THE OTHER FAMILY
by JOANNA TROLLOPE
by Zoe Strimpel
Trollope’s fifteenth novel starts from a rock-solid premise – that is, one guaranteed to stir something in most people’s bosoms. Richie Rossiter, a musician just a bit past his prime, suddenly dies. In London, he’s got three daughters with Chrissie, a beautiful blonde and the woman for whom he left his wife in Newcastle.
But while Richie and Chrissie lived together for over 20 years and had three daughters, Richie never married Chrissie. The spectre of his other family up north haunted her and she dealt with it by not thinking about them (or trying not to). But that becomes impossible on Richie’s death – because he leaves his fortune to them.
Trollope is known to carefully research her novels. In this one, the odd business of family inheritance comes under the magnifying glass, and the thoroughness of presentation lends the book a solidity and craftiness that much easy-reading contemporary fiction lacks.
She is also a master of character – the clash between the two families here is rendered with great poignancy and realism. Old resentments, feelings of abandonment and loss and old love all have to jostle with the noisy banalities of money and property. As family dramas go, this one is a rich, satisfying and – ultimately – uplifting read. It’s the work of an author at the top of her game.
INSIDE OF A DOG
by ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ
Simon & Schuster, £9.99
by ZOE STRIMPEL
“I’ve gotten inside the dog, and have glimpsed the dog’s point of view,” writes Horowitz in her preface. “You can do the same. If you have a dog in the room with you, what you see in that great, furry pile of dogness is about to change.”
This doesn’t sound like the basis of a serious book. But the zany sensitivities of dog lovers aside, it is a valuable read for anyone interested in the phenomenon of being. Horowitz is a psychologist with a Ph.D in cognitive science (for humans), and she uses her training as a jumping off point for consideration of the world of a creature that will inevitably, eternally be out of reach, but which still provides useful insights into ourselves, and, of course, the dogs we love.
Much of her work draws on the ideas of early 20th century biologist Jakob von Uexhull, who said that anyone who wants to understand the life of an animal must begin by considering what he called their “ umwelt... their subjective or ‘self-world.’ ”
In a pleasant, almost pottering style, Horowitz reveals how dog’s “umwelt” is largely to do with their nose (ears and eyes also play a big role). Because of smell – beagles, for example, have 300 million receptor sites on their nose, compared to a paltry 6m for humans – objects, time and experience are perceived differently.
To a human, a rose is a beautiful, pleasant smelling thing. To a dog, it is only interesting if it smells interesting. Likewise a hammer has function and interest to a human – to a dog, without the smell of its cute neighbour’s urine to add interest, it simply doesn’t exist.
This is a book for dog lovers. Though it forces us to consider certain philosophical questions, human perception is, first and foremost, only a conduit to understanding the world of pooches here. Niche, perhaps. Fascinating, certainly.
THE MAN FROM BEIJING
BY HENNING MANKELL
Harvill Secker, £17.99
by JEREMY HAZLEHURST
THE author is most famous in this country for his Wallander novels, which have been reinterpreted for British television with Kenneth Branagh in the lead role. But there is more to his output than the cases of the gloomy Swedish detective.
In this novel Mankell proves that, like his compatriot Stieg Larsson, the author of the Millennium Trilogy, he has breadth of vision and a keen understanding of the darker side of the twenty-first century. The book has a fantastic opening, in which a wolf smells blood and wanders into a village, where the reader discovers that 19 people have been killed in mysterious circumstances. This is not normal for rural Sweden. We are soon introduced to Birgitta Roslin, who takes the role of detective. She is a quirky enough character to hold reader, a judge who is married to a railway ticket inspector, and who has a love of the Eurovision Song Contest.
But suddenly what is looking like a straightforward thriller takes a peculiar turning. The investigation into the murders soon leads us to 1860s Nevada, where gangs of Chinese were horribly abused as they built the railways across America. From there, we are spirited to Beijing in 2006, and on to Copenhagen, then to Africa, where we are told at great length about China’s deals with some of the continent’s governments, which Mankell clearly disapproves of.
At some point, this stops being a thrilling yarn, and you get the distinct feeling that you are being preached to. There is no reason that a thriller cannot also educate readers about the ills of the modern world, but being bashed around the head with Mankell’s conscience gets wearing after a while. There is a stunning denouement in London’s Chinatown, but it doesn’t make up for the novel’s sometimes hectoring tone. Lovers of Wallander might be disappointed.