Angels by Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson’s first novel, Angels, is a hallucinatory journey through America’s dimly lit saloon bars and windswept desert towns. First out in 1983 – it’s being reissued to coincide with his latest, The Laughing Monsters – it has elements now characteristic of his work, notably a tonal oscillation between Cormac McCarthyish profundity and a kind of wry, stoner humour. Like its ill-fated protagonists, you’re never quite sure whether to laugh or cry, and by the end, you’ve done both.
At the book’s centre is Jamie, a woman who flees her cheating husband with their two young children and falls in with a drifter, Bill Houston, on a Greyhound bus. They strike up an awkward romance but are separated, then Jamie is brutally attacked in a Chicago apartment. As she slips towards madness, Bill takes her to his family in Texas – and teams up with his brothers on a dubious business plan.
Johnson’s prose is superb; by turns punchy and lavish, although at times it verges on the self-indulgent. Halfway through, after Bill is locked up for his part in a botched bank robbery and Jamie is committed to a psychiatric hospital, the supporting narrative falls away and the reader is cast adrift on a current of pure stream-of-consciousness style.
But the novel recovers its composuretowards the end, when it discovers itself as an eloquent denunciation of capital punishment. As Bill awaits a reprieve on death row, he is hit by the beauty of the everyday: “It was inside the level, uniform dailiness of these surroundings that the wonder of life assailed him … minute changes in the desert air, the gradual angling of supposedly fixed shadows.” In these moving final stages Johnson – to borrow from his admirer John Updike – gives the mundane its beautiful due.
Gretel and the dark by Eliza Granville
In fin de siécle Vienna, a young woman is discovered naked in a field, head shaved, communing with butterflies. She is taken in by celebrated psychoanalyst Josef Brauer, to whom she confides her story: she is not human, but a time-travelling machine, returned from the future to right a terrible injustice.
Decades later, in 1940s Germany, a young girl named Krysta moves with her physician father to a concentration camp where she meets one of the inmates she’s been taught to despise, a boy who escapes from the camp to forage for food. Learning of the depths of his plight, she comforts him by telling stories.
In Brothers Grimm style, Eliza Granville’s impressive debut tackles dark themes — fascism, anti-Semitism, child abuse – using myths and fables. At its best Greta and the Dark offers an intelligent exploration of the mutability of fairytales: adapted both to serve the sinister ends of the oppressors and to provide a source of hope to the oppressed.
Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung (Translated by Shirley Lee)
Jang Jin-sung was a high-ranking official in the North Korean government, in charge of creating propaganda for the regime of Kim Jong-il. But when he misplaced a piece of forbidden literature he had to flee for his life.
Jang now lives in exile in South Korea, where he works as a journalist. This extraordinary memoir, which tells the story of his escape from Pyongyang via China, is as exciting as any spy thriller, and evokes the absurdity of Kim’s regime, with its goose-stepping processions and bizarre cult of personality.
But it is Jang’s moving portraits of ordinary Koreans, dignified as they endure unspeakable suffering, “living in order to stay alive”, that make this a truly important book.
After the bombing by Clare Morrall
Alma Braithwaite was a teenager when a Nazi air raid on Exeter killed her parents and destroyed Goldwyn’s, her boarding school. Twenty years on, she works as a music teacher at Goldwyn’s; the school has been rebuilt but Alma remains haunted by the horrors of the Blitz – until the arrival of a man from her past gives her the opportunity for closure. Clare Morrall’s sixth novel begins with a superb account of the Exeter bombing, as German planes bathe the ground in an “artificial, greenish daylight”, and she is alert to the difficulties of being in a darkened bomb shelter. The rest of the novel rather struggles to live up to this dramatic opening, a little too quiet and restrained for its own good.
Tales from the Queen of the desert by Gertrude Bell
Don’t judge a book by its cover, they say, and that certainly applies here: Gertrude Bell’s sophisticated Middle East travelogues are packaged in a volume that bears the image of a laughably mocked-up Orientalist fantasy: all rolling sand-dunes and hooded maidens. Bell (1868-1926) became an adventurous explorer, diplomat and spy at a time when British women didn’t even have the vote. This book brings together a selection of her writings on Iran and Syria, and they are vividly evocative (if also reflecting some of the era’s prejudices). Reading her florid descriptions of Tehran one senses how different, how exciting these places must have seemed to those accustomed to dour Victoriana.