Book reviews: Denis Johnson's The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden is magical stuff
BOOK OF THE WEEK
The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson is published in hardback by Jonathan Cape, priced £14.99 (ebook £9.99). Available now
FAILED fantasists, visionary addicts and washed-up poets haunt the stories of this final collection from the late US writer Denis Johnson, much-loved author of Jesus' Son. In Triumph Over The Grave, for example, a writing professor is drawn back to an old writing hero of his, now ageing rapidly and claiming to talk daily with his dead relatives, out on his remote Texan ranch. In The Starlight On Idaho, a recovering alcoholic reflects on the ruins of his life and his perennial urge to self-destruct in a series of unsent letters to everyone from his mum and the Pope, to Satan. He's a mess, we realise, but nothing like his mum. In Doppelganger, Poltergeist (my favourite) a poetry student's lifelong fixation on a trumped-up Elvis conspiracy involving exhumed corpses and twins switched at birth, is observed tenderly by his melancholic professor, a man who stoutly defends an individual's rights to his own manias. In this absorbing collection of deceptively rambling, craftily casual tales, madness and obsession are seen as potential portals to the numinous, and the narrators recount the bedraggled lives of these mystical marginals with a certain wistful envy. As one says: "I wonder if you're like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you." Magical stuff.
The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce is published in paperback by Blackfriars, priced £14.99 (ebook £7.99). Available now
WHAT happens after we die? Bright lights, hellfire, reincarnation? Or nothing? For lapsed Christian Jim Byrd, who suffered cardiac arrest and briefly 'died' aged 33, it's the latter – and he can think of little else. Preoccupied by a seemingly haunted property and fighting the jealousy he feels over his wife's first – dead – husband, Jim turns to the fledgling 'Church of Search' for answers. Jim's not the only one with unanswered questions: the narrative is punctuated with unfollowed leads, from jumbled flashbacks to implications about hackers and holograms. This confusion is compounded by Virginia-based writer Thomas Pierce's inventive plotting: he cut his teeth with short stories and tries to bring their tantalising nature to his debut novel, but doesn't hit the mark. Early mundane stretches make the climax seem almost rushed, so it's a credit to Pierce's engaging prose that the reader sticks with him, patiently awaiting the next development – which pays off, eventually.
The Only Story by Julian Barnes is published in hardback by Jonathan Cape, priced £16.99 (ebook £9.99). Available now
"Get your characters up a tree, throw stones at them, then get them down from the tree," is an excellent piece of advice for storytellers in every genre. In this delicate tale of English passion in the tennis-playing heartlands of London's outer suburbia, Barnes gets his characters up the tree skilfully enough. And the stones he lobs at his protagonist Paul – as first love turns into a life-blighting trap – are as horrible as they are mundane. My problem is with the ruminative third act. The essence of getting it right in fiction is surely to satisfy the demands of storytelling structure even as one honours the truth about our messy and inconclusive lives. But, without offering any spoilers, 'the only story' ends before the novel does. Julian Barnes wrote the Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense Of An Ending, and something craftsman-like is waiting to be carved out of this one too.
The Last Wilderness: A Journey Into Silence by Neil Ansell is published in hardback by Tinder Press, priced £16.99 (ebook £9.49). Available February 8
AT TIMES while reading The Last Wilderness, you feel like you could hear a pin drop around you. Neil Ansell ruminates on the nature of silence as he travels around the beautiful wilds of north west Scotland. That silence is his own hearing loss blending into the increasing quiet he encounters as he walks beside gently-lapping lochs and through woods and glens. The land is quiet, but not empty, as he is joined on his travels by the local wildlife, which he describes both vividly and with evident tenderness. This is a book that allows you to step away from the daily grind as you read, like taking a long, deep and satisfying breath as you close the door on the rat race.
CHILDREN'S BOOK OF THE WEEK
The Bee Book by Charlotte Milner is published in hardback by DK, priced £12.99 (ebook £5.99). Available now
Bees have been around for longer than humans – and some dinosaurs – and Milner explains why they matter. This illustrated book focuses mostly on honey bees, their life cycle, how they pollinate crops and how many bees it takes to create a teaspoonful of honey. There's an amazing amount of information packed into this non-fiction book for kids aged 5+, touching on waggle dances, how to create a bee-friendly garden, what makes a queen bee and why there are now fewer bees buzzing around the planet. Intrepid naturalists and those curious about the natural world will even find instructions on how to make a bee hotel. The idea is to create a buzz and inspire the next generation to take care of our bees – because we certaily need them.