No Good Deed by John Niven

no good deed by john nivenNo Good Deed has the perfect elevator pitch: Alan, a successful, affluent journalist with a happy family life, stops to give some money to a homeless man one night on the way to his club in Soho. The man turns out to be his old school friend, Craig. Alan feels obliged to help him and takes him home. But Craig, far from being grateful, proceeds to take over Alan’s life…

Too often these high-concept stories are peopled by flat characters and hackneyed plots, but in this case the novel does live up to its promise. Alan’s milieu – a kind of Notting Hill set without the (overt) politics, peopled by columnists and aristos and minor celebs, fuelled by nepotism and booze and lots of lots of money, is richly and satirically drawn.

Alan is an interesting character, an outsider from a council house in Scotland who has somehow found himself married to the daughter of a duke. He is both insider and outsider on his world, comfortable in it but painfully aware of its privilege and absurdities, which are heightened when he sees it through Craig’s eyes.

There are some funny set pieces in this novel (and plenty on the protagonist’s complex relationship with his bowels, surely an under-explored area in contemporary fiction) but what marks it out for me is its study of friendship. Alan was the not-quite-cool kid in his crowd, while Craig was the leader. Craig went on to be a rock star while Alan was a struggling reporter until his wife’s connections got him a decent job.

No Good Deed explores the darker side of friendship, the way the dynamics of your teenage years, at that age when friends mean more than family or bands or even sex, can influence you as you go through life. The plot wraps up neatly, as you’d expect from such a deftly plotted novel, but it also leaves you room to think about why the characters behaved the way they did, which makes it a thought-provoking as well an entertaining read.

I received a copy of No Good Deed from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Noah’s Ark by Barbara Trapido

noah's ark by barbara trapidoThis is the story of a marriage but it is also a clever study of power.

Ali Bobrow, artistic, beautiful and unworldly, is easy prey to controlling men. Her third husband, Noah, is at least a benign dictator. Before him she was mistreated, her daughter was unhappy and she was unable to resist the demands of any manipulative neighbour or acquaintance. Noah, a doctor, the ultimate protector, replaces the chaos with love, calm and security – so long as she follows his rules.

Then one day Ali decides to rebel – and this disrupts the delicate balance of her life with Noah, and leads her to look back at her past in South Africa.

Trapido’s characters are funny and vivid and clever. You feel like you want to climb into her world (though probably not for too long – who could keep up?). She creates atmosphere with economy and style. The opening scene shows Ali sewing in her kitchen, an icon of domesticity. The apparently ordinary items – the fruit bowl, the pinboard – and her thoughts about them immediately evoke the family and her place within it.

There are other types of power here. Ali grew up under apartheid, the descendant of German refugees from World War Two. Her best friend at school was Jewish, and she is attracted to Jewish men. Her unconsummated first love was dark-skinned and was rumoured to have lied about his background to attend the all-white university.

There are also the dynamics between parents and children. Noah’s step-daughter, once so timid, is able to be rebellious and demanding precisely because he has made her feel safe – for now. He is also confronted by the stubbornness of his own daughter.

How do we respond to a world where every day people are harming others? Trapido asks subtle questions about the limits of power, resistance and compassion.

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The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

the heart goes last margaret atwoodYou know how in novels we generally get to follow the heroic ones? And by extension to imagine ourselves in that position, being heroic? Atwood turns that on its head in this satire. Charmaine just wants everything to be clean and nice. Stan wants things to work out, for once. They want life to be simple. Like most of us.

At the beginning of the novel they’re living out of their car, having lost their jobs and their home after yet another financial crisis. Life is bleak and frightening, but they are offered a chance of escape. A prison has long been seen as the saviour of a deprived community, bringing with it secure and well-paid jobs. Consilience is an innovation. If prisons needs communities and communities need prisons, why not have a place where people are both? One month inmate, the next citizen. The only catch, they have to sign up for life, and once in, there is no way out.

In Consilience, Stan and Charmaine get to live every other month in a pastel, idealised, 1950s kind of a world, drenched in the positive thinking of modern corporate life (‘Shout out for the Brussels Sprouts team!’). Stan and Charmaine are safe and well fed and happy to play by the rules. And yet –

This book is bright and fast and funny but behind the humour it’s bursting with ideas. And that title. What a great title.

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Enjoyed this? Take a look at The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

the woman upstairs by claire messudIt’s not unusual to develop a crush on an entire family. It’s one of the rites of passage of adolescence, to fall not just for a person but the people who love them, the home that embraces them, their shared rituals and beliefs. You glimpse the promise of another way to live.

However, Nora, the protagonist in The Woman Upstairs, is not an adolescent. She is a professional woman in her forties, eaten up with bitterness and disappointment over the way her life has turned out. She wanted to be an artist, instead she’s a teacher, living alone. When she is befriended by Sirena, a professional artist, she sees everything that she is not. Sirena is a charismatic outsider. She also has a successful husband and an intelligent, attractive child.

Nora is an intriguingly untrustworthy narrator. She tells us she hasn’t led the life she wants. She has been nice and compliant, as a woman should be – but she doesn’t sound nice at all. She never had the chances she deserved – but then she describes opportunities that she turned down. She says she’s a good teacher because she has the open worldview of a child, yet her art is rigidly controlled.

