The lockdown might be ending but there is still grim news on the television, so we’re reaching for a little light hearted distraction in the form of these comedic books.
Anyone who has read Sophie Heawood’s journalism will know what a brilliantly original and perceptive writer she is, from the hilarious column she wrote about Valentine’s Day, to a mind-boggling interview with the actor Jada Pinkett Smith. Her first book gets off to a strong start: Heawood describes taking home a stranger she meets on an app, thinking about Jesus to make herself orgasm and then being interrupted by her small child whom her date has no idea exists. We held our breath as she recounts driving her friends back from Coachella whilst she is heavily pregnant and also unable to drive. She is open-hearted in describing her own dysfunctionality: at one point, she wanders into a house she likes the look of and proceeds to flick through an engagement diary she finds. She can also see the comic absurdity in the most unlikely situations – not least at a clinic for the paternity test the father of her child insists on. It makes for reading that is both funny and moving and certainly isn’t for anyone who shocks easily or is uncomfortable with self-revelation. If it’s her mission to épater les bourgeois then, as Lynn Barber once said of Julie Burchill, “I was well and truly épater-ed”.
Whilst Rachel Johnson is undeniably talented, she occasionally spreads that talent a little too thinly – we were disappointed by her latest memoir on her attempt to become an MEP. This memoir of her time as editor of The Lady magazine, however, is a minor comic masterpiece. She tries to persuade the Duchess of Devonshire to become the magazine’s agony aunt over lunch at Chatsworth, the Devonshires’ home. Johnson prepares her maquillage carefully for the meeting but the duchess confesses to being almost blind and says “Your face to me is a sponge”. Back at the magazine, the staff seem to hate Johnson and one of them emails anonymously, calling her a “flea-bitten old bitch”. She doesn’t fare much better with The Lady’s readers initially, a typical letter of complaint reads “Joan Collins on the cover? Do you want to give us angina?” Johnson feuded so publicly with the magazine’s owners that many suspected it was a publicity stunt. Either way, it all makes very funny reading.
Lissa Evans trilogy of comic novels will be completed when V for Victory is published this August. We suggest that before this, you go right back to Crooked Heart, the first of them to be published (Old Baggage is the other in the trio). Noel, a 10 year old orphan lives with his godmother Mattie, an ex-militant suffragette in Hampstead. Mattie, who is wry and loving, does not however survive the Blitz and Noel is billeted as an evacuee to stay with the exploitative Vee in St Albans. Looking at Noel, Vee – who is always on the make – spies a chance: “an idea rolled into her head, fully formed as a marble”. Between them they make an ingenious double act, going door-to-door, allegedly collecting for a made up “Dunkirk widows and orphans” fund. Evans worked in TV and radio comedy prior to becoming a novelist and knows how to sharpen a comic line.
Scarlett Thomas seems to have accessed some kind of dark magic in her latest novel, Oligarchy, finding a portal into the teenage female brain. Its premise – a black comedy set in a boarding school full of girls with eating disorders may sound in poor taste but Thomas is far from making light of adolescent pain. When one of the girls goes missing, presumed dead, the school employs a pair of Scottish men to cure the girls of their disordered eating. As the narrator sardonically reflects: “Where do you even get two therapists who look so much like paedophiles?” The girls inevitably do their best to find something sexy about them but “there is literally nothing, which is a shame”. This is quite a different novel from Thomas, who made her name with the cult The End of Mr Y, and she gives full vent to both the monstrosity and vulnerability of adolescence to very funny effect.
If none of those take your fancy, then any novel by India Knight, David Nicholls or Marian Keyes should have you laughing. We’re also keen to read The Blessed Girl by Angela Makholwa, about which we’ve heard such good things.