The Virgins, by Pamela Erens, John Murray RRP£14.99/Tin House Books RRP$15.95, 288 pages
It’s 1979 and teenagers Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung are “bewitched”. They can’t keep their hands off each other – and their displays annoy both fellow students and the staff at their US boarding school. We learn early on from the voyeuristic narrator, Bruce Bennett-Jones, who is also obsessed with Aviva, that it will end in tragedy.
The Virgins, Pamela Erens’ second novel, is a book about sex, and its absence – but not in any conventional way. As Bruce looks back from adulthood, he explains: “We beginners experienced sex as psyche more than body, as vulnerability and power … To fail at it – to do it wrong – was to experience (and please do not smirk; try to remember what it was like, once upon a time) the death of one’s ideal soul.”
Erens’ lovers are beautifully drawn and The Virgins is a haunting period piece, taking the reader back to a time before teenagers could look to the internet for answers. They were not, it turns out, such good old days after all.
Review by Isabel Berwick
The Mirror, by Richard Skinner, Faber RRP£14.99, 336 pages
Richard Skinner’s new book is composed of two novellas: one set in a convent in 16th-century Venice; the other set in limbo, in 1925.
In the first, “The Mirror”, Oliva is a novice, poised to become “a bride of Christ”. Asked to sit for Signor Avilo – an artist with a forbidden mirror and a sexy beard – doubt wriggles inside her palpitating breast. Can the love of God suffice? Is this dishy painter a demon sent to tempt her? The story trickles out daintily at first before building to a torrent; Skinner’s elegant prose is restrained and increasingly hypnotic.
Composer Erik Satie – “the Velvet Gentleman” of the second tale – is dead. In limbo, he has a week to choose one memory to take with him to eternity. So he sifts through his oddball life: Brancusi “reminded me of a polite bear”; Debussy “had the air of a slightly confused badger”. It’s a witty narrative, linked to “The Mirror” by one eternal question: why are we here?
Review by Alexander Gilmour
Big Brother, by Lionel Shriver, The Borough Press RRP£7.99, 416 pages
At an airport in the American Midwest, our narrator Pandora, a wealthy entrepreneur, is waiting to meet Edison, her older brother. She hasn’t seen him for four years. Even though she’s rich and he’s pretty much destitute, she still idolises him. And then she sees a morbidly obese man being pushed along in a wheelchair. It’s him. It’s a horrifying moment. She doesn’t know what to say. Or, it turns out, what to do.
What happened to Edison? Why is he so fat? Pandora charts her brother’s life. As a young man, he was full of hope. He did well – for a while. He dosed himself with drink and drugs. His wife left him. He didn’t realise that, at a certain point, you have to draw your horns in.
Lionel Shriver writes with empathy and captures these scenes sharply. Edison over-reached, became obnoxious to others, got into debt. On several levels, he’s a metaphor for America. He’s too big. But not, as we can see, too big to fail.
Review by William Leith