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2015's literary standouts, according to ODT books editor Helen Speirs.
GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS
FABER & FABER (ALLEN & UNWIN)
A Ted Hughes scholar and his two young sons are mourning the sudden loss of their wife and mother respectively. Enter the famous bird from Hughes' Crow poems (written after the suicide of wife Sylvia Plath, and dedicated to his lover and her child who died later in a murder/suicide). Crow is a trickster, who feeds on death and plays with grief and hopelessness. Is he there to help or hinder? This story about the ‘‘beautifully chaotic'' nature of grief is told in short alternating chapters by the ‘‘Boys'', ‘‘Dad'' and ‘‘Crow''. There are so many layers packed into a mere 100-something pages: it is at once a fable about death, with the crow the ultimate symbol; an essay on grief, within the terrible context of Plath's legacy; and the ultimate homage to Hughes' work (down to the similarities with the original 1970 Faber & Faber Crow book cover). Unusual, perceptive and haunting, this book will repay with repeated readings.
Alaskan-born author David Vann (who spends some time each year at his home near Auckland) cuts straight to the heart of the hurt in his analyses of families and relationships. Much of his insight comes from his own shocking family history of violence. Aquarium follows single mother Sheri, who is blunted by her painful childhood, and her bright 12-year-old daughter, Caitlin, who is desperate for more family, and exploring her awakening sexuality. Two men come into their life, but will Sherie be able to open the doors? While loss, abandonment, pain and anger bubble away below the surface here, Vann finally lets himself, his characters and the reader come up for air, with the unprecedented possibility of hope, redemption and forgiveness.
Shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize, Wellington author Anna Smaill's debut novel The Chimes is set in a dystopian London, where the written word is outlawed and memory has been sacrificed to music, the ruling principle. Mind control is exerted by a group called the Order, through a giant Carillon, a musical instrument comprised of bells. The musician and poet has combined both art forms in the book, which follows a young boy, Simon, who journeys to London in search of answers about his dead parents, but turns out to hold the keys to change the world as he knows it. I love the echoes with Russell Hoban's masterpiece, Riddley Walker.
FLOOD OF FIRE
Flood of Fire completes Amitav Ghosh's epic ‘‘Ibis trilogy'' (Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke). Set against the backdrop of the opium wars of the mid-1800s between China and British India, the books follow a vast, disparate and colourful cast of characters of Indians and Westerners, from the fertile poppy fields bordering the Indian Ganges, to a storm-ravaged and murderous Indian Ocean crossing, to the calm of Mauritius, to reach its conclusion here as the Chinese emperor bans opium from his country's shores and the British begin their first attacks on Chinese harbour cities leading to the seizure of Hong Kong. Ghosh's research is formidable, story-telling masterful, characters delightful and their lingo remarkable. Epic in scale and achievement.
THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD
This novel is also the last in a series: the ‘‘Neapolitan novel quartet'' (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay). The books follow the lives of childhood friends, bookish Elena and impulsive Lila, through the generations. They are not ‘‘easy reading''. We are shown the nature of female friendship in all its glory and ignominy, plagued by rivalries and jealousies, against the social setting in Naples full of violence, grinding poverty and tradition, where the future for women is often bleak. The construction and unravelling of their lives, and those around them, is brutally honest. Elena Ferrante is a pen name, and the author's identity a fiercely guarded secret. This quartet is a brilliant social, political, emotional and psychological chronicle.