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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

An outstanding first novel from Australia, powerful non-fiction from the Deep South, and a genius poet

Maggie Fergusson | March/April 2014

FICTION The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane, Sceptre, hardback, out now. Reading this gripping debut as I waited for a train, I became aware of a man crouching before me, jotting down its title. "You’re so engrossed," he said, "it must be good." It is: psycho-drama at its most distressing, yet simmering with wit. The author is from New South Wales, and so is the main character, Ruth, an elderly widow living alone, and gently — though not unhappily — losing her marbles. At night, she believes she hears a tiger padding round her house; then something far more sinister turns up. Frida claims to be a government "carer". She visits for two hours a day, but very soon she's moved in. She swithers between sweetness and torture, baffling her victim into dependency. But Ruth is feistier than she appears, and McFarlane keeps us rooting for her to the bitter end.

The Dig by Cynan Jones, Granta, hardback, out now. Tenderness and brutality are folded together in this chiselled gem of a novel, as the lives of two men in rural Wales become fatally entwined. Through days and nights of frozen suspense between winter and spring, Daniel struggles with the lambing, and with grief at the recent death of his wife. "The big man", meanwhile, supplements his rat-catcher's income by trapping 40-pound boar badgers for baiting. His cruelty is scientific, providing chilling recreation for a gang of social outcasts welded together by an appetite for casual violence. Jones has a poet's eye for detaila crow's gait is "adjutant", the mangled badger's nose hangs from "a sock of skin"but his sentences are pared to the bone, straining against their full stops like the big man's terriers against their throttle-leashes.

REPORTAGE Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink, Atlantic, trade paperback, out now. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on Monday August 29th 2005, Memorial Hospital swayed and its windows shattered. Then the floodwaters began to rise. On Wednesday, life-support machines, lights, fans and the morgue refrigerator sighed into silence as the generators failed. Armed looters circled the hospital seeking drugs. Working in the dark, torches under chins in temperatures nearing 110 degrees, doctors and nurses struggled to heave patients to the rooftop helipad. But some, considered too ill to move, were almost certainly "euthanised", and the doctors responsible were later tried for murder. Sheri Fink, a physician turned Pulitzer-winning journalist, recreates both the hurricane and the murder trial in a triumph of compassionate but tough-minded reportage. She makes your brain spin with the ethical perplexities. But the most pressing question, as you turn the last page, is "who will make the film?"

MEMOIR  Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, Bloomsbury, hardback, out now. "Men’s bodies", says Jesmyn Ward, "litter my family." Five men she loved died between 2000 and 2004, all in their teens or early 20s. She writes to honour their memories and to show that their "seemingly unrelated" deaths had common roots. This is small-town Mississippi, where 35% of black people live below the poverty line (Ward capitalises Black and White, hinting at an unbridgeable gulf). Her father, a handsome hustler, ran off with a 14-year-old, breaking her mother's heart, then her health. As the Southern economy drifted under President Reagan, her brothers and cousins grew up in a "cycle of futility". Murder, crime and drug addiction were endemic; young men's lives were cheap. Ward's voice, bluesy and poised, rises occasionally to an unashamed howl of pity. It also glows with love for DeLisle, Mississippi, which she cannot bear to leave.

TRAVEL  Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare, Chatto, hardback, out now. Container ships, like battlefields, are male places. Joining the crews of two — one travelling from Felixstowe to Los Angeles, the other through freezing seas from Antwerp to Montreal — Horatio Clare discovers how, parted for months from wives and girlfriends, sailors adopt "antique ways". They address one another with quaint courtesy, yet cheerfully operate a maritime apartheid whereby Filipinos are paid grotesquely reduced wages. Clare conveys this parallel world, on which our world relies, with flair. He has a gift for imagery — turning a ship to face the sea is "a behemoth ballet", the engine room's a "devil’s cathedral" — and the essential travel-writer's knack of weaving strands of sight, sound, dialogue and anecdote into a smooth, compelling narrative. Above all, he's good company: sharp-eyed, empathetic, amused and endearing.

POETRY  All One Breath by John Burnside, Cape, paperback, out now. John Burnside is a genius. In his fiction, memoir and poetry, a daytime readability is crosslit with a gleam of the uncanny, a yearning towards "something other/than the world we’ve seen". He is constantly alive to alternative possibilities and versions of himself, as close yet unreachable as his own shadow. His responses to the world are so raw, it's as if he's missing a skin — or perhaps the rest of us have grown hides to make life manageable. If age brings any kind of wisdom, this luminous collection urges, it is that the seemingly mundane — "a holly tree, starlings, the neighbour who plays piano" — can also be marvellous; that ordinary lives can offer "all the makings of bliss". And that everything in the mortal world is intimately connected; we are "all one breath".

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