Paperback reviews: A Beautiful Truth, The Trip to Echo Spring, Revolution Baby, The City, Confessions of a Wild Child


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A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam

Granta £8.99

Colin McAdam’s third novel tells the story of Walt and Judy Ribke, a childless couple in 1970s Vermont who take the rather unusual step of adopting a baby chimpanzee. Looee, as he’s called, proves to be sweetly affectionate and keenly sensitive to the emotions of his “parents”; the Ribkes come to love him as they would a real son. But as he grows bigger, he becomes increasingly unpredictable – and one winter evening lurches violently out of control.

As the narrative progresses McAdam weaves in the story of a research institute in Florida where chimps are taught to communicate with their captors through sign language, and, later, an altogether more sinister laboratory where apes are used as test subjects in drug experiments. The result is a vivid, impressionistic and often harrowing portrait of the relationship between people and chimps.

Other novels with primate protagonists – Will Self’s simian satire Great Apes comes to mind – have tended to use them as mere literary tools, metaphors with which to explore the bestial aspects of human nature; McAdam’s great achievement here is to write about chimps without reducing them in such a way. (It’s telling that the villains of the piece are the biomedical scientists – whose only interest in the animals lies in what they can tell us about human beings.)

Boldly, McAdam adopts the perspectives of both his human and non-human characters, his prose wriggling at the edges of intelligibility as he attempts to evoke the chimps’ particular mode of existence, their “unremembering surge of life”. But, in so doing, he tacitly acknowledges that they are unknowably other, and thus invests them with a sad, inalienable dignity. He has written a beautifully strange and thought-provoking novel; its truth is elusive as well as beautiful.

The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing

Canongate £10.99

Olivia Laing’s wonderful book recounts her trip across the United States exploring the link between great writing and booze. Fascinated by how many of America’s literary icons – F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever – fell prey to alcoholism, she travels to their old drinking dens and muses on the nature of their shared weakness. “Echo Spring” is the name given to the oft-visited liquor cabinet in Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Laing finds the name symbolic of “the attainment of silence … the obliteration of troubled thoughts” these writers sought in drink. Hemingway used whiskey to help him deal with painful memories; Cheever used gin in order to ease the stress of maintaining his “intricately folded” double lives. Laing also explores the effect her subjects’ drinking had on those around them, and, movingly, brings in her own experiences growing up in an alcoholic family, which helps to ensure that this book is something more than a romantic celebration of the artist-souse.

Revolution Baby by Joanna Gruda (TRs by Alison Anderson)

Europa Editions £9.99

At the centre of Joanna Gruda’s novel is Julek, a young Polish boy who grows up in a family of left-wing activists in 1930s Europe. His very existence, he explains, came down to a collective decision – on discovering that his mother was pregnant, her comrades narrowly voted that she needn’t have an abortion, despite the interference with her political duties. “So that is how my life began, with a vote by the Polish Communist Party,” says Julek. “Fetuses of the world, unite!”

And that’s typical of the slightly dark humour that propels Julek’s narration, as he tells the story of his journey from Poland to Paris. The narrative, based on the true story of Gruda’s father, meanders a bit, but it is by turns funny and moving.

The City by Stella Gemmell

Transworld £7.99

The City is an ancient metropolis going to rot, ruled by a reclusive emperor and ravaged by centuries of war. Siblings Elija and Emly live in the catacombs that lie beneath it. When they are separated during a flood, Elija falls in with the Emperor’s enemies, while Emly finds protection with Bartellus, a legendary warrior long presumed dead. As brother and sister search for each other they witness the battle for the City.

Stella Gemmell was married to fantasy author David Gemmell; she completed his final novel after his death in 2006. This, her first solo effort, should win her fans in her own right; it is vast, immersive and accomplished – if a little too taken with its own gnarled mythologies.

Confessions of a Wild Child by Jackie Collins

Simon & Schuster £7.99

“Sex doesn’t sell books,” Jackie Collins recently tweeted, “it’s all about interesting characters.” Her latest disproves this theory; Confessions of a Wild Child – which features few interesting characters and a great deal of sex – sold by the bucket load. It’s a prequel of sorts, on the teenage years of Lucky Santangelo, one of Collins’s recurring alpha-females. Daughter of a gangster, Lucky is sent to boarding school in Europe, from where she escapes with her friend Olympia. The plot moves along quickly; the problem is Lucky’s asinine narration (“We both look major hot”; “Big boobs are obviously sexy”). Is this how teens speak, or just how Jackie Collins thinks they speak? Either way, it’s bloody irritating.