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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

Crime fiction meets coming-of-age in a gripping debut. Plus the new Harper Lee, which is very good in parts

Maggie Fergusson | September/October 2015

FICTION  My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh, Viking, hardback, out now. When 15-year-old Lindy Simpson, beauty and track star, is yanked from her bike and raped on a scorching Louisiana evening in June 1989, there are four suspects. One is the 14-year-old boy next door, who loves her with the all-consuming passion that makes teenage life both heaven and hell. Looking back in his 30s on that long, hot summer, and revealing anguish and evil tucked behind the neat white picket fences of Baton Rouge, he leads us slowly to the truth. This gripping debut from a son of Baton Rouge, now teaching in New Orleans, is crime and coming-of-age fiction at its most suspenseful – and more. Infused with a musing melancholy, it’s an exploration of the workings of memory, of the long shadows cast by small moments, and of why it is so much easier to love others than to love oneself.


A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, Picador, hardback, out now. Two summers ago, John Williams’s 1965 novel “Stoner” was a surprise bestseller. Robert Seethaler’s fifth novel, beautifully translated from the German by Charlotte Collins, is in the same mould: the gentle account of a hidden life, but one that packs a surprising punch. Andreas Egger is four when he arrives in a village in the Austrian Alps to live with an uncle who cruelly mistreats him. He grows up to be a man of few words – in one memorable scene, rather than propose to his love, Marie, he lights her name across the mountainside at dusk – and his life is punctuated with loss, and bewilderment, as the valley around him morphs into a skiing resort. He keeps reminding you of Thoreau’s line that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation” – but, in this case, quiet heroism too.


Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, Heinemann, hardback, out now. Courtesy of my daughter’s GCSE syllabus, Scout Finch, narrator of Harper Lee’s 1960 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird”, has lodged with us for nearly two years. So this novel, written before “Mockingbird” but taking place after it, was a must. Now 26, Scout – aka Jean Louise – travels from New York to Maycomb, Alabama, to visit her ageing father, Atticus. The good news is that she has turned out as one would have hoped: she’s a grown-up tomboy. The bad news is that the prose is uneven – there are some lovely stretches, interspersed with clunky ones. And, as trumpeted in the papers on both sides of the Atlantic, Atticus, the liberal hero of “Mockingbird”, reveals racist attitudes that make Scout vomit. You need to read the book to understand the subtlety of his beliefs: that he’s not a monster, but a man of his time.


SOCIAL HISTORY The Last English Poachers by Bob and Brian Tovey, Simon & Schuster, hardback, out now. When it came to choosing a career, Bob Tovey was never in any doubt: like his father before him, he was set on becoming a professional poacher. Dodging the law, he devoted his life to plundering the Gloucestershire estates of the Duke of Beaufort and the Earls of Berkeley and Ducie, working the open country on wet, dark nights, and on still, clear ones taking to the woods. From the age of four, his son Brian accompanied him. This skilfully ghosted account has the rakish charm of a “Burglar Bill” for adults – with the added frisson that it’s non-fiction. The Toveys’ dislike of the ruling classes is matched by their passionate love of the natural world. “I’ve never engaged in cruelty of any kind,” Bob claims. “I has no truck with them who does.”

MEMOIR The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink, Picador, hardback, out now. “Please don’t let my brother die,” Cathy Rentzenbrink prayed the night 16-year-old Matty was knocked down by a car on his way home from a disco. Twenty-five years on, she feels that he would have been better off dead. This is the harrowing story of an ordinary family – Cathy’s parents ran a Yorkshire pub – plunged into a living nightmare that lasted eight years. Throughout, Matty remained in a “persistent vegetative state”, never recovering consciousness. Nobody knew whether he could hear or feel what was going on around him. Finally, surrounded by merry drinkers in a pub garden, Cathy and her father decide that it’s time to let him go. This is a cut above misery memoir: there’s no self-indulgence, it’s beautifully written, and the devastation is shot through with warmth and hard-won wisdom.


HISTORY Operation Thunderbolt by Saul David, Hodder, hardback, out now. The summer of 1976 means two things to me: road-melting heat and the hijack of Air France flight 139 by Palestinian terrorists. Saul David carries us hour by hour from the hijack on June 27th to the denouement a week later in what was, and remains, the boldest rescue mission ever launched. Shifting between Entebbe airport in Uganda, where the plane landed, and Israel, David shows how close Yitzhak Rabin came to meeting the hijackers’ demands; how hard it was to negotiate with the slippery, psychotic Idi Amin, and how terrified the Jewish hostages felt as, in a moment redolent of the Holocaust, they were separated from the rest. He combines phenomenal research with the paciness of a thriller. The film rights have already been sold.

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