Catherine Taylor on Daniel O’Thunder by Ian Weir, Mr Rosenblum’s List by Natasha Solomons, The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter and The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott
Daniel O’Thunder, by Ian Weir (Old Street, £8.99)
This thumping serving of early Victoriana dishes up some memorable characters: a not-so-little Nell, Jaunty the slippery entrepreneur, decent-hearted journalist William Piper, sinister Lord Sculthorpe and seemingly innocuous Jack Hartright. Towering above them all is Daniel O’Thunder, a former soldier and ex-prizefighter turned evangelist whose inspired preaching amid the fetid slums of the East End makes him a legend. But another figure, “vain as an ageing tragedian”, vies with Daniel: the Devil himself. Ian Weir tantalisingly incorporates clues as to his possible human identity within a terrific, fast-moving narrative. The scenes of rat-infested brothels, drizzle and mud are convincing, with overtones of menace and a certain wistfulness. The only false note is an exaggeratedly drawn-out New World ending.
Mr Rosenblum’s List, by Natasha Solomons (Sceptre, £12.99)
1937: German-Jewish refugees Jack and Sadie Rosenblum arrive in London with their infant daughter, Elizabeth. While Sadie misses family and traditions back in Berlin, Jack is desperate to assimilate – the novel’s sub-title is “advice for the aspiring Englishman”. His Pooter-like progress is charted against the backdrop of Sadie’s melancholia, the hideous realisation that their closest relatives have perished in the Holocaust, and the hostility – real or imagined – of their adopted country. The light yet poignant tone makes for an unusual, richly comic novel. Jack gets rich through carpet-trading, but his chief desire, the imagined pinnacle of Englishness, is to be admitted to a golf club. When none will welcome a Jewish member, he determines to build his own in rural Dorset. A charming farce ensues in this treat of a book.
The Theory of Light and Matter, by Andrew Porter (Jonathan Cape, £12.99)
Several of the pieces in Andrew Porter’s debut collection are very good indeed. All are technically precise, measured, laconic, and written in a style particular to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop – so it is no surprise to learn that Porter is a graduate of that illustrious course. However, while the stand-outs really impress, the work overall uses one uninflected voice – and it is too meticulous, ordered and self-conscious. In the striking opener, “Hole”, a young man broods on the shimmering summer day years before, when his 10-year-old friend Tal disappeared for ever into a sewer at the end of his driveway; similar tales “Coyotes” and “Connecticut” focus on a child witnessing parental breakdown. The stunning title story traces the unspoken love affair between a physics student and her much older professor. The majority, though, read like earnest prose exercises.
The Upright Piano Player, by David Abbott (MacLehose Press, £14.99)
The aftermath of a freak accident opens this beautifully constructed debut. We are then taken back five years to 1999, when Henry Cage (the upright piano player of the title) is recently retired as a successful businessman. Cultured, unassuming and separated from his gregarious American wife Nessa, Henry rattles around their elegant London townhouse. Estranged from their only son, Tom, Henry is unaware that Tom now has a child of his own. A violent encounter with a stranger following a millennium party leaves Henry shaken; worse, the assailant begins to stalk him. Over in Florida, Nessa has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. As Henry begins to visit, he and Tom move towards reconciliation, smoothed by the growing affinity between Henry and his grandson, a bond which makes the book’s prologue all the more wrenching.