The House Guest by Barbara Anderson (Vintage, pounds 6.99) Anderson's earlier novels and stories brought to mind a Kiwi Alan Bennett - pawky, sidelong glances at suburban New Zealand life with a slicing wit that cut through to the oddity under the chintz and tea-sets. The House Guest stages a more elaborate plot, with curious echoes of Henry James. A researcher arrives in NZ on the trail of a mysterious US women writer who settled there in silence. The unveiling of Alice O'Leary's secrets runs in parallel with discoveries about Robin, the scholar-sleuth. It sounds a standard plot - except that the fine comic detail of Anderson's writing lifts every paragraph. Alice, we learn, had "a quickness" about her - and so, in spades, does Anderson.
The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester (Picador, pounds 5.99) Sometimes reviewing is a lonely trade. My brightest colleagues garlanded this debut novel, and its riddling recit by a francophile foodie psychopath, with every superlative that the OED (or even Larousse) could supply. As for moi, I ploughed wearily through a frigid unreliable-narrator exercise in the late-Nabokov manner, not much cheered by the fact that we never trust the crashing snob and bore (and killer) at its heart. I admired the savoury prose; I relished the polyglot kitchen argot; I salivated on cue at the baroque recipes that nasty Tarquin Winot offers us. But when reviewers hauled in Dickens (Dickens!) as a comparison, I wondered just what kind of literary planet they (or I) inhabited.
Love's Work by Gillian Rose (Vintage, pounds 5.99) How many books of the 1990s will still be read in half a century? If there's any justice in this world (and Gillian Rose's life and thought powerfully suggest the opposite), this one will be among them. A bold and original philosopher (who held a chair at Warwick University), Rose wrestled with the conflicts between her Jewish heritage, her Protestant cast of mind and the corrosive scepticism of so much modern thought. She died of ovarian cancer in December 1995. Not long before, she completed this brief (135 pages) but searing blend of memoir and essay. Its rapt accounts of sexual passion, religious faith, intellectual work - and life-threatening sickness - also manage many flashes of wry comedy and some striking character-sketches, from her enigmatic lover "Father Dr Patrick Gorman" to her old chum Camille Paglia. This is a book one yearns to know (in every sense) by heart.
Faith Fox by Jane Gardam (Abacus, pounds 6.99) There has always been a blackly comic streak buried in Jane Gardam's novels and here it finds full and exhuberant expression. Faith Fox is the Surrey-born infant daughter of Holly who dies in childbirth. Abandoned by her grieving family, she is driven north to spend the first few months of her life with her eccentric uncle Jack, his mad wife, Jocasta and assorted hangers-on (including a set of enraged Tibetan refugees and a housekeeper who can neither cook nor clean) in their religious retreat on the Northumberland Moors. On one level, Gardam's tale is a simple story of the great North/South divide - the geographical split that shuts off one end of Britain from the other, but it is also a story about love and redemption, sex and death recounted in dazzling style.Reuse content