John Irving’s complicated, hostile America hits the mark once again

Bloomsbury, £12.99

ANOTHER epic north American novel set amid the woods and snow from the author of The Cider House Rules, this book begins in a sawmill settlement in New Hampshire in 1954 but roves throughout Boston, Vermont, Maine and Toronto.

The story – in typical Irving style – has complexity that is difficult to convey in a few words. It begins with the death of a 15-year-old boy, killed in a logging accident. His story re-emerges later, but the prominent plot line revolves around an anxious twelve year old who mistakes the local Coos County constable’s girlfriend for a bear and shoots her. Both he and his father become fugitives, constantly pursued by the implacable constable. Their lone protector is a fiercely libertarian logger, once a river driver, who sympathises with their isolation.

The story spans five decades, and though it takes place in provincial places, it is intended as a reflection of America itself over the last half century, the US being, in Irving’s words, “a living replica of Coos County, where lethal hatreds were generally permitted to run their course.”

Emotional subtlety and historical authenticity are Irving’s trademarks, and they are out in force here. Modern literature lacks old masters, and this is one of them at his best, so tuck in.

Zoe Strimpel

Pocket Books, £7.99

FOLLOWING up a fantastically successful first novel is always a tricky task. Child 44, Tom Rob Smith’s million-selling debut, was a thriller that played with the genre’s conventions so thoroughly that it was Booker longlisted. It told the story – based on reality – of a Soviet serial-killer, and the way that the authorities failed to react to his murders. It wondered about authority and goodness.

The Secret Speech (which came out in hardback last year, but is in paperback now) is evidently designed to appeal to those who enjoyed the first book. Set in 1956 Russia, just after Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s denouncement of him, it shares the same protagonist, an agent of the MGB security service named Leo. As Stalinism dissolves, he is forced to confront the evidence of his and his colleagues’ actions as he makes his way through Russia, via gulags, a riot on a ship, a hair-raising aeroplane ride and the Budapest uprising.

The plot is pretty demented and the characterisation shallow, but with all the shouting, shooting and running the book gallops along so fast that you hardly get a moment to notice. While The Secret Speech is unlikely to give you too many insights into human nature, it will give you some cheapish thrills and teach you a lot about Soviet Russia without too much pain. Book clubs and tired commuters will absolutely love it.

Jeremy Hazlehurst

Quercus, £15.99

THE doyenne of American letters is back with another of her trademark perfect plots, and it’s just as insalubrious as usual. Once again, cynicism and sexual unpleasantness lies at the root of her characters’ dealings and – so it feels – their world.

From the stark, portentous beginning – “Innocently it began” – we know immediately that the only truck this book has with innocence is documenting its slow demise.

The action begins in New Jersey, on the boardwalk of Bayhead Harbour. Katya Spivak, age 16, is out strolling with her two summer babysitting charges when a silver-haired sixty-eight year old called Marcus Kidder catches her ogling lingerie in a fancy shop. Softly he asks her what, from the wares before her, is her “wish” to own – to Katya, “wish” sounds like something from a fairytale. As Oates observes with typical darkness and acuity: “At 16 she was too old to believe in fairy tales, but she did believe in what might be promised by a genial male voice urging your wish.”

They develop a seemingly harmless friendship. Katya, who has grown up in a drab world, is intrigued by Kidder’s beautiful house and wealth. All he wants from her is that she pose for his new painting. Of course, it soon becomes clear that Kidder isn’t just after artistic inspiration, and that he’s not going to choose the gentlemanly path in relation to his surging desire. With her portrayal of art, sex, age, desire and money, Oates hits a good few taboos here with deadly, chilling accuracy. This novel is just as much about a rottenness in the state(s) of America as is about individuals, but European readers will not be able to drag their eyes away from it.