This installment: the art scene in Paris in the ’30s (f); a crumbling manse in England (f); dark doings in the Australian outback (f); a retired guy tries to make a life for himself (f); a piano carries weight literally and figuratively (f); and magic realism in English woodlands (f).
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer
Poor Lee Miller. We first meet her in England in ‘66, a raddled wreck. But she had been exquisite (a model), talented (a photographer), and the assistant and paramour of Man Ray in ’29 in the City of Light. What brought her to such depths? As we discover, like layers of an onion: her heart belonged to daddy; she was molested as a child; she was traumatized but determined to capture the horrors of WWI with her camera; and she didn’t stand up for herself. This is historical fiction, very well documented, and very atmospheric. Like heady descriptions of those wild parties fueled by absinthe and opium. A sad but rich read.
Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller
In a crumbling English manse Frances meets Peter and Cara. They’re supposedly working for the new owner; Peter is to document the condition of the house and Frances its architectural features. It’s a hot summer, lots of wine is consumed, their lives become interwoven, and emotions run hot as well. Frances, a prim spinster who saw her mother through to her end, is dizzy with delight at first but then things turn sinister. And we discover why now aged Frances has been in prison for decades. Chilling and atmospheric.
Scrublands by Chris Hammer
Oh the Australian outback: harsh, dry, and miserable. Especially for this small town where the beloved young priest has shot down five citizens from the steps of his church. A year later Martin, a reporter, comes to find out more and what a weird, tangled story emerges. There’s a beauty, Mandalay, who’s running a bookstore (one of the few businesses still alive) and bringing up her baby son alone. Who’s the father? And what’s the real identity of that priest? Intense!
Henry, Himself by Stewart O’Nan
Shades of Anne Tyler—everyday life anatomized, this time in Pittsburgh. A long marriage to Emily (she of O’Nan’s Emily Alone which I really liked and plan to revisit). He’s on the verge of 75, not in great shape, trying to manage post-work life with the same methodical approach he applied to engineering. Trying to fill his time. There’s Rufus the dog. Golf. Church. And family—oh, family. Problematic daughter Margaret with substance abuse problems. A snippy daughter-in-law. There’s the family cottage, Chautauqua, scene of burdens and pleasures in equal measure. The sports stuff (golfing, baseball) didn’t speak to me, but everything else did with its mixed bag of making do, chafing, and modest celebration. Note: no mention of politics at all.
The Weight of a Piano by Chris Canner
Two girls, Clara in Bakersfield in present day, Katya in Russia in earlier times. Both held in thrall by said instrument. Katya makes a bad marriage and immigrates to the USA. Clara inherits it under mysterious circumstances but never played it. Her parents died in a fire. She works as a car mechanic and loves the trade. Has to move and needs cash so puts the piano on the market. The guy who snaps it up to Clara’s regret takes it to Death Valley to be photographed. Clara follows in pursuit, worried about the instrument’s well-being in such a harsh atmosphere. Turns out the connection between buyer and seller and both families is deeply tangled. Intense, perhaps a bit overwrought, but certainly compelling.
Lanny by Max Porter
Dead Papa Toothwort, a Green Man type mythic figure, comes to “life” in an English wood. His is the first voice we hear and as he “listens” to voices and thoughts from the village, we see these on the page as undulating drifts of fragmented language, in italics. Then we tune into Lanny’s mum who writes grisly thrillers. And dad who commutes to the city for work. And Pete, an old gay artist of some renown, now retired in obscurity. And 6 year old Lanny himself, a fey spirit pretty much on the loose after school in the woods and fields. Mum arranges art lessons for him with Pete and the two are definitely kindred souls. But then Lanny goes missing, it gets scary and ugly with most suspicion landing on poor Pete. Magic realism, richly evocative and very original.
Back next week.