The world probably doesn’t need another review of Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney by now, but you’re going to get one anyway. Rooney’s much anticipated third novel tells the story of Alice and her friend Eileen, both approaching 30 and living in Ireland, having met as roommates at university. Alice is a successful novelist who meets warehouse worker Felix through a dating app. Eileen is getting over a break-up by flirting with a man called Simon who she has known since childhood. Rather than getting in touch via texts or calls, Alice and Eileen continue their long-distance friendship by having lengthy earnest conversations via email about capitalism. On balance, I found this epistolary device too convenient and less convincing than the instant messaging chats in Conversations with Friends which remains my favourite of her three novels to date. Nevertheless, ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ further cements Rooney’s signature narrative style, which is more about pacing than plot and achieved very skilfully, and she remains particularly good at portraying power dynamics through dialogue and writing endings which are open yet not frustratingly so.
The Prime Ministers We Never Had by Steve Richards follows his previous book on The Prime Ministers we have had from Harold Wilson to Theresa May. Richards only counts those who had at least one genuine opportunity to become Prime Minister either through a leadership contest or general election. The 11 politicians who meet this criteria in modern times are Rab Butler, Roy Jenkins. Barbara Castle, Denis Healey, Neil Kinnock, Michael Heseltine, Michael Portillo, Ken Clarke, Ed and David Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. Richards examines the leadership potential each figure had and why none of them made it to the top job with some excellent comparative analysis. Varying levels of ambition and experience are certainly an issue, but ultimately it is usually timing which proves to be the main factor in why they never became Prime Minister, whether it is being out of step with the public mood or other figures in their party being more dominant at the time. The selection offers a more diverse range of personalities than his previous book, coupled with some truly Shakespearean downfalls. Overall, it’s the ‘what if?’ factor which adds an extra layer of intrigue to these well-written profiles of Prime Ministers we never had.
Wayfaring Stranger: A Musical Journey in the American South by Emma John is a memoir about how she joined a bluegrass band in the Appalachian mountains and mastered one of the most technically challenging genres of music. John interweaves her travels across Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina with a brief history of bluegrass and it definitely helps to seek out a playlist to accompany the book. She was mostly based in Boone, North Carolina where she met some of the bluegrass legends and received some true southern hospitality from musically talented locals. John studied violin at school to an advanced level but neglected the instrument for several years after she finished her education. It was fascinating to read her descriptions of learning how to improvise bluegrass on an emotional level in contrast to the rigidly structured way she had been taught to perform in classical orchestras. ’Wayfaring Stranger’ is well worth a read if you enjoy travel memoirs or musical journeys with a difference.
At the beginning of the first lockdown, I said I wasn’t looking forward to the inevitable glut of literary fiction reflecting on isolation during the pandemic. Of course, this was before I knew that one of the first novels to be published with a lockdown setting would be The Fell by Sarah Moss. Rather than the bewildering novelty of spring 2020, it is set during the second lockdown in the UK in the following November, at the point where social distancing fatigue had well and truly set in along with anxiety about the winter ahead. Kate, a single mother in her forties, is a waitress on furlough in the Peak District. After ten days of self-isolating with her son Matt, she finally snaps and sets out for a walk which has unintended consequences. ‘The Fell’ is very much in the same vein as Moss’s two previous short novels Ghost Wall and Summerwater which dealt with the fallout of the Brexit referendum with an acute sense of dread. Her state-of-the-nation analysis is both dense and astutely portrayed in less than 200 pages, depicting the sort of conversations we’ve all had about practical matters like hygiene and more philosophical ones about personal responsibility. Some readers may find it’s still too soon to immerse themselves in realist depictions of life during a pandemic, but Moss made a good point when she said in an interview recently: “I’m still slightly puzzled (by the idea that) a pandemic should be put away to a mature like a Christmas pudding, and don’t know quite who decides when it’s ready. We need stories, we need narratives… that’s how we’ll begin to navigate this and to be able to think about it other than as an emergency”. Many thanks to Picador for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.