This fever-dream of a novel starts in mid-sentence, as if there’s been no break between the last appearance of Dr. Zack Busner in Umbrella and the return of this unconventional psychiatrist in Shark (Grove, $26). But it’s 1975 now, everyone is watching Jaws, and the doctor has established a half-way house. In his powerful, Joycean stream of monologues, hallucinations, and impressions, Will Self asks how sane people respond to an insane event. His tenth novel examines three such episodes, tracing the impact of the Hiroshima bombing, the 1945 wreck of the U.S.S. Indianapolis (torpedoed by the Japanese, the ship sank in twelve minutes, wasn’t missed for four days, and had 316 survivors out of 1,196 men), and, on the domestic front, one woman’s battered childhood at the hands of alcoholic parents. Self intertwines these and other narratives, making the point that an individual’s trauma also belongs to the culture as a whole; you can be haunted by the atomic blast’s “skin angels” without having been a target spotter on the Enola Gay. Bleak as this vision is, however, Self presents it with such manic wordplay and startling humor that readers could almost laugh right through “the snafu at the end of the world.”
I’ve been a huge fan of Caitlin Moran’s non-fiction since reading How to Be a Woman a few years ago. When I found out she was writing a novel, I was ecstatic. She did not let me down. Laugh-out-loud funny and heartrendingly honest, How to Build a Girl (HarperCollins,$26.99) is the story of Johanna Morrigan’s climb out of the English projects and into London’s world of music journalism. In short, it is a fictionalized account of Moran’s life. (Fans of How to Be a Woman will particularly enjoy the novel because of this...I would even call the two books companion pieces.) This is a tale of a girl growing up and includes all her “firsts”—her first sexual experiences, first job, first love, and the first time feeling the heavy weight of responsibility. Perhaps it is a bit trite to say that I laughed and I cried, but nevertheless, that’s what happened. I wish I could read this book again for the first time.
Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Coffee House, $24), the debut novel that took down The Goldfinch for the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction, may be remembered less for its plot than for its powerful emotional and linguistic punch. Inhabiting the headspace of a girl so ambitious and determined, yet so misguided and self-destructive, can be a brutal reading experience, but McBride’s style draws you in. Comparisons with Joyce’s style are apt, but McBride makes her anonymous narrator’s fragmented thoughts and warped reality much more lucid than those of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, and her pacing is relentless. Experiencing repeated sexual violence, the narrator develops an uncanny ability to seek solace for poisoned relationships in all the most devastating places, and while she struggles with these emotional complexities, her brother faces an even more overwhelming struggle with a terminal illness. McBride’s account of these siblings leaves you breathless, and finishing this novel is like waking from a nightmare you’d grown almost comfortable with—which confirms this young writer’s already unforgettable, masterful ability to bring a wrenching story to life.