LITERARY FICTION by ANTHONY CUMMINS
BIRNAM WOOD by Eleanor Catton (Granta £20, 432 pp)
NEW ZEALAND writer Eleanor Catton became the youngest-ever winner of the Booker with her Victorian crime saga The Luminaries in 2013. While some readers warmed to its sly playfulness, others found it overlong and over-patterned (its characters were based on zodiac signs), but few could doubt Catton’s ambition.
Her stealthily plotted new novel — a thriller about Kiwi eco-activists — more than confirms her talent, as long as you let it work its magic.
The title refers to a guerrilla gardening collective riven by in-fighting after its young head, Mira, forms an unlikely partnership with Robert, an American tech billionaire who is in New Zealand to secure a safe haven in the event of environmental catastrophe. In truth, he’s got a mining project up his sleeve.
If you stick with the first 50 pages, which do the spadework of laying out the backstory, this book grabs and doesn’t let go. Cleverly done.
THE SUN WALKS DOWN by Fiona McFarlane (Sceptre £18.99, 416 pp)
McFARLANE is a U.S.-based Australian novelist whose debut, The Night Guest, unspooled the unstable memories of an elderly widow. Her new book, which takes place over a single week in 1883, spreads out more — a lot more.
Set in an outback town on Aboriginal land claimed by European settlers, it begins as a missing-person mystery about a six-year-old boy, Denny, lost during a dust storm. But don’t be fooled: McFarlane deploys her premise not for shock or sensation, but to offer a sensitive, slow-burn panorama of society in colonial Australia.
Moving persuasively between a vast, impressively diverse array of characters, young and old, incoming and indigenous, privileged and deprived, she lets us listen in on their private (often competing) hopes and desires as the community pulls together to hunt for the boy.
The result is moving and masterful — rich slices of life made vivid by the oldfashioned nitty-gritty of flesh-andblood character-making.
CURSED BREAD by Sophie Mackintosh (Hamish Hamilton £16.99, 192 pp)
MACKINTOSH followed her dystopian debut The Water Cure, in which masculinity was literally toxic, with the eerie sci-fi scenario of Blue Ticket, a chase narrative set in a shadowy regime that sorts pubescent girls by lottery into future mothers and non-mothers.
Her new book, inspired by the strange case of an unexplained mass poisoning in a French village in 1951, revisits her themes of women’s agency and desire in typically surreal style — it isn’t a conventional historical novel so much as a sun-scorched fever dream.
We follow Elodie, a baker’s wife who, frustrated by her chaste marriage, fantasises ever more luridly about an attractive power couple, the so-called ‘ambassador’ and his wife, Violet, who are new in town.
Mackintosh’s top-notch phrasemaking and knack for forming uncanny images generate a baleful atmosphere of lust and dread in this splendidly peculiar tale, as the narrator’s psychosexual shenanigans play out in the face of increasingly creepy goingson that herald wider catastrophe.