Good Fiction Guide
Friday 05 August 2005
Novels about California often have a theosophical bent, and Michelle Huneven's offbeat tale conjures up a Los Angeles suburb steeped in alternative realities. Alice Black is woken in the middle of the night when a pregnant deer breaks into her front room. Confused as to whether her late-night visitor is real, or a figment of her imagination, Alice searches for clues. Coming from a long line of depressives, she worries that she might be losing her mind. Most of the characters in the book share Alice's precarious emotional state. Peter Ross, a successful restaurateur turned alcoholic, spends long hours pacing the concrete banks of the Los Angels River trying to fathom how "people live in this world". Alice's new best friend, Helen Harland, a minister at the Unitarian Universalist church, hopes Alice's familial connections will somehow inform her own spiritual quest: Alice is related to philosopher and psychologist William James. Huneven writes convincingly about the "variety show of religious experience" in 21st-century LA, but the real pleasure of the book rests in the unlikely love affair unfolding between Alice and Peter. The posthumous presence of James lends an extra dimension, anchoring this story of latterday searchers in a distinguished, if flaky, tradition. EH
Wild Girls, by Diana Souhami (PHOENIX £8.99 (253pp))
Diana Souhami has written other biographies of grand lesbians, including Getrude Stein and Radclyffe Hall. Her latest subjects, American socialites Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, were less significant, but it's clear that their antics on the rue Jacob made early 20th-century Paris a more amusing place to live. Barney was known for her joie de vivre and "big" hair; Brooks preferred to paint -- creating what Truman Capote called "the all-time ultimate gallery of famous dykes". An entertaining account of the couple's 50-year relationship - one that was never tested by the rigours of co-habitation. EH
Life Mask, by Emma Donoghue (VIRAGO £7.99 (613pp))
Emma Donoghue's latest historical fiction, set at the end of the 18th-century, is based on a real love triangle involving an actress, Eliza Farren, an artist, Anne Damer, and the 12th Earl of Derby. As the novel opens Derby, inventor of the flat race, is in hot pursuit of Eliza; while Eliza, newly introduced into Whig high society, is determined not to compromise her reputation. Instead she finds herself falling for Anne, a sculptor and future châtelaine of Strawberry Hill, owned by her uncle Horace Walpole. Don't expect bodice-ripping romance: Donoghue is more interested in parliamentary reform and French revolutionary politics than rising temperatures in Twickenham. EH
Occidentalism, by Ian Buruma & Avishai Margalit (ATLANTIC £8.99 (165pp))
Pithy, cool and incisive, this illuminating book looks for the sources of radical "Islamist" hatred of the West. It locates them in... Europe itself. With well-chosen examples and a forensic style, the authors argue that militant jihadis have mirrored the disgust at Western democracy and "decadence" found among German conservatives, Russian nativists, Marxist Utopians, and sundry other local prophets of doom. From the beliefs of Japan's kamikaze pilots to the ideas of Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual godfather of al-Qa'ida, it amounts to a salutary tale of "cross-contamination" and "the spread of bad ideas". BT
Good Fiction Guide, edited by Jane Rogers (OXFORD £9.99 (520pp))
A welcome update, and a bright new boiled-sweets cover, for the most reader-friendly literary guide on the reference shelf. In its first half, 34 single-subject essays cover the gamut of fictional forms and themes, from Michael Dibdin on crime and Michèle Roberts on France to Nigel Williams on humour and Elizabeth Buchan on romance (modesty forbids comment on the historical-novels chapter). In the second, a niftly cross-referenced A-Z introduces hundreds of novelists and recommends their work, from Monica Ali to Emile Zola. A trustworthy companion for every reading group - or simply for the solitary seeker. BT
Germs, by Richard Wollheim (BLACK SWAN £7.99 (307pp))
Before he died in 2003, philosopher Richard Wollheim completed this strange, singular masterpiece of a childhood memoir. It's the story of a moneyed but marginal upbringing as the fiercely observant son of a migrant impresario, who brought the rich flavours and high passions of the European avant-garde to the prewar stockbroker belt. In style and sensibility, Vienna and Berlin come to Walton-on-Thames - with quite unforgettable results. BT
Invisible, by Jonathan Buckley (HARPERPERENNIAL £7.99 (342pp))
A fading country-house hotel in the west of England provides the backdrop to a complicated set of relationships in Buckley's latest novel. Manager Malcolm Caldecott is coming to terms with losing his job and meeting his estranged daughter. Stephanie's visit coincides with that of Edward Morton, a blind translator - and more alluring father-figure. A gentle, if perplexing, drama about interconnecting lives. EH
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