October is a huge month for new fiction, even more so in this COVID- impacted year. I’m sure you will make your own discoveries as well, but this month I’m pointing you toward Craig Silvey, William Boyd, Jane Harper, Chris Hammer, Gail Jones, Alice Hoffman, Ian Rankin and Trent Dalton. We are truly spoiled for choice. Here are three I’ve read in the last few weeks.
I’ve been revisiting two master writers, both with new novels: Marilynne Robinson Jack, and Richard Flanagan The Living Sea of Waking Dreams. Radically different styles, and reading them one after the other only reinforces the fact that the novel, at its best, can work in beautiful, rewarding ways.
In Jack, the fourth of Marilynne Robinson’s magnificent novels in the Gilead series, Robinson has focused on the most troubled and worrying character from that small-town Iowa world. Into Jack’s life, as a small-time drunken criminal and drifter in 1940s St Louis, comes a respectable teacher from a godly black family. I can’t say enough praiseworthy things about Marilynne Robinson. The set of four Gilead novels, and Housekeeping (1980) are amongst the best books I know of, if your want to understand, and appreciate something fundamental about 20th/21st century America. Robinson has a deeply serious, deeply tender approach to her incredibly closely observed characters—this is writing of the first order. Her Calvinist preoccupations about fate and predestination make this book feel like a morality tale (those who have read Gilead and Home know that already). Jack is a slow moving story, but a riveting one.
Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is a strangely beautiful book—full of the author’s exquisite imaginings, some real, some surreal. Centred around a dying, aged parent, and her daughter’s attempts to come to terms with that, the novel takes us at the same time, through interior reflection and intrusions from the outside world, where climate change, extinction, and other weird disappearances loom large, to apprehensions of loss and love and hope. It’s haunting and challenging, and quite compelling.
Steven Conte won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction back in 2008 for The Zookeeper’s War. His new novel, The Tolstoy Estate, has been well worth the wait. It’s an historical sage on a sweeping scale, set during the Nazi invasion of Russia in WW2—a German surgeon officer and a Russian woman are forced into contact by the invading army’s occupation of the Tolstoy Estate, where a field hospital is set up. Engrossing, often enthralling in its immersive detail (Conte has managed to produce some brilliantly original, non stomach-churning writing about surgery at the battle front)—this is a big, ambitious novel, with Tolstoy at its heart. David Gaunt