Book club Thursday
BOOK OF THE WEEK
The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker (Scribner)
Troubling, ethereal and exquisitely written, The Dreamers begins with a university student who, after a night out, simply goes to sleep and doesn't wake up, her heart slowing until it ceases to beat. As her fellow students begin tumbling into unconsciousness too, the surrounding townsfolk in their southern Californian town go into panic-stricken lockdown mode. That may make this novel sound like an action-packed, blockbuster sci-fi drama, but in fact, there's a melancholic tenderness to Thompson Walker's prose. It's dystopian, yes, but the lives of motherless sisters Libby and Sara, new parents Ben and Annie, and isolated student Mei, are gently wrought rather than frenzied and bleak. Their worlds fray and morph with each new unexplained sleeping diagnosis, but there's thoughtfulness here, rather than creeping terror. It's quite dazzling.
A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler (Two Roads)
Following on the success of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler turns her attention from the Jazz Age to the Gilded Age and the life story of another Alabama-born woman, this time the multi-millionaire Alva Vanderbilt. And a very lively read it is too, with Alva's social manoeuvring depicted in all its glory, along with her willingness to defy social convention as an advocate of African American rights, a divorcee and, later, a prominent campaigner for women's suffrage. Fowler is particularly good at the competing voices which vie for young Alva's attention as she tries to secure a wealthy husband who will shore up the fortunes of her impoverished family. These variously urge her on, disparage her, instruct her on how she should behave, or even suggest that money might not be the answer to everything...
The Distance Home by Paula Saunders (Picador)
This debut novel from a writer who studied under Toni Morrison and is married to George Saunders, is a sad and moving story of family dysfunction in rural South Dakota. In 1960s America, Al, a traditional patriarch and cattle trader spends much of his time on the road, and his long-suffering wife Eve - resourceful, feisty and exhausted - is left to hold the family together. Their children, Leon and Rene, show potential as dancers. Rene's every accomplishment is encouraged and championed, but Leon is renounced by his father, who consistently does him down. When Leon starts to pull out his hair, his father beats him. Decades later, he'll be diagnosed as bipolar, but by then he'll have fallen into crime and addiction. The narrative has a way of revealing its secrets in advance, a tactic that perhaps loses the book more than it gains, and in some places the psychology didn't quite ring true. Would Eve, who had always fought so hard for her son and was not afraid of her husband, really have stood by while he beat Leon? What are the real roots of Al's favouritism? But overall this is a beautifully written, atmospheric and emotionally powerful tale, with characters we care about who are led with terrible inevitability to destinies we can only regret.