More than 25 years after “The English Patient”, Michael Ondaatje (above) returns to the same mood and milieu in his new book, Warlight. Skilfully navigating espionage, betrayal and deception, “Warlight” shows how the scars of undercover battles persist into peacetime: “Wars don’t end. They never remain in the past.” Nathaniel is a desk-bound British intelligence officer. From the late 1950s, he looks back to Blitz-ravaged London in 1945, a city still wounded and haunted by war ghosts. In tantalising fragments, we learn of his mysterious mother’s exploits as an agent in Europe when, after the German surrender, a vicious score-settling continued. Seemingly forsaken by his parents, Nathaniel grows up in a household of silences and omissions, cared for by a bunch of louche, semi-criminal protectors on the edge of the law.
Gradually we see how this brilliantly drawn London demi-monde, with its “shifting tents of spivvery”, connects with the enigmatic Rose, Nathaniel’s mother. Ondaatje’s portrait of an oddball clan of spies, a “family of disguises”, takes him deep into John le Carré territory – especially in his account of the English genius for camouflage and imposture, “the most remarkable theatrical performance of any European nation”. Intimate secrets and wartime traumas emerge from the blackout of myths and lies to compose a lyrical but sinister mosaic of a hidden world. ~ BOYD TONKIN
Land of the loners
By the time Jaxie Clackton, the scarred Australian teenage hero of Tim Winton’s novel, The Shepherd’s Hut, drops out of school to care for his dying mother, the lad has been in so many fights his teachers are more relieved than concerned. When he finds his violent, drunken father – “a cheap bastard” – crushed to death under his car, the brutalised boy hightails it out of town, carrying little more than a rifle, some shells and a waterjug. He heads for the empty quarter, somewhere between Perth and Broome, where salt pans stretch farther than the eye can see and it’s hard to thrive unless you’re a kangaroo or a lizard. After an encounter with another lonesome stray, Fintan MacGillis, he finds himself sticking around longer than he’d planned. But MacGillis is also an unsettled soul, an Irish Catholic priest unsure of his faith and in conflict with the church. When the pair run into serious trouble, Jaxie must decide whom and what to trust if he is to come through alive.
Parachuting the medieval myth of St Julian the Hospitaller into the Australian Outback, “The Shepherd’s Hut” is part Gustave Flaubert, part “Crocodile Dundee” and Winton’s finest novel since “Dirt Music”. ~ FIAMMETTA ROCCO
Murder most foul
Juan Gabriel Vásquez is the most famous novelist to come out of Colombia since Gabriel García Márquez. His subtle, nuanced fiction uses the tools of documentary reportage – historical sleuthing and interviews with witnesses – to steer readers through the nation’s labyrinthine past. The Shape of the Ruins explores the violence that stalks the country. The hero is himself a novelist who shares the author’s name and biography. His frail, premature twin daughters, born after this fictional Vásquez returns from Barcelona to Bogotá, symbolise the vulnerability of the innocent in a land where killing is commonplace. A maverick family friend sucks him into conspiracy theories about two political assassinations that have never been explained: Rafael Uribe Uribe in 1914 and Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, often dubbed the Colombian John F. Kennedy, in 1948. Both murders eliminated reformist leaders and deepened strife in a society “sick with hatred”. On these broken foundations, the drug lord Pablo Escobar would later build his empire of terror and corruption. Deftly weaving fact into fiction, the novel asks if official history can ever add up to more than victors’ propaganda that buries other versions of the past. In Colombia’s collective memory, mysteries endure. The truth we seek in private or public life may be “fragile as a premature baby”. ~ BT
Beauties and the beast
At the start of the second volume of Virginie Despentes’s hilarious underground novel, “Vernon Subutex”, her hero and once the proud owner of an iconic Paris record shop, is sleeping on the streets. He still doesn’t know about the internet storm he caused by a casual Facebook post in which he revealed that he has in his possession the last filmed recording of Alex Bleach. A famous musician and Vernon’s former benefactor, Bleach died of a drug overdose soon after the recording was made.
As the unwitting Vernon considers his future as a tramp, the disparate band starts to come together: internet trolls, porn stars, out-of-job musicians, would-be screenwriters, trans hairdressers, devout young Muslims and specialists in cyber-lynching have all have been on the hunt for Vernon.
A work that draws as much from “La Comédie Humaine” as it does from Jean-Jacques Beineix’s “Diva”, Vernon Subutex 2 presents Paris in all its glory and its grime. Sharply translated by Frank Wynne, this is the best multi-volume fiction series since Elena Ferrante. ~ FR