Bedside Table April
These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. All are among Exclusive Books’ top 25 reads for April. Some will be reviewed in full later.
The Man who Loved Crocodile Tamers, by Finuala Dowling (Kwela Books)
We read so many novels set in London or New York or California, and it is a delight to read one set here, in what I call the Shallow South – roughly Lakeside to Muizenberg. Right at the start Finuala Dowling tells us where we are: “The waves this morning were laced with bluebottles and browned by the wind’s relentless churning of kelp beds. Along the catwalk to Kalk Bay and on every available rock, anglers were casting out.” And: “A depressing gale blew yesterday from dawn until well past midnight. I was one of the few people braving Muizenberg beach.”
Gina is an aspiring novelist who works in a call centre. She wants to write a fictionalised story about her father, and it has to be a fiction because she knows so little about him. But she does know he was once engaged to Koringa, a crocodile tamer, and that he is buried in an unmarked grave. She wants to “climb inside my father’s youth, run away to the circus with him, fall in love: that is what I want.” Eventually she uncovers the truth about her father, a complex and ultimately nervous man.
Cape Talk presenter John Maytham said of this novel: “I am the man who loved The Man who Loved Crocodile Tamers. I am the man who loved it very much through many smiles and snorts of uncontrolled laughter and occasional tears.”
Love Marriage, by Monica Ali (Virago)
Yasmin and Joe are engaged. They are young London doctors, in love, and everything seems rosy. Yasmin’s parents might have hoped she would find a nice Muslim boy to marry, but haven’t said anything, possibly because their own match back in Calcutta was a love marriage. But both Yasmin and Joe are worried about what will happen when their parents meet. Yasmin’s parents are traditional and conservative, Joe’s mother Harriet is a wealthy, fiery feminist who once posed naked on her back with her legs akimbo, peering challengingly right into the lens. Years later the picture is of course still out there, and Yasmin’s irritating younger brother has found it and is threatening to show it to their parents. What could go wrong? This is a story of families and cultures and how hard it can be to steer a true course between very different backgrounds. One reviewer said he thought Love Marriage was Ali’s best, and added: “Ali writes like an angel who is not afraid of the devil.”
Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus (Doubleday/Penguin)
This novel, which opens in the early 1960s, has another feminist as its protagonist. Elizabeth Zott was once a research chemist whose all-male co-scientists didn’t believe in equality. Life takes some unexpected turns which include a relationship with another scientist, and Elizabeth ends up as a single mother and the reluctant star of an American cooking show, Supper at Six. Her scientific approach – “combine one tablespoon of acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride” – proves to be wildly popular with viewers. She is bold, uncompromising, and never bothers with tiny cucumber sandwiches, little soufflés or jokes. But the viewers love her – even President Lyndon Johnson loves her. Every programme ends with her signature catchphrase: “Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself.” But the concept of mothers needing time to themselves doesn’t please everyone: along with teaching women to cook, she’s also daring them to challenge social norms. TV cook and cookery writer Nigella Lawson wrote of this novel: “I am devastated to have finished it.”
Young Mungo, by Douglas Stuart (Picador)
Douglas Stuart won the Booker Prize for his depressing but brilliant debut novel Shuggie Bain, about a young boy growing up in an utterly dysfunctional and poverty-stricken family in Glasgow. Stuart has returned to the city in his second novel Young Mungo, a story of love between two young men, one Catholic and one Protestant in a city divided along sectarian lines. If Mungo and James want to be seen as proper men at all they should be enemies, and yet they have bonded over Jame’s prize racing pigeons. They have to hide their love, especially from Mungo’s brother Hamish, a local gang leader. Will they be able to find a future far away from the grey drizzly city and the threat posed by people’s intolerance towards gay men?
A Terrible Kindness, by Jo Browning Wroe (faber)
It is October 1966 and 19-year-old William is attending a swanky dinner-dance in Nottingham to mark his graduation from embalming college. During the speeches a waiter hands the speaker a telegram. “Embalmers needed urgently at Aberfan. Bring equipment and coffins.” Shortly after 9am the previous day a waste tip from the Merthyr Vale colliery, loosened by two days of heavy rain, slipped down the mountain to the village of Aberfan and engulfed Pantglas primary school and two rows of houses. Within two hours some children were pulled out alive, but after that there were just bodies – more than 140 of them. Working in Aberfan will be William’s first job, and it is one that will remind him of memories he has tried to bury. But he discovers that his compassion towards others ultimately helps to heal himself. British novelist Rachel Joyce said of this book: “It’s a long time since I’ve read a debut novel that moved me so much.”