Wednesday, 28 May 2014


This time last month, a furore broke out over Wikipedia's definition of great American novelists: they were all men. Where were Donna Tartt, Harper Lee, Flannery O'Connor, Mary McCarthy... Asked commentators (yes, mainly female)? The answer was depressingly obvious: they were filed under American Women Novelists. It's not new. On almost an annual basis, the New York Times Book Review is taken to task over its under-representation of female writers (520 books by men, compared to 273 by women in 2011). I'd be surprised if our own literary pages stand up to similar scrutiny. Of the literary American novels published here in the last month, here's my edit of those worthy of your attention.

1. The Round House, Louise Erdrich 

The American National Book Award is usually a reliable indicator of an engrossing thought-provoking read (previous winners include Patti Smith's wonderful memoir, Just Kids - if you haven't read it, do). The Round House is no exception. Set on a Native American reservation in North Dakota, this blackly comic tale traces the events following the attack on a woman one spring sunday in 1988. When she refuses to tell anyone the details of what happened, her thirteen-year-old son, Joe, and his friends, set out to uncover the truth. If you're a fan of Anne Tyler, you won't go far wrong with this.
The Round House (Corsair) is out in paperback now.

2. All That Is, James Salter

If there was any such thing as the Great American Novelists' Great American Novelist, James Salter would be it. So it's no surprise that a new novel from Salter is a long-awaited event. So long, in fact, that, if you are under 40, you may not have heard of him. All That Is is Salter's first novel in over thirty years. Lauded by such luminaries as Richard Ford as one who "writes American sentences better than anybody writing today", Salter's first novel, The Hunters, was published in 1956, but his best, in my humble opinion (and frankly where Salter's work is concerned, my opinion is the least of it), is Light Years, published in 1975 to critical acclaim.
But back to All That Is... A sweeping love story, set post-world war II this slight novel spans forty years of one man's life in the decades closing the 20th century. Now eighty seven, Salter brings a lifetime's perspective to love, sex, betrayal and disillusionment, in sharp, take-no-prisoners prose. Utterly  haunting.
All That Is (Picador) is out in paperback on June 19.

3. The Woman Upstairs, Clare Messud

"How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that. I'm a good girl, I'm a nice girl, I'm a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl..." What's not to love about a novel that starts, as it means to go on, with such ferocity?
Messud (one half of American literary power couple with critic James Woods - not that it's relevant to her work, but it's interesting), follows up her Man Booker longlisted The Emperor's Children - a Wharton-esque examination of well-heeled Manhattan, post 9/11 - in a most unexpected way. With its angry, compellingly unlikable protagonist, Norah, - a spinster (her words not mine), school teacher and carer for her aged father who is obsessed with the supposedly glamorous life of The Woman Upstairs. Closer to Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal than anything else, I couldn't put this down.
The Woman Upstairs (Little Brown) is out in paperback now.

More great American novels out soon... 

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon, out in paperback now. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (published by Little Brown in October). The The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (published by Harvill Secker next month).

(This was first published on Bazaar on Books blog,, 22nd May 2013)

No comments:

Post a Comment