What We're Reading - 19 November 2021

Lucy Nathan
Opinion - Books Friday, 19th November 2021

The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables


Nicholas Clee
After reading about George V, very much not a Bright Young Thing, I return to Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, the definitive satire on the decadent social set that flourished in the years following the First World War. I once thought it the funniest novel ever written, but didn't laugh quite so much this time, finding Waugh's misanthropy less amusing. One can see how this comic vision will curdle, and its possessor develop into the sour, unpleasant figure interviewed by John Freeman for a BBC Face To Face programme in 1960. Vile Bodies is dedicated to Brian Guinness and his wife Diana, née Mitford, later Mosley - not a happy development either.

Neill Denny
Years ago I read Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy, a really mind-stretching work, probably the best fiction to have come out of the war, which encouraged me to try his earlier Vile Bodies. Fair to say, I am not getting on with it. The narrative style is too bitty and jumpy, the scene-shifting fantasical, and as a satirical riff on 1930s high society it is just too remote now to score many comic bulls-eyes. The writing has its moments, and the underlying tone of witty cynicism is amusing, but overall, this is a novel whose time has been and gone. Even the vintage Penguin edition I am reading it in cannot rescue it.

Lucy Nathan
I recently found Standard Deviation (Fourth Estate) by Katherine Heiny in my pile of books I should have read years ago and have been reading it slowly this week as I really don't want it to end - it is a complete joy. It follows Graham and his second wife Audra, who is charming, spontaneous and exhausting, and who decides to make friends with her polar opposite, Graham's first wife Elspeth. The depth of character is nothing short of beautiful, the precision and specificity, the apparently effortless humour, it's all just delicious. It's also a deeply warm and tender book - I love the way it describes Graham and Audra's love for their son Matthew, who is autistic and loves origami, and the ease of the way Heiny describes how Graham feels for Audra with lines like 'Graham would not have improved one single feature of her face'. I am enjoying this book so, so much.

Jo Henry
Adrian McKinty had a huge success with The Chain a few years back, but for my money his earlier Duffy books are just as good, if not quite as tense. Rain Dogs (Serpents Tail), the fifth in the series, is set as usual in a cold, wet, 1980s Belfast. Detective Inspector Sean Duffy - a Catholic - is treading water in Carrickfergus RUC when he's presented with the second locked room murder mystery of his career, something that his new junior colleague, Lawson, claims isn't impossible in Bayesian theory. The Troubles sound almost dystopian here, as tracer shots arc across the night sky and helicopters buzz the city, and the books are well laced in black humour; Duffy is far from perfect but he doesn't like to give up. Here he pursues his hunch across Belfast and as far as Finland; as in life, justice isn't always obviously achieved, but the quietly satisfying ending makes me hope that there are more Duffy books in the pipeline.

David Roche
Third time lucky for Damon Galgut with The Promise (Chatto & Windus), having been shortlisted twice before for The Booker Prize. It's the first of his books that I have read, and what a brilliant and accessible book to start with. It seems from the unanimous acclaim that this is fully deserved and not one of those where the wrong book from an author won it on the basis of the cumulative effect of multiple, unsuccessful shortlistings. It is set around four funerals within a family over several decades, the forces that bring them together or, more often, push them apart, and an unfulfilled promise that threads through the book. It's very human and has a clever humour that consistently seasons the text. The characters are acutely drawn, particularly Amor, the youngest daughter of three siblings, and is set against the backdrop of a country with a massive landscape but facing many issues. It's an exceptional novel and a worthy winner amongst a really high quality shortlist.