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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

Ian McEwan and Rose Tremain on sparkling form, and two formidable feats of reportage

Maggie Fergusson | September/October 2012

FICTION

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, Cape, hardback. A refreshing contrast to the fat philanderer at the heart of McEwan’s last novel "Solar", the narrator here is just 23, beautiful and endearingly out of her depth. McEwan's prose is controlled, his observation forensic as ever, but in carving out Serena Frome his scalpel has a soft edge. It's 1972, and Serena, a bishop’s daughter, is recruited, via Cambridge, to MI5. Engaged on a secret mission, she becomes dangerously involved with a writer strikingly similar to the young McEwan (short-story prodigy, champion of Sussex University over Oxbridge, talent-spotted by Tom Maschler). Catastrophe seems unavoidable. But as he plunges his readers into 1970s Britain—power cuts and the Provisional IRA, the scent of patchouli on Carnaby Street, the advent of paper tissues, croissants and supermarket trolleys—McEwan carries us with irresistible momentum to a surprise ending.

Merivel – A Man of his Time by Rose Tremain, Chatto, hardback. Nearly a quarter of a century after "Restoration" put Rose Tremain in the bestsellers, she catches up with its hero, Robert Merivel, the physician loved by Charles II for his ability to "make laughter from sorrow". Licentious but contemplative, buffoonish yet wise, and able to bounce back from setbacks like a child’s lead-weighted toy, Merivel is excellent company. But if travelling with him to the court of Versailles and to a castle of enlightenment in Switzerland feels sometimes like stepping into a dreamlike world, this is much more than a piece of historical jeu d'esprit. Writing with a mimic's ear for conversation, whimsical one moment and grave the next, Tremain has an underlying preoccupation here, as in "Trespass": the last third of life, love and loss, loneliness and vanity. 

The Dinner by Herman Koch, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, Atlantic, paperback. Not so much a whodunit as a whydunit, this addictive satire unfolds over one summer evening in a deliciously pretentious Amsterdam restaurant. Two brothers, with their apparently conventional wives, meet for dinner. Serge, the elder, is a hot-shot politico whose every decision—from adopting an African baby to becoming a wine buff—has been calculated to ease his career northwards. Paul, who narrates the tale with laconic misanthropy, is an embittered ex-teacher. Over lamb's-neck sweetbreads and Vosges chanterelles, the atmosphere crackles with mutual contempt. But the brothers have one thing in common: the knowledge that their teenage sons have colluded in murder. Who is truly to blame—the boys, or their parents? The answer lies buried in a kind of psychological mille-feuille, which Koch exposes, layer by disturbing layer, with surgical precision. 

REPORTAGE

Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Vintage, paperback. John Jeremiah Sullivan is sassy but never cynical. In this astonishing collection of magazine features—with subjects ranging from Axl Rose to Hurricane Katrina—he lures you in with Spinal Tap "mockumentary" humour, then leads you somewhere profound and unexpected. A report on a Christian rock festival in Missouri morphs into a piece of haunting memoir and self-examination. He shifts his register, one moment adopting an easy, conversational tone, the next skewering details to the page with poetic imagery. An old woman's hands are "cubed with arthritis"; the specially covered bass drums on Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" play with "mummified-heartbeat intensity". As you turn to the final piece, on Disneyland, the cumulative effect is admiration bordering on awe. If you’ve time for just one new voice before Christmas, make it Sullivan.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, Portobello, paperback. The winner of a Pulitzer prize for public service, Katherine Boo knows how to write about poverty without leaving readers wilting from compassion fatigue. It's not, in fact, compassion she's after, but answers to practical questions. In this tough-minded debut, fruit of four years' immersion in a Mumbai slum, she asks why the poor don't rise up, and why unequal societies don't simply implode. Her answer, embedded in a narrative as pacy as a thriller, is that despite their "deep, idiosyncratic intelligence" the slum-dwellers are too consumed by the struggle to survive to join forces and take action. In makeshift homes huddled around a sewage lake they are left vacillating between aspiration and despair. While one teenager pores over "Mrs Dalloway", her best friend takes a fatal overdose of rat poison.

POETRY

Bee Journal by Sean Borodale, Cape, paperback, out now. When Virgil writes in the "Georgics" about the keeping of bees he is prescriptive—he gives instructions with the assurance of the trained honey farmer. Sean Borodale’s "journal", covering a first-timer's two years of hive visits, is by contrast respectful, tentative and provisional. His early entries are dense with observation, more like notes than fully fledged poems: lists, jottings, exclamations of surprise. Only gradually, as the beekeeper gains confidence, do his complex notes resolve themselves into a hard-edged, exhilarating poetry. Honey is "the offal of the flowers' nectar", "a wild liquor of ecstatic work". The bees inhabit a rival civilisation, with the poet its wonder-struck spectator. After they die in the coldest winter on record, the task of opening their hive ("Look, they are just where they were") is like entering Pompeii. 

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