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A Hero's Daughter

By Andrei Makine

SCEPTRE pounds 7.99

Aside from some awkwardness in the dialogue ("My hat, Dmitrich, you've got a nerve!"), Geoffrey Strachan's translation of Siberian-born Makine's first novel is exemplary. In reward for Ivan Demidov's bravery during the battle of Stalingrad he is made a Hero of the Soviet Union, entitled to wear the Gold Star medal for the rest of his life. He marries Tatyana, a nurse who saves his life on the battlefield and, after the war, returns with her to the village where he grew up. Life here is gruesome; music plays continually from a public radio speaker installed to raise the villagers' political consciousness - until Ivan smashes it when his son dies from starvation. They move to Moscow and Tatyana gives birth to a daughter, Olya. For a time life passes uneventfully, Ivan's Gold Star granting him certain privileges, but as the Gorbachev era approaches and the Soviet Union decays, people stop respecting those rewarded by the old order. Unknown to Ivan, Olya, of whom he has become so proud, has begun to work for the KGB.

Makine uses evocative symbolism to help confront the complexities of life in Soviet Russia. A shrapnel fragment, for example, lodged near Tatyana's heart means she can never safely enjoy even the most basic freedoms, from sex to shopping. Anyone struggling to understand the moral labyrinth that contemporary Russia has become would do well to read this book.


Sun After Dark: Flights into the foreign

By Pico Iyer

BLOOMSBURY pounds 7.99

Having lived comfortably in some of the world's wealthiest countries, UK-born but for a long time US- and now Japan-resident travel-writer Pico Iyer decided he should, "as a useful corrective to what I might otherwise assume to be real life", visit some of the Earth's poorest nations. What unfolds isn't at all straightforward. Anyone who writes: "The physical aspect of travel is, for me, the least interesting; what really draws me in is the prospect of stepping out of the daylight of everything I know, into the shadows of what I don't know, and may never know" is unlikely to follow in the footsteps of Alain de Botton.

We move from a meeting with Zen devotee Leonard Cohen in a Southern California monastery, where Iyer ponders precisely what kind of game the great singer-poet is playing, to conversations with another Buddhist whose words are taken extremely seriously (perhaps with better reason), the Dalai Lama. Only then does Iyer move on to Cambodia with its Museum of Genocidal Crime, a former girl's school where Pol Pot's men carried out interrogations (a sign outside reads: "While getting lashes and electrification, you must not cry at all"); the post-colonial poverty of Aden in southern Yemen just six weeks before 9/11; and La Paz in Bolivia where the city's Spanish past, confused present and future chasing the ghost of America all stand in stark, uncomfortable relief. The result is close to breathtaking.


Eve Green

By Susan Fletcher


Pregnant with her first child, Evangeline ("Five consonants, five vowels") Green, Eve for short, reflects back over the momentous events during a single summer from her childhood. Her tale begins with a portentous one-line paragraph: "Three things happened when I was seven years old." Given the title of the first chapter, "Departure", and the fact that by the third paragraph our little heroine has "burned" (sunburn, alas) it seems fair to assume that at least one of these three things might be very bad. It is indeed so unpleasant that Eve gets sent to Wales. Here, where the rain is like "like flung grit", she lives with her grandparents and meets the much older man she will later marry. When a little girl called Rosie vanishes from the village the finger of suspicion dabs around with, as is customary, awful consequences.

Susan Fletcher is a gifted storyteller, but in spite of this book winning the Whitbread First Novel Award she simply must not be satisfied with it. Connoisseurs of the "flung grit" school of overwriting would have bet their lives on Eve's mother dying on the strength of the first line alone. An author for whom babies have to be "squeezed out" rather than simply born, or where watching teenagers fumble in the bushes becomes a "dark, brutal" way of learning about sex, may well have an overactive Andrea Ashworth gland.


The Longshoreman

By Richard Shelton

ATLANTIC pounds 8.99

Most children enjoy splashing about in streams and rivers investigating the weeds and fishes. There comes a point, however, when the wading stops and life begins its trajectory towards a place where wet things are only occasionally welcome. An accomplished fishery scientist and wildfowler, Richard Shelton is a boy who never grew up. His utterly absorbing memoir shows what happens if you spend your whole life chasing the limits of childhood passions. As a very young boy in the 1940s he seemed to spend most of his time catching sticklebacks in the river Chess; as an adult his specimens became harder to find but rarely more exotic. His early professional research involved a prolonged study of the lobster. Underwater life was not, however, Shelton's only obsession. There were also the contents of his father's gunroom. For every section describing the softness of a roach's skin or the intricacies of how fish hear human footsteps along a river bank, there's a proud description of the weapon used to blow a bird out of the sky. Why would a man who finds guillemots getting caught in drag nets sad take great pleasure in shooting ducks? The answer is in here, and it's a complex one. Shelton's reflections tell us as much about the natural world as the often perverse attitudes we have developed towards it.


The Honeymoon

By Justin Haythe

PICADOR pounds 6.99

Justin Haythe's debut is far too timid for its own good. A meandering trawl through weighty themes like love, death and class would normally dredge up something original or at least memorable, but this book merely breaks down into a series of occasionally engaging vignettes. Gordon is a young American living in London. As a child he travelled throughout Europe with his mother, Maureen (whom he nearly always refers to by name), able to enjoy a lifestyle "with the trappings of money (if often without money itself)". Now, estranged from his wife Annie, he tells the story of their honeymoon in Venice with his mother and her wealthy fiance, and its unpleasant consequences.

From very early on it is clear that Gordon's relationship with his mother is an unhealthy one. "I had believed in two distinct groups," he tells us, "mothers and women, and that Maureen by some mistake existed in both." The novel commences with what might be a rather ham-fisted attempt to suggest there's no room for another girl in Gordon's life; as a child, staying with Maureen at a friend's apartment, he witnesses the young woman living with them jump to her death from a balcony. But what does it all add up to? With characters like these it takes a very special writer to make anyone, outside a certain frosty clique, care about them or see any truth in what they do.


A Profound Secret

By Josceline Dimbleby

BLACK SWAN pounds 7.99

Thank God for amateurism and Cats. Without the first we'd have been denied Josceline Dimbleby's entertaining account of her search to learn more about her great-aunt, Amy Gaskell; without the second, Andrew Lloyd Webber might not have had the cash to buy the portrait of Amy which sparked the whole project off. It was at a summer party that Dimbleby discovered Lloyd Webber had just acquired a striking painting of Amy by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones - a haunting image of a beautiful young woman dressed in black silk, against a moody dark background. After the great composer invites Dimbleby to come and see the painting, she tells him of the family legend that Amy died young, "of a broken heart, we were always told," and suggests that she may be able to find out some more - so the quest begins. Part of the joy in reading this book is to come upon the kind of commentary that evades most professional historians: "I told him we had always thought the portrait looked like my younger sister. `Well, I think she looks rather like you,' Andrew replied. I found this deeply flattering; after all, he was talking about a ravishing 19- year-old girl and I am now a woman of more than a `certain age'." But of course it's the family secrets Dimbleby unearths that make this book so engrossing. An unexpected page-turner.