Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet is set in the 1960s and consists of a fictional biography of Arthur Collins Braithwaite, a radical psychoanalyst with a practice based in north London, interweaved with notebooks written by one of his patients which have been purportedly “discovered” by her cousin and passed on to the author. The patient believes Braithwaite is responsible for the death of her elder sister, Veronica, and poses as Rebecca Smyth in order to find out more about him. As with the Booker Prize-shortlisted His Bloody Project, Burnet displays his impeccable narrative skill in presenting the story as authentic source material. There is plenty of satire in the depiction of Braithwaite’s rivalries with his contemporaries, reminiscent of the spoof biographies in Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill, while pertinent questions about the nature of identity and reality are posed in “Rebecca’s” pursuit for answers. ‘Case Study’ is another outstanding novel by one of my must-read authors.
Seashaken Houses by Tom Nancollas is a history of eight rock lighthouses built on reefs situated off the coast of Great Britain and Ireland. Each chapter focuses on a specific lighthouse and a different aspect of their history and architecture, such as how they were designed and constructed (which was no mean feat particularly for the earliest ones built a few centuries ago), the technology that was developed in Blackwall in London, and the lives of the lighthouse keepers whose roles have been made redundant through automation. The final chapter sees Nancollas spend time in the lighthouse at Fastnet off the south coast of Ireland. There is an obvious yet appealing romanticism in the isolation of rock lighthouses, and Nancollas is very good at conveying what it is actually like to spend time in them as well as their symbolism as a beacon of hope in difficult conditions (yesterday’s pictures of Storm Eunice were a good example of that). His enthusiasm for his subject is evident in this fascinating book, which is suitable for a general non-fiction reader with no prior knowledge of lighthouses.
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara is one of my most anticipated books of 2022. Her third novel is consists of three parts set in 1893, 1993 and 2093, all featuring different characters named David Bingham in an alternative version of New York. The first part is set in the late 19th century where New York is part of the Free States and in which same-sex relationships and marriages are accepted as the norm. David’s wealthy grandfather has set up an arranged marriage for him to Charles Griffith while David is drawn to Edward Bishop. The second part addresses AIDS and sees Hawaii-born David having an affair with Charles, with flashbacks to the life of David’s father and the third part is about the impact of a series of pandemics across the 21st century. The novel was already well developed by the time COVID-19 came along, with the consequence that the second half feels less speculative than it was probably intended to be. Despite the connections and recurring motifs in each of the three parts, the vastly different settings means that in some ways I find it more appealing to consider the book as three stand-alone novellas. Although I wasn’t completely convinced ‘To Paradise’ hangs together coherently as a single novel, Yanagihara’s prose is consistently excellent throughout and explores some interesting themes which are ultimately about what it means to be free. Many thanks to Picador for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.