Barbara Kingsolver trained as biologist before she became a novelist and she has repeatedly shown her desire to anatomise society in her fiction. In her bestselling novel The Poisonwood Bible (1998), she examined the impact of missionaries in the Belgian Congo and in her more recent novel, Flight Behaviour (2012), she took on climate change. In her latest novel Unsheltered, she turns her attentions to the recently disenfranchised middle class in contemporary North America.
Sarah Perry has followed her Victorian debut The Essex Serpent with Melmoth, which begins in near-contemporary Prague. It is easy to forget that the setting is 2016, however, not least because our heroine, forty-two-year-old Helen Franklin, has no interest in present-day pleasures. She views the Prague that tourists enjoy as “a stage set, contrived by ropes and pulleys”. In fact, she has no interest in pleasure of any kind and is governed by self-denial. Perry is skilled at suggesting a whole life in a phrase – Helen is introduced to us with “her neat coat belted, as colourless as she is, nine years worn”. Her landlady is “ninety years old, malicious, unkind, devoted to sentimental opera and Turkish Delight”.
William Boyd’s fifteenth novel begins well enough. In 1894 Edinburgh, a 24-year-old piano tuner is promoted to run the Paris branch of the firm he works for. Boyd is good on the inner workings of the piano: “the hammers, the rockers, the jacks, the whippens, the dampers – its innards were exposed like a clock with its back off or a railway engine dismantled in a repair shed.”
Brodie Moncur, the tuner in question, is possessed of perfect pitch and a fine sensibility which places him at odds at with the brutal household of his tyrannical father and nine siblings (his mother has died in childbirth).
Normal People, Sally Rooney’s extraordinary second novel has already been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018 and at 27, she could be the youngest writer ever to walk away with the prize. Anyone who has read her first novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), will hardly be surprised as they will know that she writes with breath-taking fluency. She wrote 100 000 words of her first book in just three months, by often writing for 17 hours a day and prior to this was a European debating champion. This might partly account for why the dialogue in her novels is so startlingly good.