Transatlantic fiction round-up: Route maps of the heart's lonely travels

 

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The Independent Culture

There's a North American focus to this week's round-up, but these four novels are also linked by the fact that a journey looms large in each of them.

In Deborah Johnson's addictive tale of intrigue, The Secret of Magic (Penguin, £7.99), Regina Robichard, a young, black, civil rights lawyer from New York heads south to deepest, darkest, dangerous Mississippi at the behest of a MP Calhoun – a reclusive author whose novel The Secret of Magic was both bestselling and banned – to investigate the murder of a black soldier just returned from the Second World War. Much of Johnson's story is based on real events, but what makes it something more than a popular period piece in the vein of The Help is the mystery Johnson sprinkles over the text as Regina feels the world created by Calhoun "heaving itself up out of a novel's typeset, made-up pages, and turning into something that was no longer just imagined but was about to be real".

If Johnson's novel examines the secrets kept by a community, Fotini Tsalikoglou's The Secret Sister (trans. Mary Kitroeff, Europa Editions, £8.99) focuses on those nurtured by a single family. Thirty-something American-Greek Jonathan Argyriou is travelling to his family's homeland for the first time. He's making the journey alone, but is weighed down by a heavy burden of "things lost in silence", lies and unhappiness. Tsalikoglou's slender novella packs an unexpectedly impressive punch in every way possible, managing to traverse the breadth of the 20th century, and the depths of the psychology of three generations of one family. The end result is a haunting, evocative and deeply moving study of grief.

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Emma Hooper's debut Etta and Otto and Russell and James is quietly moving

Loss also lies at the heart of Kaui Hart Hemmings' The Possibilities (Jonathan Cape, £12.99). In the same way that her previous novel, The Descendants (adapted for film and starring George Clooney), depicted a family falling apart then piecing itself back together in the aftermath of a life-changing event, The Possibilities also deals with the "what happens next" bit after the main character – last time a father, this time a mother. Sarah St. John's son, Cully, is killed in an avalanche, aged 22, in their hometown of Breckenridge, a ski resort in Colorado. "It's like a Lifetime movie," Sarah says, summing up the road trip that she and her father together with Cully's father, Billy, her newly divorced friend, Suzanne, and Cully's pregnant girlfriend, Kit, take to what is supposed to be a memorial for Cully at his alma mater. I was reminded of the film Little Miss Sunshine; the book has the same unsentimental approach to life's big events.

Canadian-born, UK-dwelling Emma Hooper's debut Etta and Otto and Russell and James (Fig Tree, £12.99) is just as quietly moving. Eighty-two-year-old Saskatchewan, Etta Gloria Kinnick, wakes up one morning and decides to walk to the sea – all 2,000 miles cross-country. Slipping between the past and the present, and between the points of view of Etta, her husband of 50-odd years, Otto, and his childhood friend/their neighbour Russell, Hooper tells a story of devoted friendship and marital love against the backdrop of the dusty Canadian prairies during the Depression and the battlefields of Europe.

Sometimes it felt as if Hooper hadn't quite made up her mind as to what she was writing – a quirky tale of a belated pilgrimage of self-discovery with hints of magical realism (the "James" of the title is a talking coyote who Etta teams up with on her travels), or an altogether more gentle account of looking back over one's life as it draws to a close – but either way, it works.

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