I was excited to see a new novel by American novelist Anita Shreve. She’s written more than fifteen novels and I think I’ve read them all. So, last week, I read The Lives of Stella Bain – mostly in the garden!
The novel is set in the aftermath of World War I, and Stella is a military nurse and driver who finds herself in London one evening, with no idea about how she got there, or what she is to do next. She throws herself at the mercy of an English couple, and they help her to investigate who she is and where she is from.
Once you get past the slightly unlikely extent of the help the English couple offer Stella, this novel is unusual and gripping. The Edwardian fascination with psychology clearly interests Shreve, as does the way the war affected the women involved. Like many of her books, The Lives of Stella Bain charts the journey of a lone woman in an unknown place. Shreve covers a lot of ground here in terms of Stella’s past as well as her plans for the future. Like so many novels now, Shreve uses the present tense pretty much throughout, and somehow this suits Stella’s character, as she can only really live in the present, knowing next to nothing of her past. This is a good read – interesting and unusual. It is a shame that this novel will probably be read by a predominantly female readership as it has male characters as well, and leaves readers with plenty to think about. However, if you’ve never read anything by Shreve, start with the superb novel, The Pilot’s Wife!
I stayed up late last night to finish Sadie Jones’ fourth novel, Fallout. It’s a fantastic read and I know I’m going to be evangelical about it for some time! It’s set in the 1970s, chiefly in London, in the world of theatre start-ups. The novel is convincing about this world, where theatres are not the gilded globes seen to the audience in the plush seats, but the day-to-day grind of rehearsals, builders, management and ticket sales. Jones’ characters are (nearly all) principled arts-lovers, whose work matters – and this virtuous stance leads to some of the best drama in the novel. I don’t want to give too much away so I won’t describe too much about the main characters. Suffice it to say, Jones writes so skilfully about her characters’ actions, feelings and motivations that the prose is breathtaking at times. She captures particularly well that way in which a mood can sour or a glance can intrigue – tiny moments which have a huge reach in a person’s life. It’s also a very dense, substantial novel with well-drawn, believable characters around the main four: their parents, other theatre folk, a husband – so that Jones’ world is fully and convincingly peopled. If you read Jones’ first novel, Outcast, you might remember how very bleak it was (though excellent); this is not as bleak – there are moments of exhilaration and love – but Jones equally doesn’t shy away from writing about disappointment, failure, or regret. Sadie Jones was on Women’s Hour recently taking about this book and it has also been serialised on Radio 4, and it deserves to do extremely well.