The Country of Others by Leïla Slimani, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, is the first book in a planned trilogy of historical fiction. In a very different setting and genre from Slimani’s breakout thriller Lullaby, ‘The Country of Others’ opens just after the Second World War when a Frenchwoman from Alsace, Mathilde, falls in love with Amine, a Moroccan soldier fighting for the French and moves to Morocco with him in 1946 when they get married. Mathilde raises their daughter, Aïcha, and son, Selim while Amine works on the farm, but she becomes increasingly disillusioned with her choices. Inspired by the life of Slimani’s grandmother, who also left Alsace after marrying a Moroccan soldier, ‘The Country of Others’ is a very personal project for Slimani. It suffers slightly from a lack of narrative drive, often reading as a series of vignettes, but perhaps a bigger picture will emerge as the trilogy progresses. I look forward to reading the next instalment which will be set in the 1960s.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid tells the story of an iconic Hollywood actress, the daughter of Cuban immigrants living in Hell’s Kitchen who becomes a rising star in the 1950s with a tumultuous love life to follow. As well as the numerous husbands, it is Hugo’s secret relationship with fellow actress Celia St. James which forms the heart of the novel. Now in her late seventies and living out of the public eye since the 1980s, Hugo decides it’s the right time to publish her memoirs and contacts an unknown young journalist named Monique Grant to be her ghostwriter. I really enjoyed Reid’s 2019 novel Daisy Jones & The Six and her 2017 novel ‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’ is another fascinating piece of escapism about the price of fame and celebrity culture, which is said to be partly inspired by the lives of film stars such as Elizabeth Taylor. Reid is very good at developing complex characters, and Evelyn Hugo’s ambition and charisma alongside her vulnerability is presented in a realistic and emotionally truthful way.
Brixton Hill by Lottie Moggach tells the story of Rob who is approaching the end of a seven-year stretch in an open prison in Brixton, and working on day release in a nearby charity shop. A chance encounter with a woman named Steph changes everything for Rob and he looks forward to seeing her even though it breaches the terms of his licence conditions. Although it soon becomes clear that Steph’s motives are not all as they first seem, the story unfolds in a very satisfying way with plenty of twists and one of the best endings I have come across in a long time. Moggach’s ex-partner is Chris Atkins whose memoir A Bit of a Stretch is an account of his time in prison in Britain serving a five-year sentence for tax fraud offences, and her knowledge of the justice system ensures the portrayal of life inside feels completely authentic. Rob’s emotions are particularly convincing while he is desperately trying to stay on the straight and narrow ahead of his imminent release. I had mixed feelings about Moggach’s debut Kiss Me First back in 2015, but her latest novel is a gripping and accomplished piece of work.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett is a collection of the author’s non-fiction work, first published in 2013. ‘The Getaway Car’ is a practical inspiring account of how she honed her craft as a writer. The title chapter is about how she eventually married her husband Karl, following an unhappy short first marriage in her early twenties. The longer pieces in this collection are generally the most engaging to read, and usually the most surprising too. In ‘The Wall’, Patchett tries out for the Los Angeles Police Academy in the wake of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles as part of her research for a book about the police. I am looking forward to reading ‘Truth and Beauty’, which is Patchett’s book about her friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy published in 2004 and became the subject of a censorship campaign in South Carolina, as detailed in ‘The Right to Read’. Overall ‘This is the Story of a Happy Marriage’ is a more eclectic compilation of essays that I had been expecting, and all the better for it.