Books to get you through lockdown

James Walton

Unsettling mother-daughter relations and a gripping retelling of John Lennon’s murder which sent shockwaves through the world are at the heart of our literary pick this month

The Push by Ashley Audrain

(Michael Joseph, £12.99)

Ever since Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on a Train (published at the start of 2015) hit the big time, January has traditionally been the month when publishers get extremely excited about psychological thrillers by first-time authors—ideally with unreliable narrators. And sure enough, if you go to Amazon, you’ll see that The Push is described by its publisher Michael Joseph as “2021’s Most Astonishing Debut”. Yet while this verdict is possibly/shamelessly premature, it’s not hard to understand why they have such high hopes for this book.

“Man hands on misery to man,” wrote the ever-cheery Philip Larkin. Here, though, it’s women who do the handing. The narrator—unreliable or otherwise—is Blythe Connor, whose mother Cecilia never liked her very much. Then again, Celia’s own mother didn’t like her very much either. So when Blythe has a daughter, Violet, she’s determined to break the cycle—and to be like all those other mums out there who apparently delight in their maternity and are smitten by their children. Unfortunately, she doesn’t like Violet very much. Worse, the dislike is mutual.

But is Blythe wrong to believe that, even as a young child, Violet is capable of deliberately terrible acts? Her husband certainly thinks Blythe is being, at the very least, irrational—but one of the things that makes this such an gripping read is that for much of the novel the reader isn’t sure who the monster is (or maybe who the monsters are).

The theme of mothers not feeling what mothers are supposed to feel is perhaps not such a startling taboo as the publishers suggest. For a start, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin—like The Push, written in the second person by the narrator to her husband—covered a lot of similar ground in 2003. The same idea has also cropped up pretty regularly in psychological thrillers since. Nonetheless, there’s no denying that Ashley Audrain tucks into it with real page-turning aplomb all the way to the final explosive twist.

Michael Joseph have surely still got a bit carried away with their hype. But don’t let that put you off. This remains a fine and darkly unsettling novel by a writer of obvious talent.

 

RD's recommended read

The Last Days of John Lennon by James Patterson, with Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge

Published by Century at £20

James Patterson is not so much an author as an industry. One of America’s bestselling novelists—and the most borrowed from British libraries every year since 2008—he’s published around 200 books, many with the aid of co-writers. Best-known for his crime fiction, he now turns to one of the 20th century’s most notorious real crimes: the 1980 shooting of John Lennon in New York by Mark Chapman.

The book’s title, in fact, is misleading. We do get the details of Lennon’s last days. But we get plenty, too, about his life before that, from childhood onwards. There’s also a distinctly thriller-like structure—to go with the thriller-like prose—as Lennon’s full story is interspersed with increasingly sinister scenes of Chapman arriving in New York; hanging around the Dakota building where Lennon lived with Yoko; obsessively reading The Catcher in the Rye; and gradually steeling himself to carry out his chilling planned murder.

Patterson’s admiration for Lennon is clear. Nonetheless, the thoroughly researched biography does remind us again what a contradictory and often troubled character he was. Meanwhile, the book has a convincing stab at explaining Chapman’s motives: a mixture of Christian outrage at Lennon’s 1966 declaration that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, a belief that Lennon was a despicable hypocrite for singing “imagine no possessions” while having quite a lot of them, and a desire (tragically successful) for the world to know his name. Yet in the end, Chapman still feels—rightly, I would suggest—like something of a blank: the nobody he tried so hard not to be.

This passage takes place just after the shooting, when Chapman has been apprehended by the Dakota’s doorman, Jose Perdomo. Peter Cullen and Steve Spiro are the first police officers to arrive…

Spiro and Cullen draw their weapons and slowly pass through the archway of the Dakota. Cullen sees a familiar face. It’s Jose Perdomo. ‘Jose, what the hell is going on here?’

The security guard points to a doughy man in an overcoat with his nose stuck in a paperback book.

‘He shot John Lennon!’ Perdomo cries through trembling lips.

Cullen motions his partner to stay with the suspect. Spiro points his gun at the man, who throws his hands up in surrender.

‘Don’t hurt me,’ he pleads. ‘I’m unarmed. Please don’t let anyone hurt me.’

Spiro grabs the suspect and faces him against the wall, kicking his feet apart.

Cullen enters the Dakota guardhouse, where John is lying face down. Porter Jay Hastings is ready to apply a tourniquet to John’s wounds, but there is little more he can do than remove John’s glasses and cover him with his uniform coat.

‘It’s okay, John, you’ll be all right,’ Hastings whispers. Trickles of blood are beginning to seep from the corners of John’s mouth.

Cullen searches the suspect for weapons, and when he’s clear, shouts, ‘Cuff him, Steve!’

Spiro slaps a pair of handcuffs on the suspect’s wrists. The man winces. ‘I acted alone,’ he says. ‘I’m the only one.’

Cullen and Spiro lead Mark into the street. ‘Nobody’s gonna hurt you,’ Spiro tells him. ‘Just do as you’re told.’

Mark freezes. ‘My book, my book!’ he says frantically.

His life is contained inside those pages. Cullen reaches down and grabs The Catcher in the Rye from the pavement. He hands it to Mark as they put him into the back of the squad car.

He feels safe. And he has his book—his message—to keep him company.

The enormity of what he’s done settles on him. The dream is no longer a dream but an unshakable, unalterable reality.

He has gone from unseen to *seen*.

From unknown to *known*. From nobody to *somebody*.

There will be fan clubs, of course, and psychiatrists. Lots of famous psychiatrists who will all fight for a chance to speak to him, to get in his mind and try to answer the unanswerable question of *why*. He will never provide them with a direct answer. He has to keep them guessing, because once they figure him out, they’ll move on to someone else. That’s how the celebrity game is played.

Soon, everyone in this city will be battling one another to get a glimpse of him, the man who killed John Lennon. His name will be all over the papers, all over the news—all over the world—in just a few hours.

Mark takes in a deep breath. Smiles.

From the corner of his eye he catches movement outside his window. He turns his head slightly to his right, hears some commotion, and then he sees someone crouching, looking at him.

It’s Yoko. She stares at him through the glass. Mark stares back.

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