A full-throttle picaresque, it concerns the travails of a soldier and spy known as the Great Tarare
by AK Blakemore (Granta £14.99, 336pp)
Blakemore’s second novel swaps the turmoil of the English Civil War —the backdrop to her prize-winning debut, The Manningtree Witches — for the convulsions of revolutionary France.
A full-throttle picaresque, it concerns the travails of a soldier and spy known as the Great Tarare, drawn on a real-life figure whose apparently insatiable (and reputedly even cannibalistic) appetites left his 18th-century contemporaries agog.
Blakemore puts flesh on the bones of this quasi-mythical figure by showing his escape from a violent, impoverished childhood. First, we see his life as a travelling showman, captivating onlookers with his unholy talent for munching all and sundry.
Then comes the military, as Tarare’s ravening hunger — and the mania that surrounds it — begins to seem an extreme symptom of wider political tumult.
Rivetingly inserting itself into the blanks of the historical record, this is a smart, endlessly stylish novel, glinting with sly intelligence and humour.
U.S. writer Mason may not yet be a household name, but his readers tend to be evangelical about his talent
by Daniel Mason (John Murray £16.99, 384 pp)
U.S. writer Mason may not yet be a household name, but his readers tend to be evangelical about his talent — and little wonder.
His last book, A Registry Of My Passage Upon The Earth, was a suite of tales with far-flung settings. His dizzyingly structured new novel is just as virtuosic. Spanning four centuries, it spins a tangled web around the development of a humble homestead scratch-built by two young lovers fleeing a cloistered Puritan settlement in 17th-century Massachusetts.
Narrated as a cut-up patchwork of voices and genres, the book tracks the lives of the land’s future inhabitants, from an orchard-planting colonist to a painter and a true crime writer — and even a beetle. All the while, ghosts of the past stalk the present.
Mason has the born storyteller’s gift of knowing how to reignite your interest in a new scenario even as you’re mourning the one just gone.
When it comes to being nominated for the Booker Prize, Tan has a 100 per cent hit rate
THE HOUSE OF DOORS
by Tan Twan Eng (Canongate £20, 320pp)
When it comes to being nominated for the Booker Prize, Tan has a 100 per cent hit rate. Longlisted in 2007 for his debut, and shortlisted for his 2011 follow-up, The Garden Of Evening Mists, the Malaysian author is currently on this year’s longlist with his latest novel, a multi-layered tale of repression in 1920s Penang.
Lesley, an expat housewife whose husband is traumatised by his service in World War I, finds herself shaken out of her dreary day-to-day by a visit from his old pal, Willie — the writer William Somerset Maugham, facing financial ruin after a catastrophic investment. Drama lies in Willie’s love for his male secretary, as well as Lesley’s friendship with an Englishwoman accused of murder — which, for Willie, proves an irresistible subject for fiction.
Mixing satire and sympathy in its portrait of the real-life Maugham, it’s finely crafted and patiently told. A solid bet for the shortlist.