Friday, August 24, 2012

3 4 Friday: Ian McEwan, Pat Barker and a modern Finnish gem

August and early September sees several of our biggest authors release books, so for today's '3 4 Friday' #FridayReads we've looked at three 'heavyweight' hardback fiction titles currently in the shop (no Booker nominees however - we're saving those for a few weeks time, when the shortlist is announced on September 11).

All three books are heavyweight only in terms of the themes and gravitas of the writers themselves - they are refreshingly light in terms of length, and we feel all three books would make excellent bookgroup picks in the months ahead.

In Pat Barker's latest book, 'Toby's Room', she returns to the First World War and, whilst not a sequel, it re-introduces the reader to some of her characters from her previous book 'Life Class' which followed the fictional artists at the Slade School of Fine Art. A dark and compelling story of human desire, wartime horror and the power of friendship, Barker's writing is as insightful and powerful as ever. There are three interlocking subjects explored in Toby's Room: the death of a beloved brother, what art can or should do with the horrors of war and how to treat and look at the faces of the wounded veterans - something that, sadly, has very strong contemporary resonance.

The personal stories however, are what give the book such a strong storyline and narrative drive - from the victimisation in wartime of Germans in England, as well as pacifists and homosexuals. Barker is skilled at describing squalor, death and decay and at times her prose is beautifully and startlingly written.

This is a thought-provoking read about art and identity, love and loyalty, intolerence and discrimination and the brutal and far reaching consequences of war and doesn't fail to deliver a typical Barker tough/deep/complex/heavyweight story that has you facing plain truths and the history of our world.

At first glance Ian McEwan's 'Sweet Tooth' seems to be many things - a tale of forbidden love, a spy thriller, a portrait of 70s Britain and its suffocating Cold War anxieties. Serena Frome, beautiful and intelligent, has a brief affair with an older man during her final year at Cambridge and finds herself being groomed for the intelligence services. On her first mission though, code-named 'Sweet Tooth', she finds her training and the ultimate rule of a spy challenged - to trust no-one - when she meets Tom Haley. A budding writer, his work appeals to her first love of literature and reading, and she falls first for his stories, then for the man himself. The real espionage tale however is not 'Sweet Tooth' (the mission) but 'Sweet Tooth' (the novel) whose narrative is littered throughout with clues...

Beautifully written with a startling final twist at the end, McEwan can't help but be compelling and perhaps his greatest strength is not that he combines these themes perfectly - spy thriller and romance in 70s Britain - but that there is this something else unique going on as well, an espionage tale within a piece of espionage. Oh, and we also have this at £3 off in the shop at the moment...

And finally, 'The Human Part' by Kari Hotakainen is a calmly but powerfully written examination of all that's wrong in modern society, which stays the right side of a diatribe against the worst excesses of capitalism and its dehumanising influences. Set in the grim landscape of Finland’s economic downturn, the story focuses on elderly matriarch Salme, who begins by 'selling' her life story to an author with writer's block. Salme isn't so much an unreliable narrator, as one whose life spills out in a jumble of remembrances that we must, with the author, piece together. To help us though, we are privy to the lives of her three adult children, and it soon becomes clear that all of them have problems to which Salme may (or may not) have the key to solving.

The Human Part won won the Runeberg Prize in its native Finland, and France's Prix de Courrier International. It is newly translated and published by MacLehose.

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