Great Contemporary Novels
Here are some great contemporary novels I enjoyed in 2015.
Love, Love Me Do is an absorbing story of “Five unforgettable characters searching for a second chance.” It explores issues of loyalty, abandonment and post-war trauma. Told from the five viewpoints over the course of one day in 1963 – at times gentle, at times tense – it is a thriller reminiscent of Brighton Rock.
Fast-forward ten years to Imagine the sequel to Love, Love Me Do featuring all the same characters, including deserted wife Christie, her son Baxter, her despicable chancer of a husband Truman, and Strachan, the world-weary henchman on his trail to collect on a debt. Taking centre stage is Baxter, now eighteen, and starting university. We also meet a new character, Abby, Baxter’s love interest, who is still coming to terms with the notorious tragedy that blighted her family. Imagine is a story of ordinary people, the tribulations of family life and the small triumphs they strive for. But it’s a fast-faced page-turner and very funny. I can’t wait for the TV drama; there must surely be one.
Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men is the factual account of the actions of the German Reserve Police Battalion 101 in Poland during the Second World War. It explores the unpalatable question: how could average men commit unspeakable atrocities. Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter could be seen as the distilled, fictionalized snapshot of the same study. The author says all that needs to be said in 138 pages. The sub-zero Polish setting is stark and the characters real. The quality writing is reminiscent of All Quiet on the Western Front or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
As well as crime thrillers I enjoy reading dystopian novels. Louise Welsh’s A Lovely Way to Burn gave me a delicious bit of both. Stevie finds her boyfriend dead in his flat and sets out to find out the cause while all around people are dying of a killer virus and London is descending into chaos. You could call Stevie feisty but that would undersell her dogged determination to get to the truth. She puts herself in danger to track down the culprit, faces up to bullies and yet remains believable and female.
Best of all: it’s only the first part of the Plague Times trilogy – two more will follow.
In part two Death is a Welcome Guest, we meet a new hero. Magnus McFall has more in common with William Wilson of Welsh’s stand-alone novel The Bullet Trick than with Stevie of A Lovely Way to Burn, part one of the trilogy. Magnus is a comedian on the verge of his big break, or maybe not, when the killer sweats virus hits London. Finding out he’s immune would be a good thing except he’s inside Pentonville Prison with a brutal cellmate, dead wardens and marauding prisoners. All Magnus can think to do is get home to Orkney. It’s a tried and tested plot: plucky survivor of the end of the world fights off the descent of others into savagery. Reminiscent of the BBC TV series Survivors, the writing is sparkling, tense and fast-paced. Clever, clever ending. I can’t wait for part three.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the most perfect book. Harold receives a letter from an ex-colleague he hasn’t seen for twenty years. The colleague, Queenie, tells him she’s terminally ill. He writes her a letter and on a whim decides to deliver it in person. The novel consists of his thoughts and adventures as he walks from Devon to Berwick on Tweed.
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is the companion text to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Queenie gives us the same story from her perspective. It was a page-turner despite the fact I knew what would happen because I’d read Harold’s version. The two lead characters have things in common: misplaced love, feelings of guilt and loyalty. They also find their personal labours hijacked by others. In Harold’s case his walk becomes a media event while Queenie’s cliff-top garden becomes a tourist attraction. There is a tinge of melodrama in Queenie’s, at times, rose-tinted recollections that nudge the book off its five star perch, but only just; it’s still very good. The most endearing part of the book was the depiction of life at the hospice. We see the individual characters of the patients and staff. Moving and funny.
I almost didn’t read Perfect because the reviews said it wasn’t as good as Harold Fry and I didn’t want to spoil the memory. However, the critics were wrong; Perfect is just as good. Told mainly from the viewpoint of an eleven year old boy in 1972. We see his childlike attention to detail as he tries to make sense of his delightful but tortured mother and his distant, controlling father. Byron Hemmings sets great store by the wisdom of his school friend James. When James tells him that 1972 will gain two seconds, Byron obsessively checks the clock. When he sees it happen, he tells his mother. But two seconds make one deadly moment. Everything changes. First for Byron. Then for his mother. It’s about depression, mood swings and severe, disabling OCD. It’s about sorrow and loneliness. About being desperate to cling to bad friendships but to reject good ones. It’s about accepting the past and accepting the good friendships after all. Poignant, gentle. Perfect.