BY DJ TAYLOR
by Zoe Strimpel
“If he had looked back, he would have seen her walk off not in the direction of the bus stop but away east towards Barnsbury. Only he didn’t look back. He hurried on, thinking of the office in Finsbury Pavement, the twenty quid the Bloke was going to give him that night, the man whose identity he was about to make his own.” So commences our journey into a world of syrupy, sordid 30s noir set in the London of the 1931 financial crisis. Tough-talking writer (of sorts) James Ross (né Leo Merman) wakes up in a seedy room on the Caledonian Road, a lady of uncertain profession sharing his bed. Off on a mission to make some money, the next we hear of him he’s a carpet cleaner salesman making a few bob in Kensal Rise, living hand-to-mouth in a Bayswater bedsit. Things have got that bad.
This is when he meets the glamorous Suzi – and suddenly life seems to swell with long-forgotten promise. She looked “just like the girl in a toothpaste advert” – and their relationship gets off to a promising start. But it isn’t long until he starts feeling a bit baffled by Suzi and the romance – due in large part to her boss, the enigmatic Mr Rasmussen, whose face bears a striking resemblance to one of the portraits in Police News. And why is he so interested in an abandoned premises above a Cornhill jeweller’s shop? Things get worse when the shady Mr Haversham (yes, Mr) is starting to take an interest in his affairs. With a brief to keep an eye on Rasmussen, James finds himself staying incognito at a grand society weekend in a Sussex country house, where the truth about Rasmussen and Suzi comes as an unexpected shock.
As you’ll have noticed, the story is a bit obscure. But it’s also a brilliant exercise in anachronistic writing, and it is refreshing and intriguing to encounter such detail – both in the characters’ vernacular and in the less glamorous parts of 1930s London and City life. DJ Taylor is a prize-winning biographer of Orwell and his mastery of history is unquestionable. Here it translates into a brilliantly punchy book with above-average relevance for our cash-strapped times.
BY ELEANOR CATTON
Granta paperback, £7.99
by Zoe Strimpel
Winner of the Betty Trask Award for a first novel, this could easily be mistaken for the work of a writer of much more experience. New Zealander Catton has created literary gold with an interesting, playful and inventive book about the aftershocks of a teacher-student affair at a high school. The discovery by female pupils of a liaison between their music teacher, the attractive Mr Saladin, and their classmate Victoria, conjures up a seething atmosphere of envy and curiosity as the pubescent girls get to grips with a suddenly adult world.
From the very beginning, there is a running theme of bodies and their burgeoning mystery – indeed the musicality and verve with which Catton describes physical being and its interplay with the mind is integral to the book. A female saxophone teacher specifies at the beginning that she will only take on a student “when she realises that her body is a secret, a dark and yawning secret of which she becomes more and more ashamed.”
The second strand of the novel, one which Catton juxtaposes elegantly, is the musical rendition of the Saladin affair that the local drama school decides to put on – the scandal appeals as a perfect dramatic project, with strange effect. The narrative darts about from different registers – surreal lyricism such as spoken by the sax teacher – to the banality of teenspeak.
It’s a fascinating novel from beginning to end, and irresistible. Catton’s only challenge now is measuring up to it in her next effort.
A LITTLE FOLLY
BY JUDE MORGAN
Headline Review, £19.99
by Caitlin Nolan
Clever historical fiction writer Jude Morgan here makes an epic return to a time of high society and complicated circumstances with a healthy dose, of course, of romantic intrigue. For all that it enters the world of 2010, A Little Folly has an air of romantic fiction and social commentary about the Regency period that would make even Jane Austen proud.
Having lived with a man who placed boundaries on every aspect of their entire being, Valentine and Louisa Carnell have been granted an unexpected freedom in life with the passing of their father, the strict and rigid Sir Clement. To mend the rifts that took place at the hands of the late country gentleman, a “revolutionary dinner” with once close friends is planned, and thus we meet a cast of strong characters, well-positioned to play off each other in true Regency fashion.
As the novel unfolds, we follow the brother and sister on a tale of conflict, love and status which begs the question: had the restraints once imposed on the siblings by their domineering patriarch been just as intimidating as the prospects laid out before them? Having once dreamt of practising law, Valentine finds himself to be the head of an impressive household, and the appealing nature of a life more reckless is beckoning. Louisa, a heroine that could hold her own against Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennett, searches for love and an identity of her own, all the while conflicted with the dilemma of a dictated betrothal.
Morgan’s Indiscretion and A Taste of Sorrow led readers into a world where history and romance are effortlessly intertwined, the result being whirlwind prose sure to capture any reader. A Little Folly is of similar quality in spirit and style, and enthusiasts and newcomers alike will be left satisfied.