Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012)

Harold Fry is whiling away his retirement – pottering about in south Devon, the spark long having gone out of his marriage to Maureen – when he receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old work colleague. Queenie has written from a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed to tell Harold that she is dying of cancer; moved that she still remembers him after all this time, Harold writes a letter in reply, and goes out to post it – but that feels inadequate to him, and Harold soon finds himself on a mission to walk all the way to Berwick.

Rachel Joyce’s debut is a delight to read: it reminded me of a (less macabre) Dan Rhodes book in its ability to combine whimsy with a genuine emotional punch; Harold’s journey may be eccentric, but his reasons for making it are not – and the colourful characters he meets along the way may have painful stories of their own that they don’t want to share. I particularly like the way that the changing character of Harold’s pilgrimage reflects and reinforces the waxing and waning of his hopes (at his most optimistic, Harold gains a new lease of life, and people want to travel with him; at his most despondent, he is bedraggled and alone). I’ll be interested to see what Joyce writes next.

Asko Sahlberg, The Brothers (2010/2)

Peirene Press’s theme for 2012 is ‘The Small Epic’ – ‘novella length stories of more than 35 chapters’ according to the publisher’s catalogue; but this book (Sahlberg’s ninth, translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah) also fits the bill as a grand-scale story set in a small space. That space is a Finnish farmhouse in 1809, inhabited by brothers Erik and Henrik; their mother; Erik’s wife, Anna; and the brothers’ cousin (who is treated little better than a servant), Mauri. Henrik has been estranged from the rest of his family, and fought on the opposite side to Erik in the recent war between Sweden and Russia. Now, in peacetime, Henrik returns home – and the battle for mastery of the household begins.

There’s a strong sense of character here, especially of Henrik, with his heavy, deliberate steps, and his childhood affinity with a violent horse. The story itself progresses in broad narrative moves, with the small domestic setting only heightening the sense of drama at the plot and character twists. The Brothers feels longer than its 122 pages, in the best possible way.

Paul Michael Francis, The Silver Bridge (2012)

Pavlos is frontman of the band Karma, a rock star with a conscience who is growing disillusioned. He becomes re-energised when he starts to have visions of a beautiful woman, and even more so when he discovers that she is real – the woman is Claire Davis, a Hollywood actress. She has problems of her own, not least her overly controlling mother. Pavlos and Claire might just be the best thing ever to happen to each other – if they could only get it together…

The Silver Bridge is the debut novel by Paul Michael Francis; despite all the differences in setting and subject matter, it shares with The Brothers a larger-than-life quality. I get the sense that Pavlos and Claire might realise how right they are for each other if they’d just stop and think for a bit – but that’s not the kind of story Francis is telling here. It’s outrageous optimism which drives Pavlos to approach Claire in the first place, and the pair fall in and out of love with similar degrees of intensity. Will they get together in the end, or won’t they? It wouldn’t be right for me to say – that’s all part of the novel’s game – but it is rather good fun finding out.