Rounding up my latest two reviews for Fiction Uncovered, which include one of this year’s winners…
Paul Wilson, Mouse and the Cossacks (2013)
Eleven-year-old Mouse de Bruin (she doesn’t like her given name) has lost the ability to talk. Not that this prevents her from communicating, as shown by her penchant for writing indignant letters while posing as her mother, or sending text messages to random numbers. At the start of Paul Wilson’s seventh novel, Mouse and her mother move into a farmhouse near Manchester; we soon learn that there’s a background of tragedy and break-up, but Mouse also has a story to piece together herself. She discovers a cache of letters belonging to William Crosby, the previous tenant, and becomes fascinated by his life. While serving as a captain in Italy during the Second World War, he had to deal with a group of Cossack refugees – and he fell in love with their interpreter.
As a narrator, Mouse is fascinating: sometimes likeably precocious, sometimes unpleasantly manipulative. She refuses to tell her old friend Lucas where she now lives, constructing an elaborate fantasy of moving between different hotels in London, rather than admitting that she’s actually in the same city as he. There’s a sense that this is fundamentally about control: Mouse has seen so much upheaval that she wants some form of stability in her world; insisting that people communicate with her on her own terms gives her that.
Then, into her life comes William Crosby, revealed to be as multi-faceted a personality as Mouse is herself. Wilson establishes some interesting parallels and contrasts between the two characters: both of their speaking voices have been silenced, hers by selective mutism, his by the passage of time. Both have made efforts to communicate with others in writing, but their true selves remain hidden – Mouse seems not to want to admit her true feelings, and William never sent the letters that would reveal his.
In Mouse and the Cossacks, Paul Wilson has created an engaging study of two characters whose complexities can only be glimpsed by the people around them, a study that reflects on how communication can change a life.
Lesley Glaister, Little Egypt (2014)
Lesley Glaister’s fourteenth novel is a gothic tale of secrets and damaged families. In the 1920s, twins Isis and Osiris live in Little Egypt, the country house of their Egyptologist parents, Evelyn and Arthur. It’s just the siblings, the staff, the cats, and the occasional visit from Uncle Victor – until Evelyn and Arthur send word from Egypt that they’re getting close to a major discovery, and they want the twins to see. None of the characters will come through the ensuing events unscathed.
In the present day, both siblings still live in Little Egypt, although they haven’t seen each other for years. Itself now a relic of a bygone age, the house sits on a little island created by railways and roads; a developer wants to buy the land for a shopping mall, but Isis has held out so far. Over the course of the book, she becomes friends with Spike, a young American anarchist, and invites him to visit Little Egypt – but change may be coming along with him.
Much of the pleasure of reading Little Egypt comes from the gradual revelation of secrets, which Glaister handles very well indeed. Both Isis and Osiris have things to hide, secrets that come to light at different points throughout the novel, which means you can never be quite sure where it will turn next; the present-day storyline doesn’t give away where the historical one is heading, either.
Glaister also establishes some powerful parallels between the novel’s two timeframes. We see how Arthur’s and Evelyn’s obsession with Egypt ultimately created a prison for them, but also how it came to have chilling consequences for the young Isis and Osiris. In the fullness of time, the history of Little Egypt exerted its own force… But I won’t continue with that train of thought. Suffice it to say that Little Egypt is a dark, poignant novel with a pitch-perfect ending.