LITERARY FICTION by ANTHONY CUMMINS
THE GOOD NEIGHBOURS by Nina Allan (riverrun £16.99, 304 pp) ASSEMBLY by Natasha Brown
ALLAN’S new novel, set on a Scottish island, is an offkilter mystery centred on an apparently open-andshut case involving the murder of 15-year-old Shirley, shot dead at home with her mother and younger brother, just before her father — the presumed killer — died in a road accident. Nearly 20 years later, Shirley’s old classmate Cath is still sceptical. Seeking answers, she becomes attached to the current inhabitant of Shirley’s old house, Alice, a City analyst recovering from a breakdown. While disturbing flashbacks from the point of view of Shirley’s father suggest he was prone to violence, there are stranger hints of occult forces at work, with a nagging sense that the whole tale might be a metafictional yarn trapping the characters in a design beyond their ken. Allan keeps multiple plates spinning without ever losing psychological coherence as a portrait of its selfdenying protagonist’s engrossingly complicated inner life. Satisfying, sophisticated and very finely done. (Hamish Hamilton £12.99, 112 pp) THE tension between minority representation and assimilation in discussions of workplace diversity has been food for satire in several recent novels, from Zakiya Dalila Harris’s bookworld thriller The Other Black Girl to Brandon Taylor’s campus novel Real Life. Brown’s razor-sharp debut — narrated by a black Oxbridge graduate in the banking industry — deals with similar themes, but dials down the comedy to deliver instead a full-throttle blast of devastating social critique. As the protagonist is promoted by her firm after a senior’s sexual misconduct, we see the subtle and not-so-subtle disparagement she encounters — and not just at work, as she attends a garden party hosted by the self-congratulatory parents of her wealthy white boyfriend. Yet she’s obliged to gloss over the reality of her experience when sent to speak at inspirational outreach events at schools (hence the title). This powerful short novel suggests meaningful discussion of race is all but impossible if imperialism’s historical violence remains taboo. SORROW AND BLISS by Meg Mason (W&N £14.99, 352pp) THIS addictive comic debut is narrated by a food columnist, Martha, whose marriage is foundering on the question of having children, as her sort-of-happily-wed sister, Ingrid, trots out four babies in quick succession. Behind the strife is an undiagnosed mental illness that has dogged Martha since her rackety upbringing with her mother, an alcoholic sculptor. The narrator’s quickfire quips are a sticking plaster for the hurt evident on pretty much every page of this bittersweet yarn, aptly described on the dustjacket as ‘Patrick Melrose meets Fleabag’. The wry voice keeps us turning the page, as Martha’s painful testimony is leavened with culturally omnivorous in-jokes about everything from Ikea to Kate Moss. It’s odd, though, that the endnote warns us against reading Martha’s illness as any particular condition, and the novel won’t even name it, referring to her eventual diagnosis only with dashes — which ultimately suggests a nervousness about the very stigma the book ostensibly seeks to combat.