Having seen her most recent novel be turned into an Oscar-winning film, the pressure is on for Emma Donoghue’s follow-up to Room. Luckily for her and for us, gothic-tinged The Wonder (Picador, 22nd September) doesn’t disappoint. Donoughue has crafted a compelling tale out of the real cases of the Fasting Girls of the 16th to 20th century, who claimed not to need earthly sustenance to survive. Lib, an English nurse who trained with Florence Nightingale and considers herself a woman of science, is dispatched to ‘the dead centre’ of Ireland in the 1850s, a place she considers backwards in every possible way. She can barely conceal her scepticism of her pre-teen patient Anna, who is apparently healthy, despite having starved herself for several months, nor of the local Catholic community’s faith in this supposed miracle. Yet drawn to the child, she sets out to get to the bottom of Anna’s fast and protect her from harm, helped by a dashing, (although somewhat one-dimensional) journalist. If Lib at times appears to be too modern in her attitude, and if the ending felt a little rushed and convenient, those are small complaints. A chilling tale steeped in Irish lore and religious symbolism, The Wonder is deliciously suspenseful and completely unlike anything else on the shelves right now.
Staying with the gothic vibe, Brad Watson’s Miss Jane (Picador, 3rd November) is as strange a novel as they come, and utterly memorable. The titular character is a girl born in the deep south at the tail end of the first world war. From an impoverished farming family, from the day she is born she is destined for a tough life. But Jane has a medical condition that will mean growing up is far more of a challenge and make it almost impossible for her to coexist with mainstream society, a condition that will lead to lost love, prejudice and isolation. If that sounds utterly depressing, it isn’t; Jane manages to build a lasting connection with a local doctor and even at her lowest point clings on to her spirit and strength of character. Miss Jane is based on the real story of Watson’s great aunt – and I defy anyone not to fall in love with Jane and wish she could have been born in a different time.
Georgia Clark’s The Regulars (Simon & Schuster, out now) is billed as a ‘Dorian Gray for the Girls generation’. The Oscar Wilde comparison is a tad ambitious, but this tale of three averagely attractive women who discover the elixir to becoming utterly gorgeous is good fun. Journalist Evie, aspiring actress Krista (the least appealing character, I felt she deserved everything she got) and poor-little-rich-girl artist Willow think they’ve got it made, but soon learn that beauty isn’t necessarily power. It’s racy, very contemporary and makes you question what you’d do in the same situation?
Miss You, by Kate Eberlin (Mantle, out now) is the perfect book for anyone lucky enough be getting some autumn sunshine. A will-they won’t-they romance, the twist is that the couple in question have never actually met. We follow Tess and Gus over 20 years, meeting them first as school-leavers bound for the same university and re-joining them as they navigate milestones including marriage and parenthood. Events conspire to keep them apart, but a series of near-misses make it clear that this couple is meant to be. Miss You races towards an incredibly predictable conclusion, but the individual stories – full of family strife and relationship drama – are touching and authentic. Raising the question of whether people need to meet at the right time in order for them to connect, this isn’t quite the next One Day, but it’s very enjoyable.
In Morgan McCarthy’s House of Birds (Tinder Press, 3rd November), the narrative slips between 1920s Britain and the modern day, as lost-soul Oliver attempts to solve a mystery dating back nearly a century. Between jobs, he volunteers to renovate a sprawling old house his girlfriend has just inherited, but as he peels away the wallpaper he discovers the dark tragedy of the house’s former inhabitant. Who is Sophia – who left cryptic diary entries between the covers of old books – and what became of her? Part love story, part historical whodunit, it’s a sweet, softly-told tale. And while the plot has more holes than a colander, it’s charming enough to get away with it.
For fans of literary fiction, the acclaimed Rachel Cusk is back with Transit (Vintage, 29th September), the follow up to Outline and the second in a planned trilogy. Ostensibly about one woman – the writer, Faye – undergoing a series of life changes while renovating her home, it’s really a series of short meditations on growth, change, and human relationships. We join her in conversations with the people who flit in and out of her life – builders and novelists, old friends and new, former lovers and family members – and through her eyes, witness their hopes, fears and perceptions of themselves. Her prose is quietly beautiful; you will be gripped by the stories and want to savour every sentence, even if you won’t quite know why. Transit isn’t always an easy read, but worth the effort.
Meanwhile, Rupert Campbell-Black makes a return to the bookshelves, as Jilly Cooper reincarnates the man of many women’s dreams for her latest bonkbuster, Mount (Transworld, 8th September). Fans won’t be disappointed; it’s all terribly good fun, with everyone (including the horses) enjoying lashings of great sex and glamorous, globetrotting lives, and generally being unapologetically posh. There’s no question it feels dated – the characters speak as they did in the 1970s, despite having iPhone and Facebook accounts, and the men remain alarmingly misogynistic (not that Cooper’s heroines seem to care) – but this return to Rutshire is still a page-turner. And if the women aren’t particularly feminist and the men are still behaving disgracefully, Mount is still streets ahead of the 50 Shades genre; these women are sexually liberated, not submissive. At 60, Rupert is as much a reprobate as ever – but isn’t that the point?