Even as we see Sirena and her family through Nora’s eyes, we get a sense that their lives are not as idyllic as she suggests. Sirena faces her own challenges, as a woman and as an artist.

At the beginning of the book, Nora describes her life as like a hall of mirrors. Behind every mirror is another mirror. There is no end. The narration, like the hall of mirrors, constantly turns back on itself and challenges the reader’s perceptions.

From Nora’s personal relationships to her art to her memories, everything about her both illuminates and undermines the central question of how she came to be where she is now. Even at the end of the novel, when Nora appears to reach a resolution, you’re not sure whether to believe her.

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Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin translated by Megan McDowell

Fever Dream by Samanta SchweblinTwo people are in a hospital. Amanda is feverish and believes she is near death. David is a boy who is not her son. David is pushing her to recount the events that led up to her illness.

She tells a story of her family and his. It begins as an innocent holiday friendship but has a sinister undertone. David’s mother tells Amanda that her son fell ill before they met, apparently due to exposure to something in the environment. She is convinced that she lost his soul when his body recovered, that this was a bargain she made with a healer.

The tension builds as the story unfolds in a long, breathless narrative (it’s a short novel, but conversely one very long chapter). As she tells the story, David pushes her to remember certain incidents, while dismissing others which she wants to pursue.

I read on, intrigued at first, then a little impatient, but anticipating that there would be clues and allusions to the meaning of the narrative. Is the story chronological? What is hallucinated and what real? Where is David’s mother and Amanda’s daughter?

Then I got to the end and it just sort of – well, ended. And I’m deflated. Am I being dense? Did I miss something? I didn’t expect a neat resolution tied with a bow, but I thought that there would be insights and inferences, ideas which would resonate and send me back through the key scenes to interpret them anew. Now I’m not sure what the themes of the book are, apart from ‘pesticides are bad’ and ‘parenting is scary’.

Perhaps my expectations were too high. Fever Dream is innovative in its form and beautifully written (and translated) but I feel like I wanted something more.

I received a copy of Fever Dream from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Want to know more? Read this interview with Samanta Schweblin on Lithub

 

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

 

standard deviation by katherine heineyIt’s not often that I feel so unstrongly about a book that I don’t know what to write. But that’s where I am with Standard Deviation.

Graham is an executive who lives in New York. He is married to Audra, but was once married to Elspeth. Audra is an uber-extrovert with no filter, Elspeth icy and reserved. Graham is somewhere in-between. When Elspeth comes back into this life he muses a lot on the nature of his relationships with the two women.

Later on the focus shifts more to his feelings for his young son who has Asperger’s and a passionate interest in origami. He worries that he will never make friends or feel secure in social settings. But when his son joins an origami club, it is suddenly he who belongs and his parents who feel excluded.

And so it goes on. There some amusing vignettes that are moderately thought-provoking. Where am I on the introvert-extrovert continuum? I never knew origami was so complicated. Would Graham really be attracted to two such different women when in real life people tend to recreate the same kind of relationship, for better or for worse, over and over again?

The structure of the book is slightly odd. It reads more like a series of connected stories. In fact what it feels most like is a TV sitcom, one where each episode has its arc and then everything goes back to pretty much where it was. The children are a little older, the annoying neighbour may have been written out, but the characters are fundamentally unaltered by events of the recent past.

It also has a lot of set-piece scenes which are similar – particularly the ones that involve a group of ill-matched people sitting down for a meal. Again, this is something that happens in TV (pretty much every episode of Gavin and Stacey was premised on the two families meeting for a party on a flimsy pretext) but this book is different from a TV comedy is that it’s not that funny. It’s more wry smile than belly laugh.

A novel needs narrative drive. Standard Deviation is well written, engaging and with some sharp observation but I’m afraid it dragged for me.

I received a copy of Standard Deviation from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Family Money by Nina Bawden

family money by nina bawdenA London property bubble, impoverished hospitals, worries about care in old age – this novel, published in 1991, feels oddly topical.

Family Money is the story of recently widowed Fanny (her name perhaps the one thing that dates it). Returning from an evening out, she becomes involved in a violent incident. She is injured and has little memory of what has occurred.

Her children, solicitous of her (or perhaps her half-a-million-pound house) try to make plans for her. Fanny, however, has ideas of her own, as well as a mutual fascination with an enigmatic young man living on the canal at the end of her garden which only grows as her memory returns.

Bawden takes an unflinching look at her characters with their assumptions and their self-justification. They are privileged but they are also needy. She is not afraid to mock them but there is compassion too, and a warm, understated humour.

Fanny negotiates her physical weakness and her erratic memory with dignity and irony. She looks back with a clear eye at the life she has led and the trials she may face.

Superficially this is a domestic tale of the moneyed upper-middle classes. It would be easy to ask, who cares? But this apparently simple story, lightly told, is beautifully structured.

It asks questions about age, class, morality, mortality, friendship and love, all in less than 300 pages of crisp, cool prose. And there’s a nice little twist at the end.

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