In her latest pick of the new books, Maggie Fergusson offers three fine novels, Michael Frayn on his father and some good old-fashioned history ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2010


By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham (Fourth Estate, hardback, January 20th)

The author of “The Hours” has hit on an unlikely hero in Peter Harris, a middle-aged New York art dealer in a “happy enough” marriage, troubled by “a deep loneliness, muddled up with some underlayer of jittery fear”. It takes a visit from his young, junkie brother-in-law, Mizzy, with whom he briefly falls in love, for Harris’s past failures to be borne in on him, and, when Mizzy leaves, his life begins to collapse. Cunningham is psychologically acute, but also clement. At the eleventh hour, he transforms tragedy into a triumph of hope, bringing the novel to a powerfully thought-provoking conclusion. (For another take on this book, see here.)

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (Atlantic, hardback, January 1st)

A snowdrop, in Muscovite slang, is a corpse buried in snow, emerging only in the spring thaw. In a letter to his fiancée, a Luton lawyer describes how, working in Russia over one long winter, he has been seduced into corruption and probably murder. A.D. Miller, The Economist’s Britain editor and former Moscow correspondent, has achieved more than a page-turning thriller. He is brilliant at evoking the underbelly of Moscow life—the bitter cold, strip clubs and sleaze, and their fatal attraction for a rootless single man. As the tale unfolds, the narrator is overwhelmed less by guilt than by a longing to return.

How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu (Cape, hardback, December 30th)

What happens to your future when your past is too painful to process? Jonas Woldemariam’s father has fled war-torn Ethiopia in search of the American dream; but the horror of his escape—crammed inside a chest and forced to drink his own urine—has made him angry and violent. He reacts by exchanging reality for fantasy, and in turn destroys his marriage, and all he holds dear. Mengestu, whose “Children of the Revolution” (aka, "The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears", in America) won prizes both sides of the Atlantic, writes in spare prose that is compassionate but never sentimental. He cares about his characters, and makes you care too.


To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron (Chatto, hardback, February 1st)

Thubron, the most private of travel writers, here allows the personal to break cover in his prose for the first time. On a “secular pilgrimage” to the holy mountain Kailas, following his mother’s death, he demonstrates his habitual immunity to physical discomfort, but is crippled by grief. As he crosses Nepal into Tibet, memories of his parents, and of his sister’s tragic death, home in on him; and the shifting assurances of Buddhism—that reality is illusory, that we shed one life for another—highlight his desolation, and his longing “to touch hands that I know have grown cold”.


Letters to Monica by Philip Larkin (Faber, hardback, out now)

If you think of Larkin as the Eeyore of post-war poetry, this 40-year run of letters to his lover Monica Jones will be full of surprises. There’s no shortage of “yearning discontent”, and an irritable desire to be “left alone”, but the curmudgeonly carapace is constantly pierced by self-mockery, tenderness and passionate enthusiasm—for Beatrix Potter, among others. And whether reflecting on Kingsley Amis (“I can see further than him”) or Dickens (“not a real novelist”), on “The Archers” or using a Hoover, Larkin skewers his thoughts to the page with a precision that makes for compulsive reading.


Crazy Age: Thoughts on Being Old by Jane Miller (Virago, hardback, out now)

In pretending to reflect on old age, Jane Miller delivers a memoir with a difference. She writes not about what happened to her, the dates and the details, but of what it is to be a sentient being. As she swims her daily lengths in a Chelsea pool and rereads “Anna Karenina” (disconcertingly) in the original Russian, she explores the nature of childhood memory and what it is that her best friend, who has Alzheimer’s, has lost. “My mind often feels like an overflowing wastepaper basket,” she writes. She sieves its contents with detachment and wonder. 

My Father’s Fortune by Michael Frayn (Faber, hardback, out now)

Frayn cried often while writing this portrait of his father, but the result is the perfect antidote to misery memoir. Tom Frayn, a smart working-class lad who became a successful asbestos salesman, was dealt a series of blows by life—most notably the sudden death of his wife while Michael was still small. He responded to each with such unfaltering courage and generosity that the story of his outwardly ordinary life becomes, cumulatively, extraordinary. His possessions, on death, fitted into a shoebox, but the legacy of everyday heroism celebrated here with wit and bemusement is incalculably rich.


The Story of Britain by Patrick Dillon (Walker Books, hardback, out now)

When so many children like their histories Horrible, it’s brave to produce a book like this, full of good, straightforward storytelling, classic, Ladybird-like illustrations and clear timelines. Patrick Dillon, a grown-up historian and father of two, starts with the Norman Conquest and goes all the way to the birth of the internet, 9/11 and global warming. He breaks his narrative into five-minutes-before-lights-out chunks, with a red ribbon to mark your place. His tone is wise and comradely, without being condescending, and his imagination and obvious delight in his subject are hard to resist. This is not just a parent’s view: my 12-year-old daughter, “not a brainiac”, loved it.

Maggie Fergusson won four prizes for her life of George Mackay Brown, published by John Murray. She is secretary of the Royal Society of Literature. Her last Book Choice column was published in the autumn issue of Intelligent Life. Picture Credit: M Glasgow (via Flickr)