The Outcast by Sadie Jones (Chatto & Windus, £7.99)
Lewis Aldridge’s release from prison in 1957, when he is 19, causes nervous shock waves to ripple through the conventional neighbourhood in which he was brought up, threatening the exposure of carefully concealed family secrets. Twelve years earlier, Lewis witnessed a terrible accident to his mother; unable to properly articulate what happened, his childhood becomes blighted by an aura of suspicion and the dispiriting inadequacy of his father and stepmother. He is lonely at public school and bored sick by the holidays, finding outlets in secret drinking and bursts of angry violence, one of which lands him in gaol. All he has on his side is the hero-worship of a determined young girl Kit Carmichael, and the ability to attract women; indeed, his only hope of redemption can be through love. I picked up this book at random when20it was first out, before it was so widely reviewed in glowing terms, and can only echo other opinions. Sadie Jones brilliantly captures the stifling gentrification of the post-war years in this engrossing first novel which deservedly shot to the top of the bestseller lists. Bring on her next book.
East of the Sun by Julia Gregson (Orion, £7.99)
Three young women sail to India in 1928: beautiful but naïve Rose, terrified at the prospect of marrying an army officer whose face she can barely remember let alone whether she loves him; impulsive, characterful Tor, for whom finding a husband is an imperative if she is to escape from her dreadful mother; and impoverished Viva, their chaperone, a would-be writer who has unfinished issues connected to the deaths of her family in India. Her third charge is the psychologically disturbed schoolboy, Guy, whose sinister problems will haunt Viva long after disembarkation. The author reminds us in her introduction that re al women like these may have seemed privileged, but they were in fact brave pioneers. Thus, the way she handles the realistic struggles of her three fictional characters, who have to find their own styles of integrating and coping with Indian life, makes East of the Sun a more sophisticated read than its airport-type cover design implies. The Orion staff gave this beautifully written book an overwhelming thumbs-up, and it isn’t hard to see why.
Careless in Red by Elizabeth George (Hodder & Staunton)
Tortured, wooden aristocratic detective Thomas Lynley, star of about a dozen previous books, has been driven mad by the murder of his wife and unborn child and takes to walking the Cornish coastal path in solitude. After seven weeks, he is starving and smelly when he finds a dead body, that of young climber Santo Kerne. It soon turns out that his ropes have been cut, so as a key witness and famous detective, Lynle y reluctantly has to re-enter the real world. Abetted by his unlikely sidekick, the chippy, scruffy Barbara Havers, and working with the irascible local detective, Bea Hannaford and her dopey staff, he has to piece together the connection between this tragedy and one 30 years previously, when a young man was left to die in a cave. The stuffy Lynley never entirely convinces, but Ms George’s subsidiary characters are always vividly and humorously drawn. Suspects include Santo’s moody, sex-mad mother, who wears red for danger; a tricky teenager who wants to become a nun; an austere female vet whose past contains mysterious gaps; an aged surfer who is everyone’s confidante; and the sulky decorator whose constant companion is Pooh, an irrepressible parrot. The plot has plenty of compelling twists, but it is the strong characterisation which makes it a gripping read.
The Standing Pool by Adam Thorpe (Jonathan Cape)
The author, who lives in France with his three children, conjures a convincing scenario featuring Cambridge academics Nick and Sarah Mallinson who take a sabbatical in a rural French farmhouse with their three small daughters. So far, so idyllic. But he laces the image with enough realistic early disappointment – the boorishness of the dodgy house owners, the filthy pool, the creepiness of the wild boar snuffling around, the unfriendliness of the locals and the stifling remoteness – to forewarn the reader of trouble. The gardener, Jean-Luc, who has a horribly symbiotic relationship with his abusive invalid mother, does strange things with a doll and spies on Sarah; and the arrival of Nick’s subversive, druggy grown-up son lends a sinister atmosphere. Thorpe’s fluent narrative is at its best when allowing dialogue to portray relationships, and the children are particularly endearing; he makes us care about the Mallinson family. But his writing also contains a darkness which, in this book, eventually erupts in unpredictably violent imagery that may be too much for some readers.
The Lighted Rooms by Richard Mason (Wiedenfield & Nich olson)
This is the third book from the author of the acclaimed The Drowning People – published when he was only 21 – and Us, both of which are being made into films and both of which had family secrets as themes. Again, family is central, this time using the Anglo-Boer War, in which some of his ancestors died in captivity, as background. Eloise, a hedge-fund manager, reluctantly takes her elderly mother, Joan, on an exploratory trip to South Africa, after which Joan begins to descend into a peculiar world of her own, perhaps as a mental escape from the luxurious but suffocating nursing home in which Eloise has guiltily placed her. Here, Joan’s life is brightened by her unexpected and illicit friendship with a lonely, clever teenage boy who colludes with her in investigating the South African past. Besides worrying about her mother, Eloise has other big problems, because she has wagered her career and created a false market around an unreliable ex-lover’s scientific research coming good. She puts up an impressively confident front to her comically explosive boss and his jealous female assistant, but is secretly sick with fear as her life begins to cave in. There is plenty of suspense, and Richard Mason’s writing style is a joy, but the book’s many strands,20not all of which are entirely convincing, do require concentration.
Fathers and Sons, by Alexander Waugh (Review, £8.99)
Here, the fraught filial relationships between four generations of writers are chronicled with the insight, affection, inoffensive candour and total lack of vanity that can only be achieved by a member of the family with access to host of letters and memories. Father-son dynamics in the Waugh dynasty were often fraught, veering from huge affection to cruelty, and from insane favouritism to feigned indifference. Much has been made of Evelyn Waugh’s coldness, but Alexander paints a more endearing portrait of a brilliant, complicated and tortured man. Evelyn’s father, Arthur, was a sad man who hugely favoured his rackety older son Alec, only to be greatly humiliated when he was kicked out of Sherborne for homosexual acts. Evelyn’s elder son, Auberon, who became a brilliant columnist, also craved his father attention, and often went about it in hilariously dramatic ways, such as allegedly causing a fire at his public school. But Auberon goes on to=2 0enjoy a far more consistent relationship with his son, Alexander, who has a son of his own, ‘Bron’. Fathers and Sons is as pacy, funny, acerbic and accurate in capturing the spirit of each era as one would expect from a writer with the surname Waugh. A hugely entertaining read.