PAUL by Daisy Lafarge (Granta £12.99, 336 pp)
by Daisy Lafarge (Granta £12.99, 336 pp)
This tense debut from an acclaimed poet is told by a young Englishwoman who, after an unspecified mental collapse, flees to a French eco-farm run by Paul, a would-be anthropologist raving about his travels in Tahiti.
Yet when she arrives, his ramshackle site looks nothing like it did online — and rather than teaching her about cultivation, it seems Paul has her lined up as a skivvy, or worse.
Riddling hints about the narrator’s breakdown amplify the gut-level dread that swirls around her developing attachment to her slyly manipulative host, who is hiding dark crimes.
In modelling Paul’s past on the 19th-century painter Paul Gauguin, the novel shares DNA with Rachel Cusk’s recent Second Place, a lockdown-era recasting of an episode in the life of D.H. Lawrence, another troublingly flawed artist.
But this is the superior book — a compellingly creepy study of psychosexual power dynamics that doubles as a shrewd portrait of drifting millennial womanhood.
THE COUNTRY OF OTHERS
by Leïla Slimani (Faber £14.99, 336 pp)
Slimani is a French-Moroccan bestseller, whose previous novels, Lullaby, about a killer nanny, and Adèle, about a sex-addicted reporter, came out in English amid a vogue for literary psychological thrillers starring misanthropic anti-heroines.
As well as offering whydunnit suspense and pungent reflections on the difficulty of women ‘having it all’, those books were subtly interested in the fallout from French imperialism — a theme tackled head-on in her new novel, a 1950s-set saga, the first in a planned trilogy based on her family history.
We follow Mathilde, a young Frenchwoman married to a Moroccan soldier who fought for France in World War II. As she settles in rural Morocco to raise their children, her sense of cultural dislocation sharpens amid the country’s fight for independence.
Slimani wallows in gory details, true, yet her habits sustain interest in a slow-moving narrative that chiefly lays the groundwork for future instalments.
THE ECHO CHAMBER by John Boyne (Doubleday £16.99, 432 pp)
THE ECHO CHAMBER
by John Boyne (Doubleday £16.99, 432 pp)
Boyne, you would guess, wrote this bilious social-media send-up as a counterblast to critics who slammed the transgender storyline in his contentious young adult novel, My Brother’s Name Is Jessica.
The narrative turns on a dysfunctional celebrity clan headed by BBC talk-show host George Cleverley, a national treasure who is cancelled as a transphobic bigot after posting a tweet intended to show support for his lawyer’s receptionist, Nadia, formerly known as Aidan.
It’s a fertile premise, to be sure, yet trouble comes when the story asks us to see George not simply as an unimpeachable liberal acting in good faith, but as a mischief-maker impishly keen to goad ‘woke’ sensitivities — a contradictory combination of characteristics that Boyne’s increasingly crass satire struggles to accommodate.
Yes, he’s a slick plotter with a propulsive style, but this is essentially novel-writing as trolling — a symptom, not a remedy, of the hair-trigger censoriousness it aims to spoof.
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