FREE LOVE by Tessa Hadley (Cape £16.99, 288 pp)
by Tessa Hadley (Cape £16.99, 288 pp)
Married love — incidentally the title of an acclaimed collection of short stories by Tessa Hadley — is a subject much on the mind of 40-year-old suburban wife and mother, Phyllis. Her conjugal relations, she thinks, are ‘too kind’ — and simply can’t compete with the intoxicating, sensual abandon of the affair she embarks on with Nicky, a man young enough to be her son.
Having left her faithful, establishment-pillar husband, as well as her children, Phyllis immerses herself in would-be writer Nicky’s world.
And as this is 1967, hers is a political awakening as well as a sexual one: moving to edgy, bohemian Ladbroke Grove in London to be with her lover, Phyllis’s bourgeois background suddenly becomes a source of shame as her eyes are opened to the evils of capitalism (and the West in general).
Set as it is during an era of upheaval, change — and just as importantly, the limits of it — is at the heart of this sparkling and affecting book. And Phyllis is not the only one undergoing transformation: her teenage daughter is learning how to perform to win the approval of her peers, while her young son is wrenchingly packed off to boarding school to become a real man.
A dizzying plot twist will have you racing through the pages, but ultimately it’s Hadley’s characters that you’ll remember: their follies, failings, joys and desires are captured with such acuity and empathy that you truly live alongside them.
THE SENTENCE by Louise Erdrich (Corsair £20, 400 pp)
by Louise Erdrich (Corsair £20, 400 pp)
Louise Erdrich has been tipped by many to win the Nobel Prize for a multi-award-winning body of work that draws extensively on her Native American heritage.
This novel, however, begins in deceptively frothy style, when thirtysomething Tookie ends up incarcerated after a farcical series of events.
Fast forward ten years and she’s working in a Minneapolis Native American bookstore, where her customers include Flora, who is desperate to claim an indigenous connection. But Flora doesn’t cease being pesky when she dies, continuing to haunt the shelves.
With its wise-cracking characters, The Sentence is initially reminiscent of Alice Hoffman, albeit (as Tookie notes) in fiction it’s usually Indians doing the haunting — unquiet reminders of America’s brutal past — not eccentric ‘wannabes’ like Flora. But this is 2019.
With the new year comes first the pandemic and then the death, in Minneapolis itself, of George Floyd. Suddenly everyone is turning to bookshops as a source of solace and enlightenment.
As the owner of a store herself, Erdrich knows whereof she writes, and her off-beat ghost story is in part a love letter to books and the shops that sell them. It also captures with compelling fidelity a year of personal and national dread and anguish — yet still pulls off a happy ending.
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