Secret Curious Readers Page (fiction)

In Sara Baume’s lyrical third novel, a young couple and their dogs move from the city to the sea, and steadily withdraw from the lives they used to know. This spare and quiet story can be read in a wealth of ways, but to us it’s at least partly about isolation, the passage of time, mundanity, sociality, and Covid. The last of these might deter some, but we implore anyone wary of reliving a global pandemic in their escapist reading time to make an exception – if anyone can deal with this weighty recent event without falling into cliché and triteness, it is Sara Baume. And like all the best books, it’s really about where we, as readers, meet and shape it with our own interpretations. 

The interior lives of our main characters, Bell and Sigh, are deliciously evoked, while the surrounding landscape of the south-west of Ireland, with its standing stones and the steeples of the title, is drawn with rich and brittle imagery. We are immersed mercilessly into the tensions and careworn familiarity of this relationship and everything it entails, the domestic minutiae and unuttered regrets. Part of the joy of all those dangling threads is that Baume allows you to settle on your own impression of this elliptical and chimeric little masterpiece – and perhaps this is the most enduring satisfaction of the whole book.

If you liked Seven Steeples, try… 

Previous subscription picks…

February 2023

Chilean Poet, Alejandro Zambra
trans. Meghan McDowell

You’ve heard of the Great American Novel, sure. But what about the Great Chilean Novel? This is undoubtedly it. We’ve long been Zambra fans in the shop, but if you’ve been to Storysmith in the last year it will have been difficult to avoid us yabbering on about his latest novel. I defy anyone to read the first few pages of this book and not be instantly hooked. Alejandro Zambra’s intimate father-son novel is both an acute portrait of an unconventional family, and a profound meditation on what it means to be Chilean. 

Starting as a coming-of-age story for the aspiring (and quite bad) poet, Gonzalo, it ventures into even more comings-of-age as the novel progresses: Gonzalo has a coming-of-dad when he reunites with his high school girlfriend and becomes a sort of step-dad to her son, Vicente, who himself has his own boy-to-(failed)poet-to-man arc; and a host of other characters, and other poets, journalists and writers, all on their disparate, internal quests.

Sweeping in scale, but closely observed in Zambra’s trademark ironic-profound style, this is the perfect balance of literary virtuosity and juicy narrative fiction.

If you liked Gentleman Overboard, try… 

January 2023

Gentleman Overboard, by Herbert Clyde Lewis

Unusually, the story behind this novel is almost as good as the novel itself. Herbert Clyde Lewis was a less-than-prominent screenwriter with the occasional hit to his name, but spent most of his professional life skipping through bankruptcy, bad tempers and bad luck – the pinnacle of which was that this beautifully concise and melancholic novel from 1937 was only fully appreciated after his death in 1950. Gentleman Overboard sees our main character, a dissatisfied banker named Henry Preston Standish, escaping his domestic life and abandoning his family by taking a long and languorous trip on a steamer to Panama, only to slip and fall into the sea and be left bobbing, waiting for a rescue that may or may not be on its way.

We are then left only with the thoughts of this newly-lonely man, his speculations and ruminations on where it all went right or wrong for him, what might be happening on the boat in his absence, what his family will be thinking. It’s a perfect comedy of embarrassment and ineptitude, but one that asks hard questions of its main character and his actions in leaving his family, making it a true anomaly: a dinky masterpiece bobbing alone in obscurity until it was miraculously reissued last year. As the hours of his new existence slip by and the night threatens, we come to understand the situation Standish finds himself in, in every sense.

If you liked Gentleman Overboard, try… 

December 2022

The Seaplane on Final Approach, by Rebecca Rukeyser

There are so many elements to this novel working in perfect concert. The stunning cover, drawn with an aesthetic of enticing melodrama. Then the premise itself: adolescent unrest, geographical isolation, increasingly wild weather events and – crucially – the constant threat of bears. Mira is 18 and completely captivated by the owners of the Alaskan lodge where she is working for the season. She makes cookies, chats to the international guests to put them at their ease, and takes the trash out to the shoreline every day at low tide. The churn of guests arrive by the titular seaplane, the one glimmering sign that things in the outside world are continuing without her. More importantly, though, Mira is also obsessed with the nature of sleaze, with the strange relationship of lodge owners Stu and Maureen, and with the sullen and unpredictable chef who lives in a tent on-site

We were absolutely taken in by this seemingly effortless debut novel. It’s so beautifully executed and expertly paced that you don’t even realise the tension is building and that things may not be so idyllic as the average holiday guest might like to think. Rukeyser captures that preciously horrible time in late adolescence when warring emotions can’t help but show themselves, no matter how strong the characters think they are. Written with the ideal amount of grumpy humour and a cast of delightfully dysfunctional supporting characters, this book does a perfect job of creating an irresistible world you’d never want to be stuck in. Mischievous perfection.

