In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

February 2018

 - Friday, February 09, 2018
By the time you read this the Summer holiday will have faded into the distance, but the memory of the many books I read will linger on. Here are three of my favourites.

The Party
was highly recommended on the UK podcast, The High Low, and they also interviewed the author Elizabeth Day. It’s a most contemporary book about greed and envy, and disturbing behaviour. Martin Gilmour, a scholarship boy, starts a life long passion with Ben Fitzmaurice, a well-loved and entitled schoolmate. Martin manages to insinuate himself into the lives of Ben’s family, and to firmly anchor himself there after a catastrophic incident at university. Shades of The Talented Mr Ripley and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty resonate through this book, but it’s more than that. There have been many books in the ‘Little Matchgirl’ genre (outsiders looking in) – Brideshead Revisited, The Great Gatsby and Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time (although the narrator Nick Jenkins is really one of ‘them’, in those books); but Martin Gilmour is a particularly unsavoury, and very unreliable narrator with a Machiavellian turn of mind, which makes for uncomfortable but compelling reading.

Amongst Women
by John McGahern is an Irish classic that was published in 1990. Set in the rural midlands of the Republic of Ireland, and vaguely at the time in which it was written, it harks back to the time of the Irish Civil War. Michael Moran was an officer in the IRA, and it was his finest hour. Since then he has dominated and bullied his family—imposing religion and order onto his five children, and then his second wife. The author takes us back and forth in time, but the story mainly takes place within the house, and the garden and fields around it. The narrative echoes the confines of the family, it is intensely close and extremely immediate—ultimately the family frees itself of its oppressor, but he never really leaves them. If you like the books of Colm Tóibín and Anne Enright you will love this.

Jennifer Egan’s latest book, Manhattan Beach, has been much mentioned here and elsewhere, so I had high expectations. It took a while to really engage me—but once hooked I couldn’t let it go. When the book starts, we meet Anna and her beloved father as he goes to meet a man. There is a slightly uneasy undercurrent in the meeting—surely, Anna isn’t being used as a decoy? Back in the family apartment, all is revealed as we meet the family—Anna’s mother, her aunt, and her profoundly disabled sister Lydia. Time marches on, it is now WW2—Anna is an adult and her family is much changed. Anna has dropped out of college and is now making warships for the US Navy at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. This is an intense, tedious task—but Anna is intrepid, and when she sees an opportunity to become a naval diver, she seizes it with alacrity.

Who knew that the mechanics of naval diving could be so intriguing, but they truly are. With the background of the beach and the naval yard shimmering throughout the book, and the criminal underworld running under it, Anna is a great hero, brave and believable, a fine template for the women who followed her. Jennifer Egan has written a very memorable book, full of historic detail and interest, but it is also lyrical and almost dreamlike, particularly in her description of Anna’s sister Lydia.  Louise