Book reviews: New from Margaret Atwood, Jeffrey Archer, Tony Macaulay...
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Belfast Gate by Tony Macaulay is published by So-It-Is, priced £9.97
YOU wait for a significant fiction about the Troubles, to follow Anna Burns's Booker prize-winner Milkman, then two arrive at once. Tony Macaulay's Belfast Gate and Henry McDonald's Two Souls: A Novel both deal with this place's Troubled history but in very different ways. McDonald underlines the violence of the period via corrosive language and a cast of vivid dysfunctional characters while Belfast Gate is a humane, darkly comic take on the fallout from the civil war.
Mr Macaulay, author of Paperboy, starts with a funeral. The misnamed peace wall impedes OAP Big Isobel's easy passage to the hereafter as her church is the other side of the wall. Her love of tray bakes and her sizable coffin mean she's stuck. Yet her doughty Belfast friends had promised she would get free passage on the day with the gate open.
No luck, thanks to health and safety, and our narrative about the little people versus cynical authority and self-interested organisations is brilliantly, funnily signalled. Later on, the satire on the cross-community representatives, not to mention Wee Malachy and Big Stan representing the green and orange factions, is pitch perfect.
The sugar content of this big-hearted novel is fairly high until the dramatic denouement and the malapropisms that issue from OAP activist Roberta's mouth are choice. The YouTube footage of their street party protest goes venereal, she reports, and worries about soldiers like her friend Jean's grandson fighting IKEA in Iran.
Maybe Tony Macaulay, whose funny bone is well developed, should have resisted gags that migrate to the narrative prose. But this is secondary. Belfast Gate is a terrific read, well plotted and insightful.
As Bertie, the oldest and wisest man in the Shankill says, dispensing tea to the marvellously characterised chief activist Jean: “You're a helper. You know, love, in this world there's talkers and takers and there's stirrers and shitesters, and they cause all the trouble... I saw it in the war and I've seen it here all my life in Belfast. No-one remembers them but it's the helpers like you and me in the background who clean up all the mess that others make with their oul selfishness and hatred.”
He is wrong about one thing: You'll remember Jean Beattie, who gets what she wants in a dark ending. A film or TV deal surely beckons.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is published in hardback by Chatto & Windus, priced £20 (ebook £9.99)
MORE than 30 years have passed since The Handmaid's Tale was first published; Margaret Atwood's seminal work that introduced us to Gilead – what was New England in the US, before revolution brought religious reforms that dispensed with any sense of equality, and began controlling the rights and bodies of women. The Testaments is set around 15 years after The Handmaid's Tale left off, and is structured as a series of reports from three women: two young and still discovering what being a woman in this age means, and one old, who knows exactly what it entails, and will do anything to make sure the system doesn't crush her. Atwood tracks each as they try to make sense of the rules that suffocate them – all the while drawing sinister parallels with politics today, particularly Trump's America. She reminds you ceaselessly that balances can shift and leave the truths you once relied on shattered and broken. And that it is our nature to always realise too late what's been signposted for some time. Terrifying, rage-inducing and gripping, it will fill you with creeping dread, but also a sliver of hope.
Nothing Ventured by Jeffrey Archer is published in hardback by Macmillan, priced £20 (ebook £9.99)
AS JEFFREY Archer books go, Nothing Ventured is a classic of the genre: A rollicking read filled with aspirational underdogs, suave sophisticates, and fractious family intrigue. A spiritual if not direct successor to the bestselling Clifton Chronicles, our new hero is William Warwick, a fresh-faced graduate intent on joining the Met and taking down the same crooks his barrister father sets free. The first in a series of criminal capers set to feature the fledgling detective as he rises through the ranks of Scotland Yard, Warwick and pals must unpack the mystery of a missing Rembrandt (pilfered from the rather gratuitously named 'Fitzmolean Museum'), amid a cast of classic Archer characters rendered with almost Wodehousian charm. The prolific peer-turned-convict-turned-author has always been far better storyteller than writer, and his boundless imagination is only occasionally let down by clunky dialogue. The plot moves at breakneck speed, and 320-odd pages pass in a trice.
My Last Supper: One Meal, A Lifetime In The Making by Jay Rayner is published in hardback by Faber & Faber, priced £16.99 (ebook £12.99)
FOOD critic, radio presenter and MasterChef judge Jay Rayner makes a very valid point with this memoir-menu hybrid – why should our perfect imaginary last supper be a) imaginary, and b) devoured on the eve of us leaving this life? How morbid, how unappetising. And so, My Last Supper tracks his endeavours to define, and then serve, his ultimate final feast. He treks to Paris for snails, and the wilds of south London for the most accomplished of chips, and is very open about his heinous sparkling water habit. It is gluttonous, frank, full of feeling and bound with music (Rayner is also a jazz musician) and memories (including an incident in a bathtub, in a brothel) – if, by turns, a little defensive and grandiose at times. Undoubtedly, it will have you considering your own tastes, then feverishly scribbling down your own last triumphant meal. Raynor is a Marmite kinda guy, but you can't but appreciate his commitment to being well fed.
The Second Sleep by Robert Harris is published in hardback by Hutchinson, priced £20 (ebook £9.99)
WHAT'S better than a thriller that gets your blood pumping? If your answer to this is a tale that will keep your brain engaged hours after the adrenaline has worn off, Robert Harris's latest novel is for you. Set in 1468, this dystopian story follows an investigation into a remote village by a young priest, whose discoveries leave him questioning humanity, civilisation and even the date itself. Harris's latest work intelligently warps historical fiction – a genre he's stamped his name on – and tackles issues of religion, science and the apocalypse in the process. As he flexes the ample muscle of his imagination, you will be left pondering as often as you are page-turning.