If you liked Seaplane on Final Approach, try… 

November 2022
Diary of a Void, by Emi Yagi

translated by David Boyd and Lucy North

Ms Shibata has had enough. Tired of working long hours in a male-dominated office where she is expected to make coffees and clear away the cups after meetings, she decides on impulse to lie to her colleagues and tell them she is pregnant. As opening gambits go, it’s hard to deny this one is immediately compelling. Ms Shibata starts to track this fictitious pregnancy and adapt her lifestyle accordingly, sinking deeper and deeper into the lie until we’re left wondering how far she can take it – it’s an exquisite trajectory.

You can read this novel as part of a wider and, for us, deeply satisfying seam of modern Japanese literature that interrogates the role of women in wider society (see below for a few more examples of this pleasing trend), but on a purely narrative level the delights are ample: turns of phrase recur and redefine themselves as the book progresses, male behaviour becomes increasingly ungainly and pathetic as the faux-pregnancy becomes more obvious.

This is a deliciously smart and crafty story of deception, but one that wears its worldlier themes lightly. Hidden beneath the snippy facade there are salient ruminations on the societal pressure placed on women’s bodies, and almost melancholy musings on the futility of opposing the patriarchy. Whichever way you read it, we hope you’ll find the peculiar atmosphere will linger like it did for us after finishing this excruciatingly well-crafted book.

If you liked Diary of a Void, try… 

October 2022:
Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townesend Warner

If you’ve visisted us in the shop and asked us for a recommendation you may already know that we tend towards the spooky wherever we can. We were very excited, then, to discover that a new clothbound edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s daring novellette Lolly Willowes is to be released in time for October. It’s a relatively new favourite of ours, and we’re not ashamed to admit we weren’t hip to its charms despite it being first published in 1926. With a prescience that feels somewhat unearthly, Warner uses her titular character to undermine and comment upon the patriarchal structures of between-war Britain by having unmarried Lolly abandon her comfortable life for a life of solitary witchcraft in the countryside.

Even now, in these more enlightened times, Lolly’s move feels gleefully transgressive. The excitement, of course, cannot last and the way Warner ekes out the finer details of exactly what is wrong with Lolly’s new home village is irresistible. Without giving anything away, the finale to this book is stunning and inventive, but like so many other elements in this book it’s hidden beautifully. Delivering the chills and, in a gentle but very real way, the thrills – Lolly Willowes does everything we’d want a book to do this spooky season.

If you liked Lolly Willowes, try… 

September 2022:

Afterparties, by Anthony Veasna So

We’re huge fans of a well-crafted short story collection at Storysmith, and we loved this warm-hearted, bold collection of interconnecting stories about Cambodian-American lives. The stories express the joy and messiness and pain and love of real lives, families striving to make ends meet, to feel fulfilled, and to hang on to some semblance of Cambodian cultural heritage whilst trying to achieve the American dream. The stories take us to the heart of ordinary existence, sometimes with an absurd twist; a mechanic whose business is failing because he wants to offer jobs to his whole community, a high school teacher who can’t move on from his dream of being a badminton star, cousins trying to psyche themselves up to attend a relative’s reincarnation party.

Veasna So’s playful tone makes for entertaining reading, but the effects of the Cambodian genocide hover in the background of all of the stories, the younger generations are grappling with the complexities of their culture and identity, feeling the inherited grief of their parents and grandparents and dealing with the gaps in their family trees. The stories depict the incredibly human capacity to carry on in the face of so much adversity, to work, fight, party, date and eat a huge amount of Cambodian donuts.

Anthony Veasna So’s writing is so full of heart, he navigates the nuanced topics of immigration, race and sexuality with a sharp wit and tender understanding. Afterparties is sadly the only published collection from this talented writer whose career was just about to start when he passed away in 2020.

If you liked Afterparties, try… 

August 2022:

The Twilight Zone, by Nona Fernández

(translated by Natasha Wimmer)

This unconventional historical novel is crammed with details that bring its subject alive with incredible energy, a blazing journey through the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Told from the perspective of a journalist and documentarian (in a distinctly auto-fictional manner) uncovering the details of a man known only as ‘the man who tortured people’, The Twilight Zone is a propulsive and unrelenting excavation of ordinary life under oppression. In researching her unconventional subject, the narrator reveals the psychological damage not just on the individual, but the whole nation.

While the subject matter is unavoidably heavy, it’s delivered as a counterpoint to the mundanity of real life, of pop culture and family life. The classic sci-fi TV show that shares its name with the book is used as a neat way of framing the surreality of the situation, and as we discover more about the man who tortures people we begin to see a complex, uneasy humanising effect. Books like this reinforce the cliche that a good novel teaches the reader more than just the mechanics of the story, and with The Twilight Zone we were bowled over by how much insight, atmosphere and history you can glean from such clever prose (brilliantly translated, we should add).

