These novels all share a concern with that which is hidden and that which is lost – or, at least, seemingly so. Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 448pp £12.99) is a tender, rich, earthy novel that takes place in northwest America at the turn of the 20th century. The orchardist is Talmadge, who leads a solitary and gentle life among the trees and the fruit that are so dear to him, which he tends with the love that a parent would bestow on a child. Early in the book some of that fruit is stolen, and the novel chronicles the way in which the teenage thieves find their way into Talmadge’s life.
Coplin tells this story with a sensitivity to the workings of the human heart that manages to be rich with understanding while hardly ever courting condescension. She knows that there are aspects to human motivation about which, to borrow from Henry James, one should never say one knows the last word. By resisting that temptation, Coplin has written a novel that is both wonderfully expansive and sharply focused.
Similarly impressive is Gavin Corbett’s This Is the Way (Fourth Estate 240pp £14.99), in which the first-person narrative of Anthony, son of a Gillaroo mother and a Sonaghan father, tells the story of his attempt to isolate himself from the recrudescent enmity between his parents’ feuding tribes and their outrage at his existence. Seeking refuge in Dublin, Anthony encounters Judith, who offers promise in a world where the latent atavisms of blood feud, history and myth threaten to reassert themselves and leave him with nothing.
Corbett tells this story in a style that is determinedly unadorned, resolutely direct, faintly unlettered and shaped by that childlike quality in which usually unremarkable observations are made with such unequivocal directness as to render them statements of profundity. The technique works by accretion (and resists quotation), and it culminates in a work of beautiful, distortedly lyrical restraint.
A different kind of lyricism, equally brilliant and beautiful, can be found in Melissa Harrison’s Clay (Bloomsbury 262pp £14.99). Set in south London, the novel introduces us to the lives of TC, an eight-year-old boy who longs to be reunited with his father, and Jozef, a Polish man forty years TC’s senior, who spends his days clearing houses, his nights working at a takeaway, and nearly every hour dreaming of the world he has left behind. TC and Jozef both make their solitary way in the same small area of London, until one day they meet in the ‘little wedge-shaped city park’ that is so central to their lives, and whose wonders are hidden from others.
The story of their unfolding relationship is deeply affecting and elegantly handled, and Harrison is adept at moving the reader inside their silent anxieties and private dreams. Yet the true wonder of the book is the way in which Harrison writes about the natural world in the middle of the unnatural world. This is the force that holds Clay together. Harrison’s appreciation and evocation of the cycles of nature at work in the city are rendered with precision, acuity and beauty. Harrison’s great gift is, as George Eliot phrased it in Middlemarch, to be able to hear ‘that roar which lies on the other side of silence’. Yet what gives Clay much of its power is the sense that the world Harrison evokes might, one day, become a lost one. In that sense, Clay is both an aching celebration and a lament.
In the case of Katharina Hagena’s The Taste of Apple Seeds (translated by Jamie Bulloch, Atlantic Books 256pp £12.99), the most blatant loss arises from bereavement and its close relations, memory and forgetting. Most of the memories belong to Iris, the novel’s narrator, a librarian who doesn’t read but adores the ‘delicate beauty’ of cataloguing. The book begins with Iris recalling the summer in her childhood during which her she lost her aunt, before moving swiftly to another death, that of Iris’s grandmother Bertha, years later.
At a reading of Bertha’s will, it emerges that she has bequeathed her house not to a family member of the next generation, but to Iris, who spent her childhood playing in its magical grounds. Uneasy about selling the property, but equally uncomfortable keeping it for herself, Iris takes up a week’s residence there so that she might decide what to do. What follows is something like a memoir within four walls and a garden. As Iris moves through the corridors and rooms of the darkened house, she also explores her darkened mind, introducing us to the secrets and characters that populate her past. Among the most memorable of these is Rosmarie, Iris’s cousin, who died when she was 15 by falling through a conservatory roof, shattering not just its glass, but, as the book’s blurb puts it, ‘her families’ lives’.
Hagena tells this story with passion and care, and she has a talent for bringing her subject to life in vivid and memorable ways. But this book is thick with condescension. Hagena even
manages to exhibit this quality when she is at her strongest, writing about nature. The natural world presented here is an enchanted world: berries change colour when people die; trees sigh when they have sex. It is all very magical and evocative. And it is described in a manner that is twee, cloying and bloodless.