Justine Jordan 

Paperback fiction: February fiction

This month brings a dazzling Nigerian view of New York, deep Irish memories from Edna O'Brien, and a complex drama of the new India from Aravind Adiga
  
  

Open City, Teju Cole's contemplative novel about a man wandering around New York and the corridors of his own mind, reflecting on books, films and his Nigerian roots as the city throws chance encounters in his path, was much praised on both sides of the Atlantic when it first came out last year. The hero's intellectual showing-off aside, in his review Giles Foden considered it a "dangerous gamble" that pays off. The book conjures "the hall of semiotic mirrors inside our heads, and the proliferating data now so easily accessed by our fingertips: twin arenas of information which, at once dazed and delighted, we struggle to connect both to everyday life and an overall interpretative code". Lovers of WG Sebald and Tom McCarthy, stroll in.

Edna O'Brien's short-story collection Saints and Sinners won last year's Frank O'Connor prize, along with comparisons to Solzhenitsyn from the judges, who praised her "ability to be both contemporary and, yes, to carry all of the wagons and trailers of Irish life over 50 years behind her". Sylvia Brownrigg agreed that Ireland remains at the heart and soul of her tales of "the sad and the stranded, the hopeful and the lovelorn". "A certain emotional landscape seems to belong outright to O'Brien – the intensity of female desire, expressed with a dignified certainty of one's right to claim it … one comes away with the somehow consoling conviction that for O'Brien, loss is inextricable from love, and from living."

Alex Clark found Aravind Adiga's second novel, Last Man in Tower, to be a more subtle and nuanced achievement than his blazing attack on the new India, the Booker-winning White Tiger. If the concept behind the book – a Mumbai towerblock slated for demolition in favour of luxury flats, and the residents' efforts to resist – is a little schematic, this "painful tragicomedy" succeeds in "shining a light on the changing face of India, bringing us a picture that is as compelling as it is complex to decipher".

A light is also shone on the tragedy of Kashmir in Mirza Waheed's "devastating debut", The Collaborator. Shortlisted for the Guardian's First Book Award, the novel, wrote Kamila Shamsie, reveals "with great sensitivity and an anger that arises from compassion, what it is to live in a part of the world that is regarded by the national government as the enemy within, and by the government next door as a strategic puppet". Its unnamed protagonist, the collaborator of the title, grows up in "the forgotten last village before the border" and is employed by an Indian soldier to harvest ID and weapons from the corpses of Kashmiri youngsters, gunned down in the valley nearby on their way back from military training in Pakistan. His task is made the more horrific by the chance that on any foray he will come across the body of one of his four childhood friends.

Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues won a place on the Booker shortlist for its tale of jazz, race and the Third Reich. "Afro-Germans don't usually get a look-in when the narratives of Nazi Germany are told," as Bernardine Evaristo pointed out in her review. She found the book a missed oppportunity, as it focuses in on one character's betrayals rather than illuminating the black German experience, but concedes that Edugyan "really can write".

February also sees the paperback publication of Henning Mankell's farewell to his lugubrious but much-loved detective: The Troubled Man is the last Wallander novel. Writing in the Guardian, Andrew Brown was distinctly underwhelmed ("Wallander is unhappy for some weeks, and then he decides he will always be unhappy. Life continues"), calling for an editor's red pen to cut through the gloom. There were harsh words, too, for Nicholson Baker's House of Holes, in which the author of Vox and Room Temperature satirises, or celebrates, depending on your viewpoint, the freewheeling dirty talk and effortful euphemisms of pornographic fantasy. "Baker frogmarches us into an arcade of blaring porn fantasies in which the tropes of triple-X sex movies are celebrated in all their cheerfully gushing banality," wrote James Lasdun. "A completely ridiculous book, whether you read it as camp parody or straight smut."

 

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