THE GOLDEN HOUSE
by Salman Rushdie
(Jonathan Cape, $37)
Reviewed by David Hill

Salman Rushdie's 13th novel, a mordant progress through the past decade of
American public life, includes "a narcissistic, media-savvy villain, sporting makeup and coloured hair". Who could that possibly ... ?

Real-estate billionaire Nero Golden (such a subtle hint) is allowed into the US under the murkiest of circumstances. He and his three adult sons buy a Manhattan mansion and proceed to pay their way into New York society.

Like Dad, the lads take gloriously grandiose Roman names: Petronius, Dionysus and Apuleius. They're watched and filmed by bookish Rene, the aesthetic, wannabe documentary writer who sees the perfect subject for a career kick-start. Is Rene recorder or distorter? He shapes as an almost deliberately unreliable narrator but one who believes that lies eventually reveal truths.

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He's there as Nero's name starts appearing (in letters of gold, of course) in NY's most desirable locations. He observes as the three sons, agoraphobic, night-runner and the one "with darkness in him", move among their multiple homes, including Florida where peacocks both avian and human strut.

Like a Mafia dynasty, the Goldens jostle and plot, and flare out in fearsome revenge or pre-emptive strike. The courteous, conservative American establishment gradually realises a monster - or could he be a messiah? - is among them.

Indian and American crime syndicates press and creep; intelligence services excavate and a beautiful, unstoppable young woman with a Playboy centrefold past intrudes. (Yes, pick-the-person time again).

The plot turns black and purple, murders multiple and most foul explode on to the scene, till "all the incense in the world couldn't cover up the bad smell". A fiddle plays while a house and an empire burn.

As he's done before, Rushdie pecks his way through popular culture and unpopular events to evoke the spirit of the times. The Birther Movement, Jim Carrey, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac, suicidal terrorists, Michael Moore, gender definition, Occupy Wall Street, The Tea Party: Rene chronicles them in meticulous detail.

Yet reality remains elusive; the border between actual and fantasy is smudged.
Like his protagonist, the author is shaman and showman. The novel is an opera stage where figures declaim, gesture and sometimes posture. He's fascinated by identity. Who are these people? What's in a name? What can you know or believe about them (if those verbs mean anything in a post-truth world)?

You don't speed-read Salman Rushdie. Scrub my mouth out for suggesting it. His writing is a pageant of elaborate cadences, literary pluckings, movie tropes, slow blooms of imagery. You'll find yourself nodding deferentially; you may glance at your watch. It's a grand edifice of a novel, magisterial and melodramatic. It anatomises the US in its pomp, precariousness, and (the book's last phrase) "whirling movement of life".

BABY
by Annaleese Jochems
(Victoria University Press, $30)
Reviewed by Ruth Spencer

The debut novel from Annaleese Jochems is a disorienting experience, not unlike being on board the cramped, rocking boat its characters inhabit. Sparse and tantalising in its unfolding, it never quite allows you to get your sea legs.

Baby is Swallows and Amazons meets We Have Always Lived in the Castle. There's messing about in boats (the titular Baby is a tired little boat moored at Paihia) and madcap adventure but the waters swiftly become murky. Cynthia, the intriguing, mercurial protagonist, impulsively steals money from her father to run away to sea, or at least to harbour, with her fitness instructor Anahera.

Cynthia worships the older woman; Anahera's motives are less clear, her inscrutable remove a mystery wrapped in a threadbare towel. When a tragic accident is followed by the appearance of a mysterious stranger, a storm begins to gather above Cynthia's maritime idyll.

Baby feels both nostalgic and bang up to date. Cynthia is a modern young woman who lives on her phone, pouring vast hours into the artificially glossy worlds of The Bachelor and Real Housewives of Auckland, yet Paihia and its environs feels like the 1950s: a supermarket, a school, friendly fishermen, empty islands and not a soul on any of the surrounding boats in the mooring. It's a setting both gentle and a little too quiet; it's impossible to know whether the emptiness is benign or full of invisible menace.

The story moves rapidly and springs many sharp little surprises, keeping the reader off-balance. The dialogue is marked by both hostility and wry humour, pithy lines delivered with derision. Jochems captures the confusing suddenness of violence; the way bad things can be over and their aftermath already playing out before you can consciously process that they've begun.

In a particularly effective device, the comfort foods of roughing-it holidays become grotesque in the increasingly tense setting: tinned spaghetti, Tim Tams, Coco pops queasily slopping around Baby's cabin, becoming unwholesome by association with the festering conflicts within. Baby drips with both malice and sympathy for its characters and proves the adage: worse things happen at sea.

