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A mermaid washes up in Georgian London

A woman’s best friend

...plus a mummified monkey and other unexpected stories for dark evenings

...plus a mummified monkey and other unexpected stories for dark evenings

February/March 2018

Why aren’t more people familiar with the work of Sigrid Nunez (pictured)? At 66, she seems doomed to be a writer’s writer, beloved by a loyal few for her clear, incisive prose, but regrettably overlooked by almost everyone else. Perhaps The Friend – her seventh novel – will change this. The book is an intimate, beautiful thing, deceptively slight at around 200 pages, but humming with insight. After the unexpected suicide of her best friend, a woman becomes the caretaker of the hulking, melancholic Great Dane he left behind. In another writer’s hands this might seem too slim a premise, but Nunez has made her book into an artfully discursive meditation on friendship, love, death, solitude, canine companionship and the life of an aging writer in New York. Far from being heavy going, this novel, written as a letter to the late friend, is peppered with wry observations, particularly those of a writer stuck teaching undergraduates. (Why, for example, do students always describe characters by their eye and hair colour, “as if a story is a piece of ID like a driver’s licence”?) Like a magpie, Nunez’s heroine plucks wisdom from writers, philosophers and films to weave a story about the search for meaning in dark times. ~ EMILY BOBROW

Sugar, sex and sea creatures
Before Imogen Hermes Gowar was a writer, she worked at visitor services for the British Museum. There she came across a rare and hideous artefact, a mummified monkey stitched to the tail of a fish. Fascinated, she plunged into the story that became her first novel, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Thanks to a feckless captain, Jonah Hancock, a merchant, loses a ship but finds himself apparently in possession of a mermaid. Gowar wickedly evokes the brothels and coffee shops of Georgian London, abuzz with talk of this extraordinary creature. The impeccable period detail is brought to life by the sheer joy of Gowar’s prose in this bawdy, witty tale. And she has particular fun with Angelica Neal, a spoilt, spirited and highly accomplished courtesan. Like all the best historical romps, this is a novel about appetite – for fame, money and better sex. Beneath the brio, Gowar is shrewd about the motivations of her self-interested cast. The result is a debut as appetising as the jars of sugar plums which seduce its heroine from a confectioner’s window.~ ALEX PEAKE-TOMKINSON

Elemental force
Since the medieval sagas, the “big, lonely island” of Iceland has exported stories almost as profusely as fish. Raised like his hero in “out of the way” Keflavík, a town of “wind, lava, eternity”, Jón Kalman Stefánsson trawls the private and public history of his nation in novels that blend the wind-swept grandeur of epic tradition with a sharp, contemporary eye. About the Size of the Universe shares characters and events with Stefánsson’s previous work,“Fish Have No Feet”, but this novel stands alone as it tells of the poet-publisher Ari’s return from Denmark to Iceland and the family secrets his homecoming brings to light. “Those who wish to go forward”, Ari learns, “must sometimes first go back.” In soaring prose that can switch in a trice between storm-force lyricism and microscopic Knausgaardian self-scrutiny, Stefánsson excavates the past of Ari’s clan. From the life of his heroic grandmother, Margrét, in a fishing village in the 1930s, to Keflavík’s heyday as a US military base in the 1980s, each generation fights hardship and oblivion with the stories they tell, the memories they cherish and the myths they build. Here, poetry can be “a matter of life and death”. Prey to the harshness of nature and the cruelty of men, Ari and his forebears “cast words like burning torches into the dark lands of death”. ~ BOYD TONKIN

Flying doctor
Anne Spoerry was a legend in east Africa. For more than 20 years, the gravelly voiced French medic flew her little Piper aeroplane – radio call sign Zulu Tango for the 5Y-AZT registration written on its fuselage – all over northern Kenya. Criss-crossing the arid landscape between Lake Turkana and the Indian Ocean island of Lamu, she delivered vaccines, diagnoses and medicines, saving countless lives. She is said to have inoculated hundreds of thousands of children against polio and other diseases. As a trained pilot for the Flying Doctors, Spoerry was a winged angel in khaki, a tough, square-shouldered volunteer working selflessly in the service of others. After her death in 1999, John Heminway, an American writer and film-maker, was given access to her hand-drawn journals and other documents Spoerry had left in the safe in her house. They told another story. The child of wealthy French traders who made their money in Beirut and Yemen, Spoerry grew up believing she would follow a conventional path  of medical studies and doctoring in her homeland. But when she arrived in Africa in 1949, she was a woman on the run. During the second world war, Spoerry had been a different sort of “doctor” altogether, a collaborator in a Nazi concentration camp. With a calm voice that never tips into judgment, In Full Flight tells of a life shaped first by survival and shame and then by atonement. A must-read for anyone who examines other lives while asking, “What would I have done?” ~ FIAMMETTA ROCCO