Book reviews: New from Robert Hillman, Nicole Dennis-Benn and Barney Norris
The Bookshop Of The Broken-Hearted by Robert Hillman is published in paperback by Faber & Faber, priced £8.99 (ebook £1.99)
"A SINGLE death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." This observation, attributed to Joseph Stalin, encapsulates the problem for any mainstream, bourgeois, Western artist working after, say, about 1915. The Bookshop Of The Broken Hearted is, when stripped to its essentials, about the Holocaust. Robert Hillman is too good a writer to commit, in the context, the massively offensive crime of sentimentality. Skilfully, he unfolds Hannah's story in small flashbacks and close focus, one unbearable detail at a time but never too much at once. Hannah, a Hungarian Jew, believes that opening a small bookshop in a remote Australian town is a triumph over the Nazis. Is she right? Can literature redeem? Hillman exhibits breathtaking confidence in this novel, and he clearly believes that, on an individual level, it just might.
Elizabeth EM Ryan
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn is published in hardback by Oneworld, priced £14.99 (ebook £5.63)
NICOLE Dennis-Benn won a Lambda award for Lesbian fiction in 2017 for her debut Here Comes The Sun. This follow up gives voice to the usually voiceless. Patsy, a young Jamaican woman, is fed up with the constrictions of her religious mother and the responsibility of her young child. She pins her hopes and dreams on going to visit her old friend and sometime lover Cicely in the States, to live another kind of life. She abandons her daughter Tru to her absent father and leaves, but in New York she discovers the reality of life as an undocumented migrant, doing the worst jobs and having to deal with the exploitation that ensues. The stories of both Patsy and Tru and their hardships and loneliness are woven through with dialect, playing out the painful and uncomfortable truths of their lives. Sacrifice, abuse, self-realisation and desire are the emotional touchpoints of this struggle to carve out a life. Not an easy read, but an illuminating one about life's most painful and difficult choices.
The Vanishing Hours by Barney Norris is published in hardback by Doubleday, priced £14.99 (ebook £7.99)
THIS may turn out to be a book which is pored over line by line by people pondering its deeper meanings at seminars and book clubs. But playwright Barney Norris's third novel is certainly not a page turner, starting with around 50 pages of fairly dull prose. The slow burning, melancholic opening fails to grab this reader, with only a hint of intrigue about what happened to the narrator's father. It finally livens up in part two when a man she bumps into in a pub starts telling his story. It's great for about 25 pages before the tedium returns as this tale becomes more and more unbelievable. Thankfully, part three is a vast improvement with some genuine human interest. It's a shame that an idea which would have made a cracking short story, or perhaps even an atmospheric play, has been turned into a plodding novel of nearly 200 pages.