KUDOS by Rachel Cusk
(Faber €19.45) WHEN Rachel Cusk published her coruscatingly bitter memoir Aftermath, about her marriage break-up, the response from some quarters was so brutal, she was unable to write anything again for years.
Kudos brings to a close the trilogy she eventually embarked on, in which the narrator, Faye, a writer and divorced mother, just like Cusk, recounts a series of conversations she has had with various people: fellow writers, complete strangers, her children.
Such is Cusk’s peerless prose (each word as cool and clean as vodka) that this very simple idea — in which Cusk is both present and perturbingly absent — has produced one of the most fascinating sequences in recent fiction.
Here, Faye travels to a literary festival in Europe and, as ever, mainly listens while others talk — about themselves, the mess they have made of their lives and their valiant attempts at self-protection.
If anything, Kudos suggests Cusk’s experiment in fictional autobiography has reached a natural end — it lacks the shocking, high-definition clarity of its predecessors. It will be fascinating to see what she does next.
A SHOUT IN THE RUINS by Kevin Powers
(Sceptre €17.15) IT HELPS to have experienced war in order to write about it. Powers is a veteran of Iraq and his debut novel about that conflict, The Yellow Birds, was widely acclaimed. Here, he focuses on the American Civil War and, through a parallel narrative set 90 years later, a war America is arguably still fighting — namely, the legacy of slavery.
The early-set scenes featuring Rawls and Nurse, two black slaves on the Beauvais plantation owned by Levallois and his white wife Emily, are full of heat and violence, while the scenes from the battlefields sing with a ghastly poetry.
Ninety years on, George, the orphaned offspring of a rape between Levallois and Nurse, embarks on a late-life journey to reconnect with his roots.
The irresolute nature of his quest points up Powers’s interest in the shifting nature of history and how we fit into it.
But, although it contains moments that burn, the novel feels frustratingly shapeless and there’s a self-consciousness in the writing that weakens its power.
MILKMAN by Anna Burns
(Faber €18.10) THE renaissance in fiction from Ireland continues with this great novel. Anna Burns is originally from Belfast, but she sits in natural company with her counterparts from across the border, Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney and Sally Rooney.
In Milkman, Burns’s third novel (her debut, No Bones, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize), the narrator, who lives in an unnamed town that we can assume is somewhere in Northern Ireland, goes only by the name of Middle Sister.
She recounts, in a long, rambling stream of consciousness, the reverberating impact on herself and her family of her secret, peculiar, engimatic relationship with the mysterious Milkman.
Against a bomb-shattered landscape, rendered toxic by a climate of prejudice, intimidation, suspicion and half-truths, Burns explores to exhilarating effect the treacherous nature of language itself.
If Beckett had written a prose poem about the Troubles, it would read a lot like this.