Longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, Trust by Hernan Diaz was was one of the nominated titles which intrigued me the most. It consists of four manuscripts related to New York financier Andrew Bevel and his wife Mildred. The first is a novella called ‘Bonds’ written by Mildred’s friend and is followed by Andrew’s autobiography, a memoir written by his ghostwriter before concluding with Mildred’s personal journal. The structure is unique and very clever, but the pay off for the reader doesn’t really happen until well into the second half when the other perspectives highlight that Andrew and Mildred are thinly disguised as characters in the novella while Andrew’s boasts sit uncomfortably alongside Mildred’s version of events. This is an elegantly written and constructed piece of metafiction which has been accurately described as a “literary puzzle”, but I wonder how many readers will see it through to the end.
The Children of Men by P.D. James is a dystopian novel published in 1992 and set in 2021 in a world where mass infertility has resulted in no children being born since 1995 known as Year Omega. An Oxford professor of history, Dr. Theo Faron, becomes involved with a group of dissidents known as the Five Fishes. Theo’s cousin, Xan Lyppiatt, has seized power as the self-appointed Warden of England and the group want Theo to approach Xan and put forward their demands for democratic reforms. Given the premise, I was surprised that the novel focuses less on the specific consequences of a world without any new children and more about abuse of power. The most unnerving part was the characters’ awareness of the slow extinction of the human race and the relative quietness of the apocalypse itself which is portrayed convincingly in James’ thorough worldbuilding. James is best known for her crime fiction novels which I have also been meaning to try for a long time, and her foray into dystopian fiction is well worth investigating.
Remainders of the Day by Shaun Bythell is the third instalment of the bookshop owner’s diaries which document the fascinating world of second-hand book dealing and the customers who frequent his large bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland. Readers who enjoyed the first two volumes will be pleased to hear that Bythell continues to despair at his customers’ odd requests and demands for discounts while the other staff in the shop remain as eccentric as ever. The diary entries cover 2016 to early 2017 and I was pleased to see the return of Granny, the Italian intern who featured in Confessions of a Bookseller. When Bythell’s Amazon Marketplace is suspended for several weeks, he realises he is much happier without lining Jeff Bezos’ pockets even though selling books online is a significant part of his business. The dry humour and gentle pace continues to be a winning formula, although it appears this might be the last set of diaries Bythell plans to publish, as he includes a short postscript about how he and his colleagues have fared over lockdown. Perhaps it’s because more of his customers have started to behave themselves in case they end up in one of his books.
The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland is a gripping account of how Rudolf Vrba and Josef Wetzler became the first Jews to escape from Auschwitz in April 1944. Born Walter Rosenberg in Czechoslovakia in 1924, Vrba was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 and worked in several parts of the camp, piecing together the terrible truth about what was happening there. Almost thwarted several times, the escape itself is as daring as it gets despite the knowledge of the eventual outcome. Once they had arrived at a place of safety, Vrba and Wetzler tried to warn the world about what was happening in Auschwitz, and a report outlining the truth about the death camps eventually ended up in the hands of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. While it is estimated that 200,000 Jewish lives were saved, the report was also disbelieved or ignored by many. Shortlisted for this year’s Baillie Giffard Prize for Non-Fiction, Freedland does justice to this extraordinary story.