LITERARY FICTION

LITERARY FICTION

RUTH & PEN by Emilie Pine (Hamish Hamilton £14.99, 256pp)

RUTH & PEN

by Emilie Pine (Hamish Hamilton £14.99, 256pp) 

Pine, an Irish academic, shot to prominence with Notes To Self, a piercing set of personal essays that covered her father’s alcoholism, her adolescent growing pains and her struggles with infertility. 

The less visible stuff of women’s lives is the subject of her impressive first novel, too, which takes place, Ulysses-style, over a single day in Dublin and tracks two women as they wander the city. 

Ruth, a therapist, is convinced her husband has left her following their unsuccessful battles with IVF; Pen, a teenage girl with autism, is attending a climate change protest with her best friend Alice, on whom she has a crush, and whom she hopes to take on a date later that evening. 

As both characters struggle to square reality with dreams they had nurtured, Pine explores with great acuity and tenderness the restorative, capacious nature of love. A wise and lovely book.

QUARANTINE

by Nick Holdstock (Swift Press £14.99, 320pp) 

No prizes for guessing what this new novel from the young independent publishing company Swift is concerned with. Yep, a deadly pandemic, which as the novel begins has receded, thanks to a vaccine, but has left hundreds still infected in a remote quarantine camp where they live out what time remains as best they can. 

Rebecca, a scientist, fears a new variant might emerge to defeat the vaccine, and travels to the camp under the guise of exploring a cure, to take samples. 

Alternating between the story of Rebecca and Lukas, who has the virus, Holdstock stealthily explores the ways in which we react to circumstances of extreme pressure (Rebecca is so fearful of contagion she insists on non-contact sex; Lukas, by contrast, sleeps with as many people as possible). 

The novel runs out of narrative rope in the final third but Holdstock’s piquant imagination, particularly during the camp scenes, remains anchored in putative reality. 

HERE GOES NOTHING by Steve Toltz (Sceptre, £18.99, 384pp)

HERE GOES NOTHING 

by Steve Toltz (Sceptre, £18.99, 384pp) 

Of the many novels emerging concerned with global disease, few are comedies. Not so the latest from Toltz, who was Booker-shortlisted for his 2008 novel A Fraction Of The Whole, and who here uses the premise of a pandemic to explore big ideas about faith, mortality and the parlous state of civilisation itself. 

Our narrator Angus is a second-rate criminal, part-time misanthrope and avowed religious sceptic who is bewildered to find himself, if not exactly alive, then certainly kicking in the afterlife after being murdered by a house guest. Unfortunately, it transpires the afterlife resembles all the worst bits of life on earth. Worse, he can also spy on his wife, the mother of his baby daughter, who in her grief, and to his horror, has formed a relationship with his killer. 

As a fearsome pandemic rids the world of most of its inhabitants, threatening the afterlife with a population crisis, Toltz struggles to keep his story in check with his rambunctious imagination. Much of your enjoyment though will depend on the extent to which you find his synapse-snapping, belligerently comic prose amusing. I didn’t, much. 

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