New books you have to read this May

James Walton

This month, we’re offered two different perspectives on old age: one caustic, one nostalgic—both equally gripping. Plus, a wildly entertaining, in-depth look at the history and anecdotes behind the world’s greatest band...

The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver

(Borough, £16.99)

There are few sights in modern literature more thrilling—in a scary kind of way—than Lionel Shriver (best-known for We Need to Talk about Kevin) blasting away with both barrels. And here, that’s exactly what she does. Like her creator, main character Serenata isn’t one of life’s cheery souls—grateful that “being seen as woman who kept others at bay helped keep them at bay”. Like her creator too, she despises virtually all today’s received wisdoms, from identity politics to the idea of a bucket list.

Nearing 60, Serenata is forced by her wrecked knees to abandon a lifelong commitment to exercise just as her husband suddenly catches the bug. Worse, he hires a female personal trainer of disturbing perkiness, who spouts precisely the sort of lies about mind over matter that Serenata hates.

But, exhilarating though it is, there’s more to the novel than merely Serenata’s/Shriver’s ferocious grumpiness, including a page-turning climax and some wise reflections on ageing, marriage and whether our bodies define who we are—all done with the same unsparing wit.

In short, a richly enjoyable read—if not, perhaps, one for the faint-hearted.

 

Love by Roddy Doyle

(Cape, £18.99)

The approach of old age is also central to Roddy Doyle’s new novel, whose basic plot isn’t hard to summarise: two blokes in their late fifties go for lots of drinks in Dublin.

Davy and Joe, friends since school, haven’t seen much of each other in recent decades after Davy moved to England. Now they have plenty to catch up on—not least the fact that Joe has left his wife for a woman they both fancied in their twenties. But as they reminisce, it becomes alarmingly clear how untrustworthy their memories are.

At times, Doyle captures the reality of a pub crawl almost too authentically, as the men become increasingly rambling and repetitive. Yet even then, his dialogue remains as perfect as ever—and with the same ability to convey the unspoken as well. The book bristles with touching insights into male friendship, physical decline, fatherhood (the best thing in both their lives) and the sense of redundancy that comes once the children leave home.

Some Doyle fans might still miss the joyful exuberance of his early books such as The Commitments—but Love confirms that his later, more melancholy work is pretty great too.

 

RD's recommended read

One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown is published by Fourth Estate at £20

‘Does anyone seriously believe,” asked the politician and philosopher Bryan Magee in 1967, “that Beatles’ music will be an unthinkingly accepted part of daily life all over the world in the 2000s?”

Well, as we now know, those who did were right. If anything, what The Beatles achieved—and the sheer speed at which they achieved it—seems even more miraculous today than it must have done at the time. In 1962, George Harrison’s 19th birthday took place the day after the Beatles were booed off at the YMCA in Hoylake. In 1968, his 25th was celebrated on the banks of the Ganges, where the band—by then long-established as among the most famous people on Earth—were exploring Indian philosophy, having just gone from the simplicity of “Love Me Do” to the wild wordplay of “I Am the Walrus” in only five years.

"Paul looked on, fascinated by John’s ability to make things up as he went along"

Craig Brown specialises in books that examine their subjects from different angles and times to create a mosaic-effect, and this proves a particularly revealing way of looking at The Beatles. We do get the story of what happened, but also a genuine sense of say, what Beatlemania actually felt like (completely bonkers). And, as ever, Brown is particularly good at unearthing all manner of strange meetings with other global celebrities, which here include Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and Muhammad Ali.

We’re also reminded of The Beatles’ extraordinary effect on the world, from helping to heal America after the Kennedy assassination to doing “more for the destruction of totalitarianism in the USSR than Solzhenitsyn”: a theory confirmed by no less than Mikhail Gorbachev.

And just to think that it all began with two Liverpool teenagers meeting at a suburban fête…

On July 6 1957, Paul McCartney’s friend Ivan Vaughan suggested going to the church fête at Woolton, where two of his mates would be playing in a group.

Paul and Ivan looked on as a carnival procession left the church— a brass band, followed by Girl Guides and Boy Scouts and a succession of carnival floats, led by the Rose Queen. At the end came the sole concession to modernity—a teenage skiffle group called the Quarrymen, playing on an open lorry.

Once they’d completed a circuit, the Quarrymen jumped off and set up in a field just beyond the cemetery. Ivan and Paul paid threepence to see them. The first song they heard John Lennon sing was ‘Come Go With Me’ by the Del-Vikings. Paul looked on fascinated, not only by the chords John played, but by his ability to make things up as he went along.

Between sets John wandered over to the Scout hut. Elsewhere, crowds were enjoying a routine by the Liverpool City Police Dogs, while youngsters queued for balloons.

Paul wandered to the hut with Ivan. He recognised John from the bus, but had never spoken to him: Paul had just turned 15, while John was nearly 17. Even at that age, John had an intimidating air, so Paul hovered shyly. After a while he felt bold enough to ask John if he might have a go on his guitar.

Armed with the guitar, he grew bolder still. He asked to retune it, and then launched into various songs, among them ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ and ‘Be-Bop-a-Lula’. ‘It was uncanny,’ recalled another Quarryman, Eric Griffiths. ‘He had such confidence, he gave a performance. It was so natural.’ Ever more confident, Paul moved to the piano, and struck up a medley of Little Richard songs. John, too, was obsessed by Little Richard. And now here before him was this kid who could holler just like his idol.

‘I half thought to myself, “He’s as good as me,”’ said John, looking back. ‘Now, I thought, if I take him on, what will happen? It went through my head that I’d have to keep him in line. But he was good, so he was worth having. He also looked like Elvis.’

Another band member recalled the two circling each other ‘like cats’. After a while Paul and Ivan drifted off home.

Later, John asked his best friend Pete Shotton, who played washboard, what he thought of Paul. Pete said he liked him.

‘So what would you think about having Paul in the group, then?’

‘It’s OK with me.’

Two weeks later, Paul was riding his bicycle when he spotted Pete Shotton. He stopped to chat.

‘By the way,’ said Pete, ‘I’ve been talking with John about it, and… we thought maybe you’d like to join the group.’

According to Pete, a minute ticked by while Paul pretended to give the matter careful thought. ‘Oh, all right,’ he replied with a shrug; and with that he cycled off home.”

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