Paperbacks: Liquidation</br>House of Meetings</br>The Last Man Who Knew Everything</br>Black Sea</br>Hurting Distance</br>The Book of Ebenezer Le Page</br>Liquidation

Reviewed,Emma Hagestadt,Boyd Tonkin
Friday 12 October 2007 00:00

Afterwards, By Rachel Seiffert (Vintage £7.99)

Fans of Rachel Seiffert's austere debut, the trio of novellas The Dark Room, and her later collection of short fiction, Field Study, might be disappointed by the author's first full-length novel. Like her previous work, Afterwards deals with the fall-out of war, but lacks the immediacy and power of her earlier stories of occupied Europe. The only child of a single mother, 31-year-old London nurse Alice Bell has always been close to her grandparents. When her grandmother dies, she continues to visit her grandfather to engage in "nothing conversations" and unpack his shopping. A former RAF pilot who flew missions to Kenya in the Fifties, the old man doesn't like to discuss the past. It's Alice's new boyfriend, Joseph, an ex-squaddie recently returned from a tour of Northern Ireland, who finally gets him to share his military memories. While the first half of the novel is taken up with the story of Alice and Joseph's tentative love affair – they meet in the pub and swap family history in the bath – it's the growing relationship between the two veterans that provides the novel's emotional heat. Alice starts to feel increasing estranged from the two most important men in her life. Despite its dramatic denouement, Seiffert's episodic and elliptical narrative keeps the reader at arm's length. EH

Liquidation, By Imre Kertész (Vintage £7.99)

In the eyes Hungary's Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, the Auschwitz he survived is "untrumpable". This short novel (translated by Tim Wilkinson) tells the story of Kingbitter, an editor at a Budapest publisher, who considers himself to have been the closest friend of "B" – a dissident writer and death-camp survivor who has recently committed " philosophical suicide". Going through his papers, Kingbitter comes across a play entitled "Liquidation", which unnervingly predicts the behaviour of his ex-wife, his lover and Kingbitter himself. That Kertész is a Beckett fan should alert the reader to the complexities ahead. EH

House of Meetings, By Martin Amis (Vintage £7.99)

After the critical flop of his 2003 knockabout novel Yellow Dog, Amis strikes back with a sombre and distinguished production. The posthumous narrator of his new book is a decorated war veteran who has raped his way "across what would soon be East Germany". Now in his eighties, he returns to Russia, where he spent 12 years in a Soviet labour camp. It was at the camp that he slept with his brother's bride: "The love story is triangular in shape, and the triangle is not an equilateral". Often drawn to toxic environments (whether west London or Hackney), Amis once more finds himself operating in a natural theatre of war. EH

The Last Man Who Knew Everything, By Andrew Robinson (Oneworld £9.99)

The rise of the academic specialist meant the posthumous fall of Thomas Young (1773-1829), the astonishing Somerset polymath whose contributions to learning ranged from optics to Egyptology, from engineering to life insurance (he worked for a while as a company physician). Robinson's brisk and engaging biography succeeds in rescuing Young from the "dilettante" charge. His thumbnail sketches of the scientific debates that his hero altered – whether on nautical astronomy, theories of light or the Rosetta Stone – have a clarity and focus Young himself would cheer. BT

Black Sea, By Neal Ascherson (Vintage £7.99)

This terrific philosophical travelogue, as multi-faceted as the cultures it evokes, returns 12 years after its first appearance with a shrewd new top-and-tail from an author whose lifelong eloquence and erudition give journalism a good name. Roaming around these "unfathomable" coasts, from Odessa to Trabzond, Rostov to Istanbul, Ascherson blends travel, history, ecology and even lightly-worn political theory. He dives deep into the fractured identities of the Med's darker, mysterious sister in the East. Above all, he unveils "the disguises of nationalism" in the shadow of empire, from Rome's expansion to the Soviet implosion: a grand theme brought in these pages to exhilarating life. BT

Hurting Distance, By Sophie Hannah (Hodder £6.99)

The poet's second outing into crime fiction is no less assured than Little Face, combining an un-guessable plot with a well-drawn cast of nasties. Sundial designer Naomi Jenkins is having an affair with a married man. When he fails to turn up for their rendezvous, Naomi is convinced something terrible has happened. The police scorn her suspicions, so she decides to accuse her lover of rape, in a novel that pays forensic attention to some pathological passions. EH

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, By GB Edwards (NYRB £10.99)

This is a near-forgotten classic of post-colonial fiction – yet it comes, not from some far tropical shore, but from an old man writing in the 1970s about his native Guernsey and the changes that made a unique island culture into a denatured tax haven and tourist trap. Edwards never lived to see the compelling, comic, bloody-minded voice of Ebenezer in print. All honour to the New York Review imprint for restoring him to his obstreperous glory. BT

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