Politicians, advertisers and even writers dream of acquiring a sovereign power of persuasion that could change minds and deeds in an instant. Whoever had such knowledge “would be virtually the master of the world”. In this entertaining beach-read for the graduate classes, Laurent Binet imagines that Roman Jakobson, a linguist, had discovered The Seventh Function of Language, and that Roland Barthes, a French critic, had learned the secret shortly before being run over and killed by a laundry van in 1980. Into this mix of real Parisian intellectuals step a pair of fictional sleuths with the initials, and attributes, of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes.
Binet adds doses of campus satire, literary pastiche and airport thriller to a frothy cocktail that will leave its readers pleasurably shaken, though not deeply stirred. Detectives Jacques Bayard and Simon Herzog feel they’re “trapped in a novel” as they race from Paris to New York to Venice on the trail of the key to that magical power. Shelve this one between Umberto Eco – who takes a starring role here, the wisest thinker amid this carnival of poseurs – and Dan Brown. ~ BOYD TONKIN
Maria and Khalil seem so perfect together. At Stanford University they found comfort in their shared racial nebulousness, their skin the same shade of butterscotch. Anxious about the privileges their partial whiteness afforded them, they embraced their blackness, and proudly wore kente-cloth sashes at graduation. Now, in swiftly gentrifying late-1990s Brooklyn, they have plans for a baby named Cheo Thelonious, a dog named Thurgood, and dinner parties where they serve tagine to witty guests “shining in shea butter”. They are the New People of Danzy Senna’s title, and everything seems just right – except for the sex, which to Maria evokes “two chairs slamming together, wood cracking”. Perhaps that explains Maria’s uncomfortably urgent crush on the aloof and handsome poet whose skin is that darker black that “cab-drivers pretend not to see”.
Senna, of mixed race herself, has made a career writing stories of how race is lived in America. Her Maria learned to hate white people partly because she could pass for one and saw “how much they were getting away with”. This is a lively, biting novel about the heavy burdens of racial self-consciousness and the perils of an identity forged by the assumptions of others. ~ EMILY BOBROW
How the middle lives
Civilisations do not clash so much as gently bump against one another in Akhil Sharma’s new collection of stories, A Life of Adventure and Delight. But rarely is the meeting of two worlds – Indian and American, mother and son, bride and groom – itself the cause of events. Instead, the dissonances allow Sharma to delve deep into the emotions and calculations that drive those relationships. The results are both mundane and breathtaking.
Sharma’s characters are neither poor nor rich. They occupy the interstices of middle- and lower-middle-class: shopkeepers in crowded, unmapped Delhi; students on scholarship in America; urban families who still give and take dowries. These are not people who normally find their way into India’s English-language newspapers, let alone fiction. Why does that man insist on helping even those who repeatedly hurt him? What goes on in the mind of the new bride, so quiet as to appear a bit dim, or the child whose mother is an alcoholic? Sharma infiltrates their thoughts and makes them complex, multi-dimensional and entirely fascinating. ~ LEO MIRANI
Of boys and men
Like many of Orhan Pamuk’s novels, The Red-Haired Woman is set a short distance from Istanbul, where the city gnaws at the countryside. A developer needs to find water on a new plot, and enlists Master Mahmut to find it, quickly and cheaply. Master Mahmut knows the old ways are best: armed with pickaxe and bucket, he promises water in a fortnight. Cem, a young man trying to save for university, will take any work he can get. Fighting exhaustion in the midday heat, they dig. And dig. And as they dig, the fatherless boy and the childless man come to depend on each other absolutely. But then Cem meets a sexy red-haired actress, and their relationship is tested to its limits. Blending the story of Oedipus with the medieval Persian epic, “Shahnameh”, Pamuk returns to familiar themes – past and present, family strife, how boys become men. Full of energy and surprise, this is a beautifully quiet novel. ~ FIAMMETTA ROCCO