Circe by Madeline Miller

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If you went near a Waterstones in April, you will have seen stacks of Circe, a paperback with a beautifully intricate bronze and black cover. It was their book of the month and is also ours and – having now made the shortlist – may win this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Anyone who has read Madeline Miller’s heady first novel Song of Achilles (2012) will know why her second book has appealed to such a broad range of readers. They will also be keen to devour it because Miller has once again turned a Homeric epic into, as the Independent said of her first book, “a sexy page-turner.”

Song of Achilles has now been published in 25 languages as well as winning the Women’s Prize for fiction (then called the Orange Prize). It has also helped shift perceptions of classical epics. When Miller wrote Song of Achilles, Margaret Atwood may have already written The Penelopiad (her 2005 retelling of The Odyssey from the viewpoint of Odysseus’s wife) but internationally bestselling feminist takes on classical epics were still a rarity.

 

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

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Elizabeth Macneal’s debut historical novel arrives with some fanfare from the publishers of The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton’s wildly successful debut historical novel of 2014. For the most part, the excitement is justified. Macneal is a talented writer and this is a frankly moreish novel. We are not in Amsterdam in the 1680s this time but London in the 1850s.

Macneal’s heroine, Iris Whittle, was born with a slight deformity which has not dented her sanguine temperament, unlike her once beautiful but now bitter and pockmarked twin sister, Rose. It also doesn’t prevent her from catching the eye of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. 

The sisters paint the faces on china dolls in Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium but Iris has (bold, given the period) ambitions to become a painter. She also has an admirer in the sinister taxidermist Silas Reed. At one stage, “He imagines her bladder within her, wet and pink like the inside of a peach, and then apart from her, dried out and white like a crisp pig’s ear.” 

 

We, The Survivors by Tash Aw

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It’s not immediately obvious who the survivors in Tash Aw’s formidable new novel are, or who the narrator even is, or who has been killed. We know there has been a murder, however, or a culpable homicide not amounting to murder, as the narrator quotes the person being addressed as describing it. Details reveal themselves gradually: the narrator is a Chinese Malaysian man called Lee Hock Lye — known to his friends as Ah Hock — who is recounting the story to a local journalist of how he ended up in prison (for what part, in what crime exactly, we don’t know yet).

His descriptions of the night of the killing are vivid: ‘I walked through the long grass — it was stringy and sharp and slashed my legs right up to my knees. It was hot, I was wearing shorts, my skin started to sting.’ Alongside this intense rendering of sensations, there is a powerful feeling of disassociation, and at times Ah Hock recalls Meursault, the title character of Camus’s L’Étranger.