The Believers by Zoë Heller
Fig Tree/Penguin (16.99)
As author of the acclaimed Notes on a Scandal, Zoë Heller had to come up with something special next, and this doesn’t disappoint. If anything, it is a much better read.
In 1962, Audrey is existing in London as a typist dating Martin, an unappealing carrot-haired socialist, when Joel Litvinoff, the famously radical New York lawyer, civil rights activist and Jew, bursts upon her life.
On the basis on one date, she follows him to America, where 40 years of both thrilling and challenging years of marriage follow. Underneath the glamorous turbulence, there is an peace and happiness which is shaken to its roots when Joel falls gravely ill and Audrey makes a shattering discovery. It forces her to review everything about her situation, and the shock makes her behave monstrously, if hilariously.
Their three children, too, face upheaval: Rosa has decided to explore her Jewish heritage; Karla, overweight and married to the ghastly Mike, begins an unlikely affair; and their hopelessly inconsiderate adopted son, Lenny, is a drug addict. The two daughters have to endure their mother’s appalling scorn, but for Lenny there is nothing but smothering approbation which, eventually, has to be rejected if he is to progress.
Can Audrey turn her tragedy into a triumph of graceful forgiveness? Will Rosa’s comical, frustrating foray into religion give her an answer? And will Karla have the courage to follow her heart? These dilemmas imbue The Believers with compelling pace and breathtakingly brilliant dialogue which will make you laugh out loud. A triumph.
Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £17.99)
Damian Baxter stands out among the aristocratic chinless wonders of the 1968 season because he is good-looking, intelligent and driven – and middle class. Naturally, he impresses the girls, but their parents are less keen and eventually it all comes to a spectacular denouement on a holiday in Portugal.
Forty years afterwards, Damian is very rich but alone and dying. He is convinced that prior to his expulsion from the enchanted social circle he fathered a child, to whom he would like to leave his massive fortune. But who is the mother? There are several candidates.
He contacts the man who introduced him to the season, a person whom he has spectacularly wronged, and asks him to find his child. This person, the narrator of the story, faces a daunting task and a race against time as Damian grows ever feebler. Furthermore, one of the potential mothers is someone with whom he was painfully in love himself.
As in Oscar-winning script-writer (for Gosford Park) Julian Fellowes’ first book, Snobs, this is really a forensically, painfully accurate, waspish insight into the quirks and customs of the upper classes in the 1960s disguised as a novel. But this second effort is a superior work for, unlike in Snobs, the unnamed narrator is allowed to develop a personality and passions of his own, and the gripping story is punctuated by wonderful scenes of high farce.
Julian Fellowes was a debs’ delight himself in 1968, and there is no doubt that the elegantly-written Past Imperfect contains autobiographical material. One wonders how many of his past dancing partners will recognise themselves and blench. Indeed, Past Imperfect will, indeed, resonate with anyone who has been to a proper country house party or old-fashioned hunt ball. A beautifully written, comforting and delicious read.
Deaf Sentence by David Lodge
Harvill Secker (£17.99)
If anyone has ever suffered from loss of hearing, or has experience of knowing someone who has, Deaf Sentence is an absolute must-read.
The protagonist, a retired professor of linguistics, has been losing his hearing for a period of several years. The disability led him to take early retirement, and the book begins as he’s battling his way through a drinks party in a room where sounds bounce of every surface rendering it impossible to hear conversation, in spite of his hearing aids.
It brilliantly captures the unintended comic moments thaf often occur with people who are deaf; equally acutely, it also portrays the frustrations and problems that the condition brings. At one stage, he even suggests that Freud’s death instinct could be re-named deaf instinct (a desire to indulge in deafness in order to escape the real world).
Interesting, witty, heart-warming, chilling but most of all a brilliant rendering about the trials and triumphs of ageing.
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa
Faber and Faber (£7.99)
‘…what I really wanted was to be a writer some day.’
Eighteen-year-old Mario is a reluctant law student working part-time as a news editor at Radio Panamerica, but his dream is to escape Peru and live in a garret in Paris, turning out worthy works of art. His life is turned upside down by two new people in his life: voluptuous divorcée Aunt Julia, 14 years his senior, with whom he begins a scandalous affair, and the enigmatic scriptwriter Pedro Camacho.
Mario Vargas Llosa’s autobiographical work is fantastically funny. Mario’s teenage pretensions, earnest wisdom and emotional dramas are vividly portrayed, with self-deprecating warmth that is instantly appealing.
As well as sympathising with this impassioned protagonist, I found myself immersed in a beautifully evoked world. Llosa invites his reader to experience the South American climate, culture, political tensions and internal rivalries, from disparaging jokes about Bolivians to a double-date at a bullfight.
In addition, the novel features a wonderful range of supporting characters, such as Mario’s editorial assistant Pascual, who tries to cram as many grisly murders and horrific accidents into the news bulletins as he can.
However, this is more than just a coming-of-age romance or cultural portrait; it also explores the peculiar business of writing. Llosa handles Mario’s artistic ambition with wry, occasionally pained amusement, doubtless drawing on his own experiences as a would-be Peruvian artiste.
But his real coup is his creation of Camacho, a humourless yet astonishing genius who churns out an endless supply of gripping, usually tragic, serials that are interspersed with Llosa’s main story. The soap operas add another layer of metafictional humour and Peruvian colour, as well as demonstrating Camacho’s unfortunate mental collapse, as his characters become hopelessly confused and his plots tangled up in one another.
It’s rare to find such a passionate, rich novel that effortlessly combines pathos, humanity and laugh-out-loud comic touches. Read it.