LITERARY FICTION by ANTHONY CUMMINS
ORBITAL by Samantha Harvey (Cape £14.99, 144 pp)
SAMANTHA HARVEY never writes the same book twice: her novels have included All Is Song, drawn on the life of an ancient Greek philosopher, and The Western Wind, a medieval murder-mystery with a back-to-front timeline.
Now she is going into space. Orbital is a gorgeous novel giving us a day in the life of six astronauts on an international space station turning around the Earth. We feel the joy and grind of the astronauts’ lives in its rhythms and textures as they carry out routine safety checks, communicate with loved ones and generally contemplate the bewildering nature of existence while observing the planet from afar.
Things do happen here — a typhoon ravages Asia; someone’s mother dies — but it’s no spoiler to say that no one goes rogue on board, à la Alien.
Yet, despite the lack of conventional drama, it offers an intensely charged reading experience, sustained by the sensory thrill of Harvey’s imaginative attention to detail.
RUN TO THE WESTERN SHORE by Tim Pears (Swift £12.99, 208 pp)
ENGLISH author Tim Pears is going back in time. In 2011 he published Disputed Land, a family saga set in a discreetly dystopian near future.
Next came In The Light Of Morning, about wartime Slovenia in 1944. His new novel — compact and engrossing — is a tale centred on an unlikely pair of runaways in the early days of Roman Britain.
Olwen is a Celtic princess who finds herself offered as a makeweight in a peace deal cut by her chieftain father. She decides to make a break for it with Quintus, an enslaved interpreter for the occupiers.
So begins a narrative of chase and pursuit told in bright, direct modernsounding prose. As our duo hurry through ancient Wales, there are violent encounters but also a reverence for the natural beauty of the landscape — and if there are no shocks in the duo’s blossoming cross-class love, this is a quiet pleasure of a novel.
FANATIC HEART by Thomas Keneally (Faber £20, 464 pp)
KENEALLY, a Booker winner for Schindler’s Ark, is now deep into his 80s and he is still publishing hefty novels at a clip — and he isn’t shy to mix it up either: protagonists of recent novels range from the son of Charles Dickens (in The Dickens Boy) to an aboriginal in the Stone Age (The Book Of Science & Antiquities).
His new novel is a crowded historical narrative returning to a figure Keneally has previous tackled in his equally compendious output as a historian — 19th-century Irish patriot John Mitchel, deported to Tasmania for anti-English activity.
At the centre of the story are the moral contradictions of a man who, radicalised by the ravages of the famine, fought for Irish liberty yet endorsed slavery in his second life as a journalist in the U.S.
Keneally’s retelling thunders along on a tide of detail — sometimes too much, true, but by now he knows all the tricks to make a novel tick.