BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty, Vintage pounds 6.99. MacLaverty's third novel (long awaited and shortlisted for last year's Booker and Whitbread Prizes) describes a metaphorical flight from the claustrophobia of family life. His heroine, a young composer, returns to Belfast for her father's funeral, and is reluctantly submerged in the stifling intimacies of the Catholic enclave which she thought she'd escaped. Her nagging mother and the tensions of a city at war with itself force her to remember more innocent times, when the Orangemen's drums sounded mysterious and exciting. Out of her reminiscences of childhood, and ruminations on her troubled adult relationships, she crafts a piece of music that heals the wounds caused by the events that inspired it. MacLaverty delicately conveys the transformative power of the imagination with a haunting resolution of his novel's main themes.

Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer's Activism by Alice Walker, Women's Press pounds 11.99. No one can doubt Alice Walker's integrity, but in this new collection of essays, she reveals a subtle mind at work on major issues, and a self-deprecating humour. She champions Castro's Cuba, protesting, in a letter to Bill Clinton, against the US blockade, praises Louis Farrakhan's efforts, and the regenerating effects of the Million Man March on urban black Americans. But she is not naive enough to extol these men as heroes. Their inspiration is what she praises, and the conviction of their beliefs, however discordant they are with her own. This strength of character is what she recommends her young, female readers to imitate. But, in a disarmingly funny essay on how the life of an activist can be hard on her cat, she also encourages them never to be ashamed to seek out "the Goddess in places we've been ashamed to look".

! Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams, Picador pounds 5.99. More than 30 film companies are haggling for the film rights to this first novel by an unknown Irishman who bound his manuscript in a gold box before giving it to a publisher as he boarded a flight to New York. On landing, the publisher made his offer. Four Letters of Love is riveting, its parallel narratives unfolding gracefully to accommodate the twists and turns of fate, acts of God and intuition that nudge his lovers into the union they were destined for. Williams is brave in allowing his story to be shaped by the fatalism of the truly devout and his prose reflects their giddy lyricism with its breathtaking descriptions of the windswept island they inhabit. Although drawn on an epic scale, his characters are believable, and the magic realism that Williams borrows from Mrquez is tempered with the prosaic reality of rural Irish mores. As a result his lovers' story leaves "husbands and wives sleepless in their beds, feeling the sudden chill knowledge that while they were thoughtlessly churning through the day perhaps God Himself had passed along the island roads".

Raymond Chandler by Tom Hincy, Vintage pounds 7.99. "Who cares how a writer got his first bicycle?" Chandler replied when it was suggested that he write an autobiography. Tom Hiney does, and he treads the mean streets of Chandler's life. He was as elusive as one of his villains, at various times, an oil executive, a poet, a recluse, a scriptwriter and a drunk; Hiney resurrects each incarnation with indefatigable thoroughness. He traces the writer's literary influences back to his school - Dulwich College in London - and his headmaster's ideal of the perfect gentleman: he must be lacking in pretensions but possessed of a sense of honour that might occasionally get him into trouble. Sound familiar? Hiney reveals the genesis of the Philip Marlowe, and he also provides heartbreaking details of Chandler's marriage to the remarkable, duplicitous Cissy, 17 years his senior. After her death, he wrote to a friend: "For 30 years, ten months and four days, she was the light of my life, my whole ambition. Anything I did was just the fire for her to warm her hands at. That is all there is to say. She was the music heard faintly on the edge of sound." Hiney's definitive biography brings to light a raw, complex and brilliant Chandler.

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