrate. Crowds and the celebrity press gather. A nine-year-old girl passes notes under his door, luring him back into the world with steady kindness. If you favour tidy plots and neat conclusions, this may not be for you. But if you are drawn to a writer who understands misery without being seduced by it, sees grace at work in ordinary lives, and conjures with words like a 21st-century Lewis Carroll, don’t miss it.
Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift (Picador, hardback, June 3rd)
Born to a family of Devon farmers, now proprietor of a “herd of caravans” on the Isle of Wight, Jack Luxton sits at a rain-spattered window contemplating suicide. His to-be-or-not-to-be reflections form the still centre from which this novel ripples out to encompass the deaths of Jack’s father and brother, the war in Iraq, and a lament for rural England. Graham Swift weaves the strands together like a master basket-maker; but, as Jack nears a decision, he loosens his grip, sending the reader hurtling through the final chapter on a rollercoaster of dread and joy.
Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg (Quercus, hardback, out now)
Until their evacuation in 1930, the inhabitants of St Kilda, west of the Hebrides, formed the strangest community in Britain, living in squalor and losing most of their babies to the mysterious disease known as eight-day sickness. This is the first full novel set in the islands. Karin Altenberg, a Swede writing in English, combines scrupulous research with psychological acuity in exploring the marital and pastoral struggles of Reverend Neil Mackenzie, minister of St Kilda from 1829 to 1844. His flock is essentially pagan: they worship their ancestors, not Christ. Yet they accept their sufferings with an implacable serenity that highlights Mackenzie’s demons and doubts, driving him to the brink of madness.
Waterline by Ross Raisin (Viking, paperback, July 7th)
“Once a shipbuilder, always a shipbuilder,” insists Mick Little after spending most of a lifetime in the Glasgow docks. But with the shipyards closed, and his adored wife dead, he heads down to London in search of a new way to be “normal”. Living in B&Bs and swinging between inertia and panic, Little descends into alcoholism, then homelessness. As in his prize-winning debut, “God’s Own Country”, Ross Raisin has got right inside the mind of a man on the fringes of society. Mick Little becomes a figure not just of pity but of unsettling familiarity.
King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher (Fourth Estate, hardback, out now)
The estuary town of Hanmouth in Devon has all the hallmarks of middle-class respectability: a cheese shop, a book group, an energetic Neighbourhood Watch. By zooming in where CCTV can’t reach, and plaiting many stories into one, Philip Hensher shows us Hanmouth’s other side: gay orgies of eye-popping incontinence, a troubled teenager who ritually stabs her dolls with a hat-pin, and the cellar where 12-year-old China, who disappears from a housing estate at the start of the novel, is held captive and abused. Hensher’s sensitivity to human weakness, and his ear for dialogue, make for a very black comedy.
A slim novel, spliced with memoir, divided into three parts. In each, the South African narrator, Damon, makes a journey inspired less by wanderlust than by “the bored anguish of staying still”. Moving through Lesotho, Tanzania, and finally Goa, he forms intense relationships with fellow travellers, all of which seem full of promise, all of which go horribly wrong. Galgut’s prose is spare, mesmeric, heavy with sadness and unfulfilled longing. Last year, this was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. Clear an evening to read it before this year’s shortlist comes along in September.
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (Picador, hardback, July 1st)
Seven years after winning the Booker with “The Line of Beauty”, Hollinghurst returns with another big novel. In the summer of 1913, the poet Cecil Valance (think Rupert Brooke: handsome, bisexual, soon to die for his country) writes “Two Acres” and encapsulates an England about to be lost for ever. His brief life spawns biographies—first, a circumspect memoir by a politician, once his lover, then, following the Michael Holroyd revolution, a work of merciless candour by an ambitious former bank clerk. Hollinghurst shows an insider’s knowledge of literary and academic life, clocking changes in social and sexual behaviour with elegant irreverence. The 564 pages flew by.