What We're Reading 

Hidden gems, hot favourites, slow burners and the odd guest columnist.

Victoriana The Sophomore Girl and Different Families

 - Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Viki: I recently read a review of Charles Palliser's new book Rustication and, interest tweaked, decided it was time to hit that dauntingly hefty tome, his first and finest novel, The Quincunx. What a ride! I haven't been immersed in a story so thoroughly for a long time. Palliser is really on top of the Victorian form. With just the slightest of modern flavouring regarding political and social issues, and way less flannel and doll women, he takes Dickens up and sends you on a runaway page-turning frenzy of purloined last testaments, gordian-knotted chancery suits, murder most foul, precipitous falls into poverty, prostitution, madness and the potter's field—villainous betrayal at every turn. The language is pitch perfect, and Palliser's exemplary research is accompanied by family trees and maps and puzzles involving heraldry and the eponymous quincunx (I had to look it up). It was all I could do to stop myself turning back to the beginning and starting again when the last page with its satisfyingly ambiguous ending was turned. Instead, I ripped through Rustication—not quite as fine, but still a grabber. I now have all his other novels on order and they should fill the Hilary Mantel void until her final Cromwell novel, The Mirror and the Light, hits the stands.

John: Nombeko Mayek is a very intelligent young girl who works for the sanitation department in Soweto. She cheats her destiny—to die young, finds great wealth, becomes a prisoner in South Africa's secret nuclear facility and, with the unwilling help of a couple of Mossad agents, ends up in Sweden with a nuclear bomb. Engaging from the first page, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is a great second novel from Jonas Jonasson. Too often second novels are a disappointment, especially when following a critically acclaimed best selling debut. Fortunately The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden does not suffer from this syndrome. It well deserves to emulate the success of The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.

Andrew: Like many customers and staff, I rushed to Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree after his bravura sessions at this year's Sydney Writers' Festival, to read his wonderful examination of the transformative role that children of 'difference' have in the lives of their parents.  Fantastic and absorbing stuff! Solomon's work also has brought a greater piquancy to the novel I am currently reading—Family Life by Akhil Sharma. I was persuaded to read this novel last year when David Sedaris at the Sydney Opera House was asked which books had recently impressed him, and he nominated it as the most moving book he had read in a long time. It is indeed that. A searing and darkly humorous depiction of the life of a Delhi couple who move to New York in the 1970s and whose lives are turned upside down when their eldest son dives into a swimming pool and hits his head. A work of 'palliative poetics' is what the Guardian called it, narrated by the younger son—and not without his own Sedaris-esque dark humour. It is well worth a go as another facet of how families surprise themselves.