This week's paperbacks

This week's paperbacks


Emma Donoghue

Picador, £ 7.99


I had been avoiding this book. I admire Emma Donoghue's writing, but this is tough subject matter: a child locked away with his mother in a garden shed by a lunatic rapist. Everything in five-year-old Jack's life – even his use of language – is shaped by his environment, and such are Donoghue's empathy and narrative skill that by the time you're halfway through you identify totally with this extraordinary child. In fact there's no way you're going to put the book down until the end. There may be an unhealthy element of compulsion in that urgent page-turning, but one thing's for sure: in the characters of Jack and his mother Donoghue has indeed created a beautiful, tender, secular and utterly unforgettable Madonna and Child. As for the moral of the tale, well, there's the obvious one, but there are subtle criticisms of the world outside – our world – as well. It's courageous and clever and deeply, deeply unsettling. Arminta Wallace

A Life Apart

Neel Mukherjee

Corsair, £7.99

This impressively assured debut is a grimly affecting tale, ambitious in scope and forcefully executed. At its centre is a young emigre, Ritwik, who, after escaping a life of poverty and domestic abuse in his native Kolkata, finds himself lost amid the faceless masses of London's illegal immigrant community and haunted by a compulsion to traverse the city's backstreets in search of self-destructive homosexual trysts. As a form of catharsis Ritwik writes the story of Miss Gilby, an Englishwoman hired by a liberal Bengali zamindar to tutor his wife during the political unrest that accompanied attempts to divide the region at the beginning of the 20th century. Mukherjee juxtaposes visceral depictions of the vast sea of human depravity in which Ritwik finds himself drowning with Miss Gilby's more ominously sheltered narrative, yet both have in common the sense of impending doom inherent in their inhospitable new worlds. Although the novel's bleakness at times borders on the gratuitous, it is a startlingly powerful display. Dan Sheehan


Rose Tremain

Vintage, £7.99

Tremain's story concerns a brother and sister, Aramon and Audrun Lunel, who live in the Cévennes mountains in southern France. Born after the second World War, the siblings carry a legacy of trauma from the shadow of that war, as they do from deeply disturbing familial transgressions that haunt them. When English antiques dealer Anthony Verey comes to visit his sister (also resident in the grounds) the full extent of the underlying darkness is revealed. Tremain writes about this part of France so well because she has known it since childhood, and she captures a sensuality in the landscape that is both attractive and eerie (Robert Louis Stevenson was also fascinated by it). This novel is about many kinds of trespass – English people on French land, the trespassing of the body, the trespass of commerce – but it is also about the complex dynamic between people and their history, however dark. As Verey says when asked to let go of the past, "Why? I like it there." It is an enthralling book about the catastrophic disruption honesty can bring. Siobhán Kane

The Concert Ticket

Olga Grushin

Penguin, £ 8.99

This novel follows three members of a Russian family – mother a teacher, father a tuba player in a state orchestra, son a disaffected teenager shuttling between middle-class aspirations and incipient gangsterdom – as they queue outside a kiosk that remains stubbornly closed for the best part of a year. What are they waiting for? The clue is in the title: rumour has it that a famous exiled composer is returning to conduct his final symphony, and tickets are like the proverbial gold dust. Grushin's approach is highly cinematic, circling Anna, Sergei and Alexander along with their friends and fellow citizens as the queue shifts and transforms, chats and bickers, shivers through snow showers and eats ice cream late into long summer evenings. Based on what actually happened when Stravinsky was invited to return to the Soviet Union in 1962, this is a leisurely, lyrical book, woven from warts-and-all realist cloth shot through with occasional glittering flights of fancy. And the writing throughout is exquisite. Arminta Wallace

Africa United: How Football Explains Africa

Steve Bloomfield

Canongate, £9.99

While attempting to untangle Kenya's complex politics, Steve Bloomfield discovered that the numerous problems that bedevilled local football mirrored those in the country's political realm. Here, in his debut book, he endeavours to describe a continent's recent political history through the prism of its most popular sport, investigating the influence and effects of football on the indigenous societies, intrigues and conflicts. Peppering his account with amusing anecdotes, Bloomfield reveals how football has ended a civil war in Côte d'Ivoire, provided hope for war-torn Somalia, brought some normality to the chaos of Zimbabwe and, less inspirationally, propped up a despotic regime in Egypt. He certainly put in the legwork, conducting hundreds of interviews and watching dozens of matches across more than 15 countries. This is a fascinating portrait of the political dimension to Africa's love affair with the beautiful game. Sebastian Clare