By Alas­tair Mab­bott

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - BOOKS REVIEW -

Per­fume River by Robert Olen But­ler (No Exit, £8.99)

An en­counter with a home­less vet­eran awak­ens mem­o­ries for Florida his­tory lec­turer Robert Quin­lan of his ser­vice in Viet­nam, his draft-avoid­ing brother Jimmy, from whom he is es­tranged, and his proud Sec­ond World War vet­eran fa­ther, who is near the end of his life. Robert, whose re­la­tion­ship with his wife and for­mer an­ti­war pro­tester Darla, has set­tled into com­fort­able, pas­sion­less fa­mil­iar­ity, orig­i­nally joined the mil­i­tary mainly to please his fa­ther, and with the old man’s death ap­proach­ing, Jimmy has to de­cide whether to re­turn from Canada to see him and risk re­open­ing old wounds. Mean­while, the home­less man, like a cracked re­flec­tion of Robert, drifts wraith-like through the nar­ra­tive. The Pulitzer-win­ning But­ler has spent many years pon­der­ing the scars left by Viet­nam on Amer­ica’s psy­che, and this thought­ful and con­sid­ered novel stands as a sober­ing re­minder that there are still mem­bers of an age­ing gen­er­a­tion to have, even now, failed to find peace.

You Will Not Have My Hate by An­toine Leiris (Vin­tage, £7.99)

Hélène Muyal-Leiris was one of 89 peo­ple killed at the Bat­a­clan in Paris two years ago. Her hus­band An­toine was at home with their 17-month-old baby, and learned of the mas­sacre on TV. In the wake of her death, he wrote an open let­ter on Face­book of his re­fusal to give in to ha­tred of the killers, which gar­nered in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion. This slim vol­ume was writ­ten just be­fore the fu­neral, a record he felt he had to write quickly, to freeze the present tense and cap­ture his words while he was still the per­son who loves Hélène rather than the per­son who once loved her. It’s an ag­o­nis­ing ac­count of those first few days, in which the lives of fa­ther and son changed for­ever. De­spite the haste with which it was writ­ten, ev­ery word is cho­sen with care and charged with mean­ing, a raw and hon­est mem­oir of grief which can’t fail to move.

Moscow At Mid­night by Sally Mc­Grane (Con­tra­band, £8.99)

Amer­i­can se­cret agent Max Rush­more is back in the field, but with the agency down­siz­ing him he’s been con­tracted to a pri­vate con­cern. He’s in Rus­sia to in­ves­ti­gate a woman’s ap­par­ent death, which leads him into the murky world of closed cities, di­a­monds and covert pro­cess­ing of nu­clear waste. Happy to be back in the saddle, Rush­more finds his way to pro­gres­sively colder and more re­mote re­gions with a com­bi­na­tion of re­source­ful­ness and an un­usual de­gree of em­pa­thy for the peo­ple he meets. The story is spiced up by an un­ex­pected di­ver­sion into a pe­cu­liarly Rus­sian form of sci­en­tific mys­ti­cism, but Mc­Grane’s low-key ap­proach all too fre­quently gets it bogged down in flat con­ver­sa­tions in grim bars, apart­ments and of­fices. With more dy­namism, the sto­ry­telling might have lived up to some of the more in­trigu­ing ideas.

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