It is 1922, and England and her citizens are still recovering from the upheaval of the First World War: High unemployment, disillusioned ex-soldiers and severely strained circumstances are commonplace. Twenty-seven-year-old Frances Wray and her mother are living in South London. Both of Frances’ brothers died in the war, and her father’s recent death left the two women close to financial ruin. Even with the dismissal of servants and Frances taking over the housework and meals, the Wrays no longer have enough to live on. Their decision to take in lodgers, or “paying guests” as they genteelly refer to them, leads to an event as ultimately life-altering as the war itself.
Dan Kelly, the protagonist of Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel, is not a likable character. He’s not likable in the novel’s first pages, when he’s a scholarship student at a posh boys’ school in Australia, and he remains unlikable at the end, when he’s a 30-something who doesn’t know what to do with his life. However, by the end of the book, we understand Dan, a little. This is why you will stay with Barracuda, why you will keep turning the pages even as you grit your teeth.
Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House is an appealing mixture: part archival mystery, part ghost story, part historical novel, starring a house with as much personality as Manderley or Hill House. Told in reverse chronology, it unfolds as a kind of bookish scavenger hunt, uncovering clues and putting pieces of the fictional puzzle in place.
Slava Gelman has it made in Boris Fishman’s debut, The Replacement Life. With a junior staff position at a prestigious literary magazine, a Manhattan apartment and an assimilated American girlfriend, he’s more than just miles away from his childhood in Minsk or the Russian enclave in Brooklyn where the rest of his family lives. But when Slava is woken by an early morning phone call from his mother, his carefully constructed life threatens to come crashing down around him.
BookPage Fiction Top Pick, June 2014
The best historical fiction offers readers a new look at a well-known subject, or illuminates an episode or individual that has been lost to history. Playwright Kimberly Elkins achieves the latter in What Is Visible, a strikingly original debut novel about Laura Bridgman, the first deaf and blind person to communicate through finger spelling.
A beehive is a place of order, control, maybe even oppression. In Laline Paull’s debut novel, The Bees, Flora 717 is a sterile worker bee from the lowest caste of an orchard hive. Like her sisters, she is bound by the motto to accept, obey and serve. But during a period of famine and environmental crisis, Flora is asked to take on new tasks: first, feeding the newborns in the hive’s nursery and then becoming a forager, flying freely in search of pollen and nectar. Her size and strength make her a formidable worker, and she proves to be a quick learner.
Joshua Ferris, who previously examined the culture of the contemporary workplace (Then We Came to the End) and family life (The Unnamed) turns his attention to social media in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. At first, the novel seems to be a satiric look at the way Facebook and Twitter could be used to hijack a person’s identity. But as the main character heads toward an existential crisis, it is clear that Ferris is also exploring how technology both connects us and reinforces our isolation.
Australian-born author Evie Wyld’s novels ask tough questions without seeking easy answers. In her debut, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, she explored the impact of World War II and the Vietnam War on a single Australian family. Her new book, All the Birds, Singing, follows Jake Whyte, a young Australian woman living on a remote sheep farm on an island off the coast of England. When someone—or something—attacks her sheep, Jake is plunged into paranoia, brought on in part by her isolation, but also because of the secrets she carries about her childhood.
Is there anyone who hasn’t wondered which actions and incidents most gave shape to their lives? In Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl, Stella is the author of her own life, recounting her story in a series of gracefully drawn but honestly expressed episodes starting in the 1960s and running to the present day.
Ellen Litman gives a new twist to the familiar coming of age/boarding school story (think A Separate Peace, Prep, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) in her second novel, Mannequin Girl. Set in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, it features the precocious daughter of two teachers whose life is radically changed when she receives a diagnosis of scoliosis.