RESTLESS DOLLY MAUNDER by Kate Grenville (canongate £16.99, 256pp)
AS A young girl, Dolly Maunder lives for the gold star she is frequently awarded at school. She’s bright — far too bright for the daughter of a farmer in Currabubula, New South Wales, in 1881. So when her father forbids her from training to be a teacher, insisting she stay home to work instead, she nurses a resentment that will never abate.
Dolly forges ahead regardless, rejecting the expected life of a farmer’s wife and, with her philandering husband, establishing a succession of successful pubs and hotels. Yet she can never forget society sees her only as a woman and, try as she might, she can’t bring herself to entirely love her three children — thrusting them away whenever they seek her out.
Grenville, who has made a career from filling in the gaps in the lives of forgotten Australian women from history, tells Dolly’s story swiftly, cleanly and compassionately, all the while refusing to let this difficult, furious woman off the hook. Excellent.
by Paul Auster (Faber £18.99, 208pp)
AUSTER’S career will always be crowned by the postmodern antics of The New York Trilogy, a book people tend to read — and fall in love with — when they are students.
All the same I had high hopes for Baumgartner, which is told from the perspective of a septuagenarian professor in mourning for his wife, Anna, an unpublished poet who died in a freak accident ten years ago.
And for its first third it is indeed a delight — a tragicomic account of bereavement and the ravages of ageing shot through with an unexpected poignant light. Yet then Auster goes all Auster on himself, incorporating tracts of Anna’s memoir, a quick deep dive into the lives of Baumgartner’s parents that, wink wink, takes in some of Auster’s own ancestry, and a couple of abrupt about-turns that don’t so much widen the scope of his story as erode the reader’s trust.
Some of his observations are zingers, though: ‘Ten years later Baumgartner marvels at how little has changed for him since those early months of insanity.’ If only Auster had stuck to a boringly conventional novel about grief.
BROOKLYN CRIME NOVEL by Jonathan Lethem (Atlantic £20, 384pp)
LETHEM’S latest isn’t a crime novel exactly, in fact, it’s not even really a novel. It is, however, set in Brooklyn, the stomping ground of some of his best known works (including the award-winning Motherless Brooklyn), and which both by default and by design becomes the novel’s principal character.
For this curious literary experiment best resembles a scrapbook of reportage — a long sequence of vividly realised short episodes, zigzagging back and forth across several decades and detailing imagined and real moments in the city’s history, many of which pivot on the tension between black and white, poverty and gentrification.
Lethem writes in a cool, disaffected, electric style and with deep love for the borough he was both born in and which he has given such rich imaginative life. Still, it’s a book to dip in and out of — perhaps even, a rare work of fiction to savour in the loo.