Anxious People – Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith


Rating: 5 stars

Fredrik Backman has a way of handling the blackest of subjects with humour so that at times the reader finds herself laughing out loud and, very soon after, crying. As in all his books, he deliberately lays trails to mislead the reader, like breadcrumbs deliberately taking a person what appears to be the wrong way in a maze. So Chapter One opens:

A bank robbery. A hostage drama. A stairwell full of police officers on their way to storm an apartment. It was easy to get to this point, much easier than you might think. All it took was one single really bad idea.

Then Backman lays out the basic scenario: a 39-year-old would-be bank robber accidentally starts a hostage drama in a flat in their “not particularly large or noteworthy town”, but when the hostages are released and police storm the apartment they find it is empty.

No one knew where the bank robber had gone.

That’s really all you need to know at this point. Now the story can begin.

Having set all this out in some detail in Chapter One, Chapter Two is very brief and apparently completely unrelated. Intriguing, but unrelated. This is typical of Backman. The reader never knows for sure which breadcrumbs to follow and which to set aside for possible future consideration, just in case of having gone astray. Chapter Three takes us straight into a police interview with one of the eight released hostages, with an increasingly exasperated young policeman out of his depth in such an extraordinary situation. Over the course of the book he and his fellow policeman, who are father and son, and have to resort to Google in their attempts at hostage negotiation, try their absolute best to get to grips with dealing with the hostages and trying to piece together what has happened and where the hostage-taker could now be, which Backman has interspersed with a combination of background details about the two policemen and of the hostages, both in terms of their lives up to this point and of the events of this specific day.

The plot becomes ever more convoluted, in such a good way that I read through Anxious People at great speed, keenly trying to piece it all together and work out not only what had happened but why. It’s an entirely gripping read, never afraid to tackle the darkest subjects or to deal with difficult moral issues, while time and again making me laugh. The characters felt real, as are their efforts to deal with the everyday difficulties of being a decent person.

Backman is sly. Nothing in his books is as random nor as obvious as it appears. Although the focus here is on the current series of curious events in the apartment, the character-driven plot has numerous backstories that link a bridge, suicides, and a peculiar drawing of a frog, a monkey, and an elk. Then, just when it seems as though everything has been sorted out, the author turns everything topsy-turvy with a stunning revelation that would be a major spoiler to disclose and would ruin the fun of discovery. I loved it.

Reviewed by Daisy

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Lullaby – Leïla Slimani: Lavinia’s Book Pick, September 2018

Lullaby is the story of the murder of two young children by their nanny. That’s not a spoiler – that’s how it opens. It’s tense, tight, and enigmatic throughout. There’s a light touch about the writing, from the moment the middle-class but middle-eastern lawyer mother goes to the nanny agency and is treated rudely by the agent – until she realises she’s a potential customer, not a potential employee. An acknowledgement that bigotry is an everyday event for those who face it. The passing frustration, too, of the mother Myriam, re-entering the world of work, is deftly captured.


It doesn’t offer too much, or explain too much. We see the crippling poverty of the nanny, Louise. The way she is afraid to say no to anything. But the requests of the parents are just requests, and though they treat her as an employee, they’re not exploitative or demeaning. The children are ordinary children – with charms and challenges. It’s a mystery where we know exactly what happened at the start, but little about why it happened, and the answers aren’t easy or comfortable.

You’ll love this book if: 
– You like complex, ambiguous characters
– You like a naturalistic ‘slice-of-life’ style – it’s a snapshot into upper-middle-class Parisian life
– You like a super-French aesthetic – think cigarettes all the time and dinner party conversation about people’s sex lives

You might want to avoid this book if:
– You find stories about children getting murdered upsetting

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Lie With Me – Sabine Durrant

Rating: 5 stars

I picked up Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me in Marylebone station, because I wanted something to read on a long train journey. It was late, and I figured I would read a couple of chapters and then watch something I’d downloaded for the journey. Boy was I mistaken.

Lie With Me tells the story of Paul – playboy, exaggerator, sleazy philanderer and, most of all, liar. Following some literary success in his youth, Paul now flat-sits for more successful friends, passes the flat off as his own, sleeps with much younger women, and lives in fear of ending up living with his mother. When the opportunity to sponge off a widowed woman his own age presents itself, Paul takes up with the apparently vulnerable (but unsettlingly cold) Alice and blags his way on a family holiday to Greece. The rest – I shall not spoil!

lie with me 2.jpgThe great strength of Lie With Me is in its characters: Paul is the narrator we (I?) love to hate – always staring down women’s tops, and at the bums of his girlfriend’s teenage daughter and her friend, always casually putting other people’s things in his pocket; Alice is somehow both vulnerable and unavailable, both worldly and absent.

The narrative is perfectly paced, and we get just enough to guess at the twist before it is revealed, but not so much that we feel as if we know what it is going to be too early on. I read the book in less than twenty-four hours, and I would be surprised if many other readers didn’t – like me – struggle to put it down.

I would strongly recommend this to any readers!

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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On a Small Island – Grant Nicol

When the author sent through the review copy of this book, he said, ‘I hope you enjoy it.’

on a small islandEnjoy’ is the wrong word. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been more upset or unsettled by a novel. Grant Nicol tells the story of Ylfa, a free-spirited but directionless young woman living on her own in Reykjavik. When a young man is horribly murdered on her father’s farm she is determined to unravel the mystery. However, she isn’t prepared for what follows. What should have been an isolated incident spins into a dark and crooked tale involving kidnapping, arson and rape.

At its heart, On a Small Island is about our inability to escape our past. The setting in Iceland is perfect, and Nicol gives a wonderful sense of the claustrophobia of a small community. The denouement is unfortunately handled a little too quickly, but the book remains gripping throughout.

I’m not sure I can say all that much more without giving too much away. Read this book. Just don’t expect to sleep easily for the next week or so.

Rating: 4.5 stars

profile2Reviewed by Nick

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