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Painful but rewarding

The Free by Willy Vlautin Faber & Faber (2014) €15.99 *****

IN less than a chapter – in less than five pages – I couldn't imagine why I hadn't heard of Willy Vlautin before this, his fourth book. It's a truism that an author's books get better (hopefully) over time, and this could very well be the case here. But I had to research a bit, because Vlautin's voice, skill with dialogue and exposition, and ability to present life in all its despair and wonder is formidable, and surely hadn't come out of nowhere.

Vlautin was born in Reno, Nevada, and currently lives in Oregon, so it may be a simple lack of proximity that has limited his exposure on our shores. His previous three books have all been well received. I urge you to come along for the ride. It is the absolute opposite of comfortable, but it is so rewarding.

In the novel, soldier Leroy has returned, broken, from the Iraq war, Pauline is a nurse with a contentious relationship with her father, while poor Freddie is so deeply in debt, it is breathtaking. That there is a any hope at all for anyone in this environment – a modern day America, which hasn't realised that in many places conditions are as impoverished as a third world country – well, it seems like a pipe dream. Addictions, drugs, medication and mental and physical illness are all actual burdens for Vlautin's characters, and are also metaphors for a greater, national sickness.

And yet . . . people carry on. The characters manage to relate to one another, to be present for one another, despite their appallingly difficult circumstances. There is, against all odds, hope and redemption to be found through love, because Vlautin matter-of-factly presents us with the dross and the hell of human existence. When the notes of grace finally begin to chime, we so desperately need to believe that there is good in the world, that we soak them up greedily like a storm after a drought.

This is a painful read, but a humanising one, one that exposes and expresses the song, as best it can, before it's too late.

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark Two Roads (2014) €15.99 ****

AS an inveterate admirer of other people's houses, I understood the impulse of this novel right from the off, which to me is the idea that a home is an entity and not merely a shell. They are structures built not only of bricks and mortar, but also from the sweat and tears of its inhabitants. When Anna puts a letter through the door of an admired home, volunteering to buy it should the owner ever wish to sell, she has no idea of the series of events she's putting in train. The traumatic effects of dementia are increasingly taking centre stage in women's novels, and Wark does a lovely, if painful, job of using a contemporary condition to tell a timeless tale.

The Echoes of Love by Hannah Fielding London Wall Publishing (2014) €14.99 *

A CHARACTER called Venetia, in a novel about Venice? What are the chances of such a thing? Well, they are 100pc, since the author is, of course, in charge of the proceedings. The Venetia in question is a British architect who is living in Venice, only to fall in love with handsome stranger Paolo, who is something of a Tomcat. Everything in the book is described in such tiny little pieces, it makes for, unfortunately, turgid reading. Even if a reader has an enduring love for everything Italian, one will most likely find this novel enormously tiresome. There's a big secret that gets revealed towards the end, but it's simply too little, too late.

The Florentine Emerald: The Secret of the Convert's Ring by Agustín B Palatchi Open Road Media (2014) €11 ***

A MEDIEVAL mystery story, featuring bona-fide artistic figures of the Rennaisance-era, in which a young man embarks upon an intriguing adventure to sell a fabulous sounding jewel in thrilling 15th century Florence. This historical novel went down a storm in its author's native Spain, but there's a matter-of-factness about the descriptions that makes a fool outta me, based on the previous review. Still, the novel's time period really comes alive, and the mystery aspects are very satisfying.

The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi Faber & Faber (2014) €25.99 **

The characters of Kureishi's seventh novel are unlikable in the extreme. Potential hot-shot writer Harry is sent to the wilds of Taunton, Somerset, to embed himself in the life of Mamoon, a formerly-famous novelist. With the ageing author's recent work falling out of favour, and a glamourous second wife to support, what better way to create a resurgence of interest in his back catalogue than to publish a tell-all? The dialogue is arch to the point of stiltedness, and although an utter lack of humanity may be the point, it makes for shallow reading.

The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier Ballantine Books (2014) €21.50 ***

WHAT do you mean, Amazons weren't real? This came as a complete and utter surprise to me, and as Fortier's lead character, Diana Morgan, an Oxford academic who is an expert in Greek mythology, went on her journey of Amazonian discovery, I was right with her. I was enthralled with the parallel narrative, which tells the story of the warrior Myrina, whose tale correlates with what Diana is trying to prove. However, it soon began to feel like the stories required a tightening to keep the pace, and the narrative's subsequent loss of energy was a real shame.