Fiction: Jun 12

Elena Seymenliyska and Alfred Hickling on No Telling | Gordon | Going East | Waxwings | Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote | The Romantic

No Telling, by Adam Thorpe (Vintage, £7.99)

Gilles Gobain was born into a family selling industrial vacuum cleaners; he loves to stand in their suburban Parisian showroom and command his alien army, with their flexible tubes for mouths and chrome buttons for eyes. He is five when his father dies and his mother marries his uncle, and 10 when his sister drops out of university and takes him round Paris at night sticking up anti-Vietnam war posters. Adam Thorpe's fourth novel since his acclaimed debut, Ulverton, is a gripping account of the formative years of a sensitive boy, set during France's own 1960s transformation, culminating in the May 1968 riots. Told from the unwittingly astute perspective of a child - alert to every shift of mood, if not its meaning - it is an outstanding book, utterly compelling in its recreation of a period and deeply moving in its portrait of a boy forced to grow up too fast. Its portrayal of the adult world through the eyes of a child is wonderfully funny, too. Elena Seymenliyska

Gordon, by Edith Templeton (Penguin, £7.99)

First published in 1966 under a pseudonym and promptly banned for indecency, this is the story of a young woman's liberation through sexual submission. It is 1946 and Louisa is freshly separated from her husband when a smooth, sinister man 20 years her senior unceremoniously picks her up in a Mayfair pub. Moments later, the process of enslavement begins, casually, on a park bench and proceeds through a variety of venues - dark alleys, rented rooms - until, as she puts it, "in the depths of my heart there streamed the satisfaction that I was helplessly in his power". Dr Richard Gordon, a "Mephisto-driven Faust" to Louisa's "willing Gretchen", is a psychiatrist, and the story of their two-year relationship combines her sexual submission with his analysis of her father fixation and jealousy of her mother. The resulting book is a predominantly cerebral erotic journey, a very British precursor to The Sexual Life of Catherine M. An acquired taste, like the predilections it explores. ES

Going East, by Matthew d'Ancona (Sceptre, £6.99)

Mia Taylor is a strategy consultant in her 20s, living in Islington, married to her job and in love with an ambitious backbench MP. But when a terrorist bomb accidentally wipes out the whole of her prosperous family, she escapes to the East End to nurse her grief and disappear into a life on modest means. She finds peace of sorts in work at an alternative health centre, in pints of cider at the local dive and easy friendship with colourful locals. However, this fragile security comes under threat when she is forced to confront the truth about what really happened to her family. Political correspondent Matthew d'Ancona's first novel shows the tight plotting of an agile political mind. At its best, this is a thriller, woven through with a convert's zeal for the salt-of-the-earth delights of east London. D'Ancona is less sure-footed, however, on literary terrain: his characterisation veers towards cliché and his over-populous cast is subservient to plot development. ES

Waxwings, by Jonathan Raban (Picador, £7.99)

Seattle is usually the last stop on a North American book tour, and as Jonathan Raban notes: "By the time English writers reached Seattle, they usually had the United States figured out from top to bottom." A British citizen, Raban has spent almost 15 years in the rainy city, so he's entitled to sound a bit miffed. But it makes for excellent comedy as his hero, abstracted Hungarian academic Tom Janeway, sits patiently having his adoptive homeland explained to him by bumptious Brits. For those of us whose experience of Seattle is largely defined by Starbucks and Frasier, it might be slightly underwhelming to discover that Janeway fritters away most of his time in coffee shops or doing little talks on the radio. But Raban brilliantly captures the shiny, happy side of the city, as well as pointing out the frustrations of a place where you can get an investment capitalist on the phone in five minutes, but it's impossible to find a plumber. Alfred Hickling

Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, by Ahmadou Kourouma, translated by Frank Wynne (Vintage, £7.99)

French-speaking Ahmadou Kourouma died last year, but his robust political satires are as pertinent as ever. Set in a fictional African state not far removed from his native Ivory Coast, this is the comedic history of Koyoga, an utterly bonkers but horrifically plausible dictator, as told by Bingo, the sora or storyteller, with all the irreverence of a licensed fool. Observing a narrative structure which demands that the hero's life is recounted from the moment the seed is planted in his mother's womb makes it an exhausting work, not least because Koyoga's gestation lasts a full 12 months. But it's full of great satiric set pieces (a visiting despot who betroths himself to a toilet attendant lingers in the memory), though the peppering of gnomic proverbs, such as "You may plough on a day of rest but lightning keeps its words in its belly", places the augury of the sora remarkably close to the wisdom of Eric Cantona. AH

The Romantic, by Barbara Gowdy (Harper Perennial, £7.99)

Ten year-old Louise's father is a Scrabble fanatic and a stickler for correct phraseology, so when his wife, a bubble-headed former beauty queen, blithely absconds, he will not tolerate lazy formulations such as "left" or "run off": "disappear" is the only verb permitted to describe the manner in which she defrosted the refrigerator and pinned a note to it reading: "I have gone. I am not coming back. Louise knows how to work the washing machine." Gowdy is as cherished in her native Canada as Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Carol Shields, and it's hard to see why she hasn't similarly caught on here. The Romantic is stolid in theme - troubled adolescence, thwarted passion - though it has its disturbing moments, not least when a character aborts her baby and posts her lover the placenta. But it is all written with perceptive, sly humour and a lightness of touch that gives it the familiar ring of a classic song caught on a country and western station. AH


Elena Seymenliyska and Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

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