The best of 2004: paperback fiction reviewed

Marriages made in heaven, hell and Norfolk
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Being married to a literary genius, as we know from any number of biographies, is not to be recommended. In The Wife (Vintage, £6.99) Meg Wolitzer details the price a woman might pay for having "24-hour access" to a "brilliant writer-husband", Joe Castleman. As celebrated as Roth and Updike, Joe is known for writing well about women. The history of the Castlemans' marriage is told through a series of flashbacks, from the "glory and self-love" of their early years in Greenwich Village, to the "green-algae swamp" of middle age. With a great lightness of touch, Wolitzer's novel satirises American literary circles of the Seventies and Eighties - summer camps, creative-writing gigs - and traces the generation of wives who poured their own creative energies into "stoking the fires" of their husbands' reputations.

Being married to a literary genius, as we know from any number of biographies, is not to be recommended. In The Wife (Vintage, £6.99) Meg Wolitzer details the price a woman might pay for having "24-hour access" to a "brilliant writer-husband", Joe Castleman. As celebrated as Roth and Updike, Joe is known for writing well about women. The history of the Castlemans' marriage is told through a series of flashbacks, from the "glory and self-love" of their early years in Greenwich Village, to the "green-algae swamp" of middle age. With a great lightness of touch, Wolitzer's novel satirises American literary circles of the Seventies and Eighties - summer camps, creative-writing gigs - and traces the generation of wives who poured their own creative energies into "stoking the fires" of their husbands' reputations.

Mavis Cheek, who also has a great deal to say about women's lives, focuses less on the wife than the mistress. Her humorous family saga, Patrick Parker's Progress (Faber, £12.99), opens in 1941 as Coventry burns. Surviving the flames are two "miracle" babies, the cherished only children of very different mothers. Patrick grows up to become a world -renowned architect, while little Audrey - every bit as bright - ends up the mistress of a Parisian businessman. Cheek explores how women let relationships rule their lives in this trenchant and funny novel about the cost of emotional dependency.

If, along with pedicures and seaweed wraps, health spas included "sinus-clearing" sex on the menu, would women be clamoring for the next cancellation? According to Jill Nelson's erotic debut, Sexual Healing (Serpent's Tail, £10.99), the line would stretch from New York to Nevada. Two best girl friends set up a "full-service spa" offering "fantastic, orgasmic safe sex" and never look back. Nelson's assiduously imagined inversion of brothel life cooks with humour and invention. Compared to other recent novels on the sex industry - Houellebecq, Amis et al - Nelson's sexcapades are a less clinical, more aromatherapeutic affair.

That it's better to catch your partner about to have an affair than find out when it's all too late is the central conceit of Thea Wolff's appealing debut, The Honey Trap (Bloomsbury, £6.99). Issy Brodsky is a single mum in her thirties. Stuck for employment that suits her child-care needs, she joins The Honey Trap: an agency that specialises in apprehending "men on the verge". In between marital snooping in North London, she gets herself involved in a murder mystery. In this frenetic and intelligent farce, Wolff exposes the warped mindset of the frazzled mother.

Justin Hill's Passing Under Heaven (Abacus, £10.99) suggests that life for women hasn't changed that much in the past 1200 years. His richly imagined historical novel resurrects Yu Xiangji (cAD844-868), married at 16, divorced at 19 and executed at 26. The daughter of a concubine, Yu became a concubine herself, but challenged convention by demanding a divorce. Set at the end of the Tang dynasty, his novel describes a brief period when Chinese women enjoyed an unusual level of independence. Hill's language contrives to be both archaic and exotic.

For some, exchanging Soho for Norfolk is cultural challenge enough - and one that causes the hero of Will Buckley's comic debut, The Man Who Hated Football (Fourth Estate, £10.99), to self-combust. Sports journalist Jimmy Stirling uproots his family in search of free schools and a bigger house. Even if Stirling's footie riffs leave you cold, his view of East Anglia will raise a snigger. Social life includes evenings out with the book club: "someone thought that they'd spotted Louis de Bernières entering the pet shop in Harleston".

Francis King has often written about outsiders in an alien environment. His 28th novel, The Nick of Time (Arcadia, £11), is set among London's illegal immigrant population. Mehmet, a young Kosovan, makes his way through London relying on the kindness of women. Affection for the capital leaps from the page - especially for grey afternoons on Kensington High Street.

Comments