I wrote about the novel that most intrigued and bemused me in 2017, Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, for Review31‘s fiction round-up of the year:
“Jennifer Egan’s first novel since 2011’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, Manhattan Beach was trailed as its complete opposite, a ‘traditional historical novel’ set in the 1940s around the Brooklyn Naval Yard. That is partly true. The novel does bear certain hallmarks of historical fiction (it meets the 60-year test set by the Walter Scott Prize), but it’s also quite a strange book. It has a few postmodern-esque characteristics – switches of narrative perspective in the middle of a scene, acknowledgements of the opacity of the past – but those are not what make it strange.”
My review of Molly Prentiss’ novel Tuesday Nights in 1980 is now up on the Review31 site.
“There is a great joy in reading about people falling in love with art. Such is this joy’s power that a writer need only offer the barest narrative outline – discovery, infatuation, transformation – and the reader will fill in the gaps with their own histories. Novels like Molly Prentiss’ Tuesday Nights in 1980 summon those romantic fixtures of artistic life – glamorous poverty, bands of outsiders, troubled geniuses – and these familiar tropes, like Roland Barthes’ ‘readerly texts,’ reassure us and reinforce our intuitions about the world. These are comforting narratives, and they sustain our love of art and of stories. Enjoyment, though, can be tricky for critics. Is an enjoyable novel necessarily a good or well-written one?
Tuesday Nights in 1980 covers the titular year in the lives of an interconnected group of characters – Raul Engales, an artist newly arrived in New York from Argentina; James, a synesthetic art critic; his wife Marge; and Lucy, the rural ingenue who, infatuated with the artistic life, becomes Raul’s lover. The novel is incredibly pleasurable, but this can obscure some of its problems, most of which are stylistic.”
My review of Hannah Kohler’s debut novel, The Outside Lands, published by Picador, is up now on the Review31 site.
“The question of collective versus individual duty lies at the heart of Hannah Kohler’s debut novel and is present in both of its parallel, intertwined narratives. The Outside Lands tells the story of Jeannie and Kip, sister and brother growing up in 1960s San Francisco. Their mother dies in a freak road accident when they are both young; their father is a World War Two veteran. Jeannie marries a doctor, Billy, who picks her up at the diner where she works as a waitress. She soon has a child and moves out of the family home. Kip feels betrayed by his older sister, who he wants to replace his mother. This, along with his degenerating relationship with his father and falling in with a bad crowd, lead him to enlist in the army. He ends up in Vietnam, where, worn down by the humidity of the jungle, the ever-presence of death and the recklessness of his superiors, he lobs a grenade into the tent of his commander, Tom Vance, who barely survives. Back home, Jeannie has an affair with Lee, a teenage activist who works with an underground group forging exemption letters for draftees. When Jeannie learns of Kip’s arrest, she vows to defend him, certain that he is innocent. She slowly comes to terms with his guilt, and this process leads her to seek out Vance, recovering in a San Francisco hospital. She doesn’t reveal her identity, and they fall into something like love; it is only when they are on the verge of moving in together that she tells him who she really is.”