Themes of exile, alienation and the power of friendship dominate in the best of this month’s releases, selected by Orna Mulcahy
Sara Baume’s latest novel SEVEN STEEPLES (Tramp Press, €15) tells a powerful story of a couple pushed to the margins. Bell and Sigh leave the city but not in the cheery hopeful way of the pandemic, setting up their workstations in a remote location with great views and speedy broadband. It’s not that story. Moving to a rundown rental by the sea, they live frugally and lose touch with family and friends. Years pass and the house gently disintegrates around them. Their vocabulary narrows, they dress from a shared pile of charity shop clothing and people in the town avoid them. Turn back! I found myself saying to the page, but on they go in this very affecting tale of our times.
For his second novel, Adrian Duncan plucks real-life 19th-century Russian mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky from history and places him in the Irish bog in the early 1950s in THE GEOMETER LOBACHEVSKY (Lilliput, €15). Sent from Russia to assist in a Bord na Móna bog, he’s reunited with Rhatigan, an engineer he has met in the past, and who has told him a terrible secret. Nikolai knows the survey to be flawed, given the shifting water table of the bog, but his own situation is unstable too, given a sinister summons he’s received from Moscow. Securing a new identity as a Polish pilgrim, he settles on a tiny island in the Shannon, as his health fails and he longs to return home. Duncan skilfully melds past and present in a story layered with betrayal and dread.
There’s a delicious scene in TRESPASSES (Bloomsbury, €17.90), Louise Kennedy’s brilliant debut novel in which Cushla, a young Belfast teacher and part-time bar worker, meets her married lover in a Dublin hotel that’s swarming with nuns and priests (has to be Wynn’s). When they’ve wined, dined and made love, she buys some religious souvenirs to take home with her. But little good can come from the relationship given their religious and political differences and someone is going to get badly hurt.
The sectarian divide is just as dangerous in 1990s Glasgow where Douglas Stuart returns for his second novel YOUNG MUNGO (Picador, €17.90)). Like his Booker Prize-winning Shuggie Bain, it takes place in a tough neighbourhood with an alcoholic mother, but there’s a further complication for teenager Mungo and his friend and lover James who come from opposite sides of the sectarian divide. The writer, who is based in Manhattan where he had a 20-year career in the fashion business, is determined to eschew any traditional evocations of his homeland where he grew up never having seen its famous beauty spots except on the lids of biscuit tins. Nicola Sturgeon says Young Mungo is even better than Shuggie Bain.
In Nina Stibbe’s excellent ONE DAY I SHALL ASTONISH THE WORLD (Penguin Viking, €17.90) odd but ambitious Norma and sweet, pretty Susan somehow manage to stay friends through petty betrayals and downright back-stabbing. Ice-cold Norma will, over time, take almost everything that Susan loves, including her wedding dress, but they circle back to one another in the end. Laugh-out-loud funny in parts.
NONE OF THIS IS SERIOUS (Cannongate, €15.50) is the debut from Dublin writer Catherine Prasifka whose tale of Dublin student life is played out under a purple-tinged gash that has opened up in the sky. Prasifka, who will inevitably be compared to Sally Rooney – to whom she’s related – brings a sharp perspective on the poison of social media as her characters struggle to find jobs and meaning.
In Delia Ephron’s LEFT ON TENTH (Penguin, £16.99) we meet Ephron at 72, a widow after 37 years of marriage, connecting with new man, psychoanalyst Peter. Her happiness bursts from the page – the sex! – but so too does the panic when illness sets in. The couple marry in a hospital room and together face Ephron’s radical cancer treatment, helped by a generous circle of friends. A lesson in how to ask for help and appreciate what is given.
Follow Orna on Twitter @OrnaMulcahy
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