The Daily Telegraph - Review
The best books under the sun
19th-century America to escape plantations and reach free territory. The genius of this novel is to pretend that it was an actual railroad, in hidden tunnels. As the train stops at various states, the reader is given a Swiftian tour of “the true face of America”.
XViking, £14.99 There are elements of Greek tragedy – intergenerational strife, fraught mothers and sons, even a Mediterranean setting – in Tóibín’s earlier novels. Here he fuses those experiments and takes us decisively to ancient Greece to retell The Oresteia: Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon and her murder in turn by their son Orestes. It’s a masterpiece.
XFourth Estate, £18.99 Moonglow is presented as the deathbed memories of Chabon’s own grandfather, an AmericanJewish rocket scientist who never forgave Wernher von Braun his Nazi past. An author’s note warns us that “liberties have been taken”, but I think we’d have guessed – this is quite a tale. The material would be sombre if the telling weren’t so exuberant, the narrative threads so rich.
XBloomsbury, £18.99 From his short stories, we might have expected Saunders’s long-awaited first novel to be some sprawling vision of a future America. In fact, it’s a historical novel – albeit one like no other. It revolves around the ghost of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie, who died aged 11, and his neighbours in the graveyard. It’s an admirable feat of style – there’s no single narrator, just gobbets of text by different speakers.
XHouse of Names by Colm Tóibín Moonglow by Michael Chabon Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders White Tears by Hari Kunzru
Hamish Hamilton, £14.99 On one level, this is a nightmarish page- turner; but it’s also a disorientating odyssey through American history and a lesson in what happens when art is hijacked for less than noble aims. Two white boys, one a nerdish outsider, one very rich, bond over their infatuation with black music: “more intense and authentic than anything made by white people”.
XCommonwealth by Ann Patchett
Bloomsbury, £8.99 Lacking all the tiresome bombast of her American peers, Patchett’s unshowy account of public and private stories addresses the great puzzle of what our lives are really made of. She achieves the great novel of American domestic life with a spare hand and a demotic prose that seems to come from the mouths of her characters, even when they aren’t speaking.
XSwing Time by Zadie Smith
Penguin, £8.99 Swing Time, like her previous novel NW (2012), is about two female friends raised on the kind of housing estates where Smith herself started out. Both are mixed race, their “shade of brown exactly the same”, but Smith has an Austen-like sensitivity to social gradations; it matters very much that the narrator is the posher of the two. Satisfying and thoughtful; what satire there is feels sombre and controlled.
XThe Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
Faber, £8.99 McBride’s second novel opens in the same bewildering mode as her first, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013). “I move. Cars move. Stock, it bends light. City opening itself behind. Here’s to be for its life is the bite and would be start of mine.” Once you have begun to decipher its shattered-mirror prose, the novel – achingly funny – plunges you into the story of Eily, a teenage drama student finding her way in Nineties London.
XThe Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare, tr John Hodgson
Harvill Secker, £16.99 This bewitching novel is set in the Ottoman past of Kadare’s native Albania – a surreal, cruel world where armies march with scarecrows, dreaminterpreters and wizards. Written in 1978 under Enver Hoxha’s repressive regime, only now translated into English, its allegory is the horror of a world in which every human element is suborned to the state.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Penguin, £8.99 In this speculative fiction about the near future, power is wielded by women. It is also literally power: teenage girls develop a “skein” that generates electricity. This could become clodhopping agitprop, but Alderman handles it deftly. Power corrupts; the women soon go beyond their initial restraint and replace men as the bullies.
Our critics pick 70 titles to slip into your suitcase – from page-turners to politics
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
Granta, £12.99 In this exquisite novella, a marriage disintegrates into horror by such little steps that each feels like a sting. Edwyn kisses Neve, his younger wife, “repeatedly, and with great emphasis, in the morning”. Yet he believes all women are “insane, manipulative and sick”. After two years, Neve thinks: “This wasn’t how I spoke. (Except it was.) This wasn’t me, this crawling, cautious creature. (Except it was.)”
XNight of Fire by Colin Thubron
Vintage, £8.99 Thubron’s latest novel takes place on the south coast of England in a large house divided into flats and