A month for crisp old leaves and crisp new reads. Orna Mulcahy chooses eight new books for our essential September reading list…
Ian McEwan, in his acknowledgments for his new novel LESSONS (Jonathan Cape, €16.99), gives “a warm salute across the decades” to the boys and teachers of his school, Woolverston Hall, and it’s in a public school that one kernel of this story begins, when Roland Baine is sexually abused by his music teacher, Miriam Cornell, a dominatrix who tucks in his shirt a bit too well. Less of a strand and more of great oily rope that tugs on his life, this eventually pulls him back to her decades later in an attempt to cut free. This is McEwan’s 20th novel and it’s a celebration of sorts, drawing in great historical and political moments of the last 80 years, from the Normandy landings to the Suez and Cuban missile crisis and on through Chernobyl to the Twin Towers destruction, the rise of conservatism and the Covid crisis. Sounds dull? It’s magic. Fatherly love is the joy at the centre of the book as Roland recalls a happy moment in the Libyan desert when his father captures a scorpion in a bottle for him. Late in life his ailing wife Daphne asks that her ashes be scattered at a place where she felt, fleetingly, her father’s love for her. Roland, a single father to Lawrence, muses on the boy’s mother, Alissa, now a famous writer, whose final novel paints him as a wife-beater until he confronts her. “Everything that ever happened to me … everyone I ever met – all mine to mash up with whatever I invent.” Perhaps it’s a warning to McEwan’s friends, family and old schoolmasters who may detect themselves along the way.
Maggie O’Farrell’s THE MARRIAGE PORTRAIT (Tinder Press, €17.88) imagines the story around Lucrezia de Medici’s death after her marriage to the Duke of Ferrera in 1560. She was just 16 when she succumbed to what was most likely TB, though some speculated poison. O’Farrell beautifully conjures the sights, smells and daily routines of the Florentine palace, and draws a compelling portrait of Lucrezia whose fate is sealed when her older sister dies, leaving her to be married off to the duke in all her sister’s finery. Does her husband love her, or does he want her dead is the question in this exquisite novel.
Fresh out in paperback, Gary Shteyngart’s much-praised OUR COUNTRY FRIENDS (Atlantic Books, €10.73) recalls the early days of pandemic panic as people fled New York for the countryside. Cash-strapped writer and professor Sasha Senderovsky and his wife Masha invite friends to share their commune-style property reminiscent of the Russian artists’ colonies of their immigrant parents’ era. They duly arrive, bringing a host of memories, if not their own booze and food. As the group settles in for a long stay, dynamics shift with new relationships blossoming and old hurts surfacing, while the virus bides its time.
AM Holmes’s latest novel THE UNFOLDING (Granta, €23.88) follows a GOP moneyman working behind the scenes to undermine the Democratic party. He’s got trouble closer to home as his vodka-soaked wife makes an unsuitable attachment in rehab and his daughter Meghan uncovers family secrets that make her question everything her parents represent.
An unidentified black man suffers a horrible death at the hands of a young doctor, a spiteful registrar keeps pinching his intern, the intern gazes down a stairwell where a young doctor jumped to his death – it’s a Dublin hospital in the 20th century and it’s terrifying. Austin Duffy’s THE NIGHT INTERNS (Granta, €15.99) is a novel that could be read as memoir given that Duffy is an oncologist by day, but either way it’s a compulsive read that will take you into the darkest corners of hospital life.
A country cottage complex on a farm by the sea, two families taking time out in summer. It sounds idyllic but Bev Thomas’s THE FAMILY RETREAT (Faber, €17.90) is a stew of stress and secrets that comes to boiling point during a birthday party. Dangerous, delusional males run amok with the women having to clear up the mess.
In TOTAL, (Canongate, €17.80), film-maker Rebecca Miller’s latest collection of stories, some characters have narrow escapes, such as the new mother whose nanny absconds with the baby, while others must face their mistakes, like the new country dweller who thinks she’s uncovered murder. Miller’s unshowy, conversational storytelling makes even the most unlikely situations relatable, and sometimes very funny too.