FOREST DARK
by Nicole Krauss
(Bloomsbury, $27)
Reviewed by James Robins

Too often novels about writers collapse into the claustrophobic, the solipsistic, the self-regarding. Novels featuring writers that are about fiction itself are beyond the pale. And yet here is Nicole Krauss, heir to the throne of Jewish-American writing once occupied by such names as Singer and Roth and Bellow, to disprove the rule.

The narrator of Forest Dark, Krauss' fourth book, is mildly autobiographical: two kids, failed marriage, writer's block. One day, she catches the edge of a radio show about the multiverse - the mind-bending idea that everything ever is possible all at once.

"What if," she thinks, "each of us is actually born alone into a luminous blankness, and it's we who snip it into pieces, assembling staircases and gardens and train stations in our own peculiar fashion, until we have pared our space into a world?"

The idea of the multiverse, then, is shared with the act of writing fiction. Which accounts for the second narrative strand of the book, the narrator's simultaneous opposite and mirror: another American Jew named Epstein possessed of near-Hemingway qualities of manliness and vigour whose mind is spooling away, suffering a "slow unfurling of self-knowledge".

At the heart of Forest Dark is a sense of disengagement, summed up in Dante's verse from which the title was pinched: "Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark/For the straightforward pathway had been lost."

Central to rediscovering the path - if indeed that is what we're heading towards - is Jewishness or, more particularly, Jewish culture and identity as a written culture and identity, from the Bible, to the Talmud, to the literature of the assimilated diaspora.

There is a fascinating counterfactual about Franz Kafka's life that gorgeously illustrates Krauss' fascination with the multiverse and all its abundant possibilities. And after all, the city that both the narrator and Epstein wander through, Tel Aviv, is perhaps the only place that began life in a novel. It might be said Theodor Herzl's Zionist blueprint Altneuland is the only utopian work to, as it were, come somewhat true.

Krauss' conceit is mind-bending and pulled off which such ease and skill that you're stunned still by how she's done it. It's a seriously accomplished work, bulging at the seams with intricate considerations, elegantly persuasive and lucidly written.

THE FLOATING THEATRE
by Martha Conway
(Zaffre, $33)
Reviewed by Dionne Christian

As someone who daydreams about sailing around the Pacific Islands, stopping to perform children's theatre in various ports, a book called The Floating Theatre was always going to attract my attention.*

Combine this with a beautiful cover, teal and gold with the textured feel of wallpaper in an exquisite lounge, and a teaser sentence "In a nation divided by prejudice, everyone must take a side..." and it was a given that, of all the historical fiction that lands on my desk, I'd pick this one.

The story is set in 1838 when young seamstress May Bedloe is left alone and penniless on the banks of the Ohio River after the sinking of the steamboat, the Moselle. The Moselle was a real-life boat which sank near Cincinnati after its boilers exploded, with the loss of 117 of the 300 on board.

Author Martha Conway doesn't waste time with elaborate preamble; the book opens with: "When the steamboat Moselle blew apart just off Cincinnati landing, I was sitting below deck in the ladies' cabin, sewing tea leaves into little muslin bags and plotting revenge of my cousin Comfort for laughing at me during dinner."

It's a compelling beginning, but it's almost as though Conway, an award-winning historical fiction writer, is working to an award-winning formula: attention-grabbing beginning, slow the pace and set the scene(s) - almost too slowly - as the story progresses, throw in an unexpected plot twist then end quickly with an action-packed sequence and little time for reflecting on what just unfolded.

So it's a straightforward structure and good, solid writing, sometimes a little too sparse, but the characters and Conway's framing of what's going on makes The Floating Theatre a thoughtful and satisfying read. It is set 20 years before the American Civil War, when the Ohio River was the dividing line between the free states of the North and the Southern slave states. It adds extra symbolism to a story where everyone has to decide which side of the line they're on, but no matter where they stand, no one is cookie-cutter good or bad.

May, who may be ever so slightly on some sort of spectrum, can be cold and blunt; her cousin, Comfort, offers anything but and the abolitionists they fall in with are as slippery and manipulative as those they're pitting themselves against. That's refreshing and means putting aside personalities to concentrate on the issues Conway wants us to think about: "In a nation divided by prejudice, everyone must take a side."

*Sorry, there's no chance of me running away for a life at sea - I'd get seasick just looking at a floating theatre.