By Alastair Mabbott
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.