If you liked The Twilight Zone, try… 

July 2022:

Maud Martha, by Gwendolyn Brooks

We’ve been quietly devouring some of the choice morsels from Faber’s ‘Faber Editions’ series. These lovingly-produced and rediscovered classics which have included such Storysmith favourites as Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls and They by Kay Dick, and now the absolute crème-de-la-crème: Maud Martha, the only novel by Pulitzer Prize winning American poet Gwendolyn Brooks. First appearing in 1953, this carefully executed novel of Chicago life was never published in the UK, and didn’t exactly make waves back in the US either, but now its reputation can be rightly reconsidered. 

We weren’t hugely familiar with Brooks’ poetry on reading this slim and powerful volume, but now that we have we know this: Maud Martha is a miniature masterpiece. Told as a series of vignettes that capture Maud Martha’s childhood, her teenage years, her early marriage and her journey into motherhood, we see snapshots of a life condensed. This is a book of ordinary people doing everyday things – a trip to the movies, putting up a Christmas tree, furnishing the kitchenette – but in-between these moments of domesticity there’s laughter, pain, passion and heartbreak, the sheer grind of existence. It’s very easy to love Maud Martha herself: she’s poised, quietly defiant, and the real genius of the novel is in how Brooks makes her life accessible to us, shows the reader its gentle strength without veering into sentimentality. 

If you liked Maud Martha, try… 

June 2022:

The Godmother, by Hannelore Cayre

There are few things we like more than an unexpected crime novel. Perhaps it’s something about the conventions of the genre, the classic rhythms of a whodunnit or a police procedural, but when an author tries and succeeds to reinvent a classic formula, it’s a source of great joy for us. When we first came across this French translation a few years ago, we got that exact feeling – that The Godmother really was something a bit special. Don’t be fooled by its brevity, and don’t expect any easy answers: one of the delights of this stylishly-told curio is the way in which it continually subverts your expectations.

Our heroine, Patience, has earned an honest living for 25 years as a translator for the police, feeding vital wiretap information from African drug gangs. But when her financial security suddenly comes under threat due to bureaucratic injustices, she decides upon a most unexpected career-change, a total reinvention of herself. The Godmother is going to use all her experience of the criminal underworld gleaned from decades hidden in plain sight. She’s just not going to use it in the way you’d expect…

If you liked The Godmother, try…

May 2022:

Ruth & Pen, by Emilie Pine

Emilie Pine has already made a name for herself in the literary world with her essay collection Notes to Self, which we absolutely loved in the shop (and probably recommended to you at some point if you happened to pop in). Now she seems set to take it by storm again, with her debut novel Ruth & Pen, and we’re so pleased to be able to bring this special story to you hot off the press in its publication week.

In some ways, Ruth & Pen feels like a contemporary (and more accessible) rendition of James Joyce’s Ulysses – a kind of evolution of the Irish novel, if you will. Taking place in a single day in Dublin, the novel follows the two titular women, unknown to each other but plagued by similar concerns, on the verge of falling in and out of love. On this day, Ruth is contemplating her marriage to Aiden, and whether the wounds that they have inflicted on each other can be repaired. Meanwhile Pen is preparing to speak her truth, and tell her best friend Alice exactly what she means to her. It’s a tender consideration of love, miscommunication, friendship, neurodivergence, fertility, the climate crisis, therapy and grief. It broke and simultaneously warmed our hearts and we hope you enjoy your ‘trip’ to Dublin as much as we did.

If you liked Ruth & Pen, try…

April 2022:

Love in the Big City, by Sang Young Park

(translated by Anton Hur)

Love in the Big City begins with an unlikely pairing: the narrator Young and his college best friend and roommate Jaehee, a situation considered unacceptable by almost everyone except themselves due to her being unmarried. Nonetheless, they form a mutually beneficial cohabitation-of-convenience as they ricochet between classes, terrible boyfriends and freezer-cold cigarettes, setting the tone for the novel as a whole. It’s a portrait of contemporary Korean queer culture that is both celebratory and mournful, ironic and melancholy in equal measure, rendered in a narrative style that brims with personality.

From these humble coming-of-age beginnings, the novel bounces between Young’s escapades in love and loss over the course of his 20s and 30s, with Seoul, South Korea as the titular big city. But while the topic is indeed love, it’s unconventional and not always romantic. Sometimes it’s an obsessive, addictive, all-consuming love; sometimes it’s an accidentally unshakeable friendship and the awful void it can leave. It’s also the joyous sexual freedom of the big city and the punishingly lonely and isolatingly conservative moral climate of Korea at large – the complexities and contradictions of gay life in modern Korea are laid bare in a thousand well-realised moments.

Love in the Big City is a celebration of this multitude: idyllic and devastating, and surely destined to become a queer cult classic.

If you liked Love in the Big City, try…

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