Books you have to read this October

James Walton

A boisterously merry return to the Twenties and a cathartic collection of melancholy tales are our top literary picks this month

Blotto, Twinks and the Great Road Race by Simon Brett
(Constable, £20.99)

Simon Brett’s Blotto and Twinks books have a strong claim to be the frothiest novels of recent times. They’re also hugely enjoyable: part send-up, part celebration of old-fashioned British adventure stories, with a large dollop of PG Wodehouse thrown in.

Certainly, Blotto himself owes much to Bertie Wooster—being cheery, dim and with friends who have names like Trumbo McCorquodash. His beautiful sister Twinks shares his taste for Brett’s parody version of 1920s slang, but is otherwise very different: utterly brilliant at everything, including translating Dostoyevsky into Sanskrit.

In their latest ripping yarn, the two take part in a London-to-Rome car race, getting into endless scrapes—most of them naturally caused by dastardly foreigners. Meanwhile, French people show just how French they are by saying “how you say” a lot; chapters begin with sentences such as “There was no time to lose”; and the whole mad confection reaches its climax when the baddies reveal a lethal machine called The Giant Mousetrap—mainly because it is one.

Brett, you can’t help thinking, must have had enormous fun writing this book. Almost as much, in fact, as I had reading it.

 

Grand Union by Zadie Smith
(Hamish Hamilton, £20)

If it’s a proper literary wrestle you want, there’s always the first collection of short stories by Zadie Smith. Smith made her name in her early twenties with 2000’s White Teeth, an exhilarating and very funny depiction of multicultural London. Since then, though, her work has grown more experimental, much less comic and much more anxious—not least about the fact that you become more anxious in middle age.

Her increasing gloom is once more on display here, along with that increasing taste for experimentation. For my money, the stories that work best are the most straightforward: “Big Week”, for instance, is a brilliant and heartbreaking portrait of a man trying to pretend that his life hasn’t fallen apart. Yet, this only makes it all the more frustrating that so many of the others are so self-conscious in their literariness (or, if you prefer, quite hard to understand).

Smith remains one of the most talented writers around. But this collection makes you wish, however unfairly, that she’d retained the joyousness she had when she first burst on the scene. Then again, Grand Union makes it pretty clear that so does she.

 

RD's recommended read

A History of Falling: Everything I Observed About Love Whilst Dying by Joe Hammond is published by 4th Estate at £14.99

A father reflects on what lies ahead as he’s forced to confront leaving his small children behind

 

A History of Falling: Everything I Observed About Love Whilst Dying by Joe Hammond is published by 4th Estate at £14.99

One of his most unexpected reactions was that “a terminal diagnosis is the very finest tool a writer can have”—because he could now see both the beginning and the end of his life with real clarity and perspective. As the memories surface, Hammond gives us (and perhaps himself) a vivid account of his unhappy childhood as the son of bohemian parents who split up when he was young and went on, as he witnessed, to live fairly rackety lives.

Nonetheless, the sections of this remarkable, heart-rending book that pack the most powerful punch are those set in the present. Hammond describes his own decline in an almost matter-of-fact way, but without ever sparing us the indignity involved. He squarely confronts the fact that his children—Tom, six, and Jimmy, 18 months—will grow up without him. As his disabilities intensify, he also notices the awkward responses of people who apparently don’t want to be reminded that what happens in life is essentially beyond our control.

By the end, Hammond is in a wheelchair, and has chosen where he wants to be buried (in a wood where his sons can play around the grave). Yet even then his prose remains unfailingly sharp and thoughtful.

This passage comes just after he’s been diagnosed and, for the first time in his adult life, has discovered a “facility for crying” that lasted five days…

 

I was eating scrambled eggs, watching the milk pump out from Tom’s mouth as he spooned up his cereal. Gill had her back to us, making packed lunches, and over Tom’s shoulder I could see Jimmy trying to mount a sofa several hands too high for him. I got up and went to the bedroom to lie on my side. I pulled the pillow into my bottom lip and squeezed my face together, wringing it out, so that the pillow became damp around my eye socket. I could hear Gill telling Tom to get his shoes on. Then my diaphragm started chugging. It felt like hiccups but more rapid and rhythmical. More like a pulsing. I rolled on to my back and pulled the pillow into my teeth. There’s an ambient, wheezing noise that accompanies this kind of sobbing—a layer of treble that makes it sound as though I’m pleading for some kind of mercy. I had a toy once that made this noise when you turned it upside down. It was supposed to sound like a cow, but it was more like a smoker’s wheeze.

I was tucking my knees into my chest and breathing more steadily now. I heard a door open in the next room, and Gill was stating something assertively. I knew that she was gathering up Tom’s schoolbag and I wanted to say goodbye. I could tell the episode was almost over and I sat up on the edge of the bed. This was the functionality of tears that I became used to in those five days. I knew I needed a moment after the exertion, like knowing when I need a cup of tea. I had my hands on my knees and looked around. Nothing had changed. Then I went back into the kitchen.

When the crying came at night, I’d be squeezing the duvet in my fists and thinking very acutely of the physicality of Tom and Jimmy. It must have been something close to focused meditation because I would imagine their current form, then focus in on the changes that I imagined would take place in their bodies in the years to come. I would imagine the lengthening of Tom’s lean legs and the broadening of his V-shaped jawline. I imagined the fine, fair hair that would appear on his face. I imagined his length and strength and the cheekbones that would one day underline his gaze. With Jimmy, I love and marvel at the width of his feet and hands. I imagine him continuing to be broad and solid. His shoulders would thicken and his jawline would be rounder than Tom’s. I imagined him shorter than Tom but more burly. In Jimmy’s case I also felt guilt that I knew his physical shape and form, but he would never remember mine. He would often nap on the bed with his chin cupped in his hands and I would talk to his sleeping body and tell him how sorry I was.


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