This week's releases reviewed
Michael Beard is a Nobel prize-winning physicist who has spent decades womanising and basking in his own reflected glory. As this comic novel opens he is heading a government research establishment, the National Centre for Renewable Energy, and his fifth marriage is falling apart. As the novel progresses Beard, too, falls apart. What's comic about all this, you might ask? Well, take a closer look – through the microscope, maybe. Beard is a climate-change sceptic in charge of climate-change research; a serial seducer in a sagging body. Even his name is funny. Beard the scientist. Get it? McEwan is a master at the height of his powers, and his prose sparkles and glitters with mischief and malice. He pokes fun at government scientific policy, at international conferences – at M-theory, even. You'll be chuckling so hard you won't notice that this is really a tragedy. And by then it's too late.
It takes a lifetime to see a life wasted: beginning in 1883, Jane Smiley's
Private Lifeconcerns that most commonplace of horrors, the loveless marriage. Recalling Henry James's
Beast in the Jungle– only from the perspective of the long-suffering female – Smiley's heroine, Margaret, stumbles into a late marriage with Andrew, a sombre astronomer bent on securing his legacy and discrediting that of the increasingly relevant Einstein. That both man and wife are flawed takes decades to become apparent. Margaret is repressed, lazily indecisive and passive to the point of ruin. Andrew becomes deluded in his self-belief, consumed by the daily task of seeing that the planets still hang in their place. Marriage becomes a stranglehold, a drawn-out personal tragedy presided over by a chorus of midwives and neighbours who always know better. Smiley's novel is heartbreaking and stylish. The po-faced astronomer admits, "I will just say that I don't know what sense the universe makes," and readers will be left feeling similarly helpless.
June Singer (nee Han), a child refugee who is later a successful Manhattan antiques dealer, Hector Brennan, a Korean War GI who is later a janitor, and Sylvie Tanner, who dies in an orphanage fire, are the American trio at the centre of this large, ambitious postwar novel. The opening chapter hooks the reader with a fast-paced account of 11-year-old June in charge of her surviving siblings as she rides on top of a train after witnessing her parents' terrible deaths. Her life is saved by Hector, who enables her journey towards an orphanage where he works. There is tension in the orphanage about who may be adopted, but the real excitement is in the dangers and intensity of the triangular relationship as it develops. The author is particularly effective with narrative cross-cutting between 1950s Asia and 1980s United States. Although it renders effectively the felt experience of courageous lives affected by war, however, the novel is overloaded with the intricacies of a quest to find June's thieving son.
Written by a woman who will do anything to sleep,
Wide Awaketakes us through every stage of sleeplessness and insomnia. In search of a cure, Patricia Morrisroe delves into her past, charting the chronic sleeplessness of her mother and grandfather in order to show a genetic component to the problem. Undergoing extensive therapy, the author eventually turns to sleeping tablets and an elaborate set of rules to make herself sleep. Morrisroe discusses the origins of sleep science, and takes part in a sleep-clinic trial in an attempt to understand her insomnia. Despite the author's many attempts at various therapies and drug trials, the pointed question asked by an elderly Englishwoman, "Dear, have you ever thought of the possibility that you don't sleep because you're too critical of it?" resonates most deeply. This interesting, lightly paced book adeptly chronicles the experience of an individual in search of sleep.
Cois Life, €16
God love the poor novelist in Irish and God love the poor novelist in Irish who forsakes Dutch to learn Irish and give something both unexpected and wonderful to the language. Alex Hijmans, Dutch by birth, Irish speaker by choice, is a journalist who has, in the best journalistic tradition, turned his hand to something more enduring than today's headlines. His novel, Aiséirí(Resurrection), is set in a bilingual coffee house in Galway where a frustrated visual artist, Rebekka, finds personal salvation and, eventually, resurrection in serving coffee to Galwegians. Using the customers who come into the shop, Hijmans offers little commentaries on language, love, gender and national identity. The work is by turns intelligent, bitchy, sarcastic, engaging, insightful, witty and moving, an affectionate glance at contemporary Ireland in all its triumphs and failings. It's an espresso of a story, something slight that gives you a welcome jolt, and the reader leaves the book behind feeling quite cosmopolitan. Pól Ó Muirí