A look at liberal love, a mysterious abode and exciting tales of an electrifying yet altruistic woman are this month’s top literary picks...
Just Like You by Nick Hornby
The title of Nick Hornby’s new novel works in two ways. As in his previous fiction, the setting is liberal north London where most people spend most of their time with people just like them. This, however, certainly doesn’t apply to the two main characters: Joseph—22, black and working several jobs—and Lucy, a 42-year-old English teacher and single mother. Nevertheless, much to their own surprise, they find themselves embarking on a relationship—because, well, they just like each other.
Hornby has plenty of mischievous fun with the many anxieties that middle-class liberals face in their quest to be good (when Joseph accompanies Lucy to a school quiz, her white team-mates are mortified that they can’t identify the black people in the picture round). But the book also mixes sharp-eyed observations with great tenderness as Joseph and Lucy negotiate their differences—which, in the end, have more to do with age and education than colour.
Some more sceptical readers might wonder if at times the novel portrays the world as it could and should be, rather than as it is. For my money, though, this only adds to its considerable charm.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
In 2004 Susanna Clarke hit the literary jackpot straightaway with her first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, it imagined an alternative Britain where magic was real—and became an international bestseller and a seven-part BBC drama series. Now, 16 years later, comes her second, which again imagines an alternative Britain where magic is real, but this time in the present day.
The resulting child, Sarah, has now written this terrific memoir of her mother in all her maddening, charismatic glory. In fact, Sarah’s father died when she was seven: at which point Audrey’s life took a turn for the rackety as she set off around the world in search of adventure (aka men) with her eight-year-old daughter in tow.
It begins very mysteriously indeed, with Piranesi living in a mysterious house of infinite size, consisting of mysterious halls filled with lots of mysterious statues. His only human contact is during his twice-weekly meetings with a (let’s face it, mysterious) character called the Other who may or may not know more than he’s letting on.
Annoyingly for a reviewer, what the house turns out be and how Piranesi came to be there really can’t be revealed. What can, is that it’s definitely worth persisting through the disorientating early sections—because the patience required is richly rewarded as the book’s grip on us tightens and tightens. By the end, everything is beautifully tied up and the novel proves to be magical in more ways than one.
RD's recommended read
Audrey Miller was born into the Liverpool slums in the 1920s—but it didn’t take her long to decide that she wouldn’t be staying there. By six, she was appearing in pantomimes at the Liverpool Empire. In her teens, evacuated to the grand seaside town of Southport, she caught glimpses of a more glamorous life that she was determined to make her own.
Not that everything always went to plan. After the war, she returned from a trip to America to find that her dashing RAF fiancé was engaged to somebody else. Following her coronation as a Southport beauty queen (something she remained proud of), she became pregnant by a sweet but disappointingly ordinary local man, and felt obliged to marry him.
Eventually, the two came back to Southport where Audrey duly bagged herself a rich widower.
As Sarah pieces her mum’s life together, the book bristles with astonishing anecdotes of Audrey’s escapades—and many meetings with the famous. Now a successful film-maker, Sarah also reflects on the personal consequences of having had a mother who belonged to that now-highly-unfashionable category of women: the old-fashioned man-pleaser.
But here’s Audrey, aged 17 in 1943, when she was lucky enough to be working at a centre for convalescing American airmen in Southport’s Palace Hotel—and when, as you’ll see, she was already an accomplished chancer…
"At the dances, held there three times a week, a band played swing, bebop and jazz and Audrey was delirious with pleasure as the airmen swung her around to the new American dance music that transported her to another planet. The war had drained the colour out of British daily life, but here on her doorstep was a piece of amazing Technicolor America. She was already imagining more than her childhood dreams ever encompassed, and who knew who, or what, would be her ticket to this brilliant future? Above all, she wanted love—epic, sweeping, and passionate, the kind of love that she now lay awake at night aching for. She scanned the faces of the young men at the club, with their eager shining eyes, but they seemed such boys, and she was imagining a manly man, who would sweep her up into this new life.
Then something happened that was beyond even her more fantastic dreams.
It is a hot summer’s day in 1943 and Audrey is arriving for her shift when a jeep roars up, passing her on the driveway of the Palace Hotel Red Cross Centre, and out jump two men in air-force uniform. Quickly one of the men holds up a film camera to his eye and is following his buddy’s every move. His buddy is handsome, very handsome, with dark features and a grin that seems oddly familiar. As the news spreads into the hotel and staff begin running about in a frenzy of excitement, she realises that this is the long-rumoured visit that no one had ever believed would happen. This is a real-life visit from Hollywood star Clark Gable.
She had seen him not long before as the reckless adventurer in Gone With the Wind, sweeping Scarlett O’Hara off her feet, and she was a passionate fan, along with millions of other women. Not only was he the biggest star of his day, but he had also made several trips flying in dangerous combat missions over Europe so he was now a hero outside of the screen. The crew was there making Combat America about the American war effort, and to film Gable meeting the convalescing airmen at the Palace Club.
Audrey pushed her way through the crowd standing on the terrace to watch Gable and his entourage, and she saw that he was chatting to the matron and assembled dignitaries. She stepped forward with a cheeky ‘Hello!’, her hand held out towards Gable, as if she was part of this awkward welcoming committee and the one who was meant to liven things up. The manager and matron were too taken aback by her sudden appearance to stop her.
Gable shook her hand politely.
‘Welcome to Southport, Riviera of the North West!’ she said with a wry smile.
‘Well, that’s quite a claim!’ He grinned back at her.
‘I think you’ll find we live up to it. When you’ve seen the Palace here, you should look around the town.’ "
Read more: 10 Books you need for your coffee table
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