Even the stereotypically cold, damp weather of Britain can sound divine next to Maryland's blistering summer temperatures. But as the following three dark British tales make clear, the grass isn't always greener on the other side of the pond.
"A Book of Secrets"
by Michael Holroyd
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26
This latest volume from acclaimed biographer Michael Holroyd is really two books in one. The first half of "A Book of Secrets" focuses on the women who lived on the margins of the aristocratic Grimthorpe family in the early 20th century. The most poignant of these stories is that of Eve Fairfax, the abandoned fiancée of the second Lord Grimthorpe. Fairfax died in poverty as a perpetual hanger-on. Her constant companion was her prodigious "visitor's book": equal parts traditional book, autograph book and scrapbook.
In the book's second half, Holroyd delivers an account of the life of Violet Trefusis, best known today as the lover of Vita Sackville-West. He examines that torturous affair but also discusses Trefusis' own literary work. Holroyd has said that "A Book of Secrets" will be his final work, and it sometimes feels like he has thrown everything he has left to write into this volume, regardless of cohesiveness. Nevertheless, this is overall a striking, poignant work, and the meditations Holroyd intersperses on his own experiences as a biographer are not to be missed.
by Joanna Briscoe
Joanna Briscoe's new novel revolves around that most English of settings: the moors. Cecilia Bannon is 3 years old when she moves to the Devon countryside with her parents in the early 1970s. There she lives a bookish, rather sheltered life in the makeshift commune her family establishes. Then, as a teenager, she finds her world torn apart by a forbidden love and a lost daughter.
As a grown woman with a partner and children of her own, Cecilia returns to the moors desperate to find answers about the child she gave up. But she finds more of her past than she bargained for lingering in Devon. Meanwhile, Dora, Cecilia's mother, sick with cancer, is doing her own grappling with the past. Now widowed, Dora still lives on the farm where she raised her children. Though she presented a capable facade of mother and music teacher, Dora, too, struggled with an illicit passion.
Weaving back and forth between daughter and mother, past and present, Briscoe delivers an absorbing if sometimes improbable narrative. "You" is deliciously reminiscent of the haunting tales of the Brontes, Blackmoore and Hardy.
"True Things About Me"
by Deborah Kay Davies
Faber and Faber, $14
Welsh writer Deborah Kay Davies' first novel is the tale of an unbridled passion that can only end badly. The unnamed protagonist works a routine job in a government benefits office. Then "he," also unnamed, queues up in front of her window. He's just out of prison and might be married, but that doesn't stop the protagonist from having sex with him that evening in an underground parking garage.
Her best friend tries to warn her. Her parents try to warn her. The head of Human Resources issues an official warning. But nothing can stop her from sliding more and more deeply into a near-oblivion, where this man is her only anchor to reality.
In short, cheekily named, bullet-like chapters, Davies tracks her protagonist's disturbing yet darkly comic slide, delivering a payoff that is shocking yet, in retrospect, inevitable. Davies' precise rendering of both her disconnect with reality and the concrete results of that disconnect makes "True Things About Me" disorienting but somehow believable.