Books in brief: From a history of translation to a novel about falling for a bear

Plus: Tahmina Anam’s post-apocalyptic tale, and John Maxwell O’Brien’s Joycean treat

Tahmima Anam

Tahmima Anam


The Startup Wife
Tahmima Anam
Canongate, £14.99
“If only you could give every skeptic what they wanted, some kind of believable replacement for God.” Computer scientist Asha has worked on an algorithm that will do just this: a social media app that feeds on people’s personalities to create meaningful rituals in the place of religion. The shiny people at Utopia, the startup incubator, like the idea of WAI (We Are Infinite), thinking it could be useful in the post-apocalyptic world. With Asha newly married to Cyrus, he lends his unique and astonishing gifts to the project. Things take off fast for them both – but one of them will be increasingly side-lined in the boardroom. The book explores concepts of faith, meaning, and technology, poking fun at the high altar of big tech while examining Asha’s private and professional struggles: breezy and bright. Ruth McKee

Dancing on Ropes
Anna Aslanyan
Profile Books, £16.99
This is a history of the delicate but often influential role played by translators and interpreters, including at the Nuremberg trials and in the translation of the Bible by St Jerome and Google. It jumps back and forth through the centuries and ranges from the satirical to the deadly serious. As such, it is less about pushing a central thesis than conveying the high-stakes, real-world relevance of the subject. There is some interesting counterfactual speculation, for example about what might have happened had the Japanese response to the Potsdam Declaration been translated differently, but equally persuasive are the more invisible instances from asylum seeker court cases. An inventive collection that rewards the curious reader. Rónán Hession

The Pear Field
Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated by Elizabeth Heighway
Peirene Press, £12
The Georgian writer and film-maker ’s novel is set in a Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children – or as the locals dub it, “the School for Idiots” – in the grim suburbs of Tbilisi. Lela is an 18-year-old long-term resident and surrogate older sister to the younger children, who is left to feel her way, alone, into burgeoning womanhood. Her world is one of dangerous vulnerability and few escape routes. People arrive without backstories and disappear into unseen futures. There is an aching sense of a young life on a hill start: revving to go forwards, but slipping backwards because she doesn’t know how. An affecting novel about youth lost in society’s cracks. Rónán Hession

Marian Engel
Daunt Books £9.99
“In the winter, she lived like a mole, buried deep in her office, digging among maps and manuscripts.” Librarian Lou heads to a remote island to document the estate of the late Colonel Cary, where solitude and strangeness marry with lush surroundings and a peculiar house as she undertakes her task. Here, Lou meets the bear – not a metaphorical or a magically real one, but a real brown bear, kept at the house by the previous occupants. She encounters him first in chains, both of them wary. Gradually, as she uncovers more about the history of the house, she forms first a friendship with the bear – and then more. A love story with a bear sounds bizarre, incredible, perverse even – but you suspend disbelief throughout this odd, tender novel, a story which burrows under your skin. Ruth McKee

Phoebe Wynne
Quercus, £14.99
Caldonbrae Hall is a boarding school for girls; it looms over the sea in a remote part of Scotland, its gothic isolation and brooding atmosphere fitting for this modern gothic novel with a feminist impulse. There is an appetising tension as classics teacher Rose arrives into a world she at first doesn’t understand – and gradually comes to fear. Like Jane Eyre, alone, with only books for solace, Rose suspects there is a secret at the dark heart of the school. The girls are being prepared for the world, the prospectus says, but Rose cannot understand their codes, their strange classes and peculiar etiquette; the terrifying truth is revealed as she falls under the power and watchful eye of the school. Latin and Greek myths echo throughout, in a story that will not let you go. Ruth McKee

Aloysius the Great
John Maxwell O’Brien
Propertius Press, $7.99
James Joyce said that his Ulysses would keep professors busy for centuries. Admirers of James Joyce will luxuriate in John Maxwell O’Brien’s debut novel, Aloysius the Great. Names and phrases from Ulysses are peppered throughout this jocular, sharp-witted and insightful book. Don’t let the erudite motif put you off, though, Joyce’s influence is subtle and unobtrusive. Aloysius the Great is a spell-binding read by itself. The narrative is smooth as silk, O’Brien’s dialogue is wickedly witty, and his characters are quirky and unforgettable. Set in England academe in the Swinging Sixties, Aloysius the Great is an immensely entertaining novel as well as a treasure trove for Joyce aficionados. Jim Ward

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