Sarah Leipciger

(Black Swan, £8.99)

She was known as “L’Inconnue de la Seine”, a young woman, probably a suicide, dragged from the river in 1899. In later years, her beautiful death mask would inspire writers like Rilke, Camus and Nabokov, going on to adorn a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation mannequin widely used since 1960. Strange but true. Sarah Leipciger creates a backstory for this unknown woman: her past as a country girl who became a lady’s companion, suffered a tragic love affair and ended it all. She also weaves in Norwegian toymaker Pieter, a fictionalised version of the man who designed the mannequin in the 1950s, spurred on by a tragedy in his own life, and Anouk, a girl with cystic fibrosis in 1980s Ontario who loves swimming but whose condition leaves her unable to do so. Themes of water, breathing and drowning echo across all three strands of this loosely unified novel, hauntingly melancholic and richly detailed.


Scholastique Mukasonga

(Daunt, £9.99)

Our Lady of the Nile is a Catholic boarding school in the Rwandan mountains, run by French nuns for the daughters of the rich elite. It’s the 1970s, and these girls are being groomed for roles which will help shape Rwanda’s future, though the curriculum they’re taught is grounded in Eurocentric, colonial attitudes and the tensions between them will, in 15 years’ time, lead to a genocidal wave of murder sweeping the country. None epitomises their society’s prejudices more than the self-important, manipulative Hutu pupil Gloriosa, who spouts divisive anti-Tutsi rhetoric and incites the school to rise up and show Tutsis who’s in charge. Satirically casting the school as Rwanda in microcosm, Mukasonga, a Tutsi who lost 37 family members in the massacres, chillingly exposes the forces that led to genocide in an exceptional novel which initially underscores the ethnic tensions with humour before dark clouds gather, foreshadowing what’s to come.


Molly Aitken (Canongate, £8.99)

Growing up on the bleak island of Inis off the Irish coast in the 1950s is like a prison sentence for Oona Coughlan. Her mother enforces traditional, constricting social rules, keeping Oona indoors while harshly belittling her, seemingly passing her own childhood pain to her daughter. If Oona stays, the only future she will have to look forward to is marriage and motherhood on a windswept rock. Eventually, the determined Oona finds a way off and makes her way to Canada, where she marries. But she finds that her experiences with her mother have poisoned her relationship with her own child, Joyce, and when Joyce disappears, years later, Oona must return to Inis once more and face up to her past. A strong first novel showcasing a distinctive new voice, The Island Child deals unflinchingly with themes of motherhood, Aitken infusing her vivid story of abuse and trauma with a mythological, folkloric quality.