Escape…into Real Life

14th July 2017

Summertime… and the reading is easy. This is the season when, all things being equal, there’s more opportunity to get lost in a book: on the beach, on the plane, at home in the garden with a drink in the long, light evenings. Plenty of opportunity, too, to challenge ourselves with something more demanding than the traditional light holiday read: a chance to explore something different.

From Vincent Van Gogh to Sigmund Freud, from seventeenth century witch trials to a twentieth century shipwreck, from America to Europe…here’s a carefully curated selection of novels loosely based on real people or events, to tempt you out of your own life and into someone else’s.

Susan Fletcher: Let Me tell You About A Man I Knew

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

It is May 1889, in the sun-baked south of France. Jeanne Trabuc, wife of the warden of the asylum of St-Paul-de-Mausole, lives a small, quiet life. Her children are grown and gone; her daily routine – housework, gardening, cooking – is controlled by her husband, a man who is loving but distant, rule-bound and frightened. Jeanne is forbidden to engage with the asylum’s patients, many of whom have been there for years.

And then someone new arrives. Today, when we see the name Van Gogh we are forewarned. We look at his life with the benefit – or disadvantage – of hindsight. Here we meet him, through someone else’s eyes, for the first time. Jeanne has no idea what to expect, but she is powerfully drawn to le fou roux (the redheaded madman) in defiance of her husband’s dictats. And although Van Gogh is the catalyst for change, this is very much Jeanne’s story.

Let Me Tell You… is movingly, meditatively written, with the slow pace perfectly attuned to the heat of Provence in summer. The prose is beautifully spare and restrained. Just as Van Gogh layers his paint onto his canvas, Susan Fletcher adds levels of emotional complexity and insight, building up a beguiling and believable picture of Jeanne’s rich interior life.

‘Let Me tell You’ is published by Virago; £8.99; available now

Peter Ho Davies: The Fortunes

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

Peter Ho Davies likes to take his time. His debut, the beautifully composed The Welsh Girl, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007. His second, The Fortunes, was published only last year and is just out in paperback. But it’s been worth the wait.

The Fortunes is a four-part novel, in which universal themes of alienation and identity are explored via the Chinese-American experience over 150 years. The first three sections – Gold (Celestial Railroad), Silver (Your Name in Chinese) and Jade (Tell It Slant) – fictionalise real lives and events: Ah Ling, a manservant in 1860s Sacramento; Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star, forbidden to kiss a white man on screen; the murder of Vincent Chin in 1980s Detroit, a hate-crime that catalysed a pan-ethnic civil rights movement.

The fourth, Pearl (Disorientation) loosely brings all the strands together, as a fictional Chinese-American writer (who’s been working on pieces very like the first three sections of this novel…) visits China for the first time to collect a baby daughter, and is forced to confront the notion of home and belonging.

Both lively and powerfully introspective, The Fortunes feels very honest. It beguiles, and shocks, from the start.

‘The Fortunes’ is published by Sceptre; £8.99; available now

Kim Izzo: Seven Days In May

Reviewed by Lisa Botwright

In 1915 a German submarine sank the world’s largest passenger ship, the Lusitania, as she crossed the Atlantic. It was a major diplomatic incident. One hundred years later, the story of its final days and rapid sinking remains compelling – especially to the great-grandaughter of one of its survivors, author Kim Izzo.

In Seven Days In May Izzo builds on historical fact with a penetrating imagination, bringing us the fictional New York heiresses, Sydney and Brook Sinclair: sisters enmeshed in sibling rivalry, and Edward Thorpe-Tracey, the future Lord Northbrook and Brook’s fiancé. All are unaware of danger, confident the British Navy will protect them, and reassured by the Captain’s sophisticated post-Titanic safety procedures.

The tension is built masterfully as the story switches back and forth to Isabel, a member of the British Intelligence. As she’s alerted to the ship’s vulnerability, Isabel is caught between her concern for innocent lives and her allegiance to the ‘greater good’: the tactical war games played out by senior admiralty.

An ill-fated romance to rival Titanic’s Jack and Rose, and the clever contrast between the languorous days on board ship, and the furious activity in the war office, make for a compelling read.

‘Seven Days In May’ is published by Harper Collins; £12.99; available now

Kathleen Rooney: Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk

Reviewed by Lisa Botwright

Lillian Boxfish doesn’t suffer fools, which was fine when she was the highest paid female copywriter in the New York, a published writer and the darling of the 1930s social scene. Now it’s the 1980s, and her prickly independence and dry caustic wit is less becoming in an elderly lady.

But Lillian has never behaved how other people expect, and isn’t about to start. She refused to return home when she was young, despite her mother’s disapproval of her city life – and she refuses to move now she’s old, to live closer to her loving son.

As she ‘takes a walk’ around New York on a chilly December evening Lillian looks back over her long life: from the stifling confines of 1920s suburbia to the decadence of city life in the Jazz Age, through the sadness of the war, and on to the emotional vagaries of marriage and motherhood.

Kathleen Rooney based the novel on the life of protofeminist Margaret Fishback – and sometimes lets her admiration for the real woman get in the way of creating a more well-rounded characterisation of her fictional version. On the whole, though, this is an expansive and entertaining read, tempered with the emotional and bittersweet revelations of a life lived to the full.

‘Lillian Boxfish’ is published by Daunt Books; £9.99; available now

Robert Seethaler: The Tobacconist

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

Newly published in this country, in an elegant translation by Charlotte Collins, The Tobacconist first appeared in German in 2012. It’s a slim volume, the slimmest (just) of our summer selection, but no less powerful or ambitious for that.

In 1937, 17-year-old Franz Huchel leaves his lakeside home to become a tobacconist’s apprentice in Vienna. He adapts quickly to the work, which includes detailed reading of the daily papers, in order ‘to advise and inform’ the regular customers.

Of course, Vienna in the late 1930s is an unsettled place, but, despite his regular exposure to the news, the political changes seem largely to pass Franz by; he remains obsessed with himself, his loneliness, his pursuit of love, and his growing ‘friendship’ with Herr Professor Sigmund Freud. While shocking events take place around him, Franz stumbles through the days, writing postcards to his mother, and seeking advice from the father of Psychoanalysis, even as the old man, under surveillance by the Gestapo, prepares to leave Austria for England.

The Tobacconist is a book to admire, perhaps, rather than to love (although young Franz is an engaging if infuriating chap); it’s certainly a book to remember for all the right reasons.

‘The Tobacconist’ is published by Picador; £8.99; available now

Helen Steadman: Widdershins

Reviewed by Lisa Botwright

When Henry VIII dissolved the Catholic monasteries, he not only stole their wealth but also deprived whole communities of access to medical care. The carefully cultivated herb gardens were destroyed, along with knowledge amassed over centuries, leaving a void that was filled by ‘wise women’, who practised the traditional remedies of their mothers and grandmothers.

A century later, with healing no longer linked to the sanctity of the Church, a rise in extreme Protestantism brought such women under suspicion. Suffering was a divine punishment, redeemable only by prayer. Any other intervention was ungodly.

So young John Sharpe, one of the narrators of Widdershins, is naturally confused. The midwife who took him in after his mother died in childbirth is the only woman to show him kindness, yet his abusive father calls her a heathen murderer. Jane Chandler, whose story alternates with John’s, is an apprentice healer, whose happy childhood is about to come to an abrupt end.

This is an emotional and uncomfortable read, which frankly made my feminist blood boil. Inspired by the Newcastle Witch Trials of 1650, it powerfully challenges our lingering stereotypical views of witchcraft.

‘Widdershins’ is published by Impress Books; £8.99; available now

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