Catching up on some of the books I’ve read recently…

Rachel Joyce, Perfect (2013)

In 1972, two leap seconds are added to time, and Byron Hemmings wonders if this is what led his mother to cause a road accident that she didn’t even notice; Byron sets up ‘Operation Perfect’ with his school-friend James Long to find out. Meanwhile, in the present day, middle-aged Jim is trying to rebuild his life after years in a psychiatric hospital; we may guess that these two narrative strands are connected, so the question becomes: how? Perfect is quite different in subject and tone from Joyce’s Booker-longlisted debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry; but it shares the earlier novel’s underlying seriousness, which gives Perfect a firm emotional grounding.

Monique Roffey, Archipelago (2012)

A year after their home flooded, Gavin Weald and his daughter Océan still cannot settle back into life. So, along with their dog Suzy, they head out from Trinidad across the ocean on a voyage which is at least as much emotional as it is physical. With that in mind, the archipelago of the title could be all the many pieces of life that the Wealds encounter on the journey, as well as the islands they travel through. By novel’s end, there is a sort of peace, but it is not easily won.

Antoine Laurain, The President’s Hat (2012)
Translated from the French by Louise Rogers Laulaurie, Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken, 2013

Daniel Mercier is eating out when none other than François Mitterand sits at the next table; when the President leaves, Daniel sees that he has left his hat behind. Deciding to keep the hat for himself, Daniel finds his life start to change – until he leaves the hat behind somewhere. We then follow a succession of characters who gain possession of Mitterand’s hat, each gaining that extra confidence to do something different. I found this book simply great fun to read; as a nice added touch, there are different translators for each viewpoint character.

Marlen Haushofer, The Wall (1968)
Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside, 1991

On a visit to her cousin, a woman wakes one day to find no other people in sight, and an invisible wall cutting her off from much of the outside world. Some years later, still (for all intents and purposes) the only human about, she writes her report of what happened, which is the book we now hold. Told precisely and coolly, The Wall is a tale of survival not so much as heroic endurance but as keeping going because that’s all there is left.

Carmen Bugan, Burying the Typewriter (2012)

A memoir of the author’s childhood in Ceaucescu’s Romania, where her father was a dissident and her family surveilled by the secret police. There are some good scenes in this book – a sequence where the young Carmen tries to visit the American embassy is as tense as any fictional thriller; and there’s a real sense towards the end of how out-of-place the secret police are in Carmen’s village – but, as a whole, it didn’t quite engage me.

Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders (2001)

A novel set in the Derbyshire village of Eyam, which voluntarily cut itself off from the surrounding country when the plague struck in 1665, seen through the eyes of Anna Frith, a young housemaid who remains immune. There’s lots of interesting historical detail in here, but sometimes to the detriment of the book as a novel – and the ending especially feels rather too abrupt.