Friday 28 October 2016

Family sagas feature in some summertime reads

Another Heartbeat in the House By Kate Beaufoy Transworld Ireland (2015) €9.99 HHHHI

Everything is alive in Kate Beaufoy's new novel: the slang of a former era rings authentically, a house has a personality, a dog has voice. If you're looking for an absorbing, delicious well-told tale in which to love yourself, this is it.

Edie is something like a Fading Young Thing: she is best pals with Ian Fleming (who keeps threatening to write some class of spy novel), her family fell on hard times, so she had to take a job as an editor for a publishing house, and she feels guilty about the death of her estranged best friend. In an effort to move through the last of her grieving, she heads over to the wilds of north Cork to sort out the family home of an ageing relation.

While going through the attic, she finds the memoir of a woman who lived 100 years ago. Eliza Drury is a heroine reminiscent of those that graced the pages of early 19th-century novels, a notion that's underpinned by her friendship with William Makepeace Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair.

As Eliza builds her life with equal amounts of courage and guile, it becomes clear that she is very much a model for Becky Sharp, and Beaufoy creates a lovely slippage between the reality of history and the 'reality' of her fiction - so much so that I googled to make sure that Eliza wasn't actually a real-life influence on Thackeray. That's convincing storytelling!

When novels split between two time periods, the present day is usually the one that suffers from a lack of attention, and so it is here. Despite the appeal of Edie as a character, as Eliza's story becomes more complex, 1930s Ireland becomes a mere bridge over which we continually cross to get back to Ireland in the time of the Great Hunger.

I enjoyed this loads, though - it is in the great tradition of sweeping family sagas, and it's an all-engrossing read.

The Flower Arrangement

By Ella Griffin Orion (2015) €18.99 HHHII

Lara is in deep emotional pain after the loss of her much-wanted son in stillbirth. A chasm has grown between herself and her husband Michael, and in a last ditch effort to return to the land of the living, she decides to become a florist and open up her own shop.

Michael isn't terribly supportive, but her father and brother pitch in along the way, and she gets the shop up and running in Camden Street. The backstory is dealt with efficiently - her vibrant mum died when she and Phil were young, her father stepped into the breach with aplomb, she gave up her career as a graphic designer to start her business - and when the author drops a shocking bomb, I felt I was getting stuck in to a promising read.

In the next chapter, we skipped through time and space, to yet another tragedy about to visit Lara, focused on her father, and it felt like we starting all over again. When the next chapter took us into the life and mind of another character, I was disappointed to realise that Griffin was taking a Binchy-esque approach: all the characters would eventually overlap, but we'd only be getting snippets of narrative rather than a fully flowing story.

It's a choice that seems to serve Griffin's decision to start each section under the aegis of a particular flower, whose meaning would inform the action (Wisteria, For An Open Heart, as an example) but it didn't always work: towards a very late stage in the book, yet more personalities were being introduced, to the detriment of further development of the characters in whom we'd already invested much of our emotional energy.

I'll keep an eye on this author, nevertheless.

Enchanted August

by Brenda Bowen Vintage (2015) €11.99 HHHII

I loved the film Enchanted April, based on the book by Elizabeth von Arnim. When I saw this title, I was a little confused - it didn't seem terribly original to name your book after such a famous story in the annals of both literature and film.

I gave it go anyway, and the confusion mounted as the elements of this story mirrored that of von Arnim's: set in Brooklyn in contemporary times, the summer is dreary (check), the main women are secretly unhappy about everything in their lives (check) and they decide to take off from their lives for a month (check). I found myself anticipating events and characters, even as they changed (the socialite is reimagined as a famous Hollywood actress, the elderly lady as an ageing gay man), and it made for strange reading indeed.

I was eventually charmed though, as Bowen's writing was engaging, and she managed to create the same sense of longing - for Maine, not Italy - despite the feelings of deja vu.

The Long, Hot Summer

By Kathleen MacMahon Sphere (2015) €22 HIIII

McMahon made headlines back in 2011 when her agent garnered for her a stonking book deal with the kind of advance we haven't seen since the very early noughties.

This is second book in that deal, in which the author takes on a family saga the like of the good old so-called Aga Sagas. Set in contemporary Dublin, it takes for granted that we know where we are - surely frustrating for readers outside our borders - and who we are dealing with.

The characters are fairly stock Irish family types, with the twist that the patriarch is gay and left the family for his young lover of the male persuasion.

The writing is terse in the extreme, and the male characters (apart from gay dad Manus) are ciphers, while the female characters aren't much better.

Each character plays one note, and it doesn't add up to a symphony of narrative.

Lost Lake

By Sarah Addison Allen Hodder (2015) €11.99 HHIII

Addison Allen writes contemporary novels that always feature a magical element, a thread of supernatural power that runs through the feminine branch of a family.

Here, Kate has suffered a bereavement - her husband died - and she's been sleepwalking through grief for a year, much the way her mother before her did.

She realises, almost too late, that her daughter Devin may count as another loss.

A visit to Lost Lake holiday cottages, owned by a beloved great-aunt, begins to turn her life around, with help from Devin's magical friendship with an alligator.

This creature makes only occasional appearances, which makes its presence harder to accept than one would expect from one of this author's novels; the usual cast of oddball Southern characters almost verge on parody; and the happily ever after seemed diffident rather than emotionally climactic.

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