Paperbacks: A Crying Shame<br></br>In the Absence of Men<br></br>The Mermaid's Purse<br></br>Marianne in Chains<br></br>Faithless

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The Independent Culture

A Crying Shame by Renate Dorrestein, trans. Hester Velmans (Black Swan, £6.99, 300pp)

Reading the Dutch novelist Renate Dorrestein is an infallible reminder of how rare it is to find a gripping story about the old and the very young. The protagonists here are Agnes, in her seventies; Christine, aged 10; and her half-brother Tommy, aged four. It's the thirtysomething generation, the mother and stepfather Sonja and Jaap, who are insufferable and uninteresting. The dynamic of A Crying Shame comes from an alliance of the extreme generations.

Chris, and her acolyte Tommy, are fed up with being excluded. Running away renders them the centre of attention. On a Scottish camping holiday, they stow away on board a ferry, in a car belonging to an elderly spinster headed for Skye. Distance puts them beyond the norms and they develop a set of relationships outside convention. It is Dorrestein's great talent that the inner world of "barmy old Agnes" has a rationale and richness that draws the reader. Much, in fact, as Agnes finds herself drawn to the stroppy tomboy, Chris. Each has suffered a profound trauma that neither can bring herself to talk about. For Chris, too, there is the intermittent violence of her relationship with her teenage half-brother, Waldo - who has also jumped ship to Skye. Yet the narrative concerns itself less with these family dramas than with the human need to build new families - or, at least, to create a fresh community on an intelligible basis. This is an effectively touching translation of a tale of three disregarded nobodies, who discover themselves as somebodies.

In the Absence of Men by Philippe Besson, trans. Frank Wynne (Vintage, £6.99, 166pp)

It takes nerve to include Marcel Proust as a fictional character, but first-time novelist Philippe Besson goes one step further, creating an imaginary correspondence between the great writer and a 16-year-old youth. It's the summer of 1916, when the young aristo Vincent de L'Etoile meets the 45-year-old, asthmatic writer. Within the space of a week they are dining at the Ritz and exchanging kisses in public. The war seems a long way away from Paris, until Vincent also falls in love with Arthur, a soldier on leave from the front. Romantic, sentimental and deliciously French.

The Mermaid's Purse by Katy Gardner (Michael Joseph, £9.99, 310pp)

Set in autumnal Brighton, Katy Gardner's campus mystery will mentally prepare you for the beginning of a new term. The novel's sympathetic narrator, Dr Cassie Bainbridge, has recently moved to Sussex to take up a lectureship in family history. Having traded in her comfortable north-London home (and lover) for a dingy bedsit, she finds that life at the seaside takes a turn for the worse when a stalker arrives on the scene. That something thrillerish is afoot seems to be the case, but Gardner has further surprises (and red herrings) in store. Convincing psychological drama served up over cups of canteen latte and chocolate muffins.

Marianne in Chains by Robert Gildea (Pan, £8.99, 524pp)

Two fixed pictures of the Vichy regime and the German Occupation of France still rule in the popular imagination. One sees heroic résistants risking torture and death to sabotage the jackbooted invaders; the other, snivelling collaborators and anti-Semites who rushed to help deport the Jews. This magnificent, award-winning history of France from 1940 to 1945 replaces both these simplistic tales with a nuanced chronicle of suffering and survival. Starting from the town of Chinon in the Loire, Gildea broadens his vivid canvas to depict a "creative and resourceful" nation negotiating the worst of times. Would Britain have fared any better?

Faithless by Joyce Carol Oates (Fourth Estate, £7.99, 386pp)

In a collection of 21 short stories (some previously published), Joyce Carol Oates wastes no time in getting straight to the heart of the matter - in this case, the business of betrayal. Whether it's marrying the wrong man, sleeping with someone else's man, or, in the creepiest story in the book, "A Manhattan Romance", going on a date with your own father, she isn't afraid to expose her characters' messy interior lives to the most rigorous of scrutiny. More interested in pinning down the truth than in creating well-honed masterpieces, Oates's stories are not for the minimally inclined.